Southern cross, p.5
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       Southern Cross, p.5
 

           Patricia Cornwell

  'It's all about racism, Mr. Fluck,' Budget said coldly.

  'It's all about states' rights.'

  'Bullshit.'

  'You can count the stars. One for each state in the Confederacy plus Kentucky and Missouri. Eleven stars,' Bubba informed him. 'There's not a single slave on the Southern Cross. You look for yourself

  The South wanted out because it wanted to keep its slaves.'

  'That's only part of it.'

  'So you admit that it's at least part of it.'

  'I'm not admitting anything,' Bubba let him know.

  'You were driving erratically,' said Officer Budget, who wanted to grab Bubba out of the Jeep and smack him around.

  'Was not.' Bubba refused to admit it.

  'Yes, you were.'

  'Not me.'

  'I was right behind you. I ought to know.'

  That kid in the Explorer was trying to cut in front of me,' Bubba said.

  'He had his turn signal on.'

  'So what.'

  'Have you been drinking?' demanded Budget.

  'Not yet.'

  'Are you on any kind of medications?'

  'Not this minute.'

  'But you are sometimes?' Budget asked, for he knew that some drugs and poisons, such as marijuana and arsenic, stayed in the blood for a while.

  'Not anything you need to know about,' said Bubba.

  'I'll be the judge of that, Mr. Fluck.'

  Officer Budget leaned closer to the open window, hoping he might smell alcohol. He didn't.

  Bubba got out a cigarette. He smoked Merit Ultima instead of other brands because Merits, along with Marlboros and Virginia Slims, to name a few, were manufactured by Philip Morris. Bubba was very loyal to his employer and to all products made in America.

  Bubba had no intention of telling Officer Budget that he took Librax for cranky bowel syndrome and that now and then he needed Sudafed to control his allergic responses to dust mites, mold and cats. None of this was Officer Budget's business.

  'Advil,' Bubba answered the cop.

  'That's all?' Officer Budget asked with severity.

  'Maybe Tylenol.'

  'Mr. Fluck, you ..."

  'What did you say?' Bubba interrupted.

  '. . . certain you aren't on anything else?' Budget finished his sentence.

  'I heard what you said and I'm going to report you to the chief!' Bubba exclaimed in rage.

  'You do that, Mr. Fluck. In ..."

  'See!'

  'In fact, I'll make the appointment. You can see her, Mr. Fluck, face ..."

  'That's it!'

  An entire population of cruel schoolchildren stampeded through Bubba's brain. They chanted those awful names, shrieking with laughter. Bubba saw himself fat and in camouflage. Enough was enough, he could take no more.

  'What's it?' Budget raised his voice, too.

  'I don't have to listen to this!'

  'You can tell the chief that face to face!' Budget exclaimed. 'I don't give a flying . . .' : 'Stop!'

  'Man, you got a problem,' Budget said.

  Weed did, too. He made it to biology class in time to watch all completed quizzes passed up to the front and to hear Mrs. Fan go over homework he had not done.

  His miserable eyes wandered around the room to worms, deer embryos, rhinoceros beetles, termite eggs and dog intestines suspended in formaldehyde, and butterflies and snakeskins pinned to boards. He felt trapped by Smoke.

  Later, in Western Civilization, Mr. Pretty picked on Weed three times, and Weed knew the answer to nothing. Weed's fears gathered force.

  His escape was Mrs. Grannis's class. She taught Art IV and V during fifth period, and was very young and pretty, with soft blond curls, and eyes as green as summer grass. She had told Weed more than once that he was the first freshman ever, in the history of the school, to attend her class. Ordinarily, only juniors could take Art IV, and only seniors and Advanced Placement students could take V. But Weed was special. He had a gift that was rare.

  There had been much debate about pushing Weed so far ahead so fast, especially since he clearly lagged miles behind the troops on most other fronts. Questions about his maturity and social adjustment had been discussed at length among faculty and counselors. Even Mrs. Lilly, the principal, had been brought in at the end, and had proposed that Weed take a class at Virginia Commonwealth University or perhaps specialized classes at the Center for Arts. But the county did not provide transportation beyond the morning and afternoon buses Weed was afraid of missing. He had no way to get around in the middle of the day. Godwin decided to take a chance.

