Authors: Charlaine Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy
iji had trouble focusing the next day, though there was plenty to keep her busy. The past few years, children from Davy came to see her decorated Halloween house and take a cookie from her heaped tray. Her yard was deliciously scary, and most of the Midnighters helped her out in one way or another. She had celebrated Samhain by herself, and that was a pleasure, too.
But this year Halloween and Samhain were on the same Saturday night as the waning moon. Midnight was going to be scary for real. Fiji had to get the word out, so trick-or-treaters wouldn’t flock to The Witch’s House, as her Halloween extravaganza was called. She set about spreading the news in as many ways as she could.
Manfred made a list of local online sites, like the area Swap N Shop page; Fiji wrote a notice for Manfred to post on every single site. Fiji called the Davy and Marthasville papers to ask they were doing a Halloween activities story. Both were. “In view of the recent deaths in Midnight, I thought it would be in bad taste to have a big celebration here,” she explained. “I’m sure everyone will understand. To cut down on the disappointment, it would be so helpful if you could include that in your story.”
“I didn’t want to add, ‘And you may get eaten by a demon,’” Fiji told Manfred, who’d dropped by because he thought he really ought to. In truth, he was feeling more than a little self-conscious around her, Fiji could tell.
Fiji was horribly aware that her virginity and its impending loss was on everyone’s mind. It would be harder to be in a more humiliating situation. She considered several plans to extricate herself from this predicament, but every step she pondered seemed to end in making things worse, not better. In her most hidden heart, Fiji wondered what would happen if
volunteered to . . . partner her. “Oh, my God! How scarifying would
be?” she muttered.
Fiji was not often stupid or silly. She realized that a public ritual was not a love tryst. But she harbored a hope that the man who completed his part of the deed at least showed some—well, some
. If one of the angels had to sacrifice himself to do that, she would not be able to show her face for the rest of her life. The idea of poor Joe or poor Chuy on top of her, pumping away without lust or love . . . well, it just made her wince with mortification.
“You have company coming,” Manfred said, and she pulled herself out of her black thoughts. Fiji’s back was to the door, and she turned to face it. She was regretting opening the shop. Her customer was probably the odious Willeen, or some other dabbler.
Fiji was surprised to see Lenore Whitefield from the hotel. She seldom saw Lenore, and had only spoken to her once or twice. Lenore was bursting with things to say, there was no mistaking the look, but she stopped in her tracks when she saw Manfred.
“Hi,” Fiji said. “Was there something I could help you with, Lenore?”
“Uh, yeah,” Lenore said hesitantly. “Your name is Fiji, right?”
“Right. And this is Manfred Bernardo from across the street.”
“Sure. Hi, Mr. Bernardo. I hope Tommy and Suzie and Mamie are well? I miss having them at the hotel.”
“They like Safe Harbor, but they do miss Midnight,” Manfred said, trying to be tactful. “Please, call me Manfred.”
Still, Lenore hesitated.
“Something’s on your mind, Lenore?” Fiji tried to be gentle, but she was conscious of the clock ticking.
Lenore took a big step into the store, committing herself to a conversation. “When the hotel opened, the project manager kept telling me that market research had proven that the hotel was in a good spot for its purpose. A place for old people to stay while they waited for an opening in assisted living. And if we had the divided use, with part of it being for regular hotel customers and part of it being for more extended stays, the hotel would be able to make a profit.” She paused, and to give her some kind of confirmation that they were on track, Fiji said, “Right.”
Lenore said, “Me and Harvey, we needed jobs, bad, and we were really glad to be picked out of the other couples who applied for the job. That Eva Culhane, she ran the interviews.”
It took Fiji a few seconds to remember that Eva Culhane had been the project manager who’d been on site while the hotel was being renovated. She had not, by Joe’s account, been warm or fuzzy or anything but brisk and efficient.
“I noticed that the couples who got asked to come back for a second round, they were like us,” Lenore was saying. “They didn’t have any other family with them. Well, even that made sense. Not too many people with little kids would want to settle in Midnight.”
Manfred and Fiji nodded in unison, like bobblehead dolls, Fiji thought.
“Naturally, I talked to the other women while we were waiting,”
Lenore said. “As you do.”
“Sure,” Fiji said. Manfred looked blank.
“And it seemed to me that we were the saddest of the lot.” Fiji opened her mouth to say something to refute that, automatically, and then she realized she had better wait and see what the bottom line on this conversation was going to be.
“What do you mean?” Manfred asked, practically.
“I mean that we didn’t have any kids at all, not even grown kids who would come to visit, or anything. Or living parents. Or brothers or sisters. Well, Harvey’s got a brother in Alaska, but they haven’t talked in five years, I guess.”
