I tucked the newspaper under my arm, climbed a couple of brick steps and pressed the brass thumb-latch on the entry door. Inside the Hillcrest Grill was paneled in pine from floor to ceiling. There was a big wood counter at the back of the room and a pair of swinging doors into the kitchen. Booths lined the walls and several tables stood in the middle of the room. Each booth had an electric wall sconce at about shoulder height for the diners, patterned after colonial tin candle sconces with reflector plates. The electric candles had special flame-tipped bulbs that burned with a dim orange glow and alternated current through two or three different filaments to create the illusion of a flickering flame. Rustic. It was a little early for lunch and the place was almost empty.
I picked a booth near the corner, by the only window from which I could see the hotel, and when the waitress came with a glass of water I ordered coffee, and a burger with fries. I sent the cream and sugar back. The King George News was published on Thursdays. The front page, as it did almost every week, had a photo of the mangled wreck of a car and a story about some family who had been killed on 301; either in King George, or a King George family who had been traveling through Caroline County. Other than that, what passed for reporting was mostly thin coverage of local events, a calendar of Church meetings and a list of who had gone visiting family or friends in other states. The Circle Market had paid for a two-page ad. I was still waiting on the burger when I saw the three guys come out of a room halfway down the motel. If I had to bail on my food I was going to be disappointed. But they bypassed the caddy and headed for the diner. I made it a point not to look when they walked in the door and headed for the back corner. The waitress brought them glasses of water and menus.
I sipped my coffee and studied an advertisement for brassieres. I wondered briefly how uncomfortable they were. The illustrator who drew the ad had rendered an attractive, slender blonde who looked pretty thrilled about the one she was wearing. Advertisements were always full of drawings of women who were way too happy about crummy things like vacuum cleaners and soap. I imagined Ethel would have something witty to say about that, and I caught myself smiling, which made it awkward when the waitress brought me my burger and glanced at the page I had open. I thanked her and smiled politely, and she gave me a look that suggested I probably should get out more, but she was too interested in her tip to say so.
As I turned the page, I glanced up and saw one of the three men at the table looking at me. It was the curly-haired one, and it was not a friendly look. Perhaps he needed a new vacuum cleaner. Or one of the bras like the lady in the picture. I knocked some ketchup out of the glass bottle and onto the edge of my plate, twisted the cap back on and started on my fries. Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Tunney had gone visiting Mrs. Tunney’s parents in Schenectady. Someone named Lucy Payne had recently come home visiting from Radford. Move over, Ed Murrow. I glanced up again, and now two of the guys were looking at me: Curly and The Hat. Hat had to look over his shoulder to do it. Stocky was sitting with his back to the wall, but he was busy adding cream and sugar to his coffee. Infidel.
The high school had a column called “The Fox’s Howl,” but I didn’t read it. I was too busy running over the two previous times I’d seen the three men in the Cadillac, and wondering if they had any particular reason to be suspicious of me, apart from the frequency of our encounters. I decided they probably wouldn’t threaten me. Not yet. It would only make it obvious that they had something to hide, and if they were the kind of guys I thought they were, they would be more careful than that. They were letting me know I had their attention.
The Volunteer Firemen’s sandlot ball team had won in extra innings. I finished my meal and got up to pay my tab at the counter, and The Hat went outside. Maybe I was mistaken about how careful they were. I popped a toothpick out of a dispenser, left a tip on the table, and stuck the King George News back under my arm. It had about as many pages as a tabloid. Curly watched me walk out. Stocky was reading the Washington Post. He probably didn’t know about the firemen.
As I stepped down to the asphalt, I saw The Hat leaning on the fender of my car.
“Yo, I’d say we didn’t recognize this crate a yours when we was walking over here, but it’s actually pretty tough to forget, what with being such a piece a shit an’ all.”
“Man, I’ll bet you work at the Pickle Factory,” I said.
“What the fuck is a pickle factory?”
“Where they make pickles.”
“Okay, Milton Berle. Everybody knows them grows on trees.”
“I’ll be sure to put that in the Declaration of Independence.”
He nodded at me.
“Hope y’all are enjoying your visit,” I said. “But if you don’t mind, I need to go buy a vacuum cleaner, or possibly some soap.”
