The Empress File · Preview Chapters
The heat was ferocious.
The odor of melting blacktop was thick in the air, like the stink of an oil slick, and the rare night walkers glistened with sweat. A time-and-temperature sign outside the state bank poked scarlet digits down the dark streets: 91, it said, and 11:04. Three doors north of the bank, a janitor at the Paramount Theater vacuumed the lobby in slow motion. The theater was air-conditioned. His home was not.
Across the street from the Paramount, a window dresser at Trent's fussed with an abattoir of dismembered mannequins. He worked only nights, after curfew for children twelve and under. He was setting up the annual bathing suit display, and modern mannequins, the city council observed, had nipples.
In the window lights even the dummies looked hot.
With nightfall an army of insects marched out of the Mississippi river bottoms. Coffee brown beetles, some as long as a man's thumb, scuttled through the gutters. Hard-shelled June bugs ricocheted like stones off the storefront windows. Fuzzy-winged moths fluttered in the headlights of passing cars. They made yellow smears when they hit the windshields; the biggest ones had guts like baby birds, and blood.
The moths and the delicate green lacewings were the tragic stars of the night. By the hundreds of thousands they burned in the eerie violet halos of electronic insect traps. The lucky ones made it past the traps and found heaven in the parking lot lights at the E-Z Way. Under the brilliant floods they danced and died in midnight ecstasy. Their bodies littered the pavement like confetti.
Elvis Coultier loved the bugs. They made intricate patterns in the boring nightscape, like a living kaleidoscope. In some dumb way they brought him a breath of drama. Once a night, or sometimes twice, a luna moth would appear, huge, green, fragile. He would watch as it circled and climbed, danced, courting the light, and finally burned, fluttering like an autumn maple leaf to the parking lot.
He loved the bugs, but the heat was killing him. He couldn't breathe. His lungs felt as if they were packed with sponges. He had the doors and the big side window open as far as they would go, but never a breeze came in.
Elvis was the night manager at the E-Z Way, a fat young man given to tent-size sweatpants and novelty T-shirts. Tonight's had a tiger-striped cartoon cat, with the caption "I Love a Little Pussy." He'd dripped ketchup on the shirt while eating a hot dog, and five red splotches crossed the Pussy like bloody fingerprints. Elvis mopped his face with a rag he kept in the soda cooler. Reruns of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" flickered on the portable TV bolted into one corner of the ceiling, but it was so hot that he'd lost the story line. Beige moths the size of penny-candy wrappers battered themselves against Mary's face.
The E-Z Way, the only all-night store in town, squatted beside the A&M Railroad tracks. Both whites from the east side and blacks from the west anyone looking for milk or beer or cigarettes patronized the place. "We get 'em all, sooner or later," Elvis liked to say.
At 11:04 Darrell Clark was Elvis's only customer. He stood in the back of the store, peering through the glass of an upright cooler. A dozen varieties of ice cream and sherbet were racked inside: vanilla, Dutch chocolate, strawberry, butter brickie, raspberry surprise, chocolate rocky road. Each name and each color photo evoked a memory of taste. Butter brickie and jamocha were out. Vanilla was good, but too... vanilla.
Darrell was dressed in Wal-Mart shorts and a brown short-sleeved polo shirt. The shirt was too small and fit his growing body like a second skin. His hair was close-cropped over his high forehead.
Darrell licked his lower lip every few seconds as he considered the beckoning flavors. After some thought he opened the cooler door, paused to let the cold air wash over him, shivered, selected a two-quart carton of the chocolate rocky road, and carried it to the counter. Elvis counted Darrell's handful of crumpled dollar bills, quarters, and dimes, rang up the sale, and slipped the ice cream into a brown paper bag.
"Now you haul ass, boy," Elvis told him. "That rocky road'll melt faster'n snot on a hot doorknob."
Darrell headed out the door on the run. The brown paper bag dangled from one hand, and his rubber flip-flops slapped on the blacktop as his long fourteen-year-old legs ate up the ground. He crossed the parking lot under the moth-shrouded pole lights and ran down the dirt-and-cinders path that paralleled the A&M tracks.
Two things were going through his head.
The first was the thought of the rocky road, cool and buttery in a blue plastic bowl. A good choice.
Behind that was an algorithm he had been toying with: a way to generate real-time fractal terrain at reasonable speeds on his Macintosh II personal computer...
Clarisse Barnwright, whom everybody, including herself, called Old Lady Barnwright, hobbled along Bluebell, a rubber-tipped cane held in one hand, her purse clutched in the other. She lived one block over from the tracks, on the white side of town. She'd spent her entire life in the neighborhood, born in a house not a hundred yards from the house where she expected to die. For thirty-nine years she'd beaten Latin and English into the thick heads of Longstreet's children. White children for the first twenty-seven years, a mix of black and white for the last twelve. Then she gave it up and sank gratefully into retirement.
Her husband's death preceded her retirement by a year. Some people thought that was why she quit. She couldn't face life and work without Albert, they said wisely.
They were wrong.
The fact was, Clarisse wasn't unhappy to see him go. Had, late on hot summer nights in the forties and fifties, lying in the same bed with him, sweaty and suffocating, listening to his burbling snorts and occasional farts, considered helping him along the Path to Glory. Might have done it, if she could have thought of a surefire way of not getting caught. The state had the electric chair, and no particular prejudice against using it on women.
Clarisse sighed as she thought about it. If Albert had lived, he'd have just sat around the house and complained. Complained about paint flaking off the siding, complained about the furnace, complained about the cracking sidewalks, complained about the cotton crop. Never complained about anything interesting.
Never complained about their sex life, for example. She might have been interested if one night he'd looked up and said, "Clare, just what do you know about this here cunny-lingus business?" Old Lady Barnwright cackled to herself. That probably would have finished her off.
Clarisse Barnwright lived inside her head. She was so preoccupied with her thoughts that she never heard the soft steps coming up behind.
Clayton Rand sat on his dark porch and watched Old Lady Barnwright coming down the sidewalk. A little late for the old lady, but she still got around good, considering her age. Hell, Clayton was sixty-four, and he'd had her as a teacher in eleventh and twelfth grades. Clayton fanned himself with the sports section of the Gazette, watching her hobble down the sidewalk. Wonder what she thinks about? Probably conjugating Latin verbs or something.
