I’ve had this chapter mostly done for a couple weeks, but I had to be careful when I worked on it. When I write, I often forget to sleep, and eat, and over the last couple of weeks I first found myself battling a virus and then working a series of early shifts while one of my coworkers was on vacation — both conditions that make a necessity of sleeping.
So, I humbly beg your forgiveness and present to you the fifth chapter of “The Dark and Lonely Road.”
DISCLAIMER: “The Dark and Lonely Road” is a work of fiction. King George County is my hometown and wherever possible I have used real places, businesses, and even occasionally historical events to create the backdrop for the story.
Where necessary, real businesses and locations have been replaced with fictional versions that resemble them, populated with fictional characters, in service of telling a crime story set in a small town. On no account is any part of this work meant to implicate real persons, living or dead, in the commission of any criminal activities.
Cogbill is the name of some of my relatives from Chesterfield. Hieronymus is entirely fictitious. –SRG
By the time I fell asleep the sun was starting to come up, but my funk had only deepened. I woke to the sound of someone banging on my front door. I staggered around like Frankenstein’s monster and somehow managed to get pants on. I was pulling my shirt on when I got to the door and found Ethel Burkitt on my porch. I squinted at the sun out beyond the railing. Ethel looked disappointed, and I thought I could feel her judging me, but the truth is when I am in one of my moods I cannot be depended upon to reliably read a room.
“Lord, Cogbill, did you tie one on last night or what?”
“I don’t drink.”
“You got company?”
“What? No…I don’t do that, either. I mean, not… not with… no.”
“May I come in?”
“Yeah, of course.” I stepped back and let her in.
I buttoned my shirt and tucked it in, as well as I could before coffee, anyway, and then fumbled around with the tin percolator.
“You sure you don’t drink?”
“Not good at mornings.”
“It’s past lunchtime.”
“Not good at waking up,” I said, swearing as I spilled coffee grounds all over the Formica.
“Let me help you.”
“For Christ’s sake, Ethel, I can make coffee.”
“Well, you finally put a sentence together, that’s a start.”
Eventually I got the percolator assembled and the coffee started.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” I said.
“It’s all right, Cogbill.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I didn’t come here to beat you up, so stop doing it preemptively.”
The afternoon sun streamed in rays through the window and fell in bars across Ethel’s chest. She stood there with her arms folded, weight settled on one hip. The percolator sighed and burbled rhythmically. I was leaning on my kitchen counter and she stood across from me in the relatively small space. She’d been hard at work on the farm and her scent was musky and slightly sour, and the truth is I didn’t mind. Today Ethel’s overalls were newer and fit her a little better, and the plaid shirt was green and blue, and it went well with her coloring. I considered saying so, but I wasn’t sure how much trouble I was in and I decided to hold my tongue.
“I feel like I forced you into this, Cogbill. If you don’t want to investigate, if this isn’t something you want to do, then don’t. It’s okay with me. You can keep the money, too. But don’t for God’s sake start avoiding me.”
“You think I’m doing this because I’m desperate for money?”
“It had crossed my mind.”
“But after the way you were carrying on yesterday I know that’s not the case.”
“I was out of control.”
“Yes you were.”
“I’ve failed at a lot of things in my life.”
“Oh cut that out. ‘I’ve failed at a lot of things,’ who hasn’t, Harry Cogbill?”
“What I mean to say is, if this private eye thing goes all sideways I don’t want to take you down with me.”
The color of her eyes was electric as she looked up at me and twisted her mouth off to one side.
“Hieronymus will you by God stop worrying everything to death.”
“I just mean that I care about you.”
“You know what your problem is?”
“I have a feeling you’re about to tell me.”
“You’re afraid of being happy.”
“What kind of damn fool thing to say is that?”
“The true kind. I don’t know what you think you need to atone for, but I ain’t a preacher and Lord knows I ain’t no angel. I run my mouth a little too much but the only kind of bullshit I’ll put up with is what we spread in the field.”
“I’m sorry, Ethel.”
“Am I standing here right now? Are we together?”
“If your head was any harder you’d have a great career in demolition.”
“You’re an exceptional lady, Ethel.”
“Well that’ll do. Now are you going to offer me a cup of coffee and tell me what the hell happened yesterday, or am I going home?”
