Southern cross, p.19
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       Southern Cross, p.19

           Patricia Cornwell
 
'We'll see,' Bubba said as Myrtle came up to the table, notepad in hand.

  'You boys decided yet?'

  'Iced tea, fried shrimp and oysters,' Bubba said.

  'One-time plate or all-u-can-eat?'

  'Lay it on me,' Bubba said.

  Myrtle laughed, chewing gum. 'And Smudge?'

  'The same.'

  'You boys sure are easy,' she said, brushing crumbs off their table and walking back to the kitchen.

  'Where we headed?' Bubba asked.

  'Gonna start out at the intersection of 620 and 460 right over there.' Smudge pointed. 'And head left way up in the middle of nowhere. Just muddy roads, forest and creeks. I did some checking into the Dismal Swamp and you definitely don't want that right now. Apparently when it's warm during the day, snakes are balled up like earthworms, there's so many of 'em. When it cools off at night, you run over 'em like sticks on the road.'

  Bubba was having a hard time breathing.

  'You all right, good buddy?' Smudge said.

  'Allergies. I forgot to bring my Sudafed.'

  'Chances are where we're going the snakes aren't going to be near that bad,' Smudge went on. 'And if we see a snake, just let it be. They're more scared of us than we are of them.'

  'Who says?' Bubba blurted out. 'Did a snake actually tell someone that? It's like saying dogs have no sense of time. Did someone ask Half Shell if it's true? I've heard tales of a snake going up somebody's pants leg. So how scared is that?'

  'Good point,' Smudge replied thoughtfully. 'I've heard the same thing. I must admit I've also heard of snakes chasing people and cobras spitting you in the eye, although I can't say whether it's true.'

  Divinity tried to calm Smoke and get him out of his dangerous mood. But when he got like this, there was no point ranting and raving about something unless she wanted to get the treatment.

  'Baby, it's just I don't want nothing bad to happen to you,' she tried one more time as he sped along Midlothian Turnpike, away from the slum he called a clubhouse where he now had enough of an arsenal to take out an entire police precinct.

  'I find him, he's dead,' Smoke said.

  Wu-Tang was playing 'Severe Punishment.' Smoke turned it up louder.

  'What'd I tell him to do?' Smoke glared at Divinity.

  'You told him to paint up the statue,' she said quietly, watching his hands to make sure he didn't head them her way.

  'I told him to paint up, as in fuck up, as in ruin.' Smoke gripped the wheel hard. 'I knew I shoulda stayed there and watched. Goddamn it. Shit! Then he paints that little fucking blue fish and the whole fucking world thinks that fish virus has got something to do with it! Where's our credit, huh? Where does it say the Pikes?'

  'Don't look like we got credit, baby.' She was freezing up inside, waiting for that beast in him to jump out.

  'Well, I'm gonna fucking fix that, and you know how?'

  'No, baby,' Divinity said, rubbing his neck.

  'Don't touch me!' Smoke shoved her away. 'My mind's working.'

  The newsroom at this hour was left to a certain breed, the cave fish of journalism, those who slept through the sun and monitored life at its darkest hours. Artis Roop did not keep to a schedule.

  He was energized and almost crazed as he hammered on about 'Smokes,' Fishsteria and the same blue fish painted ever so subtly on the base of Basketball Jeff. There had been no real breaks. Roop was rearranging old information, and he knew it. There was nothing else going on except the same old drug shootouts and fights in city council.

  'Shit.'

  He leaned back in his chair and stretched, cracking his neck to the right and left.

  'Got anything for last edition?' night editor Outlaw called out.

  'Working on it,' Roop called back.

  'How big?'

  'How much space I got?' Roop asked.

  'Depends on what comes in over the wire,' Outlaw said.

  Roop was about to confess that he had nothing worth shit when his phone rang.

  'Roop,' he answered.

  'How do I know for sure?'

  'Huh?' Roop asked.

  'How do I know I'm talking to Roop?' the tough male voice came back.

  'What is this, some kind of crank call?' Roop was about to hang up.

  'I'm the blue fish guy.'

  Roop was silent. He flipped open his notepad.

  'You ever heard of the Pikes, man?'

  'No,' Roop confessed.

