In this excerpt, Ben winds up the day by taking a drive near Jenkinsville and has an unsettling experience:
The road out of the town was a highway in only the loosest sense of the word. There were just two lanes which made sharing the road with the occasional huge coal truck that lumbered by a challenge. Regardless, it appeared like one of the Italian Autostrade they abused on Top Gear compared to the tributaries that branched away from it. Some began with several hundred feet of pavement but turned quickly into dirt roads. Others were little more than goat paths, winding back into the hills, into the hollows, until they disappeared, swallowed by the mountains. He toyed, briefly, with the idea of picking one at random and driving up it, but he quickly thought better of it. For one thing, this was probably not the time to arouse the ire of the locals by banging down private roads. For another, he wasn’t sure he could find his way out once it was dark.
Nightfall came about half an hour after Ben left town. He stopped at a small convenience store, fulfilled the tank’s enormous thirst for fuel, and grabbed a cup of coffee. It tasted like it had been made from the warmed-over remains of a small woodland creature, but it made him fully alert. He got back on the road and turned north, back to town and back to bed.
There had not been much traffic on the way down, nor was there much on the way back. At some point, however, Ben picked up someone following behind him. They weren’t close enough to be dangerous, but the other car’s headlights became a constant presence in his rearview mirror. Ben didn’t give much thought to it except when the undulations in the pavement shot the lights’ full brightness into his eyes.
A few miles from town, something caught Ben’s attention, something he didn’t expect to see on a road like this. It appeared to be a person walking slowly down the road on the right hand shoulder. Ben clicked on his high beams, then the ridiculously powerful fog lights to try to provide more light for the walker. At the very least, he didn’t want to run him over. Under the best of circumstances, anyone walking down this road was taking their life in their hands.
Ben lifted off the gas and slowed down, trying to get a good look at the walker. It was a man, but Ben couldn’t tell anything else about him—his age or whether he was black or white. His clothes looked rough and ragged, but beyond a general impression, Ben couldn’t tell much else. Then he noticed something odd about the man. It was his gait, the way he was moving. It wasn’t really walking in the strictest sense. It was more of a shuffle, a slow plodding step that fell somewhere between a limp and a gallop.
It hit Ben’s mind so fast he said it aloud. “Don’t zombies walk that way? Slowly shuffling along?” he asked himself. “At least they do in the films.”
He thought about stopping to try to talk to the man, who showed no interest in the presence of the tank near him, but that was impossible. The car that had been a constant companion behind Ben was now right on his bumper, brought near when Ben slowed down. He pulled around the shuffling figure on the side of the road and accelerated back to full speed. Immediately, he began to look for someplace to double back. About a quarter of a mile down the road was a small church with an equally small parking lot. It would do as a place to turn around, so Ben signaled, slowed, and turned into the church parking lot.
The car behind did the same.
Ben’s eyes fixed on the white headlights in the rearview mirror, which were quickly augmented by flashing blue and red.
“Fuck,” Ben said quietly. He brought the tank to a stop, put the transmission in park, and set the parking brake. The flashing lights stopped behind him at a rakish angle across the driveway as if to block any avenue of escape. Ben rolled down the window and heard the sound of a car door closing behind him, followed by the approach of slow, measured, solid footsteps.
“Good evening, sir,” said a controlled voice, one that oozed authority yet at the same time was calm and polite. Before Ben could see his face, a large, bright flashlight lit up the interior of the tank. It scanned Ben’s face, his hands as they rested on the steering wheel, and his lap before it moved slowly around the rest of the interior.
“Evening, officer,” Ben said. He did his best to get a glimpse of the man with the flashlight, but the glare made it difficult. He could make out an outline, one that matched his preconception of what an American lawman would look like. Large and barrel-chested, shoulders squared off as if he played American football, topped by a broad brimmed hat like one the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wore. When the light dipped from inside the car, Ben could see a tag on his chest underneath a badge that read “Rhodes, Sheriff,” in block letters.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked, as the flashlight beam settled on Ben’s face once again.
“No, sir,” Ben said. He honestly didn’t know.
“You crossed the center line back there,” he said, gesturing back up the road with the flashlight.
“I did?” Ben asked. “Must have been when I went around that guy along the side of the road.”
“I’m sorry, sir?” The tone of the sheriff’s voice made it clear he was not engaging in small talk.
“There was someone on the shoulder, back up the road,” Ben said, pointing. “He was walking along the side of the road, very slowly. If I crossed the line, it must have been when I drove around him. I didn’t see anyone coming the other direction, figured I should give him a wide berth.”
The sheriff was not convinced. “License and registration, please, sir,” he said, holding out his other hand.
