Southern cross, p.15
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       Southern Cross, p.15

           Patricia Cornwell
 

  Church, in the third pew from the left, and declared '. . . Give me liberty or give me death!' It was here, just several houses down, that Elmira Royster Shelton and Edgar Allan Poe had been reunited and began a second courtship not long before he died.

  Although Miss Sink was not Episcopalian and had never been engaged and did not read frightening stories, she revered history and the famous people in it. More to the point, Miss Sink had an inspired indignation when any outsider violated the sanctity of her restored neighborhood, and that included Judy Hammer, who was not from Richmond, but from Arkansas, which as far as Miss Sink was concerned was not the true South.

  Popeye emptied her bladder on a blooming yellow forsythia bush. She began sniffing tulips and the lamppost, ready to claim other territory.

  'Actually, crime is down six percent in our neighborhood, Miss Sink,' Hammer reminded her without adding that it was soaring everywhere else. 'Thanks in part to the community effort here, thanks to our crimewatch people like you, the eyes and ears of the street.'

  'Six percent my foot.' Miss Sink stamped her pink slipper and yanked the plastic wrapper off the newspaper. 'Tell me why someone stole the fountain from Libby Hill Park?'

  'It was recovered and is back right where it always was, Miss Sink.'

  'Doesn't matter. It was stolen. Right out from under us like a rug. An entire iron fountain, and nobody saw a thing. So much for eyes and ears.' She dug in a pocket and pulled out a tissue. 'Not to mention rocks thrown at gas lamps and cars. Most of my friends and family are in Hollywood Cemetery.'

  Miss Sink dabbed her nose and gave Hammer's ugly little dog the fish eye. She opened the newspaper to see what else was going on in the city. The headline above the fold stood up in huge black type:

  FISHSTERIA HYSTERIA!

  MYSTERIOUS VIRUS CRASHES POLICE COMPUTER NETWORK

  Hammer snatched the paper out of Miss Sink's hands.

  'Excuse me," Miss Sink said indignantly. 'That was rude.'

  Hammer didn't give a shit. She read the story, incredulous. It even included an artist's rendition of the little blue fish that were suspected, according to the article, to be the carrier of the virus.

  'Oh God. So it's hit New York, too,' Hammer said as she read. 'It's everywhere. That goddamn Roop. The media doesn't care. This is only going to make matters worse, rewarding some hacker with front-page news. Oh great, great, great. Whatever happened to people trying to work together? When I was getting started, you could plant a story with the local media and they would run things that would actually help the police.

  'But can you imagine such a thing happening now?' Hammer- went on. 'Does it ever occur to self-serving people like Roop that when we can't do our jobs, he suffers too? What happens when his airbag is stolen?'

  'I've read about that. Why do you call it CABBAGES?'

  'What happens when he's robbed at gunpoint at an ATM?' Hammer went on.

  Those are awful,' Miss Sink said with a shudder. 'I see they had another one yesterday. Of course, look how early it was. People have no business getting money out of machines at night when nobody's around."

  Popeye lunged again. She got up on her hind legs, dancing about, front paws held out as if she wanted to hug Miss Sink. It made no sense.

  'What's wrong with that dog?' Miss Sink said. 'It's like she's trying to tell me something.'

  'Popeye is very intelligent. She's intuitive. Frankly, she knows so much it scares me,' Hammer confessed.

  'And for the record,' Miss Sink went on, 'I think ATMs and the Internet are the 666 in Revelation. The beast leading up to Armageddon.'

  Popeye jumped at Miss Sink again. Popeye growled. She hopped over to Miss Sink and tried to hug the old woman. Miss Sink smacked the newspaper against her hand as a warning. Popeye darted behind her owner's legs, wrapping her leash around them. She was shaking.

  'It's all right, little baby.' Hammer was distressed and furious.

  She squatted and put her arms around her dog and held her close. She gave Popeye another treat.

  'Please don't do that again,' she said sternly to Miss Sink.

  'Next time I'm going to smack her little bottom,' Miss Sink promised.

  'Actually, you won't,' Hammer said in her dry don't fuck with me tone of voice.

  That dog's going to bite someone,' Miss Sink chastised Hammer. 'You wait. And then won't you be in Dutch? These days people sue just like that.' She tried to snap her fingers and missed.