  'Who the fuck you think painted that fucking statue? What the hell do you think the fucking fish is?'

  'A pike?' Roop was fascinated. 'The fish is a pike?'

  'You fucking got it.'

  'There've been suggestions the fish is actually the state fish, a trout,' Roop let him know.

  'It ain't no trout and you better pay attention "cause there's a lot going down in this city that the Pikes are taking charge of.'

  'So is it fair to say that the Pikes are a gang?' Roop asked.

  'No, fuckhead, we're a Girl Scout troop.'

  'Then it's all right if I refer to the Pikes as a gang in my article. Who are you?' Roop asked cautiously.

  'Your worst nightmare.'

  'I mean, really.'

  'The leader. I'm whatever I decide to be and I do whatever I want. Your fucking city ain't seen nothing yet. And you can print that in red. Remember the Pikes. You're going to hear from us again.'

  'But why a basketball player, and does the fish tag have anything to do with the computer crash . . . ?'

  Roop was answered by a dial tone. He called the police.

  At this point, tables B3, B6, B2 and Bl had gotten caught up in Bubba and Smudge's conversation.

  'Let me tell you what happened to me one time,' said an old man in overalls. 'Found one in my toilet. Lifted the lid and there it was, all curled up, its tongue sliding in and out.'

  'Oh my!' exclaimed a woman at the other table. 'How could that have happened?'

  'Can only figure it was a hot summer and he wanted to cool off.'

  'Snakes are cold-blooded. They don't have to cool off.'

  'Might've come up from the sewer.'

  'I was out in my johnboat one early morning before it was light, looking for duck when a damn water moccasin dropped into my boat, right on top of my foot, I kid you not. He must've been that big around.' He made a huge circle with his fingers.

  'Every time you tell that story, Ansel, the darn thing gets bigger.'

  'What'dya do?' Smudge asked as Bubba sat in silence, his face ashen.

  'Kicked the damn thing as hard as I could. It sailed right over my head, all wriggly, and I could feel it brush my hair as it went past before splashing in the water.'

  'We had one right here in the cooler.' Myrtle came over to join in. She pulled out a chair as if dinner no longer mattered.

  'It was the worse scare of my life, fellas. Apparently he was out back sunning hisself on the loading dock when Beane went into the walk-in cooler to get a barrel of pickles. Must've walked right by that God-awful rattlesnake and neither noticed the other. All we could figure after the fact is while Beane had the cooler door open, the snake went on in and got locked up. So little ole me goes in there the next morning for bacon and the minute I opened that door and step inside, I hear something rattling.'

  She paused, shivering, shutting her eyes. Everyone was silent and horror-struck as they hung on to every word.

  'Well,' Myrtle went on, 'I didn't move. I looked around and couldn't see nothing at first and then I heard the rattle again. By then I pretty much knew what it was. I mean a rattlesnake's rattle has a rattle all its own and that's what I was hearing sort of in the direction of the ten-gallon buckets of potato salad and coleslaw.' She paused again.

  'Where was it?' The man in overalls could wait no longer.

  'I'll bet it was eating a rat back there.'

  'We don't got rats in the cooler,' Myrtle was quick to defend.

  'Then where the hell was it, Myrtle?' Smudge said.

  'That far from me.' She
held her index fingers six inches apart.

  Everybody gasped.

  'It was coiled up right next to the mop, its tail sticking up and rattling to beat the band.'

  'What'cha do!' Voices chimed in.

  'Why, I got bit,' Myrtle said. 'Right there on my left calf. Happened so fast I hardly felt a thing and then that snake was gone like a streak of grease. I was in the hospital a week, and let me tell you, my leg swole up so big they thought they might have to cut it off.'

  No one spoke. Myrtle got up.

  'Your food ought to be ready,' she said, heading back to the kitchen.

  ruby Sink tried for hours to get Lelia Ehrhart on the phone, but when call waiting kicked in, whoever was on the line simply ignored it.

  Agitation and loneliness usually sent Miss Sink into the kitchen, where she had no one to cook for these days except that sweet young police officer renting one of her many properties. She had often thought about inviting him in for dinner, but she didn't have time to cook a big meal.

