[I decided that I would publish one short chapter each day as a regular post, and then add each of them here as they are published so that somebody coming in late can read them in order, too. Please let me know if anybody is reading them so that I will be encouraged to keep posting them. If not, I don’t want to bother…]
Chapter One: Killing in the woods
A drop of sweat rolled down my nose. I wiped it away, as Craig yelled, “Kill the bastard!” I immediately rolled from behind the tree, came to a kneeling position, and fired six times at the ugly-looking man with the gun pointed directly at me. I dove back behind the tree and reloaded my Taurus .357 magnum revolver. Then Butch started giggling. “You hit him in the nuts.” Butch was looking through his spotting glasses.
I stood up from behind the tree and joined him and Craig as we walked towards my target, roughly fifty feet away. It was a scorching hot Saturday in August in central Virginia. But the mosquitoes were not taking the day off. I slapped what seemed the umpteenth bloodsuckers off my neck, and wiped away smeared blood.
We reached my target, a crudely drawn life-sized silhouette of a man holding a gun on what used to be a large cardboard box. I took off my ear protectors and noticed that the forest was silent except for the incessant hum of the cicadas. Butch was already marking each bullet hole where I had hit my target. He marked each hole with an “X” so we could keep track of which holes were old and which were new when the next guy shoots. Sure enough, I had hit him squarely in the nuts. Or where they would have been on a real bad guy.
Butch totaled the points that I had earned with my six out of six hits, then got my time from Craig, who had been timing my performance with a stop-watch. Butch carefully noted the results in his spiral notebook. We kept track. The vital areas were crudely drawn in by hand with a Sharpie. One hundred points for a heart or brain shot. Fifty for any other head or central upper torso. Twenty-five for the lower torso and for miscellaneous other spots that we non-anatomically inclined red-necks thought might be good areas to hit a bad guy with a slug. Ten points for flesh wounds. Negative One Hundred Fifty for misses. I scored two hundred sixty points. “Not bad for a six-shooter, John. Here let me show you how it is done with a real gun,” Butch said as he handed me the pen and notebook.
Butch took his shooting way more seriously than I did. He had a Colt .45 Limited something or other Edition. Semi-automatic, all the bells and whistles, two toned metal and one of the metals appeared to be gold. I don’t know if it was, but it sure looked that way. All I cared about though was how accurate it was and how smooth it felt when I shot it. I couldn’t afford it in a million years. Or at least I wasn’t that good at convincing myself that I needed one just like it. Any way, even without a fancy gun I considered myself to be a great shot.
We all got back to the tree. Butch checked his gear in preparation for “hiding” behind the tree, waiting for Craig’s signal. I walked off a little ways to take a piss. I’m not modest; I just didn’t want to cause any of us to accidentally walk through it later. I was standing off a ways pissing when a deputy sheriff walked into sight behind Butch and Craig. They both had their ear protectors on and did not hear him coming. I had mine dangling on my neck, and turned my head slightly at the sound of the leaves rustling. Craig yelled “Kill the bastard!” again, our signal that he was about to hit the stopwatch. Butch popped out from behind the tree and began firing. Neither of them heard the deputy’s startled “Halt or I’ll shoot!”
Then the deputy shot Butch. Several times.
Butch collapsed and rolled on the ground, gurgling. The deputy finally found his voice and yelled “FREEEEZE!” This time Craig heard him, and he threw up his hands. I cut off my urine midstream and slowly sunk into the ferns and under-growth, hoping the deputy hadn’t seen me. I was off to the deputy’s left and Craig was off to his right. The deputy kept his eyes glued to Butch, then Craig, then back, with his pistol pointed in their direction; all the while he called on his radio for back-up. He never saw me.
Somehow, Butch summoned the strength to roll over one more time and get off a couple of quick shots in the deputy’s direction. As the deputy put what seemed an un-Godly number of more bullets into Butch, Craig yanked out his pistol, aimed and fired one shot, directly into the face of the deputy. Incredibly, the deputy wasn’t killed. I saw blood and what looked half of his lower jaw blown away as he stumbled back a couple of feet into the brush and out of sight. Craig and I rushed to Butch, but it was too late.
If you’ve never seen what several bullets do to a grown man, it’s nothing like the movies. What looked like gallons of fake blood had been apparently dumped on the leaves and grass around Butch. He had bled to death in seconds from what seemed like a dozen hits. Yeah, he was still twitching, and his heart was apparently still beating, judging by the blood still oozing out of him, but his eyes already were staring up into the trees, lifeless. Then I puked.
Craig kept his wits about him. He reached down and felt Butch’s carotid artery and found no pulse. “He must have thought Butch was jumping a real person.” Craig and Butch were best friends. I knew that Butch’s death was a shock to Craig, and that he would cry about it later. But Craig calmly assessed the situation. “They are going to think I murdered that deputy.”
It never would have occurred to me that the truth would not come out and settle the matter. Craig had been a Christian all his life; he attended a church religiously where his brother was the preacher. Any barely competent investigation would uncover the truth. But Craig said “I’ve got to go find him. Maybe if I can keep him alive until help arrives, he can verify our story.”
I crumpled in a heap—barely out of range of Butch’s pooling blood—and cried. Then I heard sirens. Sounded like half a dozen. Through the trees their wails were muffled. I laid there like a baby, afraid to move. I knew that deputy was dead or dying. I knew that Craig would find him, and then direct the ambulances to him. And I knew that deputy would not make it. I knew that the cops and rescue workers would eventually come for Butch. I only hoped that by the time help arrived I would not still be sobbing uncontrollably.
In what seemed like no time I heard yelling. It did not sound too far away, but I couldn’t make it out what was being said. I lifted my head from the grass and wiped my eyes. I definitely heard Craig yell something. Then it sounded like the deputy yelled something! I couldn’t believe that he was still alive, let alone able to yell. Then all hell broke loose.
Bap bap bap bap in quick succession! The sound of a semi-auto pistol. Boom… boom…boom! That sounded like Craig’s .357 Magnum. Bap bap BOOM bap bap BOOM BOOM BOOM! I heard bullets zinging through the trees overhead. I ducked as low to the ground as possible. I couldn’t tell how many shots, or how many different shooters there were, until finally, silence. I could hear the sounds of people running through the forest, leaves rustling and twigs snapping.
For a second, I had no clue what had just happened. Then it hit me. They had been shooting at Craig. Craig probably saw help coming and yelled to get their attention, but then the deputy had yelled to warn them, thinking Craig was a bad guy. Holy shit!
Then I had an even worse thought. They might be coming for me next.
Chapter Two: Running from the law
It sounded as though every siren in the entire Commonwealth was headed towards our little neck of the woods. “Janet’s Property”, where we had come to practice our shooting, is tucked away in the middle of nowhere in King William County. Janet, Craig’s wife, had inherited a large tract of land jointly with a dozen or so other heirs. It was forest land surrounded only by a couple of fields used for farming. It was at the end of an almost five-mile dirt road traveled only by farmers, hunters and us. But not that day. I heard sirens everywhere.
I began crawling, half-crawling and squirming away from the direction of the last gun shots. I was not going to be as incautious as Craig had been. I snapped the protector on my holster to keep my pistol from falling out. I had no plans to use it, but somehow it made me feel better having it.
I crawled a bit, listened a bit. Then crawled some more. Sweat was pouring down into my eyes. A couple of sweat flies found me and attacked me relentlessly. I heard a lot of commotion when the sirens were not blaring. You could hear each vehicle approaching from miles away, growing louder and louder, until suddenly it was the only thing you could hear. Then somebody would turn the damn thing off, and you could hear yourself think. Until the next one came roaring into range seconds later. I was almost one hundred yards away from Butch’s corpse, and within ten feet of a little ravine, when I saw him.
A state trooper was creeping through the forest. Any Virginia boy can spot a state trooper by their distinctive blue/grey uniform and their hats. And we know that they can shoot. I froze, silently praying that he didn’t see me. He was closer to me than Butch’s body, but angling towards me. I guessed he was trying to put a perimeter around the area where the deputy had been shot, because he kept looking inward in that general direction. Put some blaze orange and a rifle on him and he would look just like a deer hunter. He stepped slowly, to avoid cracking fallen branches, and kept his eyes peeled in all directions.
Then our eyes met. I thought I was hidden behind small bushes and tall grass, in my camouflaged shirt and drab green army surplus shorts. Evidently not. Bap Bap Bap! Slugs hit all around me. I rolled behind a tree and hid. Bap bap bap! I felt the tree shudder. I yelled, “Stop! I am unarmed! I didn’t do anything!” Silence for a moment. I peeked one eye out around the tree. Bap bap bap!
No I wasn’t “counting his shots” in order to know when he had to reload. I was pissing my pants, afraid for my life. But I had seen enough. I crouched and ran towards the ravine, trying to keep the tree between me and him, while he was trying to kill me. Bap. I heard the slug hit the dirt and whiz off into the distance after apparently ricocheted of a rock. Bap!
I dove into the ravine, and ran what appeared to be the best way to get deeper into the woods and away from the trooper and all the other sirens. I stopped a short way away from where I had entered it and drew my weapon. I listened, hoping I would hear the trooper running away. But he was running towards the ravine. I was hidden in the ravine so that he couldn’t see me. I took my pistol in both arms and popped up from behind the bank and in my best cop voice yelled “FREEZE!” Only my head and shoulders and arm were above the banks of the ravine. The trooper was out in the open.
But he didn’t freeze. He whirled and shot. I felt the slug thunk into the ground near my face. I ducked down behind the ravine and tasted bits of the damp earth that had been thrown into my mouth by his near miss. I now feared for my life. He was trying to kill me. So I popped up and fired off a shot at him. Boom! Bap bap bap!
He had a semi-auto with probably sixteen bullets or more, I had a six shot revolver. He had superior training and a bullet proof vest. But I had a ravine that hid my entire body except for the top of my head and my hands. I had hit him in the chest. I knew it wouldn’t kill him, or even cause permanent damage, due to his Kevlar vest. But it made him flinch. He squeezed off more rounds, but they weren’t as close. I aimed for his head and fired a second time, then ducked completely beneath the ravine.
Like a deer in its last death throes, I heard his thrashing on the forest floor. I’d know that sound anywhere. Not the sound of crawling; rather, the spasmodic sounds of a mammal in great pain and near death, beyond caring about being quiet so as not to reveal its position. I shuddered, and then ran away.
I ran and ran and ran. I stayed in the ravine, safe in the knowledge that nobody could see me. But I couldn’t run far. I used to be an athlete, not a long-distance runner but in shape and able to jog. Not anymore. That day I was on the high side of forty years old with the makings of a beer belly and legs that hadn’t jogged in years. My lungs and throat burned and my heart hurt. I stopped to rest.
I heard hollering, but couldn’t make it out. Off in the distance, various voices from different directions. Then it occurred to me that I was in deep shit. I had shot a state trooper. So I took off again, not running, but moving as fast as I could.
I had no clue where I was or where I was going. I stumbled, I jogged, I broke into what passed as a run. I bent at the waist, grabbed my knees, and gasped for air. Then I stumbled off again, deeper into the woods, not knowing where I was or where I was going.
Then I heard the sounds of dogs barking. Several of them. Coming from back in the general direction from which I had come. I fled in panic.
I had never been in the military nor had any type of formal training. But I had been a hunter since I was a kid. And a voracious reader. I fell back on what little training I had. I knew that the only chance to lose the dogs was to find water and travel in it. I knew that one of Janet’s aunts (or some relation) lived next to her property that had a pond on it. A stream leads into the pond, and had formed the pond when a dam was built. The stream was too small to hide me, but I knew it would lead towards the Chickahominy River. I stumbled off in the general direction that I though it should be.
Then I heard a helicopter. I stopped, ready to give up. No way that I could run from a ‘copter. But it did not come near me. I seemed to be staying in the same location for what seemed several minutes. I didn’t wait to find out what it was doing. I kept stumbling and bumbling towards the stream, with the dogs barking in the distance. Maybe they weren’t on my track yet, I hoped.
Then the ‘copter seemed to take off, and quickly flew away until I couldn’t hear it anymore. Maybe it was Pegasus or something like that. They had a helicopter in the western part of the state called Pegasus that airlifted injured persons to the hospital. Maybe something like that had just happened. Maybe Craig was still alive. Maybe my trooper was still alive. But I kept stumbling away.
I noticed that the shadows on the trees were lengthening. The sun was low in the sky. It would be dark in only a couple of hours. The darkness would make it harder for them to find me, but easier for me to stumble upon them by accident. I kept going back and forth in my mind whether to give up the first chance I got, or to fight to the bitter end. Fighting did not sound like such a great option.
I saw a stream, climbed down into it, and stumbled downstream. It was barely worthy of being called a stream. It varied in width but seemed to average five to six feet. It was shallow in most places, with the water only up to my knees. I did not know whether dogs could follow scent over water, but I knew that any humans tracking me without dogs could not follow my path through the water.
At least the stream had eaten away at the soil and provided cover on both sides, so that when I bent over at the waist I could walk without being seen in because the banks on both sides hid me from view. The land itself was pretty level, so unless somebody was up in a tree I was hard to see. And the tinkling sound of the stream made it more difficult to hear me walking. Before getting in the stream, the sound of my feet rustling through the fallen leaves made me acutely aware of how much noise I was making through the bush. The only problem was the noise of the current made it even harder for me to hear anyone else who might be approaching me.
I slowly made my way down stream. I often stopped, stood up slightly to see what I could see in all directions. Also, walking bent over was killing my back. Then I realized that the little stream was taking me generally closer and closer to where I thought was the direction of where all the law enforcement vehicles had come to a stop. I immediately gave up my plan to continue on in that direction and headed off in a ninety degree turn to my right, over dry land.
I heard dogs barking in the distance. No question, they were tracking me. I had not gone more than a quarter-mile when I could see a road up ahead through the trees. I stopped, got down and crawled the last hundred yards or so until I got to the side of the road. It was a paved country road with no markings on it, barely wide enough for two cars. I found the most cover nearby, crawled in it and slowly, slowly began to rise up.
Then I saw some type of law enforcement officer not more than fifty yards off to my right, standing in the middle of the road with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. I ducked down before he could see me. I crawled away from him, as quietly as possible in the opposite direction along the road. When I had put another fifty yards between us, I found more cover, and slowly eased up to see if I could see him. He was still there, looking away from me. I turned to see what was in the opposite direction on the road. I saw somebody else in that direction, more than a football field away. A shotgun slung over his shoulder, too. And further down I saw a squad car with its lights flashing. I was trapped. If I crossed the road they would be on me in short order. I crawled back towards the stream, and once I had a distance from the road, I started running.
I re-entered the stream and stumbled on in the same direction I had gone before. Perhaps because of the stream I did not hear the helicopter over-head until it was almost too late. I saw something, instinctively ducked up beside the bank of the stream and made myself small. It almost flew directly over the top of me. Slowly. This was not Pegasus, this was a police helicopter. They probably brought it in from the nearest city. I couldn’t identify it; I was too busy putting my face in the mud.
In a few seconds it was gone. I started to wash the mud off my face, but then realized that I should have thought of that sooner. I reached down and wiped more on my face, and both my arms. The red “Georgia clay” (as my Yankee father had always called red clay) cooled my skin and would help make it more difficult to see me. Then I heard that the dogs were getting closer. No doubt about it—they were following me, and they were following me along the stream. I stumbled on some more.
