Authors: Charlaine Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy
It was a profound relief, in many ways, to see the car pull onto Witch Light Road. Kiki turned south at the light, and Fiji hoped she was on her way back to Houston.
asta ran away that afternoon. The little Peke had been acting oddly the past few days, growling at nothing and barking at shadows. Despite all the extra petting and reassurances Joe and Chuy lavished on the dog, his atypical behavior accelerated. Rasta refused to go for his walk on the Midnight streets; he tugged and tugged until Joe or Chuy took him out behind the shop.
The two men were baffled. Rasta had always enjoyed visiting the other people of Midnight, who often had dog treats to offer him. (Though the hospitable Fiji was not on Rasta’s visiting list, because Mr. Snuggly would seldom permit Rasta to come into the yard.) The hotel residents had quickly become favorites, but now Joe could not even drag Rasta over to see them.
The morning Kiki drove away, Chuy had to carry the dog down the steps from the apartment and then turn left instantly to take Rasta into the backyard, which they’d never succeeded in turning green. As soon as Rasta was empty, he’d demanded to be picked up again. After a windy and chilly morning had passed, Joe opened the door of the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon, intending to sweep off the sidewalk.
To Joe’s shock and astonishment, Rasta suddenly darted out past him. Hampered by the broom, Joe could not lunge fast enough to stop the Peke. No one else witnessed Rasta’s mad dash, even Chuy, who was upstairs in their apartment doing ten minutes’ prep work for their evening meal.
The little brown streak dashed east, sprinting without pause across the Davy highway—thankfully, he wasn’t hit by the pickup truck slowing to a stop at the light—continuing past the pawn shop (unseen by Bobo, whose attention was on the computer) and passing Manfred’s house at only a slightly reduced speed. Manfred happened to be collecting his previous days’ mail. He dropped the bundle of envelopes and started his pursuit.
“Rasta!” he bellowed.
Rasta, perhaps not in his right mind, did not stop. But the Peke’s little legs were tiring, and he was gradually slowing down. Rasta didn’t seem to be aware that Manfred was closing in behind him. Manfred staked everything on a flying forward tackle. He landed on the hard ground with a bone-jarring, tooth-rattling thud, but he had his hands around Rasta.
The dog bit him.
Manfred said, “Shit!” And then he said it several more times. But he didn’t let go, which he thought was quite noble, especially since he’d never had a pet as a child. He was content to lie in the dirt for a second, listening to Rasta pant and whine and yip and snap.
Manfred was relieved to hear Joe pounding up.
“Rasta,” Joe said, “BAD BOY!” Joe was a regular runner, so he wasn’t as winded as the dog and Manfred, but since Joe’d gone from zero to warp speed, he was doing a little gasping of his own.
“Can you take him, so I can get up?” Manfred said, still feeling noble.
“You’re bleeding,” Joe said. He squatted and took the Peke, holding him to his chest while all three of them recovered.
“Yeah, well.” Manfred rolled onto his stomach and then pushed up, trying not to be obvious as he inspected his hand.
“What’s the blood from?” Joe asked anxiously. He was inspecting the dog for any sign of harm, and Rasta was trembling.
“He bit me,” Manfred said bluntly.
“No!” Joe was clearly shocked to the core. “Not Rasta!”
Manfred looked down at himself. He was literally covered in dust. (It hadn’t rained in three weeks.) “Yeah,
,” he said. “I hardly bit myself!” Then he was ashamed of being so put out. “Sorry, man, but it was him,” he said in a more civil tone. “He just seemed terrified. Something scare him?”
“No,” Joe said, bewildered. “He’s been jumpy lately, but he hasn’t been scared by anything or anybody. In fact, we were happy that he’d finally gotten used to Diederik. They’re big buddies now.”
Chuy arrived at as fast a pace as Joe had. “I saw out the upstairs window. What happened?” he said, and the whole event had to be gone over again. “Manfred, I’m so sorry you’re hurt. But thanks, thanks so much.”
“It’s the crossroad,” Chuy said, turning to his partner. “Joe, we’re going to have to board him with Dr. Tappet until this is over.”
Manfred’s hand was throbbing. He didn’t want to be pouty or whiny, but he was not really concerned with the dog’s neurosis just at this moment. At least he could be confident that Rasta’s shots were all completely up-to-date, since Rasta was a regular visitor to his vet, Dr. Tappet, in Davy.
“Well,” Manfred said stiffly, “I’m just going to go home and clean this up. And just for the record, I’m tired of tackling suicidal creatures.”
“We’re so sorry,” Chuy said again, looking a little confused. “Thanks for taking off after him like that. We appreciate it, Manfred.”
