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.
Monday morning we had a lot to do. I made us breakfast, corned beef hash and scrambled eggs, grits and toast, Ethel looking at me with wide eyes over the rim of her coffee cup, wearing only my shirt with the sleeves rolled up, her hair fluffing out unevenly from sleep. I had no words to tell her how beautiful she was, so I smiled at her and asked if her breakfast was okay.
“Well you sure weren’t lying when you said it was your specialty.”
It had taken us a while to calm down after the fire at Garrison’s. Although Sheriff Powell had once again chosen not to arrest me, he’d repeated his instructions not to leave town.
“Don’t worry, Sheriff. I intend to see this thing through to the end.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“There’s something going on in this county. We’re on the same side.”
“That’s where you’ve got it all turned around, Cogbill. I’m on the side of the law, I’ve got a badge. I don’t need you charging around like one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men.”
“Why are you determined to make me the enemy?”
“I think you need to ask yourself that question. Maybe Miss Ethel can explain it to you.”
He drove us back to my house and left us in the yard. We laid in bed talking a while before Ethel finally drifted off to sleep, my arms around her, and after a while I followed her.
So after breakfast, we showered and dressed, and drove the truck out to the store in Gera where we she picked up a few things to tidy her hair, and I picked up a paper. John noticed that Ethel was in her Sunday dress, but for once he kept his mouth shut. No word yet from Len, but it was early and I would check back later. While Ethel made herself presentable – her words, not mine – I dug through the classifieds in the Free Lance-Star and found what I was looking for. Then we went into town.
It was about twenty-five miles from my place to Fredericksburg. Route 3 was a long, two-lane country highway that wended its way through forests and farmland. We drove through the courthouse area and out past Arnold’s Corner and Jeter’s Lumberyard, through Comorn. To the north, Rokeby sat up on the hill overlooking the cornfields, a massive brick house with a hipped roof flanked by a line of trees like a rank of guards. Down by us on Route 3 an iron gate with stone posts marked the entrance to the driveway. A turnoff to our left was the beginning of Port Conway road, which looped lazily southwest, through Dogue and past Millbank, back toward 301 near the James Madison Bridge. Now Route 3 carved a tunnel through the forest, the trees overhead blotting out all but a twinkling of the bright morning sun, until we barreled out the other side at La Grange, the landscape opening back up to field and pasture.
Out by Graves’ Corner at 605 it was all farmland as far as you could see, big clapboard barns with tin roofs rusted red and purple. Near one of the barns sat a blue flatbed truck with pontoon fenders, loaded up with two rows of big tin milk cans. We were really on a thin slice of land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, near the Stafford County line. Sometimes if you drove the road before dawn in late summer or early fall, the fog rolling off the water was so thick you couldn’t see but a few feet in any direction. We crossed the railroad tracks near Farley Vale, and entered Stafford still surrounded by farmland. Not long before Ferry Farm, where George Washington spent his childhood, the road rippled sharply up and down three times in rapid succession, a common feature of country roads of the type that my mother always referred to as thank-you-ma’ams. It always felt like a Carnival ride when you hit them at speed, your stomach lurching up into your diaphragm and slamming back down into your bowels, one-two-three.
We rounded a long, sweeping curve into Argyle Heights, a set of train tracks pulling parallel to the road, on a ridge above us to the right, then cutting away from the road and disappearing into the trees. To our left, across the Rappahannock, the tall brick stack of the FMC cellophane plant pumped its malodorous emissions into the blue sky. The stench, so oppressive it was nearly malevolent, carried on the wind and blew through Argyle Heights, the wet, putrid funk of wood pulp and sulfur like an outhouse on a sweltering summer day.