After another fifteen minutes I could see the sky open up ahead. I slowed up as much as I dared and tried to walk as crouched down as possible. When I could see that it definitely was the pond up ahead, I got down and crawled. I didn’t know what the water would do to my gun, or whether it would fire when wet, but I had to crawl through the water to keep from being seen.
I came within a few feet of where the stream met the pond and tried to ease up to look around. The pond was only a couple of acres, with lily ponds all around the edges and in some places out in the middle. I knew that the house that Janet’s aunt lived in was up ahead and off to my right, and then just a little further was the road that I had seen earlier. And I knew that the house was located at a corner where the road also ran off to my left, as that is the road that we took to get to Janet’s property. Where we had originally been shooting so much earlier in the day, we were probably not more than five or six hundred yards from that house, as the crow flies. But I had covered three or four miles since then, or so it seemed, stumbling and bumbling without a plan.
I eased up in the air enough to see a tiny corner of the house, poking out from behind trees and bushes. Enough to see squad cars and men in uniform. Several, in many directions. I ducked down immediately and tried to make a plan. I couldn’t keep going straight. Behind me were the dogs. To my right was a road with many law enforcement officials standing with shot guns. And if I went to the left, I would cross the path that the cops would have to take from where we parked to where the killings had been. That would almost guarantee somebody seeing me. And the dogs kept barking. I could hear that they were back to where I veered to my right. They caught my scent and were tracking me back to where I found the road. I figured that they would be on me in perhaps a half hour, if that. So I just lay in the stream, paralyzed with fear.
I must have laid there for fifteen minutes, not knowing what to do. But the coolness of the water, and the rest, reinvigorated me. I was not keen on getting killed. I had little doubt that giving up would get me killed, either immediately, by a hail of bullets, or later, by lethal injection. If I was the only one alive to tell our side, and two or more cops were dead, I had no faith that any jury would believe me. I almost lay there too long. The dogs were closer, so close that I could hear them above the stream. They were probably only a hundred yards—and a couple of minutes—away from running me down.
I do not know what made me think of it, but I climbed out of the stream and ran hunched over, hidden in the trees, looking for just the right place. I scuffed the ground as I walked, making my path more visible. After only fifty feet or so I saw what I was looking for: a large white oak tree with low branches that spread out in all directions, with many other trees surrounding it. I climbed up into the tree to see if it could be done. It was easy. Then I jumped back down and sprinted as fast as I could back the way that I had come, directly back into the stream. My hope was that they would pick up the side trail, and think that I had climbed up into the tree, went from it to some other tree, etc. and then gone down somewhere else and then ran off. It would not fool them forever, but it would buy me some time.
But by the time I was safely back to the stream, the dogs were almost on me. I knew that the sound of the dogs getting closer would cause the law enforcement officials that I had seen earlier to be that much more alert. It reminded me of the times in my youth I had been rabbit hunting with dogs. As the sound of the dogs got closer, I had to pay close attention or the rabbit would run right by me. I had it happen more times than I care to admit. The only proof would be that the dog would run right by me a little later, still on the rabbit’s track. Only this time I was the rabbit.
The dogs sounded almost in sight when I spied a water plant, some kind of water-lily. I broke it off and pulled off the top, and put it to my lips in order to see if I was able to breathe through it. I could, barely. I lay down and crawled towards the pond, carefully clutching it. I grabbed rocks and put them in my pockets as I went. I needed weight to keep me from bobbing up to the surface if my plan was to work. One thing I did have was experience as a scuba diver. I was certified years ago, and had my own equipment, but had not gone in years. But I knew it would take a lot of pounds of rocks to keep me under the surface. When my pockets were stuffed, I grabbed what I hoped would be a heavy enough rock and slowly eased out into the pond, me under water with only the hollow plant above the water.
The water was only about two to three feet deep near shore, and so murky I could barely see five feet. I felt claustrophobic and scared out of my mind. I did not know if the cops could see me from land or the water lilies as I pushed them aside to get past them, or the mud I stirred up from the bottom that was clouding up the water as I crawled. But I had no choice. I tried to move a little to my right, the opposite direction from the little trick that I had pulled. I hoped to put as much distance as possible from that tree, and to get nearer to the road. I probably made it thirty yards and stopped.
The plant that I was using like a snorkel was partially collapsed. Every breath caused me to suck in a little water into my mouth. I had to suck water and air into my mouth, swallow the air without swallowing the water, spit out the water and repeat. I wasn’t getting enough air and I was getting too much water. I kept struggling to breathe, and hoping that I could keep my composure. I wanted to stand up and give up. I felt almost as though I would do anything to avoid the feeling of drowning, and to have one more breath of fresh air.
Then I could not stand it another second. I was reclining in the water, with my butt and legs on the bottom, and bent at the torso enough to keep my entire body immersed. I put my left arm on the bottom to lift me slowly out of the water, and used the other hand to try to lift up a water lily. I lifted the lily slowly from the surface of the water, hoping to hide my nose underneath it in the couple of inch space that I hoped to make. It would not be perfect, but it would give some cover to my face. I could not hear or see anything under the water, so I had no idea what was out there. I just tried to do it slowly so that the ripples from me breaking the surface would not be seen.
I lifted the lily at an angle, keeping it between my face and the house, but giving me zero cover if anyone was on the bank of the pond behind me. I was beyond caring. Once my nose and as little else as I could was above the surface, and I could breathe, it felt better than any breath that I could ever remember. I looked in every direction as best I could in that awkward submerged position, but saw nobody. But I did see that it was getting dark. I eased up a little more to let my ear out of the water. I did not hear any dogs barking. But I heard voices, nearby. I could not make out what they were saying, but they sounded close enough to see me if I stood up. Then I just lay there as quietly as possible.
In just a few more minutes it was almost dark. But then I started seeing what seemed to be lights from many different directions. Lights from vehicles on the road that were slowly driving by. Lights from near the house from flashlights. Occasionally one would flicker onto the pond, usually, it appeared, by accident. None seemed to be specifically searching the pond. I eased my head out of water so that just the top of my head down to my nose was above water. I still held a lily in front of my face. I peeked around it and saw that at least two officers were specifically guarding the pond, but both were on the side near the house. One was directly between me and my shortest route to the road that had been to my right; the other was roughly between me and the shortest route to the road that had been to my left.
The two roads formed two sides of a triangle and the pond was the third side. The house was roughly where the two roads intersected. Looking at it that way, I was much closer to the right side of the pond than to the left. So the guy with the light (and the gun I presumed) was much closer to me, probably less than fifty yards. He was close enough to hear me if I made too much noise, or see me if he shined his light on my face or when I was moving. I eased back towards the direction that I had come, back towards the stream that was roughly in the middle of the stream. I wanted distance between me and him so I could get out of the pond.
Then I heard dogs, and humans, and saw a light coming towards me from the direction of the stream. I got as low in the water as possible, and slowly tried to hide my face behind a clump of arrow-head lilies. Their light was generally directed along the shore, not out into the pond. But occasionally it would bounce around out into the pond, as if by accident. I dared not move. Then a helicopter came roaring out of nowhere. It seemed as if I only heard it coming for a couple of seconds. Suddenly its spotlight lit up the ground in front of the men near me. The light circled methodically. I realized that I no longer had my “snorkel” and that if the spotlight ever shined directly on me, I was toast. But they were obviously searching just on land.
I hoped I was not near enough to the dogs for them to catch my scent. But they were not directly on the shoreline, and I was out in the pond some, so I had about forty-five yards distance from them. The men and dogs continued around the pond, with the helicopter scanning ahead of them. They kept going around the pond from my right to my left, then between the pond and the house, and along the road to my left.
It finally occurred to me what they were doing. They were making a complete circle around the last place that they had seen me, trying to pick up my scent again. I was aware of the old tracker’s trick. Keep track of where you last lost the track, and keep making a larger and larger circle around it. Eventually, the trail of the “prey” would have to be found; otherwise, the quarry must still be in the general location. Once they made a large circle around the perimeter, they would know that I was still inside the circle. Eventually they would search the pond itself.
I knew I had to get out of there. Instead of returning to the stream, I made for the nearest shore as quickly and quietly as possible. Then I headed for the road. I was off into the brush enough to be hidden from those standing along the pond on the opposite side. I snuck towards the road, basically walking along the shore of the pond. Since they had just searched this area I hoped that anybody guarding nearby would have let their guard down.
I made it to the road. I crept out slowly, and looked each way but could see nothing in the blackness. So I slowly crept further out, intending to cross to the other side. Then I saw the glow of a cigarette as somebody took a drag, not fifty feet away. Only then could I see some of the face of whomever it was, evidently standing in the road, probably with a shotgun slung over his shoulder.
But I was committed. I knew he couldn’t see me unless he shined his light my way, but he definitely could hear me if I made a wrong noise. I crossed the road with no trouble, but then took ten minutes sneaking off into the woods. I put each foot down slowly, afraid to rustle leaves or snap twigs. After what seemed like a half hour I finally figured that I had enough distance between us that I could walk normally for a while. Then I trotted as fast as I could without getting killed by limbs or holes or unseen dangers.
Once I was approximately a half mile into this woods I turned and tried to angle back along what I hoped was parallel to the road that the house was on. That was the only road that I knew how to take to get out of there. Then I heard the dogs. They had picked up my trail again.
Chapter Three: Big Trouble Now
I guessed that they were still back at the pond, and that when they got to where the smoker had been, he’d catch grief for letting me slip past him. All I could do was run as fast as I could through the darkness. But that was not very fast. I ran into saplings, into low branches, and into fallen limbs. I fell frequently on uneven ground, tripped over unseen objects, and had my face and arms torn and bleeding from brambles and thorns. My stomach was empty and seemingly starting to devour itself. My muscles were cramping from dehydration. But I had a burst of adrenaline from the dogs. I knew I had to find some way out, soon, or I would be dead.
I came upon another road, running perpendicular to my path. I hoped that the perimeter around where they thought I had been was not this far out. I took a right and started jogging down the road, away from the general direction of the house and pond. I estimated I was a couple miles away from that road by now, and I wanted to put more distance between it. But my jogging ended quickly. I had to walk. I was too out of shape.
Up ahead I saw light through the trees. I slowed, fearing it was another law man, until I saw that it was a house. I came out of the woods and found that it was an old farm; the land surrounding it was open. I knew that the owners must know by now that a fugitive was on the loose. Being subtle would not work.
I snuck up as close to the house as possible and tried looking in the windows. But after circling the house, I saw that all of the shades in the windows on the first floor of the house were drawn. Light snuck out from the sides but there was not much room to see into the house. I had no idea how many people were inside. I temporarily thought about trying to hot wire one of there cars. But I had no clue how to do it. I snuck into a nearby tin building, in what appeared to be a tool shed or storage and work area. I knew I had maybe ten or fifteen minutes, if that, before the dogs, men and helicopter were on me. I was desperate. I felt around on both sides of the door, found a switch, and a bare light bulb over head came on. As I quickly closed the door it made an ungodly creaking.
In what seemed like forever, but what was really only about a minute I surveyed the room, took in as many details as possible, and made my plan. I grabbed a propane blow-torch, the tool used to start it, and a five gallon tank of gas. I turned off the light and headed back to the house. I doused the ground along the side of the house with gas, while trying to get only a little on the house, then I lit the torch, and then I put the torch to the gas. WHHHHHOOOOOOM! I had lit a fire about ten feet long close alongside of the house.
I ran to that front corner of the house and yelled “Fire! Fire! Everybody out of the house! Fire!” At first I heard nothing, and feared that everybody was asleep, or that nobody was inside. I was afraid that the house would burn down. Then I heard noises from inside. I yelled again: “Fire! Get out! Your house is on fire!” A dog inside was going nuts, barking. An old man came out on his porch with a shotgun. I was standing far enough off in the shadows that he could not see much of me.
“Mister, I was driving by when I saw flames coming from the side of your house! Get everybody out and get me a fire extinguisher so I can put it out!”
He looked in my direction, obviously not trusting me. He couldn’t see around the corner to see the flames, but it was obvious from the flickering light that indeed his house might be on fire. He yelled over his shoulder to wife for her to get out and ran back inside. In seconds he came back out, still holding the shotgun but also lugging two fire extinguishers. His wife was close behind.
“Hurry old timer! Give me one!” He did and I ran ahead of him, back to the fire, hopefully in time to save his house. It was an older house, made of wood. I had put most of the gasoline near the house, not right on it. Even so, some of the house was already on fire, the flames were climbing up the wall. I fumbled with the extinguisher, unable to make it discharge. The old man started working his before I finally removed the safety. Finally, between the two of us, we got the flames under control. His wife helped out with a bucket that she filled with water and doused on the flames a couple of times. We worked in silence until all the fire was gone.
Then I reluctantly pulled my gun. By then, I don’t even think they could see what I was doing. The area had been brilliant with light one minute, and the next totally dark, and my eyes were not adjusted yet. I knew approximately where he had leaned the shotgun against the house. I went there and grabbed it, just as he was saying, “I don’t know how to thank you mister.” I cocked my gun in response.
“I do. I need to borrow your car. Come on, back inside.”
“What? What’s going on?”
“I’m the guy the police are looking for. I didn’t do anything wrong. But if they catch me they will kill me. I need your car. Now.” I really felt bad. I didn’t want to harm him or his wife. They looked to be in their seventies, and seemed really nice. But I had to escape. I quickly herded them inside. There dog was just an old mutt who merely sniffed me while wagging his tail. Once they saw my cuts and bruises and torn clothes, the smeared blood and especially my gun and the desperate look in my eyes, it was not difficult to get them to obey me. The old man grabbed his keys and we got in the car and left.
I crouched in the back, with the old man driving and his wife in the front seat. I had them drive away from the house, and the pond, away from the place where my friends had likely been killed. And away from the trooper that I had killed.
The old man didn’t talk much, but he did say matter-of-factly that his wife had called 911 and reported a house fire before they first came outside. I didn’t care. My trackers would discover what happened even if the fire department hadn’t been called. I made him keep on back roads, and told him to generally head west. And I tried to convince both of them that I meant them no harm, although neither seemed too worried. I briefly explained what happened. I didn’t mention shooting the trooper; I blamed it all on my friends.
Finally the old woman spoke up, “Your friends didn’t set fire to our house, and then kidnap us at gun point.” Her husband shushed her, but not with much conviction. Because we both knew she was right.
Chapter Four: On the road again
After about an hour of putting distance between my troubles at about 45 m.p.h., I finally had the old man pull over on some old country road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. I had them both get out. I thought about killing them both, but only for a second. Disgust at myself for even thinking that thought almost overwhelmed me.
“I’m sorry old timer, but I’m going to have to make you both walk from here. Hopefully it won’t be far, and that will buy me some time to get the hell away from here. I promise I’ll leave your car somewhere that it will be found, safe and sound. I’m sorry I have to do this.” No reply.
As an afterthought, I asked if he had any money. “Nope.” So I quickly drove away. I passed a house not half a mile up the road. I hoped that they walked back the way we had come from instead of forward. The nearest house the opposite direction was over a mile, and I needed the extra time.
I drove in silence for miles. Whenever I came to a turn in the road, I kept to the one that appeared more deserted. And all things being equal, I tried to head west. I passed over I-95 and stopped at a truck stop and got gas. I filled it up with my credit card, in what I realized was probably the last time I could do that. I got some fast food from a burger take-out window, and kept my face in the shade as much as possible. I kept a rag over my face and one of the farmer’s caps pulled down on my head, and pretended to be having a coughing fit so they couldn’t see me. The bored young cashier could have cared less.
