Editors' Pick

Fugitive in the Woods

The first day I ever heard the name Cody Lee Moffitt was in late January. I’d just finished a lunch of peanut butter and crackers when my phone beeped. A friend, Ray Kearns, had posted a note on our church’s message board.

There’s a man on the loose who wrecked on Gopher Lane. Drug deal gone bad. He’s armed and he’s already killed one person today. Cop cars flying by our house right now. Stay inside!

Although we technically lived within the city limits of Asheboro, North Carolina, our house was much closer to the crossroads of the little town of Denton. Gopher Lane was less than six miles away. Only soybean fields and thick, piney woods lay between us and a crazed criminal.

“I’m getting the gun.” J.P. stomped downstairs to the safe, and brought back up a 357 Smith & Wesson I’d never seen. Stainless steel.

I cringed and backed away. I had hated guns ever since a prankster fired a starter pistol at my head during a high school track meet. And I wouldn’t have married a gun fanatic; if my artist husband admired this weapon it was more for the workmanship than the power. As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, J.P. had served in the Army from 1968-1970 as a medic. Nonetheless I knew that the same broad-shouldered romantic who consoled me through a broken marriage and later carved out a place in his life for me wouldn’t hesitate to shoot an armed intruder who invaded our home.

Cody Lee Moffitt, 34 years old, was from Denton. Ray had been wrong about one thing. According to the local newscast, Moffitt’s victim still breathed, albeit in critical condition at the hospital. Still, we wouldn’t be safe until deputies found him.

The television flashed Moffitt’s mugshot, which showed wide-spaced, almost rectangular gray eyes and a bald head sprinkled with tattoos. He wore his kismet on his neck: CONVICT.

Buster, our corgi-basenji mix, licked his paw nervously, and upon closer examination, I saw that one of his pads had turned bright pink. I suspected it still tingled from a recent infection, so we bandaged his leg in an old ankle sock of mine. “Let it be,” I told him.

“You too,” said J.P., pointing at the nail of my right index finger, chewed to the quick.

 

***

 

On the morning after Cody Lee Moffitt disappeared into the woods near my house, I called my friend Carolyn and asked if the Quaker Ladies still planned to meet for our monthly potluck lunch at the Science Hill Friends fellowship hall, just three miles from where Moffitt slipped out of sight. The circle of women gathered for devotion and fellowship, and for the latest news on the Science Hill family and surrounding community in southwestern Randolph County. I worked from home, where I edited and wrote for magazines, and I tried to join them as often as I could. Carolyn, widowed since the death of her husband Charlie a few years ago, lived alone.

“Of course!” she cried. “But don’t worry. Chip just showed me how to use Charlie’s gun. He told me to leave the first chamber empty in case I fire it accidentally.”

Oh boy. This information provided little comfort, but if these women weren’t scared, I certainly didn’t want to wimp out. Still, J.P. insisted on driving me to the long, one-story building outside the meeting house. When I arrived, Carolyn greeted me and quickly latched the door behind us. Inside sat seven other women in their seventies and early eighties, each wearing COVID masks. On the table where we usually exchanged copies of Country Home and Woman’s World magazines lay Carolyn’s gun, still in its holster. We looked like outlaws ourselves.

As she always did, after lunch Betty read a devotion and a Bible verse—something about Jesus promising to be with us always—but my mind wandered. What if Moffitt broke the window and forced his way inside? Armed or not, nine women extolling the virtues of butter nut extract and discussing whose turn it was to replace the flowers on a former pastor’s grave were no match for a desperado. But in spite of—perhaps in defiance of—the danger, the chatter seemed even livelier, especially after Jane revealed her secret to keep cemetery flowers from fading. Spray paint! Although a generation separated us, and I would never understand the Quaker Ladies’ affinity for artificial flavoring, plastic flowers, and word find puzzles, I enjoyed their company.

