At nine the following morning we return to Nathan's house, and once again he's in the front yard playing with his dog, waiting. I am assuming he meets us outside because he doesn't want us inside. I explain that my little Audi is in bad need of service, and it might be best if we could ride over in his pickup. An hour each way will give us two hours alone with Nathan and no distractions. He shrugs and says okay, whatever, and away we go, with Slade and Cody following in their van. I'm in the front seat; Gwen is folded into the backseat of the club cab. She's wearing jeans today because Nathan couldn't keep his eyes off her legs yesterday. She will be a bit more aloof, just to keep him guessing.
As we head west toward the mountains, I admire the interior of the truck and explain that I've never spent much time in such vehicles. The seats are leather, there is an advanced GPS system, and so on. Nathan is really proud of the truck and chatters on about it.
To change the subject, I bring up his mother and claim to really want to meet her. Nathan says, "Look, Reed, you're welcome to try, but she doesn't like what we're doing. I talked to her last night again, and I explained the whole project, and how important it is, and how much you need her, but I got nowhere."
"Can't we at least talk, say hello, you know?" I almost turn and smile at Gwen now that we know Nathan deems the project "important."
"I doubt it. She's a tough woman, Reed. Drinks a lot, nasty temper. We're not on good terms right now."
Being the pushy investigative journalist, I decide to plow into sensitive matters. "Is it because you've gotten away from the family business, that you're making money with your bar?"
"That's kind of personal, isn't it?" Gwen scolds from the rear. Nathan takes a deep breath and glances out the side window. He grips the wheel with both hands and says, "It's a long story, but Mom has always blamed me for Gene's death, which is crazy. He was the big brother, the leader of the gang, the head chef in the meth lab, plus he was an addict. I was not. I used the stuff occasionally, but I never got hooked. Gene, he was out of control. This place we're going to was a run Gene made once a week. Occasionally, I tagged along. I shouldn't have been there the night we got busted. We had a guy, I won't use any names, but he was running meth for us on the west side of Bluefield. We didn't know it, but he got busted, flipped, told the DEA when and where. We walked into a trap, and I swear I could do nothing to help Gene. As I've told you, we surrendered and they were taking us in. I heard gunshots, and Gene was dead. I've explained this to my mother a hundred times, but she won't hear it. Gene was her favorite and his death is all my fault."
"Terrible," I mumble.
"Did she visit you in prison?" Gwen asks sweetly from behind.
Another long pause. "Twice." Nothing is said for at least three miles. We're on the interstate now, headed southwest, listening to Kenny Chesney. Nathan clears his throat and says, "To tell you the truth, I'm trying to get away from my family. My mom, my cousins, a bunch of deadbeat nephews. Word's out that I own a nice bar and I'm doing okay, so it won't be long before these clowns start begging for money. I need to get farther away."
"Where would you go?" I ask with great sympathy.
"Not far. I love the mountains, the hiking and fishing. I'm a hillbilly, Reed, and that'll never change. Boone, North Carolina, is a nice place. Somewhere like that. Someplace where there are no Cooleys in the phone book." He laughs at this, a sad little chuckle.
A few minutes later he rocks us with: "You know, I had a buddy in prison kinda reminds me of you. Malcolm Bannister was his name, great guy, black dude from Winchester, Virginia. A lawyer who always said the Feds got him for no reason."
I listen and nod along as if this is of no consequence whatsoever. I can almost feel Gwen seize up in the rear seat. "What happened to him?" I manage to ask. My mouth has never been drier.
"I think Mal's still in prison. Couple more years, maybe. I've lost track. It's something, something in the voice, maybe the mannerisms, something, can't quite put my finger on it, but you remind me of Mal."
"It's a big world, Nathan," I say, in a deeper voice, thoroughly unconcerned. "And remember, to white folks we all look the same."
He laughs and Gwen manages an awkward laugh too.
While I was mending at Fort Carson, I worked with an expert who videoed me for hours and made a list of habits and mannerisms I had to change. I practiced for hours, but once I landed in Florida, I stopped practicing. Natural moves and habits are hard to break. My mind is frozen and I can't think of anything to say.
Gwen comes through with: "Nathan, you mentioned some nephews a few minutes ago. How long will this go on, do you think? I mean, it looks like the meth business is becoming generational for a lot of families."
Nathan frowns and considers this. "I'd say it's pretty hopeless. There are no jobs except for coal, and so many young men just don't want to work in the mines anymore. Plus, they start getting high when they're fifteen, hooked at sixteen. The girls are pregnant at sixteen, kids having kids, babies nobody wants. Once you start screwing, you don't stop. I don't see much future around here, not for people like me."
