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Chapter Seventeen

Niles would not leave West alone. The cat had never been easy, but there was one sin he wasn't allowed to commit. No cat or anyone else kept West awake unless she chose to be awake, and she had chosen no such thing.

'What the hell's wrong with you?' West complained, turning over and punching the pillow under her head.

Niles wasn't asleep, but he wasn't moving, either. He'd been in the same position since midnight when his owner had finally decided to toss aside that silly Chicken Soup for the Soul book that promised a hundred and one happy heartwarming stories that meant nothing to Niles.

'Shut up!' his owner said, kicking the sheets.

Niles's ribs silently rose and fell as he breathed. He wondered when his owner would figure out that she always got cranky whenever Piano Man had been sighted in the area.

'I can't take this anymore,' his owner announced.

She sat up. She picked up Niles and dropped him on the floor. He had put up with quite a lot in the past few hours, but enough was enough. He jumped back up on the bed and batted her chin with his paw, keeping his claws tucked in.

'You little shit!' She popped Niles's head.

Niles jumped on her abdomen as hard as he could, knowing how much she hated that in the morning when she had to pee. His owner threw him off the bed again, and he jumped back and hissed and nipped her little finger and leaped back off the bed and ran like hell. She jumped out of bed in pursuit.

'Come back here, you little fuckhead!' she yelled.

Niles ran faster, taking the corner into his owner's office and springing on the top shelf of her bookcase, where he waited with swishing tail, crossed eyes staring. His owner made the turn not quite as gracefully, hitting her hip on the door frame and swearing some more. She pointed her finger at Niles. Niles wasn't intimidated. He wasn't even tired. She came closer and reached up, trying to grab him.

Niles sprang over her head, landing on her desk. He hit InLog on her Personal Information Center phone until he found the number he wanted. Then he hit Speaker and Dial. He waited until his owner almost had her hand on the back of his neck. He bopped her nose and was gone again as a phone loudly rang and rang over the speaker.

'Hello?' Piano Man answered.

West froze. 'Hello?' Brazil asked again.

She snatched up the phone.

'How'd I call you when I didn't?' she demanded to know as she read Brazil's number on the video screen.

'Who is this?' Brazil asked.

'Niles did it, not me,' West said.

'Virginia?'

'I didn't do it,' she said, glaring at Niles, who was stretching one leg after another from a safe distance.

'It's not like it's a crime if you called me,' Brazil said.

'That's not the point.'

'You want to have breakfast or are you tied up?' Brazil said haltingly, as if he was just being nice and had no interest whatsoever in seeing her.

'God, I don't know,' she replied as she ran through a list of other fabricated options. 'What time is it? Niles kept me up all night.'

'It's almost seven.'

'I'm not running with you if that's what you're really asking,' West shot back as her heart forgot its rhythm.

'I've already done that,' Brazil said. 'River City Diner? You been there?'

'I can't remember the names of everything around here.'

'It's really good. You mind picking me up since you get to take home a car and I don't?'

'So I guess you know all the places around here,' West said.

Popeye would not give Hammer a moment's peace this morning, either. She jumped all over Hammer.

She brazenly ran into Hammer's office and jumped into the desk chair and stared at the computer screen and the fish on it. She would not let Hammer sit and drink a first cup of coffee or glance at the paper. Popeye was stubborn on her walk. Treats were of no interest. She wouldn't sit, lie down, come or stay.

'What good does it do for me to read all those books and consult with an animal behaviorist?' Hammer asked in exasperation. 'I don't need this, Popeye. I have tried reasoning with you. I've talked with you at great length about how important it is to cooperate and be a pleasure to have around. I've asked you many times if something traumatic might have happened to you before I got you from the SPCA, something that has caused you to start nipping at people and jumping in their faces.

'But whatever it is, you won't let me know, and it's not fair, Popeye. You know how much I care. You know my life is hard and I need no more stress. You know I will be sued if you bite someone and they fake emotional distress, disfigurement and sexual dysfunction because they know I have money and don't need bad publicity. Now sit, and I mean it.'

Hammer squatted, holding a treat in her fist.

Popeye assumed her defiant stance and just stared at her.

'Sit.'

Popeye wouldn't.

'Lie down.'

Popeye didn't.

'What's gotten into you?' Hammer asked.

The Shockwaves traveled quickly and with alarming /repercussions. Hollywood Cemetery's maintenance supervisor immediately alerted the cemetery association president, Lelia Ehrhart, who instantly called every member of the board, including Ruby Sink, the association secretary and the most likely person to spread the news.

Miss Sink decided to go out and get her newspaper at the precise moment Chief Hammer was walking by with Popeye. Hammer quickly moved past the two-story brick town house with its Doric front porch and original cornices and windows. Miss Sink picked up speed, shuffling down steps and over cobblestones.

