Midnight Crossroad Page 9

’’Damn,’’ said Manfred quietly.

He waited, checking his watch from time to time. For the next five minutes, pigeons could have landed on Shoshanna Whitlock\'s head and she would not have been able to do a thing about it. After the five minutes had passed, Whitlock whipped her head from side to side and staggered a little. Then for a while she stood still, obviously unsteady, patting herself as if to make sure all her parts were there and functional. She looked up and down Witch Light Road, clearly at a loss as to how her target had disappeared. Manfred almost smiled as he watched Mr. Snuggly stroll up to give the detective a long stare. Whitlock looked down at the cat and flinched.

Manfred would have given a lot to know what she was seeing.

Maybe Whitlock would be frightened enough to leave Midnight? But no, the detective was made of sterner (or more foolish) stuff. After a minute or two, she regrouped and resumed her march. This time she went to the chapel, which was open, as always. She went inside without knocking. By now nothing would have startled Manfred, so he merely nodded to himself when she ran from the chapel as if a tiger were on her trail.

That proved to be the end of Manfred\'s free entertainment. After Shoshanna Whitlock got into her car (parked in front of the pawnshop, Manfred noted), she drove away without looking back. And ten or fifteen minutes later, Fiji returned. She climbed out of her old car, looking around her presumably to make sure Whitlock was gone before she walked to the front door, where Mr. Snuggly was waiting for her. The witch and the cat went into the house together.

Though he sat in his office chair and prepared to work, Manfred sat for some time, lost in thought. Until Shoshanna Whitlock\'s visit, it had never occurred to him that there was any mystery about Aubrey\'s leaving Bobo. In Manfred\'s eyes, the only odd thing about it was why any woman would leave a handsome, affable guy like his landlord. He\'d only picked up the bare bones of the story: Aubrey Hamilton, Bobo\'s live-in girlfriend, had left him. Chuy had promised to tell him about Aubrey someday, but that day hadn\'t come around so far.

Now a private detective was asking questions.

Had Shoshanna Whitlock really been who she said she was? Manfred looked down at her card. He\'d just ordered his own business cards online. He knew from experience that he could have claimed to be a professional ice skater or John Wilkes Booth and had a card printed to ’’prove’’ it. Therefore, he didn\'t attach much weight to the printed words on her tastefully simple rectangle. There was a line with her name, then underneath, Texas Investigation Service, which sounded just quasi-official enough to impress a potential witness. Probably the point, Manfred figured. The two lines of type were followed by a phone number. No address.

Briefly, Manfred considered walking next door to Midnight Pawn and handing the card to Bobo. Maybe he ought to give his landlord a heads-up.

But he decided not to, for a cluster of reasons.

He wasn\'t sure that whatever the ’’detective’’ was after was any of his business. If he saw a good opportunity, he could tell Bobo tomorrow, the day of the picnic. And surely, Fiji would report Whitlock\'s mission to Bobo before that. The last thing Manfred wanted to do after this morning was to get in Fiji\'s way.

He didn\'t think he\'d look good as a statue.

8

The next day, the Midnighters assembled behind Midnight Pawn in the residents\' parking lot. When Manfred came out of his house, wearing a light jacket over his T-shirt and with a small backpack over his shoulders, he counted in his head: Olivia, Chuy, Joe, Creek, a boy he hadn\'t met, Bobo, Fiji, the Rev, and Teacher from the diner.

’’All right, guys \'n\' gals!’’ Bobo called. ’’It\'s the first Annual Picnic Day! Madonna\'s coming over with her truck, so if there\'s something you can\'t carry, we\'ll load it in. We got tables, and some people have already put stadium chairs in there. You can stow your food, too.’’

Rasta yipped and looked excited, and everyone laughed. Manfred went over to Creek to meet the kid, who had to be her younger brother. For a fourteen-year-old, he shook hands in a very adult way.

’’I\'m Connor,’’ he said. He had dark hair like his sister\'s and a smooth oval face like hers. He was already as tall as Creek, and Manfred figured that in the very near future he\'d be taller than Manfred himself.

’’Where\'s your dad?’’ Manfred asked. ’’Did he have to mind the store today?’’

Creek smiled at him. She didn\'t seem to suspect he was prolonging the conversation just to look at her. ’’Someone had to,’’ she said. ’’This is like a treat to us. No working the cash register or stocking shelves! And Connor got to come because there was a teacher in-service training day.’’