“I know I’m all dirty and sweaty and I ain’t all prettied up. It’s okay, I understand.”
“Ethel, you’re beautiful.”
“Let’s not go crazy, Cogbill.”
I thought it was possible I already had.
“Have you had lunch, Ethel?”
“I have not.”
“Well, let me fix you some.”
“I don’t mind breakfast for lunch.”
“At this hour? I’ll fix a proper lunch.”
I had some sliced honey ham and some swiss cheese in the ice box, and half a loaf of rye in the breadbox. I did up some bacon in the skillet, careful not to leave it in too long, and then set that aside and made ham and swiss sandwiches on rye and added bacon, then grilled the sandwiches lightly so the cheese would soften up. While that was going I tossed a small salad with some leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions. I didn’t really like salad but I thought she might. I didn’t have any dressing but I got out some oil and vinegar.
Probably awakened by the smell of the food, my fox had ventured out from under my bed to see what was going on, and Ethel held him in her lap and stroked his fuzzy cheeks and told him he was precious.
“He may poop on you,” I said.
“Well, we’ll need to work on that.”
I plated up the sandwiches and poured us some coffee and we ate on the porch, rocking side by side, and I was maybe the happiest I’d ever been.
She listened intently, her eyes on me as I recounted the previous day’s misadventures.
“Why would Uncle Jack lie to you?”
“Well, I can think of some reasons.”
“He ain’t the type to get mixed up with those dirtbags. And he sure as hell wouldn’t sell out the airfield, he loves flying too much.”
“You know him better than I do,” I said.
“Why did you ask how Grandpa Jim died?”
“Just a feeling. After I left your place yesterday afternoon I went to the courthouse and looked through the deeds in the Clerk’s office. Vasiliou and Drakos have been in the mix for at least three years. Jim died in ’56, right?”
“In mid-August, yes.”
The hairs on the back of my neck felt like iron filings under a magnet’s pull.
“Ethel do you remember when he bought that piece of land?”
“Not clearly, I was just a little girl. Cain’t have been much later than ’42.”
“It was 1941, Ethel. August 17th, 1941. What was the exact date of his death?”
“Oh hell I don’t know, who remembers a thing like that? You can find out for yourself you know, his grave is in the family plot just off the side of the highway, before you get to the creek. What’s all this about, Cogbill? What am I not seeing?”
“Maybe nothing. Could be any of a dozen varieties of nothing. Your uncle did seem sad about closing the airfield. Maybe he didn’t have a choice.”
“Lot of developers buying up old land around here.”
“Good money in real estate.”
“Selling off old farmland ain’t illegal, Cogbill, even if I’d like it to be.”
“No,” I agreed. “It’s not. But murder sure is.”
After we ate I rinsed off the plates and she volunteered to help with the dishes. I wasn’t planning to do them anytime soon, but I liked having her around, so I washed and she dried and we talked about our families and our histories. Strange how I could crawl into bed one morning feeling like a leper and wake up in the afternoon like Lazarus from the grave.
“Ride with me over to the store so I can check my mail. I’m waiting for a phone call, too. It pertains to the case.”
“Thank you for lunch. I’d better get back home before my daddy has himself a conniption fit. Come get me at six o’clock and you can take me bowling in town, Harry Cogbill. I don’t like movie dates, nobody can talk to each other.”
“I’ll sure be glad to take you anywhere you like, Miss Ethel. But ride with me to the post office, and then I have a favor to ask you.”
“You know that’s gonna set John to talking.”
“John’s already talking.”
We each picked up our mail. Len hadn’t called me back, yet. John assured me he remembered, and that he’d take careful notes. I bought a prybar and a Free Lance-Star. He never stopped smiling at us.
“Sometimes I’d like to knock that guy out,” I said as I drove away.
“He’s good people.”
“Didn’t say he wasn’t. But all the same.”
Ethel smiled and shook her head.
“You’re not the type.”
I thought of Taylor out at the Owens store, and felt a sense of shame so overpowering that I had to hold Ethel’s hand and feel the reassuring press of her slender fingers before I could respond.
“You’re probably right.”
