Authors: Charlaine Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy
Agnes was also delighted to hear she would have grandchildren sometime in the not-too-distant future . . . and that her daughter would be the vehicle by which those grandchildren would arrive. Manfred shuddered when he thought of the possible repercussions of that prediction. Magdalena would scalp him. Fortunately, Manfred had determined ahead of time that Magdalena was not Agnes’s only daughter.
When Agnes insisted Linda have a tarot reading, too, Linda stopped Manfred from handing her the cards to shuffle.
“No cards. Just hold my hands,” the young woman said. She switched places with Agnes, who was all smiles and excitement, and Manfred reached across to take her hands. They were cool and bony. The last time he’d done a private reading, his client had died while he was summoning her deceased husband. He tried not to shudder as he remembered how that had felt.
“Is there someone in particular you want to talk to?” he asked.
“Yes, my mother,” Linda said. “Lucy Trujillo.”
Manfred opened the other eye inside his head. He didn’t always think of it as an eye; sometimes it was a window, and sometimes it was a door. But today, it was a third eye, and its lid flew wide. Someone was close, waiting for Linda to ask. Feeling very encouraged, Manfred said quietly, “Lucy Trujillo, visit your daughter Linda. She’s waiting for you, Lucy.” He hoped the spirit would show up.
But Lucy Trujillo had nothing to say to her daughter that day; someone else wanted to speak. Manfred had to comply.
“Do you know a Donnie Trujillo?” he asked Linda. Her hands clenched his convulsively.
Agnes gave a thrilled gasp. (She really was the best audience you could possibly hope for.) “Oh my God, Linda, that’s your brother!” she whispered. As if Linda would not have recognized the name otherwise.
“Yes,” Linda said quietly. “I know that’s my brother.” She was not nearly as excited—more resigned than anything, if Manfred could judge. The spirit was circling him, waiting to be invited. When Linda didn’t speak again, Manfred said, “Donnie, you may approach and talk to your sister.”
Donnie did not want to use his own voice, and he wasn’t strong enough to use Manfred to speak. Manfred was grateful, because possession wore him out and was not a little frightening. Manfred relayed the message he was given. “Donnie says, ‘I’ve missed you, LindyLou, and I’ll be glad to see you.’”
Unexpectedly, Linda smiled. “It is him,” she said quietly. “That’s what he called me.”
“He misses you,” Agnes whispered. “Oh my God.” Manfred regretted that the older woman hadn’t chosen this method of communication, since she was so thrilled by Donnie’s appearance.
Donnie said, “Tell her not to worry.”
Manfred dutifully repeated the message.
“I’m not worried,” said Linda, managing to smile.
thought Manfred. But he finally felt someone coming for Agnes, and it was lucky he’d done some research because it helped him identify the spirit. “Donnie says he’ll see you in the blue hereafter,” Manfred said. “Excuse me, but there’s someone here to see Agnes.” Wide-eyed, Agnes took Linda’s place. Linda seemed content to move back to another chair, and she seemed at peace with the message she’d received, too.
“Agnes, it’s Anna,” Manfred said. “You know an Anna?”
“Anna!” Mrs. Orta was wide-eyed. “Anna, what do you want to tell me? Are you happy? Are you in heaven?”
“It’s beautiful,” Anna said, through Manfred. “Agnes, Mama’s ring . . . it’s in the sewing machine.” Manfred shook his head, puzzled. But that was what Anna was saying. “In the button box?” he said. “Does that make sense?”
Evidently, it did. Agnes didn’t wait to see if Anna had any other words for her. She was on her feet and hurrying into the next room, trailing exclamations like scarves behind her. There were sounds of vigorous rummaging. While Manfred and Linda waited, two tears slid down Linda’s cheeks, and she blotted them hastily on a napkin. She said, “Thank you,” very quietly.
A second later, Agnes burst back into the kitchen, carrying an ancient dark blue metal tin that had once held King Leo, whatever that was. She spilled the contents out on the table.
