Midnight Crossroad Page 6

The Rev made a silent departure, leaving his plate quite clean and not waving good-bye to anyone. As he passed Olivia at the door, he patted her shoulder. Olivia did not speak, nor did he. After she\'d stood in the doorway for approximately the time it would take for a woman to get to her cottage after crossing the Davy highway, Olivia returned to the table.

The two men by the door had eaten all their pie and drunk all their coffee. Creek had come by the table twice to see if they needed anything else, and she\'d left the bill between them on her second pass. Still the two were exchanging idle comments, as if they\'d realized they had to justify their presence at the table.

Finally, Madonna came out of the kitchen and rang the bell on the counter. ’’Guys and gals, I love being a social center for this little town, but I need to get Grady and Teacher home, and I need to watch me some television. So you all clear out and let us close up.’’

You can\'t get any more straightforward than that, Manfred thought.

Those who hadn\'t paid got out their wallets. Manfred noticed that the two strangers paid Creek in cash before they slipped out the door, watched closely by Olivia, Lemuel, and Manfred.

’’They\'re all wrong,’’ Manfred said to Lemuel. He watched as Olivia left the diner by herself, moving quickly and neatly.

Lemuel\'s snow-slush eyes regarded him briefly. ’’Yes, young man, they are.’’ Madonna was standing by Teacher, holding Grady, who was heavy-eyed. Lemuel rose and stepped away to pat the baby on the head. Grady didn\'t seem to mind Lemuel\'s chilly touch;a pat on the head and a smile was all it took to make the baby gleeful. He stretched out a little hand to Lemuel, who bent to give it a quick kiss. Grady waved his arms enthusiastically. Lemuel drifted closer to the door. Though Manfred hadn\'t noticed Madonna and Grady tense at Lemuel\'s attentions, he did notice when they relaxed.

Abruptly, Manfred felt foolish. Why had he been so concerned? Two men he\'d never seen had eaten in a restaurant and lingered in a somewhat odd way. Lemuel had held his hand. Why should he worry about either of those things?

As Manfred rose to take his own departure, a bit shakily, he thought about his sudden change in attitude. Had his physical proximity to Lemuel affected his judgment? Was his reversion to ’’everything is probably okay’’ a valid viewpoint or some kind of mild euphoria induced by Lemuel\'s leeching?

Lemuel turned to give Manfred one last enigmatic look before he left the Home Cookin Restaurant.

Bobo, exchanging good nights with Joe and Chuy, seemed oblivious to any undercurrent in the evening . . . and so did the rest of the Midnight people. The strangers had (Manfred assumed) piled into their pickup and driven off, never to be seen again. But as Manfred walked past the area between his house and the pawnshop, he saw that the anonymous silver car was gone.

He suspected strongly that Olivia Charity was following the strangers.

And he thought, It would be interesting to know why they were here. And why Lemuel is different from other bloodsuckers. And who\'s Aubrey?

Then Manfred reminded himself that he was here to work, and to work hard. He was planning for his future. The problems of these people were not his problems.

But he thought about those people until he went to sleep that night, all the same.


Two mornings after that, Fiji sat on her small back porch, looking at the herb garden with some satisfaction. She\'d put in an hour\'s work this morning before breakfast, and she felt satisfyingly relaxed and pleased with her labors. She was wearing her oldest jeans and a torn sweatshirt stained with the results of a long-ago painting project, its sleeves hacked off to elbow length. In her stadium chair, her feet propped up on her weeding stool, Fiji was utterly comfortable. She had a big mug of tea and a blueberry scone on the little table beside her.

This was as good as it got, and she had a whole hour and a half before the shop opened to enjoy it.

If she hadn\'t felt so content and comfortable, she\'d have gone in to get her camera to take a picture of the cat. Mr. Snuggly was curled picturesquely on a flat paving stone. The slanted morning sun warmed his striped orange fur to show up golden against the green of the plants and the dark brown of the stone.

She couldn\'t be bothered to get up. She took a mental picture, to hold forever. She surveyed the pile of weeds with some satisfaction. ’’I\'m just amazing,’’ she told Mr. Snuggly, who looked up at her without moving his head.

’’Yes, you are,’’ said Bobo, and Fiji jumped and made a sound like ’’Eeep!’’

