Southern cross, p.11
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       Southern Cross, p.11

           Patricia Cornwell

  'I doubt it,' he said.

  'Let's break it down for just a minute.' Hammer stopped pacing and leaned closer to the brilliantly colored map on the screen. 'Sector 219 is outlined in flashing bold red and there are one, two, three, four . . . , eleven bright blue fish inside it. Everywhere else we find just the usual icons.'

  She looked at both of them.

  'Possible this could be a warning of some sort?' she suggested.

  'Fish?' Brazil thought about it. 'There are only a few fish markets in 219. No lakes or reservoirs or even many seafood restaurants except Red Lobster and Captain D's.'

  'What possible illegal use could there be for fish?' Hammer explored. 'I can't imagine a black market in them, not unless there's a proposed fish bill we don't know about yet, a huge fish tax in the works and the lawsuits that would inevitably follow.'

  'Hmmmm.' Brazil was willing to consider anything at this point. 'Let's just go down that path for a minute. Let's say this is going on in the Senate and no one knows about it yet. Well, since one of the primary gateways is the Senate Judiciary Committee, and saying fish is a big issue, then could it be we somehow picked up some of their coding as our data passed through?'

  'I'm getting a headache,' Hammer said. 'And Virginia, would you please get your cat off my foot. He won't move. Is he dead?'

  'Niles, come here.'

  chapter eleven

  Weed tried to get to his feet and fell back on his butt. He crawled across the floor, his new tattoo throbbing. Smoke lit half a dozen fat candles and carried over several gallon jugs of water and a roll of paper towels. Weed started cleaning up his mess and would have thrown up again had anything been left.

  'Now, go outside and take your shirt and pants off,' Smoke said.

  'What for?' Weed barely asked as his stomach heaved like a small boat on an upset ocean.

  'You're not getting in my car stinking like that, retard. So go dump water over yourself until you're clean, unless you want to walk from here.'

  Weed made his way carefully in wavering candlelight, stepping through the sliding glass door frames. He peeled off his shirt and jeans. It wasn't as warm out as it had been, and he shivered uncontrollably as he dumped three gallons of water over himself, his slight body clad in nothing but soaked boxer shorts and Nikes that sloshed when he walked.

  'You got something for me to wear?' Weed asked Smoke, who was throwing down vodka again.

  'What's wrong with what you got on?'

  'I can't go anywhere like this!' Weed begged. 'Oh, man, my head hurts so bad. I feel real sick and I'm freezing, Smoke.'

  Smoke handed him a Dixie cup of vodka. Weed just stared at it.

  'Drink it. You'll feel better,' Smoke said.

  He went behind cases of liquor and returned with a pair of folded Gottcha jeans, a black tee shirt, and Chicago Bulls jersey, windbreaker and cap.

  'Your colors,' Smoke said proudly.

  For an instant, Weed was happy and forgot his head throbbed. He felt important as he worked the relaxed-leg jeans over his soaked hightops and pulled the tee shirt and jersey over his head. He didn't want any more vodka but Smoke forced it on him.

  Weed had very little awareness as he struggled and tripped after Smoke through dark woods and ended up at the adult bookstore, hiding behind cars until the coast was clear, then jumping inside the Escort and speeding away. Weed was beginning to think that things weren't too bad when Smoke stopped on a dark street corner in Westover Hills. He reached in back and pulled out two dark blue pillowcases. One was empty, the other filled with things that clanked and clacked together.

  'Get out and keep your fucking mouth shut,' Smoke said. 'Don't make a fucking sound.'

  Weed barely breathed as he followed Smoke along

  Clarence Street to a simple white frame house surrounded by a picket fence that leaned this way and that and had uneven spaces between the boards. The redwood deck listed as if sailing into a stiff wind, and the big add-on garage was out of proportion to the rest of the house. An old Chevy Cavalier wagon was in the drive, lights were on in several rooms of the house and a dog was baying in its pen.

  'Do exactly what I do,' Smoke whispered.

  'What about the dog?' Weed said.

  'Shut up.'

  Smoke scanned the empty street, bent close to the ground and darted across the yard, ducking behind trees and finally crouching around the corner from the shut garage door. Weed was right behind him, his heart hammering as Smoke reached inside the pillowcase and pulled out a handful of remote controls. He tried one after another.