When he saw the shadow behind her, Clayton wanted to holler a warning, but his tongue got stuck, and nothing would come out of his mouth. He stood up with his mouth half open as the shadow grabbed the old lady's purse. She went ass over teakettle into the Carters' honeysuckle hedge, yelling her head off, while the shadow went sideways across the street, headed for the tracks. Clarisse Barnwright might have been an old lady, Clayton thought as he pulled open the screen door and reached for
the phone, but there was nothing wrong with her lungs.
"Police emergency," Lucy answered in her best bubble gum voice. Lucy had wonderful cone-shaped tits and tended toward pink glitter lipstick and thin cotton sweaters. Clayton felt as if he'd sinned just calling her on the 911 line. "Is this an emergency?"
"Goddamn right it is, honey," Clayton hollered. "This here is Clayton Rand out on Bluebell. Some colored kid just snatched Old Lady Barnwright's purse. Not more than five, ten seconds ago. He's took off lickety-split toward the tracks..."
Officers Roy R. ("Tud") Dick and William L. Teeter had the tac squad that night. That was why the laser-sighted Heckler & Koch MP5, instead of the standard police shotgun, was propped between them. The MP5 was a new weapon. Billy Lee had qualified on it, but Tud had not. He wasn't interested. Tud had little time for guns, and with good reason: The last time a Longstreet cop had fired a weapon in the line of duty, he'd missed six out of six times and got his own ass shot by his brother-in-law. That was back in '71...
The two cops were sitting on a side street, talking about the heat and waiting to see if Annie Carlson would get drunk and take one of her patented summer showers. She never pulled the shade on the back bathroom window, and when she came out of the shower, with the white towel wrapped around her hair, and was framed in the lighted square, Tud thought she looked just like some kind of famous painting. He couldn't tell you which. Billy Lee thought she looked like a potential Playmate of the Month. Which is to say, large.
Tud was sucking on a peach soda when they got the squawk from Lucy down at Dispatch. One second later the black kid ran past the end of the street, lickety-split, just like Lucy said.
"Let's get him," Tud said. He dropped the empty pop can on the floor, hit the lights and the siren at the same time, and they took off, leaving Annie Carlson high and dry. The black kid was running parallel to the tracks and was fast coming to the point where the street went left around a bend and the tracks went straight.
"Shit, Billy Lee, he's gonna get off behind the water tower," Tud said.
"Stop the car. Stop the fuckin' car."
Tud stopped the car, and Billy Lee jumped out with the MP5 and punched up the laser.
"Hold it right there. You hold it right there..." He was screaming as loud as he could.
He put the laser's red dot in the middle of the black kid's back. "You hold it, boy..." A sort of greasy, short-breathed excitement got him by the balls when he realized the black kid wasn't going to stop and Tud said, "Hey, now, Billy Lee..." Billy Lee pulled the trigger, and a burst of nine-millimeter slugs went downrange, and the black kid tumbled ass over teakettle into the weeds.
"Ass over teakettle," Billy Lee said aloud in the sudden stunning silence.
Tud called for a backup and an ambulance, and then they walked down toward the body, Billy Lee with the MP5 on his hip and Tud clutching his .38 police special. Lights were coming on in houses on both sides of the tracks, and a guy in a white sleeveless T-shirt was standing on his front lawn, watching them. They found the boy in the cinders and sandbabies next to the tracks, facedown. One bullet punched through his neck; a second took him in the spine between his shoulder blades; a third caught him a little lower and to the left, maybe nicking a lung. Good shooting. The boy must have lived for just a second after he went down, Tud thought, because his mouth was full of dirt and cinders, as if he'd bitten into the earth as he died.
The two officers looked down at him for a minute, and then Tud squatted and dumped the bag the kid had been carrying. Out fell a two-quart carton of chocolate rocky road, steaming in the muggy night air. They both looked at it for a long beat. Then Tud turned his sad hound dog eyes up to his partner.
"Goddamn it, Billy Lee," he said, shaking his head. "You went and shot yourself the wrong nigger."
The computer alarm went off at four in the morning. When it started buzzing, I'd been asleep for half an hour. The alarm sounds like an off-the-hook telephone, and it took a minute to penetrate.
"Jap phone?" Chaminade Loan made a bump under the sheet across the bed. Her voice grated like old rust.
"Yeah." The cat was curled at the foot of the bed and looked up as I rolled out and padded down the hall toward the front room. When I passed the study door, a message was running down the blue screen of the Amiga 3000, and I realized I was hearing the computer alarm, not the phone. A dozen small computers and dumb terminals are scattered around the study, three or four of them plugged in at any one time. Several people knew how to call and dump data to the Amiga's memory. Only one knew how to tap the alarm.
Bobby wouldn't be calling to chat. The alarm sounded as soon as the data came in and repeated one minute out of every five until I turned it off. The message on the screen was straightforward. After the sign-on stuff, it said:
When Bobby said now, he meant now. As far as I know, he sits in front of a computer around the clock; Bobby doesn't have a workday and always answered personally when I called his private board.
I yawned, sat down naked at the machine, tapped a key to kill the alarm, switched the modem to send and punched in a number for East St. Louis. The number rang eight times, and I pressed the "a" key. It rang twice more and was answered with a twenty-four-hundred-baud carrier tone. A few seconds later a ? flashed on the upper left corner of my screen. I typed Hivaoa, my code name on Bobby's system. It's taken from Gauguin's 1902 painting The Magician of Hivaoa, which hangs in the Musée d'Art Moderne in Liège. As a password Hivaoa may seem pretentious, but it fills the two main requirements of any computer code word: It's easy to remember, and you don't have to worry that somebody will stumble on it by accident. Bobby came back instantly:
Friend bad-needs face-to-face ASAP.
I'll check airlines.
Already booked 4:47 Northwest Airlines Minn-St. Paul Memphis arrive 7:20.
Booking the plane was presumptuous, but Bobby's a computer freak. Computer freaks are like that. Besides, he was virtually a full-time resident of the Northwest reservation system, so it probably didn't cost him anything.