I kept driving into the early morning hours. I was exhausted, sore, scared, and a little numb. I had never broken the law since I had been a teenager. I had never been arrested. Now I was running for my life. All I had was a vague plan to head towards western Virginia and travel only at night. I knew by now that law enforcement everywhere would be looking for this car and my face.
After driving for hours, I noticed that the sky was becoming lighter behind me. I looked for a place to sleep during the day. I pulled into a small lane that was just two ruts of clay with grass in between. It seemed out in the middle of nowhere, and the little drive did not appear to be well-used. But when I got to the end of it, a frame of a house appeared. Somebody was building a cabin on what appeared to be a good sized river. I high-tailed it out of there, even though it was unlikely that workers would appear on Sunday.
I found another little drive; it looked like a lane for tractors. I drove through a field, no houses in sight. The field wended around with a creek on one side and a forest on the other. At the rear a small portion of the field was out of sight from the road, hidden from view by some of the forest. I drove as far off the field as possible and shut her off.
I broke off some branches and tried to break up the outline of what I could now see was a navy blue older model Buick LeSabre. I had not even bothered to notice before then. Satisfied with my work, I grabbed an old over coat out of the trunk and trudged off into the woods to sleep, exhausted.
It was hard to sleep. I woke up with a start several times. Once when a crow flew near and cawed. Another when a squirrel rustled the leaves ten feet away. The sweat bees found me and bit me during the short times that I was asleep. I was so far back that I could not even hear vehicles go by on the road that lead here. The sound of the cicadas lulled me to sleep again. Finally I was dead to the world.
When I awoke with a start, it was obviously late afternoon. I listened intently, trying to discern what had awakened me. I heard a noise, the sound of an engine, but could not tell what it was or where it was coming from. It grew louder. Coming from the field. I snuck over towards the field, but still keeping distance from the car. When I got close enough to see into the field I saw a tractor pulling a wagon with some kids on the back. Great, just what I needed.
From where I was I could see that the car, fortunately, was parked down in a low area, and the people in the tractor probably could not see it from where they were out in the field. I sat frozen, unsure what to do. And I had to piss. Bad! When the tractor and trailer neared the back of the field, it had to turn one way or the other or run into a fence. Just my luck, it turned towards where the car was. The tractor started making a counter-clockwise turn. If they were at 12:00, the car was located at about 8:00, and they were shadowing the outside of the fence, and were headed right for it. I snuck back into the woods and started to take a leak. I could hold it no more. When I suddenly realized that I left my gun where I had been sleeping.
I ran back to where I thought I had been sleeping. Everything looked the same. I couldn’t find where it was that I had slept all day. I had sweat dripping off me, but suddenly it felt cold. I started running around in circles, small at first, larger and larger. I would have felt foolish if I wasn’t so scared. I stopped, exhausted. Just then the tractor engine shut off, about in the direction of the old man’s car. I started running again, widening my circle more, frantically searching with my eyes in all directions. After making a racket for what seemed like minutes, thrashing through the dry fallen leaves, breaking twigs and branches as I ran, I finally stumbled upon my gun, right where I left it. I was soaked with sweat, dirty, unkempt and scared.
Then I said “To hell with it” and started walking toward the car. The last few feet before I got to the field where I thought the car was were filled with blackberry bushes. I got scraped, cut and caught. In a rush, I often went through when I should have gone around them. Finally, after one last push, I broke free and into the field, about twenty-five yards away from the car, and several gawking on-lookers.
There were several kids in their teens and somebody’s grandfather. I had my pistol in my hand but made sure that I held it down towards the ground. I walked right up to the tractor, which was out in the field a ways from the car that they were all standing around.
“Old Timer, I’m not going to hurt anybody. But I have to disable your tractor so that you have to walk back. I apologize, but I can’t have you calling the police until I have a head start in getting out of here.” I started pulling off spark plug wires and stuffing them in my belt, all the while glancing to see what everybody was doing. They all just stood there, incredulous.
I strode over to the car. This must have scared the kids a little. They started walking backwards, away from me and the car. The old farmer just stood there, too old to be scared.
“I’ll drop these off just before I reach the road, in the path where you can find them. I apologize for the inconvenience. I don’t mean anybody any harm, Sir.”
He just kind of scowled and spit tobacco juice off to the side, then wiped his scruffy chin with the back of his hand. He looked like he had already sized me up and came to the same conclusion. Though he must have been pushing eighty, I still would not have wanted to tangle with him. I got enough of the branches off my car to open the door, when I heard a phone ring. One of the girls, a redhead of about fourteen whipped out her cell phone.
“DON’T ANSWER THAT!”
She was so startled, she dropped the phone. She looked at me like I was crazy, and started backing up from the phone. It kept ringing. I strode over and scooped it up.
“Everybody else, give me your phones.” Silence. They all just kept looking at me. “NOW!” I bellowed. Out of nowhere two more phones were produced.
“I’m not stealing them. I’ll leave them out by the road, too. I just can’t have you calling the cops too soon. They think I murdered a state trooper. I did not murder him. I shot him in self-defense.” I stopped, realizing that everybody stopped listening once they heard “murdered.” The kids backed away faster, the old man looked at me more intently, ready to pounce if I so much as tried anything towards any of the kids. I put my gun back in my holster to show him that I meant no harm and walked towards the car, altering my path a bit so as not to get too close to him.
I got in the old blue LeSabre and got the hell out of Dodge.
Chapter Five: Crazy
I drove hard for about ten minutes until I saw a country store. I pulled off to the side and grabbed a rag and ran inside. I pulled the old coughing fit routine again. Cough, cough, as I covered my face. Cough, cough as I walked quickly back to the cooler, pulled out a bottle of wine and a six-pack of beer. Cough, cough as I walked up to the cashier. Cough, cough, as I grabbed a bag of beef jerky and some chips. Cough, cough, COUGH as I carefully covered my face with the rag up at the cashier, and as I apologized for my coughing. I pulled my cap down over my face further as I dug out a twenty from my (by now disgustingly dirty) pants. “Thanks” I mumbled as I walked outside towards the car.
Just then a state trooper vehicle raced by with his siren screaming and lights flashing. I suddenly realized that I had underestimated how long it would take a few fifteen year old boys, hopped up on adrenaline, to race three-quarters of a mile from where the tractor was disabled to where I had left the phones. I drove in the opposite direction that the trooper had come from, and took the first turn to the right off that road, onto just another Virginia back road. After twenty minutes of driving without incident I cracked open a beer.
I avoided the main roads. I had no idea where I was, or where I was going, except now I was headed generally south, intending to head west after the sun went down. Damn that beer was good. So I had another. And another. Don’t try this at home kids. Don’t drink and drive.
Next thing I knew it was after dark, so I headed west again. Don’t ask me how I got there, but the next thing I knew I was at a truck stop off of I-81. I needed gas, and this place looked anonymous. There was a large restaurant, a place for truckers to shower, and rows upon rows of trucks stopped, many of them idling. I pulled off to most remote gasoline pump and got out. The smell of diesel hit me as I got out. I took my rag and what little money I had left, but I left my gun and ammo in the car, locked.
I was standing in line to purchase gas when I noticed some tourist in the next line looking at me. “I love Vermont” on his T-shirt. Plaid (ugly ass pink and blue and purple) shorts. God-awful fishing cap with a see-through visor. I gripped my rag closer to my face and coughed. “Hey Mister, do you” –cough, cough–“know how far it is to the South Carolina border?”
He took a step back, inspected both upper arms to ensure that I had not coughed sputum on him, and shook his head. But he kept peering at me.
“Yeah, I know, I’m thinking what you are thinking. It might be the swine flu. I’m supposed to get back to my family doctor tomorrow to find out for sure.” Cough, hack, cough, cough.
He smiled weakly, and suddenly seemed to have forgotten something that he meant to purchase. In the back of the store.
With him out-of-the-way, I noticed the Sunday newspapers on display nearby. My smiling face was prominently displayed on front page of The Richmond Times-Dispatch. I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics of the old song, “We take all kinds of pills that give us all kinds of thrills but the thrill we’ll never know, is the thrill that’ll hit you when you get your picture on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone…” For some reason I wasn’t thrilled to have my picture on the cover of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I started snuffling, and covered up much of my face with my rag, and didn’t stop until I had paid and gotten back to the car.
For those of you unfamiliar with Virginia, it has a couple of areas that are citified, and a couple of interstates, and then a lot of small country roads and deserted areas. I went to the west of I-81 and stayed on the back roads. And I drank beer. When the six-pack was gone, I started on the wine. No, it had no cork, it was twist off, it was some slight improvement over Mad Dog 20/20.
Sometime after 3 a.m., many winding miles on westbound country roads later, I stopped to pee. I got out and saw millions of stars. I heard nothing, nothing that was remotely connected to man. There were trees, and mountains, and cicadas, and/or crickets, and/or tree frogs, and the sound of a race horse pissing. At least I had the sense to not drive far from there, and to find the nearest little turn off and park.
I sat on the hood of the old farmer’s Buick, my back on the windshield, and looked at the stars as I tugged on the wine. I finally, in my drunken stupor, took stock of where I was. I had almost no money. I had a .357 Magnum Taurus six-shooter, with probably a couple dozen bullets in my belt. I couldn’t use my bank card or any of my credit cards, unless I wanted to send a message exactly where I was. According to the headline of the Times-Dispatch I was wanted for murder. And I was driving a stolen vehicle. Not bad wine, though. And damn, the stars sure were visible when now that I was so far away from the city lights. I finished the wine and fell asleep.
Next thing that I know I was waving my hand next to my face, trying to chase away the sweat bee that was trying to bite the hell out of my forehead. The sun was high in the sky. And I had to piss again. While I was draining the weasel I saw her. There was a creek nearby. (Where the hell did it come from?) She was walking along it. I hid “my stream” behind a tall oak and let out a sigh when it finally came to an end. Once zipped up, I came out from behind my tree and sized her up.
I guessed thirty to thirty-five, shoulder length mousey hair, pleasant face, decent body. What the hell was she doing here? She still had not seen me. She was either fascinated by the little mountain stream, or doing some really strong drugs. I would have ignored her, and went on my way, but she kept coming directly towards me until she got so close I couldn’t ignore her.
“What’s up?” I didn’t want to startle her, but I did.
“Oh!” She stepped back. And looked around. Then she looked scared, even putting one hand in her pocket.
“Would you believe I’m lost?”
She looked at my face, all cut up. She looked at my arms, all cut up. She looked at my clothes, dirty and worn. At my two day old beard. At my bleery eyes. She didn’t believe me.
I rambled. “I was headed for Lake Moomaw. I know it is out here somewhere, but I had a little too much to drink last night. Can you help?”
She looked a little relieved. She crinkled up her forehead.
“I’m on my vacation. Got the rest of the week to fish, drink beer and do nothing. Then I have to get back to school.”
That lit up her face. “You teach?”
“Oh, sure. I’m a middle school teacher and a football coach.” [Not! Where the hell did that come from? In my dreams?]
“I teach 7th grade English at Godwin High in Richmond! I used to teach at Goochland, but then I moved to Richmond.” Ooops. Too late I remembered that Godwin is a high school. Luckily she was not from Richmond.
She smiled at me, as though we had something in common. She did have nice boobs.
“I’m just out here scouting around, me and my son come here deer hunting. Lot’s of deer in this neck of the woods.”
She looked at me with a slightly disapproving look, so I tried another tack.
“I don’t enjoy shooting deer. I just like being out in the country with my son…” That seemed to work. “I like the country. I like the fresh air. I like getting away.”
She smiled. Something I said must have been working.
“My six year old daughter and I come out here. I don’t have her this week, but every other week, we come out here and explore. She loves it!”
I looked at her boobs and shook my head in agreement. Whatever.
There was an awkward pause. Make an effort. Keep this conversation going. She was semi-hot.
She saw the wine bottle and a couple of beer bottles. “Sorry, I got a little tooted last night. But it was great.”
She smiled. “Well, that has never happened to me…” [big smile.]
I was getting good vibes by then. I was at my worst. No shower. No shave. Cuts and bruises, wild hair and red eyes. And she was still smiling. Either she was wanted by the law for stealing the baby Jesus, or she was a saint. Either way, I was interested.
Chapter Six: Finally, I catch a break
The tenseness on her face seemed to melt away. She gave a sigh, and I heard a muffled click. I had not noticed that her right hand had been in her baggy pant pocket until just then. She carefully pulled her hand out, holding a Derringer .45 caliber single shot. “Sorry, a gal can’t be too careful.” The noise had been her un-cocking it.
I couldn’t hold back a smile. I carefully pulled my revolver out, pointed it in the opposite direction that she was standing and opened it up to show her that it was empty. After my close call with the old man and the kids, I had vowed that no civilian would be hurt, even accidentally, by any of my actions. After thinking it over, I was not too sorry that the state trooper got hit instead of me. He had been trying to kill me.
I tried to break the awkward silence. “How often do you get out here?”
“When I have Chloe, we like to get out here about every other week. She’s six. Oh, I already told you that. Sorry. She lives part of the year with her father, my ex, roughly half the year in Chevy Chase, Maryland. It didn’t work out, he was a city boy and I’m a country girl. How about you?”
“I don’t even know where ‘here’ is.” Rueful grin. “I’m kinda lost.”
“As the crow flies, you are probably fifteen to twenty miles north of Lexington.” “Virginia,” she added with smile.
“I’m not that lost. Last night I was just driving around, looking to get lost. Hoping that my luck would change.”
“What’s wrong with your luck?”
“Oh, it’s a long story. I don’t know you well enough to tell you just yet.” A smile to soften the blow. “But I sure am interested in getting to know you well enough.”
“Fair enough.” We talked for fifteen minutes or so.
Finally she said, “You look like hell. What are you going to do next?”
“Want to come by my house and freshen up? You can shower, shave, whatever, and I can fix you a nice hot breakfast.”
“Sounds great, but what about that part about ‘a girl can’t be too careful’?”
“Hey, my dad’s a retired cop. I knew as soon as I met you that you are no threat. Besides, my Derringer is just one of my many guns. And it’s the smallest one.”
“Gee, thanks. I think.” To myself: Oops. He is, is he? “Umm, maybe some other time? I really should be moving on down the road. And what about Chloe?”
“She’s with her father in Maryland. I just got back home late last night from taking her to meet him half way.”
“Still, what would your father say about you picking up a stranger and inviting him into your home alone?”
She giggled. “What makes you think we’ll be alone?”
My eyes got a little wider, an involuntary reaction. Then I gave half grin, trying to put on a big act. “Forget it then. If it’s not just you and me…”
“Nonsense. He works the midnight to 8:00 a.m. shift at the Covington Paper Mill, drives home and sleeps until 3:00 p.m. or later. Nothing wakes him up. Except maybe if I have to shoot you.” She said “shoot” with a smile. A moment of silence. “I said he was ‘a retired police officer.’ He was the Sheriff of Covington for years. Now all he does is putter around, acting as though he is the head of security at the mill. But he’s not. Come on, I’m a really good cook.”
My resistance melted. We made arrangements to meet. I walked back and put my gun and holster in the trunk, moved the car to a more out of sight location twenty-five feet further into the forest, and waited for her to pick me up.
When she pulled up a few minutes later, she arched one eyebrow: “Where is your gear?”
