He remembered what Atwar was like before the kudzu took over. He remembered the day he’d first noticed those fledgling vines creeping up the telephone poles on Highway 17. It was that morning at Gran’s, when, as a child, he started seeing the world with a new, forced perspective. Now the vines were everywhere, swarming the ground, the trailers, the telephone poles and trees, sucking nutrients from the soil, suffocating vegetation. The creepers exhaled ozone, destroyed the town’s air quality, killed the townspeople with their meandering precision. It probably explained his entirety, why he did what he did to others, why others did what they did to him. He sneered and checked the clip in Gramp’s WWII Colt 1911, then chambered the round that would spill Harlen Keele’s blood all over those damn vines.
Those thirsty, creeping, goddamn vines.
Chapter 1: Atwar, Alabama
Dressed from head to toe in black tactical gear, Cole Greysen trod a well-rehearsed path through thick reams of knee-high kudzu. Stars filled a cloudless sky above a canopy of white pine and oak, and lights in the back of Brewer’s Grocery sparkled as bright green apparitions in his night-vision goggles. He rested a leather-gloved hand on the trunk of a box elder, looked back. A second set of footfalls? No, no way. He set his focus on the store, where a pair of floodlights lit up the cinder block wall. Stacks of empty wooden pallets piled against the brick. A dormant furnace sat rusted, falling apart, filled with ash.
The kudzu spat Cole out. He sprang from the woods and ran across a small clearing but didn’t stop fast enough; his shoulder slammed into the wall. He rubbed away the pain, felt woozy, lightheaded. His head swam like he was in a dream. He heard the footfalls again and looked back. No one’s there, dammit! Keep moving!
He crouched near the single door set in the field of brick, then unzipped a pocket on his tactical outfit and removed a key. He’d oiled the hinges the day before, and he slipped silently into the back warehouse, where he encountered a green haze of boxes, pallets, and jacks. The dry air smelled of corrugated cardboard and pine-scented cleaner.
Two swinging metal doors led to the store’s interior. He pushed the goggles onto his forehead and swung one door open, taking a minute to let his eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights. He pulled down his ski mask, then crept through the produce section on black sneakers that muted his footsteps, passed through the bakery, through the smell of packaged bread. A clatter sounded from the back of the store. Who else is here? No one! Go! He crouched behind a greeting card display and watched. My last fix, was it this morning? This tar felt different, cut with something, a familiar drug he couldn’t place. It had him imagining things. He waited, unsure, until the voice commanded him to get up and finish the job!
He stepped onto a foot-high wood-planked dais, then peeked through a low window set in the office door. Ned mopped with his head down as classic rock played at a low volume on a tinny radio inside. Wall shelves held organized paperwork and customer returns, and wood paneling installed in the fifties matched the two ancient pine desks. Terry Brewer spun the tumbler of a floor safe in the very back, locking in the day’s profits with a jangling set of keys.
Cole had also oiled the office door hinges and let himself in. He crab-walked behind Ned to the nearest desk and eased open the top drawer, reached his gloved hand in, and took hold of Terry’s pistol. He stood in time with Terry and pointed the black gun at him as he jingled his keys into his pocket and held out a white envelope.
“Ned, you did a great job today. I have your pay read—”
Terry’s back hit the paneled wall when he saw Cole. Ned gripped the mop handle and turned to look over his shoulder, following his boss’ terrified glare. Cole thumbed open a small glass vial and blew a white powder into Ned’s face—the deliriant scopolamine, a controversial drug the CIA had been using for years. Ned sneezed, dropped the mop, and turtled his head into his shoulders.
Cole capped and stashed the vial, then lurched behind Ned and faced him forward. He put his arms around the boy, clasping Ned’s hands around the butt of the gun. This doesn’t feel right. What am I doing here? You’re here to finish the job. Now do it. Cole was in the dream again—had a dose of the scopolamine made it into his system? Was that the familiar drug he couldn’t place? He guided Ned’s two middle fingers onto the gun’s short handle and rested his pointer finger on Ned’s, millimeters from the trigger. Ned showed signs of the drug hitting his system; he became suggestible, like slack putty in Cole’s hands.
Terry’s eyes darted to the desk in front of him, and Cole watched him calculate the movements he’d need to make to alert the police: thrusting himself away from the wall, pushing the heavy rolling chair aside, ducking so he could find the panic button under the desk, the button he’d never had cause to use. Instead, he did what Cole knew he’d do—he cowered.
“What do you want? The money? Take it!”
Terry fumbled the safe keys from his chinos. Cole squeezed Ned’s finger and the room thundered to life. The bullet pierced the center of Terry’s forehead and ejected a splash of blood, skull, brain matter, and hair against the back wall before he dropped to the ground.
Still holding Ned’s hands on the gun, Cole walked him around the desk and then unloaded four more bullets into Terry’s chest. Blood sprinkled up onto Ned’s face and clothing as shell casings ejected from the gun and clinked on the floor. Cole lowered Ned’s hands and set the smoking black pistol on the desk, and a pungent whiff of the gun smoke made him cough. Ned closed his eyes and moaned no no no as Cole maneuvered around the blood on the floor to collect the casings. Finished, he grasped the sides of the boy’s head.
“Ned, open your eyes.”
Ned did so.
“I need you to do a few more things, then I’ll be gone, OK?”
“Go and close the desk drawer.” Ned walked, zombie-like, around to the other desk and did as he’d been asked. “Come reach into Terry’s pocket. Get his keys.” Blood pooled around the back of Terry’s head and soaked into the cracks of the hardwood floor around the safe. Ned had the keys. “Open the safe door. Use the key with the green ring around it. No, that one.” Ned found the right key and unlatched the door, then Cole took Ned’s hand in his and guided his fingers onto the combination lock, using the boy’s hand to open the safe.
“See those bundles of money? They’re yours. The white envelope, that’s yours.” Ned picked up the wads of cash and the stained envelope resting in the blood pool. “Imagine what you can do with that money, what your mom can do with that money. But you can only keep it if you tell the police you did this. Say you knew Terry was beating his wife. That he deserved it. They won’t arrest someone like you.”
Ned nodded again, then stared wide-eyed at the body. A trickle of blood oozed from the gruesome wound in the forehead, and the legs were splayed underneath the torso at an unnatural angle. Cole’s mind spun at what he’d wrought as he stared into Terry’s lifeless eyes.
Why did you make me do this? I didn’t make you do anything. This isn’t right. No, you did this. Now you need to stay quiet. Lay low. You’re good at that. You’ll be safe as long as the boy doesn’t talk. And if he does, well, you know what to do.
Cole thought he heard scuffling movement out in the store. He listened, but the store was silent save for the ringing in his ears and the tinny sound of Zeppelin. Before Ned looked back up, Cole ran out of the office and out the back door, letting the kudzu-laden forest suck him back in.