Authors: Charlaine Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy
hat evening at Home Cookin, Quinn and Diederik were eating at the big round table the locals used, while the Rev was settled at his normal table for one. The Rev was not much one for conversation during meals, or at any time.
Soon after the two weretigers sat down, they were joined by Olivia, and then Chuy and Joe. The two men looked incomplete without Rasta.
“We can check on him with our phones,” Joe said. “We can see him in his kennel at the vet’s. We miss the little fella, but until the situation here is settled, that’s where he should stay.”
“He’s just too small a creature to handle all this,” Chuy said sadly. “The suicides, the tension, and now the smell.”
“Smell?” Diederik took a long drink of chocolate milk.
“Hasn’t the air seemed different to you?” his father asked. Quinn tried to speak gently, but there was an unmistakable chiding note in his words. Weretigers should be alert to smells and sights around them.
“It seems a little bitter,” Diederik said. “Like grapefruit, burned.”
“Not a bad description,” Quinn said, feeling relieved. “I’m wondering if you should be taken somewhere away from this. This is not a healthy place.”
“Father,” Diederik said sharply. “I’m not Rasta. I’m a man now, and I have to take my place in the world.”
Bobo, who had just entered, paused in the act of pulling out a chair. He looked at Diederik askance.
“If we knew what that place was.” Quinn didn’t think of himself as a worrier, but this evening he was troubled. The only son he was ever likely to have was in a dangerous location, where the supernatural world and the natural world felt like they were coming closer to each other every night.
“My place is here, with the people who raised me,” his son told him, with a definite overtone of “Duhhh.”
“Diederik,” said a rusty voice from the table by the window, finally breaking the silence. The boy flinched, glancing over at the Rev and then back to Quinn. What he saw in Quinn’s face made him feel even worse.
“Excuse me, Father,” Diederik said, his words tumbling over each other. “I know you’ve done your best to protect me, even if it meant your absence. I know I need to learn your business, so I can carry on. But I love it here.”
“Then you’ll be glad to know we’ve bought a house in Midnight,” Quinn said, trying to salvage the moment he’d thought would be so happy.
There was a moment of blank silence. Then Diederik started laughing, and Chuy and Joe smiled, and even the Rev looked a little less grim.
“You all are moving to town to stay?” Madonna had come to the table to take their orders. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Everyone at the table was disconcerted, not by the purchase of a house by John Quinn, but because none of them had thought of the Reeds as permanent residents. Before Madonna could take offense at that moment of silence, Diederik picked up little Grady, who had staggered over to the table on unsteady legs, and swung him high. Grady threw up his hands and laughed, and they all laughed with him. Diederik leaned over to kiss Quinn’s cheek.
It was a very happy moment for Quinn.
Lenore Whitefield, who managed the hotel, came in then, and though the Midnighters continued to talk, they were all surprised. Lenore and her husband, Harvey (a jerk no one liked, except presumably Lenore), had kept aloof from the little Midnight community. It was natural they would not interact that often. The hotel bought its groceries in Davy. It only employed a handful of people: a cook from Davy at breakfast time, another one who came in for lunch and dinner, a maid, evening clerk Marina, and Diederik. Lenore did a large share of the maid work while Harvey sat at the desk.
Now, however, Lenore needed something. That was evident in her stance. “Mrs. Reed, do you have a moment?” she asked, perching on one of the seldom-used stools at the counter.
“I will in ten, fifteen minutes,” Madonna said, glancing at the clock by the door to the kitchen. “If you can wait that long?”
“I can,” said Lenore. She swiveled on the stool to look at the table where the others were sitting. “Hi, Diederik! Who’s your buddy?”
“This is Grady, Mrs. Whitefield,” Diederik said. He waved baby Grady’s hand at the woman. “How are you?”
“I’m just fine.” She seemed a bit bemused at Diederik’s careful manners. “Hi, Mr. Quinn. I hope you’re enjoying your stay at the hotel. We sure like to have repeat guests like you.”
“Yes, it’s very comfortable,” Quinn said. “And thanks for employing my son.”
“Not many people want to mop and clean anymore,” Lenore said, shaking her head. Her short brown hair, heavily shot with gray, was thick and wiry, giving it somewhat the appearance of a dog’s coat. The accepted opinion in Midnight was that Lenore was a nice enough person, not extremely bright, clinging to her job with desperate tenacity since it had rescued her and Harvey from dire straits. She seemed to be direct and honest.
It was a good food night at Home Cookin, but then every night was at least pretty good, ranging up to sublime. Madonna Reed might not have won any personality contests, but she could (dammit) cook. Even Chuy, who was quite the chef himself, took his hat off to Madonna, at least metaphorically.
“What are you eating tonight, Bobo?” Lenore asked.
“Catfish and hush puppies and slaw,” Bobo said. “There aren’t any bad choices, though.”
When Madonna brought in the food, Lenore looked at their plates with keen interest. As soon as all the customers had been served, Madonna came to lean on the counter to talk to her.
“What’s on your mind, Lenore?” Madonna had never wasted time on casual conversation.
“You probably know I have a cook coming from Davy to help with breakfasts for everyone, and then someone else comes to cook lunch and dinner for the residents. The nonresidents have to fend for themselves.”
Madonna nodded, and everyone at the table scrambled to say something to each other so it would appear they weren’t listening.