  'Fuck,' he whispered as nothing happened.

  On the eighth try, he got his reward. The Sears home-installed garage door cranked up slowly and sounded ill. No other lights went on inside, the dog barking and barking. Weed thought of running and Smoke seemed to know it because he grabbed him by the collar.

  'Don't fuck with me," he snarled in Weed's ear.

  Smoke slid a small Mag-Lite out of a pocket. He looked around. The same windows in the house were lit up. There was no sign of motion.

  'Follow me,' Smoke whispered.

  Weed's brain was sliding around inside his skull like an egg yolk. His vision was blurred. He grabbed Smoke's shirttail and crept along behind him, catching his toe on concrete, lurching inside the garage. Smoke stopped. He scanned, breathing hard, listening. He turned on the flashlight and the bright finger probed hundreds of shiny saws, drills, hammers and other tools Weed didn't recognize.

  Tucking unbelievable,' Smoke whispered. 'The asshole can't even hammer a nail straight and look at all this shit.'

  He shone the light on a tall cabinet with a padlock that promised treasure inside. He didn't bother with the bolt cutters in the pillowcase because there was a better pair hanging on the peg rack. Smoke lifted it off the hooks and opened and closed the cruel steel beaks. He seemed pleased. He snapped through the lock as if it were soft lead and it pinged into the darkness, clanking against the floor.

  Smoke quietly opened the doors. He ran the light over shelves of camouflage, targets, boxes of ammunition, revolvers, pistols, rifles and shotguns. His hands flew as he stuffed everything he could into the pillowcases Weed held open for him. Smoke filled the pockets of his relaxed-leg jeans, tucked handguns into his waistband. He snapped open a black plastic thirty-gallon bag and stuffed it and handed it to Weed. Smoke slung the bulging pillowcases over his shoulder like Santa Claus making the rounds for the NRA.

  'Run!' Smoke whispered to Weed.

  They clanked and banged across the yard and along the street, not going anywhere fast. They were sweating and miserable. They were slowing down when Smoke spotted a thick boxwood hedge and stashed the bags out of sight. Light of foot, they ran back to the Escort.

  They jumped in and drove back to Clarence Street and parked by the hedge. The loot was where they'd left it. Smoke emptied his pockets and shut everything he had stolen inside the trunk. Not a single car passed. Nothing stirred. Bubba's dog barked the way it always did.

  Smoke started laughing hysterically as he drove off. Weed had no idea where they were going. He had never broken the law in his life except for the time he drew a disrespectful picture of a teacher he didn't like and was sent to in-school suspension for two days.

  'I just held the bag, so I didn't really steal anything, did I, Smoke?' Weed asked. 'I mean, I'm not keeping any of it, either. It's all yours, right?'

  Smoke laughed harder.

  'Where we going?' Weed dared to ask.

  Smoke started digging through CDs.

  'Can I go home now?' Weed asked.

  'Sure,' Smoke said.

  He started rapping to Master P.

  'It don't look like we're going the right way.' Weed raised his voice.

  Smoke told him to shut up. Somehow they ended up on West Cary Street, which was nowhere near Weed's neighborhood. Smoke stopped the car in the middle of the road.

  'Get out,' he said.

  'What for?' Weed protested. 'I can't get
out here!'

  'You're walking for a while. To make sure you're wide awake when we pick you up later.'

  Weed didn't know a thing about later. He didn't dare ask. Smoke's meanness was coiling and about to strike.

  'Get out, retard,' Smoke warned.

  'I don't know where I am.'

  'Keep walking that way and you'll get to your street in a couple miles.'

  Weed didn't move as he stared wide-eyed into the night, his head pounding. Smoke was checking his mirrors.

  'Meet you two blocks from your house at three A.M. At Schaaf and Broadmoor,' Smoke said.

  Weed didn't understand. His stomach was pushing everything the wrong way again.

  'Bring your paints, retard. Whatever will work on a life-size metal statue in a graveyard.'

  Weed opened his door and spat up bile on the pavement. He got out and almost fell again.

  'Remember what happened last time when you were late,' Smoke reminded him. 'And anybody finds out what you're doing, I'm going to hurt you real bad.'