“No problem,” he said. “Mister Vasiliou and Mister Drakos was just wondering if you needed any help. See we get that it’s not a very big town you has here, and we keep bumping into you, like neighbors, see, and everybody here has been real accommodating, and we thought seeing how you all is such kind personages and seeing how we keep bumping into you, like neighbors, that maybe there was something nice we could do for you.”
“Well, you’re the guests here, all you need to do is make yourselves at home, I’m sure.”
“That’s kind. See Mister Vasiliou and Mister Drakos hates it when people get into trouble. That ain’t the kind of thing they can bear to see, you understand.”
“Humanitarians. Well, if they’re serious about helping, I was really hoping to take some flying lessons, but it seems the Popes are closing up their airfield.”
“It’s kind of strange, don’t you think, what with Jack Pope being a pilot and all?”
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary,” I said.
“Be careful driving,” he said. “This hill is dangerous.”
“Take it easy, Mister Cogbill.” He turned and walked away.
“I don’t recall telling you my name,” I said.
He skipped one of the front steps, with his long stride, and disappeared through the white door of the diner.
I stood there for a while, various scenarios of increasing horror playing out in my head. They knew who I was, and they’d seen me with Ethel in Wilkerson’s last night. I drove back to Owens market before I even realized I had done it, taking Windsor drive from 301, coming out next to Oakland Baptist on 206. Taylor’s assistant was out front, hosing down the turnaround in front of the store. When I went inside, Mr. Taylor was there reading the paper and drinking a Royal Crown Cola. I knocked the RC out of his hand, the bottle landing on the hardwood with a thump, the brown cola running between the boards.
“Hey, what in God’s name are you doing?!”
I grabbed him by his belt and his apron straps and pitched him through the door into the back room. I went in after him and locked the door. I couldn’t breathe. My hands were shaking and all I could think about was the sun in Ethel’s hair, but it wasn’t calming me down, it was winding me up. My chest was tightening and my breath came in short rasps. My neck was pulsing, and I could barely hear Taylor’s voice over the sound of the blood in my veins, like a trash bag full of wet rags being rolled down a flight of stairs.
“Mister Cogbill please, I didn’t have no choice.”
“You don’t know who these men are, I didn’t have no choice.”
“SIT THE GODDAMNED HELL DOWN.” I needn’t have said it; for as I did, I shoved him in the chest like a kicking mule, and he went down into the chair and the chair tipped over and propped him against a metal filing cabinet behind him. I believe a drawer handle caught him on the back of the head.
“Sir you can beat on me all you want and it ain’t bad as what them men will do.”
“Who are they?”
“Businessmen from Baltimore, or DC I cain’t keep it straight.”
“That’s who they are, they’re buying up land for development. That’s all.”
“Then why are you so terrified of them?”
“Why are you? You ain’t come in here laying about with threats because they impressed you with their kindness.”
“You were lying to me this morning sir, and you’re lying to me now.”
The kid started knocking on the door.
“Mister Taylor, is ever’thing all right?”
My breathing had started to level out, and the wet rags had slowed their descent. I leaned down until my face was an inch from Taylor’s.
“If anything happens to her I will beat you until whatever’s left runs between these floor boards. On my honor, Taylor.”
He swallowed, and nodded once.
He called out in his nearest approximation of good cheer, “Joe, everything’s fine in here. Mr. Cogbill and I’s just discussing a line of credit.”
I opened the door and damn near knocked the kid over. My left shoe accidentally caught the RC bottle and sent it spinning across the floor.
I heard Taylor say, “well don’t just stand there Joe, get a mop for God’s sake,” and then the front door swung shut behind me and I peeled out of the lot and headed for the Burkitt place.
I was not driving at a safe or reasonable rate of speed. The lack of a shoulder on 206 probably saved me; the sheriff and the state police didn’t patrol it because there was nowhere to pull anyone over. I had a near-miss in Berthaville with a convertible coming off 218, but other than that I was safe and sound, and by the time I hit Indian Town Road I had calmed down a lot. I took the left on Indian Town, cutting off Arnold’s Corner and coming out on Route 3 by Clift’s Garage, then right past the Clift Motor Company and a left turn by St. Anthony’s church, and onto Millbank Road, back past the school and out into open country. I took the Burkitt driveway so fast I thought I was going to bust the Hudson’s crankshaft on every bump I hit. The springs screamed and the frame groaned and one of my hubcaps popped off with a loud “ronk”, skipped with a clang in the orange dirt, leaped ten feet over the barbed-wire and rolled away across the field.
