SWEAT ROLLED DOWN DEREK HAYSOM’S FACE. IT streamed down his forehead, collected in his eyebrows, and dripped from the end of his nose. Every few minutes he stopped digging and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. It did not do much good. Seconds later, the perspiration was flowing as freely as before.
A few miles away, in Lynchburg, the weather bureau’s protected thermometer was pushing eighty-four. But it was hotter than that in the shadeless garden where Derek and his wife, Nancy, had been working since early that morning. It was much too hot, Derek thought, for March 30. Without turning his head, he asked his wife, “How are you holding up?”
“As far as I’m concerned, we can call it a day,” Nancy replied wearily.
“That’s a good idea,” Derek agreed, slowly straightening his stiffening back. “I think it’s sundowner time.”
Normally, it does not get particularly warm in the Blue Ridge Mountain country of central Virginia until much later in the year. But 1985 was an exception; the sun had been beating down relentlessly all week. It was particularly hard on Derek, who was accustomed to cooler climes.
“It’s going to be just as miserable tomorrow as it was today,” he grumbled as he gathered his tools and began stacking them at the side of the house. Sometimes he was as fussy as an old maid, which is about what one might expect from a man whose favorite hobby, after gardening and card games, was designing circuit boards for ham radios. “But that doesn’t matter,” he panted. “Palm Sunday or no, we’re going to have to be out early again.”
Nancy nodded silently in agreement, too exhausted to reply. Turning toward the house, she listlessly peeled off her thick cotton gloves and threw them on the ground.
As he gathered the equipment, Derek tried to make light of his fatigue, joking about his “seventy-two-year-old bones” and how it was getting harder to bounce back than it used to be. Advancing age was not something he accepted readily. To help postpone it, he kept in shape with tennis and sporadic jogs along Holcomb Rock Road, the narrow, twisting thoroughfare that ran in front of their house. But a long day of hard labor in a hot sun was enough to drain even the barrel-chested Derek.
The Haysoms had moved to Boonsboro three years before, in 1982, after Derek retired as director of a venture capital organization in Nova Scotia. An engineer by education and training, Derek had shifted into management at midcareer and worked in executive jobs on three continents. Boonsboro beckoned because it was a suburb of Lynchburg, where Nancy had grown up. They lived in relative tranquility in a modest two-story house that Nancy had named Loose Chippings, after a dwelling in an obscure British novel. In the novel, the house was called that because it served as a sort of way station for eccentrics. Nancy found that particularly applicable to their situation.
Naming houses was one of Nancy’s little quirks. Another was collecting small boulders, which she used for building walls around the gardens they always planted whenever they moved to a new residence. Over the twenty-five years she and Derek had been married, wherever they lived, Nancy always built rock walls around their gardens. Now that she was into middle age, the children nagged her about it. Wrestling with outsized rocks, they argued, was not a hobby particularly conducive to her continued good health. To appease them, she promised that the wall at Loose Chippings would be her last.
“I’m for a shower,” she said, running her hand through a mop of auburn hair that was just beginning to show streaks of gray.
“You go ahead,” Derek muttered. “I’ll finish up here and then I’ll be right behind you.”
“GOD, IT WAS BEASTLY OUT TODAY,” NANCY SAID, LOOKING cool and comfortable in a royal blue dashiki she had chosen for a quiet evening at home. Her speech was clipped and sprinkled with Briticisms, which was not surprising considering she had spent the last thirty-six years, since she was seventeen, living among British expatriates in southern Africa and Canada. Despite her Virginia roots, there was hardly a hint of a southern drawl.
“Summer will be here before we know it,” agreed Derek. “At times like this I wish we were back in Nova Scotia.”
While Nancy’s accent was affected, Derek’s was legitimate. Most Americans hearing him talk, in fact, thought he was British. In reality, he was a South African of British descent, a native of Natal Province on the East Coast. During the years he worked and studied in the United Kingdom before returning to southern Africa after World War II, he polished his speech to the point where no one but an Englishman would notice his colonial roots.
Nancy sighed. Finishing her drink, she extended her empty glass. “Would you, please?” she asked Derek.
Derek took it and strode to the liquor cabinet. “The same?” he asked, already pouring a large shot of gin over the melting cubes.
She did not answer. Given a choice, Nancy almost always drank gin: Boodles when it was available, Gordon’s when it was not. It was a sign of his exhaustion that Derek did not offer his usual lecture on the evils of her beverage of choice. Almost invariably he chided her about her love for gin. “The juniper extract used to flavor it is a perfect poison,” he would say. “It produces the same feelings of aggression as amphetamines.” Tonight he said nothing. Silently, he added a splash of soda and a slice of lemon to her glass and put it to the side while he refilled his own. Derek’s preference was scotch, which he consumed in the British fashion: straight up—no ice, no water, no soda.