Bobby and I had met inside a GM design computer back in the old days and had enlarged our friendship on the early pirate boards, the good ones that the teenyboppers never saw. Over the years we'd dealt a lot of data and code to each other. I'd never met him face-to-face, but I'd talked to him on voice lines. A black kid, I thought, still young, early to mid-twenties. A southerner. He had a hint of a speech impediment, and something he said suggested a physical problem. Cerebral palsy, like that. A while back he helped me out of a jam involving the mob, several murders, and a computer attack that wrecked a defense contractor. I still flash on it from time to time, like visitations from an old acid trip. In return for his help, I sent a bundle of cash Bobby's way. So we were friends, but only on the wires. I went back to him:
Where go Memphis?
He meets plane.
After Bobby signed off, I went back to the bedroom, reset the alarm for eleven o'clock, and crawled into bed. Chaminade smelled of red wine and garlic sauce, a little sweat and a tingle of French scent. She's a large woman, with jet black hair and eyes that are almost powder blue; both her genes and her temper are black Irish. She does electronic engineering, specializing in miniaturization. She was one of the first to crack the new satellite-TV scrambling system and makes a tidy income on pirate receivers.
She was lying on her side, facing away from me. I put my back against hers; the cat turned a couple of circles at my feet. Chaminade said, "Wha?" one time before we all went back to sleep.
I live in a paid-off condominium apartment in St. Paul's Lowertown, a few hundred feet up the bank from the Mississippi River. The building is a modern conversion of a redbrick turn-of-the-century warehouse.
I have a compact kitchen, a dining area off the front room, a bedroom, a painting studio with north windows, and a study jammed with small computers and a couple of thousand books. I keep a brand-new seventeen-foot Tuffy Esox fishing boat and an older Oldsmobile in a private parking garage up the block. There's another place, quite a bit like it, also paid off, in New Orleans.
When I say the apartments are paid off, I'm not bragging. I'm worried. I screwed up. The run-in with the mob generated quite a bit of cash. I'd never been rich before, and when the money came in, I managed to ignore the annoying buzzing sound in the background. The buzzing sound was my accountant, of course, and she was trying to remind me that I lived in Minnesota, that 40 percent of every dime I earned went for income taxes, either state or federal, plus a couple of more percentages for Social Security and etc. The etc., I suspect, is something I don't want to know about.
Looking back, I shouldn't have paid off the houses. And the trip to Paris and the Côte sometimes seems a tad excessive. I spent a lot of money on food, booze, and women and thoroughly field-tested a faulty baccarat system on the tables at Monte Carlo and what was left, I wasted.
When I got back from France, I was still fairly complacent about the state of my finances. Then the IRS and the Minnesota Department of Revenue showed up. Neither exactly had hat in hand. Tch. I didn't have holes in my socks, but I could use some cash. Soon. Very soon. Like before the fall quarterly estimate was due.
"So what's in Memphis?" Chaminade asked during breakfast, spreading marmalade on her English muffin.
"Beale Street," I suggested.
"Last time I was in Memphis" she rolled her eyes up and thought about it "must have been ten or eleven years ago."
"A mere child."
She ignored me. "I went over to Beale Street, you know, because of the blues. I'd been listening to a Memphis Slim tape; it had this great piece called 'He Flew the Coop.'... I don't know. Anyway, I went over to Beale, and the whole street was boarded up for urban renewal. I found a big goddamned statue of? Who? Guess."
"W. C. Handy?"
"Nope. Elvis. Right there at the top of Beale. They had a bust of Handy stuck away in a little park. Those Memphis folks got style." She popped the last bite of muffin into her mouth, licked her fingers, split another muffin in half, and popped it into the toaster.
"I don't know the place very well. Seems kind of trashy, in a likable way. The food's good," I said.
I pass through Memphis twice a year, eat a pile of ribs, and move on. From St. Paul to St. Louis is a brutal day's drive. From there you can make it to New Orleans in another day if you don't fool around in Memphis.
When the muffins popped up, Chaminade spread a gob of butter on them, not looking at me. "When you get back..."
"Yeah?" But I knew what was coming. I'd been brooding about it for a couple of weeks.
"I'll be out of here." She said it in such a conversational way that we might have been talking about grocery shopping or new wallpaper.
"We were getting along," I said tentatively.
"We were. Wonderfully. Up to a point. Then it stopped. The problem is, I'm something between number four and six on your list of priorities. The way I see it, there's not much prospect of moving up."
"If you could wait until I get back..."
"You could go to Memphis some other time..."
"I've got to go today."
She shrugged. "See?"
"Obligations. A friend," I said defensively.
"I'm a friend, too," she said.
"You don't need help."
Chaminade looked down the room at the cat, who was daintily picking his way across a radiator to a window. He saw us watching and posed, as cats do, one front foot frozen in midair. Sunlight rippled across his orange coat; there was a potted geranium sitting on a board at the end of the radiator, and the orange fur against the green leaves, all framed by the window, made a nice composition. Beyond the cat, through the window out on the river, a towboat pushed a rust red barge full of coal upstream toward the power plant. Pigeons wheeled overhead, little impressionist smudges against the faultless blue sky. It was quiet and beautiful.
"I'll miss the cat," she said sadly. "And the river."
I carry a small wooden box from Poland in my overnight bag. On the flight between St. Paul and Memphis, I got it out. Inside, wrapped in a square of rough silk, were seventy-eight cards, the Waite-Rider tarot deck. I did a couple of spreads. The Empress dominated both of them.
There's nothing supernatural about the tarot. Not the way I use it, as a gaming system. Formal game systems, the kind developed by the military, were intended to force planners out of habitual modes of thinking and to test new theories. The tarot is less structured than the formal systems, but it still forces you outside your preconceptions.
So I had the Empress dominating two separate spreads. In my interpretive system the Empress represents women, new enterprises, new creations, new movements. There's an overtone of politics and a suggestion of sex. That's roughly parallel to the "magic" interpretation, but I don't believe in that superstitious shit.
I sat back and thought about it as the river unwound two thousand feet below. The Empress.
Chaminade? Or someone I hadn't yet met?
Memphis from the air looks like any other city from the air, except greener. Just before we landed, the pilot said the ground temperature was ninety-three and the humidity was 87 percent. A Turkish bath.
