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, and 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.
In the morning I could find no particular clue about the break-in the night before. My assumption was that it was The Hat, but for all the evidence I had it could just as easily have been Drakos or J. Edgar Hoover or maybe Fidel Castro. My gut instinct wouldn’t do me any good at the Sheriff’s office. I hadn’t slept much; even with a bookcase pushed up against the door I found it difficult to relax, and after the incident Fawkes had spent a good deal of time crashing around the house. So by sunrise I gave it up and made a pot of coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon, and toast, and gave Fawkes a bowl of dog food to keep him busy while I ate. Then I showered and put on a pair of tan wool slacks, a white shirt with a brown pinstripe, a brown herringbone vest, and a striped tie in gold and burgundy that matched my cordovan oxfords. I drank the rest of my coffee on the porch and just about ten o’clock I saw the Burkitt’s truck coming up the dirt drive. I left my cup on the railing and stepped down off the porch to meet them.
Mr. Burkitt was driving, and he regarded me with the cold stare of a raptor as he stopped the truck and Ethel flung the door open and stepped out on the running board, in a checked dress with a white collar and little white gloves. She had a little hat tilted back on her head, and her hair was curled. She was all made up, lips and eyes and eyebrows too.
“Good mornin’ Cogbill! I was afraid I’d have to bust down the door and wake you up.”
I grimaced at her choice of words. We gave each other a sort of restrained hello kiss, and she got back in the truck, slid over into the middle, and let me in beside her. I pulled the door closed and without a word, Burkitt threw the truck into gear and whipped around the turnaround and back out the dusty road toward Gera. The radio was off and Burkitt just stared at the road with a face like a gargoyle, a sport coat and a necktie over a clean set of work clothes.
Ethel surreptitiously took my hand and squeezed it.
“Nice morning, isn’t it?”
I said, “yep.”
I could just about see the black mist around Burkitt; he wished he was anyplace else, or maybe that I was anyplace else. Maybe he was imagining launching me into the sun. At that particular moment, it didn’t sound half bad to me.
We pulled up in front of Trinity, the Methodist church near the courthouse across from Morris Chevrolet. It had a gravel lot and a big gnarly tree in front, near the cemetery gate. It was red brick, and it had a tin roof and a tall wooden cross rising from the pinched top of the white louvred belfry. The little yard was enclosed with a brick and iron iron fence. An Aermotor windmill creaked lazily beyond the cemetery, the steel tower draped with creeper and trumpet vines, the broad tail gleaming in the morning sun. Burkitt parked nose-in along the fence, and turned off the engine. I opened the door and stepped down, then took Ethel’s hand and helped her down. Burkitt turned and looked at me, then crooked a finger.
“Get in, Cogbill. Shut the door.”
“I don’t like you.”
“Ethel’s young and maybe she’s a little naïve, and I reckon that’s my fault. Her momma died when Ethel wasn’t but eleven. I’ve done the best I can. She’s all I got. I’m not telling you this out of some sorry-ass need for sympathy. It’s a warning.”
“Cut the shit. You’re not much younger than me.”
“I love my daughter. She’s fond of you, God knows why.”
“I’m not sure either.”
“The only reason you’re in this truck is because I respect her.”
“The only reason I agreed to get in this truck is because I respect her too, Frank. I can only imagine what kind of man you think I am.”
“The kind of man who’s got no job and goes around seducing women half his age.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again.
“If you hurt my daughter, in any way, I will hurt you worse. Are we clear on that?”
I sat there a moment, looking him in the eye. Part of me wanted to tell him how much Ethel meant to me, and the other part wanted to come across the cab of the pickup and squeeze his neck until his eyeballs shot out. I opened the door and crunched across the gravel, up the concrete step and in through the door, where Ethel was waiting in the vestibule. I shook hands with the ushers and accepted a bulletin, and she led me through another set of doors and into the sanctuary, where the space went clear up to the roof.
The carpet was burgundy, nearly purple, with a pattern like roses in a darker shade. Dark wood pews with white side panels filled the bright, airy hall, apart from a wide center aisle, and a pair of white lecterns stood on a raised platform at the head of the space, separated from the pews by a horseshoe altar rail, dark wood with flat, white-painted, rectangular beveled balusters on a raised, carpeted step for kneeling. Several gothic-style pendant lights hung on chains, and two matching wall sconces were affixed on either side of the sanctuary in the choir lofts. The whole thing smelled of a recent renovation. It was nice. There were five tall, narrow, bright stained-glass windows down each side. We sat about halfway down, on the left.
