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Chapter Thirty-Five

The morning of the Azalea Parade Weed's soul was as light as light itself. He wished he could paint the way he felt and the way the morning looked as Officer Brazil drove him to George Wythe High School, where the Godwin marching band was waiting and warming up.

Weed was proud and sweating in his polyester and wool blend red-and-white uniform with its many silver buttons and its stripes down the legs. His rolled-heel black shoes looked like new, the Sabian cymbals polished and safely in their black case in the back seat.

Too bad you haven't had more time to practice,' Brazil said.

Weed knew that out of the 152 members of the band, he was probably the only one who had missed a week of practice. He hadn't had a chance to look at his drill charts or work on forward march, pull mark time, pull halt, high mark, backward march, his favorite freeze-spin and especially the crab step, which was unique to the percussion section of Godwin's finely tuned precision marching band.

'I'll be all right,' Weed said, staring out the window, his heart thrilled.

Already crowds were gathering. It was predicted this might be the biggest turnout in the history of the parade. The weather was perfect, in the seventies, a light breeze, not a cloud. People were spreading out blankets, setting up lawn chairs, parking strollers and wheelchairs, and those who lived along the parade route had decided it was a good day for a yard sale. Cops were everywhere in reflective vests and Weed had never seen so many traffic cones.

Brazil was worried. Thousands of people were gathering and those participating in the parade filled the George Wythe High School parking lot. If Smoke had a plan, Brazil didn't see how it was possible to pluck one teenager out of such congestion, especially if no one, except Weed, seemed to know what Smoke really looked like.

'Weed, I want you to make a promise, okay?' Brazil said as Weed collected his cymbal case from the car. 'You'd recognize Smoke or any of his gang.'

'So.'

Weed was in a hurry, anxiously staring off at his marching band, which from this vantage was a patch of bright red and white somewhat lost in a swarm of colorful uniforms and flashing instruments and swords and twinkling batons and twirling flags. Floats hovered restlessly in an endless line. Masons were dressed like clowns. Mounted police were letting kids pet the horses. Antique cars rattled.

'We're better than that,' Weed said, watching the Navy League Cadet Corps practice marching. 'Look at that bus! That band came all the way from Chicago! And there's one from New York!'

'Weed, did you hear what I said?' Brazil asked out his open window.

Sergeant Santa worked the crowd. One of the Florettes lost track of her baton and it bounced several times on the road. People dressed for the Old West were showing off miniature horses that had azalea blossoms in their manes. The Independence Wheelchair Athletic Association was ready to go. Weed was dazzled.

'Weed!' Brazil was about to get out of the car.

'Don't you worry, Officer Brazil,' Weed said. 'I'll let you know.'

'How?' Brazil wasn't going to take any bullshit.

'I'll do a real long crash and flash my cymbals good when I'm not supposed to,' Weed said.

'No way, Weed. How am I going to notice that with everything else going on?' Brazil countered.

Weed thought. His face got tense, his shoulders slumped and he looked heart-broken when he said, Then I'll cut one loose. You can't miss that. Course you'll have to explain later why I did or I won't be playing cymbals in the band no more.'

'Cut one loose?' Brazil was lost.

'Let go of the strap. You ever seen an eighteen-inch cymbal roll down the road?'

'No,' Brazil confessed.

'Well, you see one,' Weed told him, 'then you know I'm telling you trouble's about to start.'

Lelia Ehrhart was already having trouble. She was closely inspecting the Blue Ribbon Crime Commission's red Cadillac convertible, with its streamers of blue ribbons that would float and flutter beautifully once the car was rolling along the parade route. She realized with horror that there wasn't a single azalea blossom, not even one.

'We must carry on to the theme and message of the parade,' she told Commissioner Ed Blackstone.

'I thought the blue ribbons did that,' replied Blackstone, who was eighty-two but maintained that age didn't matter. 'I thought it was called the Azalea Parade because of azaleas, which are everywhere, and it wasn't expected that we fill the car with them, especially since we don't have many seats anyway.'

Ehrhart could not be persuaded, and she directed that the white leather front passenger's side and most of the back were to be lush and dense with pink and white azalea bushes. This reduced the number of waving and smiling commissioners from three to one.

