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Chapter Fifteen

The New York City Police Department was beyond Artis Roop's usual scope of things. He had started with directory assistance and been bounced from Midtown North Precinct to the Rape Hotline to the Crack Hotline to the College Point Auto Pound and finally to a property clerk in Queens who gave him a number for the radio room. From there, Roop was able, by lying, to get Sergeant Mazzonelli to talk to him.

'Yeah, I know what COMSTAT is. Who you think started it?' Mazzonelli was saying.

'Of course, I know you guys did,' said Roop from his cluttered desk inside the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom.

'You're damn right we did.'

'We're having a problem in the mapping center,' Roop said.

'What mapping center? I ain't heard nothing about no mapping center.'

'At NIJ.'

'In New Jersey?'

'NIJ. Not NJ,' Roop corrected Mazzonelli.

'So where the hell are you calling from?' Mazzonelli asked. He put his hand over the phone. 'Yo! Landsberger! You going out to Hop Shing's?'

'Who wants to know?'

'Your mother.'

'Yeah? What's she want? Fish?'

Roop got excited.

'Hey! That ain't even funny,' another cop said.

'Stromboli. Provolone, extra onions. The usual,' Mazzonelli said.

He took his hand off the mouthpiece and was back. 'So you was saying?' he said to Roop.

'We're showing a problem with the COMSTAT computer network.'

'Who's we?'

'Look, this is Washington, we've got a problem.' Roop said it the way he'd heard it in the movies. 'A possible virus has infected the network and we want to know how extensive it is.'

Silence.

'It may show up as fish,' Roop added.

'Shit,' Mazzonelli barely said. 'So youze guys got it in D.C., too, the same thing? All these goddamn little blue fish swimming around in 219, wherever the hell that is?'

'Richmond, Virginia,' Roop informed him. 'We believe that's the wormhole the virus entered through. The carrier, in other words.'

'Richmond is?'

'We think so, sergeant. This is worse than I feared. If your COMSTAT telecommunications system is locked out as well,' Roop went on, writing furiously, 'then everybody's down." 'Shit. It's the weirdest friggin' thing I ever seen. We got three experts up here right now trying to get the damn thing off the screen, but we're totally down. Now, I don't do the computer shit myself, you know? But I got eyes and ears and know when something's real bad. From what they're saying, we can't find hot spots or patterns at all.'

'Exactly.' Roop flipped a page. 'Apparently no one can.'

Roop's editor Clara Outlaw stopped by his desk to see what was going on and if he planned on making the last edition deadline. He gave her a big thumbs-up. She started to say something. He scowled and put his finger to his lips. She tapped her watch. He nodded and gave her an okay sign. She didn't believe him. She tapped her watch again. He shook his head and motioned her to hold on a minute.

'It was early afternoon, so I hear, and all a sudden this fish map flashed on the screen and we can't get it off. It just came outta friggin' nowhere,' Mazzonelli went on and on.

Roop scrawled Fishsteria on a piece of notepaper. He ripped it off and handed it to Outlaw. She frowned and wrote Pfiesteria? Roop shook his head. This was not to be confused with the microbe responsible for massive fish kills on the East Coast, or was it? What did anybody know right now? Roop grabbed the piece of paper back from her and underlined Fishsteria four times.

At ten minutes to three in the morning, Weed crept out of his bedroom, pausing before his mother's shut door, hoping she was snoring. She was, as loud as ever. Weed left the house and waited on the street corner where Smoke had told him to be.

Minutes later, the Lemans sounded in the distance and Weed was reminded of his nightmare about the garbage truck. His hands started shaking so badly he worried he wouldn't be able to paint. He started feeling sick again, and he was tempted to run back inside the house and call the police or at least grab his acrylics, just in case Smoke figured he'd been tricked.

The back door of the Lemans was pushed open. Weed climbed in and protectively set the knapsack and bag of paints in his lap as he stared at the back of Smoke's head. Divinity was in the front seat, against Smoke's shoulder.

'I guess the others aren't coming,' Weed said, doing his best to keep his voice steady.

'Don't need 'em,' Smoke said.

'How come you're not driving your own car?' Weed asked as his terror swelled like a wave about to crash.

'Because I don't want my own car parked out where someone might find it,' Smoke said.

'Dog don't care if someone sees his car?" Weed asked.

'Don't matter if he cares,' Smoke said coldly. 'And you can shut the fuck up, retard. When it comes to questions, I do the asking. You got that straight?'

Divinity laughed and stuck her tongue in Smoke's ear.

'Yes,' Weed barely said as tears flooded his eyes and he wiped them away so fast they didn't have time to go anywhere.

He said not another word as Smoke headed downtown and through the row houses of Oregon Hills where they left the car in a small park on the river. The cemetery fence was thick with ivy and about ten feet high. Weed saw no easy way to climb it, but Smoke did. Weed had never heard of a business advertising on a cemetery fence, but apparently Victory Rug Cleaning thought the idea was a good one. Its large metal sign was fastened to the fence at the intersection of South Cherry and Spring Street.