  Weed had free period and lunch between 11:40 and 12:31 and he needed to hide. He did not want to run into Smoke somewhere. Weed was desperate and had come up with a secret, brazen, bizarre plan. At 11:39 he walked into Mrs. Grannis's classroom. His self-esteem was low. He was frightened about what lay ahead and could tell by the way Mrs. Grannis looked at him that she sensed he wasn't himself.

  'How are you today, Weed?' she asked with an uncertain smile.

  'I was wondering if it would be all right if I worked in here through free period,' he said.

  'Certainly. What would you like to work on?'

  Weed stared at the computers on a back counter.

  'Graphic art,' he said. 'I'm working on a project.'

  'I'm delighted to hear it. There are many, many job opportunities in that field. You know where the CDs are,' she said. 'And I'll see you back here fifth period.'

  'Yes, ma'am,' Weed said as he pulled out a chair and sat in front of a computer.

  He opened a drawer where graphic software was neatly arranged in stacks, and picked out what he wanted. He inserted CorelDRAW into the CD drive and waited until Mrs. Grannis left the room before logging onto America Online.

  Lunch followed free period and Weed had no intention of eating. He hurried down the hallway to the band room, which was empty except for Jimbo 'Sticks' Sleeth, who was doing his thing on the red Pearl drums.

  'Hey, Sticks,' Weed said.

  Sticks was rolling on the snare, his feet keeping rhythm on the high hat and kick. He had his eyes squeezed shut, sweat running down his temples. Weed went over to a cabinet and retrieved the hard plastic Sabian case. He opened it and lovingly lifted out the heavy bronze crash cymbals. He checked the leather straps to make sure the knots were holding tight. He gripped the straps, index fingers and thumbs touching. He held the cymbals at an angle, the edge of the right one lower than the left.

  Sticks opened his eyes and gave Weed the nod. Weed struck the left cymbal, glancing it off the right, punctuating toms and snare with his euphoric bright sound.

  'Do it, baby!' Sticks yelled, and he started in.

  It sounded like a musical war going on as Sticks beat and throbbed and boomed in a rhythm that made the blood wild, and Weed was march-dancing around the room, crashing and flipping up, flashing and spinning.

  'Go! Go! Oh yeah!' Sticks was frenzied.

  Weed was moonwalking, his bright sound rolling out from the edges, then crashing staccato, then crashing long. He didn't hear the bell ring but he finally noticed the clock on the wall. He packed up the cymbals and made it back to Mrs. Grannis's art room with two minutes to spare. He was the first one there. She was writing on a white board and turned around to see who had come in.

  'Did you get a lot done during your free time?' she asked Weed.

  'Yes, ma'am.' Weed wouldn't meet her eyes.

  'I wish everybody liked the computer as much as you do.' She started writing again. 'You have a favorite software so far?'

  'QuarkXPress and Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.'

  'Well, you have a real knack for it,' she said as he chose his place at one of the tables and tucked his knapsack under his chair.

  'It's no big deal,' Weed mumbled.

  'Have you written your story of the power behind your fish?' Mrs. Grannis asked as she continued writing this week's project on the white board in long, looping letters.

  'Yea,
ma'am,' Weed sullenly answered, opening his notebook.

  'I can't wait to hear it,' she continued to encourage him. 'You're the only person in the class to pick a fish.'

  'I know,' he said.

  The assignment for the past two weeks had been to make a papier-mache figure that was symbolic to the student. Most picked a symbol from mythology or folklore, such as a dragon or tiger or raven or snake. But Weed had constructed a cruel blue fish. Its gaping mouth bared rows of bloody teeth, and Weed had fashioned glittery eyes from small compact mirrors that flashed at anyone walking past.

  'I'm sure all of the students can't wait to hear about your fish,' Mrs. Grannis went on as she wrote.

  'We doing watercolor next?' Weed asked with interest as he made out what she was writing.

  'Yes. A still-life composition that includes reflective objects, texture.' She wrote with flourish. 'And a 2-D object that gives the illusion of a 3-D object.'

  'My fish is three-dimensional,' Weed said, 'because it takes up real space.'