Back at my house, we exchanged car keys, kissed goodbye, and she drove away in my Hudson. The hoods up at Owens knew my car, and the way I saw it I had only two ways forward. I had to either find something incriminating against Vasiliou and his crew, or I had to wring the truth out of Ethel’s uncle Jack. Given my relationship to Ethel, one of these was distinctly preferable to the other.
I showered and shaved and put on a pair of olive-colored work pants and a khaki shirt, and screwed my fedora down low on my head. I got an old pair of Army field glasses down from the closet and put them, the prybar, and the newspaper in the truck. I took 205 to the traffic circle, and then 301 North back toward Dahlgren, and the realm of Messrs. Vasiliou, Drakos, and The Philadelphia Hat.
It was late summer, mid-afternoon and though the shadows were lengthening, fall was not yet in the air. The old Ford chugged along highway 301, the throttle a little loose, the clutch a little less responsive than I was accustomed to in my Hornet. The flattened bugs on the windshield were catching the sun in the silhouette of the place cleared by the wipers in the last rainfall. The radio was tuned to a country station and I let it play, Patsy Cline singing “Walkin’ After Midnight” over a walking bassline and a crying steel guitar. She would re-record that one several times, but the 1957 version was always my favorite. Patsy – born Virginia Patterson Hensley – was from Frederick County, Virginia, just outside Winchester, a community called Gore where the author Willa Cather was born. Frederick County is a beautiful, if somewhat remote area of the Shenandoah Valley, near the northernmost point of the state, nestled in the crook of West Virginia’s broken thumb. Patsy’s voice carried both the sultriness of a cabaret jazz singer and the frankness of a country girl, and if there has ever been a better singer I have yet to hear her.
When I got to the Hillcrest, I pulled around behind the diner and parked a ways back in the lot. There were several cars and probably fifty or sixty yards between me and the Cadillac. I got out the Free Lance and tried to read about whatever people were concerned with in Fredericksburg, but it turned out I didn’t care. I checked out the sports page; Harmon Killibrew was still tearing it up for the Senators, but it was almost a waste. They might finally be shaping up but everyone knew Calvin Griffith was planning to move the team to Minneapolis. The Orioles were closing out their fifth season in Baltimore and though they weren’t contenders that year, it was clear they were on their way up; and their third baseman, Brooks Robinson, was almost superhuman. Football season was barely starting, but Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts were poised to have a big year, and although I liked Eddie LeBaron I doubted the Redskins had a much of a season ahead of them.
I dug out the comics page to see what Charlie Brown was up to when Vasiliou, Drakos and The Hat got in their car and headed north. I figured I had a little while to look around. Now, what I was about to do was illegal, but I was already investigating without a license so I figured I might as well jump in and get wet all at once. I walked around behind the motel, to the bathroom window, and used my new prybar to wreck the HIllcrest’s window locks. The bathroom had a tile floor and narrow little tub. There was a porcelain pedestal sink with white cross handles. There was a shaving kit on a little shelf. All the towels were hung up neatly, which I guess said something about whichever one of them used this room.
Through the narrow wooden door was the bedroom. It matched the interior of the diner, wood paneled from ceiling to floor, with a heavy curtain across the front window and a coat rack across the back of the door. There was a leather suitcase on the dresser. The nameplate on it said DIMITRIOS VASILIOU. Nothing in it but shirts, socks, and underwear. An extra pair of trousers. Judging by the wardrobe, Vasiliou was the short, stocky one, which meant the narrow, curly-headed fellow was probably Drakos. I don’t know what I expected to find. A diagram of their nefarious plan and a statement of murderous intent would have been a good start. Maybe a bunch of knives and guns and spare bullets. As it turned out he hadn’t packed any of that, but he did have a couple of neckties, one with stripes and one with a pattern that looked like a rain of little silk hankies. The guy was orderly. Like the towels in the bathroom. A place for everything. And he was packed for maybe a week but he was living out of his suitcase. Not a motel unpacker. I respected that. There’s something a little not right about a motel unpacker.