'Come back here,' Miss Sink called out.

Hammer did not appreciate being ordered about.

'Good morning, Miss Sink,' she said politely without slowing down.

'I need to speak to you.'

Hammer stopped while Popeye did her best to continue on course.

'It's just a darn good thing you showed up,' Miss Sink answered.

'Be good, Popeye.' Hammer pulled the leash.

Popeye pulled back.

'Popeye,' Hammer warned.

'What an awful name for a dog,' said Miss Sink. 'What's wrong with her eyes?'

'It's normal for the breed.'

'Did you have her tail chopped off?'

'No,' Hammer replied.

Miss Sink leaned over to get a better look at the stumpy, cock-eyed tail that covered nothing important. Popeye began to lick herself in a naughty place and suddenly sprang straight up into the air, her tongue darting into Miss Sink's mouth. Miss Sink jumped back and screamed. She rubbed her lips and looked sick as she thought about where that tongue had just been. Popeye grabbed the hem of Miss Sink's pink robe and almost pulled the frail old woman off her feet.

'Now Popeye, you behave. Sit,' Hammer said emphatically.

Popeye sat. Hammer fed her a Lung Chop. Miss Sink was mortified and momentarily speechless. She rubbed her mouth and checked the hem of her robe, looking for damage.

'What was it you wanted to talk to me about?' Hammer asked.

'You mean you don't know?' Miss Sink raised her voice. She glared hatefully at Popeye as she bent over to pick up the paper.

'Know what?' Hammer asked, irked that there might be something Miss Sink might know before Hammer did.

'Someone vandalized Hollywood Cemetery!' Miss Sink's fury gathered. 'Graffiti all over the statue of Jefferson Davis!'

'When did you find this out?' asked Hammer as Confederate troops rose up and began marching through her mind.

'I want to know what the police are doing,' Miss Sink demanded.

'Have we been called?' Hammer asked.

Miss Sink thought for a moment.

'This is the first I've heard of it,' Hammer went on as Popeye got interested in Miss Sink's ankles.

'I don't know if anyone called,' Miss Sink said. 'That's not my responsibility. I just assumed whoever happened upon the crime would have called the police. Of course, I just got the call myself a few minutes ago. They think some U of R basketball player did it.'

'Who's they?'

'You can ask Lelia Ehrhart that. She's the one who called me.'

Hammer's resentment blossomed and flourished.

'And how did Lelia find out?' Hammer asked.

'She's the president of Hollywood,' Miss Sink replied as if there was only one Hollywood. 'The city's being ruined. And if we had more police out doing their jobs, this sort of thing wouldn't happen. Not to mention the continuing deterioration of this neighborhood. Here of all places.'

Hammer feared that one of these days she was going to tell the nagging, horse-faced woman to go to hell.

'The people coming in here,' Miss Sink railed on. 'As if this is some sort of subdivision with McDonald's and aluminum siding!'

Miss Sink used to feel perfectly safe and sequestered on her famous tree-lined street, where in 1775 Patrick Henry had stood inside St. John's Episcopal Church, in the third pew from the left, and declared '… Give me liberty or give me death!' It was here, just several houses down, that Elmira Royster Shelton and Edgar Allan Poe had been reunited and began a second courtship not long before he died.

Although Miss Sink was not Episcopalian and had never been engaged and did not read frightening stories, she revered history and the famous people in it. More to the point, Miss Sink had an inspired indignation when any outsider violated the sanctity of her restored neighborhood, and that included Judy Hammer, who was not from Richmond, but from Arkansas, which as far as Miss Sink was concerned was not the true South.

Popeye emptied her bladder on a blooming yellow forsythia bush. She began sniffing tulips and the lamppost, ready to claim other territory.

'Actually, crime is down six percent in our neighborhood, Miss Sink,' Hammer reminded her without adding that it was soaring everywhere else. 'Thanks in part to the community effort here, thanks to our crimewatch people like you, the eyes and ears of the street.'

'Six percent my foot.' Miss Sink stamped her pink slipper and yanked the plastic wrapper off the newspaper. 'Tell me why someone stole the fountain from Libby Hill Park?'

'It was recovered and is back right where it always was, Miss Sink.'

'Doesn't matter. It was stolen. Right out from under us like a rug. An entire iron fountain, and nobody saw a thing. So much for eyes and ears.' She dug in a pocket and pulled out a tissue. 'Not to mention rocks thrown at gas lamps and cars. Most of my friends and family are in Hollywood Cemetery.'

Miss Sink dabbed her nose and gave Hammer's ugly little dog the fish eye. She opened the newspaper to see what else was going on in the city. The headline above the fold stood up in huge black type:



Chapter Sixteen | Southern Cross | MYSTERIOUS VIRUS CRASHES POLICE COMPUTER NETWORK