At Ferry Farm the road bent left toward the Rappahannock River, then peeled away right and snapped back hard left again to dive through a narrow concrete arch below the train tracks and back up over the Chatham Bridge, above Scott’s Island in the Rappahannock, and into downtown Fredericksburg beside the Old Stone Warehouse. We parked on the street near JC Penney, where Ethel picked up a few clothing items, and we strolled around town a while, enjoying the pear trees and mossy brick sidewalks, the green steeples of the churches rising high above the colonial architecture and warm shopfronts. Somewhere below the asphalt, the original cobblestones were still in the ground, like all of history an uneven foundation upon which the modern world is built.
Autumn was in the air, and a cool, gentle breeze rustled in the pear trees and the first of the leaves surfed the currents around us, clattering off the shop windows and swirling around the entryways. We held hands and walked slowly, lingering at window displays and street corners, and for a morning at least, all the darkness of the world melted away and peace and comfort followed us like the rich, fruity scent of pipe tobacco along streets where Mary Ball Washington once walked, and James Monroe had practiced law, and the ghosts of Union and Confederate dead leaned on long rifles, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in shaded doorways, pushing the brims of their kepis back to feel the cool air on their soot-darkened brows.
I used a payphone and called a guy from the want ads about a car he was selling somewhere in Spotsylvania, and set up a meeting for later that afternoon. Ethel picked up a few toiletries in Goolrick’s Pharmacy, and we ate lunch perched on chromium barstools at the long Formica counter, while a thick-bodied woman in an apron and a hairnet fussed with a milkshake machine, and burgers and cheese sandwiches sizzled on a flat top grill. A Packard eased on by outside, long and low, the sun gleaming off the whitewalls, the chrome hubcaps throwing patterns of light through the plate glass shop windows and haloing Ethel’s hair as it passed, her blue eyes turning to me as she sipped cola through a straw, and I can remember no greater feeling of contentment, nor more perfect a moment, in the entirety of my life.
Outside of town we stopped at a sporting goods store that sold fishing rods and hunting rifles, parkas, fleece-lined caps and rubber boots. Ethel had selected a good quality shotgun, and by the way she cracked open the breach and inspected it, it was clear she’d been taught her way around a gun. Good job, Frank.
“Planning on shooting some deer?” the man asked.
Ethel looked meaningfully at me.
She said, “Call it home security.”
“I’m not fond of guns.”
“Well that’s too damned bad, Cogbill. I won’t have you chained to me while you’re running around trying to sort this mess out. And I damn sure refuse either one of us to go on living in fear.”
“Ethel, you’re something else.”
“Tell me something I don’t know, mister.”
The guy selling the car was out near Thornburg. He had it in a barn out behind an old farmhouse. It was a ’51 Ford Crestliner in black and red, and he let it go pretty cheap. It was missing a hubcap and there were some cigarette burns on the front seat, but it was pretty solid and apart from a couple of minor dings and some missing insignia, it wasn’t in bad shape. I paid the guy, we shook hands, and I followed Ethel through some back roads to Route 17, and then east to Port Royal and up across the James Madison Bridge into King George. We took Port Conway Road and then Millbank and back toward Gera. We left the truck at the house and she got into the car with me.
“Well,” Ethel said as we pulled back out onto Gera Road, “this is a sight better than your old one.”
It was late afternoon now, and we stopped by to see John again and got our mail.
“Your friend called a while ago.”
“Tell me you took a message, John.”
“Yes sir, I did, but all he told me was get you to call him back if it wasn’t too late.”
I looked at Ethel, and then at John. Must have been something big.
“Do you mind?”
“It’s all right.”
I dialed Len’s office number but he was off-duty and the detective who answered the phone didn’t have any idea what he might have for me and didn’t much sound like he cared. I’d try back tomorrow. Ethel and I went home, fed Fawkes, and made supper together and sat on the porch while the sun bled out across the treetops, and the little brown bats performed a flying circus while they hunted insects in the dying light. It had been a perfect day, and all I wanted was to end it on a perfect note, to watch Ethel fall asleep as I held her in my arms and know that just for one single day, all was right in the world.
