Authors: Charlaine Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy
“You know Aunt Mildred was,” Fiji said bluntly. “That was how she made her living.”
“So you make herbal teas for women with headaches? And read their futures in a crystal ball?”
“Future? No, that’s for psychics,” Fiji said, smiling. “You might try Manfred, across the road, if you’re interested in learning about your future.”
“That’s a bunch of crap.” Making a face to show how disgusted she was, Kiki got up to scrape her scraps into the garbage can and wash her plate. They’d shared a salad; not much of anything to put away or clean up except the cutting board. “I don’t believe in reading palms, or casting spells, stuff like that.”
Apparently, Kiki believed Francine Owens had genuinely fainted.
“Okay,” Fiji said, still smiling, but with an effort. “That’s fine.”
Just deny my whole life and my beliefs. That’s okay!
“Maybe I’ll go down and get my nails done this afternoon.” Kiki had spotted the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon sign that morning, and she’d been peering at her hands ever since. “Do I need to call and make an appointment?”
“I don’t think so,” Fiji said, maintaining her smile. “Go do that. Tell Joe and Chuy I said hi.”
And very soon after, that was what Kiki did. The relief of having her gone was ridiculously keen. As soon as Kiki’s feet touched the sidewalk, Mr. Snuggly appeared by his food bowl. He fixed Fiji with a baleful glare, and she hurried to pour in his kibble and spoon a little Fancy Feast on top.
He had earned the treat.
Kiki had called Mr. Snuggly “Blubberbutt” three times, within the cat’s hearing. Though Kiki had no idea that the cat could understand her, Fiji had winced every time, sure that sooner or later she’d pay for her sister’s tactlessness.
“She’ll leave sooner or later,” Fiji said, scratching Mr. Snuggly’s head. She tried to sound confident.
Maybe I can stand it for a week,
she thought doubtfully, and her fingers slowed. The cat butted her hand to get her attention, and she resumed scratching. “Sorry, buddy.”
When Mr. Snuggly felt he’d been adored enough, he ate his food, every bit, and exited through the cat door into the backyard in what Fiji considered a very pointed way. This time of day, he normally took a nap in the basket under Fiji’s counter.
Fiji felt she’d apologized enough for Kiki—in fact, she’d thought of calling Joe to apologize for whatever her sister was saying right now— but she knew that was ridiculous.
My sister’s character is hardly my fault. Kiki’s a grown woman,
Fiji reminded herself. As Quinn had said, people would form their own opinions of Kiki, which would not necessarily influence or affect their opinions of Fiji.
She told herself that several times.
Just when Fiji was beginning to feel more calm, if not exactly cheerful, Francine Owens came into The Inquiring Mind. The nearsuicide was not in the trancelike state of yesterday, but she didn’t seem to be the self-assured woman who’d held up the grocery store line, either. Fiji stood up.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “Welcome back. How are you feeling?”
“Maybe you can help me,” Francine said. She hesitated, looking around her as if she were seeing the store for the first time. “I know I fainted in here yesterday, and I appreciate how kind you were in getting me home safely. But I don’t seem to remember coming in here. Do you think it’s because I passed out, that I can’t remember? It just seems so odd. I’m not really sure why I’d come in this store. I mean, it seems charming, but not my kind of thing, normally?”
Fiji thought hard as she came out from behind the counter. It had never occurred to her she’d see Francine Owens again. She had no story prepared to cope with this situation. What could she say?
Fiji hated the idea that Francine Owens might put herself through expensive medical or psychological testing to find some physical issue that had caused her to pass out. “When you came in yesterday, we had a little conversation,” Fiji said slowly. “You were wanting to buy a gift for someone.”
If you could say the sun was coming out on someone’s face, that face was Francine Owens’s. “What a relief,” she said. “I wonder who the present was for?”
“I don’t believe you told me. But you know what? After you fainted and I left my friend minding the store, when I was taking you home? My friend smelled gas, and he called the gas company. They came out and fixed a gas leak. So I guess you must be extra sensitive to it, cause I sure never smelled it. But you must have.”
“Oh my goodness.” The woman sat down heavily in one of the wicker chairs. “I’m so glad to know why I fainted like that! I can cancel my doctor’s appointment. Now I just wish I could remember about buying a gift. Maybe it was for someone in my book club? We have a little harvest party coming up.”
