Night Shift Page 31







Manfred was glad for absences. Kiki was gone, and Rasta was at his vet’s kennel being coddled by the staff, or so Chuy and Joe were assured when they called. Kiki had added nothing to Midnight, and she had taken away some of its harmony. He only hoped Fiji was not too upset. Diederik had told him that Kiki had been mean to Fiji in some way that Diederik didn’t specify. Manfred didn’t ask. He had enough on his plate. His hand looked better today, but it was still sore, and constant typing hadn’t helped that situation.

Manfred quit work a little early to give his hand a rest. He was propped on his elbows at the desk, looking out the front window. With a sigh, he stood and stretched and walked over to peer at Fiji’s. She had a customer. Behind him, phone lights blinked as callers were given a message that said, “We’re closed for the day. We’ll reopen tomorrow at eight a.m. Central Daylight Time. Please call back then.” Overnight, the e-mails would accumulate on his websites. Tomorrow morning, he’d start another day of prophesying and giving advice . . . and making money.

Sometimes Manfred thought there was no human problem under the sun he hadn’t encountered. Quite a few of them, he heard every damn day. Cheating spouses and unfaithful boyfriends, mostly. Bosses who “had it in” for you. (Manfred often suspected those bosses had good reason. A lot of those contacts happened during business hours.)

It was dusk, and no one else had committed suicide in Midnight today.

Manfred would have been a good interview for more marginal reporters who’d swarmed the town, and he’d considered it. Being featured in the blog of “PNGirl, roaming Paranormal America, looking for news of the weird and uncanny” would probably have generated some business. But he’d thought twice. A connection with suicide would hardly do him any good.

So Manfred had remained shut in his house on Eggleston’s suicide day, curtains drawn. And the next day he’d only ventured out to get his mail and rescue the stupid dog. Today, he’d worked straight through with only a short break for lunch. He found he was tired of slaving over the telephone and the Internet, giving people advice for their unpleasant—or sometimes sad and pathetic—problems.

I think I have a curse on me. No one seems to like me. I just got fired again. I need to know the name of the person who goes to my bosses and complains about me. I gotta stop them. I lost my money and my house in the bad economy. Tell me what lottery number to buy.

Tomorrow, Manfred was taking part of the morning off to visit some of his favorite people: Tommy, Mamie, and Suzie, who now lived in an assisted-living center in Davy. They were all rascals; Mamie and Suzie would never have baked cookies and shown their grandchildren how to make chicken and dumplings. Tommy would have been better at teaching his kids how to bust kneecaps than how to bait a fishhook. But they were lively and entertaining company. If they all felt well enough, Manfred would take them out to lunch. He’d been doing that at least once a month since they’d been shifted from the Midnight Hotel to Safe Harbor Assisted Living and Nursing Home in Davy, which had several degrees of nursing care and was closer to a hospital, doctors’ offices, and shopping.

Manfred, who checked on them once a week either over the phone or in person, had gotten Tommy to list him as a relative. He was now Tommy’s great-nephew, in the eyes of Safe Harbor management. When that had been done, Manfred had the right to ask questions about Tommy’s bills.

“Paid by a corporate office,” the assistant manager of Safe Harbor had told him.

“Why?” he’d asked.

“Past service,” had been the reply.

“To whom?” he’d asked.

“To the corporation, I guess,” the accounts receivable clerk had said, shrugging. “Tommy should know. Ask him.”

And Manfred had. Not entirely to Manfred’s astonishment, Tommy refused to worry over who was taking care of his bills. Having been in a dive in Las Vegas where they’d been terrified of being robbed every day, the three old people were just grateful to be housed in a clean place, fed, and safe. Suzie, the smartest of the three, was more suspicious than Tommy or Mamie. But ultimately, Suzie was just as relieved to have found a literal safe harbor. She didn’t pursue the source of that safety as doggedly as she would have in her heyday.

On his way to Davy the next morning, three days after Price Eggleston’s death, Manfred was looking forward to seeing Tommy, Suzie, and the frail Mamie. He was in a lighthearted frame of mind.

No reporters in sight, a morning away from work, and a conversation with three former Las Vegas reprobates to anticipate: fun things. Tommy, who tended to be on the peppery side, amused Manfred; Manfred felt he’d learned a few things, too, from Tommy’s attitude about life.

Besides seeing his friends, Manfred found he was also more than a little buzzed at the possibility of encountering Estella Hardin, a nurse’s aide working at Safe Harbor while she attended junior college. He hadn’t known he had a type until he was smitten with Estella. Like Creek Lovell, Estella was short and of medium build, olive-skinned and dark-haired. Also like Creek, Estella was intelligent and had been through some hard times. When she completed junior college in May, she’d have four or five semesters at a four-year college to face before she becoming a registered nurse. Manfred, who’d only taken some college-level computer courses, admired Estella’s determination and ambition.

The day became even brighter when Estella was the first person Manfred spied in the Safe Harbor lobby. Still dressed in her scrubs, she was dawdling around the check-in desk. He hoped that meant she’d been waiting for him, since he’d called Tommy the day before to tell him he was coming. Manfred signed the guest register, nodding at the pink-coated volunteer in charge of the information desk, and turned to Estella.

“Hey, how are you?” he asked, wishing he could think of something more original to open with.

“I’m good. You?” The maroon scrubs worn by the nursing staff didn’t do anything to prevent Estella’s looks from shining through. Her glossy black hair was pulled back in a ponytail (regulations) and her nails were unpolished (also regulations), but she wore a little makeup and her pants fit nicely on a figure that was not voluptuous or bony, but just right.

“I’m fine,” he said. “How are my people?”

“Well, they’ll tell you,” she said, smiling. But he could sense that under the smile lurked a worry.

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