But of course, it wasn’t. There was war ratcheting up in Vietnam, Castro in Cuba. Ethel and Frank weren’t speaking. And there were bad guys up to no good in Dahlgren, who had burned down an innocent man’s business and destroyed a perfectly serviceable wreck of a car. I had one nagging question on my mind, and the only way I could think to answer it was under cover of darkness: what were they doing up at the back end of the airfield? What had been worth ruining shoes and laces over? What was Taylor’s part in everything, out at the Owens Market? And how cross would Sheriff Powell be if he caught me trespassing?
I told Ethel what was on my mind.
“You want to go prowling around up behind my uncle’s place?”
“I just got to decide how to get up there. Somewhere off Owens Drive?”
“Probably. But it won’t be far back there. If you get to Hooes you’ve gone too far.” She pronounced it “hose,” not “whose.”
“It’s all farmland up there, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, mostly. The airport is landlocked. They’d have had to make an arrangement with somebody, if there’s a way to get a car in and out. Maybe Hud Avery.”
“Hud. Don’t ask because I don’t know.”
I dug out my old combat boots, the leather worn dark and smooth, the laces swampy, the straps at the calf warped where they had always been buckled. I tucked the cuffs of my work pants into the tops of the boots, and put on my fedora and a mackinaw. I had an old gooseneck army flashlight, and I clipped it on my belt under the coat. Ethel had her shotgun and a box of shells, and she promised to make sure before she pulled the trigger that if somebody came in, it wasn’t me.
She kissed me goodbye and I almost didn’t go.
It was a long, lonely drive up to Owens. I took it easy, in case of deer, and it seemed like it took half an hour to get to the little intersection with the store and the Baptist church on cinderblocks. All the houses were dark, the Weedonville Post Office shut up tight, the moonlight blue on the tin roof of the frame house, a faint stream of wood smoke from one of the chimneys. A doe and two fawns in the field, eyes catching the light, watching as I drove past. Skunk musk near Berthaville where maybe somebody had squashed one with their car. The odor followed me almost to Owens, and there at last was the little intersection, the church, the store. I turned left onto Owens Drive and followed the curve around to the north. I didn’t have far to go before a dirt farm road went out in a straight line across the inside of the curve, toward the ridge line in the general direction of the airport. There was a house out there, on the ridge, and there were farm roads running laterally along the ridgeline.
I left my car on the side of the road some distance away, killed the lights and the engine, and waited a few minutes. No traffic approached from either direction. Finally I got out, carefully climbed over the barbed wire fence, and crept across the fields in the direction where I reckoned the end of the back runway must be. After what felt like half an hour, I came to the ridge line, a safe distance from the darkened house with its low eaves and tall brick chimney, a gnarled sentry tree leaning out over the crest of the hill. Below me the land dropped away, a patchwork quilt of fields and fences spreading down toward Pope’s Field. Beyond that I could see the dark ribbon of highway 301, the lights of a single car heading north. The moonlight shimmered on the Potomac river some four or five miles away, the red light atop the truss of the Morgantown bridge pulsed slowly, the beacon at Lower Cedar Point winking just beyond. To the east at the Naval Weapons Laboratory, there were red warning lights atop the checkerboard water towers. To my right a long, dirt drive ran down the hill, around a scrubby patch of saplings, towards 206 and Owens.
I took a deep breath, knowing that once I stepped off the ridge I was hanging my ass out into space, far from help or safety should anything go wrong. If I were honest, I was already way out beyond the point of no return, and there was absolutely no other way out from under Vasiliou and Drakos than to push on through. I felt the tension spread from my neck across my shoulders, my perfect day with Ethel like an episode from another man’s life. I put my head down, and descended into the shadowy fields, picking my way down the hillside among the cowpies. I skirted a pond, and picked up an access road, slicing off to the left. The field was long, but the weariness I felt had nothing to do with the hike.
