Southern cross, p.9
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       Southern Cross, p.9
 

           Patricia Cornwell

  'Fish,' Passman bullied Mabie out of the way. 'A fish spill, for example.'

  'Ten-10,' 709 replied after a long pause. 'Possible fish could be an a.k.a.?'

  Passman got back on the phone without ever having gotten off it, really. She posed the question to Brazil. He could think of no wanted subject with the alias Fish or Blue Fish. Brazil thanked her and hung up as other units began calling in with insincere questions and mocking tips about fish and fishy people, incidents, situations, false alarms, mental subjects, prostitutes and pimps named one or the other, and vanity plates. Brazil snapped off the scanner, furious that the Richmond cops now had one more thing to ridicule him about.

  reporters and camera crews were out in force this night, stalking La Petite France, waiting for Governor Mike Feuer and his wife, Ginny, to emerge from a power dinner of fine French food and warm chats with the chef.

  The media wasn't necessarily interested in the Virginia Economic Development Section of the Forbes magazine CEO kickoff banquet going on inside. But Governor Feuer had appeared on Meet the Press over the weekend. He had made controversial statements about crime and tobacco, and Richmond Times-Dispatch police reporter Artis Roop felt dissed because the governor had not given the quotes to him first.

  For weeks Roop had been working on a significant series about the impact of black-market cigarettes on crime and life in general. Roop believed if the price of Marlboros, for example, climbed as high as thirteen dollars and twenty-six cents a pack, as predicted by financial analysts as recently as the end of trading today, citizens would start growing tobacco in hidden places, such as cornfields, wooded backyards, backyards enclosed by high walls, greenhouses, logging roads, private gardens, private clubs and anywhere that ATF might not look. Citizens would begin illegally manufacturing their own cigarettes, arid who could blame them.

  The country would revert to the days of stills, or smokes, as Roop called the imagined contraption necessary to make bootleg tobacco products. He further theorized that in Virginia, especially, people would get away with operating smokes, since not a day went by when there wasn't controlled burning, a forest fire, a fire in a landfill or on a hearth somewhere. Smoke drifting from acres of trees or refuse or out of the chimneys of historic homes would not necessarily raise suspicions.

  Roop was smart enough to know that if he was one of the twenty or thirty aggressive members of the media perched outside the restaurant door, he would not get special treatment. He had wisely chosen to sit in his car, monitoring the scanner as usual. He had been perplexed and excited when he picked up something about a fish spill in second precinct's beat 219. Roop was a streetwise investigator. He was certain fish spill was a code for big trouble, and he would get the scoop as soon as he finished with the governor.

  even as he was thinking Shit, and staring at the computer screen, it suddenly came to Brazil that what he was seeing was not COMSTAT computer mapping at all, but a clever, creative screen saver that someone had downloaded into the police department's new website.

  'I'll be damned.' He was incredulous.

  He noticed the light flashing on his answering machine. He played his messages. There were three. The first was from his mother, who was almost too drunk to talk and demanding to know why he never called. The second was Miss Sink making sure he had gotten the sweet potato pie she'd delivered, and the third was from West, wanting him to call right away.

  Brazil knew her number, even though he never dialed it. He switched to speakerphone, his pulse running harder, hands busy on the keyboard to no avail. He could not get rid of the screen saver or alter it in any way.

  'Virginia?' He ran his fingers through his hair and strangled his nervousness before it could speak. Tm returning your call,' he said easily.

  'There's something bizarre going on with the computer.' She was all business.

  'Yours too?' He couldn't believe it. 'Fish?'

  'Yes! And get this. I leave home this morning and my computer's off, right. Then I come home and not only is it on now, but there's this map of 219 with all these little blue fish swimming around in it.'

  'Has anyone been inside your house today?'

  'No.'

  'Your alarm was set?'

  'Always.'

  'You sure you didn't just think you turned your computer off?'

  'Well, I don't know. It doesn't matter. What are all these fucking fish? Maybe you should come over.'

  'I guess you're right,' Brazil hesitated to say as his heart beat harder to make itself heard.

  'We've got to get to the bottom of this,' West said.

  Chief Hammer had been fighting with her computer for the past hour, trying to figure out how the city crime map had gotten on her screen and why there were fish in it. She tapped keys and rebooted twice while Popeye restlessly paced about, in and out of her toybox, scratching, standing on her hind legs, and jumping on furniture and finally into Hammer's lap.