“You’re welcome,” Manfred said, waving his good hand weakly. He began making his way back to his own house. To his surprise and chagrin, the combination of the spurt of adrenaline, hitting the ground hard, and the bite was making him feel the tiniest bit shaky. He looked forward to shutting the door on the world and acting like a great big wuss.
He was not best pleased to see Olivia waiting.
“I saw you take off after the dog,” she said. “Figured you could use some help. It’s kind of a shock, isn’t it? Being bitten? You expect it from a wild animal, but when it’s a critter you trust . . .”
Manfred was even more ashamed when he became almost soppy with gratitude that someone understood and was worried about him, just as Joe and Chuy were worried about Rasta.
He stifled the gratitude in its birth and said, “Great,” far too gruffly. Fortunately, Olivia didn’t take offense. If he’d had the energy to be surprised, he would have been astonished at her outfit. Olivia was still in sleep pants and a T-shirt. “All you need is a teddy bear,” he said.
She laughed, a sound he seldom heard from the fearsome Olivia Charity. “I was up late last night, making sure that Kiki Cavanaugh didn’t commit suicide,” she said.
“I don’t even want to know about that. At least I didn’t have to run after her and tackle her.” At the last minute, he suppressed a natural tendency to express surprise that Olivia had been involved in saving a life, rather than taking it. It didn’t seem likely to him that Olivia had actually liked Kiki. She didn’t care for outsiders, as a rule, and Kiki was not a Midnight sort of person.
Other than the fact that Olivia killed people, she was just an ordinary Midnighter.
Other than that.
He began laughing.
When Manfred was sitting in his kitchen and Olivia was looking over his scant first-aid stock, he asked the question that everyone in town was chewing over. “When do you think Lemuel will find out what’s happening?” he said.
“We all want to know,” she said. “He’s working on it almost every waking moment. I wish I could help more.” She began to clean the bite with peroxide, a process that felt every bit as unpleasant as Manfred had expected. “I hope that little rat of a dog isn’t carrying any diseases,” she said absently, bending closer to peer at Manfred’s hand.
“You know he can’t be,” Manfred said. “They take better care of Rasta than most people take of their kids.”
“Want to know what I found out?” she asked, after she’d dabbed at the torn skin on Manfred’s hand. The antiseptic didn’t sting as much as he remembered from when he was a child. Either he had improved, or the antiseptic had.
“I guess so.”
“I found out that there’s no such person as Teacher Reed.”
Manfred’s eyes opened wide, and he forgot all about his hand. “What about Madonna?”
“Not her, either. The Reeds are not real.”
“That’s interesting, but not totally unexpected,” Manfred said. When she asked him why, he told her about the uncomfortable drive to and from Killeen.
“Where did you drop him off?”
“Handyman Hardware on San Jacinto Street,” Manfred said.
“That’s a very prompt and specific memory.” Olivia had paused in her doctoring to stare at him.
“That’s because I had to remember, to tell Lemuel yesterday.”
Olivia’s eyes widened. “I haven’t talked to Lemuel enough lately,” she said. “There hasn’t been time with everything else he’s trying to accomplish. I’ve wondered about the Reeds for a while, and he asked me to avoid them.”
“That does sound snobbish, doesn’t it?” she said. She got some sterile gauze and wound it around Manfred’s hand, tying it off neatly with a bright purple self-adhesive strip.
Manfred snorted. “It might sound snobbish if being a real Midnight person were something anyone else in the world aspired to,” he said. “That’s like saying someone doesn’t really fit in with the Weirdo Club.”
Olivia laughed for the second time. Manfred looked up at her, smiling faintly. “So you avoided them physically but tracked them online? Do you think that’s what Lemuel really meant?”
“Nope, but I gotta be me,” she said cheerfully.
“Thanks for the first-aid job,” he said. “If you ever need a career to fall back on, you might want to think about being an EMT.”
“I’ll write that in my diary,” she said.
“To revert to the previous topic. It would be too good to be true that a great cook like Madonna really chose to live in the back end of nowhere,” Manfred said. “And I’ve said at least ten times that I didn’t know how they kept Home Cookin open, with only a small circle of steady customers.”
“And we didn’t listen,” she said. “Because we were so glad the restaurant was open at all.”
Manfred started to say something, stopped. Started again.
“Out with it,” Olivia said.
“I hope the same thing doesn’t happen with them . . . that happened with the Lovells.” He was aiming for “firm but not threatening” and he hoped to hell he’d gotten it right.
“No need for it to,” Olivia said, not even pretending to sound surprised. “Did that upset you?”
He stared at her incredulously. “Of
it upset me,” he said.
“Do you blame Lemuel for the outcome?”
Lemuel had taken decisive action when the rest of them had been paralyzed.
