15 Miles

by Robert Scott

Three years ago, I spent time in Richmond, researching the ghosts and legends of the famous Jefferson Hotel. I’d been toying with the idea of using the hotel in the next installment of the Eldarn Sequence and had a few dozen pages of notes and scribbles I hoped might morph into an opening chapter. My wife and kids had left our home in Northern Virginia with plans to meet my sister’s family at Lake Anna, a popular spot with DC suburbanites because the water is conveniently warmed by a nearby nuclear power plant (nope, not joking).

Since Lake Anna is about halfway between my house and the Jefferson Hotel, and since I had nearly torn a rotator cuff patting myself on the back for my groovy idea to feature the Jefferson in an epic fantasy novel, I decided to meet my family at the lake using only back roads (I-95 can be such a bore) and my Swiss-engineered inner compass.

Right: stupid choice.

I don’t have an inner compass, never mind one from Switzerland. I would have settled for a plastic compass from Walmart or a GPS, but my wife and I keep our satellite navigation system in her mini van. This is because we wouldn’t want anyone to get lost between our home and the kids’ elementary school two miles away.

Fifteen miles outside Richmond – I think I was in Goochland County; I still don’t know for certain – something was wrong. With nothing . . . let’s say that again, because that part is critical to this story . . . nothing but soybean and tobacco fields, an abandoned Calvary Baptist Church, and scraggly hardwoods as far as I could see in any direction, the prospect of ever reaching Lake Anna became strikingly uncertain. But I didn’t cry for my mother, not yet anyway.

Behind every wrinkle in the landscape, I imagined a platoon of ragged Confederate soldiers, each of them hopelessly lost and well over a hundred and seventy years old. I’d load them all into the back of my Chrysler and together we’d chew tobacco and stare in confusion at a map of the stark, unabridged nothingness north and west of their Confederate capital. It would break my heart to tell them that Richmond now sported a Starbucks on every corner and a Victoria’s Secret in every mall – both worth fighting for if you ask me.

Twenty minutes later, I ran across my first tarpaper-over-concrete hovel (READ: meth lab) and understood that it would take a bloodhound with an Olympic gold medal to find what was left of me by morning. Now I did cry for my mother, after peeing down my leg in abject fear. However, I’d appreciate you not sharing that last bit with friends and family.

Rather than knock on the meth lab’s screen door and ask for directions, I pressed on. With no cell signal and only a few swallows of Diet Coke, I picked and backtracked my way east until I reached Ashland and the comforting predictability of Interstate 95, its legions of armed commuters charging north at eighty-five miles an hour. Safe at last!

I eventually arrived at Lake Anna with its glow-in-the-dark water and mutant, man-eating toads. I kissed my wife, encouraged my children to slather themselves with SPF 2000, and huddled in the back of my sister’s boat, sketching an outline for what would eventually become 15 Miles.

I was still a kid when my father transferred from the New Jersey State Police’s Identification Bureau (these days they call it CSI) to Homicide Investigation. Looking back on it now, I preferred the ID gig, because the transfer to Homicide, while a step up for Dad, meant fewer ghastly photos to peruse around the family dining table. Back then, ID troopers basically collected evidence, took dozens of grim pictures, and carried eleven different-color pens in their jackets. I have no idea why. As a high school principal, I have twenty-two thousand pieces of paper cross my desk every day. Most of them can find reasonable closure with blue or black ink. Regardless, when it came time to testify at a murder trial, Homicide detectives concentrated on the manhunt and arrest, while ID troops put the evidential bricks and mortar in the case, often color-coded. Most of the murderers living out their lives behind bars in Trenton State Prison today owe their incarceration to a talented ID trooper who paid close attention to details. Oh, yes you could reach the knife, Chumbly, because I measured and photographed the distances from the corpse to the knife to the bedstand to the indentation your bony shoulder made in the pillow. Any questions?

But the transfer was a good move for my father. He got to kick the doors in and actually loaded a few rounds into his old .38, just in case. (What many TV viewers don’t realize is that homicide investigators rarely make an arrest on their own. Bringing along a busload of heavily-armed troopers and SWAT snipers sends a powerful message to any felon thinking Hey, maybe I can shoot my way out of here.)

At home, the stories Dad told as a detective were the same: everyday folks doing reprehensible things to one another, sometimes while under the influence of spooky-sounding drugs: horse, smack, crank, dust, coke, reds. Most often, though, these atrocities were fired by more familiar fuels: screw-cap wine, keg beer, cheap vodka or scotch served neat from a brown paper bag. There were occasional serial killers, sociopaths with Ka-bar knives, and a smattering of honest-to-God mob hits (it was New Jersey, after all). Yet most of the time, murder investigations connected a husband or a wife to a weapon on the kitchen floor or buried in someone’s chest. Afterward, the dead spouse was connected to an adulterous affair, a drug or gambling addiction, or a tendency to start the day with three fingers of yummy Popov’s. Little pink houses for you and me!