Scooping up the two glasses, he recrossed the room, handing the gin to Nancy and taking a seat across from her. As much out of habit as because of the heat, Derek had closed all the curtains so that they were sitting in the glow of a single lamp. The weak light threw Derek’s craggy face into strong shadow, accentuating his nose and jutting chin, making him look positively fierce. The same light made Nancy appear soft and cuddly. At fifty-three she was still a good-looking woman, perky rather than pretty, petite with attractive, even features, a charming upturned nose, flashing brown eyes, and a fine, full figure. Plump some might say. But whenever she and Derek attended social functions, and that was often, Nancy never failed to draw stares from the men in the group. This raised conflicting emotions in Derek —pride mixed with jealousy—and usually sent him off on a tirade about how she undoubtedly would remarry quickly once he was out of the way. She laughed off those exhibitions, but as a woman with an almost insatiable need for attention and affection, she was secretly pleased with her lingering voluptuousness. Tonight, she had not bothered with makeup after her shower, and the lamplight made her appear unnaturally pale. Around her neck was a doublestranded gold choker, her only concession to formality for the evening. It glowed in the darkness.
“One more, please, dear,” she said. “A little something while I’m fixing dinner.”
While Derek mixed her another drink, Nancy put a pot of rice on to boil and attacked a mound of ground beef, shaping the meat into thick patties, which she slid into the oven.
NANCY RINSED THE PLATES AND STACKED THEM IN THE dishwasher, carefully culling the silverware because she always washed that by hand. In the dining room, Derek slumped peacefully at the table, enjoying the after-dinner quiet. It had been a long day, and he was falling victim to too much sun, too much scotch, and too much dinner. He was just about to nod off when there was a loud rapping at the door. He jerked upright. “Bloody hell,” he cursed, blinking and squinting at his watch. It was just past eight o’clock.
“Are you expecting anyone?” Nancy called from the kitchen.
“No,” Derek grumbled, stretching like an old dog forced to surrender his favorite napping spot.
Nancy poked her head through the serving door cut into the wall between the kitchen and dining room. “I wonder who it might be?”
“I’ll soon find out,” replied Derek. Carefully placing his palms flat on the sturdy table, he used his powerful arms and shoulders to push himself upright. As he moved his chair back, it scraped across the slate floor like a fingernail being dragged down a chalkboard.
“I’m coming,” he yelled, setting off unsteadily across the room. After his shower Derek had changed into a pair of baggy work pants and a short-sleeved shirt, which was marked by dark half-circles under the arms. On his feet was a pair of new Indian-style moccasins, the kind in which the sole wraps around the foot to be joined to the upper by thick laces. As he walked, the leather made soft scuffling sounds on the uneven stone, the kind of soft whisking noise the barber used to make when he stropped his straight razor. The scotch had thrown Derek’s internal compass askew, and he walked lopsidedly to the door.
Nancy left the kitchen and crossed the dining room, silently watching her husband’s erratic progress toward the door. She was more curious than anxious. Not many people arrived unannounced on a Saturday night, and she was eager to see who it was. Unconsciously, she brought her left hand to her breast and gathered the dashiki more tightly about her. Underneath the robe she wore only a beige bra and matching panties, not exactly the attire she would have preferred for welcoming guests.
Derek paused at the door, fumbling with the light switches. The visitor thumped the knocker again. “All right,” Derek growled. “Don’t be so bloody impatient.” With his right hand, he flipped the switch closest to him, turning on a set of floodlights that bathed the top half of the driveway in harsh light. Clearly visible was the Haysoms’ creaky ten-year-old tan van, which Nancy had joshingly christened the Bronze Belle. To its right was their 1963 BMW sedan. Immediately in front of the door, side-by-side with the Belle, was a shiny new silver-blue subcompact that Derek had never seen before.
Reaching up, Derek flipped a second switch. It controlled a single bulb over the doorway, and when it was lit, it threw heavy shadows on whomever happened to be standing on the stoop. Sometimes, depending on how close the caller was to the door, visual identification was tricky. But a nearly full moon eliminated that problem. Although he did not know the car, Derek immediately recognized the caller.
“Oh!” he said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“I—” the visitor started, but he stopped when Nancy’s head appeared over Derek’s shoulder, a puzzled look on her face.
“Is Elizabeth with you?” Nancy asked, peering into the darkness to see if she could see her daughter walking up the path.
“No,” the visitor replied. “I came alone.” He was wearing jeans and, despite the warm night, a gray Members Only windbreaker. It effectively hid the layer of baby fat that still clung to his five-foot-eight frame. He wore thick-lensed spectacles and offered a tentative smile.
“What’s this all about?” Derek demanded in the gruff manner he used with those he did not particularly like. “What do you want?”
“Is anything the matter?” Nancy interjected. “Is Elizabeth all right?”
“She’s fine,” the visitor said, shuffling nervously from foot to foot, bouncing in his white running shoes like a marathoner waiting for the starting gun. “I came because I wanted to talk to you and your husband.”
Derek frowned. “Talk to us? What about? Why isn’t Lizzie with you?” His tone was more than mildly belligerent.
“It’s all right, Derek,” Nancy said soothingly. Despite her gin-induced fog she felt the visitor’s tension. It was palpable, as obvious as the darkness and the heat. “I’m sure there’s a good reason,” she whispered, laying a calming hand on her husband’s forearm.
Turning to the visitor, she flashed an airline hostess smile. “Please come in,” she said, trying to project a warmth she did not feel. “We were just finishing dinner. Come in, and I’ll fix you a plate.”
Copyright © 1990 by Ken Englade.