“No close connections,” Manfred summarized briskly. Lenore nodded. “This didn’t make any difference to my husband, but it worried me a little. Some of the other couples, the man was a good plumber, or carpenter, or had some executive experience, like running a couple of Holiday Inns or the like.”
“But not Harvey,” Fiji said.
“Not Harvey. He worked on the line at a factory that made salsa.
For twenty years. When he got laid off, he couldn’t find another job to save his soul. He tries to help, but he just hasn’t got the skills.
So we hire Teacher to come do repairs. I kind of lied to Ms. Culhane about that.”
“I understand,” Fiji said. “I suppose I would have, too.” Eventually, Lenore would get to the point.
“Culhane didn’t check up on us that much,” Lenore went on. “And that seemed pretty strange to me, considering how finicky she was about everything else. It was like she was looking for the least qualified, rather than the best qualified. See what I mean?”
Fiji, nodding again, said, “I do see.”
“But I was so glad to get the job, which included a place to live,”
Lenore said doggedly, “that I ignored all the signals.”
If Fiji nodded one more time she thought her head would fall off.
“I understand,” she said. It was impossible to read Manfred’s expression. He was watching Lenore with apparent fascination. “It come to me too late, after we’d already gotten here, that we’d been sucked into something that might kill us,” Lenore said. “Okay, why do you think . . . ?” Manfred didn’t have to finish the question.
“Me and Harvey, we’re expendable,” Lenore said with some dignity.
“To them, anyway. I’ve tried my best to make the hotel nice, to run it so it makes money. I knew the first batch of old people we got, them from Nevada, they weren’t really waiting for assisted-living places. They were window dressing, to make it look like the hotel was really what Culhane said it was.”
“You’re absolutely right about that,” Manfred said. “Someone has paid to put them in an expensive place, but you know that. I want to know who’s actually footing the bills, and why.”
“It’s something to do with Olivia,” Lenore said.
Fiji could have danced with relief. The point was in sight. “What about Olivia?” she said.
“I don’t know,” Lenore said. “But it’s to do with her. I’ll tell you something. Some of the guests really do go over to Magic Portal every day to consult there, whatever that means. But whoever’s in the top front room on the corner stays in almost all the time, watching.”
“I think that you were brave to come tell us this,” Fiji said to Lenore. “I really appreciate it. And while you’re here, I have a thing or two to tell you. I was going to come by later today.”
“Really?” Lenore seemed a little excited that Fiji had planned on visiting her, which made Fiji feel like a scumbag.
“Here’s the thing,” Fiji said. “This year, Halloween is going to be quiet in Midnight.”
“Oh?” Lenore looked doubtful. “I know that last year lots of people came to town to enjoy your house and yard.”
“Yes, and that was fun.” Fiji smiled at Lenore. “But this year, we’ve heard that with the weird suicides, and the shooting, something really serious might happen.”
“That sounds pretty bad.” Lenore sighed deeply, her eyes fixed on the wall as she thought. “Okay, I’ll arrange for a party for the residents in the dining room, and I’ll talk to the transient guests. I really do appreciate the warning.”
“No problem. I should have come by earlier,” Fiji said. She felt both awkward and unworthy.
“Harvey especially should stay in,” Manfred said abruptly. “What?” Lenore turned to face him, looking puzzled. “You know I’m a psychic,” Manfred said, trying to smile and failing. “I think Harvey will be in extra danger.”
It was clear to Fiji that Lenore was conflicted. The hotel manager didn’t know whether to be pleased that Manfred had thought enough of Harvey to warn him, or if she found the whole idea so ridiculous that she didn’t give it any credence at all. “Thanks,” Lenore said. “I’ll remember that.” After she left, Manfred and Fiji were left to look at each other in a resigned way.
“It was a real vision,” Manfred said finally.
“I know,” Fiji replied. “And you’ve told her. If she doesn’t believe, she doesn’t believe, and frankly, I think we have enough on our plates to worry about.”
“Are you still hearing the voice?”
“Not today. But I feel him move, more and more. He’s flexing.
And I saw the Rev carting off more dead animals this morning. He’s building up his strength.”
Abruptly, Manfred said, “If it’s me, Fiji, I’ll man up. I promise you.”
He smiled at her in what he meant to be a reassuring way. But Fiji had a suspicion he was thinking of Estella.
“Thanks, Manfred,” she said, trying to hide her own lack of enthusiasm under a steady voice.
When she was alone, Fiji felt dismal again. Even the guys were worried about having sex by appointment. (Well, at least one guy.) Though she realized that had little or nothing to do with her as a woman, and she understood the sacrifice required of her, she was unhappy and anx ious to get it over with.
Which is not the way you should feel about the first time you have sex.