“Did he give you the talk?”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
Burkitt came in, finally, a bulletin clinched in his fist, and Ethel had wisely positioned herself to be between us again. The preacher’s name was Epps. We sang three hymns and did a responsive reading based on Psalm 98. There were no sung refrains. The ushers took up a collection and the pastor made some remarks about trying to build a fellowship hall to host Sunday school classes, Sunday dinners, with indoor bathrooms and a nursery space for the children. It was still a ways off but the people had recognized the need and were committed to raising the money. I didn’t see anybody that I really knew, although I recognized a few of the faces. There was a judge, and the Elmers Morris, Senior and Junior, from the big store across the street.
We listened to a scripture reading and the Reverend Epps preached on Acts chapter 10, which was a story about a Roman officer named Cornelius and the Apostle Peter. It was about all those who honor God being equal in His sight. I could feel Frank Burkitt’s discomfort as he shifted awkwardly in his place on the other side of Ethel. Ethel patted my hand and took hold of it and spared me a smiling glance. After the service, Burkitt dashed out the door during the Threefold Amen and damn near ran over the ushers. Ethel introduced me around. The names and faces were all sort of a blur; there were farmers, local businessmen and scientists from the Naval Weapons Lab. There were the Morrises, of course, and a tall guy with a last name that sounded vaguely like some kind of Roman officer, and a whole mess of Clifts, tall, dark-haired guys with honest faces and proud Virginia accents, who shook my hand firmly and said “how-do.”
We shook Epps’ hand in the vestibule on the way out the door. I thanked him cheerfully for his message, and Ethel whacked me playfully on the shoulder. Burkitt had driven off. We got a ride from a fellow named Garrison who owned the garage out at Office Hall. I had an uneasy feeling the whole way down my dirt drive, and as we got close to the house I could see that my Hudson was gone.
“Stop the car.”
Garrison braked smoothly and unhurriedly. I told Ethel to stay in the car, and Garrison to keep the car where it was, and then I jumped out and walked up the drive, crept onto the porch and walked around the house once, checking the doors and windows. Everything seemed intact. Even my tin cup was still on the railing. I went inside and found Fawkes sound asleep. I scratched his fuzzy cheeks and then went back outside, walked down the drive and got back in the car.
“They only took my car.”
“Who’d steal a car way out here?” Garrison said.
“The same guy who broke into the house last night, probably.”
“Lord, Cogbill. You need to go to the Sheriff.”
“Believe I’d listen to Miss Ethel,” Garrison said.
“It’s a warning. Anyway I don’t have a telephone.”
Garrison looked back and forth at both of us, understanding that there was something he didn’t know.
“What happened when they broke in, Harry Cogbill?” Ethel said.
“Nothing much. Fawkes like to scared the hell out of him, and he ran away.”
“Am I in danger?”
“I hope not. I’m not sure. Probably not if you don’t hang around here.”
I didn’t know if they’d been watching the house last night, or this morning, and if they’d seen Ethel or Frank. There was also the chance that the man from the Hillcrest had told Vasiliou and Drakos about the pickup truck, which would make things worse.
“I can bring you to my house let you use the phone,” Garrison said.
“Let’s take Ethel home first, make sure Frank is okay.”
Ethel looked at me with a hint of panic in her eyes as Garrison put the car into gear and turned it around in front of my house.
“I got us into this.”
I put my arm around her and held her.
“No you didn’t. You’re not responsible for what Vasiliou or Drakos or the man in the hat get up to. You’re not responsible for your Uncle Jack’s choices, or your grandfather’s. You’re also not responsible for mine, or Frank’s. We all make our own choices here.”
“Beg your pardon,” Garrison said. “But what’s going on?”
“There’s a criminal element in this county,” I said, “come down from up north. They’re probably counting on the fact that there’s not a lot of people around here and not a strong law enforcement presence.”
“Always thought all the gangsters was out at the Beach.”
“I think they’re probably everywhere.”
“We’ve had right much more burglary and such this last year,” Garrison admitted. “Did you know someone broke in a couple rooms at the Hillcrest yesterday?”
“You don’t say.”