“Know someone who likes wind chimes, or sun catchers, or scented candles, something like that?”
“I think Pearl might like wind chimes; she loves her garden,” Francine said, though she still sounded doubtful. “I drew her name.”
“Really, don’t let it worry you,” Fiji said. “You know we’re just a short drive away, if you decide your friend might like something from The Inquiring Mind.”
“That’s true. I just felt so foolish, not remembering why I was here.” She looked at Fiji apologetically.
To Fiji’s relief, another customer came in just then, a woman who regularly came to her Thursday night group. Most of the women who attended were simply seeking some excitement, or some way to stretch their emotional and mental muscles in search of something that fulfilled them or interested them. Denise Little, who was living at the Midnight Hotel while waiting for an assisted-living center vacancy, was a great reader and very curious. Denise, who was in her seventies, made her slow way east at least twice a week to visit with Fiji. She almost always bought some small thing to show she understood The Inquiring Mind was a business.
“Hi, Denise,” Fiji said, with maybe overdone enthusiasm. “This is Francine Owens. Francine, Denise lives here in Midnight, at least temporarily.”
Francine seemed reassured by Denise’s white-haired respectability. “I’ll take these wind chimes,” she said, clearly glad to conclude her time in the shop.
Fiji rang up the purchase and wrapped the wind chimes in tissue paper, feeling she would be just as glad to see Francine leave. While she was doing this, Francine politely started a conversation with Denise about living at the Midnight Hotel. “I hear it’s real nice,” Francine said.
“I’m just there until a place opens up at Big Sky in Marthasville,” Denise explained. “My house sold much more quickly than I ever expected, so I had to go somewhere. It’s been a real boon for me, and really comfortable.”
“How long do you think you’ll have to wait for Big Sky?” Francine asked. “I guess you’re on a list?”
Denise shrugged as she sank into one of the padded wicker chairs. “Just waiting for someone else to die,” she said baldly. “I’m third in line. I’ve got my furniture in storage, and I can have my own things in my room there. But it’s nice not to make my own bed or clean my own bathroom at the hotel. I’m pretty damn tired of housework.”
Francine was visibly shocked to hear a woman older than herself curse. But she hurried to agree with Denise. “You do get tired of doing the housework after so many years. I never thought I’d say that.” She smiled, which looked odd on Francine.
“That’s why I come down here,” Denise said, and Fiji silently said,
“Gets me to thinking about new things.”
Francine looked blank.
“Spiritual-type things,” Fiji explained. “Reading material for people seeking to expand their consciousness. Meditation techniques.”
“Well. I can’t imagine being interested in those things.” Francine’s face went from bewildered to embarrassed. “Not to be rude, I’ve been a Baptist all my life.”
Since the ill-assorted trio seemed to have reached a conversational standstill, Fiji said, “I know you must have other things to do, so I’m grateful you stopped by today to let me know you’re all right.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” Francine said. She was on firmer ground here, since she was on her way out the door.
“You take your time getting back to full speed,” Fiji advised. “But we’d be glad to see you again any time.” She gave a considerable shove of her will when she said this, and Francine stiffened.
“Well, you have a nice day,” Francine said by way of bidding them farewell. When she’d gotten safely in her car and driven away—back toward Davy, Fiji watched to be sure—Fiji made a cup of coffee for Denise, and they sat and had a long chatter. Fiji didn’t have anything pressing to do, and she liked Denise. So she listened to Denise’s stories about her courtship and widowhood, and she confirmed that the new woman in Midnight was her sister, and she agreed that Lenore Whitefield, who managed the hotel, was a stick in the mud.
It was clear that whatever was brewing in their little community, it had not yet affected Denise.
Fiji was relieved, and wondered how long that would last.
She felt a lingering guilt about Francine Owens. Fiji didn’t believe Francine had ever done anything awful in her life. (Being persnickety in a grocery store hardly counted.) Yet Francine, for an unknown reason, had been drawn in by the Evil Thing and very nearly committed suicide—a lifetime of propriety thrown away because she’d been targeted by something wicked.