Looking at her light blue eyes, Manfred felt a decade older than Creek, rather than four years.

’’We\'ve got a great day for a picnic,’’ he said, since he had to say something.

Creek raised an eyebrow, a skill Manfred envied.

’’Okay,’’ he admitted, ’’trite. But true.’’

’’I love going up to the river,’’ Connor said. The boy actually looked excited at this mild outing. Living in Midnight must be excruciatingly dull for a kid his age, Manfred thought.

It was a glowing day in the earliest part of fall. The sun was bright but mild, and the wind was brisk. The sky spread above them, dotted with only the occasional small cloud to better set off its brilliant blue.

’’I think Bobo wants you,’’ Creek said, nodding to indicate that Manfred should turn around. Bobo was waiting patiently, and when he saw he had Manfred\'s attention, he beckoned. Manfred went over to him, smiling. But he felt his face settle into serious lines when he saw how anxious his landlord was.

’’Hey,’’ Bobo said by way of greeting. His hands were tucked in his back pockets, and he rocked back and forth on his heels. ’’Manfred, let me ask you something personal. And no offense, for real. Are you truly psychic?’’

’’Sometimes,’’ Manfred answered honestly. ’’Mostly it\'s guesswork or psychology, but I have times when I get true readings.’’

’’Then I wonder if you\'d come by someday, maybe check out some of Aubrey\'s stuff? Maybe you could get an idea of what happened to her?’’

Manfred felt he\'d stepped off a cliff. Finally he said, ’’Sure, Bobo. I\'ll try. I wish I could guarantee a result . . .’’

’’No, man, I understand. Just do your best. That\'s all I can ask. Ah, maybe I could knock something off next month\'s rent . . .’’

’’No. Absolutely not. I\'ll be glad to help,’’ Manfred said, looking up into his landlord\'s face. He was a little surprised to find that he meant it he actually wanted to help Bobo. ’’Though let me warn you, touch psychometry is not my strength.’’ Bobo looked blank. ’’That\'s holding inanimate objects to get a reading on them,’’ Manfred explained. ’’So, I\'ll come over tomorrow. Ah . . . by the way. There was a detective by yesterday.’’

’’Teacher told me she came by his place, too. I didn\'t talk to her. She came to the shop door, but I figured since I didn\'t know her and it was my day off, I didn\'t have to answer the door.’’

Manfred was dying to ask Bobo if he\'d seen what had happened to the detective, but he didn\'t think it would be right. Maybe Bobo had stayed at his window to watch Shoshanna\'s progress, maybe he hadn\'t. It seemed like tattling, to bring up what Fiji had done.

’’Just call me when you\'re ready,’’ Manfred said, after an awkward pause. ’’I\'ll do my best for you.’’ That having been settled, the two men drifted apart as quickly as they could, as if something about the conversation had been embarrassing. Manfred figured it had probably made Bobo uneasy to reveal the depth of his sorrow at Aubrey\'s departure, and Manfred knew it had made him uneasy to recognize Bobo\'s grief and need.

Figuring it was time to get over his trepidation, Manfred had a casual conversation with Fiji, who seemed as artless and pleasant as ever. Manfred wondered if he\'d had some kind of strange delusion the day before, but he decided it was impossible. Fiji had really frozen Shoshanna Whitlock. And Manfred couldn\'t forget the detective the self-proclaimed detective running from the wedding chapel as if the minions of hell were behind her. He glanced over at the Rev, who stood a little apart, dressed exactly as usual in a threadbare black suit and bolo tie. There\'s kind of an invisible cocoon around the old man, he thought. The only people who approached him were Connor and Creek, who talked to him with apparent ease. The Rev answered them with a few words, but to Manfred\'s eyes his affection for the two seemed obvious.

Madonna drove Teacher\'s truck into the little parking lot, and everyone cheered. She waved through the windshield. She didn\'t look particularly excited or enthusiastic, but Manfred was learning that was not the Madonna way. The only time she smiled with any predictability was when she looked at the baby. This morning Grady was in his car seat next to her, and the truck bed was loosely packed with picnic things. Manfred added a few boxes of cookies from the Davy Kroger. Some of the other walkers added their contributions.

