by STEVEN FINKELSTEIN
he Ford was a newer model in red that ran toward russet, the lower third spattered with mud. Both doors opened and two men got out, looking like they’d probably be right at home in the woods. The driver was a living advertisement from an outdoorsman’s magazine, well over six feet tall, with a curly black beard and bushy black eyebrows to match. He wore tan hiking boots, green and beige camo pants, and a flak jacket over a hunter-green wife-beater. On his left bicep was inked a skull wearing the hat of a Green Beret. A dagger was stabbing up through the skull from beneath, the tip protruding from the top of the hat. The passenger was smaller of stature but no less intimidating. He was similarly attired, boots, khaki pants, a forest green v-neck tee-shirt. His head was shaved clean, and a pair of Ray Bans hung around his neck. Though not very tall, he looked lean and hard, and he had the unmistakable carriage of a man of action. Both of them had it. The smaller one made note of the landscape as the larger came around the back of the vehicle. Away off somewhere the bullfrog sounded again, and a squirrel scolded him in reply. “You sure this is the spot?” the smaller man said.
“I followed the directions. These are the coordinates. This is the place.” They stood, not saying anything more, until the larger man touched the elbow of the smaller and gestured up ahead of them, toward where a third arrival was winding her way toward them, stepping softly over the pine needles. She saw they’d noticed her, and smiled.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” she said.
“Howdy,” said the bigger man. He and the other exchanged a look. “Hey, maybe we’re not in the right spot after all. We were looking for…that is, we were supposed to meet…”
“Some rich guy named Marty Northover? That’s me. The Marty is actually short for Martina.”
Now the two men were exchanging grins. “Shit-fire,” said the big man, chuckling. “If that don’t…I’m sorry, miss. No offense meant.”
“None taken. Honest mistake. So now that we’ve got that little misunderstanding behind us, how about we all introduce ourselves properly, and we’ll go from there.”
“Of course.” The larger man extended a hand, and Marty shook it firmly. “Stew Avery III and this is my partner, Kyle Boseman. You’ll have to excuse the, uh, it’s just that this is the first time, I believe, that we’ve ever…”
“Been hired by a woman?” Marty was still smiling, but the expression had gotten a bit tighter. “Well, that’s an interesting tidbit, gentlemen, but I really don’t see how it has much bearing on the situation. First time for everything, as they say. I’m ready to quit chatting about what I’ve got between my legs and get down to business if the two of you are.”
Boseman was looking her up and down in a casual way. “Guess I’ll give it a shot,” he said. “But I can’t make no promises.”
Martina Northover was a couple of inches shorter than Boseman, well proportioned, not bad looking, probably in her late thirties, with bright orange hair tied back in a loose ponytail. She wore comfortable fit jeans, a charcoal colored tee-shirt, and New Balance running shoes. Two flash drives were hung around her neck on nylon cords. A bulky diver’s watch was on her left wrist. Both of the men were checking her out, but Avery was doing it surreptitiously, Boseman not so much. What Avery was thinking was, the broad gave off the impression of upper management on some sort of business retreat. A day trip to somewhere rustic, and then they’d do trust falls and the zip line. Maybe paintball, get a chance to work out some of that aggression intrinsic to the office culture. She walked confidently like she knew where she was going. “Gentlemen,” she said. “I’m not going to mince words. You come highly recommended, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time questioning you on your bona fides. Colonel Kaam gave me your contact info, I reached out, here you are.”
Behind her back, the two men exchanged another look. “The Colonel put you in touch with me?” said Avery.
She nodded. “He and my father are friends. My dad did some work for the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. They still play golf together sometimes.”
“Okay, gravy,” Avery said. “So what are we doing in the Bluegrass State?”
“Well,” Marty said. “I’m going to explain it to you just as simply as I know how. I need you to muscle some people off their land.” She glanced to either side of her to see what reaction that got. When none was immediately apparent, she went on. “My company wants to buy the property for the mineral rights, and the stubborn assholes won’t budge. It’s a pretty old story, we offered them a pile of money, they’ve got their heels dug in, we’re more or less at an impasse. I have to be honest with you, I have virtually no sympathy for these people. They have no real reason for wanting to stay here, other than the fact that the land has belonged to the family for the past hundred and eighty years, or something. The matriarch gave me this whole long-winded diatribe about it…she would have gone on quacking all night, if I had let her. Hideous woman, really. Gave me the willies, being around her. Look, for the amount of money my company is offering, they could all pull up roots and move to Miami Beach, so the old lady could run out the clock in style. Hell, they could set themselves up in a penthouse on Park Avenue if they wanted, so long as the tenant board didn’t have a requirement on the number of teeth for new residents. Frankly, I don’t care where it is they go, so long as they leave.”
