Authors: Charlaine Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy
Fiji snorted with laughter. “I’ll bet he would,” she said. She had a strong conviction it was not the first time that observation had been made about John Quinn. She thought for a moment about how it would feel, going to bed with Quinn, all that olive skin at her pleasure. She felt a twinge, and knew it would be a memorable experience, but somehow Fiji didn’t think she’d follow that up.
She glanced at her watch. “Kiki, you want to cook supper tonight?”
“Oh. You don’t feel like it? What were you going to have?”
“I have some chicken in the refrigerator in the meat drawer. How about chicken baked in spaghetti sauce over pasta, with a salad?”
“Got any garlic bread?”
“There should be some in the freezer.”
“Then you got a deal,” Kiki said.
It was really nice not to have to cook this evening, but not quite nice enough to make up for the aggravation and tension that Kiki’s presence caused her. At least Fiji kept busy that afternoon. Three women from Marthasville stopped by to exclaim over the philosophy books, the witchcraft books, and the astrology charts. They even bought two or three things apiece. And as the afternoon came to an end, Fiji could smell cooking from the back of the house, a novel assurance that she could sit back and relax, maybe work on the store’s books for a while.
Though the chicken was a little overdone and the salad a little overdressed, Fiji enjoyed eating a meal that she hadn’t had to prepare. Dinner was even more pleasant when Kiki ran out of small talk. But Fiji could tell there was something else on her sister’s mind. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what that might be, but automatically she began reviewing the possibilities.
After a moment, Fiji realized that Kiki hadn’t said one word about hearing from her husband or their parents since her arrival. Kiki specialized in adversarial phone conversations. This dearth of controversy seemed very odd.
I haven’t even seen her pick up her cell phone,
Fiji realized. Significant, but in what way?
There was a knock at the front door just as they’d finished eating. Fiji peered out to see through the glass pane that her caller was Teacher Reed. Though she was surprised, Fiji hurried through to unlock it.
Teacher said, “Sorry to bother you, Fiji, I know you’re closed. But my truck has just died, right here.” Fiji peered past him. Teacher’s old pickup had pulled in just off the road. “Can I leave it there until the morning? The tow truck will come get it then, early, I promise.”
“Sure, that’s fine,” Fiji said, feeling Kiki coming up behind her. The woman was as curious as a ferret. “I hope it’s not too broken.”
“Bad enough that I can’t fix it myself,” Teacher said. In Fiji’s observation, Teacher was a man who liked to listen more than he liked to talk, who would rather do than be done for, and he seemed to have a personal goal of self-sufficiency. Fiji found all that admirable, but not endearing. “I had big plans for tomorrow, now that I’m free of working at Gas N Go,” Teacher said.
“I’m glad for you. And I know everyone in town will be relieved now that you’re available as a handyman again!”
“Good to hear. But I’m giving myself a few days off. I was going to Killeen in the morning, but I guess now I’m staying home. I’ll let you know when I can get it moved. Sorry.” And with a wave, he walked off.
At least after Teacher had gone Kiki didn’t ask questions. It wasn’t that Kiki disliked men of color, or looked down on women who dated men of color—at least, Fiji didn’t think so. Kiki simply didn’t see them as suitable play partners for her, so they didn’t register with her as male.
About an hour later, Manfred called her. “What’s broken at your place?” he asked.
“Not a thing, unless you know something I don’t know.”
“Teacher just stopped in for a visit?”
They both knew how unlikely that was. “Right,” Fiji said, laughing. She was holding the phone to her ear with one hand while she put a bookmark into an Anne Rice novel with the other. “No, his truck broke down, and it’s beyond his power to fix so he’s in a state about it. Plus, he had an appointment in Killeen tomorrow and now he can’t go.”
“Killeen? Huh. I have to go to Killeen tomorrow. I should give him a call.”
Manfred didn’t sound too excited about it.
Fiji said, “He won’t know, if you don’t spread it around. I guess you two aren’t soul mates?”
“It just seems so random,” Manfred said. “That he should need to go where I’m going. And that it should
be somewhere I’ve never gone.”
“Got your spidey-sense tingling?”
“Yes,” Manfred said.
“Don’t call him, then,” she advised. “It won’t kill him to wait a few days until his truck is fixed. Killeen will still be there.”