  Weed stumbled to the side of the road and grabbed a speed-limit sign to steady himself. He watched Smoke's taillights vanish down the dark road. Weed sat down hard and begged God to help him. He got up and couldn't remember which way to go or where he was. He ducked behind walls and trees whenever headlights appeared, sometimes lying flat on his face and playing dead.

  Niles was playing dead, too. He had given up trying . To hint that he had been sitting right on top of his owner's desk the instant the fish appeared on the computer screen, which had been at exactly 12:47 this afternoon.

  Niles had done nothing to cause this unusual event, and frankly had assumed his owner had loaded a new screen saver for Niles's benefit, since he was very fond of fish and his owner was always looking for ways to please him and occupy his attention so he'd stay out of trouble.

  Hammer moved her feet again under the table. Niles held on, paws snugly around her ankles, claws tucked in so he didn't run her hose.

  'What about using fish to body-pack cocaine,' West said.

  'Virginia, that's brilliant,' Hammer said, shaking her feet again.

  'Drugs could get in undetected from Maine, Miami, from almost anywhere,' West went on.

  'I want narcotics on it right away,' Hammer said. 'And Andy, call NIJ's Crime Mapping Center first thing in the morning and see what they can tell us. We'll hope the fish problem's not pervasive, not an indication of a virus.'

  'With an address like that,' Brazil was frank, Tm worried about how many sites on the network might have been affected.'

  'Tell NIJ our situation is urgent, that we're locked out of COMSTAT until we can resolve this,' Hammer said. 'I've really got to head on and let Popeye out. Virginia, please get your cat so I can move.'

  'Niles, enough!'

  Niles draped over Brazil's shoe. Brazil leaned over and played Niles's ribs like piano keys. Niles purred. Niles was very fond of Brazil and had nicknamed him Piano Man when all of them lived in Charlotte and Piano Man and Niles's owner used to get along and play tennis and go shooting and watch movies and talk about Piano Man's eventually leaving the Charlotte Observer and becoming a cop so he could write stories about crime that would change the way people thought.

  Niles wanted his owner and Piano Man to get along again, even if it meant being thrown off the bed every night. Niles was irritated with his owner. She wasn't being the least bit friendly to Piano Man and was annoyed that Niles was purring for him. Niles jumped in Piano Man's lap.

  'Sorry. Gotta go,' Piano Man said to Niles.

  'Thanks for the beer,' Brazil said politely to West as he scooted back from the table. 'Chief Hammer, I'll get you safely to your car.'

  West showed them out. She stood in front of the foyer table again, but not in time. Brazil saw the florist's card with West's name typed on it.

  'Good night,' West said to them.

  chapter twelve

  Brazil was jittery and angry as he trotted under streetlights along Mulberry, worrying that he would find his BMW gone or vandalized. He was tempted to turn around and show up at West's house, demanding an explanation.

  It was true that their relationship in Charlotte had been somewhat complicated by their differences. She was older and accomplished. She had power. Her personality was the opposite of his. But she had been his mentor when he worked the police beat for the paper and rode the streets at night as a volunteer cop. Those had been the best stories Brazil had ever written. They had won prizes and changed the way people thought. They had changed the way he thought, too.

  He had decided to become a real cop, as his father had been, and West had given Brazil the courage. She had helped him and loved him even through fights that were violent storms. When they made up it was always unbelievable. Brazil could not think of her without reliving every taste and touch. He did not know why she had changed so abruptly, and when he had asked, she would not say. It was as if they had never been lovers or even close friends. He did not push because maybe his primal fear was true. He just wasn't worth it. No one in his life had ever made him feel he was. His father had died when Brazil was a boy and Brazil's mother did not love herself and wasn't capable of loving anyone. For a while, West had filled a terrible space in Brazil's life. He hated Jim. How dare Jim send her flowers.

  Smoke ordered Sick, Beeper, Dog and Divinity to keep an eye on Weed and make sure he didn't try taking a detour that might screw up their plans for the night. *

  So the Pikes set out in Dog's '69 Pontiac Lemans, cruising dark stretches of West Gary looking unsuccessfully for any sign of the drunk little motherfucker.

  'I'm thirsty,' Divinity said.