“I kinda left town in a hurry. I wanted adventure. Where’s the fun in being totally prepared?”
She gave me a dubious look. “Not even a toothbrush?” Delivered with a yucky look. “Or change of underwear?”
I shrugged. Very little money, my gun, the clothes on my back and a stolen vehicle didn’t seem like the thing to say at the time. “Oh, well I thought they sold those things up here in this neck of the woods. I guess those rumors must be true if they don’t sell toothbrushes. No, wait, you haven’t lost all your teeth yet…have you?”
She purposely pulled back her lips in a fake smile, showing her wonderful full set of teeth. “We have our own Wal-Mart. We even just got indoor plumbing last fall.” Then she laughed at my grimace. “Just kidding.”
She did most of the talking on the way. Besides the fact that I was slightly hung-over, feeling dirty and gross, and nearly starving to death, I am not a morning person. I asked enough questions to keep her talking, while deflecting hers, or just being vague. She didn’t seem to notice as she talked my ear off.
Chloe is a perfect child. She can’t stand her ex but she doesn’t let it show to Chloe. She loves her job teaching kids, and loves getting her summer vacations. She doesn’t get out much; the guys her age are either married or twice-divorced losers. Besides, she said: “Who needs men any ways?” Delivered without much conviction, I noticed.
After several miles of winding roads, and crossing over the overpass for I-64 (heads east-west from I-81 to the West Virginia line), the country started becoming more populated. Stores, gas stations, more houses, the campus of Virginia Military Institute, until suddenly we were in down town Lexington. Parts of it looked like it was straight out of the 1860s, with old brick buildings and quaint antique shops.
But I was growing a little concerned. I had not bargained on being paraded through the streets, and noticed by all the pedestrians. I slouched over as much as possible and pulled the sun visor on my cap down.
She pulled in front of a two-story brick house, old and stately. I gave a little whistle. It didn’t look like something that a public school teacher could afford.
“Daddy bought this a long time ago, before the Yankees discovered that Lexington is a fine place to retire to. We couldn’t afford to buy it today.”
As we were walking up to the porch, a next door neighbor came outside. I glanced down and saw the as yet un-read Sunday paper lying just off the walk. I nudged it as gently as I could under the nearest shrub, hopefully out of sight.
A little old lady in a dress, face made up already on this Monday morning, asked brightly, “Hello, Annabelle! Who’s your friend?” Annabelle? She had told me her name was Anne.
“Mrs. Kramer, this is a dear old friend of mine from Richmond, John, John Doe.” She had forgotten my last name. “He is up here camping so I insisted that he stop by and get cleaned up. He’s a school teacher, too.“ She was right in my face. I gave her a limp handshake. I turned away so she wouldn’t smell the wine and beer on my breath. By the thickness of her glasses she appeared to be blind, and by the loudness of her voice, deaf.
“Oh, what do you teach? I was a school teacher for twenty-seven years right here in Lexington.” She smiled proudly.
I hoped that she didn’t see my sick expression. What was I thinking when I agreed to go home with “Annabelle?” “Seventh grade English, writing, social studies, a little P.E. and I coach.” I hoped that would shut her up, but no.
“I taught seventh grade, but back in my day we taught everything. My favorite was algebra. What is your favorite?”
I can’t even spell algebra. I haven’t been inside schools except to play rec-league basketball in decades. “I enjoy English the most. Especially teaching young people how to write.” At least if she asked me about writing I could answer intelligently.
She kept at it for what seemed like forever, grilling me, but it was probably only five minutes, until “Annabelle” saved me. “Mrs. Kramer, John hasn’t eaten breakfast yet. He’s starving. Please excuse us. And tell Dr. Kramer that I said hello!” She delivered it with a sweet smile but she opened the front door and half dragged me inside and quickly closed the door. “She’s sweet, but she’ll talk your ear off. And tell everybody else she meets exactly what you just told her.”
I gulped. I was hoping that what I said sounded authentic. I’m no teacher, I’m a lawyer. At least I’m used to thinking on my feet and bull shitting people.
“What was all that bull shit that you were feeding her? You don’t even know what S.O.L.s are, do you?” One hand on her hip, eyes intently watching mine. I sensed that it was a moment of truth.
“Shit outta luck?” I tried to laugh it off but she was not budging. “Ok, I’m not a teacher. Can we eat now?”
“Not until you tell me what you really do, and not until you tell me why you lied to me.”
“I’m currently unemployed, o.k.?” (Hey, I wasn’t lying; nobody would hire me at that exact moment.) “I didn’t want to appear to be such a loser. And I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.”
“That’s so lame. If I didn’t tell you before, I’ll tell you now. I hate being lied to.”
“O.K., I’m sorry.”
Duly chastised, she showed me around, got me some old clean clothes to change into, produced a new toothbrush and a shaving kit, and left me to clean up. The hot shower almost—almost—washed away the past two days of pure hell. I almost started believing that I could get out of the mess that I was in.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Startled at the sudden loud noise, I jumped and almost fell out of the shower.
“Hurry up in there! Breakfast is ready!”
Her simple loud knocking on the bathroom door had sent a rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Nope, the shower had not washed away all of the hell that I had been through.
She had flap jacks and real maple syrup, bottomless (strong) black coffee, biscuits and gravy, and eggs just the way I like them, over easy. I ate while she sipped coffee and talked, between keeping my plate full and my coffee hot.
They were her father’s clothes, not her ex’s, she had thrown all of his stuff away that he had left behind when he moved back to Maryland. They had met at college in Charlottesville, courted through college, and then stayed there for a while, where Chloe was born. He’d gradually spent more and more time traveling on his job, or just late nights at the office, until she no longer missed him. And until he took a mistress. Or at least until she found out about one of his mistresses. She moved back home to live with her father and he moved back to his home town in Maryland. And did she mention that he was a bastard? Oh, about ten times.
Suddenly I remembered Mrs. Kramer called her Annabelle. “Oh, Annabelle, good morning Annabelle” I said in my best Mrs. Kramer imitation. “Hello, Mrs. Kramer, why this is ‘John, John Doe’, my dear old friend.” I raised my eyebrows at her.
“That’s different. I had to say that or it would be all over town that I had brought home some stranger that I had just met. And my real name is Annabelle. Only she and my father actually call me that though.”
“O.K., Annabelle. Make that only three people call you that.”
“You might not be around long if you do.”
“Oh, you mean that there is a chance I could be hanging around even after you learned that I am unemployed?” I gave a little wink.
“Maybe. If yer lucky”
“No, if you are lucky. Didn’t sound like you had any other bright prospects when you were talking earlier.”
“And an unemployed ‘school teacher’ is a ‘bright prospect’?” Touché.
“Least I gots all mah teef” I said with a smile and my best Appalachian drawl. “And I h’ain’t been marrieeeeeed and DIEvorced two times!”
“Well then” she said, slipping out of her perfect English into her Southern Belle accent: “call up the caterer, it’s time for me to remedy that! Let me go wake Daddy and we can take him down to the Justice of the Peace right now.”
Joke was over. Waking Daddy was not a good idea. “Ummm. Maybe I better take this a little slower. Maybe next time.”
She just laughed. “Come on, get your stuff, I’ll drive you back to your car.”
Several minutes of good conversation later we were back at the LeSabre. It was around 1 o’clock or so. Still dreadfully hot. I made a decision. “I haven’t lied to you since telling you I was a school teacher. But I have to tell you something.”
She looked serious. I added: “The easiest thing would be for me to just get in that car and drive away without saying a word.”
“Yeah, what’s stopping you?” She sounded cocky. She didn’t know where this was going yet.
“I’m wanted by the law. I shot a state trooper. He died.”
She looked at me intently, waiting, hoping it was a joke. “What?”
I gave her the short version, made myself sound as good as possible, and made the trooper and the deputy sheriff out to be demons. After the news had sunk in a little, she said, “Great, so I’m an accessory after the fact, or guilty of harboring a fugitive, or something like that…“
We talked for quite a while, and she slowly came to accept that I was wanted by the law but that I was innocent. I thought she believed me. I hoped so. “Hey, aren’t you afraid I’m gonna pull out my Derringer and make a citizen’s arrest?”
“Yes. Please hand-cuff me. More, Ma’am, may I have more please?” In my best English accent.
She finally smiled a little.
“I needed a friend and you came along at just the right time. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Remember, I tried to say no but you wouldn’t let me?”
Long pause. “I have an idea. Why don’t you stay in this area for a while? I can get you some supplies and you can camp out in the woods. There are a few thousand acres nearby of state-owned land where camping is permitted. You can hide the car and camp in a remote location, and I’ll bring you what you need. If you aren’t driving all over the state the police can’t find you.”
“Wait. Whose side are you on? Your father is a retired cop. I shot a cop. You didn’t know before when you let me in your house. But now you do.”
A little shrug. “I trust you. And I kinda like you.” A hint of a smile.
Chapter Seven: Living in the lap of luxury
I spent the next several days camping in “Little Goshen.” Anne supplied a pup tent, a fry pan, some primitive food, and company. I ate spam, spam, and more spam, with whatever else she happened to bring. The Buick was safely hidden at the end of a road nobody seemed to use. I had a cheap phone with some pre-purchased minutes, thanks to Wal-Mart. And Anne. I spent my days gathering fire wood, cooking my food, and reading cheap novels. And looking forward to Anne’s next visit.
There was a mountain stream nearby, so I had plenty of fresh water. I had not seen another soul since we had found this place. I didn’t mention it to Anne that I had been to the place before with my son, looking for deer. He actually shot a deer one year, much to my chagrin. I had not been sorry that he got it, only sorry that we had to drag it back to the car and carry it back home and skin it and eat it. Course, after all that spam that Anne kept bringing me, a little venison sounded like heaven.
Anne came out to see me a couple of times a week. I could hear her car coming for what sounded like miles. There was no other sound in that wilderness. One afternoon I thought I heard her coming again. When the forest ranger pulled into view I was disappointed, to say the least.
He got out and walked over to me. He looked everywhere in an instant and said, “How long you staying, Mister?”
“Just a couple of days. Is something the matter?”
“Nope. As long as you are staying less than a week, you don’t need a permit. You taking precautions to keep your camp fire from spreading? You know how dry it has been this year. Just one spark can catch this whole woods on fire.”
“Yes sir. I’m being careful.”
Almost as an after thought. “Hey, you got any I.D.?”
Gulp. “Sure. Back at the car. But the car is about two miles away. I’m Sam Brown, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. I teach school, I’m just up here for the last few days of summer vacation before I have to get back to teaching the little rug rats this fall.”
He seemed to buy it. “No problem. And make sure you bury your garbage. We’ve got a lot of black bears around here.”
After otherwise reminding me that he was the boss and that I was the interloper, he finally drove off, much to my relief.
A few minutes later I heard Anne coming.
She brought a cooler of beer, some corn on the cob and more spam. Yummy.
“Hmm. A skirt in this neck of the woods? You didn’t have to get dressed up just for me.”
“I didn’t, Mr. Fugitive, I had an open house for school. Had to meet the parents of my next class. Oh, wait, you wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about, having never actually taught a class and all.”
“Any of the Dads make a pass at you?” As I cracked open a cold one.
“Naw, I must be losing it.”
Nope. You are definitely not losing it, I thought to myself. No, wrong answer, I replied. Keep her off-balance. “Yeah, maybe you are.” Smile.
She punched me in the arm and said: “Hello, may I speak to the police? I have some information to share about a fugitive.”
I kept up the ruse: “I have been helping him remain a fugitive. I’ve supplied him food, equipment and money. At the moment I’m sharing a beer with him,” in my best imitation of her voice.
“He’s armed and dangerous,” she added. “Well, at least I’ve been told that he’s dangerous…”
I spent the rest of the night trying to show her how “dangerous” I was. Yeah, she spent the night. But she slept in her own separate pup tent. After we had talked late into the night.
Chapter Eight: On the run again
The days and nights were getting cooler. After my run in with the ranger I moved my camp deeper into the woods. I was pretty certain that nobody had seen the car yet; it was hidden in a good spot and well camouflaged. But the fall hunting season was fast approaching, and I knew that hunters would soon hit the woods in force. And I certainly could never make it out here all winter.
Anne stopped visiting as often. Her daughter was back with her and she was beginning to be preoccupied with back to school preparation. I spent my days hiking through the mountains, reading old novels, and thinking. But I could not come up with any plan that seemed to work. The state trooper and the deputy sheriff had both died. Craig was in intensive care and not supposed to make it. Multiple gunshot wounds, coma, and a murder charge facing him if he lived.
It seemed like heaven living out in the woods. But I felt bad, depending upon Anne’s generosity and meager savings to provide me with needed supplies. I’d known her only about three weeks, but already I felt as though she and I could have been an item under different circumstances. And I hated exposing her to risk every time she visited.
One late afternoon after I had been hiking for about two hours when I decided to swing back by the car to make sure it was still there. It was late summer, the nights were starting to get a chill in the air, but the days were still in the eighties. I had not seen a soul in the woods in three or four days. Until I almost walked on top of the ranger. He had pushed the brush back from off of “my car” on the driver’s side, enough to look in it. He evidently had been peering inside to see what he could see when I came walking over a slight hill, so he heard me coming.
I paused momentarily, then waved to him and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” I kept walking but changed directions as quickly as possible without making it obvious.
“This your car?”
“No sir, mine’s back that way about four miles.”
I kept walking but was near enough to hear him speak again. I stopped and looked back, thinking that he was talking to me. He wasn’t: “Can you check the plates of a blue 1995 LeSabre, license number…”
I picked up my pace and never looked back. As soon as I was out of his sight, I jogged as far as I could, and then walked as fast as I could, back to my camp.
I grabbed what gear I could easily carry. After reloading my pistol and putting it back in its holster and putting the holster on my belt. I was going to miss my little home away from home. Before leaving, I tried to call Anne on the little prepaid cell phone that she bought for me for emergency communications. But there was no signal. I knew from experience that the cell towers did not reach many areas around here. I was camped in a little hollow, and there were some nice sized “Blue Ridge Mountains” around me.
I climbed the nearest “mountain” so that I could leave her a message. I felt that I owed her that much. Unfortunately, that took about forty-five minutes, and nearly wore me out. I was gasping for breath by the time I dialed. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Come on, come on!”
“Hi! This is Anne. Leave a message after the beep.”
“Anne, the cops have found ‘my car.’ Don’t go near the camp. I’m leaving the camp and running again. I don’t know where I am going but when I get somewhere safe I’ll call you.” I hung up and hoped that tonight wasn’t a night that she was going to surprise me by showing up for dinner. She wasn’t due for another two days.
Well, at least I could stick to the ridge of the “mountain” rather than having to stick to the low lands. I started walking again, due north. Though I didn’t know where I was going, I knew that eventually I’d run into a road. And I hoped that by staying on the high ground I could have signal if Anne called me back.
After a couple of hours hiking north, about sunset, I heard them. Unmistakable. Dogs barking back to the south. “Oh, shit.”
But this time I was ready for them. Anne had brought some charcoal lighter fluid to me to make my job of lighting my campfires more easily. I picked it up almost as an after thought when I left camp. I wasn’t sure how quickly the law would come after me, and I hoped I might use it at my next camp.
Add a second arson to the growing list of criminal offenses that I was guilty of committing. Sure, I thought about it. For about a minute. I didn’t want to do it. And I wasn’t sure it would work. It even occurred to me that it would make matters worse. But I didn’t feel as though I had a choice. I quickly spread charcoal lighter fluid on a large area and lit a match.