When I came through the gate carrying an overnight bag and a portable computer, a tall, balding black guy, forty or so, was leaning on the railing that separated the passenger and waiting areas. With his round gold-rimmed glasses, thin face, and high cheekbones, he might have looked like Gandhi. He didn't. He brought to mind a mercenary who had been blinded by a white phosphorus grenade in Biafra, a long time ago and far, far away. This guy wasn't blind, though. He was looking the passengers over, one by one, and finally picked on me.
"You Kidd?" he asked. His voice was tough, abrupt.
"Yeah. Who are you?" He was already walking away, and I trailed behind with my bags.
"John," he said over his shoulder. "You got a suitcase? Besides that stuff?"
"No. John what?"
He thought it over, but not very hard. "Smith."
If he didn't want to talk, I wasn't going to worry about it. He led the way to a two-year-old Chevrolet, one of the bigger models in a nondescript green. We were halfway downtown, sitting at a red light, before Smith said another word.
"I'm not sure we need you." He was staring straight out over the steering wheel.
"I don't know if I want to join up," I said.
"Bobby says you're some kind of complicated computer crook." He still wouldn't face me. "You don't look like a computer crook. You look like a boxer."
"I'm a painter," I said. "I've been hit in the nose a couple of times. The docs never got it quite right."
Now he turned, vertical lines crinkling the space between his eyebrows. "A painter? That's not what Bobby said."
"I do computer work to make a living. That's the only way Bobby knows me."
"Huh." The light changed, and we were rolling again. "Can't make a living at painting?"
"Not yet. Maybe in five years."
"You paint ducks?"
"No. I don't paint ducks, barns, sailboats, lighthouses, pheasants, rusty farm machinery, sunsets, jumping fish, birch trees, or any kind of hunting dogs. And I don't put a little pink glow of the setting sun between groups of warm nineteenth-century farmhouses with hay sticking out of the lofts of the barns in back."
"Eakins painted hunters. Homer painted fish."
"Damn well, too."
"So who do you like? Artists?"
"Rembrandt. Ingres. Degas. Egon Schiele. Like that. Guys who could draw. People who like color. Gauguin. Living guys, maybe Jim Dine. Wolf Kahn. A couple of personal friends. Why?"
"I do some... art." He said it reluctantly, almost as a confession.
"No, no." He slowed for a moment, letting a woman in an old canary yellow Ford Pinto squeeze in front of us. Traffic in Memphis is usually tangled, especially when you get close to the water. The heat didn't help, and the people who weren't sealed in air-conditioned cars were driving with an air of desperation. "I make things. Out of wood and glass and rocks and clay, from down along the river."
"Shit," he said in disgust.
"I'd like to see it."
He looked over at me for a moment. "Maybe."
We lapsed back into silence. Ten minutes later we were on a narrow two-lane highway lined with recapped tire joints and motels with signs that said TRUCKERS WELCOME. Memphis was disappearing in the rearview mirror.
"Where're we going?" I asked.
"Downstream," he said. We were running along the river in the gathering evening twilight. "It'll take a while. Town of Longstreet."
"What's in Longstreet?"
He didn't answer. Instead, he braked and turned into a roadside convenience store. When we'd stopped, he said, "I want to get Cokes and ice. I've got a cooler in the trunk."
"Get a six-pack of beer, too," I said. I took a five-dollar bill out of my pocket, passed it to him, and asked again, "What's in Longstreet?"
"A problem. Maybe some trouble. A lot of hate."
"A garden spot," I said.
"It's in the fuckin' Delta," he said, as if that explained everything. "There could be some money in it."
"That sounds interesting," I said.
"Yeah. Bobby thought it might."
While he was in the store, I considered the possibility that Bobby had dipped into my IRS files. I hadn't decided one way or the other when John returned. He stashed the cooler on the backseat, and we each popped a can of Coke. It was a small piece of camaraderie and seemed to loosen him up. He started answering questions.
"Where's Bobby?" I asked, as John barely beat a tractor-trailer onto the highway. "In Longstreet?"
"I don't know. I never met him," John said, sounding a little puzzled. "I thought you'd know."
"No. I've never met him face-to-face."
"Huh. I wonder if anybody's ever met him face-to-face."
"Somebody must have. He's got to eat... You're a computer jock?"
"No. I work for a legal services company, investigations. The company's got a computer system, with electronic mail. One day I got a piece of mail from Bobby. About a case I was working on he'd read about it in the papers, developed some information from data bases. He gave me a number to call on the computer gizmo-"
"Yeah. I called, and we've been going back and forth ever since. Five years. I even got my own computer so I could talk to him... privately. He can get anything. Crime reports, credit records, secret research you'd never see. I don't know where he gets it, but it's always right."
"Data bases," I said. "He's a genius with them. But that still doesn't tell me about Longstreet."
There'd been a kid named Darrell Clark, John said, fourteen and computer smart. A friend of Bobby's. Knew his math. Knew his logic. At least, that's what Bobby said. Bobby sent him a book called A Primer for the C Language along with a pirated copy of a C compiler. Darrell came back three days later with a sophisticated Mac II program. Sent him Assembly Language for the Mac II. Talked to him in a month and got back an assembler program of breathtaking complexity.
"The kid was smarter than Bobby. That's what Bobby says."
"You keep saying was," I said. "What happened to him?"
"Longstreet cops killed him." John tipped his head for a mouthful of Coke. "They say Darrell came at one of them with a knife and the other one had to shoot. Everybody knows it's bullshit. What really happened was, they thought Darrell was a purse snatcher and they shot him by mistake. In the back. With a machine gun."
"Jesus. A mistake?"
"They had this new toy, this machine gun. The cop had to try it out. Blew the kid all over the railroad tracks."
"So what happened to the cop?"
"Nothing. That's why we're going down there," John said. He glanced over at me. "Darrell Clark won't get justice. His family won't. The town is sewn up tight by an old-time political machine. The cops are near the center of it, and they won't let their man get taken down."
We lapsed into silence again. He seemed to be waiting for a comment, but I had none to offer. The problem with dead people is simple enough. They're dead. There's no point in getting revenge for a dead man because the dead man won't know and can't care.
