Midnight Crossroad Page 7

’’On my way,’’ Manfred said. Typing swiftly and accurately, he created another sentence of bullshit (You will be interrupted in a task unexpectedly) and sent it off. Then he was out the door, locking it behind him as he always did. He looked both ways, just in case, but as usual there was not a car in sight on Witch Light Road. Even Fiji had vanished. He\'d pulled on a hoodie;it was just cool enough that another layer didn\'t seem ridiculous. Manfred craved the hint of fall. He had no idea what the Rev needed, but he was so curious about the older man and his chapel that he found himself a little excited by the summons.

He mounted the rickety wooden steps of the Wedding Chapel (defiantly constructed of wood and painted white, except for the double doors, which were brown) and stepped inside for the first time. The floor was constructed of boards, too, recently painted battleship gray. There were four long benches at the front of the chapel, which must serve as pews. They were white like the walls. Against the rear wall, there was an altar, a simple table with a picture mounted above it. Instead of Jesus being surrounded by little children, he was standing in the midst of a throng of animals. Manfred was both fascinated and curious.

A small cluster of people turned to look at him. The Rev, in his customary black suit and white shirt (complete with hat and bolo tie), held up his hand in blessing. Manfred found this disconcerting. The Rev\'s narrow, lined face was dominated by small eyes overhung by shaggy brows. It was hard to tell because of the brows, but Manfred thought the Rev\'s eyes were weirdly yellowish. The old man was holding a Bible and a pamphlet. There was a lectern at his side, and on it was a white certificate.

Fiji was wearing a long brown skirt and she\'d pulled on a patchwork sweater over a turquoise T-shirt. She looked exactly like a mildly eccentric young woman who claimed to be a witch.

At a quick glance, he knew he hadn\'t met the wedding couple before. They were both in dire need of an orthodontist, and they were painfully young. Her hair was a pleasant light brown, and his was a few shades darker. They looked poor and terrified at their own daring . . . yet excited and happy. All at the same time.

As Manfred joined the little group, he nodded to the Rev, who nodded back. Without further ado, the Rev opened the pamphlet and began to read a very bare-bones marriage service. The depth and richness of his voice was a shock to Manfred, who\'d expected something much rustier. ’’Lisa Gray, Cole Denton, you\'ve come here to be joined in holy matrimony in front of these witnesses . . .’’

In wavering voices, the two impossibly young people pledged to take care of each other for the rest of their lives. When the Rev had pronounced them man and wife, the kids kissed each other and smiled, full of a foolish happiness. From the fit of the bride\'s tight jeans, Manfred suspected there was another person present in utero.

Manfred joined Fiji in clapping enthusiastically, and he was smiling because the kids were smiling;but his inner cynic gave this marriage two years, at most. I\'m the Scrooge of weddings, he thought. Well, his mom hadn\'t set a very good example;he\'d never met his father. In fact, he didn\'t know who his father was.

The Rev didn\'t seem to be troubled by any doubts. He showed them their wedding certificate after he\'d signed it. ’’I\'ll mail this to the county clerk right away,’’ he assured them. ’’Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.’’

Wasn\'t that from the Episcopalian prayer book? Manfred wondered. He\'d been to church a few times with his mom.

’’Thanks, Reverend Sheehan,’’ said the girl, and her face passed into prettiness as she gave the old man a hug.

’’We\'re really grateful,’’ said the boy, and shook the Rev\'s hand with enthusiasm. He bashfully handed the minister a ten-dollar bill.

’’Thanks, son,’’ said the Reverend Emilio Sheehan, with genuine gratitude.

Then the young married couple left for whatever honeymoon they could manage, and the occasion was over. Fiji raised her hand in farewell. Manfred duplicated her gesture as he, too, turned away. He\'d have liked to manage a conversation with the Rev, but the minister didn\'t seem as interested in Manfred as Manfred was in him. Manfred took a moment to study the license on the wall, which proclaimed that Emilio Sheehan was ordained by the Church of the Ark of God to perform weddings in the state of Texas. So, this was the real deal. Manfred felt subtly reassured.