The prevailing wind out of the north-west had died down considerably, but not entirely. And the forest floor was dry from weeks without rain. It took awhile, but the fire caught, and grew, and started moving down the mountain, sort of in the direction that I had come. At the very least I hoped it would be a distraction.
I walked a ways in the coming darkness, the air was filled with the noise of dogs barking way off in the distance, and the ever-growing snap and crackle of my very first forest fire. I set the fire on state property that had not been logged in decades. Dead trees and limbs littered the forest floor. In a short while I started to become alarmed by what I had done. I could not see the details, but judging by the amount of light to the south, I had created a mammoth wall of fire. I sincerely hoped that nobody would get hurt. But after about fifteen minutes, I did it again. And a little later, I did it again.
Somewhere between eight o’clock and nine I saw headlights below me. A road, not just a trail. I angled down the mountain to try to find a ride, while trying to ignore the inferno that I had created behind me.
I got to the road and hid behind a tree, trying to figure out what to do. The first couple of vehicle went by without incident. The traffic seemed few and far between, so the next time I saw headlights approaching from the north I stepped out into the road and tried to look nonchalant. As the headlights hit me full in the face I waved my arms and hoped that they would see me. The car went into the other lane and slowed. Bingo.
A not unattractive early twenties or other woman rolled down her window and looked at me.
“My car broke down; can I have a lift into town?”
She looked closer at me. “Ummm.” I was sweaty, dirty; I hadn’t shaved in a few days. I had a gun in my holster on my hip, in plain view. In short, I probably looked like a local. But she didn’t recognize me. She said nothing and drove away. I started walking north.
About fifteen minutes another vehicle approached, this time from the south. I tried again. Again the vehicle slowed and veered into the other lane and stopped beside me. This time it was a young guy, late teens or early twenties, collar length hair, two or three-week growth of facial hair, missing a front tooth. “Will you give me a ride into town?”
No hesitation. “Sure. Hop in.”
I stowed my gear in the bed of his pickup. A beat up Ford 150, late 80’s I guessed. With a loud muffler. As I got in I noticed the gun rack carried two guns, a shotgun and a rifle.
He sounded like a hillbilly. “Where you from, Mister?”
“Richmond.” He seemed a little disappointed. “Been out scouting for deer.” He perked up. “Little early, didn’t see much. Then my truck broke down up in the mountains. Needs a new alternator.” That got him talking.
“Did you happen to notice the forest fire back yonder?”
I hoped he couldn’t see the guilty look on my face in the darkness. “Huh? No, I didn’t see anything. I did notice how dry the forest floor was.”
“Where’s your truck parked?”
“Yeah, you said your truck broke down…”
“Ugh, it was back in the ‘Goshen and Little Mountain Wildlife Management Area.’ I don’t know the name of the …”
“The ‘WMA’? That’s where the forest fire is!”
“Yup. I’m on my way to Goshen. I’m a member of the volunteer fire department. The Virginia Department of Forestry requested all local fire departments to turn out. I was doing a job down near Buena Vista and didn’t get the call until late. I gotta git my gear from the Department and git back and help. Route 39 was closed due to the fire. I had to go around and take the back way.”
“You fight forest fires often?”
“Naw. This will be my first.”
“Naw. I did two tours in Iraq. That was scary.”
I looked at him again. I would have guessed that he was under twenty-one.
He smiled. “I enlisted when I was 17 years old. I served my country, came back here and now I’m married with my first child on the way.”
“Well, be careful, man.”
Chapter Nine: Where to now?
I told him that I was calling a friend to pick me up in Goshen. I didn’t. I walked out of the small town and was back in mostly wilderness. I plopped down and slept like a baby; after worrying a little about the fire that I had set. The next morning I stowed my pistol in my sleeping bag, tried to clean up as best I could in a small stream, and tried walking while hitching for a ride north on what turned out to be Route 42.
After about an hour, just when the sun was really starting to make me sweat, an old farmer picked me up. Turns out he was heading up to “Route 250.” He acted like I was supposed to know what that meant. We passed through small towns, Craigsville, Augusta Springs, Buffalo Gap. He drove slow and didn’t talk. That suited me fine.
When we got to Route 250 I realized that I did know where it was. I had driven that way from Richmond through Staunton towards West Virginia when I had been hunting with my son years before. The farmer was headed east, towards Staunton, so I told him I was headed west and got out. He seemed like a nice guy, but the less people saw of me, the less people who might remember seeing me.
I spent the next few days sleeping as best I could and otherwise hiding out during the day, and walking westward on Route 250 at night. When cars were coming, I hid until they went by. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic at night after 9:00.
Somewhere, the road signs said McDowell to the east and Monterrey to the west, while looking for a place to bed down for the day, just as the sun was coming up, I walked up a little dirt road that did not appear to have been used lately. I had to climb over a chain blocking the drive. Back in the woods a short distance I spied a cabin that was not visible from the road. It startled me at first. I was just walking along, not paying attention, I rounded a slight curve and there it was. I hoped whoever lived there was not awake, and did not have dogs.
I eased back around the bend and listened. No noise. No lights. No sign of life. I angled into the trees, trying to get around behind the cabin to get a better look while still being hidden by the trees. After about a half hour of stalking, listening, and stalking some more, I got to a place where I could safely watch while still remaining out of sight from its occupants. I sat down and waited. No law says anybody else has to get up at the crack of dawn. They might still be sleeping.
After a couple of hours of hearing and seeing nothing, I grew impatient. It occurred to me that I did not see any vehicles. Granted, I could not see all of the cabin even, let alone the area surrounding the cabin. All I could see was what looked like one corner of it and a small window. Finally, I gave up and fell asleep, exhausted by the long march from the night before.
Hunger finally woke me up sometime in the early afternoon. Though the nights were getting colder, the days were still pleasant, usually in the seventies. Water was plentiful from the many small mountain streams. But my food consisted of jerky and granola bars leftover from what Anne had bought me. And I had eaten the rest of that the day before. The hunger finally made me bold. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I crept up to the cabin. I left all my gear behind except my pistol in its holster. The pistol had only five bullets in it. None in the chamber meant no innocent civilian could get shot accidentally. I got to what was the back of the cabin and caught my breath. I slowly rose up and tried to peek in the window that I had seen from my old spot. Cheap curtains hid whatever was inside. I ducked down and eased around the corner to the side of the cabin.
It looked like it was just a one room shack, not very big. I tried the only window on that side, and saw only curtains. I peaked around to the front of the cabin. No sign of life. I did notice what looked like an overhead canopy off to the side, a place for the owner’s vehicle to get some shelter from the elements. And what looked like a “buck pole” between two trees. A place to hang deer after they were shot. I finally realized that this was probably just a small hunting cabin, and that nobody was home.
I looked in the one window on the front, and saw nothing. I finally stood up and knocked on the front door. “Anybody home?” I knocked again, louder. “HELLO! Anybody home!!?” I knocked loudly enough so that if anybody was inside they would have to be deep sleepers or deaf. Nothing, no response. I walked back around to the back and tapped on the window, asking the same question. No response. Then I broke the window and carefully climbed in.
The place was indeed a hunting cabin. It had two sets of bunk beds, one on each end. It had a pot-bellied wood stove for heating, no electricity, no running water, a rudimentary sink that drained outside onto the ground, no privy, and a couple of cupboards. Yee hah! It had a few dishes, pots and pans, and cans of food. I opened a can of pork and beans and ate them cold, right out of the can, sitting on the only piece of furniture in the place, a ratty old couch. And those beans were the best meal that I had had in days. Things were looking up.
It turned out that the front door was locked with a padlock. I never opened the screen door when I first knocked on the door, and I just missed seeing it. It was a pain in the ass, but I had to crawl out the window that I had busted every time I wanted to exit the cabin. I brought my gear in and made myself at home.
The next few days were heaven. I slept on a mattress for the first time since my nightmare began. Granted, it was a bare mattress, too soft for my liking, with only a couple of wool blankets to keep me warm. And my broken window allowed in too much cold air at night. And the food was always cold, since I was too frightened that lighting a fire would give me away. But I felt safe and warmer and more comfortable than sleeping outside.
I lost track of time. I figured that it must be somewhere about mid to late September. The nights were getting colder, the leaves were starting to turn. I quickly got back to sleeping at night, and exploring the area around my new home during the day. I never saw or heard a soul, except during the day when I was walking out in the woods, I could hear vehicles whizzing by on Route 250. And I envied whoever owned that little hunting shack.
The worst part was being totally alone and cut off from other people. I am a news junky and I had not heard the news or read a newspaper or surfed the internet since my little incident. World War III could have broken out and I would have had no clue. If that cabin were mine that is one thing I’d change, I’d get electricity there. Well, and a toilet. No toilet gets old fast.
I kept up my walking. I guessed that I had lost twenty pounds or more since my old life ended. I had to add three holes in my belt. I guessed I walked 10 to 12 miles per day, mostly up and down hills or small “mountains.” They might have been small, but they were steep. And rocky. And filled with trees. I was in better shape than I had been since my early twenties. But no matter when I tried to get signal for the cell phone, I never could. I left it off all the time to save its charge, only turning it on a couple of times per day to check its signal. No signal, no messages, I wasn’t even sure if it really worked anymore.
Then one evening just after I had eaten the last can of baked beans, I heard the unmistakable sound of a vehicle coming up “my” driveway. I panicked. I grabbed my boots, my gun and a wool blanket off my bed and threw them out the window. I shimmied out, scooped them up, and took off running sock-footed through the woods. I stopped somewhere near the place that I had been when I first checked out the cabin many days before, and listened.
Some unknown vehicle came up the drive and stopped. I heard doors slam, people walking around, men’s voices but too muffled to hear what they said. I heard the clomp of boots on the front porch, and the creak of what I assumed was the front screen door. Then, for a bit, nothing. For some reason, right then, I felt badly: I wished I could pay the owners for the canned food and the broken window. Maybe some day.
Then a noise so loud that it startled me: It could have been the loud roar of a black bear. Or of a bull moose, if we had any moose in Virginia: “GOD DAMN IT! WHO THE F@#K BROKE INTO MY CABIN!” I grabbed up my things and took off into the woods.
Chapter Ten: “Well It’s a long way to Richmond”
Chapter Ten: “It’s a long way to Richmond”
After stopping to put on my boots, I hauled ass out of that general vicinity. I knew roughly how to get back to Route 250. I circled around, steering clear of the cabin and my ex-landlord, and made it out there just before sunset. On the way to the road, I took stock. I had lost all my gear. I had less than twenty bucks in my pocket. Fall was setting in the mountains, and I had a summer shirt and a wool blanket to keep warm. Oh, and no food and now no canteen. I said to hell with it, I was going to try to go back to Richmond.
I got on the south side of Route 250 and stuck out my thumb at the first vehicle to come along. I was just at the top of a hill, with pretty steep grades going both ways. A fuel oil truck came struggling along from the west and stopped and I hopped in.
“Where you headed?”
“Richmond.” “Richmond? What are you doing out in this neck of the woods?”
I used the old “my truck broke down” routine. Hey, it worked before.
“I’m only going as far as Staunton. I’ve been filling people’s fuel oil tanks for the long winter to come. ‘Sposed to be a real cold one. So much for “global warming,” huh? The only hot air around this winter will be from all of Al Gore’s big talk.” Then he rolled down the window and spit tobacco juice out the side. Until then I hadn’t noticed the chaw in the other side of his cheek. I had wondered why his words sounded funny.
“I don’t know about this winter, but tonight it was getting chilly. I sure am glad you stopped.”
“Hey, no problem. My boss don’t allow me to pick up hitch-hikers, but I do it anyway. Hell, in my day we used to hitch-hike all the time.”
He looked to be about mid to late fifties. His face looked like leather. Crew cut mostly grey hair, dirty blue uniform, no doubt his name stenciled over the pocket that I could not see from the passenger side. But he was quick to smile and he used “doncha know” as often as a “Valley Girl” uses “like.” And I was starved for companionship, so we talked all the way back to Staunton.
He was a “’Nam Vet.” He hated “those God Damned Democrats who caused us to pull out, and who then cut off all aid to our allies, the South Vietnamese.” He loved to smoke pot, but he rarely did anymore because his job required that he take unscheduled urine tests. He loved his job because it allowed him to travel all over and not be cooped up inside some shop or some office, except he hated not getting to hear Rush Limbaugh on the radio when he had to travel up into the mountains west of Staunton.
I felt bad giving him the old “I’m a school teacher” routine. I would have liked him. I let on that my politics leaned in the same direction as his, without encouraging any overt political discussion. He seemed relieved when I honestly told him that I wasn’t a member of that “God Damned Teachers’ Union,” as he put it. I wanted him to like me, but also I wanted him to do most of the talking and to not remember a thing about me. He obliged me on the “most of the talking” part.
When we were almost to Staunton he asked if I was hungry. Surprisingly, the beans had already worn off. All the walks in the woods and the cold canned food had taken their toll. I was.
“Truckers know all the best spots to eat,” he confided. “Are you ‘kinda’ hungry, or ‘really’ starving?”
I unconsciously grabbed my belt and admitted, “I’m starving.”
“Great. I know just the place.”
Remembering my precarious financial situation, I replied: “Not too expensive, I hope.”
“No worries, mate, it’s all on me tonight,” he said, using credible Aussie accent.
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not? I can afford to, I want to, and so what’s the problem? Yer not a fag, are you? I sure ain’t, if that’s what you are thinking.”
“No. I really appreciate the offer; it’s just that you are already being too kind.”
“Bullshit. You’d do the same for me, I can tell. It’s settled.”
I didn’t really put up much resistance after that. He took us to some place down town Staunton called the Mill Street Grill. It was somewhat fancy, and I felt out-of-place with my dirty ratty clothes, but he didn’t let it bother him and so I didn’t let it bother me. The food was great. I couldn’t stop eating. And he kept insisting. So I obliged. An hour later, after letting out my belt three notches, we finally staggered back out to the truck.
“You are welcome to bunk at my house tonight.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t. What would your wife say?”
“I’m divorced. She got the kids, but they are all grown up and moved away anyway. It’s just me and ‘Sampson,’ my German Shepard.”
“I appreciate it, I really do. But I have to get back to Richmond.” I didn’t want to take advantage of his hospitality any longer, and I certainly didn’t want him to be thought guilty of “aiding and abetting” if anybody ever discovered who I was. He finally took no for an answer.
“Ok, then, I’ll take you over to the interstate and get you a ride.”
“How you gonna do that?”
“You’ll see. We truckers stick together.” He picked up the C.B. radio and started talking in what sounded like a different language. “Breaker break 1-9: Any of you ‘road jockeys’ in a big truck with enough space in your comic book to make it to Richmond tonight, come back?”
It took him a little time as he was headed out towards the interstate but he finally lined up a trucker who was “hauling some sticks” through Richmond to the mill at West Point. Once on I-81 it was just a couple of miles to where we met the other trucker, at a rest area just onto I-64 east. He had been headed north on I-81, we came from the north, and we both got on I-64 east and met at the nearest rest area, just a couple of miles onto I-64. We actually came upon the other guy just before the rest area.
Before we pulled in to stop, my new friend stuck something in my shirt pocket. “Here, you might need this, buddy.” It was several bills, at least some of which were twenties.
“Oh, no! I can’t! Really!”