  'How am I supposed to concentrate?' Hammer asked for the tenth time.

  Popeye stared up at Hammer as she pointed the mouse at an X and tried again to exit the map on her screen. This was crazy. The computer was locked. Maybe Fling had screwed up the software. That was the risk when all PCs had to log into the microprocessor downtown. If Fling put a bug in the system, everybody on the Richmond network was infected. Popeye stared at the screen and touched it with her paw.

  'Stop it!' Hammer said.

  Popeye stepped on several keys that somehow jumped Hammer off the map and landed her on an unfamiliar screen with the heading RPD PIKE PUNT. Under it were strings of programming that made no sense: IM to

  $im__on and available and AOL% findwindow('A.OL

  Frame2.5', 0&), and so on.

  'Popeye! Now look what you've done. I'm in the operating system where I absolutely don't belong. Let me tell you something, I'm not a neurosurgeon. I don't belong here. I touch one thing and I could braindamage the entire network. What the hell did you hit and how am I supposed to get out?'

  Popeye stepped on several keys again, and the map and fish returned. She jumped to the floor, stretched and trotted out of the room. She came back with her stuffed squirrel and started slinging it. Hammer swiveled her chair around and looked at her dog.

  'Listen to me, Popeye,' Hammer said. 'You've been home all day. When I left the house this morning, my computer was on the main menu. So how could it be that when I walked in just a little while ago I find this map with all those little fish? Did you see anything? Maybe the computer made noises and things started happening on it? We don't have fish in any of our COMSTAT applications that I am aware of.'

  She reached for the phone and called Brazil, catching him just before he was out the door.

  'Andy? We've got trouble,' she said instantly.

  'Fish?' he asked.

  'Oh God. You too,' she said.

  'And Virginia. Same thing.'

  'This is awful.'

  'I'm on my way to her house right now."

  'I'm coming,' Hammer said.

  chapter nine

  The adult bookstore was enjoying a steady business at twenty minutes past eight, when Smoke parked between a Chevrolet Blazer with eight-inch superlift and 39x18.5 custom tires, and a granny-low Silverado 2500. He turned the engine off, waiting for a break in spent, dazed, afraid-the-wife-or-mother-would-find-out male traffic exiting the small sex shop.

  A gimpy old man in overalls emerged from the door, looking this way and that, Viagra worn off, face wan, exhausted and paranoid in the sick glow of neon lights. He stuffed a bandanna into his back pocket and checked his fly and touched the side of his neck to see what his pulse was doing. He was unsteady as he made a dash for his El Camino. Smoke waited until it was spitting gravel and lurching onto Midlothian Turnpike. He knew his way through the woods so well he didn't turn on the flashlight until he reached the plywood entrance of his clubhouse.

  Candles had long since been snuffed out, the gang gone except for its newest member. Weed was sitting in his own
vomit on a mattress, hands and ankles bound with belts. He was shaking and whimpering.

  'Shut up,' Smoke said, shining the light in Weed's terrorized face.

  'I didn't do nothing,' Weed muttered repeatedly.

  Smoke quickly undid the belts, keeping his distance and not breathing.

  'Maybe I ought to dump your ass,' he said in disgust. 'You're nothing but a puny little pussy. Throwing up all over the place and crying like a queer. Well, I'll tell you one thing, Mr. Picasso. You're cleaning up this place before you go anywhere.'

  West was running around her house, picking up, straightening up, throwing out pizza and fried chicken boxes, stuffing dishes into the dishwasher while Niles stuck with her feet like a soccer ball.

  'Get out of my way,' West told Niles. 'Where's your mouse? Go get your mouse.'

  Niles wouldn't. West trotted into the bedroom. She sat on the left side, where she didn't sleep, and bounced up and down. She punched the pillow and rumpled the spread. She ran back into the kitchen and got two wineglasses out of a cupboard. She dusted them, swirled a small amount of Mountain Dew in each, raced back to the bedroom and placed them on the bedside tables. She dropped a pair of athletic socks that could have passed for a man's.

