On a dark night the fog rolled over the landscape like a living thing. Unlike normal fog, this was a thick, clammy mist that seemed to move of its own accord. No wind blew it along, yet it moved, clinging to the rounded slopes of the hills and sweeping through the draws with an almost purposeful air. It passed over the outlying hills, and moved inexorably through the town, providing those few who were still out and about a small thrill of unease as it slipped silently along.
The next day few people in Wilson spoke of the fog. It was an oddity that had come and gone in the depths of the night, and when day came there were more pressing, if more mundane, matters to discuss.
In the feed store, on the courthouse square, on street corners, men discussed the weather, the prospects for the crops that year, the price of beef and wool. As always, some muttered darkly about the goings on in the state capital, just 20 miles away, though hidden by the gently green and rolling hills, and about the policies sent forth from Washington, where no matter which party and which administration was in power, agriculture seemed to be a total mystery.
In the Agnes Cafe a scattering of men sat at the counter nursing coffee, while two or three others sat at the Formica tables finishing their donuts or scrambled eggs. Agnes was long gone - she'd died in the 50s, and by now the cafe had passed into entirely unrelated hands. But the name painted on the window remained the same, and the customers did likewise, the older farmers and ranchers giving way slowly and reluctantly to their young successors. Overalls still dominated the place, though Levis were beginning to sprinkle themselves through the regular clientele as they were through the farming population.
The door opened with a crash - something that never happened, for the hydraulic door closer was old and stiff and everyone had learned over the years of its decaying smoothness to lean heavily on the door to open it. Eyes turned to see what could possibly have created the impossibly swift and hard opening of the stubborn door. A stranger stood in the doorway, reaching to retrieve the door, and swing it shut again, which he did with an ease that belied the stiffness of the door closer. As he turned from closing the door, he said in a soft, cold voice, "I apologize for the racket. I was distracted, and paid no attention to what I was doing as I entered."
Amid looks between customers, the stranger walked to the counter. He was tall, broad-shouldered, thin. His skin was pale, not with the whiteness of one who receives no sun, but the pallor of the dead. His nose was high and arrogant, bisecting a face of such marble coldness it might have been the carved representation of divine hauteur. His hair was a black that was almost blue, combed straight back from his high smooth forehead. The hands were long, the fingers thin and supple, and a scattering of hairs grew from the palms. He was dressed in a black suit, with a single red carnation in the button hole. The stranger walked across the floor noiselessly, though the linoleum tiles were cracked in many places and even without boots it was impossible to be absolutely silent. The customers who had already been in the café looked at each other curiously as the stranger seated himself at the counter, between two older farmers with the thickness of years of work and the stains of earth and nicotine on their fingers. As he lowered himself onto the stool, a simultaneous look of revulsion passed over the faces of the two men, who as if by common pre-agreement swiftly drained the remainder of their coffee, threw a bill or two on the counter, and hurriedly went out.
The new customer appeared not to notice the reaction of the two men who had gone out, examining the tattered menu with apparent interest. The waitress stepped over with a glass of water in one hand and a coffee pot in the other. "You ready to order?" she asked.
"Yes." The stranger's voice was so low that the waitress had to lean forward slightly to be sure of hearing it. "I'll have a ham and cheese omelet, hash browns, and hot tea."
"All right." The waitress, whose name tag identified her as Sherry, scribbled the order on her pad, tore off the sheet, and slapped it down on the sill of the window that communicated with the kitchen. Turning back to the stranger, who had slipped the menu back into its rack, she asked, "New in town, aren't you?"
"Yes." The stranger's lips moved in a slight smile - a bare gesture.
"I don't know. It depends on my tastes."
"You don't look like a farmer or a rancher," Sherry observed, leaning back against the ice cream machine. "Nor yet anything else I can think of to move into a small town."