  Making shortbread cookies was one thing. But pot roast and fried chicken were another. Her various boards and associations consumed her, really. It was a wonder she could ever get around to fixing that boy anything. She dialed his pager and left her number, assuming he was probably busy at a crime scene.

  The page landed in Brazil's beeper as he was knocking on Weed's front door. It hadn't taken much investigation to check the city directory and see that the Gardeners, not the Joneses, lived in the small house behind Henrico Doctors' Hospital where Brazil had dropped off Weed last night.

  When Roop tipped off the police that a gang called the Pikes had claimed responsibility for the cemetery vandalism, Brazil knew Weed quite possibly was into something deep and dangerous.

  Brazil knocked again and no one answered. It was dark out with no moon. There were no sounds coming from inside the house and no car in the driveway.

  'Anybody home?' Brazil loudly tapped the door with his Mag-Lite.

  West covered the back door, and after several minutes of silence she came around to the front.

  'He knows we're looking for him,' West said, slipping her nine-millimeter Sig back into the shoulder holster.

  'Maybe,' Brazil said. 'But we can't assume he's figured out we know who his brother was.'

  They were walking back to the unmarked car. Brazil shone the flashlight on his pager and read the number. He got out his phone and dialed. Miss Sink answered immediately.

  'Andy?'

  'Hi,' Brazil said sweetly as he thought of the florist's card on the table in West's hallway.

  'We're closing the cemetery to the public,' she told him right off.

  West took her time unlocking her door. Brazil was certain she wanted to know who he was talking to.

  'I think that's a great idea,' Brazil said.

  'The statue's going to have to go into the shop, which is no easy thing when you think how much it weighs. So until we can get it out of the cemetery, the association has decided to keep everybody out except funeral parties, of course.'

  'What time?' Brazil said in a hushed voice.

  'What?' Miss Sink said. 'I can't hear you.'

  'Right now?'

  'Oh.' Miss Sink sounded confused. 'You mean is it closed right this minute?'

  'Yes.'

  'It is. Do you like pot roast?'

  'Don't tease me,' Brazil whispered as West jerked open her door.

  'I'm not wheezing,' Miss Sink said. 'But this time of year, the pollens are awful, especially if you're in the garden very much. Well, I guess pot roast isn't what young people eat these days. Not fried chicken either.'

  'Oh yes I do,' Brazil said as he went around to his door and got in.

  'You know what the secret is?' Miss Sink's mood was considerably uplifted.

  'Let me guess. Honey.'

  West abruptly pulled out onto the street and gunned the engine.

  'Exactly right,' Miss Sink exclaimed. 'How did you know that?'

  'Had it before. About time I had it again.'

  'Now that's talking,' Miss Sink said. 'I'll get back with you and we'll do something about it.'

  'I sure hope so,' Brazil said. 'Gotta go.'

  West was driving as if she hated the car and was determined to punish it.

  'At least I don't make personal calls on the job,' she exclaimed.

  Brazil was silent. He stared out his window. He took a deep breath and sighed. He glanced over at her, his feelings a volatile mixture of euphoria and heartache. She was jealous. She must still care. But he couldn't stand to hurt her. He almost told her the truth about Miss Sink. But when he remembered the florist's card, he thought, forget it.

  Bubba was not in good spirits as Smudge drove through the tar-black night, rocking over ruts and splashing. Stars were out and stingy with their light. Bubba wished he'd never come. He felt awful. He thought he might throw up.

  'We really haven't gone over the rules,' Smudge said cheerfully.

  'I thought we said they'd be the same as always,' Bubba replied despondently.

  'No, I think we ought to add a default clause,' Smudge proposed. 'Since so much is at stake and this is a one-on-one competition.'

  'I don't understand,' Bubba commented as suspicions gathered.

  'Let's say Half Shell's being her typical loudmouth cold nose and starts treeing about two or three trees away from the tree where the coon is. And Half Shell's doing it every time. You might just want to bag it instead of staying out in the woods all night. Same thing goes for me.'

  'So if I default, you get the thousand dollars. If you default I get it. If both of us default, neither of us get a thing,' Bubba deduced.

  'You got it, good buddy. We'll go one hundred and twenty minutes, five minutes' rest between each segment, regular competition rules.'

