Midnight Crossroad Page 5

’’You\'re the new guy, right?’’ she said. ’’Manfred?’’ Her voice was not a western voice;if he\'d had to guess, he\'d have said Oregon or California.

’’Yep. You must be Olivia,’’ Manfred said. ’’We\'re next-door neighbors.’’

She smiled and immediately looked five years younger. Before the smile, Manfred would have estimated her age at maybe thirty-six, but she was not that old, not at all. ’’Midnight is so small that everyone here is a neighbor,’’ she said, ’’even the Rev.’’ She inclined her head toward the old man, who had not turned to look to see who had come in.

’’I\'ve never talked to him.’’ Manfred glanced at the Rev. The small man had put his big hat on the other side of his table while he ate, and the overhead lights glinted off his scalp. But there were only a few strands of gray in the remaining hair.

’’You may never talk to him,’’ she said. ’’He likes to keep his thoughts and words to himself.’’ And because Manfred was watching Olivia so closely, he noticed that while her head was turned in the Rev\'s direction, she was actually looking at the two men by the door. Then she glanced at Lemuel. Their eyes met, and she gave a tiny tilt of her head in the direction of the strangers\' table.

The strangers were studiously minding their own business, but in a way that seemed a little too obvious to Manfred.

Creek hustled out of the kitchen then. ’’Sorry, Olivia, I was getting another meat loaf out of the oven,’’ the girl said. While Olivia was choosing her food, Manfred realized that while everyone else at the table had ordered, Creek had not asked for Lemuel\'s selection. Manfred opened his mouth to say something about the omission, then thought the better of it. Lemuel would speak up if he wanted something. Manfred was fairly sure Lemuel did not eat, anyway.

It wasn\'t long before Madonna and Creek brought out the plates. Teacher had finished feeding Grady some plums from a Gerber jar, and he handed the child over to Madonna, who carried him off into the kitchen while the people of Midnight enjoyed their meal. Manfred, who had never been too particular about food, was deeply impressed with Madonna\'s cooking. After a lot of meals spent by himself, he actually enjoyed passing salt and pepper, butter, and rolls. The flurry of little activities that constituted a communal meal felt pleasant.

He also liked watching Creek move around the room, though he warned himself not to look at her too often. He didn\'t want to be creepy.

Olivia talked about an earthquake in East Texas, Fiji commented on how late the county garbage truck had been this past week, and Bobo told them a man had come in the afternoon before, trying to pawn a toilet. A used one.

Because he was curious about the two strangers, Manfred cast a glance in their direction several times during the meal. Since he was facing their table, he could do that without being obvious. They had ordered coffee and dessert (cherry pie or coconut cream pie), and they were lingering. In Manfred\'s experience, silent men didn\'t dawdle over food. Talking women might, talking men maybe. Silent men paid and left.

’’They\'re watching someone here, or they\'re waiting for something to happen,’’ he murmured.

’’Yes, but which?’’ Lemuel replied, in a voice so low it was almost inaudible.

Manfred hadn\'t been aware he was speaking out loud, and he had to check his startle reflex. He choked on a bite of yeast roll, and Lemuel offered him a drink of water, his eyes distantly amused.

Everyone at the table tried to look away discreetly while Manfred recovered himself. It was a relief when he could say, ’’Went down wrong. Fine in a second!’’ so they could all relax and resume their conversations. A cold hand against the back of his neck was a help, oddly, and the fact that Creek looked concerned as she carried the empty bread basket back to the kitchen.

Yeah, Manfred thought. \'Cause choking guys look soooo cool.

’’What do you think?’’ Lemuel said, in the voice that nearly wasn\'t there.

Manfred turned his head a little to look into the eyes that were exactly the color of wait, he nearly had it the color of snow and ice melting over asphalt, a cold gray. ’’I thought they must be watching you or Olivia,’’ he said, though he couldn\'t get as close to silent as the creature next to him. He managed well enough that Joe (to his left) didn\'t hear him but kept up his conversation with Chuy about Chuy\'s cousin\'s upcoming visit.

’’That\'s what I thought, too,’’ said Lemuel. ’’Which one of us is the target, do you reckon?’’

’’Neither,’’ Manfred said, in a normal voice, and then hastily looked away and brought his volume down to extra-low. ’’They\'re watching Bobo. They\'re interested in you and Olivia because you\'re his tenants.’’