  'That's right. And what are the words we use?'

  'Over, under, through, behind and around,' he recited.

  Weed could remember words in art, and they didn't have to be in bold.

  'Freestanding, or surrounded by negative areas,' he added.

  Mrs. Grannis put down her Magic Marker. 'And how do you think you'd make your fish three-dimensional if it was actually two-dimensional?'

  'Light and shadow,' he said easily.

  'Chiaroscuro.'

  'Except I can never pronunciate it,' Weed told her. 'It's what you do to make a drawing of a wineglass look three-dimensional instead of flat. Same for a lightbulb or an ice chicle or even clouds in the air.'

  Weed looked around at boxes of pastels and the 140-weight Grumbacher paper he only got to use on final sketches. There were shelves of Elmer's glue and colored pencils and carts of the Crayola tempera paints he had used on his fish. On a counter in the back of the room the computer terminals for graphics reminded him of the secret thing he had done.

  By now, students were wandering into the room and scooting out chairs. They greeted Weed in their typically affectionate, smack-him-around fashion.

  'Hey, Weed Garden, what's going on?'

  'How come you're always in here before we are? Doing your homework early?'

  'You finished the Mono Lisa yet?'

  'You got paint on your jeans.'

  'Whoa, doesn't look like paint to me. You been bleeding, man?'

  'Uh uh,' Weed lied.

  Mrs. Grannis's eyes got darker as she looked at him and his jeans. He could see a question mark in a little balloon over her head. Weed had nothing to say.

  'Everybody ready to read what you wrote about your symbols?' She returned her attention to the class.

  'Groan.'

  'I can't figure out what mine means.'

  'No one said we had to write.'

  'Let's take a minute to talk about symbols.' Mrs. Grannis hushed them. 'What is a symbol? Matthew?'

  'Something that means something else.'

  'And where do we find them? Joan?'

  'In pyramids. And jewelry.'

  'Annie?'

  'In the catacombs, so the Christians could express themselves in secret.'

  'Weed? Where else might we find symbols?' Mrs. Grannis's face got soft with concern as she looked at him.

  'Doodles and what I play in the band,' Weed said.

  Brazil was at his desk, drawing designs on a legal pad, trying to come up with a newsletter logotype as the chairman of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Crime Commission drove him crazy over the speakerphone.

  'I think it is a dread-filled miscalculation,' Lelia Ehrhart's emphatic, haughty voice sounded.

  Brazil turned down the volume.

  'To even suggest much less implicate we might have a gang here is to cause one,' she proclaimed.

  The logo was for the website and needed to attract attention, and since it was agreed that CPR was out the window, Brazil had to start over. He hated newsletters, but Hammer had been insistent.

  'And not every children are little mobsters. Many of them are misguided and misled astray, mistreated and abusive and need our help, Officer Brazil. To dwell on those few bad, especially those to band together in little groups you call gangs, is to give the public a very wrong, untrue and false view. My committee is completely all about prevention and doing that first before the other. That's what the governor has mandated to tell us to do it.'

  'The last governor,' Brazil politely reminded her.

  'What is relevant about that and how does it matter?" retorted Ehrhart, who had been raised in Vienna and Yugoslavia and did not speak English well.

  'It matters because Governor Feuer hasn't gotten around to appointing a new commission yet. I don't think it's a good idea for us to be making assumptions about his policies and mandates, Mrs. Ehrhart.'

  There was a high-pitched, outraged pause.

  'Are you implicating that he might dissolute my commission and undo it? That he and I may be a problem in my relationship?' said Ehrhart.

  Brazil knew that a good nameplate should attract attention without overdoing it. Perhaps because they were on the subject of gangs, Brazil suddenly scrawled Richmond P.D. graffiti-style.

  'Wow,' he muttered in excitement.

  'Wow which?' Ehrhart's angry voice filled the office.

  'I'm sorry.' Brazil came to. 'What were you saying?'

  'I demand you tell me when you were saying wow about just there,' she demanded.

  Chief Hammer filled the doorway. Brazil rolled his eyes and put his finger to his lips.

  'I think you were became impertinent!' Ehrhart went on.