'I guess I'll have to ride alone by myself,' Ehrhart said. 'Well, I'm going to tell you something, Lelia,' said Blackstone as he leaned against his walker, straining to see through the huge glasses he'd been wearing since his last cataract surgery. 'You're going to have bees. That many blossoms, and bees will show up, mark my words. And don't say I didn't warn you about making those streamers so long. Twenty feet.' Blackstone was severe on this point. 'Anybody gets close to your rear with all those streamers of blue ribbons endlessly flying, something's going to get tangled up.'

'Where's Jed?' Ehrhart frowned.

'Over there.' Blackstone pointed at a tree.

Ehrhart searched the masses and spotted Jed hanging around an antique fire truck, talking to Muskrat, who had fixed her car a time or two. She didn't like to be reminded that Governor Feuer had declined to participate in the parade, even after Ehrhart had offered to ride with him. At least he had volunteered Jed to drive the commission's car, which was on loan from one of Bull Ehrhart's patients.

Tell to him it's times to come now,' Lelia Ehrhart ordered Blackstone.

Blackstone motioned at the tree to hurry along.

Neither Brazil nor West liked crowds, but Chief Hammer refused to bask in the limelight alone, especially since she hated parades and other public celebrations more than West and Brazil did.

'I can't believe you're doing this,' West complained from the back seat of the dark blue Sebring. 'You got this psycho kid out there waiting to make himself a legend by doing something really, really bad, and what do you decide?' She slid into the driver's seat and began adjusting mirrors. 'You decide to ride in an open convertible.'

'I don't like it, either,' said Brazil as he climbed in back, next to Hammer. 'You sure you don't want me to drive?' he asked West.

'Forget it,' she replied.

Brazil got out paperwork.

'We need to find the Mustang Club,' he said, 'because we're in front of them. And' - he traced his finger down a list - 'right behind Miss Richmond.' 'Yuck,' West said.

Pigeon and a fat man were within two feet of each other at Westover Hills and Bassett, across from Brentwood South.

The fat man seemed ready for action as he clandestinely searched the crowd through a pair of Leica binoculars. Pigeon was rooting for half a hot dog with mustard and relish that a little kid had just tossed into a trash can, as if hot dogs grew on trees.

Pigeon never missed the Azalea Parade. People were so wasteful. Not one kid this day and age knew the value of a dollar, not even those folks on food stamps. He fished out an almost entire bag of potato chips that some little brat couldn't toss without violently squeezing, crushing and pulverizing first.

'What we need is another good war,' he said to the fat man, although they were not acquainted.

'I've been saying that for years.' The fat man couldn't have agreed more. 'No one understands what it's like.'

'How could they?' Pigeon said, peering inside the bag, unable to find a chip bigger than a dime.

'My name's Bubba,' Bubba said as he continued his sweep with the binoculars.

'I'm Pigeon.'

'Nice to meet you.'

Pigeon homed in on another kid who dropped his bubble gum on the sidewalk after three chews, when there was still plenty of flavor left. A woman in jogging clothes stepped on it.

'Thanks a lot!' she called out to the kid as he popped open a can of Orange Crush and walked off.

She lifted her foot and stared at strings of pink gum leading to a blob fixed to the tread of her right Saucony running shoe.

'I hate you!' she screamed at the kid as people walked around her, looking for a spot with a decent view. 'I hate all children! I hate people!'

'That would piss me off, too,' Pigeon said. 'Nobody cares anymore.'

Bubba focused on Smudge and his wife opening lawn chairs in a yard no more than fifty feet to Bubba's right.

'He probably doesn't even know those people,' Bubba mumbled with fresh fury. 'Just helps himself like he does with everything in life.'

'All the world's like that now,' Pigeon said.

'He knows I'm here, too,' Bubba said. 'The son of a bitch knows he owes me a thousand dollars. Says he has amnesia, doesn't remember the bet, so it doesn't count.'

'I don't know what happened to honesty,' Pigeon said.

Bubba watched Smudge open a checkered tablecloth and spread it out in the grass. He set down a blue ice chest, opened the lid and rummaged.

Pigeon searched in vain for a cigarette butt. He could tell the price had shot way up. People were smoking closer to the filter, leaving nothing for him.

He was shocked yesterday morning when he was picking his way along Main Street, downtown, and observed on the Dow Jones electronic message board outside Scott and Stringfellow brokers that the price per pack had increased another two dollars and eleven cents. If only Pigeon had bought more when he had the money from the pawn shop. He could have done some quick trading. He'd probably be rich.