Ben fished the rental agreement and his International Driving Permit out of the glove box, then took his UK driver’s license from his wallet and handed the collection to the sheriff.
“Please wait here, sir,” he said without commenting on the documentation. Or even Ben’s accent for a change. He walked back to the car.
Ben sat in the tank for what seemed like an eternity. All of the paperwork was in order, he was sure of that, but he wondered whether a sheriff in West Virginia had any experience with international travelers. Ben didn’t like the idea of spending the night in jail if something went wrong. He’d been in jail before but on home soil. For away games, he always tried to be on his best behavior.
The sheriff returned with the same measured steps and handed the papers back to Ben. “Would you mind turning on the inside lights, sir?”
“Sure,” Ben said. He took the papers, stuffed them back in the glove box and after groping around for a bit, flipped the switch that lit up the myriad of lights inside the tank’s cabin.
The sheriff leaned down and rested an elbow in the window frame. “All your paperwork checks out,” he said with a somewhat softer tone. “Never had to run down one those IDPs before.”
“Is that right?” Ben said.
The sheriff nodded. “I’m not gonna give you a ticket. I didn’t see this guy along the side of the road, but you seem like an honest type. Just try to not go around weaving like that again, all right?”
“Yes, sir,” Ben said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
The sheriff tipped his hat. “So, you’re English.”
“That’s right,” Ben said. Everybody seems to make that point, but coming from a man of the law it was a little unsettling. It was as if he knew that Ben should be sent back from whence he came.
“What brings you to Jenkinsville then?” the sheriff asked. “It’s a long way from London.”
That’s for certain, Ben thought. “Trying to track down something historical,” he said. “Family business.”
“You’re not a journalist, are you, Mr. Potter?” The question was not friendly.
“Yes, sir, after a fashion,” Ben said. Why did everybody pick up on that about him? “But this is more of a personal trip, really.” It was only then that Ben thought he should have punched the record button on the recorder in his jacket pocket. Too late now.
“You have family around here?” the sheriff asked, chuckling.
“No, not anymore,” Ben said, reciprocating the laughter. “My great-grandfather came here to work years and years ago. I’m trying to find something out about his time here, about this place where he worked.”
“That a fact?” the sheriff asked. “Small world. ’Bout how far back was that, you think?”
“Early part of the last century,” Ben said. “About 1905, 1906.” He decided to float the actual year out in the air and see how the sheriff reacted. It might give Ben some kind of idea about the game he was playing.
“That is a long time back,” the sheriff said. “There is a bit of history in this neck of the woods, though. How long have you been in town?”
“I just got here yesterday, late,” Ben said. He anticipated the next question. “I plan on heading home by the day after tomorrow.” He was regretting the hole in his research about American police procedures. Was he free to go? Could he tell this officer he was tired and just wanted to go back to his hotel? Of course, even if the law on paper said he could, would that mean anything out here, in the dark, along the side of a two-lane country highway?
“I see,” the sheriff said. He paused for a moment as if he might be finished. He wasn’t. “Find anything interesting yet?”
“A few things,” Ben said, trying to remain vague. “Nothing concrete, just some background. It’s all from the public record, let me assure you.”
“Let me ask you something, Mr. Potter,” the sheriff said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Let’s say you find whatever it is you’re looking for. Then what?”
“I’m sorry?” Ben asked. He wanted to nail down precisely what was being asked of him.
“You say you’re looking for something,” he said, “something that your grandfather…”
“Great-grandfather,” Ben corrected him by habit.
“Great-grandfather saw or that happened to him, is that right?” the sheriff asked without skipping a beat.
“So if you find something about it, what your great-grandfather dealt with, what are you going to do with that information?”
Ben decided to lie. It was his best option at this point. “It’s mostly for my own piece of mind, really,” he said. “My father and I have a long-standing argument about our family history. To be honest, and I’m ashamed to admit this, I’ve been having this fight with my father for years. I’d like to win it.”
“I understand,” the sheriff said sympathetically. “So if you find what you’re looking for, you’re just going to share it with a few people, right?”
“I can’t think of anyone outside of my immediate family who’d care about our squabbles.” At least that much was true.
“All right,” the sheriff said as if satisfied. He shoved a large hand in through the window. “Well, enjoy your stay with us.” They shook hands. “And remember…,” he began.
“Don’t cross the center line,” Ben said. “Thank you, sir.”
“Have a good evening, Mr. Potter,” the sheriff said as he turned and walked back to his car.
Ben let out a large sigh of relief. He waited for the sheriff to move his car, then he pulled out of the parking lot and drove back to town. It looked like the sheriff headed back south, which allowed Ben to completely relax.