Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)(11) by Charlaine Harris

“Your folks ever come to see you?” Bobo was frowning. “I don’t remember meeting them.”

“They haven’t come yet,” she said briefly. She’d been in Great-Aunt Mildred’s house for over three years. “What about you?”

She realized they were covering ground literally, as well as figuratively. This walking business went so much better when she had someone to talk to, a point she made a note to remember.

“I’m the oldest of three. I have a brother and sister,” he said.

From his unhappy expression, Fiji knew there was a story behind that.

“And now they’re . . . ?” she prompted.

“Oh. Amber Jean graduated from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She’s a registered nurse, and she’s married to a pharmaceutical supplier. Howell Three, my brother, he got out of college and got a job with Walmart.”

“With Walmart?” She tried not to sound surprised. “Stocking shelves and so on?” She remembered meeting Howell Three briefly, and he hadn’t seemed the manual labor kind of guy.

Bobo laughed. “No, he works at the headquarters. In Bentonville. He’s engaged to another guy.” His smile lingered, as if that had been a good joke on someone else. “Amber Jean has two kids, both girls.”

“Has she come here?”

He laughed. “Touché. No, and I don’t expect her to. And Howell Three only came the once, when you met him. Wasn’t that about seven months ago? I wanted him to meet Aubrey. He thought I was living in the ass end of nowhere.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I liked it here. Which I do.”

“What do you like about it?” She hadn’t meant to sound coquettish, but she was afraid her words had come out that way. She risked a glance up. Bobo was looking ahead without a hint of self-consciousness, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

“I like being my own boss,” he said. “I like the old building and all the pawned stuff that’s been there forever. I like the random way people come in, bringing me strange things they’re sure are worth big bucks.”

“What do you do if you can’t tell them one way or another?”

“Look the item up online. Call another dealer. Check some of my reference books.” There was a laden shelf right by the cash register, and Fiji felt ashamed she’d never asked what the thick volumes were for.

“How about you?” he asked in return. “Do you like selling charms and candles to women? Though,” he added hastily, “I know you make a lot of them happier.”

Fiji smiled, though it made her face hurt a little. “Bobo, that sounds like you believe I’m all bells and chimes and New Age spirituality,” she said.

Apparently that was exactly what Bobo believed. For a long moment, he didn’t say a thing.

Taking pity on him, Fiji said, “I’m showing them that going to church and praying on your knees to a male deity isn’t all there is. There’s another path, one that will put women in tune with their own spirit and truth.”

“And I’m sure that helps a lot of the ladies,” he said quickly. “Hey, look, we’re almost there.” He strode forward.

The edge of the cliff was thick with stubborn growth: yucca, small live oaks, firs, cactus, a huge variety of grasses . . . interspersed with rocks ranging in size from babies’ fists to giants’ feet. A haze of tiny yellow blooms lent the scene an almost fairy-tale effect, though the weed that bore them was about a foot tall. The wind tossed the blooms about cheerfully, and the leaves on the trees shivered, some of them loose enough to fly off and flutter through the air.

Fiji thought, Coming here was a good idea. This is really pretty, and healing. Then she went over to the truck to help Madonna, who’d arrived first and started unloading the truck in an area that wasn’t too rocky. After getting the baby and his infant seat ensconced on the lowered tailgate, Madonna was pulling the coolers down to the ground. Teacher jumped up to push the coolers and the food forward, and Fiji began putting it on the white plastic folding table that Bobo and Manfred had already arranged. Joe set up the wildly assorted stadium chairs after handing Rasta over to Chuy, who took the little dog on a frantic exploration of the cliff’s edge. Rasta found an exciting assortment of new smells, so much to sniff and pee on. After an exhausting five minutes, Rasta drank a bowl of water, ate three treats, and curled up for a nap on his special blanket, laid down under the tailgate so the Peke would be in the shade.

Fiji thought the curling-up-and-napping part looked like a good idea, but she hadn’t brought a special blanket. With an inner sigh and an outward smile, she helped to unpack the food and set it out on the table. She weighted down the napkins and paper plates with rocks, because the wind was making everything dance.

They were perched above the section of the Río Roca Fría that ran east–west, more or less, before it turned north to Davy. Looking to her left, Fiji could see the lazy bend where it recovered its northern goal. Not even a hint of Davy was visible because of a slight rise and fall in the terrain.

In fact, the Midnighters had set up their picnic at the steepest point of the slope; twenty yards in either direction, the ground descended. Scrambling down to the water was much easier there, but the best view was up here, right by the Cold Rock itself. The Roca Fría was a huge white boulder, about the size of a La-Z-Boy recliner. Sadly, there were scrawled messages all over it, some dating from the nineteen sixties.

“I can see for miles,” Olivia said to Fiji. “That is, if it weren’t for my hair!” Olivia gathered up a smooth auburn handful with her right hand and pulled out an elastic band to secure it with her left. (Fiji hoped there was a similar band in the pocket of her jacket, but she hadn’t even thought about it that morning.) Having slicked her hair back into a neat ponytail, Olivia said, “I can’t believe I’ve never hiked out here before. Great idea!”

“Not mine,” Bobo said. “Fiji’s.”

Fiji took a bow as a ragged round of applause went up.

“Who wants a beer?” Teacher called, and there was a general movement over to the ice chest. “We got cold water, too, for the wusses.”

Fiji liked her wine, but she was not a beer drinker. “I’m a wuss,” she said with a smile, pulling a bottle of water out of the chest. Suppressing her yearning to sink into her dark green stadium chair, she took a big swallow of water before she strolled eastward, away from the Roca Fría. Fiji picked up a stick as she went, and she began thwacking at weeds in an idle way. A large cricket leaped up, startling her.