As I looked around the room, I saw women who had faced horrible tragedies and endured. Carolyn, whose father had been murdered in a robbery many years ago. Nancy and the death of her only son in a traffic accident just three years before. Jane, whose estranged son, broken by alcoholism, had died from heart failure last year. And among them all, they had lost many relatives and friends to the pandemic. What did they have to fear from a lone fugitive in the woods? You never get over grief, someone once said. But in time you get stronger. I took the puzzle Betty offered with gratitude. It was, after all, for Valentine’s Day.

When J.P. arrived, I reminded everyone to lock the door, though I knew I didn’t have to. “Be sure and walk each other out.”

***

On the second day after Cody Lee Moffitt disappeared into the woods near my house, he rapped on the door of the Hancocks, a middle-aged couple who attended our church. Dale wasn’t home, and Wanda trembled with her grandson as they crouched behind the door.

“I was like, ‘what am I going to do? I have Elijah here, and this fugitive is at my door,’” Wanda said afterwards to television reporter Christie Swain.

Moffitt eventually gave up and broke into a home on nearby Jackson Creek Road, pointed a gun at the homeowner, and tied her up. I didn’t know this woman, but she could have been me, a neighbor, or one of the Quaker Ladies. Fortunately, Moffitt soon fled on foot, but not before stealing her van, which he crashed into the ditch. He glided through brush as easily as a deer in the woods, and again, he was gone.

With legs weakened by multiple sclerosis, I hadn’t been able to run for years, but I would never forget the feel of the wind in my hair and that surge of adrenalin as I coursed by a competitor during a track meet. Still, even if I could run today, athleticism meant little when faced with a desperate man armed with a gun.

Wanda, I just saw you on the news, I wrote on her Facebook page. How brave you were!

I actually felt a little sorry for him, she replied. He looked so pitiful.

On a whim, I entered “cody lee moffitt denton nc” in the Facebook search field and sure enough, I found a page for him. In his profile picture he grinned as a pit bull puppy licked his neck. One of his posts read: Sometimes no matter how nice you are, it still isn’t enough for some people.

“Do you think Channel 8 knows their theme song sounds just like the one for Lonesome Dove?” J.P. asked. “I’m serious. Just the first five notes, right before they do the weather.”

I sighed. We had watched the miniseries again on DVD last fall, but I couldn’t recall the tune. And what did it matter?

Finn, our terrier-beagle mix with a trace of whippet, growled from the porch and unleashed a sudden volley of barks, and I jumped. Buster followed with the descant, a deeper, more melodious reply. Then I recognized the slow roll of our neighbor Keith’s truck along Whale Tail Road, the shared driveway between us. Still, I knew I would be looking over my shoulder continuously until Moffitt was apprehended.

“Okay Cowboy,” I said to J.P., “why don’t you feed the dogs? I’ll fix supper.”

***

On the third day after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near my house Christie Swain interviewed local tow-trucker operator Andy Blevins. He’d been the one to haul away the van that Moffitt wrecked after leaving Wanda’s house.

“I’ve known Cody since he was a baby. I don’t think he’ll turn himself in.” Blevins then said he believed Moffitt could survive alone in the woods. “He’s done it before and he’ll do anything to avoid getting caught.”

“Why can’t they catch him?” I asked Carolyn over the phone. “They’ve called in the state police and now they’ve got bloodhounds tracking him.” I’d even heard something on the news about thermal drones, whatever that was.

Carolyn knew everything, the kinds of things that didn’t make the news. “He spent his first night in the barn of Sandy’s cousin Bill, and when they came out to feed the horses, he ran away. Bill’s lucky he didn’t pull the gun on him.”

An old barn lay on the edge of our property, along with our 1969 Airstream. Moffitt could be in either the barn or the trailer. The Airstream still had cushions and a mattress, where he could be huddling right now, trying to keep warm. Then there was our garage, which brimmed with detritus from J.P.’s countless projects: barrels of saw dust, stacks of wood, and the table saw. Just last year, an opossum had tried to build a nest in the corner. Moffitt could be there right now.