“Reckon that’s why Sheriff Dishman retired. Worst he ever had to worry about was people driving too fast.”
Garrison likely hadn’t been among that number; it felt like he was doing all his driving in slow motion. Probably I was just anxious. The landscape in King George was definitely changing. Sam Dishman was not a young man, and he’d never seen any violent crime in the county.
When we pulled up at the Burkitt place, everything looked normal. The truck was parked in the turnaround and there were cows grazing in the far pasture. I could hear the chickens and the rattle of the Aermotor ginning.
“Maybe you’d better both stay here while I look around.”
“No, let’s both go,” Garrison said. “Just in case. If you hear any commotion, Miss Ethel, you drive this car right out of here like the devil was on your heels, you hear me?”
“I hear you, Mr. Garrison, but I don’t believe that’ll be necessary.”
We hadn’t gone far towards the house when Frank Burkitt came out with a shotgun and pointed it at me.
“Garrison, take this son of a bitch off my property.”
“Now Mr. Burkitt, calm down, for God’s sakes it’s Sunday. We came to check on you.”
Ethel got out of the car and came to stand with us.
“I don’t think I will calm down. Come over here, Ethel.”
She didn’t. We all stood there like that for what was probably a few seconds and felt like about a year. Frank reached in the hip pocket of his coat with his left hand and pulled out some folded papers pressed between two of his fingers. He kept the shotgun pointed at me with his right hand, the stock braced against his shoulder. He held the papers out toward Ethel.
“Take it. Go on.”
“No daddy, I don’t think I will.”
“You don’t know who this man is you’ve been running around with. I got this in the mail. Take it.”
Ethel stood her ground.
“He’s a coward, Ethel. He got two of his men killed in France. He let his best friend jump on a grenade for him because he was too scared to die. A man like that ain’t worth your time. Now you come over here.”
“Go ahead and shoot me, Frank.”
“Just do it. That’s what this is about, right? You’re the bigger man, the hardass. Old iron nuts. Go ahead and shoot me if it’ll make you feel better.”
Ethel flung herself across me.
“Daddy Franklin don’t you dare!”
He let go of the papers. The wind caught them and carried them from the porch into the lawn. He stood there for a while looking like the face of the demon that haunted my sleepless nights.
“Every one of you get out of here,” he said. “Take Ethel with you. You win. She loves you.”
She loved him, too. Murdering me would not have made him feel better. And she would have lost us both. I hoped he’d realize that when he calmed down. He turned and walked into the house, and eased the door shut. Ethel stood in front of me looking like she’d been slapped.
I’d never seen her so vulnerable. My proud woman with the iron backbone was crying softly, the sun was behind a cloud, and the wind in her hair was like the first portent of a coming storm. The papers Frank had dropped tumbled past my feet. I put a foot on them and bent to pick it up. It was a few sheets stapled together. Some highlights from my service record.
“I’m sorry you had to see that Mr. Garrison.”
“Miss Ethel you don’t owe anyone an apology. Come to my house, y’all can use the telephone and call the Sheriff.”
“I couldn’t possibly impose on you any further Mr. Garrison. I’ll get the truck and take Harry Cogbill home. Maybe we’ll have lunch. Would you care to join us?”
“I’ve got to be getting back to my family, but thanks all the same.”
Ethel drove me back to my house and helped me fix lunch. She took off her hat and gloves, and I remarked that I liked her outfit and she smiled, and suddenly the awkwardness and the frustration of the morning’s violations had abated.
“What was that piece of paper my daddy had?”
“It was the reader’s digest version of my Army career, mostly the low points.”
“How does one get something like that? Seems like you’d need official channels.”
“That’s about the shape of it,” I said. “Somebody’s got connections. If Len ever gets back to me, maybe I’ll know.”
While we ate sandwiches and drank iced tea I asked her how long she thought it would take Frank to calm down.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him like that. He ain’t been right since Mama died and I don’t think he’s really got the handle of it, you know?”
“He thinks he’s losing you too.”
“Well for God’s sake I’m a grown woman. I’ll always be his daughter and he’ll always be my daddy but he’s got to learn to let go.”
“Of both of you.”
“Yep, that about says it.”
When we were about done eating and had not yet cleared the table, Fawkes dashed in and leaped up onto the counter and stared out the window, and we looked at each other and then outside and saw the Sheriff’s car coming up the drive. I went to the door and heard Ethel rinsing off the plates. About the time the Sheriff stepped up onto the porch, Ethel came outside to join us.
