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Chapter Thirty-Three

At shortly after three A.M. a SWAT team raided the Pikes' clubhouse at the Southside Motel and found the room abandoned. Police recovered no guns or ammunition. They found nothing but liquor and trash and filthy mattresses.

Brazil was on one phone, West on another, each of them in a cubicle inside the detective division. Brazil had called Godwin's principal, Mrs. Lilly, at home, and when she realized what it was about, she met the registrar at the high school and they started going through records.

Eventually they figured out that Smoke's real name was Alex Bailey, but the address listed in his school records didn't exist, the phone number didn't work, and there was no photograph of him on file. Although the yearbook wasn't out yet, a check of those who had gotten their pictures taken for it did not include him. All anyone really knew was the classes he had been in and that last summer he had moved here from Durham, North Carolina, where the obscure private high school he supposedly had transferred from didn't exist.

Brazil called every Bailey in the city directory, waking people up. No one seemed to have a family member named Alex who went to Godwin High School.

'How the hell did he get away with it?' Brazil said to West. 'He uses a bogus address, phone number, name of his former high school and who knows what else.'

West was smoking a Carlton. She'd sort of quit months ago, but at times like this she needed a friend.

'Who's going to check?' she said. 'You ever had your high school call you at home or come see you?'

'I don't remember.'

'Well, I sure as hell didn't. Most people don't unless they get in trouble. And it sounds like he was just your average kind of keep-to-yourself nobody until a couple weeks ago. Then he cuts classes or doesn't show up at all. Maybe the school starts calling. But guess what? By then it's too late.'

'I wonder what his parents know.' Brazil reached for his Styrofoam cup of what once was drinkable coffee.

'Denial. Maybe protecting him. Don't want to face it and never have. No question in my mind this kid's not new to the system. No pictures of him anywhere, including the yearbook, just like all these other little felons, so we don't know what they look like. I bet you anything he's got a record in North Carolina, probably transferred from Dillon High School.' She sarcastically referred to the juvenile training school in Butner, North Carolina. 'His fucking family probably moved him here when he turned sixteen and all his records were expunged. So the asshole gets to start all over again, clean as a Boy Scout.'

Brazil swirled the coffee in his cup. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

'So. You going to bother going to bed tonight?' West said.

'There's no night left,' Brazil said.

'You want to come over, maybe scramble up a few eggs or something?'

Sadness walked through Brazil's eyes.

'As long as we stop at my house first,' he said. There's something I've got to get.'

The Azalea Motel on Northside's Chamberlayne Avenue was not where the police would have expected to find Smoke. He also liked the irony of the name, since the Azalea Parade was the day after tomorrow. Smoke had big plans.

He sat on his single bed in his single room and thought where he was staying wasn't much better than the clubhouse. The Azalea Motel was the sort of place where people did drugs and got murdered and nobody cared. Smoke got room 7 for twenty-eight dollars a night. He stared blankly at the TV and drank vodka from a plastic cup. Smoke had been monitoring the news. At five after six A.M., his phone rang.

'What,' he answered.

It was Divinity.

'Baby, they raided our place just like you said they would,' she told him in an excited voice.

Smoke smiled as he stared at the trash bags full of guns and ammunition in the corner.

'Sick and me parked the car at the dirty bookstore and we was in the woods watching, you know, baby. It was all we could do not to laugh. Them busting in there with all their stuff on and big guns and all. You sure was right about getting out when we did, sugar. But I wanna know when I'm gonna see you, huh?'

'Not now,' Smoke told her without much interest as he spun around the cylinder of a Colt.357.

'I sure could do with a little more / miss you enthusiasm.' Divinity's voice was hurt on the way to being mad.

Smoke wasn't listening. His mind wandered back to the old woman and her fear. Smoke had never scared anybody that much. He was awed by his power and as drunk from it as he was from vodka. He loved the way it felt to squeeze the trigger. He had been so high he barely heard the explosions when he blew apart her head. He threw back another swallow of vodka.

'What'cha gonna tell the others?' Divinity was asking.