Even as Pigeon was thinking that, Bubba reached into his shirt pocket for a pack. He shook out a cigarette without lowering the binoculars.

'Those Merit Ultimas any good?' Pigeon asked as Bubba lit up. 'That's one I haven't tried yet.'

'Oh yeah,' Bubba said. 'Anything Philip Morris makes is the best.'

'I've always thought so. How are those different from regular Merits?' Pigeon asked slyly.

'Want to try one?'

'That would be nice,' Pigeon said as Bubba passed him the pack. 'Why, thank you very much.'

Wailing police sirens and the thunder of cops on motorcycles sounded in the distance, signaling that the parade was starting. Weed was so excited his knees were shaking.

He was positioned to the right of Lou Jameson on the snare drum, who was wearing sunglasses like all the drummers did. He had never been very friendly to Weed and more than once had commented that anybody could play cymbals and he'd seen girls doing it in other bands.

Western Guilford High School in white and black was directly in front of Godwin. Lakeview Junior High in gold and green was to the rear. Bright, brave uniforms of all colors and designs must have stretched for a mile, Weed calculated. The parade was starting to move. The lead band out of New Jersey exploded into 'God Bless America,' which wasn't very original and the trumpets were a little off.

Weed stood tall and proud. He did a few toe lifts to loosen up.

'Left foot out and point flex and point flex and really stretch it,' he recited.

Jameson looked at him with disdain.

'Left heel two inches off ground while ball and toe remain touching the ground.' Weed practiced a low mark time with a quick, snappy motion. 'Ankle touches knee on end of each beat, toe pointed straight down the leg, feet flat.' He executed a perfect high mark. 'Push down on beat on left foot, then mark time.'

'Hey, cut it out,' Jameson said.

'No,' Weed retorted.

He used to be intimidated by Jameson. But after being arrested, getting locked up in detention, mouthing off to a defense attorney and striking a deal with a judge, Weed wasn't scared of anyone.

'Three, four, halt. To left, right, foot crosses over, mark time hut, and one, two, three, four, weight on toes.' His crab step was flawless.

'I told you to fucking cut it out,' Jameson whispered.

'Make me.'

'I'll beat your ass.'

'Hope you beat it better than you do that drum,' Weed said.

'TO THE READY!' the drum major shouted from the front.

Weed came to attention. One thing about his cymbals, they sure got heavy.

'BAND, TEN-HUT!'

He strained to see what the color guard was doing way ahead. When the woodwinds started forward marching, he knew he was next.

There was nothing random about Smoke's decision to steal the black nylon Stanley tool belt when he broke into Bubba's workshop. Its extra deep pockets were perfect and he had known it at the time, because Smoke had been planning for a while.

He was dressed in worn-out, soiled jeans, a filthy tee shirt and dirty scuffed Red Wing boots. A paint-spattered baseball cap was low over his eyes. He wore Oakleys and hadn't shaved in days. No one paid any attention to him as he walked across yards, trying to see the parade like everybody else.

Smoke had conducted a thorough surveillance in the George Wythe parking lot while the parade was lining up.

He knew where everyone was. He had spotted Weed. Smoke had walked right past the police chief and the two cops who had spoken in Godwin's auditorium. It was hilarious. Smoke's nerves were humming. He was pumping adrenaline and almost manic.

Concealed inside the pouches around his waist were the stolen Beretta and four ten-round clips and two fifteen-round clips and his Glock with three seventeen-round clips. That made a grand total of one hundred and twenty-one Winchester 115 grain Silvertip high-power cartridges.

He watched antique Jaguars and Chryslers cruise by, then the Corvette Club. People were waving and clapping, the weather great, everybody in a good mood. He spotted a sloping lawn that was a little higher above the street than those around it. Some jerk and a mousy woman were having a picnic on a red-checked tablecloth. Smoke had found the perfect spot. He walked right up to them, crossed his arms and looked out as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Red Cross rolled by.

Bubba recognized the Stanley tool belt immediately. Some construction guy was wearing it. The big black belt with its deep pouches was exactly like the one missing from Bubba's garage. Bubba focused the binoculars a little more, zooming in on the guy's face.

