Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)(5) by Charlaine Harris

“How are you going with your box schedule?” Bobo asked Manfred. “Still opening three a day?” He was smiling a nice warm smile, but Manfred knew that Bobo was not a happy man in his heart.

“I have a day left,” Manfred said. (He’d realized long ago that most often you had to react to what was on the surface.) “Then I’ll be done. My bad luck that all my files and paper stuff must be in one of the last three boxes.”

“You don’t go by what’s in them?” Joe said. Creek was smiling, just a little, to Manfred’s pleasure.

“Nope. I just open the next three boxes in the stack,” Manfred confessed. He could read the complex of thoughts on Fiji’s face: She had the impulse to tell him she would have helped; she had the awareness he didn’t need or want her help; she made the decision to keep her mouth shut.

His grandmother had taught him how to read faces, and because of his natural aptitude, it hadn’t taken long to develop his skills. While Fiji was an easy subject, and Bobo, too, Creek had depths and undercurrents. Joe and Chuy registered as agreeable and warm, but reserved. Lemuel was as opaque as a wall. Manfred struggled not to turn to his right to stare at his new acquaintance.

Lemuel, meantime, seemed just as interested in Manfred as Manfred was in him. He stared at Manfred’s eyebrow, the one that had so many rings in it that the hair was hard to see. Since a few of Manfred’s tattoos were visible in his short-sleeved T-shirt, Lemuel spent some time examining those, too. Manfred’s right arm was decorated with a large ankh, and his left with a lightning bolt, his newest embellishment.

“Did that hurt?” Lemuel asked Manfred when the conversation about the weather and Manfred’s move had been exhausted.

“Absolutely,” Manfred said.

“Did you need to get ’em for your job, or you just like ’em?” The pale gray eyes in the snow-white face were fixed on him with curiosity.

“A combination,” Manfred said. He felt compelled to be honest. “They’re not exactly necessary for my job, but they make me stand out more, seem more interesting and alien, to the people who hire me. I’m not just another smooth con man in a suit.” It felt strange to be telling so much truth.

Lemuel waited, obviously aware he’d not gotten the whole answer. Manfred felt like he’d lost the brakes on his conversational car as he continued, “But I did pick symbols I liked, ones that had a personal meaning. No point in getting tattooed with dolphins and rainbows.”

From Fiji’s sudden, deep flush, Manfred was sure she had a little dolphin tattooed somewhere and that she had felt very dashing at getting inked. He liked the witch a lot, but he couldn’t seem to avoid stepping on her toes.

To Manfred’s relief, Creek came to take their order, and not only did he get to break eye contact with Lemuel, he got to look at Creek some more: a win-win situation.

Like everyone else, he glanced at the door when the bell tinkled.

Olivia Charity had arrived. It was interesting, when Manfred thought about it later, the difference between Olivia’s entrance and Lemuel’s. Or maybe it was not the entrance that made the difference—both of them had just walked in, no posing, no attitude. It was the reaction of the Home Cookin patrons. When Lemuel had joined them, wildness and death had walked in the door, though the drama inherent in that statement made Manfred uncomfortable. When Olivia stepped inside, it was sort of like the first appearance of Lauren Bacall in an old movie. You knew someone amazing and interesting had entered the room, and you knew she didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Olivia registered everyone in the diner as she strode to the round table. Manfred didn’t think she missed a thing. As she took the chair opposite him, the one between Chuy and Teacher, he stared. It was the first time he’d seen her up close. Her hair was a reddish brown, almost auburn, but he suspected that was not her natural color. Her eyes were green, and he was sure they were colored by contact lenses. She was wearing ripped jeans and a brown leather bomber jacket that looked as soft as a baby’s cheek, and underneath it she wore an olive green T-shirt. No jewelry today.

“You’re the new guy, right?” she said. “Manfred?” Her voice was not a western voice; if he’d had to guess, he’d have said Oregon or California.

“Yep. You must be Olivia,” Manfred said. “We’re next-door neighbors.”

She smiled and immediately looked five years younger. Before the smile, Manfred would have estimated her age at maybe thirty-six, but she was not that old, not at all. “Midnight is so small that everyone here is a neighbor,” she said, “even the Rev.” She inclined her head toward the old man, who had not turned to look to see who had come in.

“I’ve never talked to him.” Manfred glanced at the Rev. The small man had put his big hat on the other side of his table while he ate, and the overhead lights glinted off his scalp. But there were only a few strands of gray in the remaining hair.

“You may never talk to him,” she said. “He likes to keep his thoughts and words to himself.” And because Manfred was watching Olivia so closely, he noticed that while her head was turned in the Rev’s direction, she was actually looking at the two men by the door. Then she glanced at Lemuel. Their eyes met, and she gave a tiny tilt of her head in the direction of the strangers’ table.

The strangers were studiously minding their own business, but in a way that seemed a little too obvious to Manfred.

Creek hustled out of the kitchen then. “Sorry, Olivia, I was getting another meat loaf out of the oven,” the girl said. While Olivia was choosing her food, Manfred realized that while everyone else at the table had ordered, Creek had not asked for Lemuel’s selection. Manfred opened his mouth to say something about the omission, then thought the better of it. Lemuel would speak up if he wanted something. Manfred was fairly sure Lemuel did not eat, anyway.

It wasn’t long before Madonna and Creek brought out the plates. Teacher had finished feeding Grady some plums from a Gerber jar, and he handed the child over to Madonna, who carried him off into the kitchen while the people of Midnight enjoyed their meal. Manfred, who had never been too particular about food, was deeply impressed with Madonna’s cooking. After a lot of meals spent by himself, he actually enjoyed passing salt and pepper, butter, and rolls. The flurry of little activities that constituted a communal meal felt pleasant.

