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Night Shift

By´╝ÜCharlaine Harris

The first suicide arrives one October night.

He is a middle-aged man with a scruffy beard. He parks his battered pickup in front of the Midnight Hotel. The six-to-midnight clerk, a junior college freshman named Marina Desoto, later tells Deputy Anna Gomez that when she saw the pickup pull to the curb, she assumed the driver would come in to rent a room. Marina does not add that she had been a little excited at the prospect, since in the months she has worked at the hotel only six people have asked for a room during her shift.

Marina’s hope is dashed pretty quickly.

Peering out the glass door, she watches the man fall out of the pickup “like he was drunk,” she tells Deputy Gomez and Sheriff Arthur Smith.

Since Gomez knows Marina’s family, she also knows Marina is fully conversant with the behavior of drunk people.

“What did he do then?” the deputy asks.

“He walked funny, kind of leaning, like a big magnet was pulling him into the middle of the crossroad. And then he . . .” Marina’s voice trails off, and tears roll down her face. She lifts her hand to her head, forefinger pointed and thumb cocked, and mimes pulling a trigger.

“You saw this from the front desk?” Smith asks. He’s checked the line of sight, and he’s skeptical.

“No, you can’t see the whole intersection from the desk,” Marina says immediately, but not as if she’s really thinking about the question. “I had gotten up and walked to the door to lock it, after I saw him get out of the truck. Because he was acting so weird.”

“Smart,” Gomez says. “So he was just carrying a gun in his hand?”

“He pulled a gun out of his waistband. And he shot himself.”

Gomez makes herself keep her eyes on Marina, though she’s tempted to turn to look at the dark heap still crumpled by the road. An ambulance is waiting to take the corpse to the nearest medical examiner’s office.

“He didn’t say anything? You didn’t see him make a phone call?” Sheriff Smith says instead, going over ground already covered. He’s seen a cheap cell phone in the man’s shirt pocket.

“No sir,” Marina tells him. “He didn’t do nothing but get out and shoot himself.” And she starts crying again. Deputy Gomez sighs and pats Marina on the shoulder.

Anna Gomez has never liked Midnight, and its people are all guilty until proven innocent to her, no matter what her boss says. But even Gomez can’t hold the Midnighters responsible for this suicide, though she’d love to find a way.

Gomez gives in to the prickling on her skin and turns to look around her, feeling the eyes on her. The locals are awake and watching. Though this is surely a normal human reaction to a lot of lights and sirens late at night, it doesn’t make her feel any more comfortable.

Midnight and its people give Gomez the creeps. But she has to admit, none of them approach her to ask questions, and none of them try to get close to catch a glimpse of the body.

It never occurs to Anna Gomez that this is because they are all well aware of what a body looks like.





1





The next night, almost all the people in Midnight went up the steps to gather in the pawnshop owned by Bobo Winthrop, owner and proprietor, who worked the day shift there.

Midnight Pawn was a very old store with wooden floors that creaked in a friendly way. It was crowded with many curious items. The big open area at the front of the shop was hospitably full with chairs of all descriptions and ages, which made it made a natural meeting place. The counter, with its high stool, was to the left, parallel to the wall. Normally, that was where Bobo sat when there were customers.

But when there weren’t, like tonight, Bobo sat in his favorite velvet chair. It was very old, and the velvet was worn, but Bobo found it comfortable and stylish. He’d positioned it to give him a good view of his domain, from the loaded shelves that held the strange discards of the human race, to the display cases in which objects gleamed and glittered. There was a whole shelf of sanders, for example. And one of bubblegum machines. And jewelry, both real and fabulously fake.

And there was one secluded corner full of magical items. Fiji Cavanaugh, the witch who lived across Witch Light Road, had suggested that Bobo let her inspect those before they were placed on display.

Tonight, Fiji came in first. She smiled at Bobo and found a place to sit where she could see everyone. The witch, a brown-haired woman in her late twenties, was literally well rounded and had lovely skin, at least in part because she kept it protected from the Texas sun.

The Rev and his ward, Diederik, took up chairs beside Fiji. The Rev was a sparse man; short in stature, short of words, thin and bony and dry. His thinning dark hair was combed straight back. The Rev always wore the same ensemble: a white shirt, black pants, a black coat, and a black cowboy hat and boots. He sported a string tie with a turquoise stone fixing it around his neck. Wearing the same ensemble every day simplified his life.

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