“This Mister . . . uh . . . Filbert Newton, you know him pretty well?”
“Fig,” Fred clarified. “That’s what he goes by. He moved in next door a year ago but we’ve barely talked,” explained the lanky senior in the Audubon vest. “He disappears for days at a stretch. Wears these dark shades and keeps the curtains drawn. Runs the lights on timers.”
The chief leaned back in his swivel chair and stared out the window, resting his hands on his ample belly. The view was of earnest women bent at the waist, deadheading red and yellow tulips by the library.
Spring was a beautiful time in the seaside village of Langley, on south Whidbey Island. The colorful flowers framed a postcard vista of boats skimming across Saratoga Passage toward Camano Island, with the snowcapped Cascade Mountains behind.
“Well . . .” the chief said, letting the word hang. “Living right downtown as you do, the neighbors keep pretty close tabs on things.”
“Yeah, and now everyone on Second Street is talking. We all pretty much feel there is something fishy about this guy and now he’s missing,” Fred emphasized. “He could be dead in there.”
“Did he ever say anything about family or where he came from?” the chief asked.
“I never got much out of him. One day I asked Fig over the fence where he lived before he moved here. ‘Just about everywhere,’” he said. “I remarked that he is gone a lot and asked what he did for a living. He said, ‘Oh gosh, you name it. Contracting, mostly. Anything to make a buck, eh?’
“Then he quickly changed the subject. ‘Hey,’ he asked, ‘do you like jokes? Have you heard the one about the priest and nun playing golf in a lightning storm?’”
The chief chuckled. Fred wondered if the chief knew the joke or just liked the set-up.
“In fact jokes are just about all he shared,” Fred said. “I like a joke, too, so we had that in common. But I’m more into practical jokes that take a little longer to set up. “
The chief scowled. “I haven’t forgotten the UFOs.” He was referring to the incident several years ago when Fred gave the newspaper a chilling account of nighttime lights on the water by the Doghouse Tavern. He also gave the paper a Photo-shopped image of a cigar-shaped craft that cost the chief several nights’ sleep. The alien activity ended when Fred confessed it was just a good-natured joke to have fun with the gullible New Age community.
Fred continued, “One time I asked Fig where he goes on his travels and he replied, ‘All over. You wouldn’t believe it.’ Then he poked me in the arm, grinned and said: ‘Hey, two ropes go into a bar. . .’”
The chief smiled. “Brownie, you and I have been friends a long time. So as your friend, I’m asking you to leave this alone. You’ve done your duty as a neighbor. I’ll look into it, but just let me take it from here.”
“For crying out loud, Bob. That’s it?” Fred asked. “You don’t want my help? Something’s wrong here. I may not know Fig very well but he’s still my neighbor and a nice-enough guy. You’re asking me to walk away from this and forget about him?”
“That would be best, Fred. I’ll tell you in confidence this involves another agency and they don’t want attention. You won’t be seeing Mr. Newton any more. That’s all I can say, for both our sakes.
* * *
Fred walked home troubled. Nothing about this felt right. A small town keeps no secrets, and usually that goes for the police chief, as well.
Fred had watched Fig move in. The mysterious neighbor had arrived in a Suburu Outback with California plates. He’d rented the house next door, unloaded a laptop, guitar case and a few clothes on hangers, then locked the car in the garage. Near as Fred could tell, the Subaru had never moved again. Fig kept the shades drawn.
Deep in thought, Fred cut across the Star Store parking lot and bumped into another Second Street neighbor, Bethany Bates, self-appointed village booster and maven of social media. He recounted his unsettling talk with Chief Powers, normally a forthcoming man.
“Well I’m not surprised he held back,” Beth said. “You really zinged him with that UFO business a few years ago. And you got me, too, changing all my hydrangeas from pink to blue with that aluminum dust.”
“The look on your face, Beth! It was priceless. I’ll never forget it!”
“Ha, ha, Fred. Barrel o’ fun, ok? But this Fig business has never added up. It’s like he was never really here, yet we both know he was. Did you ever Google him?” Beth asked.
“Oh, you bet. Nothing. No hits. He doesn’t have a past.”
“I tell you this smacks of witness protection,” Beth said. “If so, it would be a first for Langley, but even felons have to live somewhere. Something else bothers me, too. I think Fig looks like D.B. Cooper – I mean precisely like him.”
