Midnight Crossroad (Midnight, Texas #1)(8) by Charlaine Harris

Fiji’s face went stiff. “No,” she said. “I go because we’re friends.” She spun on her heel to walk away.

“Hold on a minute,” Manfred said, making his voice an apology in itself. “I said that without thinking.”

“Right.” He could see he had not mollified Fiji. Manfred had no idea what to do to make it better between them.

She looked back at him, her eyes narrowed and her hands clenched. She huffed out a sound of exasperation. “Listen, Manfred, would it kill you to say the magic words? And sound like you mean them?”

Magic words? Manfred was totally at sea. “Ahhh . . .” he said. “Okay, if I knew what they were . . .”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Those are the magic words. And yet no one with a Y chromosome seems to understand that.” And off Fiji stomped, the drops from the previous evening’s shower blotching her skirt as she passed through the shrubs and flowers.

“Okay,” Manfred said to the cat. “Did you get that, Mr. Snuggly?” He and the impassive cat gave each other level stares. “I bet your real name is Crusher,” Manfred muttered. Shaking his head as he crossed the road, he was relieved to get back to his house and to resume answering queries for Bernardo.

But he stored a new fact in his mental file about women.

They liked it if you told them you were sorry.

6

On the same day that Manfred enlarged his knowledge of male-female relations—though hours afterward—Bobo had an entirely different sort of discussion. He’d had a genuinely busy day, as Saturdays sometimes were—especially toward the end of the month. Late in the afternoon, he’d gotten a lull for thirty minutes, and he’d sunk down into his chair for the first time since he’d opened.

Bobo had had enough work for the day—he really did need to hire a part-time assistant—so he was not pleased when two men who seemed vaguely familiar entered the pawnshop. He’d worked right past six o’clock, when he normally locked up until Lem took over at eight. It was at least seven, and dark outside.

“I’m just closing up,” he called. “You need to come back in an hour, when we reopen.” Then he recognized them as the two men who’d eaten at Home Cookin, and he was instantly sure they hadn’t brought anything to pawn. He recognized the type. They were there to ask questions, the kind of questions Bobo had fled to Midnight to avoid.

They didn’t waste any time.

“The night your grandfather got arrested,” the shorter man said, “an informant told the police he had a secret cache of rifles and a couple of bigger pieces stashed away. The cops found a lot of stuff. But everyone in his group, including my dad’s friend’s cousin, knew he had more.”

Bobo had a bitter moment. He’d been sitting in his own store, comfortable in his usual jeans and T-shirt, and he’d just set down a mug of instant hot chocolate. He’d been reading a Lee Child novel in the moments between customers. Jack Reacher was his hero. Bobo sadly wished Jack Reacher were there with him now.

Bobo was aware that he had relaxed into complacency, under the mistaken assumption that Aubrey’s disappearance was his crisis for the year. He had been foolish to believe there was a term limit on bad-shit-happening-to-Bobo-Winthrop.

The import of the shorter man’s words sank into him. If there was anything in the world Bobo disliked more than being interrupted on a pleasant day, it was hearing his own history told back to him. He understood that he was in for another hard time—probably a beating—and he sighed. He put his mug in a safer place, and he prepared himself for what was surely to come.

Bobo was a big man, and a fit one. He ran three times a week, and he did his martial arts warmups and katas every day. He didn’t actually enjoy hitting people, but he figured he was going to have to this evening. “I don’t know anything about my grandfather’s secrets, and I don’t believe in his racist, homophobic hogwash,” he told his unwelcome visitors. “You might as well shove off.” Bobo knew he was wasting his breath.

“No,” said the shorter man. “I don’t think we will.”

Predictable, Bobo thought.

“We need those rifles, and we need those explosives. I think we’re going to have to talk about this some more.” The short man sounded certain he could make Bobo talk. He produced a knife. It looked very sharp. “You need to change your attitude, or we’re going to have to change it for you.”

“I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” said a new voice, and the two strangers tensed visibly, their eyes searching the shadowy depths of the pawnshop, the deep interior where the sun didn’t reach even during the day. From behind some shelves that held a memory lane of blenders, Olivia Charity appeared. Bobo’s face relaxed in a smile. It was two on two, now.

When they saw a woman (a woman clad in a black bra and black bikini panties), the two men relaxed their vigilance, though Olivia was armed with a longbow, arrow nocked and ready. The taller man, the one with the trimmed mustache and beard, sneered, “You think you’re Robin Hood’s little girlfriend or something?” He pulled a gun with his right hand and seemed to feel that put him in charge of Bobo and Olivia.

Olivia shot him.

It was almost funny how surprised the taller man was when he saw the feathered shaft sticking out of his right shoulder. After a second of horrified astonishment, he screamed, and the gun clattered to the wooden floor from his useless right hand. His boss, the brown-haired man, dropped his own knife as insufficient. He pulled a pistol from under his jacket and fired at Olivia in a very smooth move.

But she wasn’t there. Neither was Bobo, who’d moved into a shadow and crouched down the instant he’d heard the bow twang. The short man looked around, confused, trying to locate someone to shoot.

Instead, there was a quick motion and a noise from the floor to the short man’s right, the motion and sound in such quick sequence they were almost simultaneous, and from a white blur that appeared by the short man’s side two hands reached out, seized the shorter man’s head, and twisted. There was a particularly nauseating meaty snap, and the short man folded onto the dusty floor. Bobo jumped up to see what had happened.

“Jesus, Lem,” said Bobo, startled but not surprised. “That was pretty extreme.” Olivia rose from the floor with a groan, shaking her head; Lem had knocked her down as he sped past, and she’d hit the floor hard.