  Popeye growled.

  'Well, I've got to go in and call all the other board members. I guess telling you is the same thing as calling the police,' Miss Sink said.

  She headed back down her walk, her feet loud on her Doric porch, her cat darting out from behind a hedge.

  chapter eighteen

  Despite Bubba's incredible efforts, no matter his eight .straight hours of relentless work in Bay 8, his productivity had fallen short by 3,901 cigarettes. He was devastated. It was the last night of the competition of the month, and the second month in a row that Bay 5 had claimed victory.

  'Don't take it so hard,' Smudge said.

  'I can't help it,' Bubba replied despondently.

  They stopped outside the cafeteria and Bubba inserted his ID card into the cigarette machine, selecting the free pack all workers got daily. Bubba chose his usual Merit Ultima. Smudge did, too, and sold his pack to Bubba at the slightly discounted price of eight dollars and twenty-five cents. Smudge smoked Winstons, which were not made by Philip Morris. For the first time it bothered Bubba that Smudge didn't offer his daily allotted pack to Bubba for nothing, since it cost Smudge nothing. It bothered Bubba that it just so happened that Smudge and Gig Dan played golf together.

  'I guess Gig had a long day,' Bubba commented as he and Smudge headed out of the building.

  'He looked pretty tired when he left,' Smudge agreed. 'Too bad you were so late.'

  'Wouldn't've been if that asshole Tiller wasn't supposedly sick again.'

  Smudge made no comment.

  Funny how he always gets sick on the night the competition ends,' Bubba made another casual remark.

  'Maybe losing is something he can't face,' Smudge suggested.

  'Also funny how nothing in my module works worth a shit the last night of the competition. Know how many times the tipping paper broke? Or how many glue bubbles I got? Had a dull knife, too. So I clean up right before shift change, and find dust in the machine and glue balled up on the glue roller,' Bubba said.

  Smudge stopped at his gleaming red Suburban. He got out his keys.

  'See, I think someone gets to Kennedy on first shift and sucks him into the conspiracy. So Kennedy works the first half of second shift because Tiller's called in sick, because he's been told to. Then Kennedy fucks up everything he can so when I'm supposed to come in and work one and a half shifts, I've got all this dust, glue balls and shit waiting for me.'

  'Sounds rather elaborate, like a spy thriller. Don't be paranoid, Bubba.' Smudge patted Bubba's shoulder.

  But it wasn't just paranoia. Bubba wasn't stupid. He knew Gig Dan was involved in the plot as well or he would have said something to somebody about how dirty the machine was. He had to have known, since he inadvertently had to fill in for Bubba because Bubba was late being early and then ended up late for being on time because Fred held him to a conversation. Bubba kept his conviction to himself as he began to see just what Smudge was really made of. Whatever it was, it was beginning to stink.

  'You owe me and everyone else in Bay 5 two cases of beer, good buddy,' Smudge said as he cranked the Suburban.

  'Yeah, I know,' Bubba said. 'What will it be?'

  'Hmmmm. Let me think,' Smudge jerked Bubba around. 'I guess Corona.' He added insult to injury.

  Corona was not a Philip Morris product, and Smudge knew Bubba would rather eat poison than spend a nickel on anything not Philip Morris.

  'Okay, but you gotta give me a chance to get you back,' Bubba said.

  Smudge laughed. 'Lay it on me.'
r />   'Tomorrow night. Highest score. Let's raise the stakes higher, more than two hundred dollars," Bubba said.

  Smudge's face lit up as he lit up a Winston.

  'You're on. Rain or shine,' Smudge said.

  Bubba thought of the leak in his Jeep and everything else Muskrat had to say about it. Bubba tested Smudge one more time this morning.

  'You want me to drive?' Bubba said.

  'We'll be better off in my hunting truck.' Smudge said exactly what Bubba anticipated. 'I'll drive, you can pay for gas. Meet me at my house.'

  Brazil was watching out the window for West's unmarked Caprice, and every other minute, he ran back to the bathroom and wet his fingers and ran them through his slightly gelled hair, giving it that wet look, making sure one strand fell down the middle of his forehead. He had brushed his teeth four times and couldn't stand still.

  When West parked in front of his house, he took his time. He waited for her to come to the door. He waited until she had knocked five times.

