Southern cross, p.13
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       Southern Cross, p.13
 

           Patricia Cornwell

  'Hammer,' she answered.

  'Artis Roop here.'

  'How are you doing, Artis?'

  'I guess you're wondering how I got your home number

  'It's in the phone book,' Hammer said.

  'Right. Listen, Chief Hammer, I'm looking into this fish spill business ..."

  'Fish spill?' She sounded alarmed. 'Who told you about a fish spill?'

  'I can't reveal my sources. But if there's a fish spill, I do think the public needs to know for its own protection, or if for no other reason, so they can choose alternate routes for work in the morning.'

  'There is no fish spill that I know of,' Hammer answered firmly.

  'Then what are people talking about?'

  'This is simply a housekeeping matter you're referring to, Artis.'

  'I don't understand.'

  Roop was getting anxious as the door to the restaurant remained closed with no sign of activity. It suddenly occurred to him that the governor might try escaping through the service entrance. Maybe he had already gone. Roop unplugged the phone from the cigarette lighter and scrambled out of the car, still talking.

  'How can fish or a fish spill be an internal matter?' he persisted.

  'A computer glitch,' she replied.

  'Oh,' he said, baffled. 'I still don't get it. Is fish some sort of virus?'

  'We hope not,' said Hammer, who was always straightforward unless she refused to comment.

  'So the COMSTAT telecommunications system is down?' Roop got to the raw nerve of the matter.

  Hammer hesitated, then said, 'At the moment.'

  'Everywhere?'

  'I have nothing more to say,' Hammer replied flatly.

  Roop was certain the fish problem was big. But he also had other fish to fry. Executive Protection Unit state police officers were coming out of La Petite France, the governor not far behind. Camera lights and flash guns fired from all sides, the governor gracious and unflappable, as was his wife, because they were used to this shit. Roop listened to governor this and governor that and was pleased that Feuer had no comment. Roop casually strolled over to Jed, the governor's EPU driver.

  'I don't want to bother him,' Roop said. 'I feel sort of sorry for him being bothered like this all the time. Can't even eat dinner without everyone stalking him.'

  'I wish everybody else felt like that,' Jed said.

  'How the hell do you park that thing?' said Roop as he looked over every curve and inch of the gleaming black stretch Lincoln limousine.

  Jed laughed as if it were nothing.

  'I mean, really,' Roop went on as the governor and his wife were briskly escorted to the car. 'I couldn't be a driver to begin with. I get lost everywhere. You know how hard it is to roll up on a crime scene when you don't know where the hell you are?'

  Roop had gathered intelligence on Jed, who was known by all, except the governor, to be directionally compromised and deceitful about it.

  'You're kidding?' said Jed as he opened the back door for the first family and they climbed inside.

  'Good evening, Governor and Mrs. Feuer,' Roop bent over to say politely.

  'And to you,' replied the governor, who was a very gracious man if you could get to him.

  'I saw you on Meet the Press,' Roop said.

  'Oh, did you?'

  'Yes, governor. You were great. Thank God someone's sticking up for the tobacco industry,' Roop gushed.

  'It's common sense,' said Feuer. 'Personally, I don't smoke. But I believe it's a choice. Nobody forces it on anybody, and unemployment and black market cigarettes are not a happy prospect.'

  'Next it will be alcohol,' Roop said with righteous indignation.

  'Not if I have a say about it.'

  'There'll be smokes instead of stills, governor,' Roop pitched the line that he believed would win him a Pulitzer Prize.

  'I like that,' Feuer said.

  'So do I,' said the first lady.

  'Smokes.' Governor Feuer smiled wryly. 'As if ATF doesn't have enough to do. By the way,' he said to Roop, 'I don't believe we've met.'

  The small house around the corner from Henrico Doctors' Hospital was brick with freshly painted blue shutters, and a well-cared-for yard. The driveway was gravel. There was no car. Brazil pulled in, small white rocks pinging under the BMW. He deliberated over what to do.

  'When does your mom come home?' he asked Weed.

  'She's home.' Weed was a little more alert.

  'She doesn't own a car?'

  'Yes she does.'

  'It's not here,' Brazil said. 'It doesn't look to me like she's home.'