But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I could use the money, no question. So I shut up after he finally said, “It’s a loan, you can pay me back later.”
We pulled up behind the truck loaded with timber, and my friend got out and said let him go talk with the other trucker first. I gathered my few things, and carefully laid the money out on the drivers’ seat. I didn’t want to take a chance that I might never be able to repay him. I was afraid that would cause him to think that he couldn’t trust me, or somebody else like me, in the future. Right then I would rather have gone hungry than not repay somebody who had been so kind to me.
My new friend waved me over. It was settled. This guy was going all the way through Richmond tonight. My buddy slapped me on the back, and shook my hand, hard. Heck, I almost wanted to hug him. I climbed in and we took off.
It took a few minutes for me and my new trucker buddy to feel comfortable with each other. Turns out that he was a “‘Nam Vet,” too. He had coal-black skin and white short-cropped hair. He lived in Louisa, and regularly made trips hauling wood from wherever harvesting was going on back to mills throughout Virginia. He finally decided that I was all right when I asked him about his kids. His eyes lit up when he told about his sons, all of whom were great pitchers. He had been semi-pro, and was the unofficial pitching coach of the local high school baseball team. I talked baseball with him for a few miles, until my eyes started getting heavy.
He had just had “some hundred mile coffee” and he was “good to go all the way to Richmond.” No, he didn’t need me to keep him awake. Yes, it would “suit him just fine” if I fell asleep. So I did. To the sound of talk radio and the occasional cackle of the C. B. radio. The one hundred miles flew by.
The next thing I knew we were approaching Short Pump, Virginia, and he was shaking me, asking me where I wanted to be let off. It was after midnight. I had him let me off at, coincidentally, Route 250, which runs all the way from Richmond out through Staunton all the way to the cabin that I had been unceremoniously forced to leave just hours before. I was in “the Far West End” of Richmond, in my home stomping grounds. My house was not more than four miles away. I walked a mile or so to woods near the Wal-Mart and fell asleep.
Chapter Eleven: Floundering Around
Some time in the night I awoke with a start. I realized that I couldn’t go around Richmond looking like a bum. It might draw too much attention in areas that I wanted to go. And, though Richmond is not a large city, I still might get noticed due to my recent notoriety.
I left all my stuff and went into the nearby Wal-Mart while it was still dark. It took a few minutes but I finally found some new khaki pants and a long sleeve shirt on clearance and cheap enough that I had a few bucks left over for food. Nobody seemed to even notice me.
While waiting for my receipt, I noticed a patron talking to an unarmed security guard at the front of the store. I swear the woman had been pointing at me. The security guard said something to her, and then pointed off to the back. She looked at me, then at him. He nodded his head, then sort of directed her where to go, off in the direction that he had pointed. I took my bag and walked out, trying to ignore him but keeping an eye on him out of the corner of my eye. He turned his back towards me nonchalantly and casually walked away.
Outside, I got away from the big doors and started running towards the side of the building as fast as possible. I kept looking back to see if he ever came outside, but I didn’t see him. Once around the side of the building, I stopped to catch my breath. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Few cars were parked in the lot. A couple of motor homes and some big trucks. Traffic out on Route 250, or West Broad Street as it is called in Richmond, was few and far between.
Then I saw it, a cop car running fast without his siren or overhead lights, heading from my left to my right on Broad Street. He pulled into the Wal-Mart lot and it sounded as though he floored his engine, as he headed towards the door where I had exited. I didn’t hang around to see anything else. I took off running behind the Wal-Mart.
I didn’t think that I had enough time to get back to where I had left my gun and blanket. I wanted to put distance between me and that cop. Fortunately, I knew where I was and where I could go. In less than a quarter-mile I came to I-64, which is 3-4 lanes in each direction, separated by a wooded median. When I got to I-64, I headed east for a few hundred yards, and then when it looked all clear in the east bound lanes, I ran across into the median and hid, waiting for a chance to get across.
I hoped to lose any dogs tracking me if it ever came to that. I figured the dogs might have a hard time tracking me on the interstate. Or I hoped so. I waited until it was all clear, then went out into the middle and started sprinting as fast as I could back west in the west bound lanes of travel. The traveling east had been just to try to make them think I was headed in that direction. When traffic was coming, or when I was too tired to run any more, I went into the median only as far as necessary and waited for the next time.
I made it to the exit onto I-295 eastbound towards Virginia Beach. That exit is two lanes, with wooded land off to the side. I ran that way a quarter-mile or so, and then crossed over to the west bound side, towards Charlottesville, and ran back that way, back to where it merges back with I-64 westbound. There, after catching my breath, I went straight up a slight hill towards a subdivision there. I kept careful attention to where I had come up from so that eventually I could back track and go back the way I came. To make sure, I laid down my new bag of clothes. I jogged into the neighborhood, and even went into a couple of yards, and up onto back porches, and up to back shed. I wasn’t interested in any of the houses, I was only trying to make it look like I was to any dog handlers whose dogs tracked me this far.
Then I exited the way that I came and ran back east on westbound I-295. About a half mile down the road (after many stops, and gasping for breath), I ran backwards up the Knuckles Road entrance onto I-295. I didn’t know whether running down the middle of a highway would affect a dog’s ability to track me, but I figured it sure couldn’t hurt, as thousands of cars would be using these roads in the next couple of hours. Finally, I went onto Knuckles Road and ran south a hundred yards or so, and only then did I slip into the triangle of woods that is between the entrance ramp, Knuckles Road, and north of I-295 West.
Though the area is quite populated, that little strip of land is full of trees, brush, and a little stream that is dammed up by a beaver dam. I knew, because I had driven by the place hundreds of times. Finally, exhausted, and satisfied that I had done all that I could do to throw off any potential trackers, I curled up under a large tree, far enough from all roads that I was out of sight, and tried to get some rest.
Surprisingly, despite my clothes being soaked with sweat, despite the near constant noise of early morning traffic going by in both directions, I actually got a couple of hours of sleep. Then, the cold of dawn just before daylight woke me up, shivering. I was still damp from a mixture of sweat from running and morning dew. I had no possessions except the clothes on my back, a couple of dollars and some change, and the new wardrobe that I’d just purchased from Wal-Mart. I was cold, sore, hungry, and miserable, and darkness was giving way to light.
Then it began to rain, a slow and steady rain; the kind that seems as though it will last all day. Virginia weather in late September is usually pretty mild, and that day was no exception. But the combination of steady rain, high 60’s temperature, and summer clothes eventually took their toll upon my core temperature.
I tried taking my plastic bag from Wal-Mart, and I actually was able to fit my head and shoulders down to my waist inside. The heat from my breath and the relief from the rain helped. But it only slowed down what I was sure was going to be a bad case of hypothermia if I didn’t do something. I sat there a couple more hours; I had no choice, thousands of cars went by that area in the early morning rush hour, with people rushing off to school and to work. By the time I felt safe to leave my little sanctuary, I had started to shake and shiver uncontrollably. With great difficulty I pulled off my old and dirty clothes and put on my new ones. I figured that if I had to wear sopping wet clothes they might as well be new fall clothes.
I walked north along Knuckles road. There were a few small strip malls, a couple of gas stations, and a McDonald’s restaurant. The people in one of the gas stations might have recognized me, because I used to gas up there quite frequently. But the McDonald’s I had only used the drive-through a couple of times. I felt desperate so I went there. I mumbled something about my car breaking down and needing to warm up. The girls behind the counter gave me a look, but not because they recognized me, because I looked so terrible. I got a coffee and as much food as possible with the last of my money and sat in a booth furthest away from anyone else. I grabbed a piece of newspaper and pretended to read it for the next hour as I tried to dry off.
A couple of Henrico County’s finest came in for an early lunch. I tried to look small. They ignored me and sat down far away. Later, a man walked inside and ordered his food. I was ignoring everyone, trying to act engrossed in a crossword puzzle. He walked over to the cops and asked them: “What’s all the commotion out on 64 and 295?” That caught my attention.
“Ah, somebody thought they sighted John Danielson at the Wal-Mart last night.”
“The lawyer who killed those cops?”
“Yup. I think that they are dreaming. He’s probably in Mexico or Canada by now. Any way, they aren’t taking any chances. They are trying to identify him by using the surveillance tapes. Supposedly it looked like him, but they aren’t sure; gonna have it computer enhanced by the Fibbies to see if they can see for sure. Whoever it was, they have the dogs out tracking him. They used the scent from money that he gave the clerk. They had to stop traffic on the interstate during rush hour. It caused a huge mess…”
I slipped into the men’s room unnoticed, went into the stall and locked it. Oh, shit.
Chapter Twelve: Seek help
I waited a good fifteen minutes. Afterwards, the cops were gone. I walked over to the nearby gas station and bummed fifty cents off a guy. I called Janet, Craig’s wife, on the pay phone.
“Janet. It’s John.”
“Janet, I don’t have time to mess around. I need you to drop everything and pick me up, right now.”
“No BUTS! Now! Don’t ask questions, just come. And hurry. And don’t take 64 west, take Staples Mill Road to I-295, and then take the Knuckles Road north exit.”
I told her where I was and urged her again to hurry. Getting Janet any time to “hurry” was a losing proposition, so I didn’t hold my breath. I was about to turn to “Plan B” when she drove into the gas station. I got in and hunched over.
“Where have you been? People have been looking all over for you!”
“Long story. But what about Craig?”
“You haven’t heard? The doctors say that he is going to live. He’s a tough old bird.”
“Where is he?”
“Still at MCV in the critical care unit. He has no recollection of what happened. The police say that you and Craig and Butch ambushed those officers who died.”
“What do you think?”
“I know that’s a lie!”
“I kinda figured. If you thought it was true you wouldn’t have hurried over and saved me.” By then I was slumped over in the seat so that other cars could not even see the top of my head. “I haven’t heard anything about their search for me, or what they have charged me with. Nothing.”
“They charged you with ‘Capital Murder.’ The prosecutor already has claimed that he will seek the death penalty. They are saying that you guys were members of a right-wing militia.”
“Nobody will believe that.”
“Some people at church believe it. Some have already left the church, not wanting to be associated with those who support Craig and Butch. And you.”
I didn’t even want to guess at names of those who left. That news hit me like a body-blow from Chuck “The Ice Man” Liddell.
“Umm. Where do you want me to take you? I can’t risk taking you home. The police have searched our property twice so far. Turned everything inside out and upside down.”
“Where are we?”
“Staples Mill, almost to Dickens.”
“Get on Dickens and take it to Broad, then take I-64 east.”
“But I can get on I-64 east easier if I just go past…”
“I know. Just trust me. I’m going to have you stop and let me out on the interstate at a particular place…”
The place that I had her stop was less than a mile from her house. I had her pull off the side of the road as far as possible, while keeping an eye out for the police.
“Can you lend me some money?”
“I don’t have much. Craig’s work won’t pay him. They claim that he isn’t worthy of receiving his long-term disability. They can’t do that, can they?”
“They are doing it, aren’t they? ‘They’ can do whatever they want unless you get a lawyer and force them to pay.”
“I can’t afford a lawyer right now…”
“Janet, I don’t have time to deal with this right now. Give me as much as you can, I have no cash. I’ll try to help you with Craig’s employer later. And does Craig still leave his car keys where he always does?”
She looked sheepish at that, smiled, and nodded.
“Hmmm. Somebody might steal his car if you aren’t careful…”
Another smile. She handed over all her cash and then told me when there was a break in traffic. I got out, walked up the bank and into ‘Kitty’s woods,’ while trying not to look like I was trespassing or otherwise acting suspiciously. Kitty was Craig’s “Mumma”, and she lived just a short distance from Craig. I found a secluded spot not twenty-five yards off the interstate and hunkered down until after sunset. The first couple of hours weren’t too bad. Adrenaline and the hot food and staying inside McDonald’s, then Janet’s heat being on high, had warmed my temperature back to normal. But after a while, I was cold again. I just shivered, and waited for darkness.
Once it was dark, I headed west along the east bound side of I-64 towards Craig and Janet’s. I stayed in the trees and brush, out of sight. There was still a lot of traffic and I didn’t want to be seen. Once I was across from their property, I waited for a break in traffic and scrambled across six lanes of traffic, two “Jersey walls” and one median, up the bank of a steep but small hill, and onto Craig’s property. I sat there a few moments to catch my breath and make sure that nobody saw me, or did anything out of the ordinary. Nobody did.
I crept onto the back side of Craig’s property. It abutted the interstate. His “Mumma,” Katherine, whom everybody who knew her called Kitty and her husband had originally owned a small farm. When the interstate was built their farm was cut in two. Craig got some of the property on the north side, his parents had most of the property on the south side. The city and suburbs had spread out to them so that now almost every other house nearby was on just a city lot, but Craig owned a couple of acres.
Far at the back of his property was my old camper. I’d bought it used about ten years earlier, when it was almost on its last leg. When my family lived out in the country, I could park it on my property. I bought it to use when I took my son deer hunting up in the mountains. When things went bad, and I had to move back to the city, Craig allowed me to park it on his property. Temporarily, everybody assumed. It had been over four years since I parked it there, and it hadn’t been used since. Over the years my conscience had bothered me, and I had at least thought about selling it. But Craig was always so nice about it, “No problem, Bubba, you can leave it there as long as you want.” Nobody—nobody—else calls me “Bubba.” So it was still there. And suddenly I was very glad.
I opened the door quietly so as not to arouse Craig’s dogs and climbed in. It was stale and dank. It had had a small leak in the roof for about the last five years. But only in one spot. I avoided that end, laid down on one of the bunk beds, pulled some old musty blankets over my head, and went to sleep.
I woke with a start sometime later. Alex and Penney were barking. I immediately feared that it was the police, back to search one more time. But I got up and looked out the front side window and saw that it was just Jeffrey, their older son, returning from work. He lives at home while going to college and working full-time. And he took the dogs inside.
Then I noticed how cold I was again, I was shivering. My clothes were still sopping wet. I took them all off and hung them up to dry, and climbed into the other bed to avoid the wet spot that I had made earlier and went back to sleep. For some reason I was exhausted, and having a dry bed to sleep on knocked me out.
The next morning, I heard somebody let the dogs out, Janet leave (for work?) and Jeffrey then leave for wherever. I ran to Craig’s old truck, got in, found the key right where it always was, and drove away. I drove out-of-town until I found an out-of-the-way pay phone next to “Debbie’s Diner.” I called my law partner.
“Joseph Graff’s office, how may I help you?” (Wow. Joe moved quickly. It used to be “Law offices of Graff and Danielson.”) Rooney answered, so I disguised my voice.
“May I speak to Mr. Graff?”
“May I tell him who is calling?”
“Tell him a Mr. Jones. I’m calling about possibly handling a case for me.” I knew that would get Joe to drop everything and talk to me. Seconds later, he answered.
“This is Joseph Graff,” using his most professional deep baritone voice.
“Hey Joe. Long time no see.”
Brief pause. “John. Never thought I’d hear from you like this.”
“Why not? We are still partners, right?”
“Technically. But you are a wanted man. I can’t have anything to do with you. I’m not going to risk my law license harboring a fugitive.”
“I’m not asking you to harbor a fugitive. How about helping out a friend? I need money, I need to find a lawyer. I didn’t do it, you know?”
“Sure. What do you want from me?”
“I want you to meet me. And bring me some cash.”
“Sure. Where and when?”