The stranger smiled his meager smile again. "I was informed that citizens of small towns were inquisitive." He made a show of inspecting his nails, which were impeccably clean. "I am a self-contained man. I do that which pleases me, and I live where it pleases me to live. What does not please me is to be required to give a full biography to all and sundry." The slight smile had disappeared, and Sherry took the hint.
"Well, I guess I know how to mind my own business too. But what do you want us to call you, if you do stay in town?"
"You may call me Mr. Carver. Jared Carver."
The cook slid the plate of omelet and potatoes across the stainless steel sill of his window, smacking the chrome bell that seems to be a required furnishing in all small town restaurants. Sherry grabbed the plate and clacked it down in front of Carver. Without a word she turned away, finding something to occupy her behind the counter.
Carver ate silently, voraciously. He seemed to enjoy his food, but at the same time his teeth, exposed briefly each time he took a bite, seemed to champ down on the eggs and hash browns with a touch too much force, as if he would have preferred to be eating live meat.
When he finished, Carver shoved his plate back with a finger, and took up the check. Glancing at the total, he reached into the inside pocket of his suit coat and withdrew a long, thin wallet. From within it he extracted a couple of bills. Sliding them and the check across the counter, he waited while the waitress rang up his meal and counted out the change. Pocketing some change and a bill, he stacked the rest on the counter and slid it toward Sherry. Without a word, he then rose and left, this time without overpowering the door.
Through the day, the dark, tall form of Jared Carver appeared at various places in the town of Wilson. He opened two accounts at the bank - one checking and one savings - before moving on to the realtor, where he made arrangements to see a large house for sale in town. He appeared in the city offices, inquiring about utilities; in the grocery store, where he made small purchases such as a man staying in a motel might make - although Maxine at the desk said no Jared Carver was registered and no one matching his description had a room there; and the hardware store, where he investigated, but did not buy, a selection of strong door locks. In each place where he appeared he had the unmistakable effect of dampening the usual small town friendliness; no one greeted him with "Howdy" more than once, and while he was never impolite, he most emphatically did not invite casual conversation.
As the day wore on Carver became the town mystery. He was not staying at the motel, and no one ever saw him enter or leave a vehicle. His clothing was of the highest quality and could not have been available anywhere short of the state capital or some other large city, yet it never seemed to suffer the dusty effects of walking in a town that was liberally spattered with the side effects of trailers loaded with cattle, hogs, horses, or grain. Where he was staying or how he intended to get there was completely unknown, as was why he was in town or why he seemed intent on moving in. The townspeople were completely baffled by his cold rebuffs of their friendliness; he was not rude, as they expected city dwellers to be, but the very precision of his politeness was a barrier. He was frigid in responding to inquiries, and few pursued matters further than the first calm repulsion.
That night outbursts of barking broke out through the night. The dogs in a particular section of town would erupt, without warning, into simultaneous fury, and the patch of barking would travel slowly along until, with equal suddenness, it would cease as if cut off with an ax. For a time all would be quiet, then the same strange phenomenon would spring up in another neighborhood. By daylight the dogs of Wilson were exhausted, and many of the human citizens were fed up with the "dang mutts."
In the morning, the news went around town that Harvey Clapp, east of town, had discovered one of his Angus steers down in the pasture, with a small, precise gash in its neck. The veterinarian diagnosed a massive loss of blood, and quickly loaded the animal up to recuperate at his clinic, but could come up with no reason why the blood could be gone, or how it could have been lost through the small wound on the neck, or where it could have gone, since the ground in the pasture was free of the large splotch of blood that the magnitude of the loss suggested.
Jared Carver did not appear in town for a couple of days. When he did, it was at the realtor's office, where he seemingly materialized out of a cold thin drizzle. Draped over his shoulders, protecting his suit and its inevitable carnation, white this time, from the rain, was a rain cloak that must have cost much more than the usual plasticized poncho. Dark in color, it complemented his suit without matching it exactly.
.... There is more of this story ...