  She was out of breath when she hurried inside her office and began digging in drawers for a greeting card, maybe a letter that looked suspiciously personal from someone besides Brazil, who had written her often back in days that meant nothing to her anymore. She came across a florist's card still in its envelope, her name typed on it. She walked quickly into the foyer and dropped the card on a table, in plain view of anyone who came through the front door.

  Bubba was late, the night without a moon or stars or possibility of redemption. He had no choice but to exceed the speed limit on Commerce Road. He had no time to indulge in nostalgia as he sped by the Spaghetti Warehouse, where he had taken Honey last Mother's Day, despite their not having children. Bubba did not want them, because Bubba believed the Plucks, especially those named Butner, were overbred and had reached the end of the line.

  Bubba smoked and rode hard past Sieberts Towing, and Fire Station #13, Cardinal Rubber & Seal, Estes Express, Crenshaw Truck Equipment Specialists, Gene's Supermarket, John's Seafood & Chicken, and all the other businesses paralleling 1-95. It had begun to rain, limber drops diving through the crack in the Jeep's roof and kicking below the rearview mirror and over polyurethane before touching the dashboard in record time. The Lucky Strike water tower and tip of the Marlboro sign loomed on the horizon no matter which way Bubba turned, reminding him that cigarette making, like life, went on.

  Bubba felt hateful toward Muskrat because he had refused to do anything further to Bubba's leaky Jeep. Bubba was angry with Honey, who had not lived up to her name when he had finally gotten home. She had not apologized for gummy Kraft macaroni and cheese and charred Tombstone pizza, both dashed with too much Farm Plus! Seasonal Blend. Honey cared not that Bubba's ritual glass of Capri Sun was tepid, the Jell-O cheesecake warm, or that the Maxwell House left over from breakfast could have blacktopped the driveway.

  Honey had gone from ridiculing the Cheez Whiz and Miracle Whip that Philip Morris had spread over the earth, to launching into a weepy litany that Bubba could not escape because she had hidden his car keys. He did not know what had gotten into her. Before this night, she had never caused him to be late for work, even though she had no way of knowing that he wasn't really late because he was going in early to cover the second half of Tiller's shift.

  Philip Morris sparkled like a jewel and was as perfectly pitched as a tuning fork amid the depressing tarnish and unbearable discord of the awful traffic and endless road repairs of 1-95. The grounds of the 1.6-square-mile administrative offices and manufacturing plant were immaculate, the expansive green often used as a helipad by those of a higher order that Bubba revered and rarely saw. Shrubs were perfectly sculpted. Japanese maple, crabapple, Bradford pear and oak trees were lush and precisely placed.

  Over the years, Bubba had become increasingly convinced that Philip Morris had been sent to earth on a mission that, like God's will, wasn't entirely revealed but merely hinted at, even to its well-paid chosen employees. Bubba had never been inside a building with so much varnished parquet and sparkling glass surrounded by gardens so splendid they had been dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson.

  Big video screens communicated to workers from all corners, the industry's technology so secret that not even Bubba understood half of what he did every day. Bubba knew it was all too enlightened to be of this world. He had come up with a theory that he discussed only with those who had, over time, been drawn into the secret society of Alien Ship Helpers, or ASH.

  ASHlings believed the fourteen thousand cigarettes produced per minute, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, were really fuel rods needed by the massive throbbing engine room that propelled the spacecraft through dimensions one could accept only on faith. These fuel rods were inert unless burned, and this required millions of humans to help out by lighting up and causing the collective combustion needed to keep the spacecraft moving at warp speed through its secret dimension.

  It made perfect sense to Bubba that the good and loving Consciousness had figured out long ago the planet wasn't going to make it unless IT intervened. It followed logically, according to Newton's Third Law, that if all actions cause an equal and opposite reaction, there would have to be an Evil Force who liked things exactly the way they were and wanted them to get worse.

  Thus it was, as more combustible fuel rods were produced and ignited around the planet, the Evil Force got increasingly desperate and irritable. It studied history to figure out what had worked in the past. It came up with a destructive and divisive campaign of nonsmokers' rights that instantly resulted in discrimination, hate groups, censorship and fame for the surgeon general. Sweeping anti-smoking campaigns, lawsuits, horrendous taxes and bloody skirmishes on the Senate floor unfurled like the Southern Cross and sent litigious and greedy troops into a senseless war that could be watched by all on CSPAN and CNN.