At least, that had always been her impression.
If she survived to see November 1, her life would be her own again.
he next day was Halloween. And Samhain. And Saturday. And the waning moon. And the longest day in the history of the world, if you were Fiji.
To everyone’s astonishment, a warm front came in from the west. The skies poured rain in the morning and early afternoon. The roads and sidewalks were washed clean. The front window of Midnight Pawn was streaked with drops that blew under the awning. Fiji’s garden, in its last hurrah before winter, looked fresh and vivid; inside The Inquiring Mind, Mr. Snuggly tucked himself under Fiji’s counter to be safe from the thunder.
The Rev went to the chapel under a giant and ancient umbrella. He’d asked Diederik to dust and vacuum his house, which Diederik was glad to do. It didn’t seem like a good morning to be kneeling in the little chapel.
In his room at the Midnight Hotel, Quinn worked on the details of a sort of quinceañera within the half-demon clan in New Orleans. When he couldn’t distract himself with that any longer, Quinn again read over the translated account of the ritual as Arria Auclina, Etruscan vampire, had written it down scores of years before. Auclina had heard this account firsthand from the witch involved, but she hadn’t been present. Lemuel had sent them all copies so they would understand what had to be done.
Quinn had to hope that nothing essential had been lost in translation.
Fiji was studying the ritual, too.
Olivia came back to Midnight, fetched by Bobo. Over her protests, he’d carried her in, wrapped in a raincoat. He helped her down the stairs and turned down the cover so she could climb into bed in her own apartment in her own pajamas. Though Olivia was doing so well her doctor was dumbfounded, the transition exhausted her. After Bobo left, she promptly fell asleep. She woke to lightning, which she could glimpse out of her windows peeking just above the ground level. Lemuel still slept, of course, but she knew he was in the next room. She was the only person in Midnight who was deeply happy.
Diederik worried about his part in the evening’s preparations as he cleaned. The salt, now mixed with the ash of the hawthorn tree, was in a tub in the chapel. He and his father were charged with sprinkling the mixture on the circle they’d drawn around the crossroad. But if it kept raining, he didn’t know what they’d do. Underlying his worry about the weather and the excitement of the potential demon rampage, Diederik was hoping Fiji might choose him to participate in the final part of the ritual. Diederik was more than ready.
Manfred was busy with his usual workload. He paused, though, to think about Estella Hardin. He’d gone out with her a couple of times now, and those evenings had been very good. He hoped like hell he would have more evenings with Stell. But he’d been avoiding the intimacy that would lead to sex, because he simply couldn’t face having sex with Fiji (if that was his lot), and then going back to Stell, while keeping this evening’s events a secret.
Joe and Chuy missed their dog and clung to each other. They put the Closed sign on the shop’s door. No one shopped for antiques or manicures in the rain, in Midnight. And they alone had faced a demon, so they knew what could happen to them this night.
Lenore and the cook at the hotel collaborated on doing all the prep work for a Halloween dinner for the residents and those of the transient group who wanted to participate. Lenore had talked to Madonna about making a pumpkin pie and a devil’s-food cake, and Madonna was in the kitchen at Home Cookin working on those as she and Teacher did the normal lunchtime preparations.
The night before, Lenore had given Marina the task of preparing Halloween goodie bags containing hand lotion, tissues, candy corn, peanuts, an orange, and other odds and ends. Lenore had pointed out that Marina seldom had anything else to do, a point that Marina had felt was quite unnecessary to emphasize.
In truth, Marina was having a little trouble keeping up with the apparently unflagging sex drive that kept Diederik ever at her side. Marina actually thought it would be nice to have an evening off. To the girl’s surprise, after she’d prepared the goodie bags Lenore had sent her home with instructions to come back in two nights. “Take Halloween off,” Lenore had said, with a weak smile. Marina thought of calling Diederik, then decided she’d go party with her friends from school instead.
Bobo had gotten all the accounts of Midnight Pawn in order.
Just in case,
he told himself.
Just in case.
All the online forms were filled out, he’d gone over the inventory, and he’d made sure his will was in his bedside drawer. Bobo was determined to step forward for Fiji, but he wondered if he would survive the process. He wanted to be ready.
He thought of Fiji every other minute and was sorry this day would be so fraught for her. She was so kind and good.
Despite Manfred’s warning, Lenore did not keep tabs on her husband, which was a pity.
Harvey Whitefield hadn’t had a binge in a long time, but that day something about the pounding rain made his resolution collapse utterly, and he drove to Davy to a liquor store and bought a bottle of bourbon, saying nothing to his wife, who was very busy in the kitchen and in the hotel, putting out decorations for the party. That suited Harvey fine. He got a liter of Coca-Cola and a glass from the pantry, put some ice in a bucket, and retired to an empty room in the hotel to have his own private party. He watched the game show channel on the flat-screen. Though he wasn’t good at remembering the answers, the questions made him feel smart. And he was gleeful at having successfully dodged his wife.