Smoke came to.

'About what?' he said.

'You ain't even listening.' Her voice was getting sharp.

One thing Smoke avoided was fighting with Divinity. She could make a scene, and that was what he didn't need right now.

'I'm just so tired,' he said, sighing. 'And I miss you and it makes me crazy I can't see you until Saturday night. That's when we'll be free and clear.'

'How?'

'You'll see.'

'What about Dog and the rest of them?'

'I don't want them anywhere near me,' Smoke said. 'None of you come anywhere near the Azalea Parade.'

'I don't understand this big shit about some little parade named after a bush.' Divinity hadn't softened much.

'Baby, I'm gonna be the king of it,' Smoke said.

'What'cha gonna do, ride on a float?'

He couldn't stand it when she got sarcastic. He slammed down the vodka bottle and snapped the revolver's empty cylinder in place. He dry-fired at the TV.

'Shut up!' he said in his voice from hell, that tone he got when the change came over him. 'You just do what I say, bitch.'

'I always do.' Divinity backed down.

'Don't you call anymore. Don't you come around, and the others don't know where I am, right?'

'I ain't told 'em nothing. So you dumping me?'

'For two days.'

'Then we're good?'

'As good as it gets,' he said.

Brazil ran into his house for only a moment and when he returned to West's car, he was carrying a grocery bag with something in it. He had a strange look on his face.

'What's that?' West asked.

'You'll see,' he said. 'I don't want to talk about it right now.'

'You got a body part in there or something?'

'In a way,' Brazil said morbidly.

West knew about Ruby Sink. The word had traveled like electricity. Everyone in the police department found out Miss Sink was Brazil's landlady, and when West heard the truth, she felt sick with guilt. She felt stupid and ignorant. Brazil's so-called girlfriend had been a seventy-one-year-old woman who rented a row house to him. West felt absolutely terrible and for hours had been trying to think of what to say.

She drove through the Fan. Nothing was open, not even the Robin Inn. She parked in front of her town house and turned off the engine but didn't get out. She looked at Brazil in the dark. Her heart stirred as she stared at his face, sharply defined by shadows from the streetlight.

'I know,' she said.

He was quiet.

'I know about Ruby Sink. That she was your landlady. The landlady I heard you were seeing.'

Brazil turned to her, baffled.

'Seeing?' he said. 'Where the hell did you hear something like that?'

'The talk was all around the department from day one,' West replied. 'People told me you had a thing going with your landlady. Then I heard you on the phone with her and… well, it sounded like it was true, in a way.'

'Why? Because I was nice to her when she paged me?' Brazil said with emotion. 'Because she was lonely and always bringing me cookies, cakes and things?' His voice wavered. 'Leaving them on my doorstep because I was never fucking home and never gave her the rucking time of day!'

'I'm sorry, Andy,' West said gently.

'It's like my mother.' He dissolved. 'I don't call her. She's so fucking drunk all the time and I can't stand it and won't listen to the awful things she says. I don't know. I don't know.'

West moved over and put her arms around him. She held him close to calm him. Her blood got hot and her chemistry woke up.

'It's all right, Andy,' she said. 'It's going to be all right.'

She wanted to hold him forever, but suddenly the awkwardness of it overtook the magic. She thought of her age. She thought of his talent, of everything that made him so unusual and special. He was probably hugging her back because he was terribly upset, no other reason. His heart probably wasn't pounding like hers. He probably wasn't as aware of their bodies touching as she was. She abruptly pulled away.

'I guess we should go in,' she said.

Niles heard them long before they gave a thought to him. He was waiting by the front door when his owner and Piano Man walked in.

Piano Man took a moment to pet Niles, while Niles's owner couldn't be bothered. Niles stayed where he was, tail switching. He watched with crossed eyes and plotted as they went into the kitchen.

When they were out of view, Niles jumped up on the table in the foyer. He hooked a claw into the florist's card. He jumped down, landing silently on three legs.