John was waiting, though, so I eventually gave him a question. "What do you want me to do?"
He was driving easily, one-handed. "We needed somebody who knows about politics, about information, and about security. Bobby says you've done a lot of computer work for politicians, that you're good at planning, and you know about security."
"So you want me to figure out how to get these cops? Why don't you find an NAACP lawyer, get the kid exhumed, and file a federal suit?"
"Because we don't want the cops," John said. "Fuck the cops."
"What do you want?"
"We want the machine. In fact, we want the town," he said, his voice gone low and tight. "That's what we want you to do, Kidd. We want you to take down the whole fuckin' town."
We were driving down the river in the long twilight of the summer solstice, a pale witches' moon hung in front of us. Every few minutes we'd go through a raft of river air, cool, damp, smelling of mud and dead carp and decaying vegetation. I watched the moon ghosting through the evening clouds as John laid it out, simply and clearly. They wanted me to destroy the town's political machine, any way I could do it, and leave it in the hands of their friends. Then I asked him another hard question, and he answered that one, too.
When he stopped talking, I cranked back the car seat and closed my eyes, half in contemplation, half in dream.
A long time ago I'd been an idealist of sorts. Somewhere along the line Vietnam is the conventional answer, but I'm not even sure that's right anymore the idealism scraped off. After I'd asked him the first hard question, "What do you want me to do?," I'd asked the second: "Why should I do it?" Why should I take any risks for a dead kid I never knew?
"Revenge," John said. He hadn't hesitated. He and Bobby had seen the questions coming and had rehearsed the answers. "Bobby said he was one of you computer freaks."
"That's not enough," I said. "Good people die all the time."
"Friendship," said John, checking the second item on a mental list. "Bobby's your friend, and he needs your help. He'll do something whether you're there or not. He really doesn't know how. He could fuck himself up."
I shook my head. "I'm sorry. I can't put my ass on the line for something as thin as that. Bobby's a friend, but only on the wires. If he wanted me to do some computer code, illegal code, that'd be one thing..."
"Money," John interrupted. "Lots of it. The town is papered with corruption cash. You could probably figure out a way to grab some of it. And since nobody can talk about where they got it... there'd be no comebacks."
"Money," I said, looking out the window, maybe a little bitter. "Everybody's reason."
"To tell you the truth, it bothers me to think you'd do it just for money," he said. "Mercenaries tend to be... unreliable." He sounded as if he knew.
"I wouldn't do it just to have money, but in this country, today, money is freedom. Anybody who tells you different is bullshitting you," I said, looking over at him. "Freedom's worth chasing."
He nodded. "So you'll do it?"
"Lots of money?"
"Could be," he said.
"I'll talk about it," I said.
The uneasy half dream was shattered when we bounced across a set of railroad tracks. I opened my eyes on a dark town of unpainted shacks, huddled in a grove of dense, overbearing pin oaks. Here and there the ghostly moonlight broke through the canopy of leaves, etching web forms on the shacks, like the work of an enormous spider. We were through the place in less than a minute. If I hadn't later gone through it in daylight REZIN, POP. 240 I might have remembered the town as a hallucination, a dreamed remembrance of an Edgar Allan Poe story.
"Nightmare place, probably red-eyed incestuous children with crosses carved on their foreheads, creeping through the cotton with choppin' knives," John said, echoing my thoughts. He'd seen me come awake.
"Yeah." I looked back at the town, a dark hole with a ribbon of moonlighted concrete running into it. Then we were around a curve, and it was gone, just another piece of the Delta. I turned to the front and ran my tongue over my teeth. Moss had sprouted during the nap. When I couldn't dislodge it with my tongue, I leaned over the seat for a beer. I'd kill it with alcohol.
"You want one?" I asked.
"Yeah. Another Coke."
I popped the top off a Coke and a beer, handed him the Coke, and said, "So tell me about Longstreet."
Twenty thousand people lived in the town, he said. Nine thousand were white; eleven thousand were black. The city council districts had been drawn to put three whites and one black on the council.
"They fixed the districts so there'd be five thousand people in each one one man, one vote, just like it's laid down by the law," John said. "One district covers the heart of the black side of town, five thousand people. Hardly a white among them. That district will always elect a black councilman. But when you take out those five thousand black votes, in one bloc, the whites are a majority in all the rest of the districts. There's about two thousand whites in each, and about fifteen hundred blacks."
"That's common enough," I said.
"It's still a son of a bitch," John said.
"These friends in Longstreet... are they reliable?"
"I don't know," John said carefully. "I've got solid recommendations, but I've never met them myself. Our main contact is a woman, name of Marvel. She's a Marxist, I hear. That means she's probably got her own agenda."
"I thought Marxism was out of style," I said.
John threw back his head and roared. "In the fuckin' Delta? Listen, even when Marxism was in style, you could get lynched for laughing at Groucho and Zeppo, much less believing in Karl."
We rolled into Longstreet after midnight, past a Holiday Inn, a Taco Bell, and a Dairy Queen, a row of white grain elevators, a few dark stores, and a lot of empty streets.
The Mississippi had been a presence all through the trip. We could sense it and sometimes smell it, but with the levee between the highway and the water, we couldn't see it. Longstreet, though, was built on higher ground. As we came to the center of town, to the first traffic light, we climbed above the levee, and the river opened out below. A ramshackle marina, with a few bare white bulbs flickering on an overhead grid, sat at the bottom of the river-bank. A couple of runabouts, a dozen olive drab jon boats, and an aging houseboat swung off the T-shaped pier.
"You know where we're going?" I asked.
"I've got directions," he said, turning at the light. We crossed the business district, passed a well-lit town square with an equestrian statue at its center, and bumped across another set of railroad tracks. On the other side was a convenience store that looked like a collision between a chicken coop and a billboard. A hand-painted sign on the side of the store, red block letters on white, said E-Z WAY. Three tall light poles, the kind used to illuminate tennis courts and Little League baseball fields, lit up the parking lot. Every bug between Helena and Greenville swarmed around them.
"That's where the kid bought the ice cream before he got shot," John said. Through the open doors we could see a fat white man sitting on a dinette chair. He was mopping his face with a rag. John took a left around the E-Z Way and drove another six blocks on a potholed road past a clapboard Baptist church. Then he slowed and peered out the windshield toward the passenger side.
