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The Hour of Brightest Afternoon
During the fall, a group calling itself the Virginia Front began a hate campaign aimed at what might accurately, if with dismay, be called the traditional targets for such things at the end of the American century. The campaign took the form of letters and circulars, threats, mostly, the product of desktop publishing, with crude color graphics--doubtless the work, said the commonwealth attorney, of a coterie of nutcases with a computer, shaved heads, and a book. The book, predictably enough, was Mein Kampf. The circulars began arriving on the desks of various county officials and in the regular mail of some citizens, including several people the Front evidently considered worth addressing directly--people whose publicly stated opinions or whose behavior the group found wanting in terms of their very specific and obvious agenda.
One of these was Edward Bishop, a TV and VCR repairman who made house calls in the county and kept a small workshop in his home, an old farmhouse on five acres of grass and trees above Steel Run Creek. Mr. Bishop had made no public statements, and he was not a public figure, really, though almost everyone in Fauquier County knew him. His family went all the way back to the eighteenth century in this part of Virginia, though their position, back then, and on into the middle of the nineteenth century, was understood in law and in the minds of almost everyone as being no more or less than property--chattel, salable goods, as Mr. Bishop would occasionally put it, when his long family history came up. "This is, after all," he would say, "a former slave state."
He described himself as a black American.He had served in Vietnam and been wounded--there was a piece of shrapnel still lodged in the bone of his left leg, just above the ankle--and he had a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star for valor. He was fifty-six years old, enjoyed a good business, and was trusted by a large clientele. Indeed, he was taken for granted by a lot of people: a quiet man, even a loner of sorts, who went his own way. A man with the self-sufficiency and the slightly eccentric attitude of someone used to falling back on his own resources.
He had recently formed a friendship with the young white woman who lived in a neighboring house, perhaps six hundred yards away down Steel Run Creek Road. He walked over there in the late afternoons, during the week, to spend time with her eleven-year-old son--actually, to provide adult supervision for the boy, who was unused to coming home to an empty house. When she arrived from her job teaching in town, Mr. Bishop sometimes stayed to dinner. It was often well after dark before he made his way back down the road to his own house. He had not spoken about this arrangement with many people, other than the clerk at the local Country Store, and his housekeeper, who happened also to be white.
But someone had seen him, or the boy had said something at his school, and word had got out to the Virginia Front.
And one morning in late November, Mr. Bishop found in his mailbox a message in boldface type, on the letterhead of the organization, written over an ugly graphic of a hanging black man with bugged-out eyes and a very red tongue:
Watch your step with the white woman. We are.
It was not signed, nor had it been mailed. Someone had come by and put it there, folded like a business letter. He stood gazing at it, in the chill of the morning, and then looked up and down the road. The innocent countryside seemed abruptly almost alien to him, as though it contained some element of the poison he held in his hand. He folded it back and put it in his pocket. He intended to ignore it. But it troubled him; it made him feel as though some border of his privacy had been violated, and later in the day he drove over to the county police headquarters. He spoke to a detective named Shaw, a thin, graying man, perhaps forty-five, with tired, sad eyes and a manner that seemed rather tentative. They sat in a warm, too-tidy office, while sunny wind shook the windows. People rushed around in the street below, collars turned up against the cold. Edward Bishop thought about all the comfortable assumptions of safety. A big bank of dark clouds was moving in from the west. It looked like the encroachment of trouble to him.
"Do you think this is a real threat?" Shaw said, rubbing the flesh on either side of his nose. Bishop noted that there were thin forking veins in the red cheeks. It was a rough, hard-living face which, in the circumstances, did nothing to reassure him. He wished for someone younger.
"Of course it's a real threat," he said. "I feel threatened. That makes it a threat. I think somebody must be watching me. I haven't been talking to anybody, or said anything. I watch the lady's kid for her in the afternoons. I'm her neighbor. She's run up on some bad luck, and I've been helping her out."
The detective folded his hands on the desk. "It wouldn't be anybody's business if there was more to it than that, Mr. Bishop."
"Yeah, but there isn't. Her husband died in February. He didn't leave any insurance and she had to go back to work. The kid's started messing up in school."
"I'm saying this isn't anybody's business but yours, sir."
"I know that. You don't need to tell me that. I'm just telling you what the situation is. Somebody thinks it's their business. And I can't figure out how in the hell these people know I'm spending any time over there unless they're watching me."
"Is the boy okay with you coming over?"
"I think so. He seems all right about it. If he isn't he's fooled me good."
"And there's nobody else--"
"My housekeeper. I've been carrying her, though. She knows I can't really use her, and I've been paying her anyway. She comes in twice a week. She needs the money--there's no motive for her. It has to be that somebody's watching me."
In the Night Season. Copyright © by Richard Bausch. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.