It must have been another twenty or thirty minutes, following the dirt road across the field like a swimmer out at sea, a couple of old trees looming ahead of me. And there at last it was, a back way into Pope’s Field, not part of the access road but a neatly mown swath wide enough for a car, that looped around one of the trees and then made a turn at the other, and from there ahead of me was wide open land, the filling station a light blur in the moonlight, out across the blue-green pancake. There were dried footprints in the earth, and parallel tracks of tires where the grass was flattened down and silver in the moonlight. I wondered why you’d need a back way in and out of the airport, especially one that cut across a farm and accessed out onto a back road. I wondered what they could possibly be moving in small aircraft. Marijuana? My aunt Ida’s stamp collection? Maybe when I talked to Len, he’d have some useful information for me.
When I got home, Ethel watched discreetly from the door, saw by the glow of the porch light that it was the Crestliner, and then met me at the door.
“You didn’t have to wait up, Ethel.”
“No, but I wanted to. Besides, who can sleep with Fawkes crashing around? Find anything?”
I told her about the easement from the back runway to the Avery place.
“Why would they need that? Assuming they’re shipping goods, don’t they usually have a good cover story? And how much freight can you move in a small aircraft?”
“See, those were my questions too.” And whatever it was, they were pretty serious about it.
I locked the front door and checked all the other doors and the windows, and turned off the lights as I went. Then we undressed and I held Ethel close, her back to my chest, her hands grasping my arm, and all in all I had to admit that I could not remember a better day in all my life.
The following day, after breakfast, I went out to the store in Gera and borrowed John’s phone. This time I got Len at his desk.
“Hey, don’t ask me for no more favors, all right? Forget my number. You wouldn’t believe the IOU’s I had to cash in for this crap. I wish you’d called a contact with the fibbies.”
“I don’t know any Feds, Len.”
“Yeah, well, suddenly I do. I asked around about Nikolaos Drakos and the FBI climbed right up my ass. What’d you get me into, Cogbill?”
“I wish I knew. Tell me you got something for me.”
“None of these guys has a sheet in Boston, but I made some calls. Baltimore tells me Vasiliou was in the Marine Corps in World War II, maybe you got a contact can run that down. He don’t live there no more, change of address to someplace called Anne Arundel County. Adagio’s an attorney from Brooklyn, New York. Looks clean.
“Your friend with the hat is probably Nestor Lazos. They know him in Baltimore, he’s got a record in Philadelphia going back to childhood. Mostly petty theft and assault. He’s a known associate of your Mr. Drakos. Both of them have records thicker than the damn Boston telephone directory. Watch out for Lazos. He’s a suspect in about eight unsolved murders around Baltimore and DC.”
“He didn’t seem that smart.”
“Smart? No. Connected. Both of them. Drakos has been in trouble for fraud ten times in the last twenty years. His lawyer got him out of four of them in trial, they were able to appeal the other six. Way this guy skates he should be in the Olympics.”
“Let me guess, he’s a ‘legitimate businessman.’”
“Yeah, I think that’s the technical term.”
“They mostly run drugs. You got a lot of addicts out there in the sticks?”
“Who would notice?”
“Two squirrels and a possum.”
“Right. Hey Len?”
The line went dead. He’d hung up on me.
When I got home, Ethel was in my bathroom in her bra, doing her makeup.
“What’s the occasion,” I said.
“Do I need an occasion?”
“No. I guess I’m used to overalls and plaid shirts.”
“I knew it, you think the overalls are sexy.”
“Ethel, you’re beautiful in anything.”
“Well since I ain’t feeding chickens and forking poo today, I thought I’d dress up a little.”
I asked her if she wanted to ride up to Waldorf with me, and to my delight she said yes. So I had coffee and read the paper while she finished getting ready, until she joined me in the kitchen in heels with a new pair of capri pants and a sweater, her hair clean and curled and smelling of strawberries. I gassed up the Crestliner at the Morris’s store and we went out to Office Hall, where Garrison’s Garage was a heap of burned timbers and grey ash, staked off by the Sheriff’s office and the State Police. She asked me what I’d learned from Len, so I filled her in as I drove, Vasiliou the former supply sergeant and a complete mystery; Drakos and Lazos, the hoods with extensive criminal histories.