“Oh, and somebody saw a strange woman walking along Jackson Creek Road carrying a bag of food, but when the police tried to find her for questioning, she had disappeared.” Carolyn paused, and then added, “Don’t you know somebody’s hiding him.”

I didn’t tell her this, but I immediately thought of another post on Moffitt’s Facebook page: Sometimes a girl just wants to be bent over and banged like a screen door in a hurricane.

Moffitt’s profile acknowledged a relationship with a woman named Belinda Kemp, who also worked at Tattoo Emporium, the same place Moffitt had listed as his employer. It was very possible that Hurricane Belinda might be the good Samaritan.

“You could be right,” I said to Carolyn. “But that doesn’t make me feel any better.”

Once we hung up, I flipped the switch on the light in our garage, looking for movement. Wasn’t there once a spider web from the ladder to one of J.P.’s two-by-fours? But now it was gone. What happened? There was a good chance that my mind was playing tricks on me. Until now, I loved living in the backwoods but these days I saw danger everywhere.

***

Less than a week after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near my house, Buster turned his head away from breakfast. “Let’s try again later,” J.P. said. “It’s only eight o’clock, and it might be too early.”

J.P. rescued Buster from the pound five years before we met, and we weren’t sure of his exact age, but he had to be at least ten now. Except for passing on breakfast, he was the same as always, cheerfully cantering around the house. His coat still gleamed, all saddle brown except for a swath of white around his neck that gave him the appearance of an aristocrat interrupted while tying his ascot. Good morning milady, he seemed to say, as he leaned into me for a hug.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” J.P. said. “We should probably take the keys out of the cars.”

I had totally forgotten that we routinely left the keys inside the truck, my Acura and his old Mercedes. Everybody around here did that. It was so convenient. Until now, we never had any reason to worry about a vehicle being stolen.

“Technically, we’d be safer to leave them put,” I said. “That way Moffitt wouldn’t have to break into the house to get what he wants. And a car is just a car.”

“You’re just saying that. You’d love for him to take the Mercedes.”

It was tempting. That 1995 clunker seemed to always be one part short of running, and I frequently threatened to write “FREE CAR” in the dust on the back windshield.

It had been so easy, in the beginning of our relationship, to ignore our very different views on what constituted clutter. But these days, it felt as if he was forever adding things to our world, and I was always subtracting.

J.P. read my mind. “Don’t even think about it.”

***

Eight days after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near my house, Carolyn called and said she wanted to ask me something, but in person, so I invited her for dinner. I rushed through the meal to serve dessert—leftover apple pie—because it was getting late, and I didn’t like the idea of her arriving home alone in the dark.

By the time I walked her to the door, I had forgotten that she had a mission. But she hadn’t. “Michael Frye is coming up for parole again,” she suddenly blurted. “Would you write a letter to the board for me?”

Carolyn’s father had retired from farming to fulfill his dream of running a country store on High Pines Church Road. In 1989, a man named from Michael Frye who had moved here from Tennessee, stopped by to cash a paycheck. Then he robbed Carolyn’s father and beat him to death. Frye received the death penalty, but the courts overturned it a few years later.

“We have until May,” she said. “And just so you know, I do believe in second chances. I might even forgive him if he asked me to. But he’s never once contacted us nor expressed remorse. And he is not reformed. In fact, not too long ago, he tried to stab another inmate. I’ve testified at every single hearing he’s had, because if he gets out, I know he’ll come right back to Randolph County.”
I could tell that Carolyn feared Frye much more than Moffitt, and I certainly didn’t want to run into him. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’d be glad to.” As she drove away, I shouted into the darkness: “Call me when you get home!”

***

I’m thinking it was the tenth day after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near our house because I tried to resist these impulses as long as I could. Suffice it to say that at some point in time, I yielded to my craving for a Bavarian cream doughnut from Glaze King, a Cambodian-run coffee shop with the best pastries in Asheboro. And I would have it.