The three senior citizens who were in the Midnight Hotel suites, waiting for an opening at the assisted-living center in Davy or the one in Marthasville, played cards and read or listened to audiobooks, according to their eyesight acuity. They liked the break in the monotony provided by the rain and thunder, and they had a pleasant, cozy, day. It got dark even earlier than usual in October. They were all glad to switch on the nearest lamp.
The four people who were “transient guests” at the Midnight Hotel went about their business. The three genuine tech support people actually drove to Magic Portal, even on a Saturday. They had a productive day at the gaming company. Their Magic Portal colleagues invited the three to a party that would start immediately after work that day, and they all accepted gladly. Working with the Magic Portal people was more fun than anything they’d ever done.
The fourth person was the man renting the second-floor front room, which overlooked the pawnshop. Lenore understood he was a writer, and that was why he stayed in his room almost all the time. There was certainly a laptop in his room, and he always seemed to be working when Lenore cleaned his room. The past two days, he’d seemed very jittery, and he was never without his phone in his hand. He’d told Lenore he might check out at any time. He seemed surprised and pleased to get a special Halloween treat brought up on a tray by the boy who usually worked in the evening.
“Why are you on duty during the day?” the man asked. “The girl quit,” Diederik answered. “Enjoy.”
Left alone with the tray, the man had to admit it looked interesting. There was a small pitcher of sangria with lots of fruit in it (carefully covered with a paper frill) and a cheese and cracker plate with a bit of honeycomb. The note on the tray said, “Have a happy Halloween!” He took the tray to his chair and table arranged by the window to keep his vigil. He drank the pitcher of sangria and picked at the cheese and crackers and honeycomb. He didn’t wake until three a.m. the next morning, courtesy of Joe and Chuy, who’d entrusted Diederik with the delivery.
Underneath the rock, dirt, and asphalt the demon Colconnar stirred. He was not
strong enough yet. He needed more blood. He would rise. He would have the witch in every way it was possible to have her. He began summoning anyone weak enough to listen. Ah! He found someone very weak, and very close.
Harvey Whitefield had dozed off from the liquor and the drumming of the rain in the empty hotel room. He woke, thinking he’d heard someone call his name. He felt a surge of guilt, because he was sure his wife was looking for him. But to Harvey’s astonishment, the voice was one he’d never heard before. Harvey lurched to his feet, looking from side to side to find the source of the summons.
He went to the door and listened. Nothing on the landing. But he could still hear his name. He opened the door just a bit and looked around. There was no one there. He could hear, very faintly, the sound of the old geezers in the common room on the ground floor. They were talking about how to play Texas hold ’em and debating how many books Nora Roberts had written.
Harvey wasn’t interested in either subject, so it was easier for him to listen to the voice. In fact, he found it impossible to ignore. After a second, he stepped out of the room and went down the stairs, unsteady on his feet. It was unlucky for Harvey that the stairs were carpeted, or he would have made quite a lot of noise and maybe someone would have stopped him.
But that didn’t happen.
Harvey was supposed to be on duty at the desk, of course, but who’d even noticed that he wasn’t there? No one! Marina would be on duty in a few minutes. (Harvey did not know that Lenore had given Marina the night off.) There was a bell on the desk, anyway, to summon help if a traveler should stop in. Like anyone ever did! This damn place!
Harvey hardly realized he was crossing the lobby floor to the doors. No one saw him leave, and the tinkle of the chime on the door didn’t even register to the little group in the common room. They could only hear the rain beating down.
Harvey was soaked to the skin within seconds of stepping outside. He dimly understood what he had to do, now that he could hear the voice more clearly. He didn’t have a gun or a knife or anything sharpedged with him, which he realized was his fault. The only person in town who could sell him a blade was the two queers across the road, but their knives were all antique. The pawnshop had knives, but they were under lock and key. The bitch who ran that witch shop had knives, but she always looked at him like he was a problem she had to solve.
Then the demon supplied him with a good idea. Harvey lay down on the road just a little out of the direct radius of the stoplight. In the heavy rain, the next truck that came along passed through the green light without even noticing the bumps.
The demon was delighted at this rich meal, and he felt more blood a bit farther afield. He began pulling the really ripe one, the really tasty one, the one the witch despised.
And Kiki, who’d been staying a motel in Marthasville with a cowboy she’d met at the Cartoon Saloon the day she’d left Midnight, accelerated in her drive to the crossroads. Where she had to be. NOW.