I told him, and then went on ahead to wait for him. He estimated that it would take an hour to get all the cash that I requested. I had nothing better to do, so I drove to the meeting place. The good thing about Wal-Mart’s parking place is that it is so big, and there are so many people, it is easy for a dirty, unkempt guy in a beaten down old truck to park in the lot and fit right in.
I parked a long way from where I told him to meet me, but where I could see him when he showed up, and pulled one of Craig’s old caps low over my eyes and pretended to be asleep. By then it was sunny and I had to lower the windows. I dozed on and off. I lost track of time. Then I saw a Henrico County Police car pull into the lot. He parked out in the outer regions of the parking lot. No problem. Cops need to shop occasionally, too. Right? But he didn’t get out. Strange. I thought that I was just being paranoid again.
Then I noticed one in my side rear view mirror pull into the parking lot behind me. And then another one way off to the side. I’d seen enough. I started the old truck and eased out into the other traffic. Another good thing about where I had chosen was that there were many places to get in and out of the lot. I drove around behind Wal-Mart, behind a Kroger’s, and down all the way to Tom Leonard’s, and went out to Broad Street. I turned right, heading out-of-town, immediately lost in bumper to bumper traffic. When I finally got back to where I could see where the meeting place was supposed to be, I saw two more cop cars, one a Henrico Police and the other a state police. What are the odds?
I drove a mile or so to the Short Pump Mall. I felt safer, as though I could blend in, when there were thousands of other people around. I parked out in the outer areas of parked cars and pondered what had just happened. I spent a miserable several hours hunkered down in that hot dirty old truck, hiding my face, pretending to be napping, whenever people came near who might see me.
After several hours, I drove further out-of-town to a gas station and called Janet. Turns out that I had made the news. The a.m. radio station WRVA was reporting that there were credible reports that I had been seen in and around Richmond. My face was supposedly plastered on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch. She “noticed” that Craig’s truck was missing. I promised her that if I was ever arrested that I would deny that she had helped me in any way. And I promised to repay her if only she would buy some supplies and meet me at a predetermined spot. She did.
Chapter Thirteen: On the lam
She brought the stuff. I went to a gas station by the express way and went directly into the Men’s Room. I died my fair hair (with some grey on the sides) and eyebrows dark brown. I put on horn rimmed glasses. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. Then I got out of town for awhile, to let the heat die down. To the perfect place. Where they would never look. I went back to “Janet’s property.”
Craig had a little shack there. It was just about 10 foot by 8 foot shed, with two windows and a door. There was no insulation, nothing but a couple of cots and a woodstove. But it was out of sight from all but those who stumbled upon it, or were looking for it.
I hid the old truck, and hung out for a few days, eating the jerky and dry cereal and canned pork and beans that Janet had bought me. And sleeping on a hard plywood floor with just a couple of old blankets to keep me warm. And drinking bottled water. I kept up my walking routine, hiking several miles a day through the woods; while carefully avoiding anything or anywhere that had anything to do with the shootings. When the food and water was almost gone, I decided to head back into Richmond to take care of some un-finished business.
I met with attorney David Ball at a pre-determined place. He was one of the handful of lawyers that came to my mind whom I would want to hire if I was charged with murder in or around Richmond. The fact that he is black was a negative out in King William County, which has a majority of white citizens. But the fact that he handles tough cases was a plus. He was the only African American that I knew of who ever handled a cross burning case for the Ku Klux Klan. He defended them on the basis that burning a cross was protected by the Constitution as a form of freedom of expression.
“Mr. Ball, so good to meet you.”
“My pleasure. What can I do for you?”
“I want you to represent me. I didn’t do it.”
“I thought you were a lawyer?”
“Don’t you know? I don’t care if you did it or not. I don’t want to know whether or not you ‘did it.’ It is not my job to determine whether or not you ‘did it.’ It is my job to force the government to prove that you did it. If they can’t, if they fail to prove that you ‘did it,’ that’s their tough luck. That’s how the system works. I don’t care about you. I care about ‘The System.’ If they can put you away without jumping through the proper hoops, without proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that you ‘did it’, then they can do it to me, and to all the people whom I love. They can do it to anybody.”
I held up my hands in surrender.
“Just answer some questions that I have. I’ll handle the rest.”
“Don’t you care about whether I can pay you or not?”
“I’ve already looked into that. You own a house with a second mortgage, but you have over a hundred grand in equity. That’ll do for now. And even if I end up getting nothing for my time, the notoriety will be worth it in future business.”
“Hey, are you always this blunt with your new clients?”
“No. But we are fellow professionals.”
I answered some questions. I signed some papers, formalizing our relationship. Then I asked a couple.
“Is it a valid excuse to break the law because I was running away to avoid false charges?”
He looked at me, incredible. “What do you think?”
“Can I claim that I was under duress? They killed Butch. They tried to kill Craig.”
He just looked at me sideways and tilted his head. And gave a slight shake of the head.
“Well, how are they going to prove that what I say happened didn’t happen? It was just me and the State Trooper, and he is dead. I say he shot at me first. I tried to tell him that I was innocent, but he kept shooting at me. I killed him in self defense.”
“You forgetting about the Sheriff of King William County? He was there.”
“What are you talking about? The Sheriff wasn’t there.”
“He’s been going around telling everybody that he was there, and that he saw you ambush the trooper.”
My jaw dropped. “Noooo.” Incredulus look.
“Yes.” Been there, heard that look.
“He. Was. Not. There.”
David Ball just held his palms up, and gave a little shrug.
“Can we make any deal with the Commonwealth’s Attorney?” (Prosecutors in Virginia are called ‘Commonwealth’s Attorneys.’ In this case, at least for the murder charge, we would have to deal with the Commonwealth’s Attorney for King William County.)
“Yeah, you can plead guilty to ‘Capital Murder’ and let a jury decide whether you deserve life imprisonment, or the death penalty.”
I looked incredulous. He nodded matter-of-factly.
As I drove away from that meeting I felt slightly nauseous. A fine cold sweat broke over me. And it was only late afternoon and in the upper sixties, a typical late September or early October day in the lowlands of Virginia. I spent the rest of the day and most of the night in another Wal-Mart parking lot, only this time it was the “Mechanicsville” one, not the Short Pump Wal-Mart. I’m not particularly partial to Wal-Mart; it’s just that they always have vehicles parked in their lot that allowed me to blend in. One crazy looking guy out in the middle of nowhere, if seen, stands out, but one guy in the middle of many doesn’t. I slept fitfully, waking up every few minutes, or every hour or two. Finally, in the wee hours of the night, I drove to my next destination.
I parked on the side of I-64. It must have been around 4:00 a.m., judging by the lack of traffic and the darkness and the chill in the air. I hurried to the place where I thought I had left my .357 before I had last gone to the Wal-Mart for new clothes. Nothing looked familiar. I had not taken any specific precautions to ensure that I could find the exact location again. I Couldn’t. I walked back and forth, and then I went diagonally. Finally, I got down on my hands and knees and felt around in the dew-covered grass and leaves. Darkness, punctuated only occasionally by cars whizzing up and down I-64. Nothing.
I must have spent a half hour or more. I knew I was in the general vicinity. Then a car pulled off the highway behind the truck. Oh, crap.
It had lights on top of the car. I flattened myself into the grass and leaves; about twenty five yards from Craig’s truck. Lights came on, but they didn’t look like typical police overhead lights. I heard a door open, then close, and the “crunch, crunch, crunch” of someone walking along towards Craig’s truck. I couldn’t see them in the dark. I silently cursed them and my bad luck. Then the beam of a flashlight shined into the truck. I pressed myself flatter into the ground, and refused to look anymore. At one point, it seemed as though the beam of the flashlight was directly on me for a split second as it quickly swept the nearby surroundings. I held my breath.
Then, “crunch, crunch, crunch” as whomever it was walked back to their car. The car started, and drove away. Just like that, I was back in darkness. But now scared. I considered just staying there until sunrise, hoping that daylight would help me find the damn gun. But only for a second; I was in a location that would have a lot of traffic very soon, and an abandoned vehicle would likely attract the attention of law enforcement. I concluded that the vehicle that stopped was motorist assistance instead of law enforcement, but that did not make me feel any less threatened. Where was the damn gun?
After what seemed like hours, but was more likely just tens of minutes, I gave up. I got in the truck and got the hell out of there.
I parked on a side street and walked behind a building, and hid behind a dumpster. I had a dumpster hiding me one direction, and a fence covered with ivy and weeds and bushes on the other side, with only a foot or two visible from the other two directions. I hunkered down and waited for my prey. The sun came up, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. After almost an hour, I guessed it must be about 7 o’clock to 7:30 a.m., a car drove up and parked. I knew the car. I could read the personalized license plate. The occupant got out, and walked towards the entrance of the office. I got out of my hiding place and followed.
Joe looked startled. “John.” He looked around, like a cornered wild animal. I could almost see him calming himself, trying to act normal. “Good to see you. Come on in.”
“Want some coffee?” He unlocked the door with a key that was new. An hour before, I had tried my key, and it no longer worked. He punched some numbers in the alarm system, and I had no doubt that they were different than the code we had when I was his partner and working here. I couldn’t think of any reason why Joe would change the locks on a building that he and I owned together, as partners.
Joe is bigger than I am, a “beer belly” and “massive arms covered in red hair” as some Times-Dispatch writer had once described him. Joe had been forced to sue the Virginia Bar in order to get his license decades ago, and it had made the news. Joe had framed the article, along with the picture of a young Joe. Then, he had been a street fighter, lean and mean. Now he was just fat and old, but still a scrapper.
He tried to act normal, making the day’s first pot of coffee. I hung around the waiting room, feeling like a stranger. Finally, after awkward silence, the coffee was done. We each fixed our own in silence.
“Hey. Come on into my office.” In his best deep baritone, the voice he used to try to intimidate. The voice I knew all too well. He sat behind his overly large desk. Behind his desk that he used to intimidate people. I know, because he had told me so.
“So, what happened to you when we were supposed to meet at Wal-Mart?” Slurp of coffee.
I just gave him a stone face.
“I showed up; where were you?”
“Cut the bullshit, Joe. I saw the cops.” I lowered my brow and glared at him.
“What?” He tried his innocent act. He lifted his palms and shrugged.
For some reason, that really pissed me off. I almost could hear the blood rushing into my ears. I suppose that my feelings were evident on my face. I scrunched my mouth; I squinted my eyes, and clenched my teeth.
“Hey, don’t blame me if the Wal-Mart parking lot happens to contain some police. I didn’t ask to meet you there. I showed up and you never did.”
He seemed to sense that I could not really prove that he was lying through his teeth. He smiled, that fake, I’ll rip your heart out if I get the chance, if you let your guard down, smile of his.
“Never mind about the damn Wal-Mart. I need money.”
He put on his reading glasses, cleared his throat, and said: “We are no longer partners.” He was using his slow, this is the way it is tone of voice. “Once you began to live a life of crime, our partnership was automatically dissolved. Paragraph 11, the third sentence, reads, and I quote…”
“Shut the fuck up!” I slapped my hand down on his big fancy desk. That got his attention.
“Legally, all of your cases are mine now. Legally, all the money in our joint general account is mine now. Frankly, none of your clients want you as their attorney any longer.” He couldn’t hide a slight smirk.
“That’s fine. I don’t want them as my clients anymore.” I gave my own smirk. “Life on the lam suits me just fine.” OK, my nostrils flared a little. “But you know you owe me some money to dissolve this partnership.”
He gave me a dismissive fake-smile. He was starting to feel confident. “I’m not paying you a damn thing. You killed a man, you ran from the law, you have committed God only knows how many felonies in the past few weeks, and now you show up out of the blue and demand that I pay you money that I quote unquote ‘owe you.’ You are dreaming.”
Just then, Rooney came into the office. Joe’s trusted legal assistant, she had been with him for years. We could hear her going to her desk, shuffling papers about, pouring herself some coffee. Joe said “Morning Rooney” in a loud voice. I got up and closed the door.
“Besides, there is a hundred thousand dollar bounty on your head.”
Oh, shit. I tried to ignore that remark.
“You know, and I know, that our partnership, my cases, our money in the bank, was worth tens of thousands of dollars. I’m not asking for anything even remotely close to ‘fair’ value for my share. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let you walk away with all of it. I need cash, and I need it now.”
He looked at me with his little condescending look, and said in a patronizing voice: “I don’t think so. You don’t have any bargaining chips.” He smiled, and picked up the phone, pushed Rooney’s number, “Rooney, call 911 and report a burglary in progress. I’ve found an intruder.” Click.
“You son of a bitch!”
He looked like a junkyard dog standing watch over his bone. Only that “bone” was tens of thousands of dollars that he rightfully owed me. I saw how it was. He was lucky that I hadn’t found my .357 magnum. I got the hell out of dodge before the cops came. I hit Janet’s house one last time, and then figured that it was time to get out of Richmond for awhile.
Chapter Fourteen: Anne’s fate
I made sure I was outside of Anne’s house early enough the next morning so as not to attract attention so that I could catch her leaving for school. I had tried several times to call her, always receiving a message that “The number you have dialed is no longer receiving messages.” I ducked down in Craig’s truck and waited, hoping that nobody would notice me. I had no idea when school teachers left for school, but when it seemed as though she wasn’t leaving the house, I went to the door and knocked softly, hoping that Mrs. Kerns wasn’t out and about. Or was it Mrs. Kramer? Whatever.
An older gentleman answered, about the time that I was going to give up. Crew cut, sixty to sixty-five, obviously in fine shape, with just a little skin tone surrendered to gravity.
“John Danielson I presume.”
I looked a little startled. “And you must be Mister Gerald Hughes.” I stuck out my hand, and he grabbed it with a tight grip and pulled me inside.
“Call me Jerry.” He closed the door and motioned with his head for me to sit down. I did. “What the hell is going on?”
“Sir?” I gulped. Silence.
“My daughter finally told me all about you.”
He just eye-balled me, sizing me up.
“She told me about you, too.” Weak, I knew it immediately. “Is she home?”
A cloud passed in front of his eyes, but I couldn’t read him. “No.”
“You gonna turn me in for the bounty?”
That surprised him at first. Then he looked as though it made sense. “How much is it up to?”
“One hundred thousand dollars.”
A slow, low whistle. A little curl of his lip and an arch of his eyebrow. “Not bad. Last I heard it was twenty-five large.”
“Well? Are you?”
“No.” He saw disbelief on my face. “Not for your sake, for Anne’s. For whatever reason, she likes you. She never did have good taste in men.”
“I’d like to see her. When will she be home?”
A dark look passed over his face. “Cut the bull shit.”
He looked as though he was getting angry at me. I just gave him a puzzled look, with my brow furled a little bit. Then there was a tense pause. I wasn’t going to say a damn thing until he did. He looked like he was trying to peer down into my soul. I didn’t have a clue what he was thinking; I just had my stubborn up.
“She’s in jail.”
I gave a short, fake laugh, assuming that he was joking. Then I gave him a smirk. Then I got serious, when he never smiled. Come to think of it, he didn’t seem as though he was the type to joke around. “You serious?”
No response. No change in facial expression. He was serious. I was a mixture of puzzlement and concern. “Why?”
“Because of you.”
