Southern cross, p.16
Southern Cross, p.16Patricia Cornwell
But to someone with a trained eye who took a hard look, the problem was clear.
'Good God," West said, stopping the car in the middle of the road as she stared in wonder.
'Wow,' Brazil chimed in. 'I think he home-improved when he was drunk.'
Dark green shutters were askew, the paint not quite as white to the left of the red front door as it was to the right. The white picket fence was the worst West had ever seen. Clearly the soil was unstable and the builder had not driven the 4x4 posts far enough into the ground or set them in cement, nor had he bothered with a plumb line, it didn't appear, or chamfered the tops of the posts, meaning rainwater did not run off and the wood was beginning to rot. The rails sloped uphill on one side of the ill-fitting gate and downhill on the other. The pickets were unevenly spaced like bad teeth.
Apparently this same well-intentioned but misguided builder had expanded his garage by adding on a homemade shed that leaned north, suggesting the pressure-treated posts had not been sunk below the frost line and the new addition had shifted during the winter. Nothing was right. Shingles were not aligned, window boxes were different sizes, the stone garden fountain in front was dry, the herringbone pattern of the outdoor bench near the slumping brick barbecue was chaos. A long dog pen of torqued and drooping chain link was near the woods, and a blanket-back coon hound was perched on top of a barrel, bawling.
West turned into the driveway and a gas-station bell announced Mr. Fluck had company. A curtain in a window moved, and immediately a man emerged from the house. He was fat and didn't have much hair, his round head and small eyes bringing to mind a smiley face that wasn't. Mr. Fluck looked depressed and bereft, as if his wife had just walked out or come back, depending on how he felt about her.
'Uh oh,' Brazil said, unfastening his seat belt.
'No kidding,' said West.
Bubba followed his uneven brick walk to the driveway, where the unmarked white Chevrolet Caprice had pulled in. His mind was dark with ruined dreams, cruel predestination and bad karma.
His father, Reverend Fluck, had always disapproved of Bubba's fondness for guns, and Bubba was suspicious that his father had prayed for such a thing to happen. It was just too coincidental that, for the most part, only guns had been stolen. His expensive tools had been left. The burglar had not tried to break into Bubba's house or Honey's station wagon.
A tall, well-built blond man in uniform climbed out of the Caprice. The driver was a woman in plain clothes, a detective, Bubba assumed. They walked up to him, radios chattering.
'Are you Mr. Fluck?' the woman asked.
'Yes,' he said. 'Thank God you came. This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me.'
'I'm Deputy Chief Virginia West, and this is Officer Andy Brazil,' West said.
Bubba felt better. He sighed. The police had sent a deputy chief. This had to be Chief Hammer's doing. She was looking after Bubba. Somehow she had been touched as had he, their destinies entwined. Chief Hammer knew that a terrible injustice had been perpetrated against Bubba.
'I sure appreciate Chief Hammer contacting you,' Bubba said.
Both cops looked mystified.
'She did, didn't she?' Bubba's faith wavered. 'Just now, when I called nine-one-one?'
'Actually,' Brazil faltered. 'Well, yes. How did you know she just called me?'
Bubba looked heavenward and smiled, despite his pain.
West started walking toward the workshop. Brazil followed. Both of them stood on the driveway, looking at the mess. Brazil recorded the month, day, year and victim's name and address on the offense report attached to his clipboard.
'What a disaster,' Brazil said.
'It's unspeakable,' Bubba said.
'Do you have any idea when the B and E occurred?' West asked.
'Sometime between eight o'clock last night and seven-thirty this morning.'
'I need your home and business phone numbers.' Brazil was writing.
Bubba gave them to him.
'I got home from work and found this,' Bubba said, almost in tears. 'Exactly like this. I didn't touch anything. I didn't move anything, so I'm not a hundred percent sure what's missing.'
West's expert eye skimmed over stand-alone tools such as a drill press, a drum sander, bench grinder, jointer, thickness planer, shaper, and all the expected chisels, Forstner bits, wire-brush wheels, brad-point bits, plug cutter, countersink set. There was protective gear of every description, and more hand tools than Bob Vila probably had in his workshop.