’’Sorry,’’ he said, his smile dazzling. ’’I didn\'t mean to scare you. I knocked on the shop door, but when you didn\'t answer, I figured you were back here. Want me to go away?’’

Fiji never wanted Bobo to go away. Keeping him from knowing how much she craved his company was her problem, not how to get rid of him. ’’No, fine, come sit,’’ she said, mortified at how lame she sounded. ’’Want a cup of tea? A scone?’’ She had had plans for the second scone, but she would gladly give it to Bobo. Maybe not the one sitting on her plate, but the second one . . . sure.

’’That would be great, if you have extra,’’ he said hopefully, and took the second chair after Fiji removed her gardening gloves from the seat. Once inside, Fiji flew around her little kitchen. It only took a moment to prepare his tea and to arrange his scone on a little plate with a pat of margarine and a knife to spread it.

’’You do everything nice,’’ Bobo said, looking at the pale green cup and dish.

Fiji glanced down at her paint-stained sweatshirt. ’’Not everything,’’ she muttered.

Her guest took a big sip of his tea and a bite of the scone. ’’How\'s your house?’’ he asked, after he\'d had a good look at the garden and the cat, appreciating both. ’’You need anything fixed?’’

He\'s so damn nice, she thought. Why didn\'t I get a fixation on a plain man?

She scoured her mind for some fix-it job for Bobo. ’’The Formica on my kitchen counter,’’ she said. ’’There\'s like a strip around the edge of the counter? And it\'s getting loose at one end. Probably you just glue it back on, right? With superglue?’’

Bobo brightened. ’’Hot glue would be better. Got a hot glue gun?’’

’’I don\'t think so,’’ Fiji said. ’’I\'m not too crafty.’’ In any sense, she thought, with some regret.

’’I\'ll bring mine over,’’ he said. ’’I have to track it down. I\'ll call.’’

’’That\'s well worth the scone.’’ She made herself relax, tilting her head back and closing her eyes. She had to teach herself not to tense up when Bobo was around. ’’I\'m so glad it\'s cooling off in the daytime. At least a smidgen. You know what we ought to do? We ought to plan a citywide picnic day, now that it\'s slightly less brutal weather.’’


’’Yes.’’ Fiji was firm. ’’Townwide sounds too podunk;hamletwide sounds too precious. Everyone in Midnight, even the Rev, should come. We\'ll all bring some food, walk over to the Río Roca Fría, and have a fall picnic. The restaurant is closed on Monday. So are the pawnshop and the salon. A potluck picnic would be fun.’’

’’You think Shawn and Creek and Connor would come? Shawn\'s open every day.’’

’’Surely Shawn could do without Creek for a couple of hours, and Connor could get out of school a little early? Or maybe Teacher would stay at the gas station. There\'s not ever a time when everyone is off work. I thought about Sunday, but that\'s Madonna\'s big day at Home Cookin, and Rev would never come then, though his service is over early. Starts at nine thirty, but he\'s usually done in half an hour.’’

’’He has a church service? Where?’’

’’In the chapel,’’ she said, astonished that no one else in Midnight seemed to have learned this. ’’Where else? He has a nondenominational service in there every Sunday morning.’’

Bobo gaped at her. ’’I had no idea. And it\'s not on the sign. Does anyone ever go to it?’’

’’I do, pretty often. Though I\'m not exactly a Christian. Once in a blue moon, someone else will come, someone he\'s helped. But hold on, we\'ve gotten off topic. Let\'s circle back around to the picnic plan.’’

’’That might be a nice outing. I haven\'t hiked over there in a long time. Since . . .’’ His voice trailed off.

Since before Aubrey left you. She restrained herself from gritting her teeth and growling. ’’We ought to do it. That would be nice for the new guy. Manfred.’’

’’You like him?’’ Bobo asked.

Fiji looked at him uncertainly. Was Bobo teasing her? Did he seriously believe she would enjoy, at twenty-eight, having a crush on the new kid in school?

After a second, she decided there were no overtones. Bobo was making a casual inquiry . . . at least, she was fairly sure. ’’He seems okay,’’ she said. ’’Unusual job, unusual guy. Lemuel sure took a shine to him.’’

’’Really?’’ Bobo looked surprised. ’’Huh. That\'s good, I guess.’’

She nodded. ’’I thought so.’’