“Just sugar and dough,” J.P. said, with a cock of his eyebrow.

“Exactly,” I replied. “That’s just what I want.” A layer of chocolate ganache, as thick as spackling paste, coated the top of a round doughnut bloated with vanilla pastry cream. On the way home, I picked around the sides, and Buster edged over from the console and licked his lips. Just like the Fokker airplane in one of J.P.’s aviation books, his oversized ears lay straight out, ready for takeoff.

“No chocolate for you, mister.” We took him with us on short trips into town because nothing made him happier than going somewhere in the car. His last years, I decided, would be good ones.

I dug into my pocket for a dog biscuit, held it out, and Buster’s jaws snapped with a zeal that belied his usual laid-back demeanor. I know how you feel, I thought, as I stroked his increasingly gray muzzle.

At home, I bit into the squishy middle of the doughnut and yielded to temporary bliss. Cream squirted all over my chin, and I raked off every bit with my fingers and slurped it down. The slow drift of the doughnut into my belly soothed me, but I soon paid for it. The sugar surged through my blood, prickling my senses.

“As a reminder, Cody Lee Moffitt is a fugitive. He is armed and dangerous,” said Liz Lafferty on the evening news, “and deputies said people shouldn’t approach him. Anyone who sees him should call 911 immediately.”

***

On one of those many days after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near our house, I looked up the etymology of the word “fugitive” in our 1903 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I’d heard the word so much that I wanted to dissect its origins, and possibly peel away a new understanding of the man.

The OED stated the word derives from the French word fugitif (stemming from the Latin root fugere) and defined it as “that which has taken flight, especially from duty, an enemy, a master, or justice.” An online etymology dictionary went even deeper and traced the word to the Proto-Indo-European root bheug which meant “to flee,” where it branched into the Lithuanian word būgstu for “be frightened.”

There was indeed a good chance Moffitt was as frightened as he was dangerous. Reader, I know it appears as if I was obsessed with Moffitt’s Facebook page, but he was now a part of my life. And I couldn’t help going back, wondering just what had been on his mind before his run from the law. As I scrolled farther and farther down his page, I noticed that some of his posts were surprisingly normal. Not the words of a hardened criminal, but a man who truly believed to be misunderstood.

Sometimes people just hate you because somebody else lied about you.

***

On the twelfth day after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near our house, J.P. prepared to leave for the Veterans Administration medical complex in Salisbury, about an hour away, for his annual check-up. I didn’t want to go because I had too much to do—clean out the refrigerator, for one thing, and then work on a magazine article. Buster waited at the door, wagging his tail. You coming milady?

“No honey,” I said. “I’d better stay behind.”

“Are you talking to me or the dog?” J.P. asked. “I can never tell.” He brought the gun into the study and laid it on the table behind my desk. “Do you think you could fire this if you had to?”

Once a girlfriend asked me to join her at Guns ‘n Gals, a shooting range where women shot at cardboard targets, socialized and crammed for their conceal-carry permit exam. But I abhorred the idea of even touching a gun, much less firing one.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing a notebook. The refrigerator could wait.

*** 

On the first sunny day after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near our house, J.P. asked if I wanted to work in the yard.

“Do you think we should? Moffitt could be anywhere.” In the trailer. The barn. Even hunched behind a big rock, just waiting for us to emerge from the house.

“Ahh, we’ll be all right,” he said. “Who wants to stay inside on a day like today?”

He was right. It would do us both good to spend some time outside, and we threw on coats and gloves. It was a brisk 45 degrees, but no clouds, not even a condensation trail of a plane from the nearby airport, obscured the sky’s vast blue canvas. The gravel on our driveway sparkled in the sun, and the cool air against my face invigorated me.

Last year a red oak had fallen west of the driveway, and we planned to haul it to the burn pile. J.P. cut it into logs, and I helped him roll them onto the forks of the front loader. But due to the mud, he couldn’t get the traction he needed to drive the loader close enough to scoop up the heaviest pieces.