'It's interesting that you have so many expensive tools, yet the burglar or burglars didn't take them,' West observed.
'He was after guns,' Bubba said. 'I know they're missing.'
He pointed to the cabinet and its severed padlock on the floor.
'You got bolt cutters?' West asked.
'Still have them?' Brazil said.
'I can see them from here,' answered Bubba.
'What kind of lock was on the gun cabinet?' West asked.
'Just a plain Master lock.'
Bubba looked ashamed.
'I was meaning to get around to it,' he said.
'So it wasn't case hard,' Brazil wanted to make sure as he took the report.
Bubba shook his head.
'That's too bad,' West said with feeling. 'I've never seen a pair of bolt cutters that can go through a case hard Master lock. And considering what you had in your cabinet, you should have had the best.'
'I know, I know,' Bubba said as his shame deepened. 'I know how foolish I was.'
West walked in to inspect more closely, noting that Bubba had painted his initials in white on all tools and equipment. She stepped over dozens of step-by-step books on plumbing, deck and patio upgrades, painting and wallpapering, pruning, and home repair problem solving.
She picked her way around a Stanley thirty-foot heavy-duty tape measure and its Nicholas leather holder, a Makita tool holster, a McGuire-Nicholas wide saddle-leather belt, a top-grade cowhide Longhorn hammer holder, red Nicholas heavy-duty suspenders, and a foam rubber knee pad with double straps that had become separated from its mate.
West recognized top quality. She knew all the brands and how much they cost. She was curious. She was envious.
'And you have no alarm system,' Brazil said.
The "No Trespassing" sign and the bell in the driveway. I can hear anybody drive in.'
'I didn't know they used those anymore,' Brazil said.
'Muskrat's Auto Rescue has a bunch of them,' Bubba said.
'What about your dog?' West asked.
'Half Shell bawls all day and night. Nobody listens to her anymore.'
'So Half Shell and the gas-station bell were your only alarm system?' West gave him a skeptical look.
Bubba could tell she wasn't impressed with him. He was suddenly conscious of how pretty she was. Bubba felt fat, dirty, unattractive and inferior. He felt the way he had most of his life. Deputy Chief West saw through his guns and tools and home repairs. She saw Bubba as a persecuted little boy with an awful name and a world that ridiculed him. Bubba could see it in her eyes. It suddenly occurred to him that she might have gone to school with him.
'Are you from around here?' he asked her.
'No,' she said.
'What do you mean, am I sure?'
He was paranoid and obsessed. He had to be convinced.
'So you're not from Richmond,' he said.
'No.' She was getting curt with him.
'It's just that you look like someone I went to school with whose name was Virginia,' Bubba lied.
'We didn't go to school together,' West told him.
'Did the burglar or burglars urinate in here?' Brazil asked.
'Yes.' Bubba pointed. 'Does that mean something?'
'Oftentimes burglars urinate or defecate in the place they've broken into,' West explained. 'It's part of an MO, and may or may not matter.'
The sort of thing your police computer might have picked up on if it didn't have the fish virus,' Bubba said. 'I heard about it on the news when I was driving home. So you won't be able to check for a pattern.'
'Don't you even worry about it.' Brazil avoided the subject. 'You got a list of the guns and their serial numbers?'
'I got them all at Green Top,' Bubba said. 'Never buy guns anywhere else.'
'That helps,' Brazil said. 'But I want to list on the report what's missing so the detective can follow up.'
'I guess you won't be able to use the computer to see if someone else got broken into like this,' Bubba said, disappointed. 'Because of the fish problem.'
'Don't worry about how we do our jobs,' Brazil told him. 'Now, about the list.'
'One Browning Buck Mark Bullseye .22,' Bubba recalled, 'a Taurus eight-shot M608 .357, Smith and Wesson Model 457 alloy frame .45 ACP and its Bianchi Avenger holster, a Pachmayr pocket cleaning kit, a mini-Clock G26 nine-millimeter with night sights, Sig P226 nine by nineteen millimeter, same thing used by Navy SEALs. Let's see. What else?'
'Jesus,' West said.
Brazil was writing at top speed.