  'Oh.' Weed sat up straighter and stared out the windshield, his fingers on the door handle. 'I want to go to bed. I'm tired. Just let me out now, okay?'

  'Weed, where does your mother work?' Brazil persisted.

  He was eager to go home and call it a day, too, but he felt very uneasy about leaving this evasive little kid alone.

  'She works at the hospital,' Weed said, opening the door. 'She does stuff in the operating room.'

  'She a nurse?'

  'I don't think so. But she could be here about midnight.'

  'Could?'

  'Sometimes she's gone longer. She works real hard 'cause what she makes is all we got, and my daddy gambles a lot and got us bad in debt. I wanna go to bed. Thanks for the ride. I never been in a car this nice.'

  Officer Brazil drove off the minute Weed locked the front door. He looked around the empty living room, wishing his mother was home and glad she wasn't. There was leftover meat loaf and cold cuts, and Weed wasn't sure if eating would make things better or worse. He gave it a try, grilling a ham and cheese sandwich, which helped calm down his stomach.

  He went down the hall, pausing to open the door to Twister's bedroom. Weed stared at all the basketball trophies and posters, the bed unmade, throw rug rumpled, University of Richmond tee shirt on the floor, the computer on the desk with its Bad Dog screen saver. Everything was exactly the way Twister had left it the last time he had been in his room, August 23, a Sunday, the last time Weed had ever seen him alive.

  Weed wandered inside and imagined he could smell Twister's Obsession cologne and hear his laughter and teasing talk. He envisioned Twister sitting in the middle of the floor, long muscular legs folded up as he put on his shoes and called Weed his 'little minute.'

  'See, it takes sixty of those to make an hour,' he would say. 'Now I know you can't add worth shit, but trust me on this one. Soon you'll be an hour, then a day, then a week, then a month. And you'll be big like me.'

  'No I won't,' said Weed. 'You was twice as big as me when you was my age.'

  Then Twister would unfold himself and start dribbling an invisible basketball. He would take on Weed, faking left and right, keeping the ball tight against him, elbows going this way and that.

  'Time's running out on the clock and I got just one little minute!' Twister would laugh as he snatched up Weed and dunked him on the bed, bouncing him up and down until Weed was dizzy with delight.

  Weed walked over to the desk and sat down. He turned on the computer, the only thing he ever touched inside his brother's room, because Twister had taught Weed how to use the computer and Weed knew Twister would want him to keep using it. Weed logged onto AOL. He sent e-mail to Twister's mailbox and checked to see if anybody else had.

  Other than the notes Twister got daily from Weed, there was nothing else.

  Hi Twister

  You reading my letters? They ain't been opened, but

  I bet you don't have to open them the way other people do. I ain't changed nothing in your room.

  Mama don't come in it. She always keeps the door shut.

  Weed waited for an instant message. He somehow believed that one of these days Twister was going to contact Weed through the computer. He was going to say, What's ticking, little minute? I sure am glad you're writing me. I see everything you're doing so you better be keeping your ass straight.

  Weed waited and waited. He logged off and tu
rned out the light. He stood in the doorway for a while, too depressed to move. He wandered into his bedroom and set the alarm clock for 2:45 A.M.

  'Why you not here?' he said to Twister.

  The dark had no answer.

  'Why you not here, Twister! I don't know what to do no more, Twister. Mama quit coming home, works so much it's like she got hit on the head or something. Just sleeps and gets up and goes. She hardly talks no more ever since you went on. Daddy gives her a real hard time and now I got Smoke. He might kill me, Twister. He wouldn't if you was here.'

  Weed went to sleep talking to Twister. Weed slept hard, his head full of cruel dreams. He was being chased by a garbage truck that made horrible scraping sounds as it rumbled down a dark road looking for him. It was on his tail no matter which way he went. He was sweating, his heart hammering when the alarm clock buzzed. He snatched it from the bedside table and turned it off. He listened, hardly breathing, hoping his mother was still asleep.

  He turned on the light and dressed quickly. He went over to the small card table beneath the window and sat down to think about what he would need to paint the metal statue, and wishing he could have come right out and told Officer Brazil what was going on and why he had the tattoo. But Weed knew Smoke would get him. Somehow he would.

