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.
Little Stevie searched his desk, and the pockets of the rumpled suit coat on the coat rack, and finally stepped out to buy a fresh pack of cigarettes from the vending machine in the hall. When he came back he lit up from a book of matches stamped with the Wigwam’s nomenclature, and threw the match in the ash tray.
“How in God’s name did you get mixed up with Jimmie Vasiliou?”
“I’m not mixed up with him.”
“Then you run afoul of him, which is almost as bad. You sure you want Miss Burkitt in here for this?”
“I’m a grown woman, Stevie.”
“Yeah, and Jimmie Vasiliou is a grown crocodile.”
I said, “So you know him?”
“We grew up together in the District.”
“No, we’re not friends, we grew up together. Same street, same hangouts, like that. Run with the same guys.”
“He mobbed up?”
“He’s connected. He’s not a made man. He’s what you call a fixer.”
Ethel said, “A fixer?”
“Yeah, he helps people get what they want. Sets up transactions. For a price, you know.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“You don’t know Jimmie. You’re doing dealing with Jimmie, only person who’s happy is Jimmie. When we was maybe ten, I had this bicycle. Saved up for it, old man helped me buy it. Guy at the shop put it on layaway so I could pay for it a piece at a time, right. Took me a year. Jimmie wanted that damn bicycle. He could always find a way to make a nickel shelling peas or sorting produce. He’d work as a delivery boy. But when we was ten he got himself a paper route, and that bike was looking pretty good to him. I’d worked my butt off for that bike, and I wouldn’t sell it to him. Well, my mom had bought me a radio for Christmas when I was eight. Nothing fancy, basically a box little bigger than a lunch pail, handle on the top, picture of the Lone Ranger on the dial. Little bakelite job. We used to listen to ballgames in the summer and radio shows, you know. Well after I wouldn’t sell the bicycle, he got a buddy of his over and wouldn’t you know the idiot drops my radio out the window. Second floor, busts in a million pieces all over the sidewalk. Says it’s an accident. I’m beside myself, right. Then Jimmie comes up with this deal.
“He’ll get me a new radio. Better than the old radio. All I gotta do is give him my bicycle. He makes good on the radio. Didn’t last me a month, the wires inside were all corroded. But he got that bicycle. And wouldn’t you know I found out later he convinced his cousin to give him that radio. And my little Pilot, with the Lone Ranger on it? He had his buddy break it. I know he did. He wanted that bike. He got it, too.”
“You still fr… uh, do you know him to talk to now?”
“Know him? Sonofabitch paved the parking lot.”
“You hired him?”
“I didn’t have a choice, he made a deal with my boss.”
“Got it. I heard he served in the Corps during the war.”
“You hear a lot of stories about Jimmie. Half of them might be true. He claims FDR invited him onto his yacht at the Navy Yard for breakfast one morning when he delivered him a paper.”
“You believe it?”
“I believe he knows where the Navy Yard is. I believe he used to deliver newspapers.”
“I believe he eats breakfast.”
“I get the picture.”
“I believe he saw a picture of FDR once.”
“You don’t think he was a Marine?”
“Sure, poor kid from the block? Everybody served.”
“Supply sergeant, is what I heard.”
“Yeah, yeah I could see that. Look, I don’t know anything about his service. I’d bet he ran a side hustle though.”
“Right. He’d have access to all sorts of stuff. Uniforms, gear. Weapons. The military is worse at tracking that stuff than you’d think.”
“Bet he brought some things in, too.”
“Cogbill, you were in the army, right?”
“Any of the guys in Europe ever smoke a joint?”
“Yeah, of course.”
He made a face.
“Yeah, I get it. Stevie, reefer’s cheap to produce, moves cheap too. It’s easy money but it’s probably not a path to riches or anything.”
“You’re not thinking like Jimmie, Cogbill. You know what’s better than money? It’s when the guys trust you because you get them what they want. And then—”
“And then you can groom them for…what?”
“Maybe he dealt in a little more than old combat boots and trench tools.”
“Don’t tell me any Nazi gold stories, Stevie. Guy had Nazi gold he wouldn’t be paving roads.”
“Sure he would. Hot-mix asphalt? Lots of creative uses for the kind of friends Jimmie’s got.”
I thought of Nestor Lazos and shivered. Ethel had a grip on my knee so tight I might never walk again.
“Ever heard of a guy named Nestor Lazos?”
Stevie looked at me for a long moment, then picked up his trash can and dumped it out on his desk.
