Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)(6) by Charlaine Harris

“You got enough, now? Think you can let go?”

“Sorry, fellow,” Lemuel whispered, and the cold hand slid away.

Manfred thought, I feel like a pancake that’s been run over by a tank. He wasn’t sure he could get up and walk out of the restaurant. He decided it would be a sound idea to sit right where he was for a few minutes.

“Drink,” said the sepulchral whisper, and Manfred carefully reached for his glass of water. But the white hand interposed a glass of a dark beverage full of ice. Manfred put it to his lips, discovering the glass contained sweet tea, very sweet tea. Normally he would not have been interested, but suddenly that seemed like exactly what he’d been longing for. He drank the whole thing. When he put down his empty glass, he caught sight of Joe’s startled face.

“Thirsty,” he said brusquely.

“I guess so,” Joe said, looking a little puzzled and concerned.

Manfred felt much better after a moment or two.

“Eat,” whispered Lemuel. Though his hands were still a little shaky, Manfred now finished his dinner completely. His plate was as bare as Chuy’s.

“I got my second wind,” he said sociably to Chuy and Joe (though why he had to cover for Lemuel, he couldn’t have expressed in words). “I think I missed lunch, too. I’m going to have to watch that.”

“I wish skipping meals was my problem,” Joe said, patting his gut. “The older I get, the more my metabolism slows down.”

That sparked a discussion about treadmills that engaged the whole table. Manfred was only obliged to look attentive. He wanted to leave, so he could get back to his house and think about what had just happened—decide if he was angry at Lemuel “borrowing” from him, if he was cool with it, or if he should make an “okay for one time but don’t do it again” speech. At the same time, he was sure he needed to sit for a while longer.

Everyone at the table had finished eating now, and only Bobo ordered coffee. Teacher ordered cherry pie, and at Lemuel’s urging Manfred got the coconut pie. Creek brought it to him. She was as pleasant with him as she was with everyone else—no more. But no less, he told himself.

Well, he hadn’t ever imagined it would be easy to make an impression on her, even though he was the only male close to her age in Midnight. A girl as amazing as Creek would know she had plenty of options just down the road.

And that was what flipped him over to the “cool with it” option about the incident with Lemuel. Creek liked Lemuel well enough to call him “Uncle.” So she wouldn’t be disposed to date anyone who publicly freaked out about Lemuel being an energy-sucking vampire.

Manfred was relieved to find a practical reason for doing what he instinctively felt was the right thing. After all, if you live next door to an apex predator, you shouldn’t go around poking him with a stick.

Fiji rose to depart, and a chorus of protests went up. (This group was as clannish as it was disparate, Manfred thought.) “Guys, I have to get home and feed Mr. Snuggly,” she said, and there was a collective groan. She raised her hands, laughing. “Okay, it’s a silly name, but I inherited the name along with the cat,” she said. “I think he’s gonna live forever.”

Bobo, Chuy, and Joe began a mild argument about how long Mildred Loeffler had owned Mr. Snuggly before she passed away. Fiji lingered long enough to chip in some solid information. The vet’s records indicated that Mr. Snuggly had lived with Mildred for a year before her demise, that he had been a kitten when Aunt Mildred had taken him in for his first shots; that set the cat’s age at four years. “So Mr. Snuggly’s in the prime of his life,” she finished, and putting a careful ten dollars by her plate, she left.

There seemed to be no moon that night. The plate glass windows were filled with blackness. “Should I walk back with her?” Manfred asked in a low voice. “Or would that be, you know, sexist?”

“That would be sexist,” Olivia said. She smiled around the table. “But I’ll step outside to watch until she gets to her house.”

Manfred didn’t believe for one minute that Olivia’s real purpose was to ensure Fiji’s safe journey back to her cottage. Fiji was safe, and Olivia knew it. Manfred was sure Olivia was going to the door to examine the two strangers more closely.

What a complicated evening it had turned out to be. “Is every evening here like this?” he asked Lemuel.

“Oh, no, never before,” Lemuel said. He seemed quite serious.

Joe and Chuy had been arguing over whose turn it was to walk Rasta, whom they’d left at home, so they didn’t hear Lemuel’s remark. But Bobo looked at him quizzically. “Something wrong?” he asked.

“Don’t worry,” Lemuel said. He smiled at Bobo. Most people would have found this terrifying, but Bobo smiled back, perfect white teeth flashing in a tan face. Bobo would be comfortably handsome the rest of his life, Manfred realized, and tried not to be envious.

The Rev made a silent departure, leaving his plate quite clean and not waving good-bye to anyone. As he passed Olivia at the door, he patted her shoulder. Olivia did not speak, nor did he. After she’d stood in the doorway for approximately the time it would take for a woman to get to her cottage after crossing the Davy highway, Olivia returned to the table.

The two men by the door had eaten all their pie and drunk all their coffee. Creek had come by the table twice to see if they needed anything else, and she’d left the bill between them on her second pass. Still the two were exchanging idle comments, as if they’d realized they had to justify their presence at the table.

Finally, Madonna came out of the kitchen and rang the bell on the counter. “Guys and gals, I love being a social center for this little town, but I need to get Grady and Teacher home, and I need to watch me some television. So you all clear out and let us close up.”

You can’t get any more straightforward than that, Manfred thought.

Those who hadn’t paid got out their wallets. Manfred noticed that the two strangers paid Creek in cash before they slipped out the door, watched closely by Olivia, Lemuel, and Manfred.

“They’re all wrong,” Manfred said to Lemuel. He watched as Olivia left the diner by herself, moving quickly and neatly.

