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Chapter Twenty-Three

Bubba, Smudge, Half Shell and Tree Buster had spent the night in the woods. This was not by choice. When Bubba had blasted the rubber rattlesnake and Smudge had taken a flying leap, Smudge had ended up with a bump on his head.

Smudge was confused and disoriented and bleeding a little. This left navigation entirely in Bubba's hands. It meant he alone had to restrain two dogs on leashes to make sure that one or both of them didn't go after a coon.

'Watch the root there,' Bubba said to Smudge as they trudged through brush and trees so thick they could have been in a rain forest for all Bubba knew.

'How far?' Smudge slurred.

'Can't be much farther.' Bubba said what he had been saying for the past eight hours.

Smudge wasn't going to be able to walk much longer. It was a good thing Bubba had brought food, although it was a shame he had stuffed half of his Cheez Whiz sandwich in a knothole. Boy, what he wouldn't give for that now. At least water wasn't a problem. The fucking stuff was everywhere, and each time they happened upon it, Half Shell would dig in her feet and bark, and Bubba would have to carry her over another creek, some of which were very swift and deep. The only thing that kept Bubba going was anger.

'I still can't get over what a rotten thing that was to do,' he said to Smudge yet once again.

Smudge was too exhausted and disoriented to answer.

'I could've had a heart attack. You're just lucky I'm a nice guy.'

They reached another creek, this one a trickle, but Half Shell didn't care.

'I've had it,' Bubba said to the dogs. 'I can't drag your asses another step.' He unhooked their leashes. 'You're on your own.'

Tree Buster shot off like a rubber band, crashing through brush and barking three times for a strike that no one gave a goddamn about. Half Shell went off to the left. She kept looking back at Bubba every couple of steps, her eyes intense and caring.

'What is it?' Bubba asked her.

Half Shell ran ahead ten feet and looked back again.

'We supposed to follow you?' Bubba asked his dog.

Half Shell barked. Bubba and Smudge followed her for another forty-five minutes while Tree Buster treed coons and wondered why nobody showed up. Mist was rising, the world silent, sunlight breaking through the canopy of trees. It seemed a miracle when suddenly they were in a clearing, Smudge's truck straight ahead on the muddy road.

It was important that Pigeon venture out at dawn to avoid the thunder of rush hour, and more important, to forage before Dumpsters were emptied behind restaurants that would not open for hours.

Often he discovered unexpected treasures such as money, jewelry and doggie bags that drunk people dropped on their way back to their cars. Once he found a Rolex watch and got enough money from the pawn shop to keep him happy for months. He had found a number of portable phones, calculators and pagers, and an occasional gun.

'You can stay here if you want,' Pigeon said to Weed.

Weed was sitting on the blanket and didn't know what to do. In daylight, his predicament seemed even worse, maybe because it was harder to hide when the sun was looking him in the eye.

'There's got to be places the devil won't go,' Pigeon said.

Weed gave it some thought.

'I guess he wouldn't go back to the cement-tary,' Weed decided.

Pigeon got an idea.

'People ever leave good stuff on the graves? Like the dead person's favorite food, whiskey, wine, cigars, sort of like they used to do in the Pyramids?'

'It was dark when I was in there,' Weed told him. 'I didn't see nothing 'cept those little flags you see everywhere. But it's a big place.'

The world was no longer big enough to accommodate traffic, and this was fortunate for Officer Otis Rhoad. It was almost seven-thirty and rush hour was out of the gate.

Soon there would be thousands of personal cars driven by solitary commuters indifferent to the wear and tear of the ozone and jealous of their right to come and go when and how they pleased in whatever they could afford to drive, using their own flight plans.

He steered his cruiser with a bony knee as he lit a Carlton Menthol, one eye in the rearview mirror, the other on a traffic light that was about to turn red and the guy in the Camaro next to him who thought he was going to make it. He did. Rhoad was disappointed.

Rhoad was tall, skinny, slightly cross-eyed and close to sixty. When he had been growing up south of the river, he had dreamed of being a radio disc jockey or perhaps a singer.

This had gone nowhere, and after high school he signed on with the Richmond Police Department. His first week in the academy he learned the assigned radio frequencies and areas, the proper operation of the radio, the correct procedures for relaying confidential information, the disposition of codes, the phonetic alphabet and, most important, ten signals.

When he was finally let loose on city streets, he was relentless, fluent, precise and omnipresent on the mike. He rode radio waves like the DJ he had never become, and cops, dispatchers and 911 operators dreaded his unit number and resonating voice.