There was silence, as the two men appeared to be mulling it over. “How many of them are there, and how big is the property?” Avery said.
“The property is a little less than a section, to use the agricultural term. Something like six hundred acres. It’s bordered on the west by the Tennessee River. As for how many of them there are, I know of at least three, the old lady and her two adult grandsons. Near as I can tell, she’s an invalid, and they take care of her. She’s getting a modest pension, enough to pay the property taxes, not much more than that. I don’t know that the grandsons work, at least not in the conventional sense. Look, the people around here…” She stopped, and the two men halted accordingly. “Suffice to say, the types you get out here, they’re not exactly cosmopolitan. Few of them graduate high school, they live off the land, mostly, shoot deer and squirrels, fish the rivers, cook up meth and moonshine. Some of them don’t leave the same few mile radius for their entire lives. They’re distrustful of government, outsiders, anyone who uses words of more than two syllables, or bathes regularly. Real salts of the earth, just the sort that made this country great. Unfortunately, this particular trio of patriots is standing smack-dab in the way of progress. So here we are.”
“What is it you think we could do,” Boseman said, “that you weren’t able to?”
“Convince them,” Marty said. She looked from one to the other. “I’ve heard that you, for one, Mr. Avery, can be very persuasive. Mr. Boseman, your name wasn’t mentioned to me previously, but if your partner will vouch for you…”
“I will,” said Avery.
“Then there you have it. Gentlemen…we tried the carrot. What comes next? The stick.”
Boseman was smirking. “That’s just what I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” he said. “To be called “the stick” by some woman.”
She looked at him. “Listen,” she said. “Do we have some sort of problem here?”
“No,” Avery put in. “No, we do not. Isn’t that right, Kyle?”
“Well,” Boseman said. “All I want to know is a little bit more about the particulars of this job. Just what is it you’re asking us to do here, little lady? Sneak up on these folks in the dead of night, ice them all, and bury them out in the woods where no one will ever find them?”
“No!” Marty held her hands up. “No, no, no, no, no! I never said that. Let’s be clear. I never said anything like that. Part of what we’re paying for, what my company is paying for, is to know as little about the methods you use as we can. Plausible deniability, you understand? The idea is, you study the situation, then you decide the best strategy to be implemented. I don’t know, maybe all that will be required is for you to go in and have a conversation with them, present it from a fresh perspective, show the old woman a side of it she hasn’t thought of. You do it however you want to do it. Just don’t…tell us about it. Do you think you can handle that?”
Boseman shrugged. “We come all this way,” he said. “Least we could do is look the place over.”
“Very well, then,” Marty said. “Follow me.” She took one more look at Boseman, and the trio proceeded once more, the smaller man now donning his Ray Bans as they were heading directly into the late afternoon sun.
“That sounds like a bit of a New England accent you’ve got there,” Avery said.
“Yeah, I guess I’ve still got it a little,” Marty said. “I grew up mostly in Springfield, Massachusetts. We used to vacation on Cape Cod. You don’t sound much like you’re from that part of the country, Mr. Avery.”
Avery laughed. “Heck no. I grew up in and around Houston. I still got family there.” The ground had started sloping gradually downhill. The pines were giving way to pin oaks and red buckeyes. The lower branches of the oaks hung down, and some of the leaves were just starting to take on a reddish tinge. It was not quite as hot, here in the shade. Now that they had left the road and the truck behind, there was nothing of any kind suggesting civilization. The three traveled on in silence for a time, until the ground leveled out again and they came to a fence, of sorts, made of rusted barbed wire, several strands tightly coiled around the trunks of some of the larger oaks. It ran off more or less in a straight line, north to south.
“Gentlemen,” Marty said, “this is the border of the Dennison family property. If you look through that gap in the bushes, there, you can just make out the house, dead ahead. It’s the thing surrounded by junked car parts.”
Boseman and Avery stepped up to the fence. Through the foliage, some of which looked like poison ivy, a square shape could be seen, surrounded by other vague suggestions of objects less easy to identify. A building of some kind it certainly was, but at this distance, probably somewhere between an eighth and a quarter of a mile, it was hard to make out any details at all. There were trees and bushes in the way, and even where there weren’t either of those, there was thick yellowish grass grown to a truly remarkable height. The two soldiers-of-fortune had a good, long look, while Marty stood a few paces behind. “Ought to have brought the binocs,” Avery said. Boseman nodded. “Any kind of a driveway going up to the house?”
Marty shook her head. “Nothing like that. There’s a path, pretty narrow, that snakes through the grass. It starts at the gate, a few hundred yards south of here along the fence line. I followed it up to the house when I spoke to the old lady. I don’t think they have a working vehicle. Nothing’s registered to any of them, and those rust buckets don’t look like they’ve run in ages.”
