Recently, I’ve been working on a project with some of my classmates from back in high school. This project has, most recently, seen me diving into local history and being in it to the degree that I have has kind of had me living in another era for the last month or more. It’s also had me tugging at threads of a mystery so old that most of those threads snap long before anything of value falls out. So I know I’m going to end up writing a mystery novel set in King George.
I’m hard-headed, though, and I like a challenge, so it’s going to be set around 1959.
I’ve been playing around with ideas, and I figured I’d share my first experiment here. Consider it a sample of things to come.
The Dark and Lonely Road
King George County in 1959 was a dusty little saddle-shaped piece of Virginia in the bend of the Potomac river an hour south of Washington, DC. It had two major roads and two major employers. These were, in no particular order, US Route 301, a two-lane highway that ran from New York to Florida assuming you didn’t wrap your car around a deer or, worse, another car somewhere along the way; State Route 3, the major East-West route, another two-lane, from the Northern Neck on the East end out to the colonial City of Fredericksburg and beyond, to Culpeper far in the West; The Naval Weapons Laboratory at the north end of the county, and Mount Rose Canning Company where the two major roads intersected near the south end. King George had the distinction of being exactly between things: exactly between DC and Richmond, exactly between the place George Washington was born and the place where he grew up; exactly between James Monroe’s birthplace and James Monroe’s law office; exactly between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. In short, it was a place people passed through on their way to somewhere else. Even John Wilkes Booth had the sense to die just across the river in Caroline.
My family is from Chesterfield, outside of Richmond, which is the reason I was in King George. My name is Hieronymus Cogbill, Harry to my friends. Most of my family is very successful, and always has been, and nobody worried too much about me. They all knew I’d be successful at whatever I put my hand to. I wish I’d had their confidence. Nobody worried about me, so I did all the worrying myself. I was drafted into the Army for the second World War, but I was never really cut out for it. It is honestly a miracle I didn’t get killed. My best friend in my unit was PFC Roland Evelyn Taylor. Rollie and I talked a lot about our homes, swapping stories about small Virginia towns and the characters you find. He was from King George.
He threw himself on a grenade and saved my life and those of a couple of other guys, but I always thought it was a bad bargain. Rollie was worth at least two of me, especially on the ground in Europe. Don’t misunderstand me, I could shoot with the best of them. I just had no real taste for it, and I hated being told what to do. I spent enough time in the stockade they finally gave me the boot. I couldn’t face going home a failure, so when I got back stateside I just kept moving, up and down the eastern seaboard, looking for something I never found. I was a corrections officer in Boston. A bond enforcer in Brooklyn. A short-order cook in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I mopped the floors in a casino in Waldorf, Maryland, and once I washed up at that, I crossed the Morgantown Bridge into King George County.
I’ve heard tales about guys who are haunted by the ghosts of their old brothers in arms, but that never happened to me. I just stayed in King George, looking for the essence of Rollie, and maybe the use in being me. I didn’t try to find his family. I wasn’t convinced they’d have anything to say to me, and I was even less convinced there was anything they’d want me to say to them. I was sitting at my kitchen table, staring at the wall clock, listening to a beetle slam itself into my window-screen. The bare fixture in my ceiling was like a neon nautilus, its pale, sterile light an island in the pre-dawn darkness. I debated going to bed, but it was already pushing five-thirty AM and there seemed little point. The coffee in my cup had grown cold, and the percolator had long-since ceased its flatulence. I disassembled it, rinsed it out, and started a fresh pot.
I rubbed a stick of butter around the inside of an iron skillet, put it on the big coil and cranked the knob up to about three-quarters. I started a pot for grits, and opened a can of corned-beef hash. I got the hash arranged on one side of the skillet and while that was going, I cracked a couple of eggs in a cereal bowl, added a splash of milk and beat them with a stainless steel salad fork. I don’t believe in whisks; they’re a pain in the ass to clean. By tilting the bowl towards me and operating the fork in a rapid, tight circular motion towards the edge, I set up a vortex that slowly devoured the entire mixture. I added a little crushed red pepper from a bottle with a yellow and red label marked SAUER’S in block text, and stirred that in, and then poured my eggs in the other side of the skillet. I used milk in my grits, rather than water – probably heresy but I liked the creamier flavor – and melted some butter over them in the bowl. I pan-fried some toast and by the time I finished eating this kingly feast, I felt almost alive. I stuffed all the pots and pans in the sink – a problem for another time – and took the rest of my coffee on my sagging porch, watching as the broken egg-yolk sun oozed all over the treetops and burned off the lingering fog across the field.