Some adventurer I am. I might as well have stayed at home if I’m going to walk around sulking and hitting things with a stick, Fiji reflected, half smiling at her own foolishness. Fiji had looked forward to the picnic, but now she wasn’t enjoying it as much as she’d hoped. She had the uneasy feeling that things were happening in Midnight that were outside her understanding: the abrupt desertion of Bobo by Aubrey, Bobo’s out-of-character behavior two nights ago, Shoshanna Whitlock’s questions. But those events should not bother her. They didn’t have to be different facets of the same incident.

Trying to think positive thoughts, Fiji stopped at a large clump of yucca. She wondered if she could transplant some to her front yard. She crouched to figure out if the plant could be divided. Fiji never liked to leave a hole in a natural landscape. But now that the air currents were gusting down the riverbed and apparently floating up to hit her nose, she was aware, abruptly, that something had died. That something lay very close to where she knelt.

Fiji pushed awkwardly to her feet and stepped closer to the edge. At this point, the undergrowth was significantly thinner than at any other spot. She noted a broken bush, long dead. She looked down. There was only a slight impression of a tire in the dirt; some rain, some wind, had altered it but left its memory intact. So she was fairly sure the bush had been run over.

She held on to a stunted oak while she leaned out to look down the slope to the partially exposed round rocks of the riverbed. At the moment, the river was more of a small stream that burbled its way across the submerged stones, making them even smoother. After a heavy rain, the water speed would be almost frightening, but right now the sight and sound of the river was playful and delightful.

The thing lying close to the streambed was not. Though she was not a fan of CSI shows or detective novels, Fiji knew a decayed corpse when she saw one. And she knew the corpse was human.

Fiji didn’t know whose name to call first. For a fraction of a second, she was tempted to say nothing at all to anyone, but her sizable conscience would not permit it. Though she’d never predicted the future and she’d never been interested in any of the methods used to do so, for this one moment Fiji could see the futures of all the people present changing at this moment, their lives altering as this body toppled all their pursuits in a domino effect, and she was profoundly sorry that hers was the finger pushing the first tile.

“Olivia!” she called. She could not have said why she’d chosen Olivia, but Fiji was confident she’d called the person most competent to deal with death. Instinct at work, she thought.

Olivia had a tortilla chip topped with guacamole in her hand, and she popped it into her mouth as she walked. She looked good-naturedly resigned, as if she were assuming that Fiji would not have anything very interesting to show her or tell her. She stopped by Fiji and looked down the slope at what Fiji had discovered.

There was a long moment of breathless silence. The wind wreaked havoc with Fiji’s curls, while Olivia’s ponytail danced around.

“Fucking hell,” Olivia said. Then, after another moment’s contemplation of the pathetic and grisly sight, she said, “Very f**king hell.”

“Right.”

“I better go down and look closer,” Olivia said.

“Why?”

“Sheer curiosity.” Olivia went effortlessly down the slope, then bent over the body for a few long moments. She straightened, shook her head in a dissatisfied way, and came back up to Fiji in a rush, as if she were getting her cardio in.

“There’s a hole in her sternum,” Olivia said. “I don’t know if it’s a bullet hole or not.”

Fiji had fished her cell phone from her jacket pocket, and for the first time in her life she punched in 911.

“What’s your emergency?” asked a brisk voice.

“I guess this isn’t really an emergency, since it’s clearly been dead quite a while, but we just found a body,” Fiji said steadily.

“Where are you? Have you checked for signs of life?”

“Well, we’re at the big boulder on the Río Roca Fría, having a picnic,” Fiji said. “Though one of us did go down to check, this body has been here for a while. It’s”—a nightmare, a woman, a pile of bone and gristle—“decomposed.”

“You’re sure it was a human being? Not a deer or horse?” The dispatcher sounded skeptical. It was like she didn’t want there to be any problem.

“Not unless deer and horses have started wearing clothes,” Fiji said. “We’ll wait here until someone comes.” She hung up.

“Something wrong, Feej?” Bobo was walking toward her.

That put some starch in her legs. She pulled away from Olivia and stood between Bobo and the cliff. “No,” she said. “No, you don’t come over here.” She picked out the nearest person. “Joe, don’t let anyone come over here,” she called.

Simultaneously, Olivia said, “There’s a body.”

Joe, looking bewildered, nonetheless heaved himself out of his stadium chair and went over to Bobo. He said, “Hey, man, let’s just stay here,” as he took Bobo’s arm. Bobo didn’t struggle, and he didn’t protest. His eyes met Fiji’s, and she knew he was reading the pity in her face. Bobo yanked free of Joe’s grip and inexplicably threw his beer bottle as hard as he could. Fiji watched the arc of white foam marking its trajectory. The bottle hit the ground and broke, and Bobo covered his face with his hands.

After all, there was only one person missing from the county: Aubrey Hamilton.

10

You knew her, I guess,” Manfred said. He’d come to stand by Fiji when Olivia had walked away to explain to everyone what they’d just discovered. “I’ve only heard her name mentioned.”

Together, he and Fiji looked down the gentle slope at the wizened, almost skeletonized, body. It was not white and clean like a laboratory skeleton; far from it. There were disgusting wads of hair around the skull, and tendons stretched like dead vines around the bigger bones. The smaller ones were scattered, some right around the corpse. Flying, walking, all the little predators of the area had come to visit Aubrey Hamilton’s remains. Her shoes were still there, which seemed pathetic. They were—had been—bright Zoot Sports running shoes. When Aubrey had told Fiji how much they cost, Fiji (who bought her shoes at Payless) had almost choked.

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