'A Daisy Model 91 Match pistol, air gun, in other words. Ruger Blackhawk .357 revolver, and a couple Ruger competition handguns.'
'Are you a competition shooter?' West asked.
'Haven't had time,' Bubba said.
'Is that it?' Brazil asked.
'I just got a M9 Special Edition nine mil, fifteen-round clips, still in the box. It makes me sick. I never even got to try it out. And I had a bunch of speed loaders and about twenty boxes of cartridges. Most of them Winchester Silvertips.'
'What about anything else?' West asked.
'It's hard to tell,' Bubba said. 'But the only other thing I'm not seeing anywhere is my Stanley tool belt. It's really nice. Black nylon with a padded yellow belt, lightweight and not as hot as leather. Can fit everything but the kitchen sink.'
'I've always wanted one of those,' West confessed. They cost about sixty bucks.'
'That's if you get a discount,' Bubba said.
'What about suspects?' Brazil had gotten to that part of the report. 'Anybody you think might have done this?'
'It had to be somebody who knew what I had inside my shop,' Bubba said. 'And the door wasn't forced, so the person had a remote, too.'
'That's interesting,' Brazil commented.
'You can buy them at Sears,' West said, looking up at the retracted Sears garage door. 'Mr. Fluck, I'm going to see to it that a detective comes by before the day's out to look for any possible evidence, prints, tool marks, whatever.'
'My prints will be in here,' Bubba worried.
'We'll have to print you, now that you mention it, to know what's yours and what's not,' West said.
They walked out of the workshop, careful where they stepped. Half Shell was bawling and jumping in circles.
'Thank Chief Hammer again for me,' Bubba said, following West and Brazil to their car.
'Again?' Brazil looked baffled. 'Have you spoken to her?'
'Not directly,' Bubba said.
Hammer was extremely sensitive to racial issues and had studied the Richmond metropolitan area's thoroughly. She knew it wasn't so long ago that blacks couldn't join various clubs or live in certain neighborhoods. They couldn't use golf courses or tennis courts or public pools. Change had been slow and in many ways was deceptive.
Memberships and neighborhood associations began to accept blacks, and in some cases women, but making it off the waiting list or feeling comfortable was another matter. When the future first black governor of Virginia tried to move into an exclusive neighborhood, he was turned down. When a statue of Arthur Ashe was erected on Monument Avenue, it almost caused another war.
Chief Hammer was worried as she and administrative assistant Fling drove through Hollywood Cemetery to inspect the damage and find out if the descriptions of it were exaggerated. They weren't. Hammer parked on Davis Circle, where the painted bronze statue was clearly visible in the distance, rising amid a background of magnolias and evergreens, small Confederate flags fluttering at the marble base, the perimeter secured with yellow crime-scene tape.
'Looks like he's hogging the basketball and won't pass it to anyone,' Fling observed. 'He looks kind of stuck-up, too.'
'He was,' Hammer commented.
She stifled laughter, her blood fluttering with peals of it that were almost impossible to suppress. The statue of Davis had always been described as having a proud and haughty air. He had worn the southern gentleman's dress typical of his day, before the graffiti artist, remarkably, had transformed the long coat into a baggy jersey and voluminous shorts to the knees. Trousers had become muscular legs and athletic socks. Boots had been turned into hightop Nikes.
Hammer and Fling got out of the Crown Victoria as the throaty roar of a black Mercedes 420E came up from behind. The sedan, with its sunroof and saddle interior, swerved around Hammer's car and parked in front of it.
'Shit,' Hammer said as Lelia Ehrhart gathered something off the Mercedes's front seat and opened her door. 'Where's the interpreter?'
Although Ehrhart had been born in Richmond, she had spent most of her growing-up years in Vienna, Austria, where her father, Dr. Howell, a wealthy, prominent music historian, had labored for years on an unauthorized psychological biography of the very gentle, sensitive Mozart and his fear of the trumpet. Later the family had moved to Yugoslavia where Dr. Howell explored the subliminal influence of music on the Nemanjic dynasty. German was
Lelia Ehrhart's first language, Serbo-Croatian followed, then English. She spoke nothing well and had combined the three, stirring and folding, as if making a cake.