As he left the chapel, which was all of twelve feet wide and fourteen feet deep, he walked slowly to take a longer look around. He realized he was in an old building, at least in American terms. Except for the benches, the wood of the building was roughly cut, and when he looked at the planks closely, he could see that the nails holding them together were old and irregular. The heat was apparently provided by a wood-burning stove at the front of the church. To cool the space in the summer, there were fans hanging down from the ceiling, so there was electricity. There was not a closet or a bathroom: one room was what you got.

Manfred and Fiji descended the wooden steps, both watching their feet with some care because the boards shifted a little. Manfred cast a glance under the structure. Mr. Snuggly was peering out at him, and he waved at the cat. Mr. Snuggly pointedly looked in another direction. A pebble path ran the short distance to the rutted driveway, which led past the chapel to the gate in the fence surrounding the pet cemetery.

Manfred glanced behind him to see if the Rev was also leaving the gloomy building. But the door had fallen back into place, and it did not reopen. Did the old man stay there all day in the bare room, waiting for whoever might come? How did he keep from madness?

’’So, you do that often?’’ he asked Fiji, because he didn\'t want to think about the Rev going mad.

Fiji smiled. ’’Nah. And usually, when he asks me, I call Bobo and he walks over. But I could see he had a pawnshop customer this morning, so I called you. I hope you don\'t mind.’’

’’No,’’ Manfred said, surprised to discover that was the truth. He hastened to add, ’’Some days I might be too busy, though.’’

’’Gotcha.’’ She turned to go back to her house. Manfred saw that Mr. Snuggly had bypassed them somehow and was now sitting right on the boundary between Fiji\'s lush and lovely yard and the bare weedy ground in front of the chapel. His tail was curled around his paws. He could have been a striped statue for sale in a home decor shop. This was a cat who had mastered the art of stillness.

The sight of the pet sparked a thought. ’’Do you ever have to go to the pet funerals?’’ Manfred asked. The discreet sign at the side of the church, along the narrow driveway that led to the back, had fascinated him since he\'d first read it.

’’Not too often. And I don\'t have to do anything, just so you know. Weddings, maybe seven, eight times a year. The pet funerals . . . the Rev will call to see if I\'ll come stand with the bereaved owner . . . just to be a shoulder to cry on . . . oh, not more than twice a year.’’

’’So, does he pay you for this?’’ The second the words left Manfred\'s mouth, he knew he\'d made a mistake.

Fiji\'s face went stiff. ’’No,’’ she said. ’’I go because we\'re friends.’’ She spun on her heel to walk away.

’’Hold on a minute,’’ Manfred said, making his voice an apology in itself. ’’I said that without thinking.’’

’’Right.’’ He could see he had not mollified Fiji. Manfred had no idea what to do to make it better between them.

She looked back at him, her eyes narrowed and her hands clenched. She huffed out a sound of exasperation. ’’Listen, Manfred, would it kill you to say the magic words? And sound like you mean them?’’

Magic words? Manfred was totally at sea. ’’Ahhh . . .’’ he said. ’’Okay, if I knew what they were . . .’’

’’I\'m sorry,’’ she said. ’’Those are the magic words. And yet no one with a Y chromosome seems to understand that.’’ And off Fiji stomped, the drops from the previous evening\'s shower blotching her skirt as she passed through the shrubs and flowers.

’’Okay,’’ Manfred said to the cat. ’’Did you get that, Mr. Snuggly?’’ He and the impassive cat gave each other level stares. ’’I bet your real name is Crusher,’’ Manfred muttered. Shaking his head as he crossed the road, he was relieved to get back to his house and to resume answering queries for Bernardo.

But he stored a new fact in his mental file about women.

They liked it if you told them you were sorry.

6

On the same day that Manfred enlarged his knowledge of male-female relations though hours afterward Bobo had an entirely different sort of discussion. He\'d had a genuinely busy day, as Saturdays sometimes were especially toward the end of the month. Late in the afternoon, he\'d gotten a lull for thirty minutes, and he\'d sunk down into his chair for the first time since he\'d opened.

Bobo had had enough work for the day he really did need to hire a part-time assistant so he was not pleased when two men who seemed vaguely familiar entered the pawnshop. He\'d worked right past six o\'clock, when he normally locked up until Lem took over at eight. It was at least seven, and dark outside.