“And what’s in Waldorf, other than a bunch of liquor stores, casinos, strip clubs, and seedy motels?”
“No, that about covers it. But I used to work in one of those casinos, and my old boss might talk to me.”
“You think they’re running drugs out of my family’s airport?”
“I don’t want to make any wild accusations.”
“Well for heaven’s sake, you’re not going to offend me.”
“I don’t have any evidence.”
“Drugs would be one of the few things that could be moved in relatively smaller quantities and still command a large return of investment.”
We were traveling north on 301. We went around the traffic circle at Edgehill and through Allnut and up the hill at Owens, past the Hillcrest and down the hill again toward Dahlgren, past the filling station, the little airport and the Pope family cemetery and over Williams Creek, then Gate B for the NWL was on the right, and soon Wilkerson’s Potomac Grill on the left, where we’d had our first date, across the street from a tall chain-link fence with a few strands of barbed wire angled out at the top and signs marking it as Federal land. Ahead on the right, beyond the fence, a tall building looking like a weirdly sinister mill or grain silo alone on a hill with the words US NAVY on it, overlooking the river; to the left a small public beach and boat landing called Wayside Park, and then the sound of the road under the wheels pitched up as we mounted the Morgantown Bridge.
Our windows were rolled partway down, and Ethel watched the ground drop away from us, her hair fluttering in the air that was whipping around our ears. She turned to face me and I could feel her electric blue gaze although my eyes were on the narrow stretch of bridge rising slowly ahead of us.
“Did Nestor Lazos kill my granddaddy?”
“I think somebody did.”
“I think it was Lazos.”
“I think you’re probably right,” I said.
The railings on either side of the bridge were tubular steel and painted battleship grey, and at speed our view of the river was mostly unobstructed. The river below was blue, the channel for larger ships leaving Alexandria staked out clearly with signs about a mile out. Floats from crab pots bobbed in the shallows, and out to the right the Lower Cedar Point beacon flashed at intervals, a skeleton tower with a green marker on the foundation of an old screwpile lighthouse that had been dismantled only a few years before.
The bridge went out for a mile or so with a slow, steady incline and then the huge steel beams of the truss rose on either side of us, the color of an aircraft carrier, lined with huge rivets, criss-crossing above us and all around, the red beacon on the highest point far above our heads, on a catwalk only accessible by an enclosed ladder that spidered up the side of the truss. We were above the channel now, at the zenith of the bridge’s arc, where barges and ocean liners could pass beneath us. There were none of these today, but away to the west the river was dotted with sailboats and small fishing boats, some rigged with outboard motors.
And then the bridge angled down, a much steeper angle on this side, with maybe half a mile’s distance to get back down to ground level, a marina on the left and on the right, trees and uninterrupted coast line, with a few small cottages visible out near Morgantown and in the grey distance at Swan Point. The sound of the wheels changed again, and a sign welcomed us to Maryland, and then Maryland took some of our money at a toll booth for the privilege of crossing their bridge, and we charged on into Charles County. Up here route 301 was a four-lane divided highway, new enough that if it were a car it would probably still have the smell. We rounded the bend at Newburg, and through farmland at Allens Fresh and Faulkner, past a small motel and the school in Bel Alton, a long, pale building, low and flat-roofed, sitting in a hollow down from the road, a tall chimney rising behind it.