He looked about fifteen or sixteen, kind of puny and pale. The pouches were bulging and looked heavy. He had the padded yellow belt pulled as tight as it would go, the entire rig huge on him because it was an extra-large and the kid couldn't weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds. Bubba didn't see a single tool, no tape measure, no nails, nothing in the hammer holder, not so much as a handle protruding.

'That's my belt,' Bubba said as his heart picked up speed. 'I know it is!'

Pigeon looked where Bubba was looking, squinting as he smoked another Merit Ultima that Bubba had been pleased to give him.

'How do you know?' Pigeon inquired.

'I see a little white mark on the quick-release belt buckle. It might be my initials. I paint my initials in white on all my tools, on everything, to make sure when Smudge borrows something he can't turn around and say it's his!'

'Who's Smudge?' Pigeon asked, tapping an ash.

The last of some band in black and white was marching by, playing 'Take the "A" Train.' The drum major of the Godwin band was right behind it. Bubba stared through the binoculars, blood rushing to his head, his heart beating faster than a snare drum as he focused on the dark blue convertible carrying Hammer, West and Brazil. They were one band behind Godwin.

The guy wearing Bubba's tool belt seemed, tense. His right hand was twitching. He seemed to be waiting for something or someone. He was searching the ranks of the Godwin band, then looking straight at Chief Hammer. Bubba was sure of it.

Godwin started in on the theme from Titanic. The construction guy looked left and right and slipped his right hand into a pouch and kept it there. Bubba's stolen guns flashed in his head. He ran out into the street as the woodwinds were going by. He wanted to pull out his new Browning but thought better of it.

'Stop him!' he yelled at the top of his lungs.

The fat man Smoke had met at Muskrat's Auto Rescue and soon after burglarized was pointing right at Smoke and yelling. Smoke was cool. He looked around and shrugged.

'What a wacko,' he said to the man and woman picnicking next to him.

Cops were running out. One galloped up on a horse. They were trying to calm the fat man and get him out of the street. Smoke smiled. This was going to be better than he thought. He zoomed in on Weed. The little retard was crashing and flashing his cymbals, the dude to the left trying to outdo him on the snare drum. Smoke took his time. He didn't want to slip his hand into the pouch again until the fat man quit pointing at him.

'Somebody do something!' the fat man was screaming as two cops grabbed his arms. 'Get him, not me! The kid up there in the Stanley tool belt!'

Pigeon was concerned. He walked out on the street as Bubba struggled with the cops and continued to yell. 'Look, he's with me,' Pigeon told the cop on the horse.

'Stand back!' the cop yelled at Pigeon.

'It's his tool belt. You can see the white initials on the buckle. I mean with binoculars you can.' Pigeon wasn't to be deterred. 'The kid stole it.'

Bubba's binoculars flew off. A pistol fell out of somewhere and clattered to the street. This seemed to upset the cops quite a lot. All of them snatched handcuffs and red pepper spray off their belts. The Godwin band quit playing and froze as some little kid suddenly broke out of formation and rolled his cymbal down the street. Pigeon realized it was Weed.

Chief Hammer had no idea what was going on. The parade halted as what sounded like a huge bronze hubcap rolled toward her car.

'What's happening?' Hammer asked, standing up in the back seat, trying to see.

West stopped the car.

'GET DOWN!' Brazil yelled as he pushed Hammer to the floor and band members jumped out of the way and the cymbal hit a little dip in the road and picked up speed, flying past loudly, scattering the Mason clowns, sending Sergeant Santa scurrying, almost running the mayor's car into the crowd. The Florettes dropped their batons.


Jed saw the cymbal coming before Lelia Ehrhart did, and he suddenly threw the red Cadillac into reverse.

Azalea bushes jumped off the back seat, clay pots breaking, bees darting out of harm's way, dirt flying everywhere as streamers of blue ribbons changed direction and flew in Ehrhart's face.

The blond cop Jed had picked up in the cemetery the other day had just leaped out of Chief Hammer's car and was running like hell. Jed slammed on the brakes. A pink azalea bush sailed over the back of the front seat and Ehrhart shrieked. The cymbal went screaming past, flashing in the sun like a runaway gold chariot wheel.