  The ASHlings alone knew that if the campaign of evil aggression caused people to quit lighting up, soon there would be no more combustion, except by cars, which didn't count. The production of fuel rods would cease. The engine room would be silenced. The alien spacecraft would have no choice but to change course lest it be powerless and adrift.

  Bubba was thinking about all this and was in quite a state by the time he stopped at the guard booth and Fred, the guard, opened his window.

  'How ya doing, Bubba?' Fred asked.

  'I'm late,' Bubba said.

  'Seems to me you're early. You don't look like you're in a good mood.'

  'I didn't read the paper today, Fred. Didn't have time. How're we doing?'

  Fred's face darkened. He was a closet ASHling and often conspired with Bubba when Bubba rolled up in his piece-of-shit Jeep and displayed his parking permit.

  'You saw the video board downtown, that Dow Jones display in front of Scott and Stringfellow?'

  'Didn't get there.'

  'Bubba, it's getting worse,' Fred told the truth in a hushed voice. 'It's up to eleven ninety-three a pack. Help us, Lord.'

  'No, it can't be right,' Bubba said.

  'Oh yeah it is. Let me tell ya, they're talking about taxes and settlements pushing up the price even higher, as much as twelve dollars a pack, Bubba.'

  'And then what?' Bubba angrily blurted out. 'Black market. Bootlegging. Layoffs. And what about the cause?"

  'Won't help the cause, no sir,' Fred agreed, shaking his head as Bubba held up traffic.

  'You got that straight. Most of the rods, especially Marlboros, will end up overseas. Meaning the ship will head that way, following the smoke to the Far East. And where does that leave America?'

  'Farther down the drain, Bubba. I'm glad I'm past sixty-five, can retire tomorrow if I want, have a drawer in the new mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery and know if I pass on tonight, I spent my life in the righ
t camp.'

  Fred lit a Parliament and shook his head again as the line of cars behind Bubba got longer.

  'People these days don't see beyond their damn hood ornaments, which are a helluvalot nicer than yours and mine, Bubba, because of all these people suing and getting rich for faking coughs and blaming ailments on deep pockets. And I ask you, Bubba. Did we stick the goddamn things in their mouths and tell 'em to inhale? Did we blindfold 'em and line 'em up against the wall and say we're gonna shoot 'em if they didn't light up? Did we force 'em off the highway into Seven-Elevens at all hours of the night? Did we make Bogart smoke in the movies?'

  The unfairness and downright criminality of it all sent Fred into a fury. The line of cars was almost out to Commerce Road, dozens of other Philip Morris employees about to be late as Bubba was no longer early.

  'Tell it, brother.' Bubba couldn't agree more. 'Why don't we just sue waste treatment plants because it's their fault we shit.'

  'Amen.'

  'Why don't we just drag KFC to court because we're gonna drop dead of a stroke.' Bubba was inspired.

  'How's your cholesterol doing, by the way, Bubba?'

  'Honey keeps bugging me to get a checkup. Who the hell has time?'

  'Well, I have a new attitude about it,' Fred said. 'I've decided if your body says "Eat eggs" or "Sprinkle a little salt," it's talking to you, telling you what it needs.' Fred crushed out the cigarette. 'Course, if I get high blood pressure, I'll just sue the umbrella right out of that little Morton Salt girl's hands!'

  Bubba guffawed. Fred laughed so hard his eyes watered. He began waving cars around them. Drivers were panicked as they sped past the guard booth, competing for parking.

  Brazil was panicking, too. It occurred to him that neither he nor anyone else would be able to fix the new website he had begged Hammer to delay until the department had someone other than Fling banging away on the keys every day.

  Brazil was computer literate and actually quite good at understanding instructions and help files, unlike West, who had no patience for any sort of tool or material she couldn't grip in her hand or saw in two. But Brazil could not cure computer viruses, and he was convinced the blue fish were a fulminating eruption caused by a fatal new strain that had slipped in unnoticed, perhaps because it was widely assumed if one abstained from practicing unsafe disks, there was nothing to worry about. How could he have been so naive? How could he have been so careless when he knew damn well that viruses could be transmitted over the Internet, and therefore his website had put all of COMSTAT in jeopardy?

 
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