  'No, ma'am. I wasn't saying wow about anything that has to do with you,' Brazil answered honestly.

  'Oh really? And did that supposedly mean what?'

  Tm working on something here, and was saying wow about it.'

  'Oh, I see. Here I am taken my costly time to call your phone, and you're working on something else in addition to our conversing while I'm talking to you?'

  'Yes, ma'am. But I'm listening.' Brazil tried not to laugh as he looked at Hammer, who was never amused by Ehrhart.

  West walked in.

  'What . . . ?' she started to say.

  Hammer motioned for her to be silent. Brazil clamped his pencil between his teeth and crossed his eyes.

  'The upshoot, Officer Brazil, is I simple will not allow to permit you a commission quote for whatever your next column might be about in terms of so-called gangs. You're banging out by a thread on a limb all alone on this one!'

  Brazil snatched the pencil out of his mouth and wrote down the quote. West scowled. Hammer shook her head in disgust.

  'We members on the Blue Ribbon Crime Commission are children pro-advocates, not bounty hunting,' she preached on. 'Even if children do formulate little groups, what by the when is perfect and normal, certainly all of us had our little cliches where we were in school and to start labels them as gangs is like all this millions of misspoken facts about well-meaning mens who play Santa Claus at Christmas all being children molesters, or that clowns are, or that the Internet becomes that. And this is how there things all get their inception. Because of the power of suggesting that the media has. Don't you view how you've opened a flooded gate? So I'm asking you reasonable to square a peg in that round hole right now.'

  Brazil was biting his hand. He cleared his throat several times.

  'I understand what you're . . .' His voice went up an octave and cracked.

  He cleared his throat again, tears in his eyes, face bright red as he held back laughter that was fast becoming hysterical. Hammer looked like she wanted to break Lelia Ehrhart's neck, as usual. West's expression pretty much mirrored her boss's.

  'Then am I to happily assumption that we won't hear no more about this gang paraphernalia?' said Ehrhart, who was famous for her creativity with self-expression.

  Brazil simply could not speak.
<
br />   'Are you where?'

  Brazil mashed several buttons on the phone at the same time to give the impression there was trouble on the line. He quietly depressed the hang-up button and returned the receiver to its cradle.

  'Gang paraphernalia!' He was weak with laughter.

  'Oh great,' West said. 'Now she'll call us. Way to go, Andy. Every time you get with her on the fucking phone, this happens. Then she calls the chief or me. Thanks a hell of a lot.'

  'We have things to discuss,' Hammer announced, coming inside the office. 'We'll leave Lelia for later. She takes up far too much of our time as is.'

  'Why can't you say something to Governor Feuer?' Brazil said as he took a deep breath and wiped his eyes.

  'I will if he asks me,' Hammer replied. 'We need a very simple user's manual for COMSTAT. We've got to get this computer business straight. We're what? Three months into this? A fourth of our year is up. And they still can't use the computer? Both of you see how bad that is?'

  'Yes.' Brazil got serious. 'I do. If we don't leave that much with them, I guess we've failed.'

  'I'm sorry to heap more on you.' Hammer began pacing. 'But we need the manual ASAP.'

  'How soon is as soon as possible?' West asked suspiciously.

  Two weeks from today, at the outside.'

  'Jeez.' West sat down on the small couch. 'I'm already working days and riding with patrol, detectives, inspectors, you name it.'

  'Me, too,' Brazil said. 'Plus I've got this website stuff.'

  'I know, I know.' Hammer stopped to look out the window at the downtown skyline. 'I have my computer at home. I'll add my thoughts, too. We're all in this together. I think the thing to do is give each of us our own responsibility. Andy, you're more into programming, commands and all that. You can handle the how-to technical part of it, and Virginia, you can help put it in very basic, black-and-white terms, nuts and bolts, that the cops will be able to follow.'

  West wasn't sure if she'd been insulted or not.

  'I'll try to add the concepts, philosophies, put it all in context,' Hammer said. 'Then -- Andy, you're the writer -- you can compile the whole thing.'

  'I agree this has to be done,' West said, 'but if you ask me, the only thing that's going to really turn the guys on to COMSTAT is if they see it works.'

 
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