I dumped out his wastebasket and pawed through it. A few receipts from local businesses, the packaging for some shoelaces, the plastic off a pack of cigarettes. A strand of dental floss. Nothing scandalous at all. Not so much as a used rubber. I chucked the garbage back in the little wastebasket, put the basket back where it belonged. On a whim I checked under the mattress. Nothing there, either. Dresser drawers empty except a Gideon Bible and a buffalo nickel. I kept the nickel. Finally I gave it up and climbed back out the bathroom window.
I was taking an awful chance by breaking into the room next door, but only Vasiliou had been staying in the previous room, and there were two more hoods to account for. The second room was only a little more enlightening than the first. It was identical except nothing was particularly neat. The towels were sloppy, one was on the floor. There was a toothbrush encrusted with orange dirt chucked among the floss and the soap-wrappers in the bathroom wastebasket. I couldn’t imagine what had caused such grievous condition in a toothbrush. In the bedroom, both beds had been used and there were two suitcases, one neatly stowed and belted shut, the other standing partially open with various haberdashery spilling out of it. There were two more shoelace packages in the bedroom trashcan, just like in Vasiliou’s room. The messy suitcase held nothing of interest. The neat one had a box of .22 caliber bullets and a kit for cleaning a gun, down among the rolled-up boxer shorts and sock garters. Somebody was a pro. I guessed the Hat. I tucked everything back the way I found it, and got out of there.
The sun was going down and there were cicadas, crickets, and katydids starting to sing in the trees. It was possibly my favorite sound in the world. I was almost back to the truck when a man came out the back of the diner and asked if he could help me.
“Checking the meter,” I said. What meter that would be I couldn’t have told him, but in any case it confused him long enough for me to get in the truck and drive off with only one minor hiccup on the clutch. I drove down the hill and, strategizing for once, took the right on 206 toward the base, then left in front of Potomac Elementary and past the runway and the bungalows and the Navy’s mile of chain-link and barbed wire; left again in front of B-Gate and again onto 301, approaching Pope’s Service Station from the North. The way the building was oriented I’d be able to see if there was a Cadillac in front of it and decide whether or not I needed to stop.
There was no Cadillac. I drove a little way past the station and pulled over on the shoulder. There was nothing much out there, no businesses or houses or even much in the way of trees; it was mostly a patchwork of scrubby fields broken by the occasional line of oaks, ash and sweet gum, and fences covered in Virginia creeper, and you could see clear up to Cloverdale House. It was really not conducive to sneaking around, but it was getting dusky and I thought I had a chance. I got my field glasses out of the glove box and walked back through the brush, which was waist-deep and offered some cover at least. I dislodged a couple of mourning doves, the air in their feathers making a trilling noise as they flew away. They were soon for bed anyway. The bugs were getting louder now, their ode to a summer’s evening reaching fever pitch. Ahead of me, behind a line of cedars, stood the green clapboard building with the gambrel roof. Beyond it I could see the back of the gas station, grey cement blocks, an electric meter, a couple of windows and an oil tank. A power line extended from the roof to a utility pole.
I jogged in a crouch and took cover in the gloaming between the trees and the clapboard garage. I stopped to listen and didn’t hear much besides the cicadas. There was a faint light from the left-hand window back of the service station. I didn’t see any movement, so I crept around to the barn doors on the front of the garage. They were padlocked and I felt too exposed on that side of the building. I saw a glow coming down the highway and ducked back behind the line of cedars and watched a car drive by, headed south. It was not a Cadillac. I checked around and could find no loose boards or any other way into the barn. There was no Piper parked nearby, and no other aircraft that I could see. No lights were on inside the gas station. The light wasn’t great, but there was something going on out in the southwest end of the field, where the back runway terminated at the edge of the property. Unfortunately there were trees, brushy creek beds, and creeper-laden fences crosshatching the land between me and the far end of the upside-down L that was the airfield. It looked like part of a truck or maybe an older car, and there was movement, but I just couldn’t tell what I was looking at.
I assumed they’d driven out across the runway, but I couldn’t figure why. It was too late in the evening to be surveying anything. Then I remembered all the shoelace wrappers in the Hillcrest trashcans, and the mud-crusted toothbrush, and I wondered where Vasiliou and his boys had been tromping around, and what it might have done to their shoes. Vasiliou and the Hat seemed like the kind who’d have overshoes, but not so much Drakos. Which may have explained the tootbrush. If they weren’t surveying, what were they doing out there? It dawned on me just before I heard the aircraft approaching. I scrambled back to the truck, thankful for the dying light and the fedora pushed low on my head, and before I pulled away I saw a little yellow plane making what I thought was probably a fairly risky landing in the tricky light of dusk. It would take a good pilot. One who knew the field. You probably couldn’t move much cargo of consequence in a plane that size, but not all things of value were things of size. And not everything had to travel in bulk.
I pulled off the shoulder and out onto 301, then made an illegal U-turn without my headlights on, and stopped just before the creek. There on the west side of the highway was a grassy space with a couple of trees, and one headstone: James Lincoln Pope, Jr. June 1, 1896 – August 16, 1956. One day short of fifteen years after he’d bought the airfield. I had no idea what that meant, but it seemed significant. I walked back to the truck and drove away. When I passed the gas station there was still no activity and no lights on, and I could see a hint of light out across the field, but I could make nothing out. I didn’t linger. I was late meeting Ethel.
I took 206, mostly so I wouldn’t have to drive past the Hillcrest in case the owner had called the Sheriff, because it had been long enough by now they’d have a car there if he had. I somewhat exceeded the speed limit and it took about ten minutes to get to Arnold’s Corner and then I cruised on out Millbank Road and turned toward Gera. When I made my way up the dirt drive to the Burkitt place, my Hudson was nowhere in sight. I eased through the turnaround in front of the house and back out the driveway, the silhouette of Franklin Burkitt in the rearview mirror, framed in his front door, wreathed in yellow light. When I got home, the Hudson was parked in front of my house and Ethel Burkitt was sitting on my porch.
“Harry Cogbill I was worried sick.”
“How long have you been here?”
“What’ll your old man say?”
“Bunch of bad words, probably. I could come inside maybe for a cup of coffee.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Well for heavens sakes I wasn’t planning to leave my overalls at the door.”
Ethel Marie Burkitt had wit like a backhoe: she could build you up, tear you down, or run you over, and it did not bother her particularly to do any of them. I could think of no one that I would rather spend time with at any hour of any day. This last part I told her, and she took my hand and led me into the house.
I made coffee and a late supper. I got a couple pots of water going, and while I waited for those to boil I sautéed onions and garlic in butter, using a saucepan, and then added fresh cream and diced tomatoes and let it simmer. I added penne pasta to one of my pots of boiling water. While I was doing this, Ethel played with the fox and asked me the thing I’d been avoiding for the last couple of days.
“What do you call the little guy?”
“He mostly goes by ‘Goddammit.’”
She looked me in the eye and slowly shook her head.
“As in ‘goddammit get out of there!’”
“Goddammit don’t poop on the rug,” she suggested.
“Goddammit get the hell off the drapes.”
“Right. Well that will not do.”
“We’re open to suggestions.”
“Why don’t you name him after your Army buddy?”
“Rollie deserves better than to have a carpet-pooping fox named after him.”
“Well don’t hurt the baby’s feelings, mister.”
“It would not be appropriate.”
“You haven’t told me much about Rollie.”
“He’s dead. It’s nobody’s fault really. He was brave. He died bravely.”
“Could he be related to Mr. Taylor from the Owens market?”
“How can you be sure?”
“I’m sure, okay? I don’t want to talk about Rollie, or the war, Ethel. I saw things I wouldn’t sully your imagination describing to you. I did things I’m not proud of. I was not particularly brave or heroic, and the Germans? Most of them were just guys doing their duty to their country like I was. Most of them had families and dreams and lives they wanted to live. But they got orders to invade one country after another, they loved their country, and gave up their dreams, and their lives, for the whims of a monster and his circle of evil men. Killing some random Fritz wasn’t the same as killing Hitler, Himmler, or Goering. There’s nothing holy about it. The world is not a better place because Johann Schmidt died in a ditch with a Mauser clutched in his hands.”
Ethel and the fox were both staring at me.
“You don’t sound like a soldier.”
“I never felt much like one either.”
She put the fox down and got up and crossed the little kitchen and put her arms around me and just hugged me for a moment. Her head was pressed to my chest and I put my arm around her shoulders and kissed her hair.
“You’re a good man, Hieronymus.”
