I apologize for the delay in getting this chapter out to you all, but I was out of town all last week. I tried to get it done before I left and with all the rushing around I had to do to get ready, I just wasn’t able to put it together in time. Anyway, here it is at last and I hope you enjoy it. This one fought me the whole way.
I always woke up feeling like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I shambled to the toilet and then to the sink and then around the house a little to get used to it. By the time the coffee was done most of the seaweed had dropped off my brain. I poured a bowl of Purina for my fox and freshened up his water, then got out my skillet. I laid out a couple of strips of bacon and pressed on the ends so they’d fry up even and not get all rubbery. I started a couple pieces of toast, the darkness set somewhere between 4 and 5, then melted some butter in a smaller pan and busted a couple eggs in it and sprinkled them with fine black pepper out of a Sauer’s tin.
The secret to good fried eggs is to open the shell close to the surface in a hot pan, and let the egg slip out gently so it doesn’t splatter. The yolk winds up sitting in a perfect little bubble of whites and it won’t run too much. Of course, I hate egg whites so I poked the yolks with the corner of the spatula and let them slowly fill the bubbles. I covered the egg pan with a lid so they’d cook evenly. Every so often I flipped my bacon and kept pressing the ends to the skillet. The trick to bacon is, when you think it’s done, it’s ruined. I pulled it early and laid it out on a plate. It cooked on its own for another few seconds and finished up just right: red and crisp, and not all dried up like they eat it in Philly. When the toast popped I buttered it, then flipped the two eggs onto it, broke my bacon strips in half, added them, and closed the sandwich. I drank a glass of juice and killed two cups of coffee. Then I tried walking the fox. We agreed never to attempt it again.
Once I’d showered and scrubbed my teeth I put on a pair of khakis and a denim shirt, and drove to Dahlgren. I took the less direct route, through the courthouse area. The courthouse was built in the early 20’s in the neoclassical revival style, a broad, squat red-brick building with a columned portico and fanlights over the door and flanking windows under the pediment. Across the street was a rather large store, a wide gallery porch facing Route 3 and a bank of gas pumps across the front. A sign above the porch said “NATION-WIDE SERVICE GROCERS,” and painted on the front of the building on either side of the door, were the words “E.R. MORRIS AND SON.” I stopped in to pick up a paper and fill up my gas tank. Next door was a Chevy dealer, also with the name Morris on the front. Down the street a little further were a couple of churches, one Methodist and the other Episcopalian. There was a parish house standing between them like a mediator. The Episcopal church, St. John’s, looked like it belonged in a New England whaling town.
There was a little firehouse next to a Ford dealer, the Clift Motor Company, several houses, and then, further west, a little Catholic church on the left and finally the Arnold house, Willow Hill. Ahead was Arnold’s Corner, where Route 206 began on the right. On the far side of the intersection was an old wooden filling station with a service bay. I swung my sorry Hudson around the corner and onto 206, a narrow, hilly route crowded by forest on both sides. There was no shoulder. There wasn’t much other than a scattering of houses for most of the way. After a few miles I crossed Indian Town Road. I passed a few houses and then Weedonville Post Office at my left, on the corner of Hobson Lane, looking like it belonged on the set of John Wayne movie with its crow steps and wide porch. An old white frame house with a tin roof and lightning rods sat out beyond the field next door.
I kept thinking about Miss Ethel. Every woman I had ever loved had given up on us. On me. Getting close would only hasten Ethel Burkitt’s departure from my life. What use would a strong, independent young woman have a for a broken-down old jackass whose main hobby was getting fired from things? Just beyond Weedonville there was a new subdivision called Eden Estates under construction on the right. At the moment this particular vision of Eden was a big swath of earth cut by bulldozers through a mess of broken trees. I passed the Cleydael estate, which was once the home of Dr. Richard Henry Stuart, whom John Wilkes Booth and David Herold had called upon seeking food, lodging, and medical attention in the days following Lincoln’s assassination. Stuart fed Booth and Herold, but did not permit them to stay.
Here the road dropped sharply downward, across Peppermill Creek, and then angled steeply back uphill. A big pileated woodpecker flew across the road, bobbing up and down with the effort, the white under his wings flashing, his red crest swept back like a fin. The trees were so close here that the branches met, high above the road, and blocked out most of the sun. Route 218 joined from the left at Berthaville, a colonial-era Episcopal church called St. Paul’s set way back on the right, a huge, two-story block of brick, its footprint the shape of a bulky Swiss cross, hipped roof and plain glass windows. There was a big brick chimney, and no steeple.
The church had a kind of brooding symmetry, presiding over a yard of gnarled trees and ancient grave markers. It was an old place, and like many places I’d been in Europe, the air was heavy with the memory of the dead. A cloud of darkness had been hanging over me for twenty years, until even a sunny country two-lane felt a dark and endless chasm. Happiness came in short bursts. Every time I thought of Ethel Burkitt’s voice I saw the grasshoppers flying in from her father’s field, her sun-gilded hair lifting in the breeze. Words tumbled out of her mouth like apples from an overturned basket, and her accent rang like barbed wire strung between log fence-posts topped with tin.