  The big question was whether Weed should use oils or acrylics. He rummaged through shelves of his precious art supplies, lovingly looking through the Bob Ross master paint set his mother had worked overtime to buy for him last Christmas. It had cost almost eighty dollars, and included eight tubes of oil paint, four brushes and a Getting Started videotape which Mrs. Grannis had let Weed watch at school since he didn't have a VCR.

  Weed opened the caps of sap green, cadmium yellow and alizarin crimson. He looked through his Demco Collegiate set and thought about how long it took oil paints to dry and how much cleaning up he'd have to do. He didn't want to smell like turpentine.

  He studied his tubes of Apple Barrel acrylic gloss enamel paints. He had forty-six colors to choose from, but to really get a good effect he needed to sand the statue first and apply two coats. That would take forever, and in truth, the last thing Weed wanted was to do something to a statue. If nothing else, God would do something to Weed. Messing with the statue of someone famous would be as bad as painting graffiti on a church or putting a mustache on Jesus.

  Weed came up with a daring plan. Maybe he could use poster paints. He had bags full of them. They were inexpensive and didn't make a mess. In fact, they could be washed off with soap and water, but there was no way Smoke could know that when Weed was painting away.

  Weed had never used water-based tempera on metal, and tried a little green on the metal trash basket in his room. He was thrilled and a little surprised when the paint went on smooth and stuck. He gathered every jar he had and stuffed them inside his knapsack and a grocery bag. He dug through his box of perfectly clean paintbrushes and decided on two aquarelle for thin lines and two wash/mops for broad washes. He threw in one Academy size 14 round style just in case.

  chapter fifteen

  The New York City Police Department was beyond Artis Roop's usual scope of things. He had started with directory assistance and been bounced from Midtown North Precinct to the Rape Hotline to the Crack Hotline to the College Point Auto Pound and finally to a property clerk in Queens who gave him a number for the radio room. From there, Roop was able, by lying, to get Sergeant Mazzonelli to talk to him.

  'Yeah, I know what COMSTAT is. Who you think started it?' Mazzonelli was saying.

  'Of course, I know you guys did,' said Roop from his cluttered desk inside the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom.

  'You're damn right we did.'

  'We're having a problem in the mapping center,' Roop said.

  'What mapping center? I ain't heard nothing about no mapping center.'

  'At NIJ.'

  'In New Jersey?'

  'NIJ. Not NJ,' Roop corrected Mazzonelli.

  'So where the hell are you calling from?' Mazzonelli asked. He put his hand over the phone. 'Yo! Landsberger! You going out to Hop Shing's?'

  'Who wants to know?'

  'Your mother.'

  'Yeah? What's she want? Fish?'

  Roop got excited.

  'Hey! That ain't even funny,' another cop said.

  'Stromboli. Provolone, extra onions. The usual,' Mazzonelli said.

  He took his hand off the mouthpiece and was back. 'So you was saying?' he said to Roop.

  'We're showing a problem with the COMSTAT computer network.'

  'Who's we?'

  'Look, this is Washington, we've got a problem.' Roop said it the way he'd heard it in the movies. 'A possible virus has infected the network and we want to know how extensive it is.'

  Silence.

  'It may show up as fish,' Roop added.

  'Shit,' Mazzonelli barely said. 'So youze guys got it in D.C., too, the same thing? All these goddamn little blue fish swimming around in 219, wherever the hell that is?'

  'Richmond, Virginia,' Roop informed him. 'We believe that's the wormhole the virus entered through. The carrier, in other words.'

  'Richmond is?'

  'We think so, sergeant. This is worse than I feared. If your COMSTAT telecommunications system is locked out as well,' Roop went on, writing furiously, 'then everybody's down."

  'Shit. It's the weirdest friggin' thing I ever seen. We got three experts up here right now trying to get the damn thing off the screen, but we're totally down. Now, I don't do the computer shit myself, you know? But I got eyes and ears and know when something's real bad. From what they're saying, we can't find hot spots or patterns at all.'

  'Exactly.' Roop flipped a page. 'Apparently no one can.'