Lemuel did not reply. Manfred was sure he was chewing over this idea, seeing if it could be digested.

’’Because of Aubrey, maybe,’’ Lemuel said, just when Manfred was sure the topic was concluded.

’’Who\'s Aubrey?’’ Manfred asked blankly.

’’Not now,’’ Lemuel said. He tilted his head very slightly toward Bobo. ’’Some later time.’’

Manfred patted his lips with his napkin and put it by his plate, which was still half full. He\'d eaten enough. He wondered if Lemuel would suddenly pounce on the two strangers and kill them in some horrific way. Or maybe Madonna would charge out of the kitchen with a cleaver in her hand and fall upon them.

It seemed possible in Midnight.

’’Ridiculous,’’ he muttered.

’’What?’’ said Chuy, across Joe.

’’The amount I\'ve eaten is ridiculous,’’ Manfred said. ’’You\'d think I was a starving dog.’’ Too late, he noticed his half-full plate contrasted with Chuy\'s empty one.

Chuy laughed. ’’I always figure if I only eat here two or three times a week and I\'m careful all my other meals, I\'m okay,’’ he said. ’’And you\'d be surprised how many times I have to lift things in the store . . . plus, taking turns with Joe walking the dog, and doing yard work. I keep telling myself I need to start jogging, but Rasta won\'t pick up the pace when we\'re out.’’ And Chuy was off and running . . . about the dog.

Once Rasta was the topic of conversation, Manfred didn\'t have to say a word. He\'d observed that a small percentage of pet owners are simply silly about their pets, especially the owners who don\'t have human kids in residence. Part of that silliness lay in assuming other people would find stories about the pet as fascinating as the owner did. But (Manfred had always figured) there were a lot worse things to make false assumptions about.

For example, he found it far more pleasant to think about a little fluffy dog than to wonder what two strangers were doing at Home Cookin. Two lurking strangers. And it was far better to consider Rasta\'s history of constipation than the cold hand gripping his own under the table. When Joe turned to ask Chuy a question about a television show they\'d watched, Manfred was left alone with his acute anxiety.

He didn\'t want to offend the terrifying Lemuel, but he wasn\'t used to holding hands with a guy. Manfred liked to think of himself as cool and comfortable with all se*ual orientations, but the grip Lemuel had on his fingers was hard to interpret. It was not a caress, but it didn\'t seem like a restraint, either.

So Manfred took a sip of his water left-handed and hoped his face wasn\'t all weird.

’’Manfred,’’ Fiji said, ’’do you watch a lot of television?’’

She was trying, very kindly, to draw him back into the conversation, since Joe and Chuy had transitioned from the dog\'s bowels to an argument about Survivor with Teacher.

’’I have one,’’ Manfred said.

Even Olivia laughed, though Manfred noticed that while he\'d been preoccupied with Lemuel, she\'d edged her chair out from the table, perhaps so she could rise quickly. She\'d also told Joe and Chuy she sided with Teacher on the Survivor issue (whatever it was), and she\'d angled her chair to align with Teacher\'s, so she could see the men by the door without turning her head too much.

’’She has a gun,’’ Lemuel said in that voice that was audible to Manfred alone.

’’I figured,’’ Manfred said. He was feeling unaccountably tired. Suddenly he figured it out. ’’You leeching?’’

’’I\'m sorry, yes.’’ Lemuel turned his head to look at Manfred. His flaxen hair brushed his collar. ’’I am a bit unusual.’’

’’No shit,’’ Manfred muttered.

Lemuel smiled. ’’Absolutely none.’’

’’Don\'t they have a bottle of blood here for you? Wouldn\'t that help?’’

’’I can\'t tolerate the synthetics. They come up as fast as they go down. I can drink the real stuff in any method of delivery. Energy is just as good.’’

’’You got enough, now? Think you can let go?’’

’’Sorry, fellow,’’ Lemuel whispered, and the cold hand slid away.

Manfred thought, I feel like a pancake that\'s been run over by a tank. He wasn\'t sure he could get up and walk out of the restaurant. He decided it would be a sound idea to sit right where he was for a few minutes.