“I’m never sure.”
“Stop it. You’re a good man, and I love you, and for God’s sake stop doubting your worth.”
With my free hand I plucked the fox off the counter where he was making a run at the food, and dropped him to the floor. Then that arm went around Ethel’s waist and we looked at each other for a while. The pull was gravitational.
“We don’t want supper to burn,” she said.
“No, we don’t.”
We let go of each other, but a threshold had been crossed, and we both knew it.
She intercepted the fox on another attempt at the counter.
“Let’s call him Fawkes.”
“Fawkes. Some of the Brits I knew told me about this weird holiday they have. Guy Fawkes Night. Guy was a soldier, and a dedicated Catholic, and I guess he got in with a group who decided to assassinate King James I because he was protestant.”
“Well, the government caught wind of it, and Fawkes was busted hiding a bunch of gunpowder that was intended to blow up parliament. So on the fifth of November they have bonfires and burn the fellow in effigy.”
“And you want to name the baby after this man?”
“He’s a plotter.”
“He does get busted frequently.”
“You have to admit it suits him.”
Fawkes looked back and forth between us, listening to the whole exchange, smiling mischievously. I was glad he didn’t know about gunpowder.
I mixed some dried minced onion and garlic in a bowl with paprika, oregano, thyme, and several different varieties of pepper, rolled a couple of chicken breasts around in it, and tossed them in the skillet with some melted butter. I added some grated parmesan and romano cheeses to my cream sauce, stirred them in, and with my second pot of boiling water, I steamed some broccoli. I drained the pasta, made a bed of it on two plates, topped it with the alfredo sauce and the steamed broccoli, and then set my two blackened chicken breasts on a cutting board and sliced them diagonally, not quite all the way through into strips, and laid them, still clinging together, atop the two beds of pasta. I sprinkled some parsley flakes across the top in case Ethel wasn’t already impressed.
“And here I thought you only knew how to fry things.”
“I don’t cook like this when it’s just me. There’s no fun in it.”
“You don’t think you deserve to live a little?”
“I like sharing experiences.”
“If you say so.”
There were several things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t think of a way to do it without sounding trite. I thought she deserved better than flowery words and promises that would probably only sound like the importunities of a snake trying to get into her overalls.
“I like sharing experiences with you, Ethel.”
She blessed the meal and we ate, and drank coffee and talked and when the fox stuck his head in the sink and licked the sauce out of the pan, we made faces at each other and laughed. One day I was going to take her on a real date, and not to a diner but out to Colonial Beach to a country music show and stroll along the boardwalk and hold hands like other people did. When we said goodnight her waist was slender in my embrace, and I felt the swell of her hips and the softness of her lips when we kissed. Inside my chest felt like a steam locomotive and my loins were pulsing with electricity, and I knew she was waiting for me to say something or make a move, and I did not. So at last we let go of each other’s hands and when she stepped down off the sagging porch she turned to face me and said, “come to church with us tomorrow Cogbill. Even God himself rested on the seventh day.”
“Church? With you and your daddy?”
“And why not?”
“I don’t think he likes me much, Ethel.”
“Well that’s astute. Reckon he knows what’s on our minds. Come to church. I mean, forgive me, maybe you go to one of the other churches in the county. You said Fawkes was Catholic, are you Catholic?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Come with us, please? For me.”
“Okay. For you.”
“Great! We’ll pick you up at ten. We’ll have a nice time, you’ll see.”
I was nearly asleep when someone jimmied the lock on the front door. The sound brought me back up out of the soup, but before I could arm myself, the fox screamed somewhere in the living room, a man’s voice unleashed a stream of profanity I hadn’t heard since the last time I saw combat – something involving the Lord’s name and a sex act – and then a car peeled out of the driveway.
If you’ve never heard a fox scream, the sound is pointless to attempt to describe except to say that you’d believe any explanation ranging from the banshee to a satanic cult performing human sacrifice. Hearing it in the dark in a shabby old farmhouse in the dead of night would unman Superman himself. When I stumbled out of the bedroom, the front door was standing open and Fawkes was perched on the curtain rod looking pretty pleased with himself. He’d ruined the curtains but I didn’t care. I guess this time it was Fawkes who foiled a plot.