Forged in Fear: Nigel Gets Cornered
FORGED IN FEAR
The following Friday night, Abit and his family invited me to join them at one of their music gigs, and we all trundled off together to somewhere named Seven Devils. England has many quaint names for its towns—Great Snoring and Nether Wallop come to mind—but I believe North Carolina had us beaten with the likes of Seven Devils, not to mention Shacktown and Shatley Springs.
The event was held in an old barn repurposed as a music hall. Scores of people huddled near the stage area, and more kept coming throughout the show. Singing and playing mandolin and fiddle, Abit and Fiona were the stars of the show. Until Conor joined them, that is. (His parents let him play only a few numbers—too hard on such a young fellow to keep up through a whole show of fast-tempo bluegrass music.) When he walked on stage, the cheers and claps grew louder yet, and all eyes turned to the little tyke. He could fiddle with the best of them, and when he and his mother sang “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life,” even my crusty old heart skipped a beat.
The evening was a grand respite from my troubles. When we returned to their homestead, Abit and I shared a lager in my room after Fiona and Conor turned in for the night. It was my first time chatting alone with Abit since his fateful trip to Churchill Arms in D.C. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fine young man sitting across from me. A far cry from the wide-eyed, high-water-pants boy I’d first met two decades ago. When he left round midnight, I felt a sense of contentment I hadn’t known in ages.
It didn’t last.
The next day—Saturday, Della’s busiest day at the store—I was waiting on Clare Someone-or-Other, one of the women Della said hadn’t come in more than a time or two before I arrived. I had to admit these women were making an old git feel a wee bit younger. As she was dithering over which cheese to buy, the front door bell jingled. I looked up.
“Oh, Mr. Steadman, am I boring you?” Clare said, followed by a coy titter. Actually she was, but that wasn’t what had diverted my attention. Johnny Ray Lewis had.
“Not at all, Clare. But I do need to take care of something rather urgent. Now that you know more about them, can you decide on your own whether you want farmhouse Cheddar or Caerphilly?” She didn’t pick up on my gritted-teeth delivery and assured me she’d be right there when I finished with my matter.
I guided Lewis by the elbow into the back, then outside behind the store. He started in telling me what I had to do for him—forge some documents involved in the sale of mountain land. After he explained the scheme to me, it seemed rather simple, which was good. Like the American expression KISS—keep it simple stupid—the best plans are the least complex. But in my eyes, it was also amateurish, which was concerning because cocksure fools like Lewis and the like almost always get caught.
“I told you. I’m not going to do any of this for your slipshod enterprise," I said, getting right up into his face. "You’re a bunch of bloody berks, and you don’t own me.” If I recall correctly, I even pushed a finger into his chest.
“Go on, Gramps. Shout away. But I do own you,” he said and gave me a shove. “You gotta do this. Unless, like I told you earlier, you want me to contact the FBI, the D.C. police, and anyone up there who’ll listen. You don’t cooperate, I’ll tell ‘em right where to find you. Besides, it’s easy money. You should be thanking me, not giving me shit.”
“You won’t need to call them. They’re going to catch you because of your sloppy ways. And if you call them, I’ll squeal on you. Ever thought of it that way? When you turn me in, I’ll turn you in, matey.” I definitely pushed my finger into his chest that time.
“Steady there, Steadman. You’re underestimating how big this operation is. You’re thinking it’s just me and a couple of rubes, right? Well, think again. And don't forget we know where your goober friend lives—with his adorable little boy and lovely wife. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to them, would you?”
“You are despicable,” I spat with all the indignation I could muster. Which wasn’t much considering how hard my back was against the wall, both physically and metaphorically. “ I won’t do it. And I don’t want or need your filthy lucre.”
“Nothing filthy about it, Gramps. It’s getting nicely laundered, thanks to you.”
We went back and forth for a while, and the more we talked, the cockier Lewis got. And the more my resolve waned. He shoved a brown envelope about an inch thick at me. I took it.
After I extricated myself from Lewis, I tried to sneak back into the store without Della noticing my absence. (Mercifully, Clare had left.) I busied myself scraping cheeses, the way she'd taught me. I was amazed to learn how much that helped to preserve them. Turns out they are living, breathing things that need grooming, just like the rest of us.
After a while, I heard Della clear her throat. "Anything you want to tell me?” I felt like telling her to mind her own business, but then I realized that she was. She couldn’t have crooks like Lewis hanging round her store. I just shook my head.
In the long silence that followed, I could almost hear the wheels turning in her head. Eventually, her curiosity got the better of her. “Anything I can do to help?” This time I just ignored her. “Well, don’t let the so-called simple life around here fool you," she added. "Your friend is likely involved in a whole lot more than you might think.”
I just waved her off. “I’ve been in crime’s big league longer than I care to remember, as you well know. This is small potatoes. I can take care of myself.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“He’s just a penny-ante wersel,” I mumbled as I restocked the marmalade department. It had taken quite a hit since my arrival.
And that’s how we left it. Until all hell broke loose.
Look for Chapter Eight in a couple of weeks.