The Sheriff was a short, stocky brick of a man with his dark hair slicked down under a brown octagonal hat. He wore a brown and khaki uniform and a gold star on his breast. His name was Powell.
He said, “Miss Burkitt, your father reported that truck as stolen.”
“Well for Heaven’s sake Sheriff, how can I steal my own truck? I drove Mr. Cogbill home on account of it’s his car that’s been stolen.”
“Is that right, Cogbill?”
“Yes Sheriff, it was stolen out of my driveway while we were at church this morning.”
“I see. You two go together?”
Ethel said, “that’s right.”
“You aware your truck matches the description of the suspected getaway vehicle for a recent burglary?”
“Sheriff do you really think my daddy or I would burgle anyone?”
“No ma’am, I can’t say as I do, but your friend Mr. Cogbill does fit the description of the man seen lurking behind the Hillcrest before he jumped in the truck and drove off. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Cogbill?”
“Aw jeez, Sheriff, I think there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. Miss Ethel had confided in me that she was concerned about some suspicious men hanging around her uncle’s place, and being generally concerned for her safety and that of her family, I decided to take a look. I admit that I learned they were staying at the Hillcrest when I happened to stop there for lunch one day, and after they threatened me proper I decided to get a different car and come back, hoping to follow them on their daily activities and see if I could catch them doing anything worth bothering you about. Being a good citizen and all. Of course I’d had about a gallon of coffee and I’m afraid I had to take a leak.
“I didn’t want to risk being noticed, or giving them time to get away, so I went behind the building to minimize the amount of time I spent away from my post. Even so, the manager almost caught me in the act and I was embarrassed, so I told him something about checking the meters and by the time I got back to the truck, the men had driven off and I didn’t see which way they went. It was a rotten piece of luck.”
“He said you had a prybar.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Sheriff, he’s plumb wrong on that account. I may have been carrying a newspaper, I don’t quite remember. Wait, did you say there was a burglary? That old boy might have saved my life. Would you tell him I’m in his debt?”
The Sheriff’s face was a mask. Neither of us was under any illusions about what I was full of, or how much.
“I’ve got to go talk to Frank Burkitt about the legality of filing false police reports. In the meantime try not to take a leak behind any more businesses. And if you’re thinking about leaving the county, take my advice: don’t.”
“He ain’t going anywhere, Sheriff.”
“Well Miss Ethel, if he’s got any sense you’re right. You look right pretty today.”
“Thank you Sheriff. What I meant to say is he hasn’t got a car, remember?”
“What was the make and model of your car, Mr. Cogbill?”
“It was a ’53 Hudson Hornet. Two-tone robin’s egg and white, but it was in pretty bad shape, I don’t know why anyone would want it.”
“What was the license number?”
I told him, and he wrote it down.
“Well, most times these things are sold for scrap and the thieves make some quick money. It’s not likely you’ll see it again, Mr. Cogbill, so I’d phone your insurance company as soon as you can.”
“Thank you Sheriff. I think one of the guys staying at the Hillcrest did this. Somebody broke in my house late last night too. I think it was them.”
Powell took off his hat and rubbed his face with his hand.
“What the hell is this county coming to?”
After the Sheriff left, Ethel and I sat on the porch a while.
“Would it be all right if I stay here tonight, Cogbill?”
“All right with who?”
“I’ve been thinking and I want to let my daddy sweat it a while. It might be the only way to get through to him, if he realizes how crazy he’s acting.”
“You don’t have any things.”
“I don’t need things.”
“I don’t have a guest room. I can put on clean sheets for you, and I can sleep alright on the couch, but–”
“But I’m not sure you’re safe here.”
“I am perfectly safe with you and you know it.”
“These are evil men, Ethel. They know more about me than I do about them. They know we’re together. They’re using your daddy to get to me. I don’t like how this is going. If anything happens to you…”
“You’ll protect me.”
“No matter what I do, everything always gets sideways and I can never turn it around.”
“You know, other people have problems, Cogbill. We don’t let it define us. You’ve got to learn to let go, too. For you it’s past mistakes.”
“Everything your father said about me, everything in those papers. It’s true.”
“And nothing. Boot camp is designed to make soldiers. It’s a factory that churns out grunts like bottles of Coca-Cola. It’s supposed to be foolproof. But all their brainwashing never worked on me. I was a terrible soldier.”
