Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)(10) by Charlaine Harris

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.)

Fiji hadn’t returned from her errands refreshed, though she had felt a mildly pleasant sense of accomplishment. But then, on her return, Shoshanna Whatever had come by. As she trudged along by herself, Fiji’s face flushed with mixed pride and embarrassment. She’d showed off in public, but apparently she hadn’t been observed. She almost wished someone would tell her they’d seen the detective standing there, because Fiji was really curious about how long the spell had lasted.

She raised her eyes from her plodding feet to look ahead. There was Bobo, striding out, with the smaller form of Manfred right beside him. Maybe Manfred? He was almost directly across the road from her.

She decided Bobo seemed lighter of heart today, though she hadn’t approached him for any private conversation.

Maybe she could find out from Olivia what had made Bobo so odd and downcast. Olivia must know what had happened.

Olivia always knew.

Despite all Fiji had to occupy her thoughts, soon the walking became more difficult as the ground began to rise. This land had never been settled or farmed, and it had only been grazed by extremely hearty goats. She stumbled more than once as she made her way across the rocky terrain that gradually rose to end abruptly on the cliff overlooking the riverbed. Keeping her eyes on her feet was a pain, but necessary. There were rocks; there were snakes. You had to be alert here.

Fiji saw something slithering off into the shelter of a rock just at that moment, and she snarled at it. She was not a happy camper. She was not any kind of camper at all.

“You okay?” said Bobo, and she looked up. He’d walked back to check on her. Goddess bless him, he was a kind man.

“I’m fine,” she lied, feeling the blush on her cheeks. “I’m not a great hiker. I’m kinda slow. But steady!” she added brightly. Briefly, she considered apologizing for intruding on him the other night, but she concluded that she had nothing to apologize for.

“You don’t have to be fast,” he said, falling into step with her. “You got nothing to prove.”

“No, I don’t,” she agreed, glad to look at it that way. “Not a damn thing.”

“Where are you from, originally?” Bobo asked. “I can’t believe we’ve never talked about it. Shared our origin story, as they say.” Sharing personal data was not a casual thing in Midnight. As if he feared his question might be too intrusive, he volunteered, “I’m from Arkansas.”

“I grew up outside Houston,” Fiji said. “But my mom’s folks were originally from this general area. West of Fort Worth. My great-aunt, who was way older than my grandmother, married Wesley Loeffler, who had settled here. They met at a dance, Aunt Mildred told me.” She smiled. Quite a few people had thought Mildred Loeffler was cross and crotchety, and a few more had feared her. But Fiji had loved the old woman.

“And what did Wesley do?”

“He ran the five-and-dime, the one that’s boarded up just north of the filling station. Back then, they all thought that Midnight would grow, that it would outshine Davy.”

“What happened to Wesley?” Bobo asked.

“He died pretty young; at least, what we would think of as young. I believe he had complications from a ruptured appendix. He and Great-Aunt Mildred never had any kids, and she never married again.”

“Tough,” Bobo said. “How’d she make a living?”

“She ran the five-and-dime herself until it wasn’t making any money, and then she sold the building and the business to a Mr. Wilcox. He went under in two years. So she had that money and what she made as a—well, as a wise woman, I guess you’d call it. She sold potions and herbs. And she could cook and was willing to cater a bit, so she was hired for weddings and so on. Aunt Mildred always took care to go to church every single Sunday, though.” Fiji grinned. “When I was a kid, we’d come to visit her about every other year. She took a shine to me. Since I’m the youngest, my sister was pretty mad when Mildred left me the house. If she’d had an idea the house was worth anything, I think she might have contested Great-Aunt Mildred’s will. But since I wanted to live in it, not sell it, she’s left me in peace.” Mostly.

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