“Anything else noteworthy about the place? Any vicious dogs? Alarm systems?”
“Not that I noticed. I highly doubt the place is wired up with Brinks home security if that’s the kind of thing you’re thinking of. The house is just completely dilapidated, really. It’s a wonder it’s still standing. About the only thing I might be worried about is if one of the grandsons has a shotgun or something. You know these back-woods types, they’re usually gun nuts.”
“Any other buildings, apart from the house?”
“I think I glimpsed a barn, somewhere out back. Looked in equally bad shape.”
Avery nodded slowly. “Anything else you can think of now?” he asked Boseman. The other man shook his head. “Okay,” he said. “Me and my partner are going to step over to the side here and have a conversation. Wanna give us a minute?”
“Of course,” said Marty. “Take as long as you need.”
They walked off a few paces through the trees. The sun, a shimmering, fiery orb, was turning the leaves of the oaks a burnished gold. After a time, the two men approached again. It was Boseman who spoke. “Well,” he said, “it looks like we’re leaning toward taking the job. If the price is right.”
“I’m pleased to hear it,” Marty said. “What is the price?”
“One hundred thousand,” Boseman said.
Marty’s face fell. “One hundred…”
“Two hundred thousand dollars?! For this? For running a few inbred hillbillies off their land?”
Boseman smiled thinly. “Did I stutter?”
Marty looked past him, to where Avery stood stone-faced, his arms folded across his chest. “You’re both in agreement, this is the price you’re quoting me?”
“If that’s the price my partner gave you,” Avery said, “then yes, we’re in agreement about it.”
Marty shook her head. “For a fraction of that…we could hire a dozen guys…”
“Sure, you could do that,” Boseman said. “Probably you could go to the local tavern around here and hire every swingin’ dick in the place for a five-spot. And then you’d get a fistful of hotheads liable to charge the property whoopin’ like wild injuns, and what’s that going to get you? You want quality, on the other hand, you got to pay top dollar. Like for instance, if you wanted an ex-Green Beret and an ex-Army Ranger, two battle-hardened veterans, sniper training, wilderness survival skills, armed and unarmed combat, explosives, counterterrorism, capable of killing a man six times over before he even hits the ground…well, for that, you’d have to pay two hundred thousand dollars, and say thank you for the privilege.”
“Don’t forget about diplomatic skills,” Avery said.
“He’s got those,” Boseman said. “I don’t.”
Marty’s mouth was hanging slightly open. Now she closed it. “I’m not able to authorize an amount like that,” she said. “I would need to get permission…”
“Then get it,” Boseman said. “Or don’t, and stop wasting our time. One or the other.”
“I’ll have to walk back the way we came,” Marty said. “And see if I can get cell phone reception.” She did that, leaving the two men waiting by the fence.
“There was no call to be that hard on her,” Avery said. “You want to blow this deal?”
“I ain’t gonna blow it,” Boseman said. “They need us, it sounds like. I just wanted to give her a little taste of that carrot-and-stick treatment she seems to be so fond of.”
Marty came back about twenty minutes later, pressing her lips together. “It appears you have a deal,” she said. “I suppose you’ll want the money up front, or part of it?”
Avery shook his head. “We’ll collect when the job is done. Every penny. That’s always been our policy.”
“And when will it be done, exactly? My employers are trying to meet a timetable.”
“Sometime over the next few days. Can’t tell you more specifically than that. We’ll want to do a little surveillance, get a better grasp of the layout, see what the normal routine is. Then figure out what strategy we think makes the most sense.” She nodded curtly, and the three proceeded back in the direction of the F-150. When they reached it, she shook both their hands but didn’t look happy about it. “We’ll be in touch,” Avery said. “Can we give you a lift somewhere, in the meantime?”
“If you wouldn’t find it too objectionable,” Boseman said, “hitchin’ a ride with the likes of us?”
“Maybe you want to tell me,” Marty said, “what it was I did that pissed you off so badly?”
Boseman was looking back in the direction of the Dennison property. The sun would be setting soon, and all the birds and insects were talking it over. “Sure, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It so happens I grew up in Greenbrier, Arkansas, which I’m sure you’ve never heard of, because nothing noteworthy ever happened there, that I’m aware of. It’s another little nothing of a town, and if I was to take a guess, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the people around here are probably quite a bit like the folks around there, my family included. Folks like the ones you referred to as “inbred hillbillies,” if I’m not mistaken. Now these folks here, like the ones back home, they likely to fall under the wide umbrella of white trash? Sure, I expect so. But does that mean you’re justified in feeling superior to them? Not in my book, it don’t. You’re quick to say they’re standing in the way of progress, and it baffles you that money doesn’t seem to be the most important thing in the world to them. Well, why should it? Might it be that tradition and one’s roots are more important to them than a quick payout?” He was smirking again. “And then you’re disingenuous, on top of that. You with your “we don’t care how you root ‘em out, just so long as they’re gone.” Suggesting that maybe we can sweet talk ‘em, if a suitcase full of money couldn’t do it. Please. Like you don’t know what methods we’re going to use. We’re guns for hire, not Jehovah’s Witnesses. We don’t do a whole lot of talking to people.”
