Midnight Crossroad Page 8

’’Bobo,’’ Lem said, in his deep, antique voice, ’’I\'m taking this one downstairs so\'s I can ask him a few questions in the privacy of my room. Then I\'ll be up to work. Olivia?’’

’’Yes, Mr. Domination?’’ Olivia was scowling. She clearly felt she\'d had the situation under control.

’’Can you find a good spot for the dead gentleman? I can bury him tonight. There might be a customer here at any moment.’’

That was quite true. It was often the case that if one customer showed up late, the whole night was filled with a steady trickle of people bearing the oddest items. ’’Okay,’’ Olivia said, though it was clear she wasn\'t appeased. ’’I can do that. The usual place, I guess.’’

’’Should be fine,’’ Lem said. He\'d come up through the trapdoor in the floor, rather than take the conventional route of exiting his apartment door, going up the half flight of stairs to the common landing, and entering the store from the landing door. Only Lemuel and Olivia knew the trapdoor existed, it was so unobtrusive. ’’I know you can handle it.’’ He began dragging the struggling man over to the trapdoor. Though his captive was several inches taller than Lemuel, and pounds heavier, the pale man handled him with ease.

’’Thanks,’’ Bobo called, reminded of his manners. ’’I should have said that right away. You two are the Speedy Rescue Team.’’

’’Glad to help,’’ Lem said. ’’Lucky you\'ve got the foot alarm buzzer in here.’’ Lem had installed it himself, with Bobo\'s help.

’’Good thing Lem was awake,’’ Olivia said. Bobo finally noted Olivia\'s state of undress and realized that Lemuel was absolutely na**d. Since Bobo hadn\'t noticed those interesting facts until this moment, he\'d been more upset than he\'d realized.

’’Yeah, I\'m real lucky,’’ Bobo said drily. ’’Sorry you two got interrupted.’’

’’We don\'t speak of private things,’’ Lemuel said reprovingly. ’’You might want to put the CLOSED sign up, Bobo.’’ His voice floated up from the foot of the ladder. Bobo, at the top, could hear the sounds of Lem\'s feet as he went to his own door with the bleeding man tossed over his shoulder.

’’Right,’’ Bobo said. The door down below opened and closed. ’’Olivia, you need my help?’’

’’You better stay here and straighten up the mess,’’ she said. ’’I can take care of this.’’ ’’This’’ was the body of the short man.

Bobo knew better than to argue with her, especially since Lem had already rained on her parade by killing the short guy. Instead, he flipped the trapdoor shut, ignoring the subdued shriek he heard from Lem\'s apartment. He hoped Lem was getting some good information, and he hoped Lem was well fed afterward. If it had been up to him, he would have called the police . . . but with Lem, some things you just couldn\'t stop.

Luckily, the dead man had the keys to his truck in his pocket, so Olivia didn\'t have to interrupt Lemuel\'s interrogation/meal. Olivia ran down to her place to grab some jeans and a shirt, and while Bobo was cleaning up the evidence of the struggle, including blood, she drove the dead man\'s pickup to the back of the store and knocked on the rear door, which led onto a small loading platform. Bobo unlocked the door, and Olivia stepped through. She gave Bobo a fond smile and a pat on the shoulder as she went by, and when she came back, she had the body over her shoulder. There was a dreadful limpness to the corpse\'s arms and legs, which moved in rhythm with her walk. ’’I\'m on my way,’’ Olivia said. She wasn\'t even breathing heavily.

’’How do you do that?’’ Bobo asked. ’’I guess I could pick him up, but I sure couldn\'t stroll around with him without getting short of breath.’’

She grinned. ’’Every now and then Lem gives me some blood.’’

’’Does it taste awful?’’ Bobo made an effort not to look disgusted.

’’Nah. Not in the heat of the moment. With all due respect to Lemuel\'s modesty.’’

’’Thanks again, Olivia. I expected to take a beating.’’ At the top of his bagful of emotions, he was relieved. A layer down, he felt a bit horrified that his attackers were dead and that they\'d been made that way with such speed and efficiency. At the bottom, he was sad and angry that his grandfather, so many years gone, had screwed up his life again.

’’No problem. See you in a bit.’’ She moved quietly and quickly, even though she was lugging 185 pounds of dead weight.