For a moment, Ehrhart stood, transfixed by the statue, her lips slightly parted in shock. She wore yellow Escada jeans, a full yellow-striped blouse with an E on the breast pocket, a black belt studded with brass butterflies and shoes to match. Although Hammer mostly wore Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, she knew other designers and recognized that the butterflies were several seasons old. This gave Hammer a little satisfaction, but not enough.
'This will excite a riot,' Ehrhart exclaimed, moving in closer to the crime scene, a Canon Sure Shot in hand. 'Nothing like this has even happened before this.'
'I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that,' Hammer replied. 'Not so long ago someone painted graffiti on the statue of Robert E. Lee.'
'That was different.'
'He wasn't changed into a black basketball player,' Fling agreed. 'Not saying he wouldn't have been, but he's on a horse with a sword, and right there on Monument Avenue where if you spent a lot of time, someone's bound to notice. So I really don't see how you could easily do him. Or doing anybody on Monument Avenue. Arthur Ashe's holding a tennis racket and the other guys are on horses. Unless you did polo, I guess.'
'I want to know how you're doing about this?' Ehrhart said to Hammer as a sudden gust of wind stirred trees and whipped the Southern Cross at Davis's feet. 'And where were your officers when some vandal came in here like
Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel?'
'The cemetery is private property,' Fling reminded her.
'If a serial killing shows up on my private property, is that a so-what also?' Ehrhart replied indignantly.
'Not if we know he's a serial killer,' Fling retorted.
'The truth is,' said Hammer, 'we do patrol the cemetery.'
'That's even worst,' Ehrhart said. 'You certainly must have somewhere been elsewhere last night.'
'The beat car is very busy in that area, Lelia. We've got VCU, Oregon Hills. We get many, many calls," Hammer said. 'When calls involve living people, they take priority.'
'As if I would know this!' Ehrhart indignantly answered.
'It's confusing what's city and what isn't.' Fling tried to gloss over his misinformation. 'And Mrs. Ehrhart, my earlier point that I wanted to emphasize was
That's easier to say,' said Ehrhart.
Hammer felt as if she were listening to aliens.
'When about Bobby Feeley?' Ehrhart was becoming more accusatory.
'We're working hard on this, Lelia,' Hammer replied.
'He's twelve,' she persisted. 'That ought to add up for something.'
'We are investigating this with great seriousness,' said Hammer, who frankly thought the statue was much improved by the new outfit.
'He probably alibied his way from there to here and you take it at fact value.' Ehrhart wouldn't let it rest.
'I think he wasn't feeling good last night and didn't go out,' Fling offered. 'There are witnesses.'
Hammer glared at Fling, who had just divulged sensitive information about the case.
'Well, we'll put this up at my meeting. And by the way, I've had to move it earlier to seven A.M. in the morning, Judy.' Ehrhart started taking photographs of the crime scene. 'The Commonwealth Club private boarding room. If you don't know where it is, they'll ask you at the door when you cash your coat.'
'It's a little warm for a coat,' Fling said.
For the past century, Lelia Howell Ehrhart's alleged ancestors had been laid to rest in stately family plots and tombs, and remembered by obelisks and urns, and blessed by crosses, and guarded by Carrara marble angels of grief and a cast-iron dog, and embellished with ornamental metalwork.
It was well known that her family tree included Jefferson Davis's wife, Varina Howell, although genealogists had thus far been unsuccessful in tracing Ehrhart's bloodline back to any geographic region even close to Mississippi, where Mrs. Davis was from.
Ehrhart was traumatized and personally outraged. She took the vandalism personally and couldn't help but think it was directed at her, and therefore gave her the right to find the monster who had done it and lock him up for the rest of his life. Ehrhart didn't need the police. What good were they anyway?
What mattered most and got things done was connections, and Ehrhart had more than the Internet. She was married to Dr. Carter 'Bull' Ehrhart, a millionaire dentist and alleged descendant of Confederate General Franklin 'Bull' Paxton. Bull Ehrhart was a University of Richmond alumnus. He was on the Board of Visitors. He had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to U of R and rarely missed a basketball game.
Southern Cross by Patricia Cornwell / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes