Here's Nigel ... Forged in Fear
The day started deceptively like every other—coffee, shower, breakfast before heading down the steps to my store. Coburn’s General Store in Laurel Falls, N.C.
I’d been known to complain about the store, but really, no more than the usual grumblings about any workaday job. I was actually quite fond of the old place (established 1910, or so the sign over the door said). When I bought it in 1984, the store and apartment above it were in shambles. All these years later, I still marveled at its transformation. Everything I’d ever learned, crafted, or enjoyed showed up somewhere in the renovated spaces. And I still got a kick out of ordering new items for the store shelves. Some sold well, some were losers, but even the worst-case scenario wasn’t bad—I literally got to eat my mistakes.
As I reached the bottom step, something caught my eye. Something in my Jeep that wasn’t there the evening before. Looking through the windshield, I saw a man asleep in the backseat. We didn’t lock up much in Laurel Falls. Oh, sure, I locked the store each evening, but cars and apartments and homes seemed safe enough without the encumbrance of keys.
He was probably a hobo, as my friend Abit Bradshaw would call him. Back in D.C., we called them homeless. People here took better care of their drifters, so I figured if he needed a place to sleep, well, fine. Sleep tight.
But then something else caught my eye. The hint of an apricot-colored waistcoat.
“Hello, hello, hello” Nigel Steadman said, rubbing his eyes like a toddler. “I didn’t want to disturb you when I got in so late last night. You know how those trains and buses to Timbuktu are.”
“Yes, I do know all about that. What I don’t know is why you were on them. And wait a minute. There aren’t any buses to Laurel Falls that time of night.”
“I did have to resort to a bit of hitchhiking,” Nigel said, faking a chuckle. He looked forlorn as he brushed imaginary lint off his shirt in a vain effort to neaten his rumpled appearance.
“Well, I’m glad you got here safely, but why were you sleeping in my car? You should have come up and stretched out on the couch. You know the door is always unlocked—and you’re always welcome.”
Nigel and I went way back to my crime reporter days in D.C. A British subject, he came to America to ply his trade—forgery, something he was extremely good at. I interviewed him when I was working on a story involving other criminals’ shady dealings, and he provided valuable, hard-to-find background. I earned some kudos for those stories, and I’d been grateful ever since. In the process, something clicked between us, and we’d stayed in touch.
“I’m sure you’re right, my dear, but I didn’t want to be a bother.”
As he extricated himself from the Jeep, he tugged on his waistcoat and tried to press the wrinkles out of his suit. He ran his fingers through his silvery hair, but he still looked bedraggled.
“Never mind all that,” I said as I grabbed him into a hug. “Good to see you, for whatever reason.”
When he broke the embrace, we both stood there, self-consciously at a loss for words. I was still in shock. I’d never seen Nigel quite so nonplussed—and unkempt. He’d lost his usual sartorial splendor somewhere en route. “Now I know how you got here, but that doesn’t explain what you’re doing here.” But before I finished my sentence, somehow I knew. Nigel, who’d turned over a new leaf when the feds offered him the choice of jail or a job working for the Treasury Department, had turned that leaf over again.
He rubbed his stubbly face and looked so sheepish, I changed my tack. “Hold on, Nigel, let’s go upstairs, get you some breakfast and a shower. When you’re ready, come down to the store and we’ll talk.” He nodded and started for the steps. “Wait a minute. Where’s your suitcase?” I asked.
“Er, I didn’t have time to pack.”
Look for Chapter Two in a couple of weeks.