West did not think she could eat the sweet potato pie. She stared at the slice Brazil set before her. The idea that Ruby Sink had made it before her cold-blooded murder was too much for West to process.

'I can't throw it away.' Brazil sat across from West at the kitchen table. 'It would be heartless to throw it away. I just can't. You couldn't either, Virginia. She would want us to eat it.'

'This is kind of sick,' West said, blinking, focusing, looking at him. 'I don't think I can.'

Brazil picked up his fork. He flinched as he cut off the point of his slice. He raised it. He took a deep breath and put it in his mouth. West watched him chew once or twice and swallow. It surprised her that he looked enormously relieved. Tension left his face. His eyes brightened and got that fierce blue flame in them that she had learned to recognize and take very seriously.

'It's okay,' he told her in a strong voice. 'Trust me.' He nodded for her to eat.

West had never backed down from a challenge, especially in front of him. It was one of the hardest things she'd ever done when she took a bite of that pie. It surprised her that it didn't taste weird or dead or who knows what. She had no idea what she had expected.

'Brown sugar, coconut milk, cinnamon,' said Brazil, who spent more time in the kitchen than West did.

He took another bite, this time without hesitation. West matched him.

'Raisins, vanilla extract.' Brazil concentrated on his tongue as if he were tasting fine wine. 'Ah. Ginger. A hint of it. And a breath of nutmeg.'

'Breath of nutmeg?' West said. 'Where the hell does that shit come from?'

Brazil took another bite. So did she. She might just eat another slice to spite him.

Neither of them heard Niles, not that they ever did. He walked in holding up a paw, a white square of paper caught on one of his claws.

'Baby?' West said in alarm, certain he was injured. 'Oh sweetie, what did you do to yourself?'

She didn't realize what was on his claw until Niles was in Brazil's lap and the florist's card from the hallway table was in plain view. Brazil got a confused expression on his face.

'Schwan's Flowers and Gifts? Charlotte?' he read aloud what was on the envelope as he pulled out the card. '"Thinking of you, Andy,"' his voice trailed off.

West tried to act nonchalant and failed. She hated Niles and would pay him back for this.

'How did this end up on your hallway table?' Brazil wanted to know.

'How do you know it was on the table?' she said coolly as she imagined leaving Niles out in a hailstorm.

'I saw it there when we were here working on the computer!'

'Why were you looking at anything on any table?' Old anger and hurt jumped off the shelf where she had been storing them for months.

'Because you put it there so I would see it,' he exclaimed.

'How arrogant of you!'

'Then why?' he said. 'And don't tell me Niles did it.'

West pushed away her plate and stared past him. She tried to think how to say it. Confessing feelings was as dangerous as counting money when you walked down a dark street in a bad part of town.

'Because you didn't care about me anymore.' She was out with it.

'That's because you didn't care about me first,' he argued.

'And that's because I thought you dumped me the minute we got to town and started seeing someone else without even having the courtesy to tell me.'

'Virginia, I haven't seen anybody,' Brazil said in a softer tone.

He reached out and took her hand. She had a hard time swallowing.

'And I didn't dump you,' he said.

He moved his chair next to hers and kissed her. In the bedroom he discovered the wineglasses of Mountain Dew.

Hammer wanted to dump the entire NIJ project. Her mind was a riotous crowd of dissenting, unhappy people who would not let her sleep. She thought about Bubba and how badly she had maligned him. She obsessed over how badly she had handled Leila Ehrhart and those like her.

Part of Hammer's mission was to enlighten people. She saw no evidence that she had. Part of her plan was to modernize the police department. And what happened? The entire COMSTAT telecommunications network crashed. The ATM robberies escalated to murder. There were gangs. There was Smoke.

Hammer didn't think she could ever again endure seeing Ruby Sink's house or even the block Miss Sink had lived on. Miss Sink, in her pink robe and slippers, had shuffled through Hammer's mind all night. Hammer could not get away from their last conversation on Miss Sink's sidewalk. Hammer could see the old woman in such detail it hurt her heart and pierced her with guilt.