“Do I blame him?” Manfred thought about it. “No. I don’t. Because no matter what we did, there was no fixing that situation.”
“It didn’t make me
,” Olivia said.
“I never believed it did. But I also believe you can’t rearrange the world to suit yourself, like we did, and not pay for it some.”
“Not pay for it a lot,” Olivia said quietly. After looking his bandage over and nodding in a satisfied way, she added, “I think that’s what we’re doing now.”
Manfred sat at the table for a few minutes after the door closed behind his neighbor, thinking about that awful night and the anguish on Shawn Lovell’s face. When the reckoning had come, Manfred hadn’t been living in Midnight long. While he’d fallen into the Midnight way of thinking pretty quickly, Lemuel’s justice had been brutal. But they’d all tacitly agreed with his verdict.
Manfred wondered how Creek Lovell was faring. He’d had a crush on her the size of a boulder, and he’d never figured out if it was returned. She’d called him once without saying her name, to tell him that she was okay, with her dad, and working as a waitress. By now, he hoped she’d gotten to go to college somewhere. Now Creek was free of the millstone she’d carried around her neck for years. She should have the chance to make a life for herself.
Manfred also hoped she’d moved away from her father. If anyone was to blame for the situation they’d all found themselves in, it was Shawn Lovell.
livia returned to her apartment to think. She could not think of a single thing that would make her feel happier with life right at the moment, except helping Lemuel with his all-important task.
When Price Eggleston had taken his own life at the crossroad the day before, Olivia had been in for a hard time with the police, especially Officer Gomez, who did not like Midnight or its citizens. After all, the arrow that Price had stabbed through his own neck had belonged to Olivia, a fact she freely admitted.
Though the police didn’t know the half of Price Eggleston’s history with the people of Midnight, much less what Lemuel and Olivia had done in retaliation, it was still hard for the police to take Olivia’s word that she hadn’t had anything at all to do with his bizarre suicide.
Fortunately for Olivia, Price had killed himself in front of witnesses—not only herself and Bobo, but also an insurance agent from Davy, who would regret to the end of his days that he’d been stopped at the red light when Price had stabbed himself in the neck. And one of the guests at the hotel had been looking out a window, too, which Olivia thought was a little strange. But as a result, Olivia wasn’t seriously worried about her legal position. She could not have had anything to do with his death besides inadvertently providing the weapon which had killed him.
But Olivia loathed police attention.
Even Arthur Smith’s tactful interrogation had felt invasive. Between answering his questions, she had been looking around her to make sure her friends were close. Her eyes had met Chuy’s, and he nodded. Bobo, who’d answered almost as many questions as Olivia had, was sitting on the front steps of the pawnshop, still looking stunned. Olivia wondered why Fiji wasn’t there with him. The Rev stood framed in the doorway of his chapel across the street. Manfred had not issued forth from his house.
Then Olivia had spotted a face she didn’t recognize. An unfamiliar woman was standing at the edge of the furor. Olivia homed in on her, because the woman was inexplicable. She was not the press, she was not law enforcement, and she wasn’t one of the Midnighters.
Olivia had thought,
I’d swear she’s a lawyer.
But she herself had certainly not called a lawyer. The woman, who appeared to be in her forties, met Olivia’s eyes and Olivia decided the stranger looked simply curious.
But Olivia was distracted by the arrival of Price’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Eggleston had arrived on the scene to find someone to blame for their son’s death. The older Egglestons knew of an enemy of Price’s who lived in Midnight, and Olivia couldn’t fault their logic when they assumed that Fiji Cavanaugh was the cause of their son’s death. Since Mr. and Mrs. Eggleston were reluctant to explain to the police that Price had kidnapped Fiji months before, their choice of the witch as murderer was incomprehensible to Sheriff Arthur Smith, who had ascertained the whereabouts of every Midnight resident (including the hotel residents) before and during Eggleston’s suicide, as quick as quick could be.
Fiji had had some good luck, too. She’d had a customer at the time; a very credible customer, too—Bonnie Vasquez, wife of a local rancher, who’d wanted to get a pretty rainbow sun catcher for her granddaughter. Kiki had been at Gas N Go buying some Coca-Cola, which Fiji didn’t keep in the house, and chatting up the new manager. The Rev and Diederik had been weeding in the pet cemetery behind the church. Chuy had been doing a pedicure for Lenore Whitefield, the manager of the Midnight Hotel, who had never in her life had one, and Joe had been a tactfully busy spectator. Manfred had been working alone, of course, but he’d been on the phone with a frequent caller who would
to testify that she’d been talking to him. All the transient guests of the hotel had been gone, and the residential guests had been napping or watching television in the lobby . . . except for the one who’d been watching out his window.
It was amazing how all the townspeople were in the clear.
