Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)(9) by Charlaine Harris

That was a whole other train of thought, one whose tracks Bobo didn’t want to follow, at least right now.

So how had they found him? Had they tracked him through some computer trail? Maybe he’d ask Manfred, because his new tenant seemed to know a lot about computers. But Bobo’d have to give Manfred something by way of explanation, and he didn’t know how trustworthy Manfred was, yet. He’d ask Fiji’s opinion. She seemed to “get” people pretty well. From Fiji, it was somehow a natural progression to thinking of Aubrey and how she’d left him.

Acting on an impulse, Bobo went back down the stairs to the store. At night, the store was even darker and more mysterious the farther you got from the front windows. The interior seemed impossibly deep—at least on this floor—and it held more goods than customers expected. At the very back, to the left of the rear door, was a large rectangular storage room. This was where the things that could still be redeemed were kept, the things not yet for sale and on display. He unlocked the padlock on the door and then the dead bolt, and he stepped inside. There were tiers of shelves to his right and left. They were crowded with flat-screen televisions. These were the items people pawned first these days, their televisions. Then came gold jewelry and guns. The guns were all together, the jewelry in a safe bolted to the lowest shelf. At the farthest point of the rectangular room, the west wall, there were no shelves, only a heat and air vent up high. That was where Bobo had stored the boxes of Aubrey’s stuff. He’d envisioned some awkward and painful scenario in which she sent a new boyfriend to pick it up, a person he would not want to take upstairs to the apartment they’d shared. He’d managed to cram all her belongings into seven boxes, and three of those were full of clothes and shoes. Her grandmother’s sewing machine was still upstairs in the apartment, because he couldn’t box it. He’d intended to carry it down and put it in the closet, but somehow he never had.

And no one had ever come to claim her things, so there in the storage room the taped boxes remained. He was sure that someday she’d want her stuff, and she’d tell him where to send it.

It had been an awful long time, though. His faith that he’d hear from her was beginning to fade.

On his optimistic days, Bobo reverted to his first theory: Aubrey had had to rush away in response to a sudden message, and while she was on this mysterious errand, something happened to her, something that prevented her return. She would walk in the door tomorrow, perhaps with a bandage on her head, or in a wheelchair, and explain everything. Though Bobo knew it was foolish to cling to this fantasy, especially as time went by, he did so nonetheless.

On his worst days, Bobo was convinced that some trait of his own had deeply repulsed Aubrey, repulsed her to the point where she’d not even wanted to speak to him again, to the point where leaving all her clothes and jewelry and her grandmother’s sewing machine had been preferable to dealing with him one more time.

He couldn’t see a mirror while he was thinking about this, and that was a good thing. Bobo looked ten years older when he thought about Aubrey.

Bobo knew both his theories were bullshit.

Luckily, the shop bell rang, bringing him out of this valley of conjecture. He stepped out of the storage room, relocking it as he went, and hurried to the front of the pawnshop. A woman in her fifties was at the door, and ignoring the CLOSED sign. She was carrying a stuffed parrot.

Bobo let her in and gave her thirty dollars for the bird. He was fairly certain, from her haste to be rid of it, that the parrot was going to be his for keeps. It would join the others. To Olivia’s amusement, Bobo had accumulated quite a menagerie of deceased creatures. He’d arranged them all tastefully in one corner of the pawnshop, so they had their own little area. Olivia had suggested he rig a tape recorder behind a raccoon, which had been posed rearing on its hind legs with a book in its hand (The Wind in the Willows). She’d had a number of suggestions for remarks the raccoon could make when shoppers were standing in front of it.

Bobo hadn’t gotten that bored yet.

7

Manfred was hunched at his computer, telling a woman in Reno that her husband was uncertain about the location of a wristwatch she’d given him the year before he died—and why the hell was a bereaved widow fixated on finding a damn wristwatch?—when there was a knock on the door.

This was unusual, especially in the morning. Manfred assumed his caller would be Fiji, either bringing him something she’d baked or asking him to attend another wedding—though since the first time she’d visited, Fiji had been careful to call in advance. When he opened the door, he was looking at a woman he’d never seen before. She was in her forties, stout, wearing what Manfred characterized vaguely as an office pantsuit. She had a business card in her fingers.

“Yes?” Manfred said, in a none-too-friendly voice.

“Hi, I’m Shoshanna Whitlock,” the woman said, smiling in a professional way. “Here’s my card.” She thrust it at Manfred, who took it and stared at it.

“A private detective?” he said. “What do you need from me?” Nothing good, he concluded.

“May I come in?” Her chin, which was definitely on the aggressive side, led the way forward, but Manfred didn’t move. She stopped, thwarted in her progress.

“I don’t think so,” Manfred said. “I work at home, and I don’t like to be interrupted.”

“I’ll only take a moment of your time,” she said, her eyes crinkling at the corners with the force of her sincerity. “I just want to ask you a few questions on behalf of my clients. Would it help if I told you that they’re Aubrey Hamilton’s parents?”

“Not at all,” Manfred said, and closed the door.

She hadn’t expected that, either, and he could hear her say, “What the hell?” She didn’t leave right away—no heel thock! against the rock of the porch—so he leaned against the door, half expecting the force of her exasperation to blow it open. After almost a minute, he heard her walking off. He stepped over to the window to watch Shoshanna Whitlock march across the road to Fiji’s cottage.

Perhaps the detective didn’t notice that Fiji’s place was a business, since Fiji’s yard sign was so modest. Ms. Whitlock knocked at the door. Fiji answered it very quickly and stepped out of the door with her purse on her shoulder. Manfred could see her headful of curls bob from side to side as she shook her head. Fiji was saying “no” to something, that was for sure.

