Forged in Fear: Nigel Launders More Than He Bargained For
FORGED IN FEAR
I knew Della was right. I had underestimated Johnny Ray Lewis, an unfortunate presumption the good folks round here were likely all too accustomed to. In Lewis’ case, I believed he used that predilection to his advantage, luring others into his web until they were completely entangled.
Like me, for instance.
A couple of weeks after Lewis cornered me at Coburn's, Della’s fears were confirmed: Lewis was the front man for sizable (and shady) real estate deals. It requires little planning or expertise to launder large sums of money that way, and he had as much as told me that was their M.O. Back in my, er, heyday, I quickly discerned how hard it was to trace such transactions, in part because government regulations weren’t very strict in the U.S. or the U.K.
After delivering several rounds of documents to Lewis, I came to understand how their scheme worked. I forged documents so they could buy property under false names. That allowed them to file the right documents “legitimately.” Only they’d bought shacks and steep, untillable mountain land for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their worth. Large sums of money could then be deposited legally, so to speak, and thereby laundered.
I reckoned the dirty money came from all the marijuana grown in the area. Or moonshine. Or worse. I felt sick to my stomach thinking about what crimes they were profiting from thanks to my handiwork. What in the name of God had I brought into my life? And into Della’s and Abit’s? They felt as much like family as my daughter and grandsons. I knew I was getting soft--I wanted to get soft--but I needed to start thinking more like the old Nigel Steadman and come up with a clever plan of my own.
All this talk about laundering reminded me I was way overdue for some clean clothing. Abit had run a load for me last week, but I didn’t want to impose on the boy more than necessary. I’d noticed the laundromat in Laurel Falls, just a short walk from Coburn’s, so the next morning when Abit drove me to town, I carried along a couple of pillowcases filled with wash.
“Planning on skipping out on us?” Della asked when she saw my bulging packs.
“Not at all, my dear. I thought I’d head down to the laundromat on my break.”
“Well, look out for Blanche Scoggins. She’s got a million signs up about what not to do, and she doesn’t like men. Or women. Or children. Probably even dogs.”
When I opened her front door, Blanche Scoggins looked up, frowning. “Hello, hello, hello, Ms. Scoggins," I said with false cheer. "I’m Nigel Steadman. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“I know who you are,” she grunted, a scowl now creasing her forehead.
“Ah, and I know who you are,” I said with a knowing smile.
She maintained her severe facial expressions and didn’t say a dicky bird.* Then to my surprise she suddenly burst out laughing. A right ol’ cackle. “Well, I reckon you do, what with that Kincaid woman bending your ear. Don’t believe everything you hear.” She began tidying her hair, which she’d pulled back in a rather severe bun; a few gray strands had fallen out, and she slipped them behind her ear. “Let me help you with that,” she added, scurrying over to start sorting my laundry.
I was ever so humiliated to have her fussing over my personal clothing, but at least all my smalls were new. Nothing to be ashamed of, I supposed, but nonetheless I could feel myself blushing.
“Oh, don’t be embarrassed. I’ve seen more things than you can imagine,” she said, elbowing me as she worked. “Like them thongs the girls are all wearing now? They get wrapped around the agitator and I have to cut them loose. And the men who don’t …”
“Er, thank you. I get the picture.”
“Ha! A gentleman in our midst. Well, I’ll be damned.” She slapped me on the back and finished sorting my clothes, adding some detergent from her stash. “No charge,” she said and actually winked at me! But when it came time to feed the washer with money, she was all business, holding out her hand for coins. I couldn’t get them out of my trouser pocket fast enough.
“It’ll be thirty minutes till they’re done. Why don’t you join me for a bite of lunch? Tell me all about yourself.”
Over some rather nice ham biscuits and late-season tomatoes, Blanche listened to my stories (some of which were actually true) with the intent of someone watching England in the World Cup. By that time, I was beginning to wonder if this woman really was Blanche Scoggins; perhaps it was her day off.
When I returned to the store empty-handed, Della didn’t waste a moment before starting in. “Did she confiscate your clothes because you broke one of her rules?”
“Er, no. Actually, I had a rather pleasant experience, all things considered. I’m not sure why you’ve had such a difficult time with her. Quite a nice lady.”
“Are you sure this was Blanche? Kinda tall, long gray hair in a bun?” I nodded. Della got a wicked smile. “Oh, I see,” she said, her eyebrow doing that thing it does. “She’s sweet on the elderly English gentleman. Not surprising. But where are your clothes?”
My clothes were still in the dryer; Blanche had promised to deliver them on her way home. Apparently, she lived just down the road from Abit in Hanging Dog. (Ha! Another remarkable hamlet name.) “Professionally folded and wrapped—no extra charge!” she’d called out as I left, smiling and waving. To Della I said, “She’s delivering them when she heads home. Apparently she lives …”
“I know where she lives,” Della interrupted, “and you’d better have Abit there when she stops by. Otherwise, she might want to spend the night.” Della started laughing, and for the second time that day I felt my face flush.
As it turned out, Abit was at my room when Blanche drove up (along with his lovely dog, Mollie). I scurried out and thanked her profusely while Abit just stood in the doorway. She scowled at him (I’d begun to see it was a favorite expression of hers) but pleasantly bid me a good evening.
When I walked back with the bundle in my arms, Abit was grinning from ear to ear. “Well, well, well. Good thing I was here to scare her off.”
“Not you, too!” I grumbled. That third episode of blushing changed my mind. Next time I would impose on Abit and Fiona for the use of their washers.
The following evening, Abit stopped by to ask if I would mind little Conor on Tuesday, my day off from the store. He needed to make some deliveries and Fiona was scheduled for another double shift.
So it was just me and the nipper on the farm that day. And Mollie, of course, who seemed to love every occasion—new people, a romp in the woods, a lazy afternoon with her family.
Conor was an easy child to be with, and why wouldn’t he be with Abit and Fiona as parents? When I saw children reared that way, I couldn’t help but muse how my life—and most anyone’s, for that matter—might have turned out differently if we hadn’t had to work through the effects of drunken or hard-fisted parents.
Anyway, Conor loved my idea of baking scones. I used to be quite a good baker in my day, when I had a family that enjoyed eating my confections. Living alone above Firehook Bakery in D.C. had spoiled me, and I hadn’t baked in years. Out here in the hinterland, though, I found myself missing a good scone. Conor helped mix the ingredients, and before long, he had as much flour on his shirt as the board we were cutting them out on.
“Could we make some that look like stars and Christmas trees?” Conor asked. He went over to a cupboard and began pulling out a bag of cookie cutters. It was getting close to that season.
“Well, those cutters will squash the dough,” I said, “but there’s no reason we can’t use a knife to the same effect.”
Turned out I hadn’t lost my touch. They’d risen beautifully and came out of the oven golden, and if I did say so myself, delectable. The trees and stars lost a bit of their shape, but then who besides the very young hadn’t?
I suggested we take tea in my room. I recalled, even after all these decades, how much fun it was to be in someone else’s abode. Conor clapped his hands and grabbed a basket to help me gather up the tea accoutrements. I already had a brown teapot in my room along with a tin of tea and an electric kettle, so we just took the scones, jam, butter, knives, plates, serviettes—oh, honestly, tea could be such a fuss!
Conor was working on his second scone (one star, one tree)—and Mollie on her third (Conor insisted I cut some bone-shaped scones)—when I heard the knock on the door. A knock that had become all too familiar. I knew our lovely tea party was over before I opened the door.
* Rhyming slang for “word.”
Look for Chapter Nine in a couple of weeks.