They resented and loathed his habit of running his colleagues off the airways and into one another, and hogging the communication system in general. He was 'Rhoad Hog.' He was 'Talk in a Box,' and all wished the brass would transfer him out of traffic, into the silence of the property room, information desk, maintenance division or tow lot.

But the chiefs preceding Hammer were zealous about quotas, and Rhoad was a relentless one-person posse pursuing citizens who exceeded the speed limit, went the wrong way, ran red lights and stop signs, made U turns where not allowed, drag raced, drove drunk and ignored Rhoad's lights and siren.

As time passed and maturity waved Otis Rhoad through new intersections of his life, he realized that more important than his war against moving violations was an insidious disease that clearly was becoming the epidemic of modern times. The world was running out of parking spaces.

He began punishing those who left their cars at expired meters, in handicap spaces or in more selfish and ruder appropriations such as lawns, shoulders, driveways that did not belong to them, businesses or churches they did not visit, and bicycle paths. He started carrying his ticket book off duty, especially after the city changed to twenty-four-hour meters.

Rhoad tapped an ash and gripped the mike. In exactly six minutes and forty seconds it would be eight-forty A.M., and Communications Officer Patty Passman's meter would expire.

It was possible that Smudge had a slight concussion, but he refused to be taken to the hospital, and Bubba refused to let Smudge drive. Bubba had to admit that he'd never driven a truck quite as nice as Smudge's and he felt the bitterness once again, a resentment that had pickled a part of Bubba since the beginning of time. In his own way, Smudge was no different from all who had mocked and wounded Bubba throughout his life.

'Some good buddy you are,' Bubba muttered because Smudge seemed asleep. 'Sell me that piece-of-shit Jeep. Sabotage Bay 8 so you can win the competition every month. Get your free packs of cigarettes and sell 'em to me.'

'You say something?' Smudge mumbled as Bubba turned into Smudge's driveway, where Bubba had left his crappy Jeep last night.

'I guess you owe me a thousand dollars,' Bubba told him.

Smudge suddenly became alert. He sat up straight in his seat and blinked several times, taking in his surroundings.

'Where are we?' he asked.

'In your driveway,' said Bubba. 'Don't be changing the subject on me, Smudge. I won.'

He started to say fair and square but saw his manufactured coon eyes glowing in trees.

'Won?' Smudge acted drugged. 'Won what?'

'Our bet, Smudge.'

'What bet?'

'You know what bet!'

'Huh?' Smudge slurred. 'Think I have amnesia. Don't even know where we are. Don't recognize a thing. Where are we?'

'Your expensive house in Brandermill!' Bubba wanted to give Smudge a more serious concussion. 'The one with the swimming pool and the brand-new Range Rover in front. Because you don't give a shit about buying American or being loyal to Philip Morris who doesn't pay you enough to live like this! So you're cheating, lying, stealing all over the world!'

Smudge grappled with the door handle and almost fell getting out of the truck. Bubba got Half Shell out and she jumped into the back of his Jeep. Smudge's wife boiled out the front door to assist Smudge. She threw Bubba a menacing look as he backed out of the driveway. He didn't care. He didn't stop to explain. He sped through Smudge's rich neighborhood with its big homes and wooded lots. He darted out on Midlothian Turnpike and passed everyone.

Bubba was having a hard time staying awake, but this didn't stop him from driving aggressively. He wouldn't let anyone into his lane. If someone got too close to his rear bumper, he slowed down more abruptly than he usually did.

He turned off his CB because there was no good buddy to talk to anymore. He didn't raise Honey on the two-way because he would be seeing her soon enough. He unplugged his phone so it wouldn't ring.

At Cloverleaf Mall, misfortune, or perhaps bad karma, began to swarm in. It started with a tattooed woman on a Harley-Davidson. She thundered around Bubba, flying between two lanes, dyed blond hair streaming out from her bright red helmet.

'Hey!' Bubba yelled as if anyone could hear. 'What the fuck you think you're doing?'

The woman rode on. Bubba sped up. He wove through traffic and floor-boarded it after her, squealing off on Oak Glen after she did and backtracking to Carnation and Hioaks, past the Virginia Department of Corrections Headquarters, and down Wyck Street and over to Everglades Drive.

Bubba was too exhausted, his mood too foul, to realize the woman was having a good time with him. When she shot back onto Midlothian Turnpike, Bubba took the turn too wide and didn't bother checking for cars. Horns blared. People cursed. An old woman in a Toyota Corolla pointed her finger at him like a gun and fired.

A city police cruiser darted in behind Bubba, blue-and-red lights flashing in Bubba's rearview mirror. This time Officer Budget yelped his siren as he pulled Bubba into the same Kmart where they had met before.

Chapter Twenty-Two | Southern Cross | Chapter Twenty-Four