’’Too bad Lem can\'t go to the picnic, then.’’ Bobo appeared to be considering. ’’Nah, we couldn\'t have it at night,’’ he concluded. ’’There\'s no light out there at all. Even if we went on a full-moon night, it would be too dark to hike out there. Picnics are a daytime thing.’’

’’So we just need to pick a day and ask people,’’ she said. ’’What about next Monday? A week from yesterday? I\'ll ask around.’’

’’Sure, great,’’ Bobo said. He did seem to be a little happier. ’’I can bring the beer and some soda.’’ He looked down at his watch. ’’I better go open the store. Not that anyone hardly ever comes in this early.’’

’’Lem still working five nights a week?’’ Midnight Pawn was open from nine in the morning to six at night, then eight at night until six in the morning, six days a week. It was closed for twenty-four hours on Sunday. On Monday, Teacher took the day and Olivia took the night shift, if it suited them, but more often than not the pawnshop was closed on Monday. That gave Bobo and Lemuel two days and nights off.

’’We\'re thinking of hiring someone,’’ Bobo said. ’’This piecing Monday together as we go is getting old. We need someone reliable, someone who can maybe come in at other times when we\'re busy. But yeah, Lemuel is always there five nights. Sunday and Monday nights off.’’

’’I wonder what Lemuel does when he\'s not working,’’ Fiji said. ’’On his times off.’’ There was a moment of silence. ’’Better not to know, I guess.’’

’’Yeah. Better not.’’

Fiji hesitated. She wanted to ask, Did you ever wonder if he knew anything about what might have happened to Aubrey? But she didn\'t speak. He would have asked Lemuel if the thought had occurred to him, because he\'s just that transparent, she thought.

After Bobo went back to Midnight Pawn, Fiji propped her feet up again with a sigh, though it was more regretful than contented. In a moment, she\'d have to give up her garden and her comfort and get cleaned up for work, but usually work was enjoyable, if not exactly fun. And she had the picnic to look forward to. But her thoughts about Aubrey had stirred up an unpleasant nest of feelings.

Fiji had not liked Aubrey Hamilton;in fact, she\'d loathed her with an intensity almost amounting to hate. Guilt stirred in Fiji\'s gut as she remembered all the bad energy she\'d sent Aubrey\'s way. Had she ever wished Aubrey was gone, never to be heard from again? Sure, many times . . . in fact, every time she\'d watched Aubrey cling to Bobo\'s arm and rub herself all over him. And then Aubrey had actually done just that. She\'d disappeared.

Because most of the residents of Midnight were quite perceptive, Fiji had never discussed Aubrey with any of them, before or after the vanishing. She knew her dislike would be easy to read . . . if they hadn\'t picked up on it already. Instead, she\'d cast a spell. If it worked, everyone in Midnight should have been able to perceive Aubrey\'s true nature;but if the other Midnighters had suddenly opened their eyes to Aubrey\'s awfulness, not one of them had mentioned it.

And now no one would, because Bobo was miserable that Aubrey had left him, and everyone loved Bobo.

Fiji frowned at Mr. Snuggly. For the first time, she realized that in her thoughts she\'d been putting Aubrey in the past tense. Bobo might be grieving because she\'d left him, but Fiji could tell he also lived in anticipation of the day when Aubrey would return to her senses and come back to Midnight, to Bobo.

Fiji didn\'t believe that was going to happen. She didn\'t think she\'d ever see Aubrey again.

As it turned out, she was wrong.


Manfred\'s cell phone rang early Saturday morning. ’’Manfred,’’ said Fiji\'s voice. There was a whoosh in the background, and Manfred peered out his front blinds with his phone to his ear, to see her standing in her yard with her own cell phone, a truck running between them and making her hair even more tousled by the wind of its passing. ’’The Rev needs a witness. You want to come over to the chapel?’’

’’Right now?’’ Manfred looked at the ’’reading’’ he was typing onto the screen. I sense you are involved in great turmoil right now. The way will be made clear. You will get a sign in the next three days pointing the way to the solution to your problems. In the meantime, be careful whom you trust with your secrets. Someone close to you does not wish you well. Since he\'d had no clue about Chris Stybr (sometimes he had a genuine impression about the seeker, but this Chris could be a man or a woman or a hermaphrodite for all Manfred knew), he\'d had to resort to the tried and the very likely true.

’’Well, they want to get married now, so yeah,’’ Fiji said, with more than a touch of impatience. ’’If you can come?’’

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