“I’ll think about it,” Manfred said. “I feel like I owe him for fixing my sink. He came over at ten at night after he’d closed the convenience store. That was kind of above and beyond the call of duty. Okay, well, glad nothing’s wrong with your water heater, or your plumbing.”
“Hey, I got a couple of bottles of that pinot grigio you like so much. It was on sale. Want me to bring one over? We can talk about the state of the world.”
“Sure, come on. We just cleaned up after supper, but there are some leftovers if you’re hungry.”
“Nah, I’ve eaten. But I’m walking over with the wine.”
Fiji put down her phone and said, “Kiki, let’s put out those cheese straws in a bowl.”
“Company’s coming?” Kiki said, trying not to sound too eager. Kiki’s face lit up at the prospect of having someone else to talk to besides her sister. Truth be told, Fiji felt the same way.
“Manfred, and he’s bringing wine. So if you could get out some glasses? They’re on the second shelf of that cabinet.” Fiji pointed.
Thirty minutes later, the three of them were sitting around the wicker table in the shop portion of the house. Fiji had rolled her office chair around the counter for the third seat.
She understood that the conversation was stilted, but she didn’t really know how to cut the thread of awkwardness. She and Manfred had a comfortable relationship. Adding Kiki to the mix had put in roadblocks.
Oh, her sister could have a conversation . . . the famous people she’d “happened” to meet, the odd customers who’d come into the mall clothing store where she worked. The punch line of each story was (always) Kiki setting them straight in their opinions and life styles with a pithy phrase or put-down.
Manfred was very polite about the lopsided conversation. He could say “Really?” or “You did not!” as well as the next person.
But Fiji became more and more embarrassed. Finally, she was compelled to stem the tide. At the next pause in the monologue, she jumped in. “Why are you going to Killeen, Manfred? Do you have a private reading there?”
He smiled ruefully. “Yes, but a nonpaying one. I won’t tell you the whole long story, but I owe my lawyer one. You remember Magdalena, I’m sure.”
“She’s dating Arthur Smith now, isn’t she? You’re just a cupid, Manfred!”
He made a mock-modest face, and bowed.
“The sheriff and his lawyer sort of knew each other, but Manfred brought them together,” Fiji said in an aside to her sister.
Kiki had taken the change of subject with good grace, and was doing her best to look interested. Possibly she’d remembered conversation is a two-way street.
“Tomorrow I’m giving Magdalena’s mom a private reading. The first time we scheduled it, her mom had to cancel. But tomorrow, I’m driving to Killeen to clear the board.” He said this with more relief than Fiji would have expected.
“Has Magdalena been bugging you about it?”
“You have no idea,” Manfred said, shaking his head. “She’s tenacious, which makes her a great lawyer. But she’s a very uncomfortable person to owe a favor to.”
“How far is Killeen?” Kiki said.
“It should take about three hours to get there,” Manfred said. “Oh, by the way, Feej, I called Teacher and he jumped at the chance to ride with me. I figured as long as I was canceling out a favor I owed, I might as well cancel another one, too.”
Fiji smiled. “I like your reasoning. It’s a good thing to be square with Teacher.”
“The guy who left his truck in front of your shop?” Kiki said, to make it clear she was feeling left out.
“You met him,” Fiji said. “He just texted me to tell me a tow truck would be coming early in the morning to get the pickup out of the way.”
“Want some more cheese straws?” Kiki asked their guest, determined to insert herself into the conversation.
“Oh, I’m not company,” Manfred said easily. “I’ll get my own.” And he did.
After twenty more minutes, Manfred made leaving sounds. He offered to wash the wineglasses, but Fiji said, “I give you a pass on helping this time, since you brought the wine. You have to get an early start in the morning, anyway.”
After he’d departed, Kiki could hardly wait until the door slammed behind him before she began asking questions. The fact that Manfred was a real Internet presence had escaped her until this evening. She wanted to know all about him.
Fiji answered the questions she could and shrugged at the questions she couldn’t. She did point out that Manfred was at least eight years younger than Kiki, whose face went sour at the reminder.
“It’s like you’re telling me I can’t flirt with anyone in your precious little town,” Kiki said. Her voice was sharp and her face was hard.
Fiji made herself pause before she snapped back. She gave Kiki’s accusation a minute’s thought. “I’m just pointing out facts,” she said. “Flirt with all of them, if you want.” She spread her hands to indicate the buffet of men available in Midnight. “I didn’t think you’d be interested in someone whose age is so different, that’s all.”
