Gates County, North Carolina
1:17 P.M. Tuesday, July 15
The sight of what was inside hit him like a mule kick to the chest. Suddenly all the heat in North Carolina smothered Ashton Lewis and settled in the pit of his stomach. Slumped down in the small white shower stall was the bloated body of a man, mouth agape and eyes wide in frozen surprise.
Ashton stumbled backwards a few steps and landed hard on his backside on the floor of the camper. The rig swayed with a sudden gust of wind and the metal sunroof crank rattled, as if laughing at him.
Now suddenly out of breath Ashton looked up toward the silvery ceiling of the camper and felt the earth spin. He struggled up to one knee and peered over at what had shaken him up. The door to the lavatory was still propped open and he was able to see the pale bluish hand off the corpse as it hung over onto the stained carpet near a smudge of dried red clay.
Ashton struggled to his feet. He was not sure if he had simply fainted or if the sheer shock of what he had just seen knocked him off his feet. Either way he felt sick just being there and desperately wanted to get a thousand miles away. The camper walls closed in around him again and his mind turned sluggish and his thoughts were dizzy. He tried to remember how he got there.
Just beyond the distant crest of the heat-shimmering blacktop a Calowing white cloud unfolded in airy slow motion against the endless baby blue North Carolina sky over Ashton Lewis’ pickup. The atmospheric phenomenon sluggishly stretched its snowy fingers in every possible direction, thick as cotton in some places and thread bare in others. The far corners of its highest reaches blocked the piercing rays of sun and created shadows across the desert floor far more distorted than the plume itself. The massive cloud looked as though it might fall to the earth and crush every living thing underneath like a textbook on a bothersome mosquito.
Beyond the tall corn fields to his right ran the Chowan River and to his left was the tail end of Mill Pond State Park. He left the Virginia state line twelve miles behind and he hoped to find the turn off toward Midway soon. That would eventually lead him to Williamston by nightfall.
Ashton made a comfortable living as newspaper reporter for the Richmond Sun in Richmond, Virginia until the ripe old age of fifty-seven started getting in his way professionally. No, it was nothing he could ever prove in a court of law, but the facts of the matter remained. In his last few years of consistently meeting deadlines he routinely found himself being shuffled down the line of importance, managing more current event features than crime. Suddenly more downtown supermarket openings and church bazaars were landing on his desk. The Weekly Crime Watch and other popular segments he had started over his long career were going to the younger reporters. A cantankerous old reporter who had a slight tendency of interjecting an honest opinion into his pieces was unfortunately doomed to the more politically correct home and garden section.
The life-long reporter unceremoniously turned in his retirement papers and started burning his sick and annual leave in record proportions. It was about this time when one of his younger sisters had called from Williamston with the not-so-surprising news that she was getting married again. The ceremony would be the perfect excuse for a much needed retirement vacation where he could escape the big city and recharge his battery. Good for the soul, as they say.
This part of North Carolina was a wide-open and seemingly lawless part of the state. There was no speed limit to speak of and the highway patrol was virtually none existent. A yellow van with chrome wheels ripped past him and within a few minutes the back end of the van disappeared at the horizon beyond a mirage of pooling water he could never quite reach. A few more seconds and the back end of the van was no more then a flyspeck.
The afternoon was heating up. Ashton pressed the gas pedal of his pickup a little harder and regretted settling for the cheap rattle-gas back at the state line. He was not necessarily in a big hurry. After all, his sister’s wedding was three whole days away. The problem was his back had become so soaked with perspiration that he stuck to the vinyl seat like a wet paper towel. He needed the blast of air from the open windows of the truck to naturally cool his skin. It was a warm surge, but at least it was moving. Air-conditioning was not an option for this newsman. Cold air would dry his sinuses and treat him to a wonderful night of nosebleeds. He took off his well-worn black New York Yankees baseball hat, dropped it on the seat beside him, and massaged the red ring it left on his forehead.
He was now directly under the exploding white cloud that he had been watching. Trapped under the shadows, he entertained another silly thought about it falling to the earth. This time a red convertible with Florida plates past him. Ashton watched as it, too, disappeared within a few seconds. He noticed for the first time a slight shimmer of light on the side of the road a good distance ahead. It was probably just the sun bouncing off a small metal shed near the road.