“Now if this damn calculator still works maybe I can figure out what the hell happened here last night.”
“Math was never my thing, you know how it goes. You hire guys to handle it, they get lazy, you get burned. If anyone ever tries to make you a manager of anything, Cogbill, tell them where they can stick it.”
I was looking hard at Stevie but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Come on, Stevie.”
Without looking up he said, “if you’ve got Lazos coming at you I can’t do nothing. Get on a plane to Honolulu. Or better yet Mars. I heard his mother gave him a puppy for his birthday when he was six.”
“Trust me. You don’t want to know.”
Ethel’s hand was still on my knee and the other one was on my arm and although she did not do any permanent damage, for a while I wasn’t sure. She was a strong girl.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, Hieronymus, I’ve got a lot of work to do here.”
“Have you considered burning the place down and absconding with the insurance money?”
“Way ahead of you.”
As Ethel and I slipped out the back door to the side lot where we’d left the Ford, she said, “he won’t really do that, will he?”
“Stevie? Not a chance. Probably.”
Ethel was quiet as we drove out of Waldorf. Finally, somewhere around White Plains, she said,
“Are you sorry you decided to come find me that day?”
“Why would I be?”
“Well, everything I got you into. The mob and maybe smugglers and who knows what.”
“Ethel my life is better with you in it. Everything else is incidental.”
“Are you sure?”
“Ethel Marie why wouldn’t I be sure?”
She looked distracted, staring out the glass at the landscape of southern Maryland. Somehow I doubted she was really seeing any of it.
“You used to work for that man?”
“Balaban? Yeah. For a few months anyway. Didn’t last long.”
“You didn’t know that he knew Vasiliou before we walked in there?”
“No, not really. Call it more of an instinct.”
Ethel was quiet again.
“Is Stevie in the mob?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe. He knows guys. You know how it is. Business like that, a casino, night club… attracts a certain kind of attention.”
She picked at some lint on her sweater, and watched the trees go by.
“You’ve made some weird choices in your life, Harry Cogbill.”
“Yeah. Reckon I have. What’s with the third degree, Ethel?”
“Did you ever think you’re determined to punish yourself for something you did?”
“What kind of man do you think I am?”
“I know what kind of man you are, Harry Cogbill, or I wouldn’t have gone to bed with you. The question is what kind of man do you think you are?”
I didn’t say anything for a while as La Plata slipped by around us.
“I just don’t want to be part of your penance,” she said.
I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Ethel patted my thigh and leaned against me and although I could feel her warmth and smell the strawberries in her hair I had never felt more alone.
That night I took her to Colonial Beach to see Patsy Cline perform at Reno Pier. I thought a date night might do us both some good, or so I told myself. In reality I suspect I was trying to forget about the way Ethel had ripped open my fusebox and pulled out a bunch of wiring. It was one of her particular talents and I do not deny that I loved her for it, although at times a kick in the pants would have been more comfortable. There was also the matter of money; I was running low on it and since Ethel was no longer living with her father, at least for the time being, she was also cut off from her allowance. When I brought this up, rather delicately I thought, Ethel only said “the Lord will provide, Cogbill,” and that was the end of it. I chose not to list our sins, but I don’t believe either of us were oblivious to them.
So we drove out to the Beach, which was more or less due East, in Westmoreland County. We took 205 to Edgehill, went around the traffic circle and resumed 205 heading east, past Baker House on the right and past Carruther’s Corner, Alden and Ninde, and Tetotum Road, until we crossed Goldman Creek and the view opened up to the left, looking out across the Potomac, the Morgantown Bridge visible on the horizon beyond a little restaurant called Wilkerson’s with a boat dock in back and a gravel lot just off the road. The road continued more or less East for a few miles, and then forked at an area known as Beach Gate, either staying on 205 and looping off to the right around a large Texaco station with a hipped tin roof, and off to Monroe Hall and Oak Grove beyond, or, as we did now, making a hard left onto Colonial Avenue, and into the little town.