I skidded to a halt, left my car door standing open and raced around the back of the house toward the chicken coop. She wasn’t there. I rushed into the barn and nearly caught a pitchfork with my face.
“Sweet Lord, Cogbill, that was a close—“
She didn’t finish her sentence because I scooped her up in my arms and kissed her so hard I thought we may have been legally married. She kissed me back and put her hands in my hair and then her father walked in with my hubcap in his hands and said, “son what in the hell is the matter with you?”
I set his daughter back on her feet and she wheeled on him. “Daddy Franklin Burkitt that is no way to talk to a guest.”
“Well you sure to hell gave him a warm welcome.” He spat tobacco juice in the dirt and the straw.
“And for God’s sake can you not do that in here? It’s disgusting.”
“It’s a barn, pumpkin, animals shit in here.”
“That is true, but the last I checked none of them chewed tobacco.”
Mr. Burkitt pressed the hubcap into my chest until I took hold of it.
“Next time you roll one of these across my field, son, you’ll be wearing it as a hat.”
He stormed out of the barn.
“I messed up,” I said.
“He’s just worried I might run away with you, Cogbill, and leave him to run this place all by himself.”
“You might be in danger.”
“If one of us is in danger from my daddy it ain’t me, sir.”
“You’re not listening to me. I messed up today and you might be in danger. I think it’s time we called the Sheriff.”
“Wait, start at the beginning.”
“Jack Pope’s your uncle, right?”
“Yes, my mother was his sister.”
“How did your grandfather, Jim, die?”
“That what the coroner said?”
“Oh for God’s sake, he died and they put him in a box and buried him, who needs all that other business?”
“No, why does that matter?”
“Did you see the body?”
“No, but Uncle Jack did and that’s good enough ain’t it? What’s this about?”
“I spent the day driving around Owens and Dahlgren and getting lied to by everybody I met. Including Mr. Taylor at the Owens market. Including your Uncle Jack. And then those guys from Wilkerson’s last night threatened me, and they know my name, and based on what they said they got it from Taylor, and they saw you with me in Wilkerson’s, and if I keep pushing this they might hurt you.”
“Harry Cogbill if they even set foot on this farm we will shoot them to death and that’ll be the end of it.”
“What do you mean, maybe?”
“The guy who threatened me. He said ‘yo’.”
“What the hell’s that mean?”
“It’s a greeting. ‘Yo, gimme one wit’. It’s a Philadelphia thing.”
“Aren’t we a little beyond worrying about Northern aggression, Cogbill?”
“They’re Greeks. I don’t know The Hat’s name but the other two are Vasiliou and Drakos. There’s a Greek Mafia operates out of Philly and Baltimore. I think our friends might have connections. I think they might have bought your Uncle’s air field. I don’t know why.”
“And with that you want to go to the Sheriff?”
She was right. It was thin. It would get me laughed out of the courthouse.
“Let’s go to Fredericksburg tonight. You and me. We’ll get dinner someplace nice, we’ll go see a movie.”
“You’re running away.”
“I’m trying to protect you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can.”
“That why you came barreling down the driveway so hard you lost a hubcap, damn near lost your face on a pitchfork and give me a kiss like you ain’t seen me in ten years?”
“I have felt more alive in the last thirty-six hours than I have in twenty years, Miss Ethel. I respect your strength. You make me better. How could I ever bear to lose that?”
“Why would you have to?”
I couldn’t decide how to answer.
“Hrmm? What’s wrong with you, Harry Cogbill? No that’s not an insult, it’s a genuine question, something is bothering you and it ain’t just some northern thugs.”
“It’s me, I’m just…I don’t know.”
“You respect my strength, how about trusting me, too?”
“Yes ma’am. Reckon I can do that.”
“Come see me tomorrow and we’ll talk. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go out tonight.”
“Because you look a little wild and you ain’t being straight with me, and I frankly am not in the mood.”
She walked me to my car. I threw the hubcap in the backseat and we kissed goodbye. I was coming down off the anger and the panic, and even kissing Miss Ethel hadn’t made the sun come out inside of me. I should have been ecstatic that she was talking about trust, but she was cross with me and I knew from this point on every decision I made would only make it worse, and I had no idea how to stop the plane from crashing into the sea. Whatever was wrong with me was in the driver’s seat now.