After Olivia left to drive the pickup to ’’the usual place,’’ Bobo scanned the floor and the items around the crucial area, looking for blood spots. Though he used a flashlight and wiped up what he could find, he soon realized that he\'d have to complete the job in the daytime. He folded the old towel he\'d used to wipe up and put it by his book so he couldn\'t forget to take it upstairs to his washing machine. After he\'d turned the store sign to ’’Closed,’’ Bobo collected his hot chocolate (now tepid), his book, the towel, and his keys and went upstairs to his apartment. While he stood in front of his microwave (he was trying to salvage his drink), he thought the incident over. There was a lot to consider.

He led off with wondering where ’’the usual place’’ was and what Olivia would do with the dead man\'s pickup. Would she need a ride back? He\'d be glad to do that for her. In fact, he texted her to that effect immediately. Then he began to worry about how the men had found him. They weren\'t the first ones to do so, but they were the first ones to find him since he\'d moved to Midnight. The last ones had beat him up and left him in the store he\'d run in Missouri, a souvenir stand outside Branson. He\'d left the next day for . . . anywhere else. He\'d landed in Alaska, and he\'d stayed there working until he felt the cold and damp seeping into his joints. He\'d saved his pay, and he\'d sold the Missouri souvenir stand through an agent, and he\'d still had some family money stashed away, so he was able to buy Midnight Pawn from the previous owner, Travis Bridger . . . who (though he was supposed to be Lemuel\'s great-grandson) had turned out to be Lemuel himself. Lemuel was not the original owner of Midnight Pawn, but he\'d been in charge for over a hundred years, plus or minus.

That was a whole other train of thought, one whose tracks Bobo didn\'t want to follow, at least right now.

So how had they found him? Had they tracked him through some computer trail? Maybe he\'d ask Manfred, because his new tenant seemed to know a lot about computers. But Bobo\'d have to give Manfred something by way of explanation, and he didn\'t know how trustworthy Manfred was, yet. He\'d ask Fiji\'s opinion. She seemed to ’’get’’ people pretty well. From Fiji, it was somehow a natural progression to thinking of Aubrey and how she\'d left him.

Acting on an impulse, Bobo went back down the stairs to the store. At night, the store was even darker and more mysterious the farther you got from the front windows. The interior seemed impossibly deep at least on this floor and it held more goods than customers expected. At the very back, to the left of the rear door, was a large rectangular storage room. This was where the things that could still be redeemed were kept, the things not yet for sale and on display. He unlocked the padlock on the door and then the dead bolt, and he stepped inside. There were tiers of shelves to his right and left. They were crowded with flat-screen televisions. These were the items people pawned first these days, their televisions. Then came gold jewelry and guns. The guns were all together, the jewelry in a safe bolted to the lowest shelf. At the farthest point of the rectangular room, the west wall, there were no shelves, only a heat and air vent up high. That was where Bobo had stored the boxes of Aubrey\'s stuff. He\'d envisioned some awkward and painful scenario in which she sent a new boyfriend to pick it up, a person he would not want to take upstairs to the apartment they\'d shared. He\'d managed to cram all her belongings into seven boxes, and three of those were full of clothes and shoes. Her grandmother\'s sewing machine was still upstairs in the apartment, because he couldn\'t box it. He\'d intended to carry it down and put it in the closet, but somehow he never had.

And no one had ever come to claim her things, so there in the storage room the taped boxes remained. He was sure that someday she\'d want her stuff, and she\'d tell him where to send it.

It had been an awful long time, though. His faith that he\'d hear from her was beginning to fade.

On his optimistic days, Bobo reverted to his first theory: Aubrey had had to rush away in response to a sudden message, and while she was on this mysterious errand, something happened to her, something that prevented her return. She would walk in the door tomorrow, perhaps with a bandage on her head, or in a wheelchair, and explain everything. Though Bobo knew it was foolish to cling to this fantasy, especially as time went by, he did so nonetheless.

On his worst days, Bobo was convinced that some trait of his own had deeply repulsed Aubrey, repulsed her to the point where she\'d not even wanted to speak to him again, to the point where leaving all her clothes and jewelry and her grandmother\'s sewing machine had been preferable to dealing with him one more time.