“Wow,” said Manfred involuntarily. There were buttons of every description imaginable on the table, many of them far older than he was. Some were metal, some covered in velvet, some were carved wood, some modern plastic. Agnes bent over them and began stirring them with an urgent finger.
“There,” said Linda, who had gotten interested in the search. “There it is!”
Sure enough, a pearl ring lay jumbled in with the buttons.
Agnes couldn’t stop repeating “Oh my God,” and Manfred was feeling pretty damn proud of himself. A genuine, tangible, result of his work! This didn’t happen often.
Agnes, the ring on her little finger, was turning it this way and that, exulting. Impulsively, she took Manfred’s hand and Linda’s, and said, “What a wonderful day this is!” But the link between the three of them flung Manfred back into the realm of spirits, and he was abruptly confronted with his grandmother.
He was horrified.
Seeing Xylda again, as a spirit, was almost unbearable. She wasn’t in color, which was very strange. He could only imagine the red of her hair, which was being whipped around her head. A wind was battering at her; soon it would rip her away. Xylda was desperate to tell him something. She reached out as if she were trying to physically grab his shoulders so she could hold on long enough to deliver her message. “Watch out,” she said. “Watch out. Get away from the crossroad! It’s waking up!”
And then she was gone, and the kitchen was silent, and both Linda and Agnes were looking at him with alarm. “I’m sorry,” Manfred said. “I hope I didn’t scare you?”
Agnes said, “You just looked scared and pretty upset for a minute. We didn’t know what was happening with you.”
“I saw someone I didn’t expect to see,” Manfred answered honestly. “It shook me up. I . . . was surprised. I’m fine, now.” He forced a smile.
Agnes was ready to be reassured, and Linda too absorbed in her own problems, to spend a lot of time worrying about Manfred. They both accepted his explanation, and returned to the topic of the ring.
Manfred could tell that Agnes was not only delighted to discover the ring, but also proud that her whole belief in spiritualism had been validated by the ring’s reappearance. Since anything else he told Agnes would have been anticlimactic, Manfred extricated himself slowly and politely from Agnes’s hospitality. He took a moment to give Linda a quick hug. He was sure he would not see her again.
Because Agnes was so thrilled, it took Manfred a bit longer to actually get into his car and leave. With some relief, he returned to the main street, hoping to meet Teacher and get back to Midnight without further incident. Manfred had had a text from Teacher:
I’m at Mary Lee’s Café. Pie still good.
Manfred entered to find Teacher sitting at the counter, a big metal box on the floor beside him. It certainly looked heavy enough to contain tools. he’d purchased. Manfred sat down with Teacher long enough to wolf down a sandwich, and then they were on their way.
Manfred had a lot to think about. Fortunately, Teacher took the hint when Manfred answered a couple of questions in a clipped way. Drawing out his cell phone, Teacher played a game most of the way back, at least in the areas where he had service.
When they reached Midnight, Manfred dropped Teacher off in front of his trailer, glad to have done a nice thing for Teacher but even more glad to have completed that nice thing and gotten rid of him. Manfred was itching to get back inside his own house, sit at his own computer, and catch up on the work he’d missed while he was in Killeen.
He was almost at the point of having to hire another “Manfredo” to help him with the website, because if he slackened he had to hump to get back to keeping abreast.
Even with Manfred’s plunge into work, it seemed to take a very long time for the sky to darken outside. Finally, he felt so tired he stopped working. Though Manfred was preoccupied with his vision of Xylda and her alarming message, he also felt relieved to have discharged his debt to Magdalena. She was not a woman he’d wanted to owe, especially since she was his lawyer. Manfred knew he’d hear from Magdalena. He knew that Agnes would call her daughter today, assuming she hadn’t been on the phone the second he’d backed out of her driveway.
It surprised him, though, when Magdalena showed up in person just as he stood up from the computer. She was not alone. Sheriff Arthur Smith was with her, and he wasn’t in uniform.
Manfred liked Arthur, who not only seemed more flexible than most lawmen but also seemed like a decent person. Manfred also knew that Arthur had been married three times already, since Arthur had told him that. In fact, the third divorce was only a month past. Magdalena had been married, too, at least once. Manfred was not optimistic that their couplehood would endure.