The detective kept talking, trying to wear Fiji down, but Fiji was locking the door of her cottage behind her and marching over to her car, parked on the driveway. The older woman stepped briskly after her, her tailored pantsuit, sleek leather purse, and neat shoes a sharp contrast to the permanently disheveled Fiji.

Manfred wondered if he should pop out to run interference. Fiji seemed so flustered . . .

And then the detective got very close to Fiji, who was trying to get into her car. Though Manfred couldn’t see his neighbor’s expression clearly, he saw that her body went rigid with irritation. Fiji’s hand reached out to Whitlock and gripped her shoulder.

The detective froze in place. Her mouth was open, one foot in front of the other to take a forward step. But Whitlock couldn’t take that step; she couldn’t move at all.

Manfred realized his mouth was hanging open, just like Shoshanna Whitlock’s.

Fiji popped into her car and backed out of her driveway, leaving the detective standing in her awkward pose. Manfred was sure Fiji didn’t even glance at the frozen woman again.

“Damn,” said Manfred quietly.

He waited, checking his watch from time to time. For the next five minutes, pigeons could have landed on Shoshanna Whitlock’s head and she would not have been able to do a thing about it. After the five minutes had passed, Whitlock whipped her head from side to side and staggered a little. Then for a while she stood still, obviously unsteady, patting herself as if to make sure all her parts were there and functional. She looked up and down Witch Light Road, clearly at a loss as to how her target had disappeared. Manfred almost smiled as he watched Mr. Snuggly stroll up to give the detective a long stare. Whitlock looked down at the cat and flinched.

Manfred would have given a lot to know what she was seeing.

Maybe Whitlock would be frightened enough to leave Midnight? But no, the detective was made of sterner (or more foolish) stuff. After a minute or two, she regrouped and resumed her march. This time she went to the chapel, which was open, as always. She went inside without knocking. By now nothing would have startled Manfred, so he merely nodded to himself when she ran from the chapel as if a tiger were on her trail.

That proved to be the end of Manfred’s free entertainment. After Shoshanna Whitlock got into her car (parked in front of the pawnshop, Manfred noted), she drove away without looking back. And ten or fifteen minutes later, Fiji returned. She climbed out of her old car, looking around her—presumably to make sure Whitlock was gone—before she walked to the front door, where Mr. Snuggly was waiting for her. The witch and the cat went into the house together.

Though he sat in his office chair and prepared to work, Manfred sat for some time, lost in thought. Until Shoshanna Whitlock’s visit, it had never occurred to him that there was any mystery about Aubrey’s leaving Bobo. In Manfred’s eyes, the only odd thing about it was why any woman would leave a handsome, affable guy like his landlord. He’d only picked up the bare bones of the story: Aubrey Hamilton, Bobo’s live-in girlfriend, had left him. Chuy had promised to tell him about Aubrey someday, but that day hadn’t come around so far.

Now a private detective was asking questions.

Had Shoshanna Whitlock really been who she said she was? Manfred looked down at her card. He’d just ordered his own business cards online. He knew from experience that he could have claimed to be a professional ice skater or John Wilkes Booth and had a card printed to “prove” it. Therefore, he didn’t attach much weight to the printed words on her tastefully simple rectangle. There was a line with her name, then underneath, Texas Investigation Service, which sounded just quasi-official enough to impress a potential witness. Probably the point, Manfred figured. The two lines of type were followed by a phone number. No address.

Briefly, Manfred considered walking next door to Midnight Pawn and handing the card to Bobo. Maybe he ought to give his landlord a heads-up.

But he decided not to, for a cluster of reasons.

He wasn’t sure that whatever the “detective” was after was any of his business. If he saw a good opportunity, he could tell Bobo tomorrow, the day of the picnic. And surely, Fiji would report Whitlock’s mission to Bobo before that. The last thing Manfred wanted to do after this morning was to get in Fiji’s way.

He didn’t think he’d look good as a statue.

8

The next day, the Midnighters assembled behind Midnight Pawn in the residents’ parking lot. When Manfred came out of his house, wearing a light jacket over his T-shirt and with a small backpack over his shoulders, he counted in his head: Olivia, Chuy, Joe, Creek, a boy he hadn’t met, Bobo, Fiji, the Rev, and Teacher from the diner.

“All right, guys ’n’ gals!” Bobo called. “It’s the first Annual Picnic Day! Madonna’s coming over with her truck, so if there’s something you can’t carry, we’ll load it in. We got tables, and some people have already put stadium chairs in there. You can stow your food, too.”

Rasta yipped and looked excited, and everyone laughed. Manfred went over to Creek to meet the kid, who had to be her younger brother. For a fourteen-year-old, he shook hands in a very adult way.

“I’m Connor,” he said. He had dark hair like his sister’s and a smooth oval face like hers. He was already as tall as Creek, and Manfred figured that in the very near future he’d be taller than Manfred himself.

“Where’s your dad?” Manfred asked. “Did he have to mind the store today?”

Creek smiled at him. She didn’t seem to suspect he was prolonging the conversation just to look at her. “Someone had to,” she said. “This is like a treat to us. No working the cash register or stocking shelves! And Connor got to come because there was a teacher in-service training day.”

Looking at her light blue eyes, Manfred felt a decade older than Creek, rather than four years.

“We’ve got a great day for a picnic,” he said, since he had to say something.

Creek raised an eyebrow, a skill Manfred envied.

“Okay,” he admitted, “trite. But true.”

“I love going up to the river,” Connor said. The boy actually looked excited at this mild outing. Living in Midnight must be excruciatingly dull for a kid his age, Manfred thought.

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