Southern cross, p.20
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       Southern Cross, p.20
 

           Patricia Cornwell

  'I live here,' Pigeon said. 'That's somewhere, isn't it? Get your butt closer. I'll show you something.'

  Weed tried to block our the smell as he walked all the way to the blanket Pigeon sat on. Pigeon reached into a pocket of his ragged Army jacket and showed Weed a Baggie filled with something.

  'Peanut butter crackers,' Pigeon confided in his rough, raspy voice. 'Didn't come outta the trash. The soup kitchen downtown is where.'

  'You swear?' Weed said as his stomach begged him to help out a little.

  Pigeon nodded.

  'I gotta bottle of water that's never been opened. Soup kitchen again. I guess I can share with a little lost boy.'

  'I'm not lost,' Weed said.

  Bubba was. The minute the dogs had been cut loose, Half Shell had taken off through the woods in one direction while Smudge and Tree Buster had gone in another. The dogs crashed through underbrush for a good ten minutes before Half Shell barked three times. 'STRIKE, HALF SHELL!1 Bubba hollered. The crashing in Smudge's direction stopped. Bubba started running as best he could, breaking branches so he could find his way back, stepping over logs and wading through creeks, his headlamp clearing the way. He stamped and crackled, hoping if there was a snake in the area, it would think twice about getting near all that noise. Bubba's heart was pounding and he was gasping for breath as he followed the sound of his dog.

  Half Shell's front paws were up an old pine tree and she was barking and bawling, her tail wagging, when Bubba appeared. Bubba had no doubt that Half Shell had either backtracked and followed the scent of where the coon had been instead of where the coon was going, or Half Shell had found yet one more slick tree that no more had a coon in it than an iceberg had sugarcane. Bubba shone his submersible Super SabreLite up into the branches, sweeping the beam from high to low, disappointed but not surprised.

  He dug out two iridescently painted pearls on a string and whirled them over his head. He flung them as high as they would go and was relieved when they snagged halfway up the pine tree. He shone his light on them and they glowed yellow, two perfect coon eyes. Bubba's heart swelled with euphoria as Half Shell continued barking at nothing and Tree Buster crashed in on them, Smudge right behind him.

  'TREE, HALF SHELL!' Bubba yelled.

  'No way,' Smudge said, trying to catch his breath and sweating.

  'Look for yourself.'

  Bubba shone the light on the bright yellow eyes high up in the black branches of the tree.

  'If there's a coon up there, then how come Tree Buster's just sitting here and isn't trying to tree it, too,' Smudge declared as Tree Buster panted and stared.

  'That's your problem, good buddy,' Bubba said. 'And you can't tell me you don't see it.'

  'I see it,' Smudge had to admit. 'Damn thing sure is crouched up there at a funny angle. Looks like he's sideways.'

  Bubba got out his score card.

  'A hundred points for the strike and another hundred and twenty-five for the tree,' he said, jotting the numbers in the Tree column.

  Smudge was sullen. They put the dogs back on the leashes and walked through the woods for five minutes. Smudge started the timer and again they let the dogs loose. Tree Buster bolted off as if he knew something. Half Shell disappeared no more than a hundred feet into the woods before she hit a creek and barked three times.

  'STRIKE, HALF SHELL!' Bubba let loose his battle cry.

  Tree Buster barked three times much farther away.

  'STRIKE, TREE BUSTER!' Smudge yelled.

  The two men went after their dogs. Bubba almost tripped over a root and stepped into a hole as he tried not to think about snakes. It was on his mind that if Smudge caught on to what Bubba was doing, Smudge might just leave Bubba out here. Hunters would find Bubba's skeleton years later.

  Half Shell continued barking at the shallow creek and Bubba picked her up and carried her across it, setting her under another thick, winter-bare oak tree.

  'Bark at that,' Bubba told her.

  Half Shell wasn't interested.

  'Come on, girl,' Bubba begged.

  Half Shell sat, tongue hanging out. Bubba sighed. He reached inside a pocket and pulled out another pair of marbles and a Cheez Whiz sandwich on white bread. Half Shell started barking and drooling as Bubba waved the sandwich in front of her nose. The dog went crazy. Bubba reached up and stuffed the sandwich in a knothole. Half Shell started jumping up at it, barking and baying as Bubba flung another set of eyes high up in the branches of another slick tree.