"It's a green house with a porch and some potted flowers hanging from the eaves," he said, half to himself. We rolled another hundred feet down the street. "There it is."
The house was a concrete-block rambler with an overhanging roof, a small porch, and a picture window. Our headlights picked out a couple of pink metal lawn chairs crouched on the porch. John eased the car into a graveled parking strip. "You wait here. I'll go up and ask," he said.
He climbed out of the car, stretched, walked up to the porch, and knocked. The door opened immediately. John said a few words, nodded, and walked back to the car. I'd cracked the window. "This is it," he said. I climbed out into air that felt as if you could grab a piece, wring it out, and get water. As we walked to the door, John said quietly, "Wait'll you see her."
Marvel Atkins was Hollywood-beautiful, beautiful like you don't see walking about in the streets. Her black eyes were tilted and large as the moon, her face a perfect oval. She was five-five or five-six and moved like a dancer. She was wearing a thin olive-colored blouse of crumply cotton with epaulets, the kind fashion people think the Israeli Army might wear. She stepped back when she saw me, startled, and turned to John.
"Who is he?"
"Bobby's friend," John said. She kept backing up, looking from John to me and back to John.
"He's white," she said.
"You Commies really got it taped," John said wryly.
"I'm a social democrat," Marvel said, momentarily distracted.
"That's what I said," John answered, showing some teeth.
"Maybe we don't need you," she said. She was in her early thirties and wore round gold-rimmed glasses like John's. You hardly saw the glasses because of the eyes.
"You've been sitting here for a month. There's been nothing but talk and whining and bullshit and more bullshit," John said. "If you think it'll ever be more than that, we'll get back in the car and let you handle it. But I think you need us. You need something..."
Their eyes locked as she considered him, and John watched her with the gravity of a Jesuit. After a few seconds of the deadlock a man eased out of a back room into the living room behind Marvel. He was short, thick, and looked as if he could break bricks with his face. He stepped close behind her and muttered something. She nodded.
"We'll talk," she said. "Then we'll see."
We talked until four in the morning. John stated the proposition as baldly as he'd given it to me: We'd wreck the machine and the town administration. If possible, we'd leave it permanently in the hands of Marvel and her friends.
"A pipe dream," Marvel said flatly.
"That's why Kidd is here. He knows about politics, and he knows about wrecking things. He'll do us a plan," John said.
I tried to look modest.
"I'll believe it when I see it." She deliberately looked me up and down again, not impressed, and John grinned. The thick man, whose name was Harold, watched me impassively.
"He's a technician," John said, letting the grin die. "If you called somebody to fix your telephone, you wouldn't care if the repairman was white as long as he fixed your phone."
"I'd rather he be black, even to fix the phone," Marvel said.
John said, "Right on, sister," and gave her a sarcastic black power salute.
Marvel waved him off. "OK." Then she looked at me and asked, "Why don't you say something?"
"'Cause you're pissing me off." It came with an edge, and Marvel glanced away, embarrassed. She'd been rude to a guest, a cardinal sin anywhere in the South.
"I try to be civil," she said. "But I can't help wondering what outsiders can do..."
"The town is corrupt," I said. "John says it's in the hands of a voting minority. If that's right, there may be some way to take it."
"I don't know yet. I have to know about the place to figure that out. I have to know about the people who run it. What they're up to."
"We can tell you that, all right," Marvel said. She was looking straight at me with those incredible liquid eyes, and I thought of the Empress card in the tarot. "Anything you want to know. The question is, If you wreck the machine, who runs things afterward?"
I shrugged. "Not me."
"I've got a job and an... organization... in Memphis," John said. "I don't have any interest in moving in."
She pursed her lips. "I heard about your organization. Bunch of old lame-ass ex-Panthers, is what I hear."
"Maybe our asses are lame, but they're not getting kicked by a bunch of Delta peckerwoods," John snarled. I was thinking uh-oh. They were knocking sparks off each other, in the angry, confrontational way that tends to lead directly to the bedroom. Harold felt it, too, and was looking back and forth between them.
"How about this?" Marvel suggested, turning to me. "You figure something out. A plan. If we don't like it, we can get out anytime."
John looked at me, and I shook my head. "We can't have key people bail out at a critical moment. That could kill us."
"How do we handle it?" he asked.
"We lay out a proposal," I said, turning to Marvel. "If you like it, you're in. If you don't, we go home. But you tell us up front."
She thought about it for a moment, then said, "I've got to talk with Harold." She led the thick man into a back room and shut the door.
"The problem with Commies is double crosses are built into their system," John said when the door had closed behind them. He was leaning back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. "It's all hobby politics. They never have to deal with anything real. They just fuck with each other. We got to think about that."
"Maybe you should hold down the Commie bullshit," I said. "At least until we decide something. And stop talking to her tits, for Christ's sake."
"Yeah, you were."
Marvel and her friend spent ten minutes in the back. When they came out, she plopped down on a couch, and the thick man moved behind her. They both looked us over. "We're in for now," she said. "What do you want to know?"
I opened the portable and said, "Notes."
"It's still not easy for black folks to get decent city jobs," Marvel said, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees. I'd asked where she got her inside information on the machine. "There are a few black cops and clerks, but most of the blacks who work for the city have menial jobs. Nobody pays any attention to them; it's a hangover from segregation, when a nigger was less than nothing. You wouldn't hide anything from a nigger cleaning lady any more than you'd hide it from her mop. So there are still a lot of invisible people around cleaning ladies, janitors, garbagemen. Some of them are pretty smart. And we talk. There's not much that gets past us."
There were four men and a woman on the Longstreet City Council. The woman, Chenille Dessusdelit, was mayor and was also the city's chief administrative officer. She had an insatiable hunger for money, Marvel said. And she was intensely superstitious.
"Her mama and her husband died about six weeks apart, and that's when she really got strange," Harold said. "She was always superstitious, but after that it was stars and crystals and talking to the dead. There used to be a Gypsy fortune-teller in town, an astrologer. Chenille'd see her every week. Then the Gypsy died, too. Come to think of it, a lot of people die around Chenille..."