Lemuel’s snow-slush eyes regarded him briefly. “Yes, young man, they are.” Madonna was standing by Teacher, holding Grady, who was heavy-eyed. Lemuel rose and stepped away to pat the baby on the head. Grady didn’t seem to mind Lemuel’s chilly touch; a pat on the head and a smile was all it took to make the baby gleeful. He stretched out a little hand to Lemuel, who bent to give it a quick kiss. Grady waved his arms enthusiastically. Lemuel drifted closer to the door. Though Manfred hadn’t noticed Madonna and Grady tense at Lemuel’s attentions, he did notice when they relaxed.

Abruptly, Manfred felt foolish. Why had he been so concerned? Two men he’d never seen had eaten in a restaurant and lingered in a somewhat odd way. Lemuel had held his hand. Why should he worry about either of those things?

As Manfred rose to take his own departure, a bit shakily, he thought about his sudden change in attitude. Had his physical proximity to Lemuel affected his judgment? Was his reversion to “everything is probably okay” a valid viewpoint or some kind of mild euphoria induced by Lemuel’s leeching?

Lemuel turned to give Manfred one last enigmatic look before he left the Home Cookin Restaurant.

Bobo, exchanging good nights with Joe and Chuy, seemed oblivious to any undercurrent in the evening . . . and so did the rest of the Midnight people. The strangers had (Manfred assumed) piled into their pickup and driven off, never to be seen again. But as Manfred walked past the area between his house and the pawnshop, he saw that the anonymous silver car was gone.

He suspected strongly that Olivia Charity was following the strangers.

And he thought, It would be interesting to know why they were here. And why Lemuel is different from other bloodsuckers. And—who’s Aubrey?

Then Manfred reminded himself that he was here to work, and to work hard. He was planning for his future. The problems of these people were not his problems.

But he thought about those people until he went to sleep that night, all the same.

4

Two mornings after that, Fiji sat on her small back porch, looking at the herb garden with some satisfaction. She’d put in an hour’s work this morning before breakfast, and she felt satisfyingly relaxed and pleased with her labors. She was wearing her oldest jeans and a torn sweatshirt stained with the results of a long-ago painting project, its sleeves hacked off to elbow length. In her stadium chair, her feet propped up on her weeding stool, Fiji was utterly comfortable. She had a big mug of tea and a blueberry scone on the little table beside her.

This was as good as it got, and she had a whole hour and a half before the shop opened to enjoy it.

If she hadn’t felt so content and comfortable, she’d have gone in to get her camera to take a picture of the cat. Mr. Snuggly was curled picturesquely on a flat paving stone. The slanted morning sun warmed his striped orange fur to show up golden against the green of the plants and the dark brown of the stone.

She couldn’t be bothered to get up. She took a mental picture, to hold forever. She surveyed the pile of weeds with some satisfaction. “I’m just amazing,” she told Mr. Snuggly, who looked up at her without moving his head.

“Yes, you are,” said Bobo, and Fiji jumped and made a sound like “Eeep!”

“Sorry,” he said, his smile dazzling. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I knocked on the shop door, but when you didn’t answer, I figured you were back here. Want me to go away?”

Fiji never wanted Bobo to go away. Keeping him from knowing how much she craved his company was her problem, not how to get rid of him. “No, fine, come sit,” she said, mortified at how lame she sounded. “Want a cup of tea? A scone?” She had had plans for the second scone, but she would gladly give it to Bobo. Maybe not the one sitting on her plate, but the second one . . . sure.

“That would be great, if you have extra,” he said hopefully, and took the second chair after Fiji removed her gardening gloves from the seat. Once inside, Fiji flew around her little kitchen. It only took a moment to prepare his tea and to arrange his scone on a little plate with a pat of margarine and a knife to spread it.

“You do everything nice,” Bobo said, looking at the pale green cup and dish.

Fiji glanced down at her paint-stained sweatshirt. “Not everything,” she muttered.

Her guest took a big sip of his tea and a bite of the scone. “How’s your house?” he asked, after he’d had a good look at the garden and the cat, appreciating both. “You need anything fixed?”

He’s so damn nice, she thought. Why didn’t I get a fixation on a plain man?

She scoured her mind for some fix-it job for Bobo. “The Formica on my kitchen counter,” she said. “There’s like a strip around the edge of the counter? And it’s getting loose at one end. Probably you just glue it back on, right? With superglue?”

Bobo brightened. “Hot glue would be better. Got a hot glue gun?”

“I don’t think so,” Fiji said. “I’m not too crafty.” In any sense, she thought, with some regret.

“I’ll bring mine over,” he said. “I have to track it down. I’ll call.”

“That’s well worth the scone.” She made herself relax, tilting her head back and closing her eyes. She had to teach herself not to tense up when Bobo was around. “I’m so glad it’s cooling off in the daytime. At least a smidgen. You know what we ought to do? We ought to plan a citywide picnic day, now that it’s slightly less brutal weather.”

“Citywide?”

“Yes.” Fiji was firm. “Townwide sounds too podunk; hamletwide sounds too precious. Everyone in Midnight, even the Rev, should come. We’ll all bring some food, walk over to the Río Roca Fría, and have a fall picnic. The restaurant is closed on Monday. So are the pawnshop and the salon. A potluck picnic would be fun.”

“You think Shawn and Creek and Connor would come? Shawn’s open every day.”

“Surely Shawn could do without Creek for a couple of hours, and Connor could get out of school a little early? Or maybe Teacher would stay at the gas station. There’s not ever a time when everyone is off work. I thought about Sunday, but that’s Madonna’s big day at Home Cookin, and Rev would never come then, though his service is over early. Starts at nine thirty, but he’s usually done in half an hour.”

“He has a church service? Where?”

“In the chapel,” she said, astonished that no one else in Midnight seemed to have learned this. “Where else? He has a nondenominational service in there every Sunday morning.”

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