  'Fucking yeah,' said Beeper.

  'Come on, Dog. Let's see you do your trick,' Divinity said.

  Dog didn't like being thought of as a dog that did tricks. He never said anything, though. He pretty much just went along and did what he was told.

  'What flavor you want this time?' Dog asked.

  'Lemme see,' Divinity considered. 'How about something ice, baby? Maybe Michelob Ice? I'm fucking sick of Bud and all that other shit you're always getting that tastes like piss. 'Sides, baby, ice got more spin in it. You know, makes your head go round and around.'

  She thought she was very funny and just loved laughing with herself. Dog pulled into a 7-Eleven and used his fake ID to buy a second six-pack of Michelob Ice while Beeper and Sick caused a diversion by Beeper's pretending to slip on the floor and Sick's having to help him up as Divinity browsed shelves and tucked whatever she wanted inside her denim bag.

  'I think we find him we have some fun,' Dog said as he peeled out of the parking lot and started thinking about Weed again. 'I don't like him."

  'That's 'cause he paints, baby, and you can't do a fucking thing,' Divinity said.

  Dog felt himself get meaner. 'He needs to learn about life,' Dog said. "Bout showing respect.'

  'You go about making him show respect and Smoke's gonna tear your ass off and feed it to a pit bull,' Divinity said as she sipped her beer.

  Tuck Smoke.' Dog turned back onto West Gary Street. 'I'm not fucking afraid of him.'

  It wasn't true. Dog hadn't been Dog until last Christmas when he'd just turned fifteen and was shopping around for a little crack and ran into Divinity and Smoke at the mall on Chimborazo Boulevard. Smoke sold Dog a couple rocks and then pulled a pistol and stole the rocks back and kept Dog's money.

  'Hey, gimme my money if you ain't giving me the rocks,' Dog told him.

  'Not unless you earn it,' Smoke said.

  Smoke talked Dog into robbing some woman at gunpoint downtown near the Monroe Building. Dog turned over forty-seven dollars to Smoke. Dog would never forget what Smoke said to him next.

  'Now you're mine. I own you.' He pointed his Clock between Dog's eyes. 'You're my slave. Know why?'

  Dog said he didn't.

  'Because you ain't got shit in life. You go home to shit. You've got shit for brains. You're so fucking shitting stupid you cam
e out here buying crack and robbed some poor old lady, probably gave her a heart attack. That could be murder if she dies. I might just have to tell the po-lice.'

  'You can't.' Dog was so confused. 'But you can't do that.'

  Smoke started laughing at Dog and Divinity joined in. Dog was named Dog and became a Pike. He started cutting school so much he got suspended all the time, which gave him permission to keep cutting school, which was kind of confusing, to him. So much was confusing, and whenever Dog questioned and maybe said he didn't want to rob nobody else or break into another car or restaurant, Smoke got in his bad way.

  He knew how to hurt Dog and make Dog scared for his life. Smoke didn't mind killing. Dog had seen Smoke run over animals on purpose, like a cat the other day, and a puppy that was all the way off the road on someone's driveway. Smoke had a game he called 'Squash the Squirrel', which was just what it sounded like. Smoke would swerve all the hell over the place to run over a squirrel and he kept count. Smoke bragged he had killed somebody before in the city in North Carolina where he used to live.

  He said he walked right into a crippled lady's house and stabbed her fifty times just so he could take her handicap van for a drive. He said he came back after ditching the van and stole whatever he wanted and fixed a sandwich and ate it, staring at her dead, bloody body and then opening up her clothes. He said she was so ugly he cut on her a little more in places he wasn't even supposed to look at. He said his grandmother used to live with his family until he punched her in the face and she decided to move. He said she had nagged him one last time and that was that.

  Smoke said he got locked up for killing the crippled lady and was let loose free as a bird the minute he turned sixteen, and no one except his family knew what he had done and never would, because that was the way the law worked. Dog knew it wouldn't be long before Smoke killed somebody again. He had that need. Dog didn't want to be the one who filled it.

  'Baby, oh baby,' Divinity suddenly said as she twisted the top off another beer. 'Look at that ride. Ummmm ummmm.'

  'We gotta keep looking for Weed,' Beeper reminded her.

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