“I see,” Marty said. “So if all that is true, and you find the job so unpalatable, why did you agree to do it?”
“Why? Two hundred thousand dollars, that’s why. See, I might not like the job, but I’ll still do it. I can separate emotion from business. This won’t be the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The one thing that I won’t do is pretend that I like it. Or you.”
“Fine,” the woman said. “I appreciate your candor, I suppose.”
“Were you still interested in that ride?” Avery said.
She shook her head. “I think I’ll walk back if it’s all the same to you.” She made her way off down the side of the trail, leaving the two men standing by the vehicle.
“Fuck that bitch,” Boseman said, after a moment.
Avery just shook his head. “If there’s a hard way and an easy way,” he said, “you’ll take the hard way each and every time, won’t you?”
Boseman shrugged. “Maybe,” he said. “You call it the hard way. I call it having a little fun.”
They came back the next day. The weather was the same, hot and muggy. They’d brought binoculars, and they were both dressed in fatigues, colors that blended well with the late summer foliage. They began to walk the perimeter of the property, easily identifiable by the barbed wire fence. There was no need for them to be particularly stealthy. There was plenty of cover, ample trees and bushes on each side of the dividing line. Where they had an opportunity, they used the binoculars. Nothing seemed to be stirring, in or around the house. Seen through magnification, it seemed to be the typical sort of run-down rural residence to be found anywhere in Appalachia, made of rough-hewn logs, not overly large, a covered front porch on which a couple of chairs and what looked like car parts were sitting. Other trash festooned the immediate area in front of the house and on either side of it, broken bottles, what looked like a refrigerator lying on its side, and what could have been an outboard motor. The cars that were visible, at least three of them, one up on cinder blocks, not only looked like they wouldn’t have run, they also looked like they’d had no work done on them in a very long time. Weeds grew up, in and around the frames. The windows of the house were too dirty to see inside. “It’s a fixer-upper,” Avery said.
They came to a spot where the fence ended, the strands of barbed wire wrapped around two stout wooden posts stuck in the ground, at a distance of about five feet from one another. A heavy iron gate was set between them, flecked red with rust. There was a sliding bolt lock on the inner side, but it was in easy reaching distance. “Top of the line security, as advertised,” said Avery.
Boseman nodded. “Look at this place. These people don’t have anything worth protecting. But there’s no reason to think they’re not armed, like the woman said.” On the other side of the fence, directly ahead of them, was the house, barely visible behind a slight rise.
They circumnavigated the property, moving south, then west, in kind of a lazy square. To the west, not a part of the property but beyond it, foothills eventually grew to an elevation that was nearly mountainous, but the barbed wire ran along the flat ground, marking the edge of the Dennison property before the grade started rising. By the time they started moving north again, they were well out of sight of the house, or any other building. The woods were thicker here and eventually, brambles made the going nearly impossible. Ahead of them, they could hear running water, and smell it, too, a clean, refreshing scent. “That would be the river,” Avery said. Boseman nodded, and the two went back the way they’d come. A half hour later saw them back at the truck, enjoying sandwiches and a couple of beers from a cooler they’d retrieved from the flatbed. “What do you think?” Avery said.
Boseman chewed, swallowed. “Place looks deserted,” he said. “But I have no doubt that they’re in there.”
“What would you say to one more day of recon?”
“Couldn’t hurt. What I’d like to do is make a tree blind, just something simple, and sit for a few hours at elevation with eyes on the house. I’m reluctant to move in without at least catching sight of the occupants one time.”
“Which next brings up the question,” Avery said, “of how exactly we go about earning our money.”
“The way I see it,” Boseman said, “there’s three ways to go about this. In order of severity, they are: threaten them, hurt them, or kill them.”
“I guess that’s about the shape of it.”
“In my mind, I see us going about it in that order. Threaten them, and let them know under no uncertain conditions what will happen to them if they don’t agree to vacate. If they’re still being stubborn, smack them around. I can’t imagine it would be necessary to pop them. Not when they see how serious we are.”
“You can’t help but think,” Avery said, “that they’re going to know who hired us.”
“Sure they will, if they’re not completely brain-dead. But there’s no way for them to ever prove it.”