  'Andy? Are you in there?' she said loudly.

  He ran to the door and opened it, tucking in his uniform shirt, adjusting his duty belt as if he was busy with many things and running behind.

  'Gosh, I'm sorry,' he said politely. 'I was on the phone.'

  It wasn't quite a lie because Brazil had been on the phone. He just didn't say when he'd been on it.

  'I don't have much time,' West smacked the volley back. 'We'd better go. This was probably a bad idea,' she continued as she went down the steps. 'I've got the day from hell. I'm not even hungry.'

  Brazil locked the door and followed her to the car, his feelings stung again.

  'It doesn't matter to me,' he said. 'If you need to get to HQ, you can go on. You don't even have to give me a ride. It's not a problem.'

  'I'm already here,' she retorted.

  'I'm not that hungry either,' Brazil announced.

  West put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.

  'You should fasten your seatbelt,' Brazil told her.

  'Forget it.'

  'Look, I want to be able to get out of the car fast, too, if something goes down. But I don't want to be thrown out, like through the windshield. Besides, how long does it take you to unbuckle a seatbelt, if you're really honest?'

  'You work the streets as long as I have, you don't have to be really honest.' She reminded him of his inexperience and her high rank.

  'Have you ever been to The Forest?' Brazil asked.

  'What forest?'

  The neighborhood hangout on Forest Hill.'

  'That's the other side of the river.'

  There's more parking there than downtown where the River City Diner is.'

  'Since when are we eating breakfast again? I thought we'd decided that issue,' West said.

  She turned on the radio, tuning in to WRVA. Adrenaline was shorting out Brazil's central nervous system as he groped for just the right words. He had a right to know why she treated him the way she did. He had a right to know about Jim.

  'I guess I'm realizing if I don't eat something now, I don't know when I will,' Brazil said, making sure she understood how busy he was, too.

  'River City is closer to HQ.'

  Try parking on Main Street during rush hour.'

  West decided to head Southside.

  'How did you find out about The Forest?' she asked as the radio broke the news of Fishsteria.

  'I've been there a couple times.' Brazil's thoughts were tangled like fishing line.

  '. . . believed to be a new strain of computer virus that cannot be detected by the standard antivirus software most of us have,' Johnny, of the popular Johnny in the Morning Show, went on.

  'I pretty much stick to the Fan,' West said. There are so many good restaurants, bars, like Strawberry Street Vineyard. Why go anywhere else?'

  'Strawberry Street Vineyard is a wine shop,' Brazil corrected her.

  'I didn't say it wasn't,' she fired back.

  'Best wine in the city. They can get anything. I picked up a Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir the other week. Outstanding.' Brazil had to rub it in.

  '. . . hibernates in bottom sediments,' explained Johnny in the Mornings special guest, Dr. Edith Sandal-Viverette, a biologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. 'And releases toxins that are stunning and killing all these fish. Crabs are falling victim, as well. What's curious, Johnny, is the microbes like the temperature of the water to be eightyish. It's a little early for that.'

  'But Fishsteria isn't related to Pfiesteria, right?' Johnny worried.

  'I'm not sure we can say that at this moment.'

  Brazil felt stubborn again. He didn't care enough to ask West anything. She didn't matter.

  'I've really gotten into French burgundies, too,' Brazil rubbed it in some more.

  'I get tired of red wine,' West said.

  'Then you ought to try a white burgundy.' 'What makes you think I haven't?' West fired back. 'Well, it's really scary,' Johnny said as Brazil and West continued not to listen.

  Bubba knew what had happened when he was half a block away from his house. The garage door was wide open. His heart was seized by fear. He pulled into the driveway and jumped out of his car, screaming his wife's name.

  'Honey!' he yelled as he ran up the front steps. 'Honey! Oh my God! Honey! Are you all right!'

  Bubba dropped his keys three times before he managed to unlock the front door. He burst into the living room as Honey's slippers swished along the hallway. He ran to her and hugged her hard.

  'Why, what on earth is the matter?' Honey said, rubbing his back.

  Bubba started sobbing.

  'I was so scared something happened to you,' he cried into her permed, honey-blond hair.

  'Of course nothing's happened to me, sweetie,' she said. 'I just this minute got up.'