We went straight back a few blocks, past some other filling stations, rental bungalows and a barber shop, the Potomac River black and shiny directly ahead of us beyond the boardwalk, under the light of the moon. On the left were a Masonic Lodge and Westmoreland Sundries, the latter a two-story clapboard building with a corner door and a double gallery. We turned right just before Westmoreland Sundries, onto Washington Ave. There was an Amoco on the left corner, a railroad-style diner on the right. On a rise behind the Amoco to our left was the very large, pale yellow structure of the Colonial Beach Hotel. The middle portion of the Hotel was an old mansion that had once been the summer estate of Light Horse Harry Lee, who had been the master of Stratford Hall further down the river. There was a pool and an amusement park beside the hotel, with a scaled-down train called the “Little Reno Special” that ran all around the park and through a tunnel by the pool. We turned left off Washington Ave and headed straight back, toward the huge parking lot for Reno, a 24-hour club and casino perched on stilts out above the river.
It was sometime around 1949 when Delbert Conner brought gambling to the Beach. Gambling was legal in Maryland and the Maryland state line was on the Virginia side of the Potomac, so he built his business out over the river and loaded it down with slots, and a Roulette table. The pier, dubbed Reno, was the size of a football field. In less than a decade he had transformed Colonial Beach from a sleepy old steamboat destination, and the quiet summer home of Alexander Graham Bell, into a shimmering, thriving vacation destination – and transformed himself from the cash-poor owner of the Ambassador Hotel to a multi-millionaire whose establishment regularly hosted celebrity musicians. He’d had two grand pianos installed just for Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. Conner flew his guests in from DC on his Champaigne Cruiser, a pink Boeing 247, to Reno Skypark out on 205 near Monroe Hall, and then ferried them from the little country airport up the road to the Beach in his pink Limousine. Visitors came to the Beach by boat, where many businesses had private docks and where it was possible to stroll up and down the boardwalk, shaded by willow trees, and enjoy sno cones and soft drinks and swim on public beaches encircled by jellyfish nets.
But in 1958, the State of Virginia had had enough. Colonial Beach was seen as a den of sin, and the technically-legal workaround to allow gambling on Virginia’s shores had become an intolerable blight in the eyes of preachers and politicians across the Old Dominion. So the governor of our fair state, Mr. Thomas A. Stanley, caved to political pressure and applied a little pressure of his own to Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin, and the state of Maryland banned gambling on the piers. So this early autumn evening in 1959, as the Beach was winding down for the season, we found the little resort town in the early stages of a major identity crisis. We parked in the huge lot near the Reno Amusement Park, all light and sound, roller coasters, ferris wheel, and merry-go-round, and watched the “Little Reno Special” go chugging by, the driver in his shirtsleeves with his black hair slicked down, his upper body sticking out of the top of a locomotive the size of a bobsled.
We crossed the lot and the concrete pad of the boardwalk, and up the gently sloping planks to the white façade of Little Reno, the name emblazoned in red above the entrance. Inside there was drinking and dancing, but no longer any gambling. I paid the cover charge and winced as more of my money went away. We ordered drinks at the horseshoe bar on the left. There were empty platforms off to the right, sort of the middle of the room, where the slots used to be, and pinball machines across the front of the room under the plate glass windows. If you could sense, back in King George, that change was coming, out here in Colonial Beach you didn’t need to sense it at all. It was all around you, and although the gambling had only been gone since the previous year, the signs were starting to show all across the colorful little town that hard times were ahead. There was a sudden burst of hearty laughter and I saw Conner himself sitting down the bar, a large man in a finely-tailored suit, with dark hair and a healthy red color in his face, sharing a laugh with a few other local businessmen. Maybe they thought they could hang on. Maybe they knew they couldn’t, and there was nothing left to do but laugh.
Ethel and I took our drinks and headed to the big room in the back, to the music hall and the stage where stars like Guy Lombardo and Jimmy Dean had been known to perform. I sensed this was the last time Patsy would be here as well. Without gambling, revenue was down and was likely to keep going down, and Cline’s star was on the rise. Her career didn’t span more than half a dozen years, and in ’59 she hadn’t yet reached the heights of fame that she would soon achieve. I believe she and her husband Charlie Dick had just moved their family to Nashville, and soon she was to leave Four Star and be signed by Decca Records, but all of that was in the future, and though she’d appeared on the Opry and had been touring since arriving on the scene in ‘57 she had still only ever had one hit. That was “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
Patsy took the stage in a befringed cowgirl outfit, all boots and tassels and a wide-brimmed hat on a drawstring, red scarf knotted at her throat. There were a mix of styles, and not all of them really showcased her vocal talent, which may have been the reason none of them had charted. She did “I’ve Loved and Lost Again,” and “Come On In,” and the rockabilly number “Gotta Lot of Rhythm in My Soul.” She sang the hell out of all of them, and when I looked at Ethel she was smiling and nodding her head and she took my hands and we danced to a few songs, feeling free and clear and far from all the drama of the last few days.