As he approached, the bright shimmer of light he had seen was actually the back end of a hard-side camper. It was one of those long silver campers shaped like a bullet with wheels. The rig was attached to an old white Jeep off on a wide section of gravel shoulder. No one was standing around and no white rag was stuck in the window to let the cops know it was not abandoned. Without conscientiously meaning to, Ashton slowed down and found himself turning his truck around in the middle of the road.
He pulled up to the front of the parked Jeep nose to nose and waited a few minutes to see if anything came to life. In an area so peaceful and quiet, the noise of his truck made as he passed and then returned should have easily alerted anyone inside. Still, nobody came out of the lonesome looking silver camper.
A bright red moving van with a snow capped mountain range painted on the side sped by just as Ashton stepped out of his truck. The gravel shoulder crumbled under his weight and the sun seared like a bee sting on the back of his neck.
He walked over to the side of the seemingly abandoned Jeep and peered into the side window. At first glance all appeared to be normal. He walked around to the driver side window for another perspective of the old Jeep. There were no keys hanging from the ignition. Ashton thought that to be odd but was not quite sure why he felt that way just yet.
Without really finding anything else out of the ordinary, he moved along to the silver bullet-shaped camper trailer. It there was no sign of life he would get back on the road and forget the whole mess.
Obvious years in the beating Carolina sun had burned the louvered windows of the camper with a mustard yellow film. They felt as brittle as ancient clay when Ashton cupped his hands to the hot glass to peer inside.
He stepped over the hitch and walked around to the door of the camper. The wind whipped around and the trailer swayed on its springs. He pressed his ear to the door and heard nothing but his own ear rubbing against the aluminum. Before Ashton tried the doorknob he stepped back to spot any approaching vehicles. Route 32 was barren. There was not a vehicle in sight. What concerned him was that someone passing might mistake the retired newsman for breaking in rather than trying to be of assistance. Although he had to admit, save for the high drifting turkey buzzards stalking road kill, nobody would be the wiser if he simply chose to strip the Jeep down to the frame.
The warm silver doorknob of the camper turned easily. Someone had left their camper unlocked or they were still inside. Opening the door brought out the familiar musty camper odor that swiftly filled Ashton’s nostrils and a few childhood vacation memories rushed to mind.
There was obviously no one home. The yellow glow from the dirty windows washed over the checkered green and black polyester material covering the booth seats in the kitchen area to his right. There was a short countertop between the booth and what looked to be a small closet. There was a shallow porcelain sink with a pump handle and overhead cabinets flanking both sides. At his feet was a worn black rubber mat with raised white “Welcome Camper” lettering. The metal crank handle of the white plastic sunroof rattled against a wind gust.
This particular camper was deep and had a few added luxuries. There was a small television mounted over the booth and a series of black plastic speakers for some unseen stereo system. There was even a bathroom. A bathroom in a camper was not a real camping trip, Ashton thought. Taking a morning shower in an ice-cold mountain waterfall was real camping.
The rattling sunroof crank suddenly stopped and Ashton could hear a faint buzzing sound. The noisy handle started up again and the buzzing faded. Giving up on finding anyone in the camper, Ashton went back to where he came in before someone stopped and found him snooping. All he needed was for some other exceedingly curious traveler to walk up on him.
Ashton could not help but notice how spotless and unused the inside of the camper looked compared to the outside. The place was in showroom condition. It was old but well taken care of as far as he could tell. The bed in the rear was stripped of covers and the mattress was blinding white. The countertops were sparkling and bare and the cabinet handles gleamed. Whoever had been pulling this rig must have been getting it out of storage from someplace. With a glance down at the carpet he noticed the only blemish to the picture perfect living space. A dark half-circle stain spread in front of the closed bathroom door.
He was fully prepared to forget about it. Old campers naturally had stains, but this camper was so well kept. He grabbed the wooden handle of the bathroom. At first it stuck and would not move up or down. He pressed a little harder and it finally gave way.
“Take it easy, mister,” a low and steady voice spoke from behind him.
Ashton winced at the shooting pain along his back and turned slowly toward the strange voice. He abruptly remembered just how he got there.
On the other end of a shiny black pistol pointed squarely at his chest was a tall man, firm and blocky. He looked to be about Ashton’s age. The man had huge weathered hands and a sheen of crewcut hair.
“Don’t go getting the wrong idea here,” Ashton said calmly. “This is not what you think.”