I drove back to Millbank Road and out to Route 3 at Saint Anthony’s and the school, and I turned right to head east toward the courthouse. I parked on the street and walked in the front door. One long central hallway ran the width of the building, and at the east end was a vault door, where you stepped up into the Clerk of Court’s Office. The Clerk was named Lawrence Mason, and he’d held the office since 1917. I located the most recent deed book, a big, heavy white tome that slid on rollers out of a metal shelving unit, and laid it out on the angled workspace atop the storage unit. I went to the last page and worked my way back, looking for the deed to the Pope land. If the sale was recent it would be on record. Early on I found a deed of trust signed between Dimitrios Vasiliou and Sophia Vasiliou, parties of the first part, and Nikolaos Drakos, party of the second part, transferring ownership of all that land in the Potomac Magisterial District, consisting of 161.57 acres, more or less, being the same land conveyed by J. A. Pope and Vashti S. Pope to Dimitrios and Sophia Vasiliou in October of 1956. Witnessed and signed by Lawrence Mason. There was a handwritten marginal note referring to another deed, and after following the marginal notes from deed to deed for a few hours, I learned that when James Pope died in 1956 the land had passed to his widow, Vashti, and their son, Jack; and that the two of them had conveyed part of the land to a couple from New York, whose names I did not recognize, and then conveyed the rest to Vasiliou and his wife in 1957, who in turn had signed it over to a developer called Marsden Homes, whose vice-president was Nikolaos Drakos, and whose secretary was Dimitrios Vasiliou himself. Likewise a second organization, run by someone named Nestor Adagio, had acquired the land from the New York couple and deeded it to Marsden Homes. The whole thing felt shady.
Still, none of these conveyances and liens, in the amount of thirty-two thousand dollars, amounted to anything illegal or Mason couldn’t have affixed his seal to them. Which meant the real question was what in the hell was going on out at Pope’s Field, and for how long? I’d need some evidence before I could go to the Sheriff. I drove across the street, topped off the gas tank at the Morris’s, and bought a Coke. Then I drove to Gera and borrowed John’s phone at the store.
Len Mahoney, the one cop I knew back in Boston, was happy to talk to me until I told him I needed a favor. Then he said, “Christ, Cogbill, I thought we was friends.” He drove a streamroller over all his vowel sounds when he said it.
“Len, I might be in real trouble here. All I’m asking for is some background.”
“When the hell did you become a private eye?”
“This morning. Well, yesterday afternoon. I mean I’m not really a PI.”
“Stop talking. I mean it, I don’t want to hear another word.”
“Look if you won’t do it I know a guy manages a casino who might be able to get me what I need, but we didn’t exactly part on the best terms, and—”
“Stop it. Stop talking. I’m hanging up now.”
“Len, there are lives at stake. There may have been a murder.”
“Not in my jurisdiction.”
“Because lives in Boston matter more.”
“They do to me.”
“What is it exactly you’re asking for?”
I told him the names Dimitrios Vasiliou and Nikolaos Drakos. I threw in Nestor Adagio as a bonus. Gave him the number at the store, told him he could leave the information with John. Then I told John to take careful notes when Len called him back, and not to tell a soul.
“You know I wouldn’t go gossiping nobody’s business around the county, Mr. Cogbill.”
“Right. That’s why I’m helping Miss Ethel with this thing.”
“Ya’ll got a date out of it too, din’tcha?”
“I cain’t help if people tell me things.”
By now it was getting late. I went home and cleaned up the mess the fox had made while I was gone. When I was done I made a grilled cheese and a can of soup and a pot of coffee. This pet fox business was not going well. The furniture was trashed, I kept finding poop in weird places and being a grey fox he liked to climb things. I was going to need to build him an outdoor enclosure and a doghouse, and maybe put in a doggie door.
“I should have got a cat,” I said. The fox just grinned at me.
As long as I was reviewing my errors in judgment, I shouldn’t have made coffee. I should have gone to bed. But that would only hasten tomorrow, and I was not ready for that. I finished my dinner and sat there, in the kitchen, under the fluorescent nautilus, dirty dishes in front of me, pots and pans piled in the sink, listening to insects singing through my open window, beetles pinging against my screen, the stove clock ticking, my thoughts like squid’s ink rolling behind my eyes. The fox jumped onto the kitchen table, looked expectantly at me for a moment, and then began licking my empty soup bowl.
“Yep. I guess I’ve pretty much ruined everything.”