Jed jumped out of the Cadillac without opening the door, neglecting to put the car in park. It began moving forward on its own as Ehrhart fought with streamers of blue ribbons, getting more entangled, and Patty Passman, nearby in the rioting crowd, threw down her Death by Chocolate ice cream cone and pushed people out of the way.

'MOVE, FUCKHEADS!' She shoved and punched, sugar-charged and unstoppable.

She chased the red Cadillac and hurled her fat body over the driver's door, landing with her feet in the air, grabbing the gear shift and jamming it into park.

Smoke was momentarily confused by the commotion. The plan in his head turned to page three and stopped. He looked around and backed up a little, almost slipping on the grass. At first it didn't register that the blond cop he had heard at school, and Weed and a street person were running toward him at top speed.

'EVERYBODY GET DOWN!' the blond cop was yelling.

The crowd started panicking. The cops lost interest in the fat man. They charged toward Smoke, too, the blond cop running the fastest.

'YOU SON OF A BITCH!' the fat man screamed at Smoke.

The picnicking couple dove out of the way as the fat man ran across their red-and-white-checkered tablecloth. Smoke panicked and pulled out the Beretta. In his confusion he forgot how to take the safety off.

People were thundering toward Smoke from all directions, with Weed in the lead, the plume on his black hat straight back as he ran at incredible speed. Smoke dropped the Beretta and groped for his Glock as Weed leaped five feet in the air and punched Smoke in the nose and grabbed his hair, knocking Smoke to the ground. They struggled over the Glock. Smoke let go of it when Weed bit his wrist hard.

'I'M GOING TO KILL YOU, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!' Weed kept yelling as he pummeled Smoke with his fists.

Brazil struggled to handcuff Smoke, who was rolling in the grass and yelling, clips of ammunition falling out of the stolen tool belt around his waist. At this point, community involvement was making matters worse.

Bubba was poised, taking jabs at Smoke whenever Weed left an opening. Pigeon was on the ground, trying to hold Smoke's ankles. Other cops were grabbing at Smoke and getting in Brazil's way. Unfortunately, one of them started squirting pepper spray. Then everyone was rolling on the ground, hands over their eyes, yelling in pain.

Smoke kicked straight up and caught one of the cops in the groin and grabbed the Sig Sauer pistol out of the other cop's holster. Smoke was bloody and breathing hard as he gripped the pistol in both shaking hands, his eyes watering and crazed with rage. He didn't see the two women cutting through the space between the two houses behind him.

Hammer and West had their pistols out and were moving in fast. It seemed Smoke was trying to figure out who to shoot. He wildly pointed the gun at a fat man Hammer recognized as Bubba. Then the gun was pointed at Brazil and the other cops on the ground, then out at the fleeing crowd and participants in the parade.

Hammer didn't have a clear shot because a street person and a little kid in a band uniform were in the way. Drifting pepper spray irritated Hammer's eyes and lungs. She and West split up as Smoke wheeled around, apparently hearing the sound of approaching feet. The barrel of his pistol seemed huge and unreal as he pointed it straight at Hammer's face. She couldn't shoot first. There were too many people in the way.

Hammer hadn't been in a good fight in a while but she hadn't forgotten her training. She hurled her pistol at Smoke as hard as she could, and it sailed and spun like a boomerang, and Smoke involuntarily raised his arms to ward it off, giving Hammer an opportunity to dive at his feet, knocking him down. They struggled over his gun.

'GIVE IT UP!' Hammer demanded.

He tried to point the gun into her ribs and she managed to get a good purchase on one of his thumbs. She bent it straight back, an old and reliable police trick. He howled in pain. She wrested the gun away from him and shoved it hard under his chin.

'MOVE I'LL BLOW YOUR MOTHERFUCKING HEAD OFF!' she yelled at him.

Her finger was on the trigger. She wanted him to give her an excuse.

'You goddamn little bastard,' she said in his face. 'That helpless old woman you murdered was my neighbor.'

Brazil had recovered enough to help West handcuff Smoke and haul him away. Bubba sat up, tears streaming down his cheeks. Pigeon was facedown, still covering his eyes. The sock had come off his stump. Weed was unsteady as he got to his feet. He looked at Chief Hammer with red, watering eyes. She was standing very still, a gun at her side, pointed at the grass.

Thanks,' Weed said to her. 'I sure am glad you're here.'


Chapter Thirty-Four | Southern Cross | Chapter Thirty-Six