“Same difference as between you and the Diederik boy,” Kiki said meanly.
“What?” Fiji had turned away to dry the last glass. Now she swung to face Kiki again.
“Well, he is really tasty looking,” Kiki said with a smirk. “And he doesn’t look at you like he’s thinking how old you are.”
Fiji exhaled heavily, trying to control her impulse to jump on her sister and beat her about the head. But a thread of honesty kept her from it. It was true that when Diederik was helping the Rev dig graves in the pet cemetery, with his shirt off, it was hard not to think about him . . . carnally. If she just happened to be there at the time. But all Fiji had to do to bring herself back to reality was to remember Diederik as he’d been less than a year before, a very little boy who was really scared.
memory was cold water. Ice water.
“Kiki, I really don’t want to hear that again. I’ve known that boy since he was a toddler, and I don’t even want that idea to cross my own mind, much less anyone else’s.”
“Oh, Fiji, I was just kidding!” (She hadn’t been.)
“Don’t kid anymore.” Fiji let the water out of the sink. “I’ll put the dishes away in the morning. I’m going to read for a while, and then I’m going to bed. Do you need anything else?”
“No, I’m just fine.” Kiki looked angry because she felt guilty, and Fiji thought there should be a word for that. Guilter? Anguilty?
“See you tomorrow.” Fiji escaped to her room, shutting the door behind her with great delicacy.
The only television in the cottage was in the shop portion, and it was no great TV set. Fiji didn’t care that much about watching, though she heard all the time there was good programming that she really ought to see. But she always seemed to have something better to do. As Fiji, in her nightgown, padded to the bathroom to brush her teeth, she heard the television come on and saw the glow. Just as gently as she could, she closed the door between the shop and the residence. Mr. Snuggly came through the cat door, stopped by his bowls, and jumped up on Fiji’s bed the minute she climbed in. Fiji read some more of the Anne Rice novel, and worked a crossword puzzle, and caught herself yawning. She switched off her lamp and wiggled down in bed, Mr. Snuggly curled up at her feet.
Fiji said prayers every night, though she varied whom she prayed to. Tonight, she prayed for a smooth trip for Manfred and Teacher, and she also prayed that her sister would finally tell her why she’d really come to visit, and then find a reason to go.
t seven the next morning, Manfred and Teacher left for Killeen.
Teacher walked into Manfred’s yard holding a travel mug of coffee and looking morose just as Manfred was stowing his valise in the backseat. The two men nodded at each other, and Teacher got into the passenger seat. After a brief pause while Manfred put Agnes Orta’s address into his GPS, they drove south.
After Manfred had had his favorite morning beverage, CocaCola, and Teacher had worked on his coffee, Manfred found himself casting around to think of a topic of conversation. Manfred hadn’t met the new manager of Gas N Go yet, and he asked Teacher about the newcomer. Teacher told Manfred that he was okay. Teacher cataloged the repair jobs that had accumulated while he was employed at the convenience store and let Manfred know he was plenty upset about his truck failing him.
“What do you need to do in Killeen?” Manfred asked, after they’d listened to the morning news on the radio and agreed that the world was in sad shape. “I hope something that’ll take a couple of hours? I’ll be at least that long, I think.”
“I’ve got a friend there who handles this brand of tools I like a lot, so rather than order a few over the Internet and guess which one I’d really use, which one feels the best in my hand, I thought I’d take a look at ’em,” Teacher said. “He just e-mailed me to tell me he’d gotten in some new things, and I didn’t have a job scheduled for today, so I’d planned on driving down there. Kind of a treat to get away for a day. Thanks for letting me know you were going, man.”
“Fiji told me,” Manfred said. “It’s no big thing. Glad I could help. I guess these are pretty specialized tools?” Manfred only knew the basics about home repairs and tools, and he was trying to imagine how “special” a wrench could be.
“Some of them are special enough that I don’t know how often I’ll use them. The main thing is they’re very well made. So they’re pretty damn expensive,” Teacher said. “But my daddy always told me, don’t do to buy cheap tools.”
“Your daddy tell you the same thing?”
“I never met him, so he didn’t have the chance.” Manfred had had his whole life to get used to this state of affairs, but it was usually a shock to anyone else. Sure enough, Teacher turned and stared. “That sounds pretty rough,” Teacher said, after an appreciable pause.