"What kind of name is that? Chenille whatever it is?" I asked.
"Deh-soos-da-leet," Marvel said, and she spelled it. "It's old French. The French go way back here in the Delta, back even before the English."
Of the other four council members, one was black: the Reverend Luther Dodge. Besides presiding over a Baptist church, he ran a city recreation center on the black side of town. He had demanded a special investigation of Darrell Clark's killing but agreed that it should be done by local officers, one black, one white.
"That guaranteed that the cop'd get off," Marvel said. "The local boys wouldn't cut on one of their own." When the final report came out, whitewashing the shooter, Dodge had acquiesced to it.
"If we take down the town, is Dodge a potential front man for whatever's left?" I asked, taking it down on the portable.
"Not for me," Marvel said. "He's as bad as any of them. He's in on the city council deals, and he clips the receipts at the recreation center. We figure he takes a hundred dollars out of the swimming pool receipts on a hot summer day. And we have a lot of hot summer days."
"He has an eye for the girls," Harold said suddenly. It was something of a non sequitur, but he carefully didn't look at Marvel.
"What Harold's saying is, Dodge has been trying to get into my pants since I was twelve," Marvel said.
"So he's human, big deal," John said, not quite under his breath.
Marvel suppressed a grin and started to say something, but I broke in: "We take him, too?"
"Yeah. Take him."
The other three city councilmen were white.
Arnie St. Thomas, Marvel said, was a loan shark and he used the city's money in his operation. Another, Carl Rebeck, was an insurance agent. He didn't do much, just voted the way he was told, and collected a piece of pie. "He's not smart. I doubt that he even knows that what he's doing is illegal. To him, it's just business. The councilman does favors for people, and they pay him for it."
"Who's the fifth guy?" I asked, typing.
"Lucius Bell. He's a cutie pie," Marvel said with a genuine smile. "He's a farmer. He's honest, I think, 'cept for one thing."
"Our bridge fell down a few years back. Got hit by a runaway barge. To make a long story short, it never got replaced. Bell's a farmer, mostly on the other side of the river. He came over here and got himself elected to the council for no other reason than to get the bridge back. Everybody knows it; hell, everybody agrees with him."
"But he's not a big mover with the machine?"
"No. That's the mayor."
The mayor, with the council's advice, oversaw nine city departments. Every one of them was corrupt. Even animal control.
"The dogcatcher is a separate department?" John raised an eyebrow.
"Gotta lot of mean dogs around here," Harold drawled. He said dawgs, like a country boy.
"Duane Hill he's animal control is the machine's muscle," Marvel said simply.
"Like we had some young lawyers go through here, from the rural legal services. They looked like they might set up shop. Duane got a bunch of his lowlife friends to hassle them. Every time those boys went out, somebody wanted to fight. The cops were always saying they couldn't do anything, it was just some boys gettin' drunk. That was bullshit. Duane himself beat up one of them. With a pool cue. Hurt him so bad the boy had to go to Memphis to get his teeth fixed. Eventually they all went away, and they never came back."
"Duane's the meanest man on the Mississippi River, I believe," Harold said, with what sounded almost like a note of rueful pride, "He gets a piece of the city council's take, of course, but he also sells dog blood on the side. You know, to veterinary hospitals. He has customers all over the mid-South. The way he gets the blood, he sticks a big needle into the dog's heart and lets it pump out. The more it hurts the dog, the better it is, because the heart beats harder. They say some nights, down at that end of town, you can hear dogs howling for hours."
"Do you have a contact out there?" I asked Marvel.
"I've got somebody I can work on," she said.
"Do it... Now, you mentioned the city attorney a while ago. How does he fit in?"
"He's the fixer... and maybe, with Chenille, the brains behind everything," Marvel said. "He drinks too much, and he's a bad man. He doesn't like black people, or anybody else, much. He's got two kids they're both gone now, up North working and the word is, he doesn't even like them. I'd say he's right at the heart of the action..."
"Hold that thought," I said. "Who's the center of the machine? That's what we need."
Harold and Marvel looked at each other, and Marvel pursed her lips, then turned back to me. "I'd say the center of the machine is Dessusdelit, the mayor; Archie Ballem, the city attorney; Arnie St. Thomas, the councilman; and Duane Hill, the dogcatcher. Dodge and Rebeck have their own constituencies, but they're mostly along for the ride. They don't make any decisions. And there are a lot of smaller fish. The city clerk helps Dessusdelit run things, and then there are the department heads, individual cops, and so on."
"Does the machine run everything in town? Is there anybody high up we can talk to?"
Marvel was already shaking her head. "Not everybody is on the take, but everybody important is getting something, somewhere. You couldn't make a move here without the machine finding out."
"So it's Dessusdelit and Ballem and St. Thomas and Hill?"
"Power or money? Are they getting rich?"
"Sure," Harold said. "They try not to let it show too often, but every once in a while you see it. With Chenille and Ballem, anyway; Hill, you don't see it so much. But I'd bet every one of them is a multimillionaire, the money they've taken out of this town."
I made a note. I made several notes.
The dog blood sales were only the most bizarre item on a laundry list of corrupt deals and straight-out rip-offs. Crooked public works employees sold tires, gasoline, car parts, even grass seed and fertilizer. The council routinely got kickbacks on city purchases. There was a regular business in false receipts, showing larger-than-actual city purchases of expendables.
The city got suspiciously low rates of interest from the banks where they kept city cash; at the same time it paid suspiciously high interest rates on general obligation bonds issued to build a new sewer system.
As she listed the payoffs, kickbacks, fraud, and outright thefts, Marvel paced the living room, excited. Finally she stopped, turned into the kitchen, and we could hear her banging through the cupboards. A minute later she stuck her head into the living room. "Who wants ice cream?" she asked.
Five minutes later Harold sat behind a bowl of butter brickie ice cream and detailed how you could buy the municipal judge, how the cops took payoffs from the local bars, and how the chief wrote bid specs on new police cars to favor a particular car dealer. The cops stole from the parking meters, took bribes from drunk drivers, and accepted kickbacks from bail bondsmen for steering clients after arrests.
"The fire department?" I prompted.
"Now that's different," said Harold. "They're separate from everything else, not on the take anywhere. Except, like, they handle the dope traffic in town."