'I'm a failure,' Hammer said to Popeye.

Popeye was under the covers, between Hammer's feet.

'I've caused harm. I should never have come here. I bet you wish you still lived in Charlotte where you had a yard, don't you?'

Her eyes filled with tears. Popeye burrowed up to her and licked her face. Hammer couldn't remember the last time she had cried. She had been so stoical when Seth had died because she believed she had to be. She had been rational about the reasons her sons did not seem to want to see her. Hammer had been courageous, innovative, community-minded. All of it so she would be too busy to be lonely, and it hadn't worked. She got up and dressed.

There was no answer at Brazil's house when Hammer called from her car phone. She tried West next and was relieved that he and West were there.

'I've got something important to say to both of you,' Hammer said over the line.

Parking in the Fan wasn't as much of a problem at this early hour, and she managed to squeeze into a space on the curb right across the street from West's town house. Hammer was numb. She did not feel present, nor did she want to be when Brazil opened the front door.

Thank you for seeing me,' Hammer said to Brazil as they walked into the living room.

'Thank you,' he replied. 'It's kind of messy.'

Hammer didn't care. She didn't even notice her surroundings, messy or not. She sat in a straight-back chair while West and Brazil sat across from her on the couch.

'Virginia, Andy,' she began, 'I'm going to resign.'

'Oh God,' West said, shocked.

'You can't,' Brazil said, sick.

'Basically,' Hammer went on, 'I've pretty much screwed up everything here. I used to be a good police officer, a good chief. Everybody hates us.'

'Not everybody,' Brazil said.

'Most of them,' said West. 'I mean, let's be honest about it.'

'Well, I guess the Charlotte connection doesn't help,' Brazil supposed.

'Or our locking up the COMSTAT network pretty much around the globe,' Hammer said.

'Or our failure to crack the ATM cases before they progressed to a horrible murder. Or a communications officer getting in a fight with a traffic cop, both of whom had just received commendations several days before.' West helped her out with the list.

Hammer folded her hands in her lap and kept them still. She did not interrupt. She did not get up and pace.

'Judy,' West said. 'Where are you going to go? Back to Charlotte?'

Hammer shook her head.

'Nowhere,' she answered. 'If I can't handle Richmond, I'm not going to be able to handle someplace else. When the horse dies, get off. I'm retiring from police work. I don't know where I'll live. It doesn't matter.'

'That reminds me,' West said. 'We need to talk about the Azalea Parade.'

'How did what she just said remind you of that?' Brazil asked.

'The horse comment. We've got mounted cops in the parade,' West said. 'And' - she looked at Hammer -'Andy and I are supposed to ride in your convertible.'

'What kind of convertible is it?' Hammer looked distracted.

'Dark blue Sebring,' Brazil said. 'Modest, not showy, although one of the big guys at Philip Morris wanted to drive you in his red Mercedes VI2 convertible.'

'Not a good idea,' Hammer muttered.

'I don't think you should be in the parade at all,' West said with conviction. 'The parade could be a possible target for Smoke. And I hate for you to be riding slow in a convertible anyway. There're a lot of kooks out there.'

Hammer got up. She really didn't care what happened to her.

'It's important,' she said dully. 'Every little thing we do to reach the community is helpful. I won't back out of a promise." 'Well, we're going to have fifty off-duty cops there in addition to the regular shifts,' West told her. 'To the public, it will appear we're there mainly for traffic control. And we're mobilizing about twenty plainclothes guys to mingle, just in case Smoke shows up or someone else decides to cause a problem.'

Bubba was thinking the same thing. He believed Chief Hammer should not be riding in an open car in the Azalea Parade, and worse, it had been in the newspaper so everybody knew it. It was possible this was where all roads met. Bubba had been called to save her from a terrible danger. Bubba also figured the Pikes somehow factored in.

At eight o'clock this morning, he was already parking in front of Green Top Sporting Goods on U.S. Route 1, some twenty minutes outside of Richmond. There was no place Bubba would rather be. The minute he walked through the door and was greeted by thousands of fishing rods and all that went with them, his pulse quickened. When he turned to the right and saw hundreds of rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers, he got flushed. He felt lust in a way he had never experienced with Honey.