“Here’s how you snake a log,” he said. “An old lumberjack trick. You hook one end of a chain on the log and the other end on the forks, and I’ll drag it out with the loader.”

I lassoed one log successfully and he carted it to the burn pile. I chained another one, and he pulled it out, but after I unhooked the chain, the log rolled back into the gulley, right where it came from. We both laughed, something we hadn’t done for a while. “We’ll just leave it there,” he said. “It’s not in the way, and eventually it’ll just rot.”

As he drove away to park the loader, I buried my face in the petals of winter honeysuckle, the first plant to bloom every year, and one that J.P. first shared with me. The scent of lemon and vanilla, followed by a whiff of a pine forest after rain, teased me with the promise of warmer weather.

Most of the trees—oaks, poplars and dogwoods—had long shed their foliage, and I admired the honesty of their naked contortions toward the sun. The beeches still held on to their leaves, resembling demure ladies with pale golden fans. Among such beauty, it was easy to forget that this land was a savage one. Over the years the loss of so many manufacturing jobs brought economic hardship and crime to the region. Drug overdoses were common, and murder was not unusual. There had been the death of Carolyn’s father, and many more since. I still shuddered at the memory of the recent strangulation of 19-year Victoria Scofield by her mother’s boyfriend, who left her body in the woods off the bucolic Pisgah Covered Bridge Road just two miles away from our house.

A giant shadow flew over me, and I shivered. But then I heard the descending scale of a xylophone, the call of the pileated woodpecker. It sounded like a warning, and I called out to J.P.

“I’m getting cold. Let’s go inside.”

***

On one of those mornings after Moffitt disappeared in the woods near our house Dictionary.com sent me an email with the word of the day.

Lachrymose. Adjective. [lak-ruh-mohs]. Suggestive of or tending to cause tears; mournful.

I no longer pretended I wasn’t obsessed with Moffitt’s Facebook page. The word of the day reminded me of something, and sure enough, when I examined his profile picture more closely, I spotted the tattoo of a single tear under his right eye. But I didn’t stop there. I kept going and read a post from October 29, the day his dog had vanished.

REWARD FOR LOST PUPPY BLUE PITBULL 10 WEEKS OLD… WHITE WISHBONE ON HIS NECK…$236….ALL I HAVE TO MY NAME….HE IS NOT JUST A DOG, HE’S FAMILY….

Moffitt’s post didn’t give a name to his puppy, but I imagined he answered to the name “Bandit” or maybe “Wishbone.” Perhaps, I thought, as I felt Buster’s tail flick around my leg, Moffitt wouldn’t now be a fugitive had Wishbone been waiting for him at home.

***

On one of the many nights after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near my house, J.P. found a missing rivet bucking tool that he’d specially ordered to help restore the 1969 Airstream. “Aha!” he cried.

I refused to share his jubilation. Anger bent my body. In spite of my continual pleas for him to organize his tools, he had squirreled his latest one on a bookshelf in the study, on top of an Ansel Adams biography. Fuming, I pounded down the steps to the basement, loud enough for him to hear, and hopped on my treadmill.

It made me feel better to walk, even if I lasted only twenty minutes at a very low speed. The farrago of J.P.’s on-again, off-again projects—book repair, old typewriters, clocks, and now parts from the Airstream—littered the basement. As promised, he kept a path clear to my treadmill but it seemed to narrow by the day.

On the fringes of my mind lurked Moffitt. The longer he remained on the loose, the more dangerous he became. If he broke in upstairs, I decided, I’d throw open the basement door and creep outside. J.P. had the gun and he had Finn, who would whirl into a barking frenzy at the approach of a stranger. I’d crouch behind the concrete retaining wall and call 911 on my phone. But we lived so far from civilization it could take deputies fifteen minutes or more to get here.

Better just pray, I told myself. Just pray.

