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Chapter Seven

The Pikes were sipping vodka out of Dixie cups and smoking cigarettes. They looked at Weed and seemed amused, their eyes laughing at him as they lounged on stained, sour-smelling mattresses.

Divinity was dark-skinned, but Weed didn't think she was black, maybe Hispanic or a little bit of everything. She wasn't wearing a bra, and her tight sheer black undershirt showed more than Weed had ever seen in person. Her slender legs in their worn-out jeans were spread wide. She was really pretty.

Dog was big and looked mean and stupid, and Sick had acne and a dark buzz cut and five loops in his right ear. Beeper seemed a little nicer, or maybe it was just that he was small like Weed. Each of them had a number tattooed on the right index finger and seemed oblivious to the nasty mattresses and the rotting wall-to-wall brown carpet beneath them.

Strewn about were plain oak chairs that Weed associated with school, and TV trays, and boxes of paper napkins and Dixie cups. Candles of all description sat in puddles of hardened wax on windowsills, and the motel furniture was so warped the Formica lamination was curling up. Piled in corners were boxes of chalk, erasers, a slide projector, library books, a corkboard, throw pillows, and at least a dozen empty wallets and ladies' purses and just as many pairs of leather tennis shoes of different sizes. Cases of liquor were stacked up to the water-stained ceiling. Smoke lit one of the candles while Divinity poured Smirnoff into a Dixie cup and handed it to him.

'Are you gonna change my name?' Weed asked.

'Give him some,' Smoke ordered Divinity.

She poured a cup of vodka for Weed and laughed when he hesitantly took it from her.

'Go on.' Smoke jerked his head at Weed.

Weed's daddy drank straight liquor all the time, but Weed never had. He knew it made his daddy mean and sent him out running around and not coming back, sometimes the entire weekend Weed was visiting. The vodka burned and almost gagged Weed. Instantly his face heated up and his brain got lighter.

'Naw,' Smoke said as he held out his cup for more and gestured for Divinity to refill Weed's as well. 'You got such a fucking stupid name, I'm just gonna leave it. We couldn't do much better than Weed if we tried, could we?' he said to his gang.

'No, baby.' Divinity sighed as she laid back on her mattress, hands beneath her head, breasts pointed up at the ceiling.

Smoke caught Weed staring.

'You never seen tits before, retard?' he asked.

Weed downed his second cup of vodka and thought he might be sick.

'Sure I seen 'em,' he stuttered.

'Bet you haven't either, retard.' Smoke laughed. 'Except maybe in pictures when you try to jerk off that little golden rod of yours.'

Everybody laughed with him, including Weed. Weed tried to get cocky and show no fear.

'Fuck,' Weed strutted. 'I seen tits bigger 'an hers.'

'Show him.' Smoke snapped his fingers at Divinity.

She pulled up her shirt and smiled at Weed. He stared, his mouth falling open, his face so hot he thought he had a bad fever. She had tattoos of targets and flower petals in places he could not believe.

'You can look, but you touch and I shoot your balls off,' Smoke said in a menacing tone. 'Everybody knows the rule, right?'

Beeper, Sick and Dog nodded blearily. They didn't seem the least bit interested in Divinity or her equipment. Smoke dropped down next to her on the mattress. He started feeling her and kissing her, his tongue about to get dislocated from his mouth. Weed had never seen anybody act like that in front of other people. It didn't make any sense to him, and he wanted to run as fast as he could and wake up in another city.

'All right, baby, you ready to cook?' Smoke asked, his tongue in her ear.

'Yeah, sugar.'

She languidly reached behind her and got hold of a box of syringes and a Bic ballpoint pen. Weed watched with growing terror as Smoke started heating a needle in the candle flame while Divinity smashed the pen with the butt of the vodka bottle. She pulled out the slender ink tube and dabbed a dot of black ink on her wrist, as if she were testing the warmth of baby's milk.

'We got it, sugar,' she said.

'Get your ass over here,' Smoke ordered Weed.

Weed was paralyzed.

'What'cha gonna do, Smoke?' His voice got small again.

'You gotta get your slave number, retard.'

'I don't need one. Really I don't.'

'Yeah you do. And you don't get your puny ass right here right now' - he patted the mattress where he and Divinity sat - 'then I'm gonna have to get the boys here to convince you.'

Weed walked over and sat on the mattress, a musty, yeasty smell assaulting his nostrils. He held his legs close together and wrapped his arms around his knees, his fists clenched to hide his fingers as best he could. Smoke slowly turned the needle in the flame.

'Hold out your right hand,' he commanded.

'I don't need no number.' Weed tried not to sound like he was begging, but knew he did.

'You don't hold it out now, I'm gonna chop it off.'

Divinity poured another cup of vodka and handed it to Weed.

'Here, honey, this will help. I know it don't feel good, but we all had it done, you know?" she said, holding out her delicate finger with its homemade 2 tattoo.

Weed drank the vodka and caught on fire. His mind went somewhere and when he put out his hand, he was surprised that he could tolerate the sticks and deep scratches of the red-hot needle. He didn't cry. He threw a switch that turned off pain. He didn't look as Divinity dripped ink into the wounds and rubbed it in good. Weed swayed and Smoke had to tell him twice to sit still.

'Your slave number's five, little shit,' Smoke was saying. 'Pretty good, huh. That makes you in the top ten - hell, it makes you in the top five, right? That makes you a first-string Pike. And a fucking lot is expected of a first-string Pike, right, everybody?'

'Sure as fuck is."

Tucking got it fucking straight.'

'Honey, don't you fret. You're gonna be just great,' Divinity reassured Weed.