I'm listening but not hearing; my head is spinning as I wonder how much Nathan knows. How suspicious is he? What have I done to tip him off? I'm still undercover - I'm sure of it - but what's he thinking?
Bluefield, West Virginia, is a town of eleven thousand located on the extreme southern tip of the state, not far from the Virginia line. We skirt around it on Highway 52 and are soon on winding roads that fall and rise dramatically. Nathan knows the area well, though it's been years since he was here. We turn onto a county road and fall deeper into a valley. The asphalt ends and we zigzag along gravel and dirt roads until we stop at the edge of a creek. Old willow oaks hang overhead and block the sun. The weeds are knee-high. "Here we are," he says as he turns off the ignition.
We get out and I tell Slade and Cody to get their gear. We will not be using lighting and I want the smaller, handheld camera. They scramble around, grabbing equipment.
Nathan walks to the edge of the creek and smiles at the bubbling water. "How often did you come here?" I ask.
"Not much. We had several drop points around Bluefield, but this was the main one. Gene had been making runs here for ten years, but not me. The truth was I didn't work in the business as much as he wanted me to. I could see trouble. I tried to find other jobs, you know. I wanted out. Gene wanted me to get more involved."
"Where were you parked?"
He turns and points, and I decide to move his truck and Slade's van to keep them out of the frame. Relying on my vast directorial skills, I want to shoot an action piece with Nathan approaching the scene on foot and the camera right behind him. We practice this for a few minutes, then begin rolling. Nathan is doing the narrative.
"Louder, Nathan. You gotta be louder," I bark from the side.
Nathan is walking toward the scene and talking: "It was about two in the morning when we arrived here, me and Gene. We were in his truck, I was driving. As we pulled up, right about here, we could see the other vehicle over there, backed into those trees, where it should have been." He keeps walking and pointing. "Everything appeared normal. We parked near the other vehicle, and our man, let's call him Joe, so Joe gets out and says hello. We say hello and walk to the back of Gene's truck. In a locked toolbox, there are about ten pounds of meth, good stuff, most of it cooked by Gene himself, and under a sheet of plywood there is a small cooler, also with about ten pounds. Total drop was roughly twenty pounds, with a wholesale value close to $200,000. We got the stuff out of the truck and moved it into the trunk of Joe's car, and as soon as he slammed the trunk, all hell broke loose. There must've been a dozen DEA agents all over us. I don't know where they all came from, but they were quick. Joe disappeared, never to be seen again. They dragged Gene over by his truck. He was cussing Joe and making all sorts of threats. Me, I was just so damned scared I could hardly breathe. They had us, dead guilty, and I knew I was headed to prison. They handcuffed me, went through my wallet, my pockets, and then led me down the trail over there. As I was walking away, I looked over my shoulder and I could barely see Gene on the ground, with both hands behind his back. He was angry and still cussing. A few seconds later, I heard gunshots, and then I heard Gene scream when he got hit."
Loudly, I say, "Cut," and walk around in circles for a moment. "Let's do it again," I say, and we go back to the starting point. After the third take, I'm satisfied and seize upon the next idea. I ask Nathan to stand on the spot where Gene was lying the last time he saw him. We place a folding chair there and Nathan sits down. When the camera is rolling, I ask, "Now, Nathan, what was your initial reaction when you heard gunfire?"
"I couldn't believe it. They threw Gene down, on the ground, and there were at least four DEA agents standing above him. His hands were already behind his back, not yet handcuffed. He had no weapon. There was a shotgun and two 9-millimeters in the truck, but we had not removed them. I don't care what the DEA said later, Gene was unarmed."
"But when you heard the gunshots?"
"I stopped in my tracks and yelled something like, 'What is that? What's happening?' I yelled for Gene, but the agents shoved me forward, down the trail. I couldn't look back - I was too far away. At one point, I said, 'I wanna see my brother,' but they just laughed and kept pushing me into the darkness. We finally got to a van and they shoved me inside. They drove me to the jail in Bluefield, and the whole time I'm asking about my brother. 'What happened to my brother? Where is Gene? What have you done with Gene?' "
"Let's cut for a minute," I say to Slade. I look at Nathan. "It's okay to show some emotion here, Nathan. Think of the people watching this film. What do you want them to feel as they listen to this awful story? Anger? Bitterness? Sadness? It's up to you to convey these feelings, so let's try it again, but this time with some emotion. Can you do it?"
"Roll it, Slade. Now, Nathan, how did you first learn that your brother was dead?"