He also liked watching Creek move around the room, though he warned himself not to look at her too often. He didn’t want to be creepy.

Olivia talked about an earthquake in East Texas, Fiji commented on how late the county garbage truck had been this past week, and Bobo told them a man had come in the afternoon before, trying to pawn a toilet. A used one.

Because he was curious about the two strangers, Manfred cast a glance in their direction several times during the meal. Since he was facing their table, he could do that without being obvious. They had ordered coffee and dessert (cherry pie or coconut cream pie), and they were lingering. In Manfred’s experience, silent men didn’t dawdle over food. Talking women might, talking men maybe. Silent men paid and left.

“They’re watching someone here, or they’re waiting for something to happen,” he murmured.

“Yes, but which?” Lemuel replied, in a voice so low it was almost inaudible.

Manfred hadn’t been aware he was speaking out loud, and he had to check his startle reflex. He choked on a bite of yeast roll, and Lemuel offered him a drink of water, his eyes distantly amused.

Everyone at the table tried to look away discreetly while Manfred recovered himself. It was a relief when he could say, “Went down wrong. Fine in a second!” so they could all relax and resume their conversations. A cold hand against the back of his neck was a help, oddly, and the fact that Creek looked concerned as she carried the empty bread basket back to the kitchen.

Yeah, Manfred thought. ’Cause choking guys look soooo cool.

“What do you think?” Lemuel said, in the voice that nearly wasn’t there.

Manfred turned his head a little to look into the eyes that were exactly the color of—wait, he nearly had it—the color of snow and ice melting over asphalt, a cold gray. “I thought they must be watching you or Olivia,” he said, though he couldn’t get as close to silent as the creature next to him. He managed well enough that Joe (to his left) didn’t hear him but kept up his conversation with Chuy about Chuy’s cousin’s upcoming visit.

“That’s what I thought, too,” said Lemuel. “Which one of us is the target, do you reckon?”

“Neither,” Manfred said, in a normal voice, and then hastily looked away and brought his volume down to extra-low. “They’re watching Bobo. They’re interested in you and Olivia because you’re his tenants.”

Lemuel did not reply. Manfred was sure he was chewing over this idea, seeing if it could be digested.

“Because of Aubrey, maybe,” Lemuel said, just when Manfred was sure the topic was concluded.

“Who’s Aubrey?” Manfred asked blankly.

“Not now,” Lemuel said. He tilted his head very slightly toward Bobo. “Some later time.”

Manfred patted his lips with his napkin and put it by his plate, which was still half full. He’d eaten enough. He wondered if Lemuel would suddenly pounce on the two strangers and kill them in some horrific way. Or maybe Madonna would charge out of the kitchen with a cleaver in her hand and fall upon them.

It seemed possible in Midnight.

“Ridiculous,” he muttered.

“What?” said Chuy, across Joe.

“The amount I’ve eaten is ridiculous,” Manfred said. “You’d think I was a starving dog.” Too late, he noticed his half-full plate contrasted with Chuy’s empty one.

Chuy laughed. “I always figure if I only eat here two or three times a week and I’m careful all my other meals, I’m okay,” he said. “And you’d be surprised how many times I have to lift things in the store . . . plus, taking turns with Joe walking the dog, and doing yard work. I keep telling myself I need to start jogging, but Rasta won’t pick up the pace when we’re out.” And Chuy was off and running . . . about the dog.

Once Rasta was the topic of conversation, Manfred didn’t have to say a word. He’d observed that a small percentage of pet owners are simply silly about their pets, especially the owners who don’t have human kids in residence. Part of that silliness lay in assuming other people would find stories about the pet as fascinating as the owner did. But (Manfred had always figured) there were a lot worse things to make false assumptions about.

For example, he found it far more pleasant to think about a little fluffy dog than to wonder what two strangers were doing at Home Cookin. Two lurking strangers. And it was far better to consider Rasta’s history of constipation than the cold hand gripping his own under the table. When Joe turned to ask Chuy a question about a television show they’d watched, Manfred was left alone with his acute anxiety.

He didn’t want to offend the terrifying Lemuel, but he wasn’t used to holding hands with a guy. Manfred liked to think of himself as cool and comfortable with all sexual orientations, but the grip Lemuel had on his fingers was hard to interpret. It was not a caress, but it didn’t seem like a restraint, either.

So Manfred took a sip of his water left-handed and hoped his face wasn’t all weird.

“Manfred,” Fiji said, “do you watch a lot of television?”

She was trying, very kindly, to draw him back into the conversation, since Joe and Chuy had transitioned from the dog’s bowels to an argument about Survivor with Teacher.

“I have one,” Manfred said.

Even Olivia laughed, though Manfred noticed that while he’d been preoccupied with Lemuel, she’d edged her chair out from the table, perhaps so she could rise quickly. She’d also told Joe and Chuy she sided with Teacher on the Survivor issue (whatever it was), and she’d angled her chair to align with Teacher’s, so she could see the men by the door without turning her head too much.

“She has a gun,” Lemuel said in that voice that was audible to Manfred alone.

“I figured,” Manfred said. He was feeling unaccountably tired. Suddenly he figured it out. “You leeching?”

“I’m sorry, yes.” Lemuel turned his head to look at Manfred. His flaxen hair brushed his collar. “I am a bit unusual.”

“No shit,” Manfred muttered.

Lemuel smiled. “Absolutely none.”

“Don’t they have a bottle of blood here for you? Wouldn’t that help?”

“I can’t tolerate the synthetics. They come up as fast as they go down. I can drink the real stuff in any method of delivery. Energy is just as good.”

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