“And I guess that’s not really our problem anyway.”
“Okay.” Avery crumpled up the cellophane from his sandwich. “I think we’re in agreement. We try talking first. And if talking doesn’t work…”
“Then we try other things.” Boseman drained the last of his beer. “But I don’t think it’ll come to that. You with those diplomatic skills that you have.”
They returned the next day, at the first light of dawn. Boseman, an avid deer hunter, had brought along the materials for a makeshift tree blind. They chose a blue ash with plenty of strong, sturdy branches, topping out at about fifty-five feet. Boseman shimmied up and installed the blind at a height of about thirty feet, wedged in close to the bole. Avery joined him, showing impressive climbing skills for a man his size. They were about fifty yards from the Dennison property line, slightly north of the front gate. The weather was largely unchanged, and it soon grew hot, though the leaves did provide a little shade. They took turns aiming the binoculars at the run-down house, not saying much. Shortly after nine, there was movement.
“We got action,” Avery said. It was his turn with the binoculars. Boseman squinted, but he wasn’t able to see much. “That’s got to be one of the grandsons,” Avery said.
“A big man, shirtless, blue jeans, kind of heavy-set. Pink cheeks. Balding.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Contemplating the vast mysteries of the universe. Wait, check that. He’s scratching himself.” Boseman sighed and shook his head slowly from side to side. “Okay, he’s on the move. He’s off the porch…heading to our left, around the house. Now he’s out of view.” Avery lowered the binoculars. “He’s gone around back of the house. We don’t have a good angle on him from here.”
“Any other activity?”
Avery peered through the glasses again. “Doesn’t look like it. It appears the main event is over.” He passed off the glasses, and Boseman took his turn. There was nothing more to see for quite a while. Around eleven, the man reappeared, or one matching Avery’s description. Boseman had the glasses this time, and he clued in Avery, who’d been napping. The shirtless man was in view a grand total of about twenty seconds. He came from around the side of the house, mounted the porch steps, and entered through the unlocked front door, shutting it behind him. There were no more developments, not then, and not for the next several hours. At four o’clock, the two decided to call it a day. Back at the truck, they were forced to admit that the day’s activity had been less than fruitful. “We could keep watching,” Avery said, “and not learn anything more. Our would-be employers aren’t going to be very patient, I think.”
“I agree,” Boseman said. “I don’t think we benefit from waiting any longer. If we’re going to do it, let’s get after it. I say we go in tonight.”
“Sack out in the truck, get our minds right…”
“Then come in under cover of darkness. Hit ‘em with the old shock and awe. Middle of the night, chances are they’re asleep, we come in hard and fast, disorient them, throw the fear of God into ‘em.”
“Deliver the message, and leave.”
“Easy-peasy,” Boseman said. “Daybreak, we’re more respectable by two hundred large. Maybe hit the IHOP for a short stack to celebrate.”
So that was the plan they put into action. They went for supplies, then pulled into the parking lot of a Wal-Mart to rest and prepare themselves mentally. As men who had seen combat, both in the line of duty and in their chosen profession, neither one viewed this assignment with much trepidation. Boseman dosed in the flatbed, Avery in the cab. They woke at half past ten. They ate a leisurely meal, talking about this and that. “The weather’s turning,” Avery said. It was true. The temperature had dropped some as they slept, and the wind was picking up. At midnight, they made their way back, driving slowly along the back roads as signs of civilization faded away around them.
As they neared the end of the road where they’d met Martina Northover, a buck darted across in front of them, a flash of dun-colored flesh, the bunching of the hindquarters as it bounded away. “Shit,” Boseman said. “That there was a ten pointer.”
“You can tell that,” Avery said, “just from that quick look?”
“Believe it,” Boseman said. “Eyes like a cat. Nose like a bloodhound, too.”
“Don’t forget genitalia like an infant.”
“You askin’ for a closer look, motherfucker?”
Avery just smiled, and put the truck in park. When he turned off the headlights, they were surrounded by perfect darkness, country darkness, for clouds had rolled in, and neither moon nor stars were visible. It was a quarter after midnight. “Let’s wait awhile,” Avery said. “I want to make sure they’re fast asleep before we come calling.”
“Fine by me.”
They waited, not saying anything, comfortable in the silence. Shortly after two, Avery said, “Let’s do it.” They got out of the truck, closing the doors softly behind them. Both men were wearing black, from head to foot. Boseman was wearing what he called his “utility belt,” a durable, lightweight strap made of soft leather that buckled around his waist. Several pouches hung from it; Avery knew that their contents varied from mission to mission, depending on what his partner felt he might need. Avery had seen everything from gum to canisters of knockout gas produced from those pouches. Boseman also had on a flak jacket holding several extra clips, and an Army-issue Kabar knife. Stuck in the back of his pants was a Sig Sauer .226 pistol. Slung over one shoulder was a souped up version of an AR-15 assault rifle, that had been modified so as to be fully automatic. Avery glanced at him. “You really think you need the heavy artillery?”