Patsy thanked us all for coming out and thanked Mr. Conner for hosting her and her band, and introduced the next number as a pop song a few of us probably knew, and then the piano tinkled out the opening notes of “Walkin’ After Midnight” and regardless of her feelings about the song, she belted it out with the authority of an angel of the Lord. She had thick, dark hair and strong features, and a mouth that sort of pouted even when she smiled. When she sang she arched her left eyebrow a little and her eyes smoldered the way her voice did on her most powerful vocals, and after a particular line here and there she’d nod succinctly as if to let you know she thought she’d nailed it. I don’t believe anyone would have disagreed. Ethel and I held on to each other and in a jangly mix of piano and steel guitars, and the heights and power of Patsy’s voice, it seemed our troubles had gone away. This was only a pretense, though, and the illusion was soon to break, and I would feel foolish to have believed that we could take a night to ourselves and not expect the harsh realities of the world we had stumbled into to visit their evil upon us.
It happened during “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray.” A voice in my ear said, “this do beat a barn dance, don’t it?”
The speaker’s mouth was against my ear, and I could feel the warmth of his breath in my ear canal. It was like a forced intimacy, a kind of violation of my person, and when I turned my head I found myself looking directly into the face of Nestor Lazos.
For the first time, I noticed that the proportions of his face were all wrong. His eyes were too close together and his jaw was too long, his lips a couple of sausages fattening in a skillet. His ears were jug handles below the porkpie hat. The eyes were green and hooded, set way back in his skull, and although his mouth was grinning his eyes were flat and cold, reptilian, as though they carried an ancestral memory of violence and death as arcane and elemental as the primordial ooze from which he’d crawled.
“What’s shaking, Nestor?”
“Hey, you learned my name. All right. Bet you think that makes us even.”
“Not intellectually,” I said. There was a voice in my head telling me not to torque him, but I couldn’t quite hear it over all the klaxons. I believe the klaxons were also in my head. I’m not sure what that says about me. “You could have brought five more and you wouldn’t be equal to a plate of steamed crabs. They’re also bottom-feeders. That means they eat ocean garbage. I’ll let you work that one out.”
My voice sounded distant and tinny, as though it belonged to someone else and had been broadcast through a short-wave radio in the back of my skull.
“I didn’t see your car outside, Mr. Cogbill. You get a new heap?”
His grin widened to a toothsome smile, too broad for his face.
“What do you want, Nestor?”
“Mister Vasiliou has a proposition for you.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Well you haven’t heard it yet.”
“I’m not interested.”
Ethel tugging on my arm.
“Cogbill let’s go.”
“Your girlfriend will want to hear this too.”
“I don’t believe I care to.”
“You heard her, Nestor. Take off.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t want anything to happen to her uncle.”
That did it. Ethel still had my arm in a death grip, but she leaned across in front of me to look Nestor in the eye.
“What did you say?”
“See, Mr. Cogbill? I told you she was interested. You just got to know what a lady wants to hear.”
“Come out with it, Nestor.”
“We been very gentle so far in how we dealt wit’ you, that’s on account of Jack Pope. Your lady’s uncle. He insists he won’t work for Mr. Vasiliou if anything happens to his niece. Mr. Vasiliou and Mr. Drakos has what you call a counter offer. You back off their jocks and nothing happens to Jack. Nice and easy, right? You two can go on screwing and asking God to forgive you on Sunday morning, nobody cares. Well, ‘cept Frank I guess.”
“You take my daddy’s name out of your mouth!”
“Come to think of it, I don’t believe Jack indicated he gave a shit about Frank one way or the other. Anyway, consider the offer. Enjoy the show.”
He winked at Ethel and stalked back into the crowd.
I looked at Ethel and tried to speak. I wet my lips and she stared at me with wide blue eyes, still clutching my arm.
“I guess we should go,” I said.
“And let that creep ruin our night? He was vulgar and rude and will be until the day they put him in the ground. Don’t go making it your fault, either.”
“I should have decked him.”
“Why, so he could kill you? Stop blaming yourself for everything. I asked for your help on this.”
“Don’t make it your fault either, Ethel.”
“What makes you think I am? Uncle Jack is working with those creeps. Probably they killed Grandpa Jim. And Nestor’s momma and daddy made Nestor, so that one’s on them. There’s plenty of blame to go ‘round, Cogbill.”
How could I argue with that?