For the second time in a month, murder had shaken the Virginia horse country. And, like the first slaying, in which the assailant claimed that insane jealousy drove him to kill the Middleburg horse trainer he found making love to his estranged wife, this one had all the earmarks of a Harlequin novel.
On New Year's Eve, someone found the farm manager of one of Fauquier County's most prominent estates dressing for a party and blew him away with a shotgun.
The two murders may have more in common than is presently known. In one respect, however, they are identical. Both happened in communities where crime, at least serious crime like murder, is not expected to happen. Not by common perceptions, at least. From the vantage point of Capitol Hill, murder is a foreign concept to the idyllic countryside surrounding the federal city.
Whether that perception is true -- that murder, or crime in general, has somehow been contained within the Beltway -- seems to go unquestioned. And so reporters are apt to venture into the hinterlands porting various colored glasses along with their notepads and typewriters.
During the three days I covered a murder in The Plains, population 400, people stopped me on the road to ask what I was doing. In one case, news of a Washington Post photographer taking pictures near the murder scene spread to the county sheriff's office in Warrenton within an hour. And it seemed that at every stop, the one question uppermost in people's minds was: "What is so different about this story that brings the Washington Post 50 miles to cover it?"
It is common refrain, usually taken by newspeople to mean: "Why don't you go away? We don't like outsiders and we don't want them to know what really goes on here."
What I found in The Plains, however, is that the remark was as sincere as my response. Apparently, people in The Plains truly wonder what makes murder there interesting to us here. As far as they are concerned, they aren't different any more .
"Whether you live in the city or the country, you can be burglarized or murdered," said Mike Thompson, mayor of The Plains. "Anyone in this day and age feels they live under the specter of crime."
Washington, meet The Plains.
Certainly the country once was a place where the living was easy, where city folks could escape the cares and worries of urban life. But with the completion of I-66, The Plains and its environs are hardly an hour away. Many residents subscribe to Washington's two daily newspapers and most are within reach of the city's television news.
"Communication is such that we hear what everyone else hears," said John Page Turney, a former mayor of The Plains, "and that's had its effects. Certainly, things have changed over the years."
"There was a day when everybody left their doors unlocked because they knew everybody," said Thompson. They never worried about someone coming in and killing them. But those days are gone."
With as much news exposure to urban crime as anyone in an Arlington condominium or a Dupont Circle townhouse, attitudes in Washington's rural reaches were probably bound to change. But the change has been more profound. More people are being burglarized in the country. Crime spreads, and in The Plains, without a policeman for more than a year, the question of whether the town should extend its meager finances to hire one has residents bitterly divided.
"I've lived in the same house for 25 years and never locked my door," Turner said. "In the last year, I've been broken into twice. And with 66 completed and more people coming out here, who can say what will happen?"
Residents of outlying areas may resent the suburban label Washington news organizations are increasingly tempted to give them. But if they are becoming as much a part of Washington's urban dilemmas as they say they are, they may no longer be able to avoid it.
As the imaginary line between Washington and the "country" becomes blurred, the question no longer is what Washington Post reporters are doing there, buy why they aren't there more often.