Wherein illustrator Sterling Hundley and Richard Ernsberger, Jr. uncover a conspiracy. Illustrated by Sterling Hundley, SterlingHundley.com
Illustration by Sterling Hundley
One summer, while in Hanover County, I stumbled across an old, weathered vegetable carton half buried beside an ancient tractor. It was on property owned by a South American couple. The words “Hanover Tomatoes” were printed boldly on the carton, and beside it in the dirt was a tiny scrap of paper—perhaps a tag—with the faintest outline of what seemed to be Spanish words. I pulled out a pocket magnifier and read, “... de México.”
Intrigued, I stopped by a Hanover library and asked to see documentation on the origin of the famed local vegetable. The librarian, a wild-eyed brunette in red heels, rebuffed me, saying, “All research on the Hanover tomato is stored in the Virginia’s Finest wing at the Vatican Museum in Rome.”
That was surprising, and so was the sight of the mysterious man in a black cape (and Atlanta Braves baseball cap), who pressed a note into my hand as I was leaving. It was in Latin, but my barista speaks that language and he translated: “Go to the Hanover Tomato Festival, and buy a gazpacho from vendor 12. In the bottom of the bowl, you will find a clue.”
I went to the festival, bought the gazpacho and in the bottom of the bowl found an (icky) key. As I walked away, a young boy with spiked hair approached, stomped on my right foot and screamed, “Lob the fish near the chick!”
Puzzled, I limped toward the sluggish waters of the Chickahominy River, and there eyed a dead fish near the bank. Ten yards from it lay a shovel, beneath an old loblolly pine. I picked it up and dug, discovering at a depth of 42 feet a rusty lockbox. Using the key, I opened it, and inside was a note dated 1609: “Journal of John Smith. Amongst Powhatan Savages, consume Trowt, corne and red fruite unknowne. Faire, worthie, plump.” Water damage made the rest of the note hard to decipher. “Chief ... Spaine ships ... Cortez. Pore soules ....”
Shocked, I texted the librarian. She responded. We met in a Mechanicsville parking garage at midnight, and I got straight to the point: “They are imported from Mexico, aren’t they?”
A look of terror creased her face. With a trembling hand, she slowly pulled off one of her earrings, dropped it on the floor and fled.
That was a year ago, seconds before a nondescript van with three burly men pulled into the garage. These days, I work in the boiler room of a courthouse in a county I won’t name. My only nourishment: a sandwich with mayo, bologna and … a single slice of tomato.