  Bubba had no idea where he was when Smudge finally parked the truck on a muddy road and climbed out, leaving the headlights on so they could see. They sat on the tailgate and put on their boots and coats.

  'Left my Bucktool inside,' Bubba mumbled.

  He crawled into the front seat, far out of Smudge's view, and dug inside his knapsack for the pearls on black string. He stuffed them into a pocket. He slipped out his Colt Anaconda .44. It was not his gun of choice for the night. But Bubba had nothing left. The rest had been stolen. He slid the monster revolver into a Bianchi on-belt HuSH nylon holster beneath his long, full coat.

  'We all set?' Smudge asked.

  'Let's get on with it,' Bubba replied bravely.

  They let their dogs out of the pens and both began howling and baying, tails wagging as Bubba and Smudge restrained them with heavy nylon leashes.

  'Good girl,' Bubba said as he kneaded Half Shell behind her long silky ears.

  Bubba loved his dog, no matter her deficits. She looked like a long-legged, sleek Beagle with surprisingly soft fur. She loved to lick Bubba's hand and face. Bubba was reluctant to let her go crashing through those woods. If she got snake-bit or a coon tore her up, Bubba couldn't live with it.

  Smudge had out the stopwatch. Bubba was petting Half Shell and encouraging her to find a coon this time.

  'Go!' he said before Bubba was ready.

  Weed ran through the dark along Cumberland Street until he neared I-195's Cherry Street overpass. Banking either side of it were thick growths of trees and shrubs closed in by a high chain-link fence.

  He walked over a grassy bank, furtively looking left and right as he reached the fence, which he could not see through because the foliage was too dense. He almost didn't care what was on the other side. So what if he fell fifteen feet into rushing traffic? What was left in life but for Smoke to find him?

  Weed climbed the fence and pushed branches away from his face as he worked his way down the other side. He held his breath as his feet touched ground and blindly pushed his way through tall grass and shrubs, holding his arm in front of his face to protect his eyes. He found himself in a clearing where he could just make out a small camp and a
figure sitting in the middle of it, the tip of a cigarette glowing. Weed's heart flipped.

  'Who's there?' an unfriendly voice sounded. 'Don't try anything. I can see in the dark and I know you're puny and don't got a gun.'

  Weed didn't know what to say. He had no place to run unless he tried to get back over the fence or decided to jump the wall and land on the expressway.

  'What's the matter, kitty got your tongue?' the man asked.

  'No, sir,' Weed said politely. 'I didn't know nobody was here. I'll be glad to leave.'

  'No place to go. That's why you're here, now ain't it?'

  'Yes, sir.'

  'You can stop all that yes sir shit. My name's Pigeon.'

  That ain't your real name.' Weed ventured a little closer.

  'I don't remember my real one anymore.'

  'How come they call you that?'

  'Because I eat 'em. When I can, that is.'

  Weed's stomach flopped.

  'What's your name, and why don't you come a little closer so I can get a good look at you.'

  'Weed.'

  'That ain't your real name," Pigeon mimicked him.

  'Yes, it is, too.'

  Weed was hungry and thirsty, and the constant thunder of traffic frightened him. A chill had settled over the night and he was cold in his baggy jeans and Bulls jersey. Pigeon lit another cigarette and Weed caught a glimpse of Pigeon's face in the spurt of flame.

  'You're pretty old,' Weed said.

  'Older than you, that's for damn sure.' He inhaled deeply and held it.

  Weed stepped closer. Pigeon smelled as if he were rotting alive.

  'Once you been in here awhile, your eyes start seeing again. Notice? I think all those lights from the cars below us have something to do with it,' Pigeon said. 'You don't look like you're much older than ten.'

  'Fourteen,' Weed replied indignantly.

  Pigeon dug in a trash bag and pulled out part of a submarine sandwich. Weed's mouth watered but he felt kind of sick, too. Pigeon dug in the bag again and set down a two-liter bottle of Pepsi that was half empty. He flicked the cigarette butt into the night.

  'Want some?' Pigeon asked.

  'I ain't eating or drinking nothing that came out of the garbage,' Weed said.

  'How you know it came out of the garbage?'

  "Cause I seen people like you digging things outta the garbage. You go around with shopping carts and don't live anywhere.'

 
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