However, Manfred told himself sternly, it was none of his business, and Arthur and Magdalena were certainly old enough to chart their own course.
“How you been doing?” Arthur asked, and Magdalena said, “You sure made my mom’s week.”
For a good five minutes, they talked about the ring discovery. Manfred could have predicted every word of the dialogue, just like a bad movie. Normally he would have been at least moderately glad to see the two, but tonight he had other fish to fry. And urgently. It was almost dark. And lately, dark had meant a higher chance of a suicide at the crossroads.
Manfred glanced at the window, trying to conceal his impatience. He’d been carrying Xylda’s warning around with him all day, and it was a heavy burden. He needed to spread the word. If he hadn’t been so eager to get back to normal after his road trip . . .
“Okay, how the hell did you know about the ring?” Magdalena demanded, not for the first time. Manfred sighed, but he’d known she’d demand a “rational” explanation for one of the cleanest and clearest readings he’d gotten in his life. “I don’t know how you could have done that! Mama’s been looking for that ring for years.”
“I guess she hasn’t sewed on a button in that long,” Manfred said. “Your aunt showed up and told her that was where the ring was, in the button box. Believe me, I was just as surprised as your mom. She’s a wonderful lady, by the way.”
Magdalena’s face softened. “Yes, she is,” she said. “My dad died young, and she did a good job raising us.”
“That neighbor of hers,” Manfred said awkwardly. “Linda.”
“What about her?”
“She’s pretty sick.” This was something he didn’t want to talk about, but he felt he had to warn Magdalena. Agnes Orta was going to take Linda’s death hard.
“She’s young,” Magdalena said, smiling, but without conviction. She knew there was a reason he’d brought up Linda’s health.
Manfred just shook his head. Her smile vanished. After a tense moment, she nodded, just a jerk of her head.
Arthur broke the silence by asking Manfred how things had been going in Midnight. “Any more suicides?” he asked, trying to lighten up the conversation. He couldn’t have imagined that just made it worse.
“That would be pretty stunning, wouldn’t it?” Manfred said.
Arthur laughed. “Even in Midnight, that seems pretty unlikely,” he said.
Manfred offered them a drink, pretty sure Magdalena and Arthur would turn it down and see the offer as a signal to depart. Sure enough, Magdalena thanked Manfred but turned down the drink. Soon after, she and Arthur rose to take their leave. They were going to stop by the Cartoon Saloon for a sandwich and a beer, and then catch a movie in Marthasville.
When their taillights were out of sight, Manfred walked over to the pawnshop. As he’d expected, Lemuel was behind the counter. The old book was open in front of him and a spiral-bound notebook was beside it. Lemuel was busy writing when Manfred came in, but he put down his pen to regard Manfred. “What brings you out this night, neighbor?” Lemuel asked in his rusty voice.
“I got a warning today,” Manfred said. “A true warning.”
Lemuel’s cold gaze intensified, which made Manfred shiver. It felt odd and unpleasant to be the object of Lemuel’s interest.
“Tell me about it.”
As concisely as possible, Manfred related his grandmother’s warning. “She said it was waking up,” he said.
Lemuel said, “I think we are very close to catastrophe.”
“Do you know what lies underneath the crossroad?” Manfred asked.
“I suspect I do.” Lemuel laid his hand on the book.
Manfred wanted to tell Lemuel to hurry up, but a strong sense of self-preservation stopped him.
“Since I have to finish the translation, it’s slow work.” Lemuel’s tone made it clear this was not an apology, but an explanation. “I dare not skip anything. It’s too important. A crossroad is a place where hunting trails cross, a place where criminals are executed, or a place where shrines are set up. This crossroad may be all three, but I have to be sure what we’re dealing with.”
Manfred could only nod. He turned to go, but Lemuel had more to say.
“I understand Teacher went to Killeen with you today,” Lemuel observed. “What did you think of him?”