Then at last, I was in Owens, and near the corner of Windsor Drive was the Owens Market, long and low, with a pent roof across the front and big display windows flanking the door. Beside it was an old whitewashed church building with an open crawlspace, plain glass windows, tin roof, and an entryway with a fanlight over the door. The sign identified it as Oakland Baptist Church, and a small cemetery spread behind it and the Owens market. I parked in the dust in front of the store. There was a guy in brown slacks and a rumpled grey blazer leaning on the fender of a black Caddy with Maryland tags. He had a yellow shirt and a striped tie, and a porkpie hat with a silk band in an ugly print. I recognized him as hat guy from Wilkerson’s the night before. I hesitated a moment; wondered if they knew Ethel, and if so would they remember me? No use looking suspicious.
I got out of the car and headed for the store. As I passed the Caddy I nodded to the guy in the hat. “Nice day, innit?”
“Not so nice I don’t wish I was anyplace else,” he said. “What you guys do for fun around here? You got like, barn dances and stuff?”
“You’re thinking of Oklahoma,” I said. “This is Virginia. We mostly grow tobacco and write the Declaration of Independence.”
“Hell,” he said. “Guess somebody’s got to.”
The store had a familiar musty interior: worn hardwood floor, shelves stocked with basic groceries, hardware, housewares, and clothes. There was a tall dark-haired kid in an apron behind the counter.
“What’s with the guy out front?” I said.
“His pals are in talking to Mr. Taylor.”
“They from around here?”
“They been in town long?”
“They been in here a couple times this week, I don’t know. Maybe staying over at the Hillcrest or something.”
“Could just as easily have driven down a couple of times this week.”
“Sure. Like I said, I don’t know.”
“What’s their business?”
“I’m not sure about that, either. They seem interested in land, but around here that’s getting to be pretty reg’lar.”
“They want to buy the store?”
“I don’t know. They been in back a while.”
I wandered down one of the aisles, feigning interest in a spinner rack full of signs that said things like “FOR SALE BY OWNER” and “BEWARE OF DOG.” After a few minutes a door opened behind the counter and three men came out. One of them had greying hair parted to the left and draped across his forehead, and a cowlick. He was wearing a white apron and khaki trousers, and a short-sleeved button-down shirt, obviously Mr. Taylor. The other two were familiar; I’d seen them in Wilkerson’s the night before. One guy was sort of narrow, with a white shirt and a black tie, black pants and a grey blazer. His hair was curly and swept back from his forehead. The other was shorter and heavier, and dressed a little better than either his companion or the guy leaning on the car out front. He had a gold wristwatch and a ring on his right hand.
He put his hand on Taylor’s shoulder, said something softly and shook his hand. Then he patted him once on the back, and he and his companion cruised on out the door, got in the Caddy and drove away towards Dahlgren. Taylor turned and regarded me, and sent his helper off to sweep the store.
“What can I do for you today?”
“You don’t have any signs say BEWARE OF FOX, do you?”
Taylor laughed hesitantly. “Ah, no, don’t reckon I do. That’s a new one. Having fox problems?”
“Well, there’s one in my house.”
Taylor opened his mouth and then closed it again.
“Who were those guys, anyway? They don’t look like they’re from around here.”
“Just passing through,” Taylor said. “Needed directions.”
“Went the wrong way, didn’t they?”
“City folk, you know how it is.”
“Yeah, reckon I do. Say, you know the guy owns that air strip up yonder off 301?”
“That’ll be Jack Pope. Well, Jack and his mother, since Jim passed.”
“He give flying lessons?”
“Jack? He did, reckon he may still.”
“Thanks. What did Jim die of?”
“Jim Pope, I assume.”
There was a long, awkward moment while Taylor and I stared at each other.
“Does it matter?”
“To somebody, I hope.”
“What’d you say your name was, sir?”
“You ain’t from around here yourself, or I’d know you.”
“I live out near Gera, but I thought I might take up flying.”
“Almost be closer go out to Oak Grove, wouldn’t it? They got that big fancy airport for the beach. Bet some fellow out there would teach you.”
“It was recommended I talk to Mr. Pope.”
I was getting a funny read off Taylor.
“You alright, Mr. Taylor? You seem nervous. Those guys didn’t threaten you, did they?”
“Lord, no. You’re an inquisitive fellow, ain’t you?”
“Well, you know what they say.”
“I don’t know, I was asking you.”
A slow grin spread across Taylor’s face.
“You’re a real piece of work, Mr. Cogbill.”
“I’ve been told.”
“Well, if you’re done asking questions, I got to take inventory here.”
“Be careful at that intersection, now. Watch out for trucks coming down the hill. They won’t see you until it’s too late, you know they cain’t stop on a dime.”
“Thanks, I’ll be careful.”