I heard the stuttering bark of a fox kit somewhere in the brush. What I called a yard had been a small farm just a few years before, and a few old fences cut it into pens. The fences were covered in Virginia creeper and the fields, gone to seed, were choked with weeds and wildflowers. I wondered if the fox’s mother was out there somewhere, but I didn’t hear any reply. The sun was bleeding all over the field now, and the foxes would all be going to bed for the day. But the kit in my yard croaked out another series of wow-wow-wow’s. Maybe a runt. Abandoned, or injured in training for the hunt. Natural selection.
I heard the truck before I saw it. A rolling cloud of dust tumbled up the dirt road and parted the fields like Moses parting the sea. It was a dusty, battered, decade-old Ford, pontoon fenders and running boards, the morning sun like the glory of God streaming off the chrome. The woman who got out was wearing denim bib overalls and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled to her elbows. She was round-shouldered and her hair was short, curled inward around her ears and neck. She was not pretty, but she went well with the truck.
“You Harold Cogbill?”
“No, but then who is.”
“I heard you were a smart-aleck.”
“The name’s Hieronymus,” I said. “But you can call me Harry, it’s easier on both of us.”
“Look, cut it with the funny business, I need your help.”
I needed more coffee. Or possibly less coffee and more sleep.
I said, “help? With what?”
“Something damn peculiar is going on at my Uncle’s place and I need someone to look into it.”
I tried to do the math and came up empty.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but it’s early yet and I’m only on my sixth cup of coffee, so it’s possible I’m missing something here. What is it you think I do for a living?”
“Currently unemployed, is what I heard.”
“I’ll grant that’s true.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“What? No. Why…? Let’s start this over.” I set my tin cup on the railing, stepped down and stuck my hand out. “Morning, miss. My name’s Harry. And you would be…?”
“Ethel Burkitt. You used to be a cop, ain’t that right?”
“What lying son of a bitch told you that?”
“Well, John over at the post office on account of he seen a envelope addressed to Mister Harry Cogbill from the Massachussetts Department of Corrections, and he remembered you said you used to deal with prisoners and all.”
“John’s got it turned around. I was a guard, that’s all. Thug with a badge watches over the thugs haven’t got one. I’m sorry.”
The fox kit was crying now.
Miss Ethel Burkitt got back in her truck, turned it around in the dirt loop in front of my house, and took her cloud of dust back out to Gera Road. I stepped back up on my drooping porch, the old planks creaking beneath my feet, and resumed my cup. The coffee had gone cold, and the fox kit’s crying had grown more pitiful. I stood there, watching the birds pecking at the ground and the butterflies bobbing drunkenly among the blooms in the yard. A single turkey buzzard had taken up his circling watch above the field. I tossed the cold coffee into the grass, put the cup back on the railing, and walked out across the field toward the sound of the crying fox.
He was a little thing, not even cat-sized yet, blue eyes, white-and-black on his stubby little muzzle, his back all grey, a black stripe down the top of his tail. The fur on his cheeks and around his ears had the faintest hint of red. He didn’t fight me when I picked him up and carried him back to the porch. I picked up my tin cup and carried both it and the baby fox into the house. I opened a can of potted meat, put it in a cereal bowl and set it on the floor near the fox. Then I went and took a shower, brushed my teeth and put on fresh clothes.
I asked the fox if he wanted to go for a ride, and since he didn’t say no, we got in my rust-streaked Hudson and headed for the store in Gera. I parked in the gravel, picked up my new friend, and stepped up onto the porch and through the glass door. Inside the floors were hardwood and the store, like most of the ones around the county in those days, was a holdover from an earlier era. There were staple food items, some work clothes, a few household items and basic hardware. He sold Cokes and Moon Pies and bags of dog food. I figured my little pal might like that, so we selected a bag and took it to the counter. John said hi to me, and regarded my companion with some disdain.
“Better to let nature take its course,” he said.
“Depends whose nature,” I said.
He got me my mail.
“Say, John, you didn’t happen to suggest to a lady recently that I might be able to help her with some family trouble?”
“No sir,” he said. “I don’t reckon I’d frame it quite that way.”
“Ethel Burkitt seems to recall a different series of events.”
“When she was in here yesterday, she did say she thought her uncle might be in some trouble and I did mention how you used to be a policeman up in Boston, but that’s all there was to it.”
“I was never a policeman, John. I was a prison guard. There’s a whole universe of difference. Why can’t she just call the Sheriff?”
“Sheriff cain’t help her if there ain’t been no crime.”
I said, “I’ll grant that’s true.” The little fox in my arms listened to the whole conversation and didn’t make a peep. But he looked as bored with it as I was.
“You ain’t really gonna keep a gray fox for a pet, is you?”
“I guess I’m just a sucker,” I said. “Miss Burkitt hasn’t got a telephone, has she?”