“Interesting you should bring that up,” Manfred said. “I wasn’t comfortable with him, and I don’t know why. He seems like the easiest person in the world to get along with, in general conversation, but one-on-one . . . I just can’t figure him out.”
“Did he seem to want to know you?”
“Yes, he asked several questions. I kept telling myself it was only natural when you don’t know someone, to ask those questions, but you know what? It felt like filling out a form for a job. So I tried to ask him the same questions, see how he liked it. He didn’t.” He told Lemuel about Teacher’s visit to the hardware store.
“Interesting,” Lemuel said, and dismissed Manfred by becoming engrossed in the pages of the book.
Manfred shook his head, and left. He would have been surprised to know what Lemuel did about three a.m.
hen everyone else in Midnight was asleep, Lemuel left the pawnshop. He drifted through the night, which was as close to silent as an inhabited place can get. The electronic sounds of the stoplight were small and easy to ignore. The bugs were not too noisy at this time of year. A coyote yipped to the north, a lonely and feral comment. He listened, but the sound was not repeated.
Lemuel paused at the hotel to listen. He heard Lenore Whitefield, the manager, get up and visit the bathroom. He heard her husband snoring. One of the senior citizens on the ground floor stirred restlessly in her sleep. Lemuel moved soundlessly past the hotel, then past Home Cookin, and then drifted behind the restaurant to circle the doublewide trailer where the Reeds lived.
Grady woke up crying, perhaps sensing Lemuel’s presence, and Lemuel listened to Madonna plod into Grady’s little bedroom. Her voice and words were softer than he’d ever heard them as she gave the toddler a dry diaper and a soft kiss. Grady settled back into sleep almost immediately, but Madonna went into the kitchen to get a drink of water. Moving around the outside of the trailer, parallel to the woman inside, Lemuel followed her, his fingertips brushing the siding.
He had long wanted to search the Reeds’ trailer, but they were never gone long enough at night. He could trust Olivia to do a good job while the Reeds were gone during the day, if he could only be sure enough to tell her his suspicions.
If this had been a different day and age, Lemuel would have broken down the trailer door. Lemuel would have gone in and killed the Reeds, perhaps taking Grady to an orphanage if he was feeling merciful.
There were many things Lemuel liked about here and now. He did not have to hide what he was any more. He had friends, and a lover who accepted him for what he was. Some of his friends would willingly feed him the energy he needed to thrive. If not, he could visit a bar. He could travel, too, with some care and forethought. That delighted Lemuel, who had been tied to the area around Midnight for decades and decades.
The downside of the modern world? His natural tendency to settle things in a permanent and drastic way had to be curbed. Law enforcement was much more consistent and effective, at least in part because communication was instant. Ways of tracking those who broke the rules were scientific and relentless; or at least, they seemed so to Lemuel when he considered the past, where moving from one area to another rendered him practically invisible. Now, he had to think twice before he acted.
So he circled the trailer, pondering his options, until he had to return to Midnight Pawn because a car pulled up in front. He was in the side door and on the stool at the counter just before the customers entered, hooting and hollering and stumbling: three males, young, all drunk. Lemuel would have sighed if he’d needed to.
Predictably, the young men had come in to pawn the television that they’d probably stolen from one or another of their kin. Lemuel took a picture of them with his telephone (the novelty never ceased to entertain him) and kept the television for the police to collect, giving the kids each forty dollars, just enough to get them to leave. When their car taillights flashed, he called the highway patrol and gave them the license number.
“Lemuel Bridger, good citizen,” he said out loud after he’d hung up. “That’s me.” And he smiled, all to himself. He’d had a gulp of energy from all three. He wrote a note for Bobo and taped it to the television. The police would pick the set up tomorrow. Possibly, they would stop the boys before they’d had time to spend the money, and he would get it back.
Olivia had been out of town all day and would return sometime this night. He kept watch for her, while he sat and translated. Every now and then he would go out to look at the crossroads, but no one appeared. In between watching and looking, he translated, but it was slow going. He was ever conscious that if what he suspected was true, he was running out of time.
They all were.