  This went on until there were only twenty minutes left of the two-hour competition. Bubba had amassed nine hundred points. Smudge had nothing. He had stopped talking forty-five minutes ago. He no longer petted his dog.

  'We may as well call it a day,' Bubba proposed. 'There's no way you can catch up, Smudge.'

  'It ain't over 'til it's over,' Smudge let him know.

  The last chance was for Bubba to default, to quit before the competition was over. Smudge knew he had no choice as they walked deeper into the woods during their five-minute break between segments.

  Smudge quietly reached inside his knapsack and grabbed hold of the rubber snake, closing his hand around the rattle to silence it as he withdrew the rattler and uncoiled the monofilament attached to it. Smudge cast the snake over Bubba's head. It landed about six yards in front of Bubba's feet.

  'What the hell was that?' Bubba asked with fear in his voice.

  'What was what?' Smudge asked as he started jerking the line and the rattle sounded.

  'Oh God!' Bubba exclaimed, standing perfectly still and shining his light on a huge rattlesnake wriggling toward him at great speed.

  'AHHHHHHHHH!!' Bubba screamed, crashing this way and that, tearing open his coat as the snake jumped and tumbled and rattled after him.

  'Run! Run!' Smudge yelled, darting wherever necessary to keep the snake where he wanted it.

  Bubba suddenly wheeled around, his .44 Anaconda revolver with its eight-inch barrel and scope gripped in both shaking hands. He fired again and again and again as pieces of the snake flew straight up into the air and Smudge dove over a dead tree and rolled through bushes and over a bank and into the creek.

  chapter twenty-two

  Weed was chilled and achy as he stared out at the city from the dark, stinking camp he shared with Pigeon, who had fallen asleep after drinking a quart of Colt 45.

  Weed wondered what Officer Brazil was doing and if everybody was out looking for him. Weed wondered if the cops had found anything that might cause him a problem. Maybe they could make him doodle on some kind of lie detector and figure out he was the one who painted the statue.

  Pigeon had shared two peanut butter crackers with Weed. He had given Weed four sips of water, saying it had to last. Weed decided his hideaway stunk worse than the Pikes' clubhouse, and he thought of his nice home and good food and clean bed.

  Weed would never go back to his mama again. He'd probably never see her again. He'd never spend another weekend with his father, not that he really wanted to, anyway. Weed would have to live like Pigeon because the Pikes would always be looking for him. He could never be

  Free again. He had a slave number to remind him in case he forgot.

  Pigeon rolled over and came to about the time his beer wore off. He fluffed the mound of dirty clothes that served as his pillow. His yawn was an open garbage can Weed could smell two yards away.

  'You awake?' Weed said.

  'Not by choice.'

  'How come you live the way you do, Pigeon?' Weed asked. 'You always lived this way?'

  'I was a little kid like you once,' Pigeon said. 'Grew up and fought in Vietnam, came home and didn't want to be part of nothing.'

  'How come?'

  'Way I felt. Still do.'

  'Me, too,' Weed said. 'Maybe I'll just hang out with you from now on.'

  'The hell you will!' Pigeon said in a voice that startled Weed. 'You ever been shipped off to war, had your foot shot off, part of your hand, too? Ever been in mental hospitals
'til they can't keep you no more so they dump your ass out on the street? Ever slept on the sidewalk in the dead of winter, nothing but a newspaper for a blanket? You ever eaten rats?'

  Weed was horrified. 'Did you really get your foot shot off?'

  Pigeon raised his right leg and showed his stump. Weed couldn't see it in detail because it was covered with a sock and the morning was still pretty dark.

  'How come you were in mental hospitals?' Weed got around to the most important question as he had second thoughts about staying with Pigeon.

  'Crazzzzzzy.' Pigeon shook his body and rolled his eyes.

  'No you ain't.'

  Weed thought of the fence again and if he could get back over it fast.

  'Well, I am. Sometimes I see things that aren't there. Especially at night. People coming at me with knives, guns. Cut off arms, legs, blood flying everywhere. They got all kinds of names for it, but it don't matter in the long run, Weed. No matter what you call something, it's still the same thing.'

  Pigeon fished another cigarette butt out of his pocket, and when he lit it, Weed saw his mangled hand. All that was left was part of the index finger and thumb.

