Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)(4) by Charlaine Harris

As the electronic chime sounded and the door swung shut behind them, Manfred looked to his right. The two tables for two by the front window were occupied, and one of the four booths on the west wall. Reverend Emilio Sheehan (the Rev) sat by himself at his usual table, not the one next to the door but the second one. And his back was to the entrance, a placement that practically screamed “leave me alone.” This evening he had brought a Bible to read. It lay open on the table before him. Two men, not natives of Midnight, were at the table closest to the door. They were preoccupied with their drinks and menus.

Though Manfred was sure he hadn’t met all the townspeople, he knew the family sitting in the U-shaped booth was also just passing through. The four of them looked too . . . too shiny to be residents. Mama had subtly streaked hair, breast implants, and expensive-casual slacks and sweater. Dad was wearing rich-rancher clothes (gleaming leather boots and a pristine cowboy hat). The kids—a boy about three or four, a girl maybe two years older—were looking around them for something to do.

“Excuse me!” the mother called to Madonna, who was pouring tea for Chuy. “Do you have some colors or games for the children?”

Madonna turned to regard her with astonishment. “No,” she said. After she put the tea up on the counter, she vanished into the kitchen.

The mom gave the dad a significant look, as if to say, I don’t like this, but I’m not going to rile the natives. Manfred deduced it was some planning error on the dad’s part that had led to this unlikely family eating dinner at Home Cookin. He did not think the dad was going to get to forget about it for a couple of days. However, the family cheered up when Madonna brought out their dinner plates on a huge tray. The food looked good and smelled wonderful. Madonna had help tonight: Manfred caught a glimpse of someone moving around in the kitchen when the swinging doors were open. As the family began to eat, the restaurant grew quieter.

Manfred and Fiji had taken seats at the big round table—he in the same chair he’d had before, facing the front door, and Fiji by the man holding the baby, with an empty chair or two between her and Manfred. Maybe she was more steamed about his selling-spells remark than he’d thought. Joe and Chuy said hello to Manfred, but they could hardly wait to tell Fiji about a woman who’d brought in an old book for Joe to look at. Manfred gathered that the book was an account of witches in Texas in the early part of the twentieth century.

Madonna’s man was putting a bib on the baby and seemed pretty busy with the process, so Manfred put off introducing himself. While he waited, he evaluated the newcomers by the door. The two strangers at the small table fit in a bit better than the affluent family. They were both wearing worn jeans and T-shirts. Their boots were scuffed. The taller of the two, a dark-haired man, was wearing an open plaid sport shirt over his tee. His beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. The smaller man had medium brown hair; he was clean-shaven. Manfred set them in their early thirties.

The opening of the two swinging doors into the kitchen attracted Manfred’s gaze. He only had to turn his head to the right to see the girl who emerged from the kitchen carrying two salads. Manfred’s attention was instantly riveted. His eyes followed her as she crossed the room to the two men by the door. She set the salads in front of them, returned to the counter to get two packages of dressing, and took the packages back to the table along with a basket of crackers. Manfred knew the people at his table were talking, but they might as well have been making paper chains for all he knew.

Fiji was talking baby talk to the child, so Manfred leaned to his left. “Chuy, excuse me. Who’s that? The girl serving?”

After a moment, it dawned on Manfred that the conversation at his table had stopped. He looked at Chuy, beside him, then at Fiji, Joe, and the dark man with the baby. They were all regarding him with some amusement.

“That’s Creek Lovell,” Chuy said, his grin broadening.

“Her dad owns the Gas N Go on the other corner,” Fiji said. “By the way—Manfred, meet Teacher.” She nodded at the dark man.

“Good to meet you. How’s the little . . .” And he stopped dead. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember if the baby was a boy or girl. “Grady!” he said triumphantly.

“Good save, man,” Teacher said. “Till you have ’em, they’re hardly top of your list. Yeah, this is Grady, he’s eight months old, and I do handyman work. So if you need some home repairs, give me a call.”

“Teacher can do anything,” Joe said. “Plumbing, electric, carpentry.”

“Thank you, my friend,” Teacher said, with a blinding smile. “Yes, I’m a handy guy to have around. I help Madonna out here, and every now and then I work for Shawn Lovell over at the gas station, when he just has to have a night off. And I fill in for Bobo, too. Call me if you need me.” He fished a card out of his pocket and slid it across the table to Manfred, who pocketed it.

“I’m not good with anything but the most basic hammer jobs myself, so I’ll be doing that,” Manfred said, and then reverted to a more interesting topic. “So, how old is Creek?” he asked. His attempt to sound casual was a dismal failure; even he knew that.

Joe laughed. “Not old enough,” he said. “Or, wait, maybe she is. Yeah, she graduated from high school last May. We gave her a gift certificate to Bed Bath and Beyond, so she could get stuff for her dorm room. But apparently she’s not going to college, at least not this semester. You know why, Fiji?”

Fiji’s forehead wrinkled. “Something was wrong with their loan application, I think,” she said, shaking her head. “Something didn’t come through with the financing. She’s still hoping that’ll get straightened out, even if her dad’s lukewarm about her leaving. I feel bad for Creek; she didn’t go to college, her puppy got killed, and her dad watches every move those kids make. A girl as young and smart as Creek doesn’t need to be hanging around Midnight.”

“True,” Manfred said. Though height was not a major issue with Manfred, he was pleased to note that Creek was at least two inches shorter than he was. Her black hair was just down past her jawline, all one length, and it swung forward and backward with every step she took. Her skin was apparently poreless and clear, her eyebrows smooth dark strokes, her eyes light blue.

She was not really thin. She was not really curvy. She was just right.

“A word to the wise,” Chuy said. “Don’t let Shawn see you looking at his baby girl that way. He takes his job as her dad pretty seriously.” All the men at the table were smiling, and even Fiji looked amused.