’’I\'m just closing up,’’ he called. ’’You need to come back in an hour, when we reopen.’’ Then he recognized them as the two men who\'d eaten at Home Cookin, and he was instantly sure they hadn\'t brought anything to pawn. He recognized the type. They were there to ask questions, the kind of questions Bobo had fled to Midnight to avoid.

They didn\'t waste any time.

’’The night your grandfather got arrested,’’ the shorter man said, ’’an informant told the police he had a secret cache of rifles and a couple of bigger pieces stashed away. The cops found a lot of stuff. But everyone in his group, including my dad\'s friend\'s cousin, knew he had more.’’

Bobo had a bitter moment. He\'d been sitting in his own store, comfortable in his usual jeans and T-shirt, and he\'d just set down a mug of instant hot chocolate. He\'d been reading a Lee Child novel in the moments between customers. Jack Reacher was his hero. Bobo sadly wished Jack Reacher were there with him now.

Bobo was aware that he had relaxed into complacency, under the mistaken assumption that Aubrey\'s disappearance was his crisis for the year. He had been foolish to believe there was a term limit on bad-shit-happening-to-Bobo-Winthrop.

The import of the shorter man\'s words sank into him. If there was anything in the world Bobo disliked more than being interrupted on a pleasant day, it was hearing his own history told back to him. He understood that he was in for another hard time probably a beating and he sighed. He put his mug in a safer place, and he prepared himself for what was surely to come.

Bobo was a big man, and a fit one. He ran three times a week, and he did his martial arts warmups and katas every day. He didn\'t actually enjoy hitting people, but he figured he was going to have to this evening. ’’I don\'t know anything about my grandfather\'s secrets, and I don\'t believe in his racist, homophobic hogwash,’’ he told his unwelcome visitors. ’’You might as well shove off.’’ Bobo knew he was wasting his breath.

’’No,’’ said the shorter man. ’’I don\'t think we will.’’

Predictable, Bobo thought.

’’We need those rifles, and we need those explosives. I think we\'re going to have to talk about this some more.’’ The short man sounded certain he could make Bobo talk. He produced a knife. It looked very sharp. ’’You need to change your attitude, or we\'re going to have to change it for you.’’

’’I don\'t think that\'s gonna happen,’’ said a new voice, and the two strangers tensed visibly, their eyes searching the shadowy depths of the pawnshop, the deep interior where the sun didn\'t reach even during the day. From behind some shelves that held a memory lane of blenders, Olivia Charity appeared. Bobo\'s face relaxed in a smile. It was two on two, now.

When they saw a woman (a woman clad in a black bra and black bikini panties), the two men relaxed their vigilance, though Olivia was armed with a longbow, arrow nocked and ready. The taller man, the one with the trimmed mustache and beard, sneered, ’’You think you\'re Robin Hood\'s little girlfriend or something?’’ He pulled a gun with his right hand and seemed to feel that put him in charge of Bobo and Olivia.

Olivia shot him.

It was almost funny how surprised the taller man was when he saw the feathered shaft sticking out of his right shoulder. After a second of horrified astonishment, he screamed, and the gun clattered to the wooden floor from his useless right hand. His boss, the brown-haired man, dropped his own knife as insufficient. He pulled a pistol from under his jacket and fired at Olivia in a very smooth move.

But she wasn\'t there. Neither was Bobo, who\'d moved into a shadow and crouched down the instant he\'d heard the bow twang. The short man looked around, confused, trying to locate someone to shoot.

Instead, there was a quick motion and a noise from the floor to the short man\'s right, the motion and sound in such quick sequence they were almost simultaneous, and from a white blur that appeared by the short man\'s side two hands reached out, seized the shorter man\'s head, and twisted. There was a particularly nauseating meaty snap, and the short man folded onto the dusty floor. Bobo jumped up to see what had happened.

’’Jesus, Lem,’’ said Bobo, startled but not surprised. ’’That was pretty extreme.’’ Olivia rose from the floor with a groan, shaking her head;Lem had knocked her down as he sped past, and she\'d hit the floor hard.

The taller man, his sleeve soaked with blood, opened his mouth to scream again, but Lemuel was there before the sound could escape the man\'s lips. He did not break the man\'s neck. He clapped his hand over the man\'s mouth.


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