  'What you running from?' Pigeon asked.

  'Who says I am?'

  'I do.'

  'So what.'

  'Cops after you for something?' Pigeon asked. 'Don't be shy, boy. They been after me a time or two.'

  'So what if they is?' Weed said.

  'Huh.' Pigeon blew out smoke, wheezing in the dark. 'Someone's after you for sure. I bet it's some other kid out there. Maybe you stole his drugs or something.'

  'No, I didn't! I never even seen drugs! He's just mad 'cause I didn't do what he told me to!'

  'How mad? Like maybe he's gonna really get you?'

  Tears filled Weed's eyes. He wiped them away, hoping Pigeon couldn't see.

  'Huh, one of those bad kids. Shoot people for the hell of it," Pigeon went on. 'Whole new breed. And they get away with it too, for the most part.'

  Weed's fury burned hot like the cigarette filter burning Pigeon's lips. Pigeon tossed it and seemed disappointed.

  'Kids worse than what I saw in 'Nam. All strapped up with bombs. Hi, nice to meet ya. KABOOMf Pigeon went on. 'Least over there we had a reason. Sure as hell wasn't no goddamn sport, tell you what.'

  'He already hurt me more 'an once,' Weed blurted out. 'Made me join his gang and tattooed my finger when I didn't want to and now I'm not in school and ain't been to art class or the last two band practices! And he knows where I live and if I go anywhere he'll find me and blow my head off. He's worse than the devil!'

  'Sounds like only one thing to do.' Pigeon pondered the situation. 'You said the cops might be looking for you?'

  'Maybe.'

  'What'd you do?'

  'Painted a statue in the cement-tary.'

  'Let them catch you.'

  Weed was shocked.

  'Why would I want to do that?' he asked.

  "Cause you get locked up, the devil can't get you.'

  'I don't want to go to no jail!'

  'They put you in a home for kids, right across the street from the jail. You get clothes, three meals a day, your own little room, play basketball, watch TV, go to class. You want a doctor, a shrink, they give it to you. How bad's that? Oughta hear the kids on the street. Vacation. Where you been, man? Man, I been on vacation. Rotten little bastards.

  'Now kids, I'm afraid of. Been beat up, robbed, rolled, cut on, kicked in the nuts. One time they set me on fire for the helluvit. And what happens to 'em? They go away on fucking vacation for two, three weeks. Come right back out, laughing, strutting under streetlights, big wads of cash in their pockets.'

  'I don't want to go on vacation,' Weed said.

  'You want to die?'

  'No. Uh uh, Pigeon. I don't.'

  'Then get locked up somewhere 'fore the devil gets you,' Pigeon said. 'Maybe by the time you get out, someone will've got him first. People like him don't live too old.'

  three blocks south on Spring Street, Brazil and West were inspecting a section of fence encircling the final resting place of presidents, governors, Civil War heroes, Richmond's first and finest families, and more recently, citizens of all sorts who wished to be interred there, realizing, of course, that all lots with river views were taken.

  Early morning sunlight was touched by cool fingers of shade in a remote section of Hollywood Cemetery where low-lying ground gave way to brambles and the river. West and Brazil had discovered a hole in the fence that was big enough to allow unlawful passage to an average-size adult. But there was too much rust to suggest the chain links had been cut in recent months or possibly years.

  'He didn't come in this way,' Brazil decided as he looked around.

  West was irritated by the deduction, mainly because she had not made it first.

  'Didn't realize you were a detective. Thought you were flack,' she said.

  'I'm not flack.'

  'All right, P.R., a reporter, a novelist.'

  Brazil was reminded of the op-ed piece due pretty soon and he hadn't even started it. He couldn't do anything about the newsletter for the website, either, because the computer system was still frozen on the same fish map. Nor had Brazil given even a moment's thought to the computer manual he was supposed to help write, as if it mattered right now, anyway.

  'My obvious point is he certainly could have gotten in easily,' West said.

  Brazil stepped through the hole, careful not to snag his uniform or cut himself.

  'You're right," he said. 'You coming in?'

  'No. This is your hunch, not mine. I, for one, don't think he's going to return to the scene of the crime, as you put it. What makes you so sure of that?'