He couldn\'t see a mirror while he was thinking about this, and that was a good thing. Bobo looked ten years older when he thought about Aubrey.

Bobo knew both his theories were bullshit.

Luckily, the shop bell rang, bringing him out of this valley of conjecture. He stepped out of the storage room, relocking it as he went, and hurried to the front of the pawnshop. A woman in her fifties was at the door, and ignoring the CLOSED sign. She was carrying a stuffed parrot.

Bobo let her in and gave her thirty dollars for the bird. He was fairly certain, from her haste to be rid of it, that the parrot was going to be his for keeps. It would join the others. To Olivia\'s amusement, Bobo had accumulated quite a menagerie of deceased creatures. He\'d arranged them all tastefully in one corner of the pawnshop, so they had their own little area. Olivia had suggested he rig a tape recorder behind a raccoon, which had been posed rearing on its hind legs with a book in its hand (The Wind in the Willows). She\'d had a number of suggestions for remarks the raccoon could make when shoppers were standing in front of it.

Bobo hadn\'t gotten that bored yet.

7

Manfred was hunched at his computer, telling a woman in Reno that her husband was uncertain about the location of a wristwatch she\'d given him the year before he died and why the hell was a bereaved widow fixated on finding a damn wristwatch? when there was a knock on the door.

This was unusual, especially in the morning. Manfred assumed his caller would be Fiji, either bringing him something she\'d baked or asking him to attend another wedding though since the first time she\'d visited, Fiji had been careful to call in advance. When he opened the door, he was looking at a woman he\'d never seen before. She was in her forties, stout, wearing what Manfred characterized vaguely as an office pantsuit. She had a business card in her fingers.

’’Yes?’’ Manfred said, in a none-too-friendly voice.

’’Hi, I\'m Shoshanna Whitlock,’’ the woman said, smiling in a professional way. ’’Here\'s my card.’’ She thrust it at Manfred, who took it and stared at it.

’’A private detective?’’ he said. ’’What do you need from me?’’ Nothing good, he concluded.

’’May I come in?’’ Her chin, which was definitely on the aggressive side, led the way forward, but Manfred didn\'t move. She stopped, thwarted in her progress.

’’I don\'t think so,’’ Manfred said. ’’I work at home, and I don\'t like to be interrupted.’’

’’I\'ll only take a moment of your time,’’ she said, her eyes crinkling at the corners with the force of her sincerity. ’’I just want to ask you a few questions on behalf of my clients. Would it help if I told you that they\'re Aubrey Hamilton\'s parents?’’

’’Not at all,’’ Manfred said, and closed the door.

She hadn\'t expected that, either, and he could hear her say, ’’What the hell?’’ She didn\'t leave right away no heel thock! against the rock of the porch so he leaned against the door, half expecting the force of her exasperation to blow it open. After almost a minute, he heard her walking off. He stepped over to the window to watch Shoshanna Whitlock march across the road to Fiji\'s cottage.

Perhaps the detective didn\'t notice that Fiji\'s place was a business, since Fiji\'s yard sign was so modest. Ms. Whitlock knocked at the door. Fiji answered it very quickly and stepped out of the door with her purse on her shoulder. Manfred could see her headful of curls bob from side to side as she shook her head. Fiji was saying ’’no’’ to something, that was for sure.

The detective kept talking, trying to wear Fiji down, but Fiji was locking the door of her cottage behind her and marching over to her car, parked on the driveway. The older woman stepped briskly after her, her tailored pantsuit, sleek leather purse, and neat shoes a sharp contrast to the permanently disheveled Fiji.

Manfred wondered if he should pop out to run interference. Fiji seemed so flustered . . .

And then the detective got very close to Fiji, who was trying to get into her car. Though Manfred couldn\'t see his neighbor\'s expression clearly, he saw that her body went rigid with irritation. Fiji\'s hand reached out to Whitlock and gripped her shoulder.

The detective froze in place. Her mouth was open, one foot in front of the other to take a forward step. But Whitlock couldn\'t take that step;she couldn\'t move at all.

Manfred realized his mouth was hanging open, just like Shoshanna Whitlock\'s.

Fiji popped into her car and backed out of her driveway, leaving the detective standing in her awkward pose. Manfred was sure Fiji didn\'t even glance at the frozen woman again.


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