Cooper was a legend – the first and only man ever to hijack an American jetliner and get away with it, parachuting into history over Southwest Washington in 1971 with wads of cash. Some of the money later was found on a Columbia River sandbar but Cooper was not. Fig Newton was about the right age and build if Cooper had lived, Fred thought. Even the sunglasses fit.
The idea sent a shiver through him. But it was just one of many theories hotly debated by the regulars who gathered each morning for coffee at The Village Roastery.
“Honestly, the truth could be anything,” said Fred’s friend, Tim. “Fig could be a hit man. He could be a Mafia made man on the run. Or a fugitive polygamist or disgraced televangelist, or just some guy who doesn’t want his wife to find him. But I like Beth’s witness protection angle. Did you ever sense anyone was watching the house?”
Till that moment Fred hadn’t considered the vacant, three-story, commercial building across from Fig’s home. A sign on the glass door said, “Coming Soon: Spyglass Gallery.” Butcher paper covered the windows.
Suddenly, the truth seemed obvious. The feds had been watching Fig and he had cleared out. Or they had secreted him away. Fred hurried off to tell the neighbors, who were just as troubled as he about the stranger who’d disappeared as quietly as he’d arrived.
* * *
The letter in Fred’s mailbox two days later only made things worse. It was postmarked Toutle, Washington. No return address.
Thank you for putting up with my foolishness. You know I love a joke. I didn’t tell you I’m a lifelong prankster. As the years pass it gets harder to top my own act. It’s a young person’s game. I have to work harder just to stay relevant.
I got to wondering if I could fool a whole town – move into some sleepy village as the guy next door, keep to myself, raise doubts and let the rumors run wild. Hated to do this to you because you seem a nice guy.
You have to admit I pulled it off. The chief helped me. He was my college roommate and played along to have some fun with you. Forgive me,
* * *
“You aren’t buying it, are you Fred?” Tim asked when Fred passed the note across the table to him at coffee.
“I don’t know – maybe. It’s just crazy enough to be possible. But it’s a little too convenient. It would be easy for someone to forge a note like this to put a lid on my questions.”
Chief Powers, standing nearby, had been watching the two men while picking up a mocha. He walked over and interjected, “You heard from Fig, I see,” he said. “We go back a long way. Think of this as payback for the UFOs,” he said, erupting into a big belly laugh. Then he headed to a nearby table and sat down with a trim, crew-cut man in a black raincoat and metal-rim shades. The two chuckled and pointed Fred’s way.
“That smacks of a big act to me,” Tim added, nodding toward the chief. “Was he eavesdropping? How did he know what was in the note? And anyway, who’s that creep with him?”
“Obviously,” Fred said, “someone who’s not from around here. He looks like a bad cliché of a G-man.”
“Listen, I heard something you need to know. My neighbor is in the Air Force reserve and flies a C-17 cargo run to Afghanistan once a month. He was in Kabul last week and noticed a group of older men on the tarmac, all in black, all with sniper rifles. He was surprised because they seemed pretty old for such games. Says they were all wearing sunglasses – classic Blackwater types. He swears one of the guys called out, ‘Fig!’ to his buddy. ‘There’s your lift back to McChord.’ My neighbor did a double-take because Fig is such an unusual name and Joint Base Lewis-McChord is so close to Whidbey.”
Fred studied Tim’s face for a long moment. Tim never broke eye contact. Fred’s head was spinning as he replayed the speculation he’d heard in 1971 about the mysterious D.B. Cooper. One theory focused on the idea that only a special forces paratrooper would attempt a jump from the rear stairs of a Boeing 727 in flight, at night, over a forest.
“Now if you you’ll excuse me, I have urgent business in the other room,” Tim apologized with a little grin.
Fred watched Tim cross the room fully in control, weaving deftly around tables and chairs, maintaining composure the whole way. He opened the door marked ‘Men’ and disappeared inside. Fred heard a muffled roar as Tim flushed the pressure-assisted urinal. He wondered why Tim chose that moment to get up and leave after delivering such a loaded announcement.
Across the room, Bob Powers, the police chief, had turned his back and seemed to be doubled over, coughing. The mysterious stranger was gone.
At this same moment the front door swung open. It was Beth, headed straight for Fred’s table, and she was winded.
“Did you hear?” she gasped. “One of the $20 notes from the Cooper hijacking turned up at Island Bank. They matched the serial number.”
Fred just stared.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
“Everything,” Fred replied.