Bobo called, ’’All right! Let\'s go! Next stop, the Cold Rock.’’ He slapped the hood of the truck, made a ’’forward ho’’ motion, and off they set.

Manfred expected Madonna to go back out the parking lot to the left, to get on the Davy highway and go north. He assumed there was a track that ran parallel to the river, and she could access it off the highway. But Madonna simply drove out of the parking area, veered right past the abandoned building to the rear of the pawnshop, and then bumped across the landscape: mostly bare dirt, dotted with patches of grass, cactus, clumps of bushes and trees, with plenty of space between. Every now and then she had to navigate around an outcropping of rock bursting through the thin soil as though it were trying to break free.

The walkers left the parking lot heading due north, but almost immediately they began veering northeast to the Río Roca Fría.

’’Where are we having the picnic?’’ Manfred asked Fiji.

’’We\'re setting up by the Cold Rock itself,’’ she said. ’’You\'ll be able to see it in just a few minutes.’’

Manfred, naturally quick on his feet, began to walk at a brisk pace, his light backpack slowing him down not at all. In a few seconds, he was walking right behind Bobo. After days spent at the computer, he realized that he was glad to get out in the brisk air, glad to stretch his legs.

Since the truck was acting as pack mule, no one had to carry much. A bottle of water apiece, some sunscreen. Joe Strong had strapped on a special carrier for Rasta, who was sure to get tired before they reached their destination. At the moment the little dog was dashing around on his retractable leash, full of excitement.

’’You didn\'t bring Mr. Snuggly?’’ Joe called over his shoulder to Fiji.

’’He told me he wanted to stay at home and guard the place,’’ Fiji called back, and there was a smattering of laughter.

Soon Manfred was far ahead of them both.

9

Fiji enjoyed the first leg of the short hike to the river, but soon she began to fall behind. She was the slowest of the group. As she plodded along, she wished she\'d elected to ride with Madonna (not that Madonna had invited her). It wasn\'t that Fiji was really fat or really unfit;she just wasn\'t as lean or as fit as the others, and she was by nature a slower-moving person.

That was what she told herself. Several times.

I\'m lumbering, she brooded. I\'m a lumbering double-wide hippo.

Though as a rule Fiji did not call herself names, today she was out of sorts. Not only had she had to use magical means to get away from the persistent Shoshanna Whatever-her-name-was, but she\'d figured out that something had happened over at Bobo\'s store, something other people knew . . . but not her.

Two evenings before, she\'d gone over to take Bobo a letter that the mailman had left in her box instead of his. In truth, it had been a piece of unimportant mail that she\'d hoarded for just such an occasion an occasion when she just wanted to talk to Bobo. It had been a hard day, and she was feeling lonely.

He was due to be off work, and she figured he\'d go straight up to his apartment. And maybe she\'d hoped he\'d ask her to walk over to Home Cookin with him, since he hadn\'t gone out to dinner yet. She\'d been dusting the items on the shelf closest to the front door, and she\'d glanced through the window from time to time.

So she\'d seen the two strangers go in at dusk.

But almost immediately, the business landline had started ringing, and she\'d turned away to answer it. The caller had been her sister, which meant a long conversation. Twenty minutes later, when Fiji had looked out the window again, the strangers\' truck was gone, so their business at Midnight Pawn had been brief. She\'d headed over.

She\'d found Bobo sitting in the store alone, not having gone up to his apartment yet, though it was time for the store to be shut prior to Lemuel\'s shift. Bobo had not greeted her in his usual relaxed way. He\'d glanced down at the floor a few times, as if he\'d seen something there he needed to take care of. And he\'d been upset. Though Bobo was seldom anything less than warm and charming to Fiji, that night he\'d been brief to the point of rudeness.

He hadn\'t even invited her to sit down with him for a spell. She hadn\'t had the nerve to mention going out to dinner.

She\'d felt so unsettled she hadn\'t been able to concentrate on her garden the next day. Instead, she went to Davy to get her car\'s oil changed, to shop at Kroger for a week\'s worth of groceries, and to take her laundry to the Suds O Matic on the Davy highway. (Fiji\'s favorite fantasy, besides the ones featuring Bobo, was that a sweet motherly woman would reopen the defunct washateria in Midnight. This sweet woman would not only put customers\' clothes through the washer and dryer, she would iron them and fold them.)


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