  'Because what he did was very personal and emotional,' Brazil said. 'I think he won't be able to resist taking another look. To him the statue's not Jeff Davis. It's a monument to Twister. There's got to be a lot of stuff going on inside Weed's head, and I intend to get to him before the Pikes find him first.'

  'Maybe they've already found him,' West said.

  Brazil thought about that as he scanned leaning headstones so old the inscriptions were ghosts of words no longer readable. Trees that had been around before the Civil War cast thick shadows, and leaves rustled with breaths of wind.

  'Look, Virginia, I'm going to hang out here for a while,' Brazil said. 'I'll radio someone to come get me when I'm done.'

  She hesitated. Brazil sensed she was bothered that he would stay, that he didn't seem to care if she went on without him.

  'Well, anyway.' West hesitated again, then was disagreeable. 'All I can say is it's amazing the problems in this fucking city and what? They'll spend a fucking fortune on a fucking cemetery.'

  'Actually,' said Brazil, who had done much research on Richmond and its surroundings, 'Hollywood's a nonprofit, nonstock corporation owned by its lot owners, not the city."

  'Huh,' retorted West as she stalked off. 'Who cares.'

  Lelia Ehrhart did. She was serving her eighth term as chairman of Hollywood Cemetery's board of directors, which required very little of her time, really. The majority of lot owners were dead, the annual meeting with the board always poorly attended, suggestions and complaints few.

  Ehrhart had never needed anyone at meetings. She had never needed the opinions or suggestions of others. It had been her idea, and her idea alone, to ban picnics, snacks, alcoholic beverages, bicycles, jogging, motorcycles, skateboards, Rollerblades, recreational vehicles, vehicles pulling trailers and boom boxes from the grounds. Ehrhart was passionately devoted to the cemetery and its importance as a tourist attraction and celebration of lives faded but not forgotten, especially those Ehrhart claimed as her relations.

  'This is far more than vandals,' Ehrhart declared in the private boardroom of the Commonwealth Club, where she had called the meeting and then changed the time of it. This is a front to our unalien rights, to their liberty and happiness, to our very civilization. These vandals, these unrep
entent, cold-bloody juvenile delinquents that call themselfs Pikes have descegraded everyone sitting in their room.'

  This did not include Chief Judy Hammer, since she was originally from Arkansas. She ran through the ivy-framed entrance and up the old brick front steps of the historic and aristocratic club where women could not be members, but as guests of husbands or male friends were welcome to enjoy all amenities except the Victorian bar, Men's Grill, swimming pool, gym, steam and sauna rooms, squash and racquetball courts and reading rooms. Such restrictions were of little concern to public-service minded women busy with forming various committees for the Bal du Bois and its debutantes, or supporting the arts

  with auctions of wine, vacations, fine jewelry and other luxury items, or planning wedding receptions or exhibits for the Maymont Flower & Garden Show, or lunching with the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs, Daughters of the American Revolution or Daughters of the Confederacy, and with the Junior League, and of course, first families of Virginia and wives of legislators.

  Hammer was twenty minutes late. She rushed into the marble foyer, impervious to the splendid Oriental rug, the antique crystal chandelier, the velvet love seat and gilt mirrors and wall-size portrait of George Washington. She did not pause to check her coat or to admire the stunning paintings of Robert E. Lee and Lighthorse Harry. Judy Hammer had little interest in a hundred-and-eight-year-old club founded by former Confederate officers who, according to the original charter, wished to promote social intercourse and maintain a library.

  The door to the board room on the first floor was shut. She opened it slowly and quietly as Lelia Ehrhart held forth. Hammer scanned the faces of City Councilman Reverend Solomon Jackson, Mayor Stuart Lamb, Lieutenant Governor June Miller, NationsBank president Dick Albright, Richmond-Times Dispatch publisher James Eaton, and Metropolitan Richmond Convention & Visitors Bureau president Fred Ross.

  The men glanced at Hammer. Several of them nodded. All of them looked restless and ready to tell Ehrhart to commit suicide. Hammer found a seat.

  '. . . It's so much and more than the city of the deads,' Ehrhart was saying with authority. 'It is the Valhalla of we brave mens who carried the Southern Cross into their bosom of deadly, waving it for the because of states' right, to at last be buried, many we don't know who, in Hollywood.'

 
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