The taller man, his sleeve soaked with blood, opened his mouth to scream again, but Lemuel was there before the sound could escape the man’s lips. He did not break the man’s neck. He clapped his hand over the man’s mouth.

“Bobo,” Lem said, in his deep, antique voice, “I’m taking this one downstairs so’s I can ask him a few questions in the privacy of my room. Then I’ll be up to work. Olivia?”

“Yes, Mr. Domination?” Olivia was scowling. She clearly felt she’d had the situation under control.

“Can you find a good spot for the dead gentleman? I can bury him tonight. There might be a customer here at any moment.”

That was quite true. It was often the case that if one customer showed up late, the whole night was filled with a steady trickle of people bearing the oddest items. “Okay,” Olivia said, though it was clear she wasn’t appeased. “I can do that. The usual place, I guess.”

“Should be fine,” Lem said. He’d come up through the trapdoor in the floor, rather than take the conventional route of exiting his apartment door, going up the half flight of stairs to the common landing, and entering the store from the landing door. Only Lemuel and Olivia knew the trapdoor existed, it was so unobtrusive. “I know you can handle it.” He began dragging the struggling man over to the trapdoor. Though his captive was several inches taller than Lemuel, and pounds heavier, the pale man handled him with ease.

“Thanks,” Bobo called, reminded of his manners. “I should have said that right away. You two are the Speedy Rescue Team.”

“Glad to help,” Lem said. “Lucky you’ve got the foot alarm buzzer in here.” Lem had installed it himself, with Bobo’s help.

“Good thing Lem was awake,” Olivia said. Bobo finally noted Olivia’s state of undress and realized that Lemuel was absolutely naked. Since Bobo hadn’t noticed those interesting facts until this moment, he’d been more upset than he’d realized.

“Yeah, I’m real lucky,” Bobo said drily. “Sorry you two got interrupted.”

“We don’t speak of private things,” Lemuel said reprovingly. “You might want to put the CLOSED sign up, Bobo.” His voice floated up from the foot of the ladder. Bobo, at the top, could hear the sounds of Lem’s feet as he went to his own door with the bleeding man tossed over his shoulder.

“Right,” Bobo said. The door down below opened and closed. “Olivia, you need my help?”

“You better stay here and straighten up the mess,” she said. “I can take care of this.” “This” was the body of the short man.

Bobo knew better than to argue with her, especially since Lem had already rained on her parade by killing the short guy. Instead, he flipped the trapdoor shut, ignoring the subdued shriek he heard from Lem’s apartment. He hoped Lem was getting some good information, and he hoped Lem was well fed afterward. If it had been up to him, he would have called the police . . . but with Lem, some things you just couldn’t stop.

Luckily, the dead man had the keys to his truck in his pocket, so Olivia didn’t have to interrupt Lemuel’s interrogation/meal. Olivia ran down to her place to grab some jeans and a shirt, and while Bobo was cleaning up the evidence of the struggle, including blood, she drove the dead man’s pickup to the back of the store and knocked on the rear door, which led onto a small loading platform. Bobo unlocked the door, and Olivia stepped through. She gave Bobo a fond smile and a pat on the shoulder as she went by, and when she came back, she had the body over her shoulder. There was a dreadful limpness to the corpse’s arms and legs, which moved in rhythm with her walk. “I’m on my way,” Olivia said. She wasn’t even breathing heavily.

“How do you do that?” Bobo asked. “I guess I could pick him up, but I sure couldn’t stroll around with him without getting short of breath.”

She grinned. “Every now and then Lem gives me some blood.”

“Does it taste awful?” Bobo made an effort not to look disgusted.

“Nah. Not in the heat of the moment. With all due respect to Lemuel’s modesty.”

“Thanks again, Olivia. I expected to take a beating.” At the top of his bagful of emotions, he was relieved. A layer down, he felt a bit horrified that his attackers were dead and that they’d been made that way with such speed and efficiency. At the bottom, he was sad and angry that his grandfather, so many years gone, had screwed up his life again.

“No problem. See you in a bit.” She moved quietly and quickly, even though she was lugging 185 pounds of dead weight.

After Olivia left to drive the pickup to “the usual place,” Bobo scanned the floor and the items around the crucial area, looking for blood spots. Though he used a flashlight and wiped up what he could find, he soon realized that he’d have to complete the job in the daytime. He folded the old towel he’d used to wipe up and put it by his book so he couldn’t forget to take it upstairs to his washing machine. After he’d turned the store sign to “Closed,” Bobo collected his hot chocolate (now tepid), his book, the towel, and his keys and went upstairs to his apartment. While he stood in front of his microwave (he was trying to salvage his drink), he thought the incident over. There was a lot to consider.

He led off with wondering where “the usual place” was and what Olivia would do with the dead man’s pickup. Would she need a ride back? He’d be glad to do that for her. In fact, he texted her to that effect immediately. Then he began to worry about how the men had found him. They weren’t the first ones to do so, but they were the first ones to find him since he’d moved to Midnight. The last ones had beat him up and left him in the store he’d run in Missouri, a souvenir stand outside Branson. He’d left the next day for . . . anywhere else. He’d landed in Alaska, and he’d stayed there working until he felt the cold and damp seeping into his joints. He’d saved his pay, and he’d sold the Missouri souvenir stand through an agent, and he’d still had some family money stashed away, so he was able to buy Midnight Pawn from the previous owner, Travis Bridger . . . who (though he was supposed to be Lemuel’s great-grandson) had turned out to be Lemuel himself. Lemuel was not the original owner of Midnight Pawn, but he’d been in charge for over a hundred years, plus or minus.

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