'We're going to initiate you, retard,' Smoke said as again he stuck the needle in Weed's right index finger, above the first knuckle. 'You're gonna do a little paint job for us.'

Weed almost fell over and Divinity had to hold him up. She was laughing and rubbing his back.

'We're gonna show this city who we are once and for all,' Smoke went on, full of liquor and himself. 'You got paints, don't you, little art fag?'

Smoke's words whirled inside Weed's head like the Milky Way.

'He's gone, man,' Beeper said. 'Whatta we do with him?'

'Nothing right now,' Smoke said. 'I got an errand to run.'

It was almost eight P.M., and Virginia West was glad. Working long hours meant she didn't have the energy to get emotional about the dishes in the sink, the dirty clothes on the floor, the clean ones draped over chairs and falling off hangers.

She didn't have to wait for Brazil to ring her up and suggest a pizza or just a walk like he used to back in Charlotte. She knew from her InLog of calls that he never tried, but why should he? She made sure he knew she was never home. If it even crossed his mind to call, he wouldn't because it was pointless. She was busy, out, not thinking of him, not interested.

In fact, eight P.M. was earlier than usual. West preferred to roll in around ten or eleven, when it was too late to even call her family on the farm, where she rarely visited anymore because she now lived so far away. Time had become West's enemy. A pause in it echoed with an unbearable emptiness and loneliness that sent her fleeing from the nineteenth-century town house she rented on Park Avenue, once known as Scuffletown Road, in Richmond's Fan District.

Although the name 'Fan' meant nothing to outsiders or even the majority of Richmond residents who were not interested in the history of their city, a quick look at a map brought much clarity to the matter. The neighborhood fanned out several miles west of downtown, spreading fingers of quaint streets with names like Strawberry, Plum and Grove. Homes and town houses of distinctive designs were brick and stone with slate and shingle roofs, stained glass transoms, elaborate porches and parapets, finials and even medallions and domes. Styles ranged from Queen Anne to Neo-Georgian and Italian Villa.

West's town house was three stories with a gray and brown granite front on the first floor and red brick on the two above. There were stained glass bands around the sashes on the second-floor windows and a white frame sitting porch in front. Although Park Avenue had once been one of the most prominent addresses in the city, much of the area had become more affordable as Virginia Commonwealth University continued to expand. Quite frankly, West was growing to hate the Fan, finding its unrelenting noises were causing her mood swings, which in turn seemed to be causing the same in Niles, her Abyssinian cat.

The problem was that West had unwittingly picked a location several houses down from Governor Jim Gilmore's birthplace, which had become increasingly overrun by tourists. She was across the street from the crowded Robin Inn, a popular hangout for students and cops who liked big servings of lasagne and spaghetti and baskets full of garlic bread. As for finding parking on the street, it was a chronic lottery with chances always slim to none, and West had grown to despise students and cars. She even hated their bicycles.

She dropped her briefcase in the foyer, and Niles slinked out of the office and regarded his owner with crossed blue eyes. West threw her suit jacket on the living-room couch and stepped out of her shoes.

'What were you doing in my office?' West asked Niles. 'You know not to go in there. How did you anyway? I know I locked the door, you little fleabag.'

Niles was not insulted. He knew as well as his owner did that he didn't have fleas.

'My office is the worst room in the house,' his owner said as she walked into the kitchen and Niles followed. 'What is it about going in there, huh?'

She opened the refrigerator, grabbed a Miller Genuine Draft and screwed off the cap. Niles jumped on the windowsill and stared at her. His owner was always in such a hurry that she just thought she closed doors, cabinets, windows and drawers, and put away things Niles might enjoy in her absence, such as loose nails and screws, balls of string, half-and-half or part of an egg and sausage sandwich left in the sink.

His owner took a big swallow of beer and stared at her Personal Information Center, an expensive gray phone with a video screen, two lines, caller ID and as many stored telephone numbers as Niles's owner decided to program into memory. She checked for messages, but there were none. She scrolled through the Caller ID InLog to see if anyone had called and not left a message. No one had. She took a big swallow of beer and sighed.

Niles stayed on the windowsill and stared down at his empty food bowl.

'I get the hint,' his owner said, taking another swig of beer.

She walked into the pantry and carried out the bag of lams Less Active.

Tm gonna tell you this right now,' his owner said as she filled Niles's handmade ceramic food bowl, 'if you walked on my keyboard again or screwed around under my desk and unplugged anything, you've had it.'

Niles jumped down silently and crunched on his boring, fat-free, meatless food.

West left the kitchen for her office, dreading what she might find. Abyssinians were unusually intelligent cats, and Niles certainly went beyond the norm, which was a problem since he was curious by nature and didn't have enough to do.

'Goddammit,' West exclaimed. 'How the fuck did you do that?'

Glowing on her computer screen was a crime map of the city. That simply could not be possible. She was certain the computer had been turned off when she left the house that morning.

'Holy shit,' she muttered as she seated herself in front of the terminal. 'Niles! Get your butt in here right now!'

Nor did she remember the map's colors being orange, blue, green and purple. What happened to the pale yellow and white spaces? What were all these small, bright blue fish icons clustered in second precinct's beat 219? West looked at the icons one could click on at the bottom of the screen. Homicides were plus signs, robberies were dots, aggravated assaults were stars, burglaries were triangles, vehicle thefts were little cars. But there were no fish, blue or otherwise.

In fact, there was no such thing as a fish icon in COMSTAT's computer network, absolutely not, and she could think of no explanation whatsoever for why beat 219 was filled with fish, or why the beat was outlined in flashing blood red. West reached for the phone.

Chapter Six | Southern Cross | Chapter Eight