“You were too much you.”
“It’s my biggest flaw.”
“Harry Cogbill it’s your greatest asset.”
Electricity filled the air between us. I looked into her eyes and she looked right back into mine, and an entire conversation took place without words. She stood up and took my hand, and led me into the house and to the bedroom. Her body was strong, but soft. Muscles bunched in her shoulders and rolled delicately under the soft velvet skin of her back as she unzipped her dress. Her hips were wide and her waist was taut, but she had slight pooch below her navel. Then we were in each other’s arms and outside of time, where seconds became hours and hours became minutes, and there was nothing else in the world but the two of us. Her scent was musky and I felt the sweat in her hair along the back of her neck when I placed my hand there. Afterwards I held her and she put her face an inch from mine and we looked into each other’s eyes again, and I felt like a teenager, as though making love to Ethel had transported me to a time before all the burdens of adulthood and the pain of failure and of loss that had since stained my soul. I knew that I loved her, as surely as I knew that I did not deserve her.
Somehow the day slipped away with cups of coffee and long talks, and we showered and ate a late supper. It was late that night when Sheriff Powell knocked on my door. His car was parked the driveway, the bubble light pulsing but his siren off. He reddened a little but politely avoided comment when he noticed Ethel wearing one of my shirts.
“Cogbill, get dressed and come with me. Evening Miss Ethel.”
“Am I under arrest? I don’t know what Frank told you, but…”
“Take it easy, Mr. Cogbill, this hadn’t got nothing to do with Frank Burkitt. It’s about your car.”
“Come on in, Sheriff, while we get ourselves together.”
“I’d prefer to stay here on the porch, if you don’t mind. Miss Ethel don’t need to come.”
“I’d rather not leave her here in case the burglar returns.”
Powell shook his head but said it was okay.
Ethel got back into her dress and I put on a clean shirt and a pair of khakis, and in a few minutes we got into the Sheriff’s car and he drove us out to Office Hall. You could see the glow for a mile before we got there. The KGVFD was there, and the firemen from the NWL, and Colonial Beach too. What was left of Garrison’s Garage looked like a portal to Hell.
Ethel said, “Oh my God.”
“Garrison gave us a ride from church to Frank’s place today.”
“Come with me, Cogbill. Miss Ethel you may remain in the vehicle.”
I patted her hand, and she looked at me with her hand clamped over her mouth.
“You okay, Ethel?”
“Oh my God, Cogbill, what’d they do? What’d they do?”
I put my arms around her and held her for a moment, until she pushed away and assured me she was fine. Then I got out of the car and followed the Sheriff over to one of the fire trucks, which said KING GEORGE VOL. FIRE DEP’T. on the door and had a red bubble light whirling slowly atop the cab. The firemen were letting Garrison’s place burn. It had died down considerably and the building was little more than a huge pile of smoldering rubble with what looked like a car in the middle of it. Could have been mine but it was pretty difficult to tell. Powell led me over to where Garrison was standing with one of the firemen, a rangy guy with short dark hair and narrow features. I recognized him from church.
“Gene, this is Mr. Cogbill.”
“Harvey, innit? Believe we met this morning.”
“Harry. Believe we did.”
He shook my hand firmly but did not say “how-do.”
“Got a car in there Sheriff says might belong to you.”
“We didn’t leave any cars in the bay Saturday,” Garrison said. “And that is for sure a Hudson Hornet.”
“Gonna be while before anybody can get in there and poke around,” the Sheriff said. “But you lost a Hornet, and Gene here found one.”
“That’ll be my car,” I said. “Do you believe me yet, Sheriff?”
“What I see is an unlicensed private investigator tracking dogshit all over my county. I’ll grant you hacked off some bad guys, but you broke into their motel rooms, and you lied to me about it. Don’t speak, we both know it’s true. Even if I cain’t prove it. I’ve a good mind to arrest you and take Ethel Burkitt home to her daddy.”
“She’s a grown woman, Sheriff. People probably ought to start treating her like one.”
He took his hat off with his left hand, put his thumb and his finger of his right hand in his eyes and rubbed them.
“You’re a real piece of work, Cogbill. Where the hell are you from, anyway?”
“You wanted for anything down there?”
“Cain’t hardly blame them. I don’t want you either.”