  Roop's editor Clara Outlaw stopped by his desk to see what was going on and if he planned on making the last edition deadline. He gave her a big thumbs-up. She started to say something. He scowled and put his finger to his lips. She tapped her watch. He nodded and gave her an okay sign. She didn't believe him. She tapped her watch again. He shook his head and motioned her to hold on a minute.

  'It was early afternoon, so I hear, and all a sudden this fish map flashed on the screen and we can't get it off. It just came outta friggin' nowhere,' Mazzonelli went on and on.

  Roop scrawled Fishsteria on a piece of notepaper. He ripped it off and handed it to Outlaw. She frowned and wrote Pfiesteria? Roop shook his head. This was not to be confused with the microbe responsible for massive fish kills on the East Coast, or was it? What did anybody know right now? Roop grabbed the piece of paper back from her and underlined Fishsteria four times.

  At ten minutes to three in the morning, Weed crept out of his bedroom, pausing before his mother's shut door, hoping she was snoring. She was, as loud as ever. Weed left the house and waited on the street corner where Smoke had told him to be.

  Minutes later, the Lemans sounded in the distance and Weed was reminded of his nightmare about the garbage truck. His hands started shaking so badly he worried he wouldn't be able to paint. He started feeling sick again, and he was tempted to run back inside the house and call the police or at least grab his acrylics, just in case Smoke figured he'd been tricked.

  The back door of the Lemans was pushed open. Weed climbed in and protectively set the knapsack and bag of paints in his lap as he stared at the back of Smoke's head. Divinity was in the front seat, against Smoke's shoulder.

  'I guess the others aren't coming,' Weed said, doing his best to keep his voice steady.

  'Don't need 'em,' Smoke said.

  'How come you're not driving your own car?' Weed asked as his terror swelled like a wave about to crash.

  'Because I don't want my own car parked out where someone might find it,' Smoke said.

  'Dog don't care if someone sees his car?" Weed asked.

  'Don't matter if he cares,' Smoke said coldly. 'And you can shut the fuck up, retard. When it comes to questions, I do the asking. You got that straight?'

  Divinity lau
ghed and stuck her tongue in Smoke's ear.

  'Yes,' Weed barely said as tears flooded his eyes and he wiped them away so fast they didn't have time to go anywhere.

  He said not another word as Smoke headed downtown and through the row houses of Oregon Hills where they left the car in a small park on the river. The cemetery fence was thick with ivy and about ten feet high. Weed saw no easy way to climb it, but Smoke did. Weed had never heard of a business advertising on a cemetery fence, but apparently Victory Rug Cleaning thought the idea was a good one. Its large metal sign was fastened to the fence at the intersection of South Cherry and Spring Street.

  Smoke showed Weed and Divinity how simple it was to grip the edges of the sign and boost themselves up far enough to grab the thick overhanging branch of an ancient oak tree on the other side of the fence. In no time, the three of them had dropped to the ground and were inside the dark, silent cemetery. To Weed it was a ghost city with narrow lanes winding everywhere and headstones and spooky monuments as far as he could see. It suddenly occurred to him that Smoke and Divinity might think it was funny to leave him here.

  Maybe that was their real plan. It caused shivers right up his bones and through his teeth. Weed had heard stories of pimps punishing hookers by tying them to trees inside graveyards and leaving them overnight. Some of the ladies lost their minds. Some died when their hearts attacked and beat themselves to death, trying to get out. One hooker chewed her hand off to escape while another committed suicide by holding her breath. Weed willed his teeth not to chatter. He knew he could not show fear.

  'Cool,' he said, looking around. 'Man, I could paint in here for weeks.'

  He and Divinity were following Smoke, who seemed to know where he was going.

  'You know, all these gravestones, like clean canvases and sketching paper. Ummm um. I could paint my ass off in here,' Weed went on. 'After the statue, can I do a few more?'

  'Shut up,' Smoke told him.

  Weed got quiet. It felt like little bugs were crawling on him, and he was sweating and cold at the same time. He wondered how many dead people were in here. More than he could count, that was for sure, especially since Weed usually got an F in math. It amazed him how many of them were PAXes. No one in his school was a PAX, although there were quite a few Paxtons, and one Paxinos who had moved down from New York and thought he was the only one who knew how to talk.

 
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