Boseman shrugged. “Better to have it and not need it…”
“…than need it and not have it?” Avery finished. The two men chuckled. “We’re like an old married couple,” Avery said. He also had with him a Kabar knife, but his choice of sidearm was a Russian Arsenal Firearms “Strike One,” not much seen in the states. In addition, he had in his pocket a collapsible Smith and Wesson baton. It started to rain lightly as the two strapped on identical Night Owl Tactical Binoculars, night vision equipped. The Night Owls also had two-way, hands-free radio ear pieces. Avery walked a few feet and opened the channel. “One-two, one-two, check, check, check.”
“Yeah, I’ve got you,” Boseman said. Avery came back, and they gave their gear a final once-over.
“Ready?” the bigger man.
“Like a virgin on prom night.”
“Just like we talked about, then. Let me know when you’re in position.”
“Roger that.” And he was off, stepping carefully among the leaves, moving toward the gate to the Dennison property. Through the Night Owls, Avery watched until he was out of view, then he waited. The plan was for Boseman to get inside the fence, then circle around to the southwest until we could cover the back door of the house, assuming there was one. Then he would call, and Avery would make his approach. When they were both in position, Avery would go in, and see what there was to be seen. He’d try talking first, but if that didn’t seem to be getting it done, he’d improvise. An operation like this, it was best to have some wiggle room.
The rain maintained a steady drizzle as Boseman came to the gate delineating the Dennison property. He undid the latch, stepped through, and shut it behind him. Seen through the night vision goggles, the landscape was a ghostly green, the underbrush seeming to steam in places, more akin to a jungle than any forest. It was muggy; his skin felt clammy, and he was sweating. He wasn’t nervous. There was no reason for him to be, but he felt the usual adrenaline that accompanied a combat mission, especially one into unknown territory. The path Martina Northover had mentioned was underfoot, almost completely overgrown, as she’d said. Now he left it and began traveling south, shoving through the grass reaching up past his waist. A nice sharp machete would take care of that soon enough, he thought, but he didn’t have one with him, and besides, that ran counter to the stealthy approach they’d envisioned. They’d agreed that their presence, when the occupants were made aware of it, should be like a magic trick, instantaneous, a thunderbolt out of the blue.
Pushing through the grass, he came up hard against an old engine, nearly barking his shins on it. He flipped up the goggles and studied it for a moment. It was completely covered over with rust, and it looked somehow slimy, covered in a gelatinous material that seemed almost like mucus. He prodded it distastefully with the toe of one boot. Some sort of chemical reaction, maybe, the damp affecting the metal? He stepped over it and went on.
He came across other parts, and he realized that he was in an automotive graveyard. They were all covered in that same slime. It was unpleasant looking to him, and he avoided touching it. It was drizzling steadily, and the heat of the previous days was now a memory. In the past, he had enjoyed missions in bad weather. In a strange way, it had buoyed his spirits. That wasn’t the case here. He had begun to have a sense of foreboding. The ground was pulling at his feet, and as he looked down, he saw that whatever had been working on the machine parts wasn’t restricted to them; it was coming out of the soil as well. He lifted a foot up, and the sole of it was covered with slime. He set it back down with a squelch. An irritation, whatever it was, but best ignored. He had work to do here, after all. With no more delays, he continued circling around to the southwest, his boots sucking in the mud.
He was getting close to the agreed-upon position behind the house when he began to be aware of the smell. It was fetid, similar to what one might find in a bog or quagmire, that of decaying vegetable matter, he thought. He blew out through each nostril, clearing them, and breathed in, then immediately wished he hadn’t. He didn’t know if it was just the moisture that was waking it up, whatever it was, but how could the Dennison family stand to live with it? It was like dead leaves and swamp gas. He coughed, actually a bit dizzy. He put one hand against the trunk of a convenient sapling, then recoiled when he saw that it, too, was covered in slime. He wiped his hand on his pants, lips curled back in a snarl. His head was spinning; he felt almost drunk. He pushed the Night Owls up on his forehead, shaking his head, trying to clear it…and suddenly everything brightened, the world, in fact, was awash in light.