“Been a lot of deaths on the highway,” he said. “Some new family every week. Real shame.”
I did not get killed pulling out onto Highway 301. Jack Pope’s service station was only about a mile north, standing at the entrance to the air field. It had a gravel turnaround and a couple of modern pumps with fluorescent lights like wings spread protectively above. There were two buildings; a modern cinder-block station with a couple of bays and an office with a waiting area and a cash register; and a green clapboard structure with a tin gambrel roof, wedged on an awkward little plot behind the filling station, partially hidden from the highway by a line of cedar trees. There was a bright yellow J-3 Piper Cub out on the grass near the runway. I could see way back across the low, grass-covered airfield to what looked like a fence and a ragged treeline, and a ridge beyond that climbed higher to the south, toward Cloverdale house. A culvert ran across the airfield, from the direction of Williams Creek, under the main runway, which ran sort of southeast to northwest. The whole field was shaped something like a shoe. Ethel had told me there was another runway, along the back edge of the property running northeast-southwest.
I stepped up and through the office door on the right front of the gas station.
“That’s me,” said a tall, narrow guy with wavy hair in light brown going grey. “Jack Pope.”
“I just helped some guys change a flat back there on 206,” I said. “They forgot their tire iron. They mentioned having just been here. Bad timing and all of that. They headed back this way and I thought they might have come by for a patch or something, maybe I could catch them.”
“Nobody’s been in for a patch,” Jack said. “But if they’re locals I probably know them. Did you get their names?”
“No sir, I didn’t. It was three guys in a black Cadillac.”
Jack’s face changed, but only briefly.
“They said they stopped here?”
“That was the impression I got.”
“I think I’d recall a Caddy,” he said.
“Well, it was worth a shot.”
“Look, I could be wrong, I see a lot of cars. If you want to leave the lug wrench with me, I’ll see they get it, if they show up.”
“That your airfield out there?”
There was the dull thump of an explosion in the distance behind me as a bunch of scientists and Navy guys over on the base fired the guns out on the main range. The concussion wave rattled through the shop.
“Don’t worry about that,” Pope said. “Just your tax dollars at work.”
“I’ve been thinking of learning to fly. I don’t know why, I guess being forty is kind of tough to get a handle on.”
“Well sir, I’ve been known to give a lesson or two, but the truth is I just sold the whole thing. I’m going to have to move my plane, maybe to Shannon or someplace, and I’m afraid it’s just a lousy piece of timing.”
“It can’t stay here?”
“Not gonna be an airfield anymore.”
“Well that’s a damn shame. It have something to do with the base?”
Jack Pope looked at me sort of funny again.
“No. Why would you mention the base?”
“Well, there could have been some conflict.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“Cogbill. I say something wrong?”
“I’m just not sure I like your tone, sir.”
“I believe you may have misunderstood me, Mr. Pope.”
“I wouldn’t rule it out. Like you said, age is tough to get a handle on.”
I couldn’t see much benefit to roughing him up, and I didn’t think I could scare the hell out of anyone, so I left. I drove north on 301, past Wilkerson’s. No Cadillac was there. I turned off at the wayside by the Morgantown Bridge, a small river beach with a public boat ramp. I turned the car around and headed back south, then made a left onto B-Gate road and drove in to Dahlgren proper. There were a few bungalows along the right-hand side and a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and posted with government warning signs at regular intervals along the left. Just before the road intersected with route 206, I could see the end of the navy runway, this one blacktopped and well-marked, and then the fence turned at 90 degrees away from me and cut across a field. On the right side of the intersection was Potomac Elementary School, a new flat-roofed job with broad windows across the front and a gravel turnaround. On the opposite corner was a cinderblock Shell station.
I made a shallow left turn onto 206 toward the Main Gate of the NWL. Just before the gate – which was really just a little brick booth with a gabled roof – was a turnoff on the right and a big brick building with dentils and a columned portico, a broad circle in front with three flagpoles, a blue US Mail box, and a huge grey naval anchor: the Dahlgren Post Office. Federal bureaucracy in action – put the guards in a shoebox and the bills in a palace. It was a long shot, and there was no Caddy there, either. I watched a large grocery truck get checked in at the gate, maybe heading for the commissary or the PX.
I pulled back out onto 206 and drove west, away from the gate, towards 301. I could kill an entire day and several tanks of gas doing this, but to what end? I wondered what a detective would do. Somebody ought to hire one. Out at the main intersection I eased onto 301 South and climbed the hill. There at the summit, on the left-hand side, was the Hillcrest Motel, red-brick, long and low, with a ridiculous array of weather vanes. Next to it stood a brick diner with a gabled roof and green awnings. There, parked in front of the Motel, was a black Cadillac. Well, there was no getting around it. Now I had to do something. Maybe surveil. That seemed like the professional thing. I pulled in and parked in front of the diner. What the hell, what was the worst that could happen? A fish crow started awping in the trees behind the motel. In hindsight, he probably knew something I didn’t.