'Hey, what'cha know.' He was enthusiastically greeted by Fig Winnick, the assistant manager.

By Virginia law, a citizen could buy one handgun every thirty days and no more. This had given rise to the tongue-in-cheek Gun-of-the-Month Club. It was a small but clever group of one hundred and eighty-nine men and sixty-two women who sent each other reminders when their thirty days, loosely interpreted as a month, were up. It was April 2.

'If only I'd come in two days ago, I could have bought a gun then and another one today,' Bubba misinterpreted, as usual.

'Wishful thinking,' Winnick told him again. 'Doesn't work that way, Bubba. And it sure as hell is too damn bad.'

'So you're saying it's not once a month,' Bubba challenged what he refused to believe.

'Not literally. But sort of. If you start with the first day of each month.'

'You know, someone stole all my guns.' Bubba browsed.

'The guys were talking about it,' Winnick sympathized.

'So all I got left's the Anaconda and I need something I can pack easier,' Bubba spoke the language.

'I got just the thing.'

Winnick lovingly opened a showcase and gently pulled out a Browning 40 S amp;W Hi-Power Mark III pistol. He handed the beauty to Bubba.

'Oh God,' Bubba muttered as he fondled the silver chrome pistol. 'Oh, oh, oh.'

'Molded polyamide grips with thumb rest,' Winnick said. 'Weighs thirty-five ounces, four and three-quarters barrel. Feels great to the hand, huh?'

'Boy. No kidding.'

Bubba pulled back the slide and snapped it forward. There was just no better sound than that.

'Low profile front sight blade, drift-adjustable rear sight,' Winnick went on. 'Ambidextrous safety, ten-round magazine.'

'Imported from Belgium.' Bubba wasn't going to be fooled. 'The genuine thing.'

'Nothing but.'

'What about a matte blue finish?' Bubba inquired. 'It doesn't show up as much.'

'Sorry,' Winnick apologized. 'Damn. If only you had come in yesterday. We had about eleven left.'

'Well, I guess this one will have to do,' Bubba said.

Patty Passman also was thinking ahead. She hadn't missed an Azalea Parade in twelve years and she didn't intend to miss this one. Although Rhoad had unfairly charged her with many things, it was only assault on a police officer that had stuck. She wished bail bondsman Willy 'Lucky' Loving would show up to get her the hell out of here.

Lockup was just a holding area and inmates wore their own clothes, giving up only their belts to make it trickier to commit suicide. Passman was sticky, her panty hose so torn up she'd had no choice but to take them off right in front of her cellmate, Tinky Meaney, a truck driver for Dixie Motorfreight, who had gotten picked up for getting into a scuffle in the parking lot of the Power Clean Grill on Hull Street. Passman didn't know the details, but of one thing she was certain, Tinky Meaney wasn't on the list of those Passman might have invited to a slumber party.

'I sure wish he'd hurry up,' Passman said from her narrow steel pull-down bed.

She said this often to make certain Meaney didn't think that Passman enjoyed Meaney's company and was in no hurry to leave it. Meaney was a big woman. She was the sort who always said they weren't fat, just big-boned and solid. This was nonsense.

Meaney's thighs were thicker than the biggest Smithfield hams Passman had ever seen, and every time Meaney stalked about the tiny cell, her jeans swished as her upper legs rubbed together. Her hands were thick with stubby fingers and big knuckles that were scraped and bruised from the fistfight that had landed her here. She had no neck. As she sat on the edge of her bed staring at Passman, Meaney's breasts sagged over her empty belt loops. Unshaved pale legs showed between the hem of her jeans and the top of her hand-tooled black and red cowboy boots.

'What the hell are you staring at?' Meaney caught Passman looking.

'Nothing,' Passman lied.