Olivia had described the whole event to Lemuel at length. He was usually entertained by her accounts of things that happened while he was in his day-sleep, and she had figured he’d be glad that Price Eggleston was off the board. But Lemuel hadn’t reacted the way she’d anticipated.
“Olivia,” he’d said, in that voice that was so rusty and antique, “do not go over to talk to Fiji or the Reeds by yourself.”
It was very seldom that Lemuel told her what to do. She glared at him. “Like I’m scared of the Reeds,” she said. “They don’t even exist, right? And no one’s scared of Fiji.”
“You do like her,” he said, as if he were confirming something. “She’s very powerful.”
“Of course I like her. When I’m not completely irritated with her. She’s practically the town puppy. I don’t know where you get the power?” Olivia kept the glare up. “And what’s with the Reeds? You think they’re outlaws on the run? You think Grady’s gonna bite me?”
“No, that’s for me to do,” Lemuel said, smiling, and a rush of heat from her groin to her cheeks made Olivia kiss him. They didn’t talk about the Reeds anymore after that. But in the light of day, Olivia realized that Lemuel knew what sparked her lust better than anyone ever had, and he might have deliberately diverted her.
Not that they both hadn’t enjoyed the encounter. A lot. Olivia had gotten so accustomed to Lemuel’s physical coldness that she didn’t think of it any more, except to be grateful in the summer. And she didn’t mind the energy being siphoned off; in fact, it was a relief. She was a calmer and more thoughtful person as a result. But. Back to the cause of the diversion.
Olivia considered the Reeds, surprised that she hadn’t spent more time puzzling them out. Manfred was right; several times, he’d brought up the anomaly of the Reeds, to the point where she’d wanted him to shut up and accept the fact that the Reeds were part of the town. Now, she could see his point. And Lemuel needed her help, which was rare.
there’s something I can to do to help him.
She decided she needed to go for a run.
Olivia was not a reader, and very little on television interested her. She liked to shoot: arrows, bullets, whatever. She liked to walk and run. So today she went to run in the bare stretch of land between the pawnshop and the Roca Fría River. Unlike track or road running, this involved lots of watching: for rocks, snakes, and cacti. After dodging the various hazards, she ran back to Midnight, still too restless to return to her small apartment.
Virtuously, Olivia did not walk over to Fiji’s, though she noted that the obnoxious sister’s car was gone. And she did not go to Home Cookin for lunch, either. Another gold star! Instead, she went to Gas N Go to meet the new manager. She did not mind at all that she was sweaty and had some hair plastered to her forehead.
When she pushed open the glass door, Olivia thought for a second that the new guy had brought a wife. She saw black hair that was long and shining. But when he turned around, she realized she’d made a very false assumption.
The new manager was very male and a Native American. Olivia estimated he was in his thirties—short, slim, and clad prosaically in a Gas N Go T shirt and jeans. He was someone who sent off a strong vibe. And that vibe said, “Don’t fuck with me, or you’ll be sorry.” She approved.
“So, hi, new neighbor,” Olivia said.
“Welcome to town.”
A nod in return. Okay, this was going to be uphill. “I’m Olivia Charity. I live in an apartment below the pawnshop.”
“Sylvester Ravenwing,” he said.
She blinked. “So . . . Sylvester. You moved into the house the Lovells had?”
“The Lovells were the people that ran this place before me?”
“Yeah, the company offered me the use of the house, so I’m in it, for now. It’s a strange place. Locks on all the doors, some of them on the outside of a bedroom.”
“They had an unusual family situation,” Olivia said.
Sylvester didn’t ask any questions, which was odd. He seemed sorry to have said that much. And he wasn’t giving her any encouragement to continue the conversation. He’d returned to loading cigarette packages into the slotted box over the counter.
Olivia wandered down an aisle, and from among the little powdered doughnuts, the Slim Jims, the chocolate-covered peanuts, and the Red Hots, she spied something she actually wanted: Cheez-Its. She bought a large box and a bottle of water, at exorbitant convenience store prices. Sylvester Ravenwing had to look at her while she paid for them, so it was worth the money.
“Thank you so much,” she said sweetly, in as good an imitation of Brenda on the
as she could manage.
“Welcome,” he said dryly. “Good-bye . . . Olivia.”
Olivia shook her head at his having to make an effort to remember her name. Carrying her purchases, she went to the door, thinking,
Well, at least he is interesting.
As she pushed the door open with her shoulder, she had a thought that made her turn back. “Have you been reading the papers?” she said. “Do you know what’s been happening here?”
Now he looked surprised. “What?” he said, and then looked as though he regretted showing curiosity.
“You really ought to get a paper out of the vending machine by the door and give it a read.” She smiled and left, pleased at having had the last word.