"Yeah. Ain't that weird? All the cocaine that comes through Longstreet, all the good stuff, comes through fire. They split up the profit right there in the station house."
"Jesus Christ," said John. "I didn't even know they had that shit out here."
"I don't know how it got started," Harold said, "but that's what they do. They're good firemen, though."
"Yeah," said Marvel. "For one thing, they're awake all the time."
"Tell me one really big thing. Something that's going on right now," I said.
Marvel had picked up a pencil, a yellow one, and pressed the eraser against her lips. John was staring at her fixedly, as if he were about to jump on her, and Harold kept glancing at John.
"The sewers," Harold prompted after a moment.
"Yeah..." Marvel rubbed her forehead, thinking, trying to get a grip on a complicated subject. "Two years ago the federal government took the city to court for polluting the river. Sometimes our sewage was a little too raw. So we had to get new sewers and a new sewage plant.
"The city got some grants and passed special obligation bonds, got bids, and hired a New Orleans contractor. The feds were watching it, so the money was all accounted for. Just by accident, we found out that the contractor was buying his sewer pipe from a pipe broker registered in Delaware. Because of the way Delaware registers its corporations, we couldn't find out who really owned the pipe broker. We did find out that the broker was buying the pipe from a regular supplier in Louisville, and the supplier shipped the pipe down here by rail. The broker doesn't seem to do anything except jack up the price between here and Louisville."
"Ten percent. On a contract worth several million bucks. For doing nothing."
"The council?" I asked.
"Sure. We never would have found out, except the cleaning lady at the city attorney's office saw a letter to the contractor from the pipe broker. It was signed by Archie Ballem, the city attorney. We don't know the details, but we know the council is in there; the council's the pipe broker. The council must be taking down a hundred thousand a year, just on the pipe."
I made a note to call Bobby about Delaware and scratched my head.
"What?" asked Marvel.
"These guys are crooks, but they're also running a pretty complicated business. There're dozens of people on the payroll. So they must keep books. They must track what's going where and who gets how much."
"I don't know," Marvel said doubtfully, looking at Harold. He shook his head. "We never considered that possibility."
"Consider it now. Have your people check around."
"OK." We all looked at one another for a moment; then Marvel asked, "Can you do it? Dump them?"
"I don't know," I said after a moment. "We need something spectacular, a crime. A big one. This institutional corruption... even if we could get somebody to listen to us, somebody who could do something about it, we'd probably get a slow, long-term, low-priority investigation. It might go on for months or even years..."
"We had one, a few years ago, before Dessusdelit was mayor. It petered out," Harold said.
"That's what I'm talking about," I said. "Politics tangles up everything. We need a Watergate. We need a smoking gun, something dramatic. Something that'll piss people off, that can't be ignored. Once we get that, we can throw all the other stuff in. Then it'll count. But first we need the smoking gun."
Marvel nodded. "Harold and I have been thinking ever since Bobby called. You don't have to dump the police, or the fire, or public works, or the dogcatcher. You don't have to get rid of all the bad people. Just get us the council. Once we're in, we'll take care of the rest."
We talked for a while longer, but we'd covered the heart of it. I shut down the portable and leaned back in the easy chair.
"It'll take a while to figure this out," I said.
"How long?" asked Marvel.
"A month. I'll need more information. I have to research state law, for one thing. How do you remove a city council? What are the technicalities? What contacts do we have at the state level, who might help? Do we have any influence with the feds? The IRS? I'll be calling you. For anything else any documents you find, that sort of thing get them to John. He can be the liaison."
"I can do that." John nodded.
"Can you get to a fax?" I asked.
"Sure. At the legal services..."
"OK. I've got a fax board on one of my PCs. You can pick stuff up from Marvel and ship it to me or to Bobby, depending on what we need..."
"I do have something else to say," Marvel interrupted. We all looked at her. "Whatever you do... I mean, I know we're dealing with an extreme situation, but there has to be an underlying ethical base to our action. OK? The ends won't justify the means."
We all continued to look at her, and finally John slipped a hand inside his shirt and scratched his chest. "Uh, sure," he said.
"Stars are fading," I said as we pulled away from Marvel's house. "It's getting light. You want me to drive?"
"You see that woman?" John asked, ignoring the offer.
"She's something else," John said, and I thought again of the Empress, serving butter brickie ice cream.
"She knows where the bodies are buried," I agreed.
"Ethics." John laughed. "Kiss my ass."
A cop car was parked at the E-Z Way. Two cops were standing over a guy in a T-shirt, who was talking up at them from the blacktop. John pulled in, down at the end, away from the action.
"I'll get it," I said. We needed caffeine for the drive back to Memphis, and the E-Z Way would be the last chance. I hopped out of the car and walked to the door. The cops were fifteen feet farther on, big guys in dark blue uniforms. One of them was dangling a nasty leather-wrapped sap on a key chain. The guy on the ground had brilliant white teeth. He was trying to smile, to placate them, and there was blood on his teeth. He was young, in his late teens or early twenties, with dirty blond hair and a beat-up face. I went inside, got the Coke, and paid the fat counterman. "What happened out there?"
"Danny Oakes, running his mouth again. Boy'll never learn," the fat man said.
"Sounds like a bad town to run your mouth in," I said. I meant it as a wisecrack, but he took it seriously.
"It surely is," he said, nodding solemnly.
At the door I put a quarter in an honor box and took a copy of the Longstreet daily. The headline said something about a hearing on a new bridge for the city. Outside, the cops were putting the blond in the backseat of the squad car.
"What'd he do?" John asked. The cop car's light bar was still bouncing red flashes off the E-Z Way's windows.
"Ran his mouth," I said. John nodded. The Delta.
We rolled along for a while, quietly. I was thinking about the blond kid and white teeth slick with blood and spit when John blurted, "You think she's fuckin' Harold?"
"I don't think so," I said when I caught up. "They didn't... vibrate that way. Maybe a long time ago."
"That's what I think," he said.
"This won't be a problem, will it?" I asked.
John said, "I fear I'm in love." He said it so formally that I didn't laugh.
"Should I... chuckle?" I asked.
"I don't think so," he said, and we drove out of town toward Memphis.