Meaney stretched out on her side and propped up on an elbow, chin in hand. She stared without blinking, a look in her tiny dark eyes that Passman recognized instantly. At the same time Passman realized in amazement that Meaney's breasts were even bigger than Passman had thought. One was hanging over the side of the bed, almost touching the floor, and brought to mind a sandbag. Passman realized Meaney wasn't wearing a bra under her Motor Mile Towing amp; Flatbed Service sweatshirt.

Passman was painfully reminded of yet one more lousy card she'd been dealt in life. No matter how much weight she had put on over the years, her breasts were elusive. Their fat cells dodged any opportunity for growth and development and always had. She suspected that when, as a young girl, she had tried to be a boy, that part of the programming never got deleted when she later returned to her proper gender.

It was unbearably humiliating in eighth-grade health class to watch the films on menstruation, the female outline on the screen developing right before Passman's eyes, the breasts rounding, the pear-shaped muscular uterus discharging its menses in little hatch-marks flowing through the mature female outline, then out of it, on the screen.

All the other girls could relate. Passman could not. She could have gotten by in life without a bra, had she been honest about it. Her periods were more like commas, brief pauses each month that exacerbated her hypoglycemia and made her very cranky.

Passman was still staring, lost in tortured memories of puberty. Meaney smiled like a jack-o'-lantern and stretched provocatively. Passman carne to. She quickly averted her gaze.

'I sure wish he'd hurry up,' Passman said again, this time with more emphasis.

'It ain't so bad in here,' Meaney said in her twangy drawl. 'I recognize your voice. Hear you all the time when I'm in the vincinity, riding through. Channels one, two and three, know 'em by heart. Four-sixty point one hundred megs, 460.200, 460.325. I always thought you had a nice voice.'

'Thank you,' Passman said. 'So, what'd you do?'

Passman thought it wise to send out a warning. 'Beat the shit out of some guy,' she answered. 'I lost control and should've held back a little more than I did. Huge son of a bitch. Had it coming.'

Meaney nodded. 'Mine had it coming, too, fucking son of a bitch. I'm sitting in the bar minding my own business, you know, after a long day on the road, I mean long. He comes over to my table, this big ole trashy fucker in a cowboy hat. I recognized him.' She nodded. 'And he recognized me.' She nodded again. 'He was in his personal car this night. Nineteen ninety-two Chevy Dually, lowered, loaded, four-fifty-four, aluminum wheels, tinted windows, air ride, all the hitches.

'It was in the lot and he asked if I liked it. I said I did.

He asked what I drove. I told him a Mack. He asked if I'd ever drove a Peterbilt. I said I'd driven all there was. He asked if I'd ever had a blowout in a Peterbilt. I said I hadn't. He asked if I wanted to. I said, Why would I? And he yanked down his zipper, so I threw him up against his Chevy Dually.

'Then I musta really gone at him because he looked like hamburger, a bunch of broke bones, teeth everywhere but in his mouth, most of his hair yanked out, ear tore off. What I hate about someone pissing me off like that is later on I can't remember a thing. I guess I must have a spell of some sort, like an epilepick.'

'I'm the same way,' Passman said.

'So, you live around here?'

'We're over near Regency Mall.'

'Who's we?' Meaney's eyes got smaller and darker.

'Me and my boyfriend.' Passman lied out of self-defense.

'I had one once,' Meaney reminisced. Then I was in lockup one day. I forget what for. And there was another girl in there with me.' Meaney nodded and laid on her back, hands behind her head, body spilling everywhere.

Passman was beginning to panic. She was going to kill the bondsman Lucky Loving if he didn't hurry up. She didn't want to encourage Meaney, not in the least, but she had to know the rest of the story. She needed to get as much information as she could. Forewarned is forearmed, her mother always used to say.

'What happened?' Passman asked after a long, intense silence.

'The things we did. Ha!' Meaney grinned, enjoying the memory. 'Let me tell you something, honey. There ain't a thing a man's got that you can't find under your own hood, if you know what I mean.'


Chapter Thirty-Two | Southern Cross | Chapter Thirty-Four