The source of the light was the sun, of course, shining down out of a cloudless sky. It was about noon, and he was on the family ranch in Greenbrier, the part called “the back acres,” behind the house. He was seven years old. For a second it had almost seemed like he was somewhere else, doing something else…playing soldier, had that been it? He supposed so; it was his favorite game. An imaginative child is what his mother always called him. But now his mother was in the hospital again, and he knew it was something serious, because of the way his aunt and his father were always whispering in the other room, their serious faces on. Was that why he’d been feeling so anxious? No…now he remembered. It was because he’d just ripped a hole in the seat of his new pants. And now, now he was expected to come in for lunch, and his father was gone, only his aunt was in there…and he’d have to show her the damage. That would have been enough to make anyone anxious.
He walked around toward the front of the house, lost in thought. Maybe he could change the pants, before she noticed. But no, that was only delaying the inevitable, because with his mother gone, Aunt D was in charge of laundry, so she was bound to find out eventually. His only hope was that it was still early in the day. It was at night that Aunt D got mad, usually. It had been an accident, of course; he hadn’t meant to do it. But Aunt D didn’t understand accidents and telling her that would do no good.
He came up the porch steps and entered as quietly as he could. The door was hardly ever locked. There was no need to. They lived out in the middle of nowhere. He walked through the foyer, down the hall toward the kitchen, listening for her. He didn’t hear her, and he thought maybe he’d lucked out, maybe she was upstairs, having a lie-down, as she called it, but no, his heart sank as he came around the corner, for there she sat at the kitchen table, reading something. There was a place set across from her, a sandwich, it looked like. Needless to say, he had no appetite. “Aunt D?” he said. His voice sounded small.
“What?” He could see that there was a picture in blue on the piece of paper that she was holding, near the top. It was small, but he recognized it. He had seen it on several pieces of paper that had come in the mail lately. It was a bird, he knew, holding a branch in its mouth. It was the same image he had seen, much larger, on the side of the hospital, when they had gone to visit his mother there before. His father read what was on the papers, he thought, and Aunt D did, and then they got upset. “I fell down,” he told her. The words were hard to say, without his voice shaking. “I ripped my pants.”
Aunt D looked at him, and at first, she didn’t quite seem to see him, or understand what he’d said. He knew that the “D” was short for Daphne, but his mother had told him once that she didn’t like her name, so everyone called her Aunt D. She was a thin woman, painfully so, with no extra flesh to her at all, and she was all sharp angles, her cheekbones and those of her shoulders, the elbows jutting out. It looked like it would hurt if she hugged you, but the young Kyle Boseman had never had that experience. She blinked, coming back from somewhere. “What did you say?” He could see that there was a glass tumbler by her elbow, about a third of the way full with clear liquid. He repeated what he’d said, with even less conviction this time, but before he’d even gotten it all out she was up from the chair and coming at him, her entire body crackling with anger. It was astonishing, how fast she could move. “Did you just say you ripped your pants, you little shit…the new ones? The ones your daddy just bought for you?”
She had grabbed a hold of one arm, and she was shaking him like a terrier with a rat. “I’m sorry,” he gasped. With her face down close to his, he could feel the heat of her breath, and the smell of her, a sour odor that he associated with sickness. He recoiled from it, but she pulled him in closer, her nails digging into his skin.
“If you even realized…” she said, and he couldn’t believe how much blind, unreasoning anger there was in her eyes. That was why he was so afraid of her, because of the disproportionate response to things. No matter how angry his mother ever got at him, he could always see compassion in her. Not so with Aunt D. “…what this family was going through,” she was saying, and her voice was a shriek. “The pressure we’re all under, and you…you can’t go ten minutes without breaking something, or, or…” And then she was dragging him out of the kitchen and down the hall, and he felt the warmth as his bladder released, and he knew that was only going to make her madder yet.
They got to the front hall, with her keeping up a steady stream of invective, all about how worthless he was, and unappreciative. He had heard it before, or some variation of it. He knew Aunt D didn’t like him. Maybe she didn’t like children at all; she had none of her own. She wasn’t so bad to be around when his father was there too, or his mother, before she got sick. But now it was just the two of them in the house a lot, with his father at work, or at the hospital, and Kyle had borne the brunt of her mood swings on several occasions…if he mentioned it to his father, he was told only that Aunt D was in charge, and to mind her. It seemed like his father was checked out, mentally, when he was at home, and nothing Kyle said could have gotten his attention, nor could the marks on him when Aunt D had given him a whipping, as she was doubtless going to do to him right now. They stopped at the base of the stairs. His body had gone limp, and he was dragging his legs on the floor. It wasn’t a conscious decision he’d made. It was more that his terror had stolen his vitality from him.
“I’m not going to use my hand this time,” she informed him, bending over, and he blanched, the feel of her hot breath overpowering. “I’m going to use my belt, and strap your ass red.” He was shaking his head violently from side to side, denying not just her and the reality of the situation, but denying everything in his life at that time, every aspect of it. He could never remember feeling this helpless, and frightened, and alone. His vision was blurry with tears.