***

Two weeks to the day after Moffitt disappeared into the woods near my house, Buster suddenly dropped to the floor of the car. We had just pulled into the Walmart parking lot, and J.P. planned to run in and exchange some paint. “Wait,” I said. “Look!”

Buster howled gently, and his eyes rolled from black to a milky blue. We helped him up to the back seat, and then he vomited.

A vice wrapped around my chest, squeezing it, and I had to make myself breathe. Oh God, Oh God, was this how it was going to end? No!

“Call the vet,” J.P. said “Tell him we’re on the way.”

The irony was that we had just taken Buster there, earlier in the month, and Dr. Parks had prescribed antibiotics for his paw.

“We don’t know why these things happen,” the old-school vet said. He had taken Buster’s temperature and listened to his heart, and now he peered into his eyes. Slowly, slowly, slowly, stimulated by all the activity, Buster nodded back to life. “He definitely suffered some kind of neurological event. You can call it a little seizure. Maybe even a little stroke.”

My legs crumpled, and I grabbed the edge of the examining table for balance. “Look,” said Dr. Parks, who didn’t believe in putting an old dog through unnecessary tests or strife, “it may be none of the above. Let’s just watch him, and see how he does.”

As I checked out, I found comfort in the busy waiting room—the brio of a young standard poodle who strained to be adored, the papillon who flared a tiny lip, and the laughing exasperation of the man and woman who dragged their German Shepherd to the scale to be weighed. Back in the car, Buster stood on top of the console, as he always did, with raised ears, alert and primed for takeoff. Ready to go milady?

I had left my phone in the car, and it beeped with a message. Probably Carolyn, I thought, or maybe a friend returning a call. But it was something else entirely, a news alert. Manhunt ends: Cody Lee Moffitt found hiding in false bottom of a home in Davidson County.

I gasped, and fumbled, nearly dropping my phone.

“What is it?” J.P. asked.

“Moffitt’s been found.” My voice halted, and I paced my words. “Hiding under a trap door in the trailer he shared with his girlfriend.”

Carolyn had been right. While we walked in fear and kept a gun in plain view, this dangerous criminal, outlaw and supposed survivalist, cowered in the crawl space beneath a trailer. Maybe since the second day. What flew out of my mouth was more a laugh than an exclamation of relief.

That night, all four of us, me, J.P., Buster, and Finn, relaxed on the couch. J.P. tried to interest me in his favorite John Garfield film, The Breaking Point. But after acknowledging that yes, a blond Patricia Neal made an interesting femme fatale, I quickly lost interest. I preferred to sit there and relish the collective warmth of all three of my boys.

Finn curled his body to my right and I ruffled his little ears, knowing he deserved attention too. Buster lay between me and J.P. on top of The Clock Repairer’s Handbook with his head in my lap and drooled on my jeans. It might never happen again, I thought, recalling the words of Dr. Parks. Indeed. I would never have a dog like Buster again.

Eventually I pulled out Betty’s word find puzzle. I hadn’t done one of these since fourth grade, but once I starting spotting words and circling them, I found the act surprisingly satisfying. I spied “valentine,” “friends,” “heart,” “chocolate,” and more within minutes. Only “love” remained. Weren’t the littlest words always the hardest to find?

I did think of Moffitt, especially after seeing him on the news taken away from the trailer in hand cuffs. He appeared so small, and when his eyes met the camera, they were surprisingly sad. He certainly must have been sobered by the twenty-five felony and misdemeanor charges facing him. As relieved as I was to know our little family and neighbors were safe, I felt a wave of pity for the man. After all my Facebook sleuthing, I still hadn’t uncovered enough in his background to explain the desperation and violence. But what I had found showed he ached for the same things we all did: understanding, companionship, and love.

Incredibly, that last word eluded me. But I would not give up. And there, on the diagonal, in reverse, lay “love.” I circled it, folded up the puzzle, and reached across Buster to J.P. He squeezed my hand and pulled it to his lips. Buster snorted softly, and slipped back into his dream.

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