  Bubba stepped back from her, his mood suddenly skipping discs. He was enraged.

  'How the hell could you sleep through someone breaking into the workshop?' he yelled.

  'What?' Honey was dazed. 'The workshop?'

  'The garage door's wide open! You leave it open for some reason, like the awful Jell-O and room temperature Tang? Is this the final blow to hurt me? Is that how they got in?'

  'I don't go near that door,' said Honey, who knew better than to ever set foot inside his workshop. 'Would rather take the Lord's name in vain and be a Mormon or a queer or a feminist than dare to get near your shop!' exclaimed Honey, who was Southern Baptist and knew the party line by heart. 'I don't want to go near your tools, much less touch them. I never ask anything about them even if I can see them plain as day when you're working on some project that never turns out quite right.'

  Bubba ran back out the door. Honey held her robe together and followed. Bubba walked into the garage. He held his breath, hands clenched as he took in what had to be the biggest disaster of his life. Tools were scattered everywhere, and all of his handguns were gone. Someone had pissed all over Bubba's electronic caliper and it would convert inches into metric dimensions no more. The dual sander and air hammer had been cruelly dropped into the ten-gallon drum of dirty oil that Bubba saved for Muskrat's heater.

  Bubba staggered back out into the sunlight. Honey grabbed his arm to steady him.

  'Maybe I should call the police,' she said.

  West and Brazil were close to The Forest when several things happened at once. Brazil's flip phone trilled. The police radio broadcast a possible B&E on Clarence Street, and WRVA played an ad for Hollywood Cemetery's new Chapel Mausoleum, located in one of the oldest sections of the cemetery, adjacent to a convenient roadway and with no additional expenses for a vault or monument, one price covering everything including the inscription.

  'Hello?' Brazil said into his phone.

  '. . . Any unit in the area,' the police radio was repeating, '. . . possible B and E at 10946 Clarence Street.'

  '. . . the Hollywood Cemetery Chapel Mausoleum reflects a combination of both beauty and dignity ..." the ad con
tinued, jazz playing in the background.

  'Andy? It's Hammer,' Chief Hammer said over the phone.

  'Three,' West answered the radio.

  'Our computer problem's hit the national news. I guess you saw this morning's paper,' Hammer said to Brazil.

  'Go ahead, 3,' said Communications Officer Patty Passman, who was surprised that the head of investigations was answering the call.

  'Actually, I didn't know,' Brazil replied honestly to Hammer.

  'Front page,' Hammer said. 'They're making fun of us, fun of COMSTAT, saying we've crashed around the world because of a virus called Fishsteria.'

  'Fish versus Pfiesh?' Brazil asked.

  'Figure it out, Andy.'

  '. . . designed to reflect the classic elements found with Hollywood's hills . . .' said the ad.

  'We're just a couple blocks from there,' West told

  Communications Officer Passman. 'We'll take the call.'

  'And a vandal or vandals hit Hollywood Cemetery last night,' Hammer went on.

  'Ten-4, 3. Complainant's a Mr. Butner Fluck.'

  'Appears a Spiders basketball uniform was painted on the statue of Jefferson Davis,' Hammer explained.

  Brazil was stunned. He started laughing and could not stop.

  'And I'm afraid his race was altered,' she went on.

  'You mean, he got Michael Jordanized?' Brazil choked.

  'This isn't funny, Andy.'

  'I think I'm gonna be sick.' Brazil was doubled over, hardly able to talk.

  West made a U turn on Forest Hill and accelerated.

  'Lelia Ehrhart's called an emergency meeting of city leaders tomorrow morning at eight,' Hammer told Brazil.

  'I hope she's not going to speak!' Brazil's voice went up an octave. He couldn't help himself.

  'What's wrong with you?' West glanced over at him as she drove fast out of habit, taking every shortcut she could to get to the scene.

  'Look into it,' Hammer said to Brazil.

  'Fishsteria or MagicJeff'?' Brazil's stomach hurt, his eyes watering.

  'All of it,' she said to him.

  The house on Clarence Street was very peculiar, but not for obvious reasons at a glance. Rather it was the sort of phenomenon that caused an unsettled, odd feeling of disharmony and something just not quite right that was discarded, like a lost file, the instant the person drove or walked past or delivered the newspaper and moved on.

 
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