“I’m used to it. Where did you grow up?” Manfred asked, just to get the conversation across that abyss.
“Alabama,” said Teacher.
“Never been there,” Manfred said. “You meet Madonna there? Childhood sweethearts?”
Though Manfred was focused on the road before him, he got the impression that Teacher shot him a sharp look. “We’ve known each other a long time,” Teacher said.
A curiously nonspecific answer, Manfred thought, and not what he’d expected. “So you grew up in the same town.”
“Can everyone in her family cook as well as Madonna can?”
“She says her granny could, but the talent sure skipped her mom. We’ll have to see about Grady.”
“Today Home Cookin, tomorrow
,” Manfred said, smiling. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
“How about you, Manfred? Where’d you grow up?”
“Tennessee,” he said. “A town outside of Memphis.”
“Had a big houseful?”
Manfred laughed. “No, just me and my mom, or more often me and my grandmother,” he said. “You have lots of siblings?”
“I did have a few,” Teacher said. “Two sisters and a brother.”
“Do you all keep in touch?” This conversation was on life support.
“Yeah, more or less. We talk at Christmas, but we don’t visit a lot.”
Manfred thought he could let it drop now, and they drove in silence for some time. Manfred was thinking about his business, and the ominous stain he’d noticed on the ceiling after the last rain. He was pretty sure his rented house needed a new roof. He’d have to hit up Bobo, his landlord. Bobo had been in such a bad mood in past few days that Manfred didn’t relish the prospect.
“Have you ever put a roof on?” he asked Teacher.
“I can. A roofing crew can do it a hell of a lot faster.”
“That’s something to think about,” Manfred said. “Hey, you need to make a pit stop? I could use some tea.” Tea was not available at the convenience store, but Manfred was glad enough to get another Coke. While Teacher bought a tube of powdered sugar doughnuts, Manfred enjoyed a gulp of icy sweetness. This road trip was turning out to be— not a disaster, certainly, but less than pleasant. Manfred felt uncomfortable at the prolonged close proximity to Teacher.
After another hour of listening to the radio and exchanging a few more terse comments on the news, they reached Killeen. Manfred couldn’t tell how Teacher felt about it, but Manfred was relieved. Teacher was able to direct Manfred right to his friend’s shop in the older part of town, the main street. Manfred pulled into an empty parking space to let Teacher out. He noted that there were some small restaurants on the same block, and he was relieved to know that if his session with Agnes Orta took longer than he expected, Teacher wouldn’t have to be sitting on the sidewalk twiddling his thumbs. “I’ll call you when I’m through,” he said. “You good?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. If I get through with my business ahead of time, the pie at Mary Lee’s Café—over there, see the red awning?—is really, really good. Don’t tell my wife I said so.”
Manfred said, “I won’t. Have good time with your tool guy.”
Teacher nodded. “Okay, man, see you later.” And he was out of the car and opening the door of the hardware store.
He walks like a different person,
Manfred thought, watching Teacher go inside. Teacher looked freer, somehow; happier. Either his friend in Killeen was someone really special or Teacher found Midnight oppressive. Manfred navigated his way to Agnes Orta’s house, thinking only a little about Teacher as he drove. Mostly, Manfred felt pleased to be alone.
Magdalena Orta Powell’s mother lived in a neat white house built in the fifties, with a small and well-kept front yard. There was a whimsical statue of a squirrel in one flower bed (the squirrel was smiling), and in another flower bed there stood a painted wooden cutout of a woman with a big butt, bending over. In case Mrs. Orta was looking out the window, Manfred did not make a face. Instead, he knocked on the door, which had recently been repainted dark green. It opened immediately.
“Mrs. Orta?” he said, and she nodded vehemently.
“Well, if this isn’t wonderful!” Agnes Orta said. “I’m so excited. I feel like I’m meeting a movie star. Call me Agnes, I’m not so old!”
Agnes Orta really wasn’t old, even to Manfred’s eyes. She must have been very young when she’d had Magdalena. Agnes was short, and if she had bent over she would have looked very much like the wooden cutout in the yard. He appreciated her sense of humor a bit more when he realized that.
Agnes’s hair was still thick and glossy, though there were a few threads of gray running through it. A beautiful silver comb held it away from her face, and the comb contrasted sharply with the orangepatterned top and brown pants that hugged Agnes’s generous curves.
“Come in, come in!” she said, and he moved past her into the sunny house. “Can I get you some tea? Some coffee?”