“Well, my morning cook is still fine. But my lunch and dinner cook is about to quit. Since we only have four residents at the moment, I think I can do lunch. Soup and sandwiches, that kind of thing. I was hoping you’d agree to do the dinners.”
“For the residents, only.”
“If that works out, maybe we could talk about supplying something for the transient guests? A few stay for weeks since they’re doing contract work at Magic Portal.” Magic Portal, the large company east of Midnight which manufactured games, was a major employer in the area and also responsible for the great Internet connections available in Midnight. Plus most of the hotel’s clientele.
“But I’m just starting off with the residents. How would we convey the food? Four extra meals won’t make much difference to my workload, I figure.”
“I have a cart that Harvey can wheel over. Do you have plate covers? Cloches?”
“I have some in back, yes. Previous owner left ’em. They’re very old, but usable.”
“So I propose that Harvey would come to get the dinners for the residents at five thirty. We would have given them their choices earlier in the day.”
“Harvey will also return the dishes?”
“Yes, he’ll return them the next day by lunchtime.”
“I’ll give you an answer tomorrow. I’ll have to figure out what to charge for this.”
“Let me know. I’m really, really hoping you’ll say yes.”
Madonna nodded. When Lenore had gone back to the hotel, Chuy said, “You gonna do it, Madonna?”
“Hell, yeah,” she said. “That’s gonna add up. I might have to work an hour longer, but the money should be worth it. I’ll have to do some figuring.”
Nothing else exciting happened during the meal, though Madonna did ask all of them where Fiji was. “She hasn’t come in here in days, and that’s not like her,” Madonna said, with a smile that struck Quinn as off. He also noticed that Olivia looked down, guarding her expression.
When they’d all eaten, Quinn told his son he’d see him later, and the boy left for his job, a smile on his face at the prospect of seeing Marina, Quinn figured. Quinn paid at the same time as Olivia, and when she left he followed her to the pawnshop. As she was about to go inside, he hailed her.
“You following me, tiger?”
She didn’t seem alarmed, but mildly irritated.
“It’s not hard to walk in the same direction as someone, in Midnight,” Quinn said. “But I have to say that I’m really curious. What is the big secret between you and Fiji, the one about Madonna?”
He hadn’t hit the mark exactly, Quinn told himself, judging Olivia’s reaction.
“Big secret?” She smiled. “I don’t know any big secret. I’ve always been curious about the Reeds. Haven’t you?”
“You mean how they manage to keep the restaurant open? Of course, but there’s something else about them. Something that seems significant to you.”
“I don’t know what that would be,” she said. She went inside.
Quinn watched her go, and then spun to face the shop across the road. Before he could convince himself it was none of his business, he ran across. His feet made almost no sound when they touched the pavement.
Fiji had just finished her supper and was washing up when Quinn knocked at her back door. “Quinn,” she said. “Hi. Come on in.” She took the chain off the door. Mr. Snuggly, who adored Quinn, appeared instantly and began basting himself against Quinn’s ankles.
“Snug, stop it,” Fiji said.
“I don’t mind. Hi, little brother.” Mr. Snuggly did not reply, but he did purr.
“Please have a seat.” Fiji sat down in her accustomed place at the kitchen table and gestured at the chair opposite. Quinn worked himself into the small space and looked at her with frank appreciation. “Looking lovely,” he said, and she made a little derisive sound. He ignored it. “I’m going to ask you some questions,” he said, “and I hope you answer them. If you don’t . . . okay.”
“Let’s have the questions.”
“Is there a reason you haven’t been to Home Cookin in a few days?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation.
“Is Madonna angry with you?”
“Goddamn it, Fiji, this is like playing hot or cold with a kid.”
“Yes,” she said, and laughed out loud at his indignant face. “Okay, I’ll tell you about it, like I told Bobo. But I’m not telling you the whole story, because the whole thing is not mine to tell.”
“Fair enough,” Quinn said.
Fiji told him about catching Teacher coming out of her house, about what Mr. Snuggly had told her, and about her subsequent reprisal. She also told him about Teacher’s connection in Killeen, without going into any specifics.
“I get that you’re leaving out parts of the story, and I feel like those parts have to do with Olivia,” Quinn said. “What I don’t get is why Teacher would search your house if he’s here to watch Olivia. And that changes my ideas about Olivia and her background, because setting up a whole business and a whole family to watch one person requires deep pockets.”
“Yes, it does,” she agreed. “If you ask me, that’s why the hotel got renovated.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Because—oh, shit, I’m getting into Olivia’s business again!” Fiji was angry with herself. “I believe Teacher’s been searching all our homes all along, whenever he had a moment, just to see if the rest of us were who we said we were.”
“What’s so important about Olivia?”
And Fiji stared at him, her lips pressed together. Quinn felt like shaking her to knock loose the secrets. Instead, he leaned across the table and kissed her.
It was a really satisfying kiss. She was warm and soft and she smelled great, and she had that magic running internally that made every kiss zing through his blood. For the tenth time, Quinn wondered if witches were born or made. He was pretty sure that either you had magic in your blood, or you didn’t. Fiji definitely did.
He was bent across the table in a strange position, so before he was really ready to stop, he had to break off. He sat back in his chair.
For a minute, Fiji looked dazed. After she recovered herself (and he couldn’t help but be pleased that it took a moment), she said, “Okay, that was sensational. But I’m still not going to tell you.” She smiled as she said it, just a little, so Quinn would know she didn’t really believe he’d been trying to bribe her to spill all with a kiss.