Smoke showed Weed and Divinity how simple it was to grip the edges of the sign and boost themselves up far enough to grab the thick overhanging branch of an ancient oak tree on the other side of the fence. In no time, the three of them had dropped to the ground and were inside the dark, silent cemetery. To Weed it was a ghost city with narrow lanes winding everywhere and headstones and spooky monuments as far as he could see. It suddenly occurred to him that Smoke and Divinity might think it was funny to leave him here.

Maybe that was their real plan. It caused shivers right up his bones and through his teeth. Weed had heard stories of pimps punishing hookers by tying them to trees inside graveyards and leaving them overnight. Some of the ladies lost their minds. Some died when their hearts attacked and beat themselves to death, trying to get out. One hooker chewed her hand off to escape while another committed suicide by holding her breath. Weed willed his teeth not to chatter. He knew he could not show fear.


'Cool,' he said, looking around. 'Man, I could paint in here for weeks.'

He and Divinity were following Smoke, who seemed to know where he was going.

'You know, all these gravestones, like clean canvases and sketching paper. Ummm um. I could paint my ass off in here,' Weed went on. 'After the statue, can I do a few more?'

'Shut up,' Smoke told him.

Weed got quiet. It felt like little bugs were crawling on him, and he was sweating and cold at the same time. He wondered how many dead people were in here. More than he could count, that was for sure, especially since Weed usually got an F in math. It amazed him how many of them were PAXes. No one in his school was a PAX, although there were quite a few Paxtons, and one Paxinos who had moved down from New York and thought he was the only one who knew how to talk.

But it was the dead rich people who bothered Weed most, all of them inside little marble houses with all kinds of carvings and names chiseled above huge heavy metal doors. There were windows, too, and the thought of looking through them raised every hair on Weed's body. Images jumped in his mind and started messing with him bad. A moldy face with sunken eyes and green rotting hands held a white Bible and any minute was going to turn to a page with a curse on it saying Weed was going to hell. A grinning skeleton in a long satin dress, bony hands folded around a dried-up rose, was about to sit up and fly after him, rattling and rustling.

Weed's legs almost collapsed. He dropped his knapsack and the straps grabbed his feet. He stumbled and got more entangled and crashed through a sculpted boxwood and almost regained his balance before tripping over an urn and landing flat on his face, his head just missing an Indiana limestone marker shaped like a tree. Weed didn't know who Lt. Col. Peachy Boswell was, but Weed had just stepped all over his grave.

Smoke and Divinity were laughing their asses off, hands over their mouths, trying not to make any noise, choking, bent over and hopping around like the ground was hot. Weed took his time getting up, taking an inventory of his parts to make sure nothing was missing or damaged, but his elbow stung a little and he realized blood was running down his arm. He knelt in the grass and replaced clods he had kicked up. He collected his knapsack and bag of paints. He shrugged as if it didn't bother him in the least that he had just desecrated a grave, for which there was usually a curse like the one he'd imagined in the white Bible.

Divinity dug inside her denim bag and pulled out a pint of Wild Turkey. She and Smoke started swigging. Smoke handed Weed the bottle. Weed refused. Smoke shoved it at him. Weed wouldn't budge.

'It'll mess me up,' Weed whispered. 'You want me to paint, don't you?'

'Sure fucking do.' Smoke started to laugh. 'The statue's right over there, retard. And guess what? You're on your own. We ain't hanging around.'

Weed tried to keep cool.

'Okay,' he said. 'But how do I get home?'

'Any way you can!' Smoke grabbed Divinity's hand and they ran away, laughing and drinking and not caring where they stepped.

Weed looked around, trying to figure out where he was. It was a part of the cemetery that was very close to the river and populated with a lot of rich people, many of them so important they had their own squares of grass big enough for the entire family. Weed saw the silhouette of the statue two streets and one circle away, and his heart swelled with awe. It was tall and erect against the night, a man standing proud, his profile handsome and sharp.

As Weed got closer, he could see there were six walkways leading to the statue, meaning the man must have been some kind of hero, maybe the most famous person alive when he was. He wore a long coat and knee-high boots, hat in one hand, the other on his hip. He stood on a marble base surrounded by azaleas and ivy. Two redneck flags were planted at his feet.

Weed did not recognize the name Jefferson Davis. Weed knew nothing about the man whose statue he was about to paint, except that Davis was 'an American soldier and defender of the constitution' who had been born in 1808 and died in 1889- The math took Weed a few minutes to figure out. He opened his knapsack and began pulling out paints and brushes and bottles of water.

Eighty-nine minus oh-eight, he moved his lips as he calculated. He drew a blank and tried again. Nine minus eight was one. And eight minus zero was still eight. So Jefferson Davis was only eighteen when he died. Weed was overwhelmed by sadness.

He looked around at the marble sculpture of a mournful woman holding an open Bible. An angel with big wings was sitting nearby. They seemed to be watching him and waiting. Weed suddenly knew why he had been brought here. It had nothing to do with Smoke, not in the big scheme of things. There was no curse but an unexpected gift. Joy filled his heart. Weed knew what he was supposed to do. He didn't feel lonely and he wasn't afraid.


Chapter Fourteen | Southern Cross | Chapter Sixteen