’’Drink,’’ said the sepulchral whisper, and Manfred carefully reached for his glass of water. But the white hand interposed a glass of a dark beverage full of ice. Manfred put it to his lips, discovering the glass contained sweet tea, very sweet tea. Normally he would not have been interested, but suddenly that seemed like exactly what he\'d been longing for. He drank the whole thing. When he put down his empty glass, he caught sight of Joe\'s startled face.

’’Thirsty,’’ he said brusquely.

’’I guess so,’’ Joe said, looking a little puzzled and concerned.

Manfred felt much better after a moment or two.

’’Eat,’’ whispered Lemuel. Though his hands were still a little shaky, Manfred now finished his dinner completely. His plate was as bare as Chuy\'s.

’’I got my second wind,’’ he said sociably to Chuy and Joe (though why he had to cover for Lemuel, he couldn\'t have expressed in words). ’’I think I missed lunch, too. I\'m going to have to watch that.’’

’’I wish skipping meals was my problem,’’ Joe said, patting his gut. ’’The older I get, the more my metabolism slows down.’’

That sparked a discussion about treadmills that engaged the whole table. Manfred was only obliged to look attentive. He wanted to leave, so he could get back to his house and think about what had just happened decide if he was angry at Lemuel ’’borrowing’’ from him, if he was cool with it, or if he should make an ’’okay for one time but don\'t do it again’’ speech. At the same time, he was sure he needed to sit for a while longer.

Everyone at the table had finished eating now, and only Bobo ordered coffee. Teacher ordered cherry pie, and at Lemuel\'s urging Manfred got the coconut pie. Creek brought it to him. She was as pleasant with him as she was with everyone else no more. But no less, he told himself.

Well, he hadn\'t ever imagined it would be easy to make an impression on her, even though he was the only male close to her age in Midnight. A girl as amazing as Creek would know she had plenty of options just down the road.

And that was what flipped him over to the ’’cool with it’’ option about the incident with Lemuel. Creek liked Lemuel well enough to call him ’’Uncle.’’ So she wouldn\'t be disposed to date anyone who publicly freaked out about Lemuel being an energy-sucking vampire.

Manfred was relieved to find a practical reason for doing what he instinctively felt was the right thing. After all, if you live next door to an apex predator, you shouldn\'t go around poking him with a stick.

Fiji rose to depart, and a chorus of protests went up. (This group was as clannish as it was disparate, Manfred thought.) ’’Guys, I have to get home and feed Mr. Snuggly,’’ she said, and there was a collective groan. She raised her hands, laughing. ’’Okay, it\'s a silly name, but I inherited the name along with the cat,’’ she said. ’’I think he\'s gonna live forever.’’

Bobo, Chuy, and Joe began a mild argument about how long Mildred Loeffler had owned Mr. Snuggly before she passed away. Fiji lingered long enough to chip in some solid information. The vet\'s records indicated that Mr. Snuggly had lived with Mildred for a year before her demise, that he had been a kitten when Aunt Mildred had taken him in for his first shots;that set the cat\'s age at four years. ’’So Mr. Snuggly\'s in the prime of his life,’’ she finished, and putting a careful ten dollars by her plate, she left.

There seemed to be no moon that night. The plate glass windows were filled with blackness. ’’Should I walk back with her?’’ Manfred asked in a low voice. ’’Or would that be, you know, se*ist?’’

’’That would be se*ist,’’ Olivia said. She smiled around the table. ’’But I\'ll step outside to watch until she gets to her house.’’

Manfred didn\'t believe for one minute that Olivia\'s real purpose was to ensure Fiji\'s safe journey back to her cottage. Fiji was safe, and Olivia knew it. Manfred was sure Olivia was going to the door to examine the two strangers more closely.

What a complicated evening it had turned out to be. ’’Is every evening here like this?’’ he asked Lemuel.

’’Oh, no, never before,’’ Lemuel said. He seemed quite serious.

Joe and Chuy had been arguing over whose turn it was to walk Rasta, whom they\'d left at home, so they didn\'t hear Lemuel\'s remark. But Bobo looked at him quizzically. ’’Something wrong?’’ he asked.

’’Don\'t worry,’’ Lemuel said. He smiled at Bobo. Most people would have found this terrifying, but Bobo smiled back, perfect white teeth flashing in a tan face. Bobo would be comfortably handsome the rest of his life, Manfred realized, and tried not to be envious.

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