“Of course he does,” Manfred said, breaking himself out of his trance. “And I don’t mean any disrespect,” he added. Was it disrespectful to hope someday he would be na**d with Creek Lovell? And was it even more disrespectful to pray that it would be sooner rather than later?

“How old are you?” Joe asked.

“Twenty-two.” Almost twenty-three, and it felt strange to try to minimize his age, rather than stretch it.

“Oh.” Joe digested that. “You’re closer to her age than anyone in town.” He met his partner’s eye. Chuy shrugged. “May be a good thing,” he said. “Manfred, keep in the front of your mind the fact that all of us like the girl and none of us want her hurt.”

“It’s at the top of my list,” Manfred said, which was not completely true. The way she walked, smooth and even, that was at the top of his list of things he noted about Creek Lovell. He reminded himself that she could have attended her senior prom only months ago . . . which went some way to quell the involuntary physical reaction he had when he watched her cross the room. Some way.

It was not quite full dark outside, and the family of outsiders had finished their meat loaf and fried chicken. The little girl was beginning to pick on her younger sibling, and the mom was casting desperate looks toward the kitchen. Madonna was cooking, to judge from the sounds of pots and pans and the sizzle of frying, and Creek hurried out with the plates for the two men sitting together. She put them down, gave the men an impersonal smile, and scurried over to the booth to take the payment tucked into the black plastic folder the dad was extending.

Just after the sun set, the bell over the door chimed as Bobo walked in with a man Manfred had never seen. As Manfred had noted before, his landlord was lucky enough to have a pleasing color palette; his hair was golden blond, his eyes were bright blue, his skin was a golden dusky tan. And he was tall, robust. His companion was more like—Bobo bleached and dried and shrunken. Instead of blond, his hair was platinum: the same shade as Manfred’s, but the newcomer’s hair was natural. His eyes were a pale, pale gray. His skin was . . .

“White as snow,” Manfred whispered, remembering the old fairy tale Xylda had read to him. “His skin was white as snow.”

Joe glanced at Manfred and nodded. “Be cool,” he said, very quietly. “That’s Lemuel.”

Manfred planned on being cool as cool could be, since he wasn’t sure exactly what Lemuel was—but no one had given Nice Normal Family the same memo. The children fell silent as the newcomer glanced around the room. He smiled at the children, who looked terrified. At least they were too frightened to speak, which was almost certainly a good thing. The two visitors kept their eyes down on their plates after a quick glance upward, and they very deliberately did not look up.

The Rev didn’t even stop reading his Bible.

“This is beyond weird,” Manfred said in a voice no louder than a whisper, but the bleached man looked at him with a smile.

Good God, Manfred thought. He had a ridiculous impulse to jump to his feet and interpose himself between the bleached man and Creek Lovell, but it was really fortunate he didn’t act on that. Creek returned with the family’s change, and after she placed it on their table, she flung her arms around the bleached man’s neck—which Manfred wouldn’t have done for any amount of money—and said, “I haven’t seen you in so long, Uncle Lemuel! How are you?”

Released from their table by Creek’s return, the mom and dad gathered all their belongings and shepherded the two kids, still openmouthed and staring, out the door of the Home Cookin Restaurant as quickly as possible. Manfred followed them with his eyes. Once outside, the mom stood on one side of the car, gripping the daughter’s hand, the dad on the other side with the boy in his arms. They spoke to each other briefly and intensely across the hood of the car before piling in and speeding away.

“Uncle” Lemuel (if he was Creek’s uncle, Manfred was an insurance salesman) gingerly embraced the girl and gave her a kiss on the hair. Lemuel was not any taller than Manfred, and even more slightly built, but his presence was bigger than his body. The eye could not pass over Lemuel; it was caught and fascinated. Manfred thought, I could have skipped getting all this body art if I’d dyed myself dead white, but he knew that he was simplifying.

The two strangers by the window had finally looked up now that Lemuel’s back was to them. They looked determined not to flee or flinch. The scene seemed frozen for a long moment, and then Lemuel’s eyes met Manfred’s and held. It was like being fixed in place by an icicle.

Bobo started forward, gently nudging his companion, and the connection was broken. Thank God, Manfred thought, an acknowledgment he didn’t make very often.

In seconds Bobo and Lemuel had seated themselves, Lemuel at Manfred’s right and Bobo in the seat between Lemuel and Fiji. I can almost feel the cold coming off him, Manfred thought, and turned to look welcoming. He registered that the girl Creek had hustled over to ask the two men by the door if they needed anything, before pausing by the Rev’s table. After that, she buzzed over to find out what Bobo would like to drink, and Manfred got to enjoy her nearness, but his pleasure was muted by Lemuel’s proximity.

After opting for sweetened iced tea, Bobo said, “Lemuel, meet the newest guy in town. Manfred Bernardo, meet my basement tenant, Lemuel Bridger.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Manfred said, extending his hand. After a slight pause, Lemuel Bridger gripped it. An icy chill ran up Manfred’s arm. He had to fight an impulse to yank his hand from Lemuel’s and cringe back in his chair. Out of sheer pride, Manfred managed to smile. “Have you lived here long, Lemuel?”

“Almost forever,” the pale man answered. His eyes were fixed on Manfred, intense with interest. “A real long time.”

His voice was not anything like Manfred had expected. It was deep and rough, and Lemuel’s accent was just a bit unfamiliar. It was definitely a western accent, but it was like a western accent interpreted by someone from another country. Manfred was on the verge of asking Lemuel if he’d been born in America, when he remembered that asking personal questions was not the style in Midnight—and he’d already asked one. Lemuel released his hand and Manfred lowered it into his lap casually, hoping the feeling would come back soon.

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