It was open country until we hit the town of La Plata, the county seat, but the new 301 bypassed the town apart from the odd filling station. Then there was nothing again until we crossed the train tracks at White Plains and rolled into Waldorf: not as glamorous as Vegas, a strip of highway where hopes and dreams went to die. Owing to the local laws about alcohol, there were liquor stores seemingly on every corner. At night all the motels, with names like Stardust and Cadillac, would light up in bright neon and the clubs that lined the road would come to life with signs advertising live music or topless girls. In the daylight it looked like a parking lot full of UFO’s. We pulled up outside the Wigwam Casino, next door to the Stardust Motel. It wasn’t a wigwam; it was a big building with a conical piece front and center built to resemble a giant tipi. There was a painted metal chimney at the peak that would puff out smoke for added effect. I doubted the natives would approve. Probably nobody had consulted with the local Piscataway tribe.
“You used to work here?”
“Yep. Mopping floors, mostly.”
“Why did you quit?”
“You mean why did I get fired.”
“Now Cogbill, you forget who you’re talking to? The man may have fired you, but I know damn good and well you dared him to do it.”
She winked and patted my thigh.
I went around her side of the car and took her hand and closed the door for her and she looped her arm through mine and we stepped up onto the pebbled sidewalk and around the corner to the door. It was still early and they were setting up for the night’s entertainment. There were roadies setting up monitors, amplifiers and mic stands on the bandstand. A middle-aged guy in a t-shirt and khakis, with a cigarette in his mouth and his dark hair slicked down, came rushing over.
“Hey! Hey, we’re closed here, huh? Get outta… Harry?”
“What’s up, Bobby?”
“Harry Cogbill, no shit – pardon me, miss. How do you do? Name’s Robert Campbell, but everybody calls me Bobby.”
Ethel just stared at his offered hand until he retracted it.
“Ethel Burkitt,” she said. Her tone of voice could have frosted hot coffee.
“Bob, is Stevie around?”
“Yeah, he’s in the office, but be sure and knock and don’t just bust in like you did in here, okay?”
I led Ethel around to the left and through a back section with a couple of smaller rooms to a door marked “PRIVATE.” I knocked a couple of times and heard Stevie holler to come in.
I opened the door and saw that Stevie was alone, and then let Ethel precede me into the room. Little Stevie Balaban was the manager, and he sat behind a desk covered in paperwork, doing the previous night’s receipts on a calculator with a spool of paper spilling onto the floor. His jacket and tie were on a coat rack, his shirt was unbuttoned and he had a strap undershirt underneath, and a thin gold chain around his neck. A pile of cigarettes smoldered in a copper ashtray the size of a dinner plate. He needed a shave and by the look of his eyes a few hours’ sleep wouldn’t kill him either.
“Cogbill? Christ, this better not be about a job.”
“Ethel Burkitt,” I said, “Stavros Balaban.”
“Stevie,” he said. “You can sit down if you want. Not you, Cogbill.”
Ethel and I both sat down anyway.
“It’s not about a job,” I said.
“Great. She’s a mathematician and you heard about the little fiasco we had last night.”
“I’m not a mathematician,” she said. “Although I was an A student.”
“Great,” Stevie said. “Maybe you can teach this one some common sense.”
“Maybe we should come back later,” I said.
“Nah,” Stevie said. “You know what? Here.” He picked up the metal trashcan beside the desk, and with an arm, swept the papers and the calculator and a couple of pens and a bottle of correction fluid into the bin. “There. All my problems are gone. Screw it. What do you want?”
“Mister Balaban,” Ethel said, “I hope we’re not inconveniencing you. I can see you’re having a rough morning, and I understand you have responsibilities here.”
“Miss Burkitt, believe me, I could use a break from last night’s disaster and as long as Cogbill here is serious about not looking for a job, I’m all ears for the next ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you, Mister Balaban.”
“Seriously, call me Stevie. And if Cogbill here has sense enough to propose to you, bear in mind that you’re better than he is.”
“Well, thank you Stevie.”
“I remind her every day,” I said.
“I’m sure you do. So what’s up, Harry?”
“I guess I’m looking into a family matter for Ethel here, and some names came up that I thought maybe you could give me some background on.”
“That depends on what kind of names, and you know it.”
“Aw shit, Cogbill.”