"The next morning at the jail, a deputy came in with some paperwork. I asked him about Gene, and he said, 'Your brother's dead. Tried to run from the DEA, and they shot him down.' Just like that. No sympathy, no concern, nothing." Nathan pauses and swallows hard. His lips begin to quiver and his eyes are moist. Behind the camera, I give him a thumbs-up. He continues: "I didn't know what to say. I was in shock. Gene didn't try to run. Gene was murdered." He wipes a tear with the back of his hand. "I'm sorry," he says softly, and the kid is really in pain. There's no acting here, just real emotion.
"Cut," I say, and we take a break. Gwen rushes in with a brush and some tissue. "Beautiful, just beautiful," she says. Nathan stands and walks to the creek, lost in his thoughts. I tell Slade to start rolling again.
We spend three hours at the site, shooting and reshooting scenes that I create on the fly, and by 1:00 p.m. we're hungry and tired. We find a fast-food place in Bluefield and choke down burgers and fries. Riding back to Radford, the three of us are silent until I tell Gwen to call Tad Carsloff, one of my partners in Miami. Carsloff's name was mentioned by the CRS secretary when Nathan called our home office number two days earlier.
Feigning a real conversation, Gwen says, "Hello, Tad, it's Gwen. Great. You? Yeah, well, we're riding back to Radford with Nathan. We spent the morning at the site where his brother was murdered, pretty powerful stuff. Nathan did a fantastic job of narration. He doesn't need the script, it just comes natural." I sneak a look at Nathan behind the wheel. He cannot suppress a smug little smile.
Gwen continues with her one-way dialogue. "His mother?" A pause. "She hasn't budged yet. Nathan says she wants no part of the film and doesn't approve. Reed wants to try again tomorrow." A pause. "He's thinking of going to their hometown, to film the grave site, talk to old friends, maybe some guys he worked with, you know, that sort of thing." A pause as she listens intently to nothing. "Yes, things couldn't be better here. Reed is thrilled with the first two days and Nathan is just wonderful to work with. Really powerful stuff. Reed says he'll call later this afternoon. Ciao."
We ride in silence for a mile or two as Nathan soaks up the praise. Finally, he says, "So we're going to Willow Gap tomorrow?"
"Yes, but you don't have to go if you don't want to," I say. "I figure after two days you've had enough of this."
"So you're finished with me?" he asks sadly.
"Oh no. After tomorrow, I'm going home to Miami and I'll spend a few days looking at footage. We'll begin the editing, trying to whittle things down. Then, in a couple of weeks, whenever you can work us in, we'll be back for another round of shooting."
"Have you told Nathan about Tad's idea?" Gwen says from the backseat.
"No, not yet."
"I think it's brilliant," she says.
"What is it?" Nathan asks.
"Tad is the best editor in the company, and we collaborate on everything. Because this film involves three or four different families, different murders, he has suggested we bring you guys together, same place, same time, and just let the cameras run. Put you all in a room, in a very comfortable setting, and let the conversation begin. No script, no direction, just the facts, as brutal as they are. As I've told you, we have researched half a dozen cases, and they are all remarkably similar. We'll pick the best three or four - "
"Yours is definitely the best," Gwen interjects.
"And let you, the victims, compare stories. Tad thinks this could be beyond powerful."
"He's right," Gwen chirps. "I would love to see it."
"I tend to agree," I say.
"Where would we meet?" Nathan says, practically on board.
"We're not that far along, but probably Miami."
"Have you been to South Beach, Nathan?" Gwen asks.
"Oh, boy. For a single guy, thirty years old, you will not want to leave. The partying is nonstop and the girls are ... How would you describe them, Reed?"
"Haven't noticed," I say, on script.
"Right. Let's just say they are beautiful and hot."
"This is not about partying," I say, scolding my assistant. "We could also do it in the D.C. area, which would probably be more convenient to the families."
Nathan says nothing, but I know he's voting for South Beach.
Vanessa and I spend the afternoon in a hotel room in Pulaski, Virginia, a half hour southwest of Radford. We go over my notes from Fort Carson and try anxiously to figure out what made Nathan suspicious. To hear him utter the name Malcolm Bannister was chilling enough; now we need to understand why. Malcolm pinched his nose when he was thinking. He tapped his fingers together when he listened. He cocked his head slightly to the right when he was amused. He dipped his chin when he was skeptical. He stuck his right index finger into his right temple when he was bored with a conversation.
"Just keep your hands still and away from your face," Vanessa advises. "And speak lower."
"Was my voice too high?"
"It tends to go back to normal when you're talking a lot. Stay quieter. Not as many words."
We argue about the seriousness of his suspicion. Vanessa is convinced Nathan is fully on board and looking forward to a trip to Miami. She is certain no one from my past could recognize me now. I tend to agree, but I'm still stunned by the reality that Nathan uttered my old name. I can almost believe he had a twinkle in his eye when he did so, as if to say, "I know who you are, and I know why you're here."
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