“Thanks,” he said. “Some tea would be great.”
“And if you need the bathroom, it’s right there,” his hostess told him, pointing at a door to the right of the little living room.
“Thanks,” Manfred said, relieved, and availed himself of the offer. When he emerged, she called him to the kitchen, which (though small) was bright and clean and full of plants. Mrs. Orta saw him looking around. “I brought in my rosemary and my basil,” she said. “The nights are getting too cold for them, even on the patio.”
“They make the kitchen look so nice,” he said, wishing his vocabulary had a better word for what he meant.
“My Magdalena bought this house for me,” she said proudly.
“What a great thing to do.” He meant it.
“She said she had met you in her professional capacity,” Mrs. Orta said. “I know Magdalena can be a forceful woman, so I hope she didn’t bulldoze you into coming to see me. I know it was a birthday present from her, but I also know that was quite a drive.”
Now that Manfred had met Agnes, he felt much happier about repaying his debt to Magdalena this way. “I’m glad to be here,” he said. “Magdalena told me you’re a fan of mine. I’m so flattered to hear it.”
“Oh, she don’t believe, but I do,” Agnes said. She put a mug of tea in front of him, along with a spoon and a tiny jug of milk and one of sugar. “And my priest understands.”
Manfred was surprised. He put a spoonful of sugar and a dash of milk in his tea in silence. In his experience, priests and ministers had strong feelings about psychics and fortunetellers, and he’d been on the receiving end of plenty of lectures. He didn’t want to hear another.
“But he won’t be showing up here today to watch, I take it,” Manfred said gently.
“Oh!” Agnes laughed, a big infectious huff of merriment. “Not Father Antonio. He just said, ‘I’ll see you on Sunday, and you better be there!’ ”
Manfred tried a sip of his tea and told her how good it was, trying to hide his relief that a Catholic priest would not be part of the morning’s program. He unpacked his valise, bringing out the tarot cards, the crystal ball (which he used as a focusing object), and the Ouija board, which he simply despised but lugged along, anyway.
Agnes looked at his tools with excitement and anticipation. “Can my friend Linda come over?” she asked. “I didn’t know if you would charge Magdalena more if I invited someone or not? Linda’s just as big a follower of yours as I am, and she lives right next door. It would be such a treat for her, she don’t get out much. She’s been poorly.”
“It would be fine if Linda was here,” Manfred said. He did not tell Agnes that he was doing this for free; that was between him and Magdalena.
After all, I might as well add another old lady to the reading,
Manfred thought. He would definitely have gone above and beyond what was required to discharge his debt.
Agnes was on the phone with Linda in a New York minute. While they were waiting for the neighbor to arrive Manfred looked around, trying to pick up more clues about Agnes and her world. He asked a few gentle questions. Knowledge was always handy when it came to the psychic business. He was beginning to build up a picture of Agnes and her world when there came a gentle knock at the kitchen door.
Linda Ortega was definitely not what Manfred had expected. She was at least twenty years younger than Agnes, and she was in the process of dying. The certainty hit Manfred like a hammer.
Does she know?
Manfred asked himself, because everything depended on the answer. When he shook Linda’s hand, he had his answer. She did know, but Agnes did not.
Linda’s eyes were huge and dark and melancholy, but not tragic. She’d accepted her death sentence. She didn’t want to talk about it. Manfred nodded, having gotten his cue. He sat at the kitchen table with the two women.
“Let’s talk about how we’re going to do this,” he said cheerfully, and fell into his professional patter. “There are different ways to lay out the cards, if you want to go with the tarot. What information are you seeking?”
“Can you explain?” Agnes asked.
“If you want to know if there are spirits in your house, we can try the planchette, though they may not cooperate,” he said. “If you want a reading on your future, we can lay out the tarot cards. If you want to find out what’s looming over you personally, we can use the ball to focus the spirits to give you an answer. If you want to see what spirit has a message for you specifically, I can link with you and we can explore that.” He had to go over all the options again before Agnes could make up her mind, but that gave him time to figure out how to handle the Linda-dying situation.
Agnes, as it turned out, wanted a little of everything.
Manfred did a tarot reading for her first, giving the cards to her to shuffle and laying them out in the familiar square. To his pleasure, the cards cooperated in a wonderful way. They hinted at a romance for Agnes, which put the older woman in a gale of giggles. Even Linda smiled.