During her conversation with Denise, Fiji turned the corner from being frightened to being angry. She had to force herself to pay attention and make appropriate responses to Denise’s remarks. By the time the older woman had left, Fiji was calmer. That was a good thing, since Kiki came back from her excursion to the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon with so much news that they might as well have been in a city. First, Fiji had to admire Kiki’s fingernails, which were truly beautiful. Chuy always did a great job. Kiki planned to return for a pedicure the next day. “No point getting everything done at one time,” she snorted. “Since fun here is not a big commodity.”
“Feel free to go back to Houston any time,” Fiji said. That stopped Kiki dead in her conversational tracks. “Oh, you know what I mean,” she said, with assumed gaiety. “Anyway, I stopped in the Gas N Go on my way back, because I was looking for something to munch on.”
Didn’t want to hurry back to talk to her sister,
Fiji translated. “And you won’t believe who’s running the Gas N Go! Just started a couple of days ago!”
“Who?” Fiji was actually curious about the guy, because she hadn’t heard any report on him yet.
“Well, he’s a full-blooded Native American. . . .”
“I don’t know, and it seemed a little rude to ask him,” Kiki said, which was inexplicable to Fiji. “But the thing is, he’s gorgeous! In kind of an inscrutable way. And maybe he’s a little rough around the edges. But he’s got the long black hair and the copper skin and the manly man thing going for him. Yum!”
“Huh. What’s his name?”
“Here’s the kicker. Sylvester!” Kiki widened her eyes. “Have you ever met a real person named Sylvester?”
“No,” Fiji said truthfully. “Sylvester what?”
“Something Indian,” Kiki said. “Like Bearclaw, or something.”
“That really is interesting,” Fiji agreed. “Well, I hope he stays a while. I assume he’s living in the house that comes with the store?”
Kiki nodded vigorously. “I think so. And he said he was going to look for someone to work part time so he wouldn’t be spending sixteen hours a day there.”
“That would be pretty awful.” Gas N Go had been limited while Teacher Reed had been in charge, because Teacher simply refused to work that many hours. And he hadn’t found anyone to split the shift with—at least, anyone who lasted more than a week.
“Maybe he’ll bring in someone just as hunky,” Kiki said.
“Or maybe his wife.” Fiji was willing to concede this was a little mean of her, but Kiki seemed determined to rub her the wrong way. Ordinarily, Fiji would be quite interested in a hunky new guy at the convenience store. She had to admit that Kiki made her feel contrary. This was not a huge revelation.
“He didn’t mention a wife, and he didn’t have on a wedding ring,” Kiki said triumphantly.
“Well, that’s good news,” Fiji said, scolding herself severely.
“What did you do while I was gone?” her sister asked. She looked at Fiji in the bright-eyed expectation that Fiji would have done absolutely nothing.
“Had a couple of customers, talked to them,” Fiji said. “Sold some stuff.” Denise had bought a book about star signs.
“Oh. Well, good!” Kiki fidgeted around some more, going through the stack of magazines on the table between the two wicker chairs, picking up this item or that item and examining it, only to return it to not-exactly-the-right place.
“So,” Kiki said, when she’d exhausted the possibilities of the store, “what do you think Quinn’s doing now?”
“Probably visiting with Diederik, because that’s what he came here to do,” Fiji said. “Or if Diederik’s busy, Quinn’s working up in his hotel room on his laptop.”
“Why would Diederik be busy?”
“He has a couple of . . . jobs,” Fiji said. “He helps the Rev out. And he works over at the hotel doing janitor work in the evenings.”
Kiki decided to rearrange the wicker chairs and the table. “Who’s the Rev?”
“The Rev is the older man who wears the black suit and hat,” Fiji said between clenched teeth.
“Why is he helping to raise Diederik?”
Fiji had to think quick to come up with an answer for that one. She wasn’t going to tell her sister that the three men were weretigers. “The Rev is a distant relation. Quinn travels all the time, so the Rev’s glad to keep Diederik here until he can go along with his dad. We’re all helping.”
“So he’s been here for years?”
In tiger terms, yes. In human terms, not so much. “We’ve all watched him grow up,” Fiji said truthfully.
“Quinn had quite a chat with you today out on the porch. All by your lonesomes.”
“You never thought about making a play for him?”
No, because I was blinded by my love for Bobo.
“I never did,” Fiji said calmly.
“Because seriously, he looks like he would be a tiger in the sack.”