In his terse way he went on to explain that Mrs. Kramer had finally realized where she had seen me, after the forest fires had nearly killed two firefighters. Explosive and devastating though they were, the fires had not burned my campsite. Some of the items that I had left behind in my haste had been recovered. With both my fingerprints and Anne’s on some of them. And the items had been traced back to where they had been purchased, and her receipts had been recovered, showing that she had purchased them. And the Commonwealth’s Attorney was being a “hard nosed prick” as Jerry explained it, trying to put pressure on his “little Annie” in order to get her to tell everything that she knew about me. “Of course,” he said, her “worthless ex-husband” was using all this to get custody of “little Peaches” (Chloe). His shoulders sagged as he finished.
“I didn’t know… I had no idea… I’m sorry.”
“I see that.” He set his jaw and looked at me. “But what are you gonna do about it now?“
“What is she charged with?” I had a sick feeling that I already knew.
“’Aiding and abetting a felon.’ ‘Accessory-after-the-fact.’ ‘Harboring a fugitive.’ And a few others that I can’t recall off-hand.”
“Are you shitting me?” Short pause. Ok, dumb question: “Jerry” didn’t seem like he had “shitted” anybody in the past several decades.
I thought of Anne sitting in a county jail cell, and of her losing Chloe: “I’ll turn myself in…” I didn’t have a lot of conviction behind that. But I honestly think that I would have.
“How is that gonna help?”
Good question. I could see the headlines: “Felon whom ‘Annie’ ‘aided and abetted’ turns himself in.” Damn, this was one of those rare occasions where I wish I would have specialized in representing those who were accused of breaking criminal laws. I wanted desperately to know what was the right thing to do, so that I could do it.
Jerry finally convinced me to let him pull Craig’s truck into his garage so that we could “strategize.” I was exhausted, and tired of living on the lam, so I agreed. He fed me. I slept much of the rest of the day. And I drank with him beginning late that afternoon when he offered me bourbon, straight up. He wasn’t such a bad guy. OK, I may have drunk a little too much…
I woke up the next day with a splitting headache, and feeling as though I was going to puke. I was fully clothed, on top of the bedspread, even my shoes on. I obviously had not brushed my teeth. It seemed as though it was late morning. I stumbled into the bathroom, and then into the kitchen. Jerry was reading the paper and drinking coffee.
“Morning ‘Sunshine.’ Get your beauty sleep?”
I gave him a sick curl of the lip, and tried to close my eyes while standing up. I hate morning people. I hate guys who can hold their liquor. I hated Jerry right then.
“We gonna carry out your plan?” He seemed eager, almost like a little boy just before going out “trick or treating” on Halloween. Then he noticed my blank look. “You don’t remember?”
Silence. I knew I couldn’t bullshit Jerry. But I didn’t want to verbalize that fact. So I gave him a weak half-smile. Figure it out, Jerry.
“Ok, here is your ‘plan.’ I’ll wear the blonde wig and sneak you in as my lesbian lover. We’ll hide the straight razor in the German chocolate cake that we will try to bring into the prison. If the guards catch on, I’ll pull out my Derringer out of my bra, and point it at the…”
I catch on slowly, especially when I’m hung over, but I finally caught on that “morning person” Jerry actually did have a sense of humor. I smiled and gave him the “CUT” sign that every Director gives when he wants to stop the action on the set. I gave him a weak smile, and tried to swallow the bile from last night’s over-indulgence, and closed my eyes to keep out the bright light of day.
It wasn’t until after I’d had Pepto Bismol, AlkaSeltzer, several cups of coffee and even a little “hair of the dog” (in this case a nip of Irish whiskey in my coffee) that Jerry felt comfortable trying to start-up a conversation.
“You were all gung-ho to break into the jail and rescue Annie last night.” He smiled, as though that was somehow amusing. I just looked at him with a blank face. “Big talk from a guy who doesn’t even have a gun.”
“Well, I have a gun. Just can’t find it.”
“I’ve got plenty.”
Grunt. I figured, him being retired law enforcement.
“And no, you can’t borrow one to rescue her.”
“Why did you take me in? Aren’t you ‘harboring a fugitive’?
“A retired Sheriff…?”
He shrugged. “I was never one of those ‘by the book’ Sheriffs. I tried to keep the dangerous and the looneys off the street. Yeah, I played favorites with the locals. Not based on social status, but based on my knowledge of their character. When I knew kids, if they got in trouble but I knew that they were basically good kids, I cut them slack. Some Sheriffs run around trying to lock everybody up for every little infraction. I figured that Judges exercise discretion, and Commonwealth’s Attorneys did too, so why couldn’t I? I was a ‘Constitutional Officer,’ elected by the people. I figured if they didn’t like my use of discretion then they could elect somebody else. I lasted over two decades.” He smiled.
“Yeah, but harboring somebody charged with murdering a State Trooper?” My voice trailed off. It was a shock just to verbalize it.
“You said you didn’t do it. I believe you.”
“Last night. After I had administered enough ‘truth serum’ that I knew you weren’t lying.”
“’Truth serum’? What the?”
“Bourbon. You born yesterday?”
“The Sheriff of King William County said he saw me do it…”
“You trying to change my mind? Maybe yer right. Maybe I should turn you in. The house could use some major improvements.” He looked around. “Yup, new paint, new appliances, new big screen T.V…” He looked sideways at me, and saw that I wasn’t taking this too well. “Come on, son, lighten up—I’m kidding. Annie said you didn’t do it, too. She’s one of the best judges of character that I know.”
“Thought you said she had poor choice in men?”
“She does. She chooses men with flaws, like her ex. Or who are down on their luck, like you. You are the latest in a long line of stray kittens and injured wildlife that she has brought home and nursed back to health.”
“Be easier if she hadn’t taken me home.”
“That’s what I told her.”
“Well, since you’ve squashed my plan to save Anne, do you have any brilliant ideas?”
“I’m leaving now to visit her. I’ll let her know that you have been in touch and that you are safe.”
“Tell her I’m willing to turn myself in and take full blame. I’ll say that I forced her to help against her will, and threatened to kill her and her family if she called the police. I’ll do anything.”
“It might come to that. But first, let’s take this one step at a time. I’ll ask around. I’ve still got a lot of contacts. Le’ me see what I can do.”
“OK. I’d better be leaving.”
“Nonsense! You stay right here. It’s broad daylight.”
“I don’t want to get you arrested, too.”
“Neither do I. The last thing I want is having you seen leaving my driveway in broad daylight and then get caught. Stay here, at least until tonight.”
Further argument proved futile. I stayed.
Chapter 15: The Word on the Street
Jerry was gone for many hours. It was midmorning when he left, and the street light was on out front before he got back. I did the crossword puzzle in the leftover Sunday paper. I scrupulously avoided reading the news, not wanting to see anything about me and/or Anne. Evidently, Jerry or Anne are big fans of “Detective Novels,” there were dozens on the bookshelf. I read a large portion of one, just to pass the time. For the life of me I can’t recall any of the details.
Jerry strode up the steps and flung open the door, gun in hand. “You got some ‘splaining to do.”
He sat down at the kitchen table, laid the gun on the table—sorta pointing in my direction—and generally appeared to be in a foul mood. “The police traced that gun that you purchased to another crime. The ballistics tests indicate that gun was used to murder somebody else years ago.”
My face paled. My eyes widened. I knew I must look guilty. I didn’t doubt that is what he had been told, I just couldn’t fathom it being true.
“How long have you owned the gun?”
I figured in my head, thinking back to where I was living, and when the years that I lived there. It took a couple of minutes. “I guess nine to ten years.”
Immediate follow-up: “Where did you buy it?” He seemed to be in his interrogation mode, now.
Without hesitation, I told him “’Green Top Sporting Goods’ on Route 1 in Ashland.”
Quicker: “Have you ever known anybody who was murdered?”
I thought a moment. “No.”
“Careful,” in a threatening tone of voice.
This time I thought for much longer. “No.”
“Anybody that you have been close to know anybody who has been murdered?”
“My wife, before she divorced me, knew two people when she was in high school who were murdered. But that was decades ago.”
“Anybody else, more recently?”
“I can’t think of anybody.”
“I don’t believe you.” He re-adjusted the pistol to be pointed directly at me. And not by accident.
“Nobody is coming to mind. Why don’t you just tell me what this is all about?”
My face blanched. “He’s dead? He’s my ex-partner, but I didn’t kill him.” I thought about my gun, and the fact that I couldn’t find it. “I saw him recently. I might have killed him if I’d had my pistol, but I couldn’t find it. Hell, I’m glad I didn’t have it with me the last time I saw him. …”
“That gives you motive then.”
I paused. True. Maybe I’d better shut up. Maybe this guy was interrogating me for the police.
Jerry held up his hand to get me to stop: “He’s not dead.”
I was puzzled. “What about Joseph Graff then?”
“He’s going around saying that you must have killed his ex-wife. That’s who was murdered by your .357 magnum almost nine years ago. When you owned the gun.”
“You already knew when I purchased the gun, and where I purchased it.”
“Thought you didn’t know anybody close to you who had been murdered? Your own partner, only nine years ago, and you didn’t remember?”
“It was before he was my partner. Back when we were at best golfing buddies. He’s had several ex-wives. And I have a shitty memory.”
“Did you have a motive to kill her?”
“I never saw her a day in my life, not one time.”
“Joe Graff says that you did.”
“He’s lying, then. I didn’t know her, I have never, ever, had anything to do with her. Period.”
“When it comes right down to it, everybody who says that you murdered somebody is a liar, right? Is that about it?”
I had no answer to that.
Chapter Sixteen: Jerry’s Decision
We ate in silence. I pushed canned green beans around in some sort of gravy, with some unknown cut of pork. The gravy couldn’t save the pork from being grossly over-cooked. It was just some dinner that Jerry cooked up after politely asking me to stay where I was until he decided what to do. Jerry’s food tasted bland—no salt diet was my guess. But it was the first food that I had that day and I wolfed it down. But Jerry finished first.
“Graff says that you talked about being a member of a militia.” His eyes tried to peer into my soul.
I was going to finish chewing before answering, bide my time to make sure that I made no mistakes. Then I caught his facial expression indicating that he took my silence for assent. I showed him my half chewed cud as I said:“That’s bull shit.”
He didn’t hesitate: “Graff says that you often went into the woods to practice your marksmanship with your friends.”
Cautiously, after washing the food down with milk, “That’s true.”
Faster now: “Graff says that you even went into the woods at deer season and pretended to be deer hunting, when you were actually practicing militia tactics.”
“What? Yes, I went deer hunting, and yes I pretended to be deer hunting while my son actually did the hunting. But I wasn’t ‘practicing militia tactics,’ I was usually just sitting there enjoying the outdoors, or reading a book with a rifle in my lap, while my son did the hunting.”
Faster: “Graff says that you came to see him recently and threatened to kill him if he didn’t keep his mouth shut about what he knows.”
“I went to ask for money. I can’t access any of my money. Besides, he owes me thousands of dollars from our law practice partnership. I only asked for what was mine.”
“So you did threaten to kill him!”
I looked at him calmly: “Absolutely not. That is a lie.”
“That’s not what he says.”
I just looked disgusted. I’d seen Joe’s junk-yard dog side many times. Hell, we would even argue over whether the other guy properly counted his strokes in our weekly heads-up golf matches years ago. We once almost came to blow over a disagreement involving a couple hundred dollars.
His temper was fast and deep. But he was also ruthless when he had an advantage. Generally, he fancied himself to be an honest man, but he had an incredible ability to rationalize in order to make it seem as though what he was doing was the right thing to do, no matter how under-handed it was.
“You going to believe somebody you’ve never met over me?”
“What’s his motive to lie?”
“To be able to steal all the money he owes me?”
“And what is the Sheriff of King William County’s motive to lie?”
He had me there. I started to reach inside my pants pocket. Jerry tensed up, suddenly alert. I pulled out a couple of folded sheets of paper that I had written on while Jerry was gone. I wordlessly handed them to him. He hurriedly read them but did not comment.
“I suppose you still have a pair of handcuffs? Cuff me and let’s go. I’d rather you have the reward than anybody else right now.”
Coincidentally he had the cuffs in his coat pocket. He took them out slowly. I just looked at him sadly. “I thought you believed me.”
“I did. Trust everybody, but cut the cards.” He snapped them on my hands behind my back. “Let’s get this over with. “
The night mountain air was cool. It seemed as though the stars never seemed so bright. Fallen leaves crunched under foot as I staggered out to his car. A beautiful full moon lit my way. A “hunters’ moon” I vaguely recalled hearing before.
It occurred to me that this might be my last night to ever see them. Damn! Why didn’t I at least ask Jerry for a couple of shots of his bourbon before we left?
I was not familiar with Virginia jails, having only gone inside (as a lawyer) three times in my entire twenty year career. I didn’t imagine that they had penthouse views of the stars at night.
We drove in silence. The few times that I caught a glimpse of Jerry’s face he at least seemed disturbed. Good, as I didn’t want the guy who was getting one hundred thousand dollars reward to enjoy doing it.
“You know they are probably going to fry you,” his first words in many minutes.
“That possibility has been weighing on me for weeks.”
“You don’t care?”
“Hell yes I care. But what other options do I have? Run until they catch me, while Anne rots in jail?”
“One part of your story has been eating at me, like a piece of gristle caught in between my teeth.”
“I don’t care any more. I don’t care. Obviously, you don’t believe me. I get it. So? You are going to get the damn reward, you want to get me to give a signed confession written in my own blood, too? You are retired, remember? It’s not your problem any more.”
He just let me rant. “Did you kill Graff’s wife?”
“What do you care? Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Maybe I’m an evil serial killer. Maybe…”
He interrupted. “I care. I want to know.”
“Then explain how ballistics matched that gun to the murder of Graff’s ex-wife.”
“I don’t know. Maybe ballistics is just trying to frame me.”
“Yeah, brilliant idea. That must be it. God, I’m glad you weren’t a criminal defense lawyer. You’d be laughed out of court, ‘Counselor.’”
“Maybe they are just floating those bogus claims to try to up the ante, to get me captured, to drum up interest.”
“I told you, I have connections. These are not bogus claims.”
“Anybody else ever fire that pistol, after you bought it used?”
Damn, he did have good connections. He knew I had purchased it used. “Sure, lots of people. My son, my nephew, Craig, any number of his kids may have, Butch, his son may have too.”
“Far as I know.”
“Ever loan it to anybody?”
“I don’t remember. I have a shitty memory. I loan anybody any of my stuff. Anybody who asks. My boat, my car, any of my guns, anything except money. I don’t lend money. We almost there?”
“Yeah. Who’d know?”
“Whether you ever loaned out that gun?”
He turned on his signal for a right hand turn. I thought we must have arrived. Instead, he pulled into parking for some business that was closed for the night and turned around. He wordlessly drove back the way we had come. I guessed that he had forgotten something.
Inside, he demanded information on how to contact my son. I gave it to him, reluctantly. My son and I weren’t getting along at that time—a long story. I had not talked to him in over a year.
I heard Jerry’s end of the conversation. I sensed a little hostility on my son’s end. He generally respects law enforcement authority, but he didn’t seem to want to say or do anything to help his father. Jerry was terse, in his Sheriff-interrogator mode. Jerry abruptly ended the conversation.
“Is it true that you haven’t spoken to him in over a year?”
“Yeah. Phone runs both ways. He could have called me, you know?”
“You have not had any communication of any kind with your son in over a year?”
“Same goes for the internet and the mail, and travel. Far as I know it even applies to telegraph and smoke signals.”
“Hey, smartass, I’m trying to help here. You don’t know how hard it was to turn around and drive away from a hundred grand.”
And then he let me go.