As she made to drag him up the stairs, he grabbed hold of the banister, clinging to it with desperate strength. “Let go of that!” she yelled at him.
“Let go of it!” She was much bigger and stronger than him, but in that moment he had become like a limpet clinging to a rock, intent on self-preservation. A tug-of-war ensued, but he felt like, irrational as it might seem, he would be okay as long as he kept hold of that banister. Then it happened…she allowed her hand to go slack, where it was holding his arm. Then, a second later, she gripped him again and gave one furious yank. There was a cracking sound, and he felt something give way, near the shoulder of his left arm, the hand of which still held the banister. A fiery hot pain shot through his entire arm. He had a vision, encapsulated in a fraction of a second, of him pulling two of his Lego blocks apart; the noise, he thought, was the same. And then darkness swam over him…he shook his head to clear it, and blinked at the sun, which was beating down from on high, scorching him. He was in formation, on the parade ground, Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina, surrounded by the other grunts. Hell, but it sure got hot here in the dog days of summer. It must be close to a hundred today. For a moment he had felt kind of funny. It had to be the heat; it had given him an odd turn, and he’d been remembering something from his childhood, some long-buried fragment, from around the time his mother died. Strange, because he never thought about that time, tried really studiously not to, in fact.
The drill sergeant gave the order just then for the company to move out, and they did, jogging toward the cool shade under the trees. Mostly it was elms and maples this close to the barracks, the greenery comprising only a tiny glimpse of the fifty-two thousand acres that made up the Initial Entry Training Center, the largest in use by the army. Fifty percent of all soldiers who entered the army trained there each year, and he was one of them, that training being provided by the good men and women of the 193rd Infantry Brigade. He was nineteen years old, and the army was everything that he’d thought it was going to be. Well, maybe not quite everything. His indoctrination into the culture had been smooth, except for one aspect of it, maybe, that he hadn’t anticipated, but you could hardly predict everything that was going to happen in your life, could you? Some things just sprung themselves on you…you dealt with them as best you could, because what other choice did you have, really?
That was what he was thinking about, as he jogged in formation along one of the wide trails, in the company of his fellow recruits, through sunlight and shadow, mindlessly bellowing out his part in the call and response, the drill sergeant lost from view now ahead of him, as he was at the rear of the company, last in line. They were going uphill and around a curve, when he heard a sharp vocalization, “Sss!” which caused him to stop in midstride and peer into the brush. Then a hand shot out and grabbed him, and before he really knew what was happening he was being pulled through the bushes and into a semi-secluded clearing. It’s her, he thought, and sure enough, as soon as the person had released him and taken a step back, he could see he was right.
Her name was Vicki Bianchi, and he’d gotten to know her a couple of months back, when he’d first started basic. She was an MP, military police, and she’d started talking to him outside the barracks one day, pretty much out of the blue. She was in her mid-thirties but looked younger, black hair in a pixie cut, a small, compact body, and an aggressive way of standing and talking. Almost immediately she’d started hitting on him, really making it obvious, hot to trot, as Boseman’s father might have said. He was flattered, and he was unattached, so he hadn’t seen any reason to turn her down, what with the usual teenage hormones inside him going full tilt. They’d had sex a handful of times, when he could find a private place for a rendezvous, and he hadn’t used protection, because she said she was on the pill. Probably not the smartest idea, in retrospect, but it was just hard to think about things like that when there was this hellcat chewing on your bottom lip and whispering filthy things in your ear, things of which Boseman had never even conceived.
Thinking back, maybe he’d been a bit out of his element. He’d had a couple of girlfriends, but nothing remotely like this. Being with her felt dangerous, even before it became apparent that she was, to put it mildly, emotionally unstable. He had the first indication of this after the second time she’d ravaged him, when she whispered in his ear “This is crazy, but I almost feel like I could be falling in love with you.” They had known each other, then, less than two weeks. He hadn’t known quite how to take it, understandably enough, so he treated it like a joke, laughing it off, but she’d put a finger to his lips. “No, I’m serious,” she’d said. “There’s just something about you, this animal magnetism, I’ve never felt anything like it. I feel drawn to you, somehow. I’ve never felt this way before. I keep thinking, maybe you could be the one.” He wasn’t even entirely sure she knew his first name, at that point. It was the sincerity with which she said it that was really unsettling, and of course, there were all kinds of warning bells going off. But still, that didn’t stop him from meeting back up with her again. It wasn’t his head he was thinking with, at least not the one on his shoulders.
It really started falling apart after the fifth time that they had done their thing. They were in a utility shed full of gardening implements, lying on a blanket spread out on the ground. They’d just finished, and everything was fine, and then the next thing he knew she was pulling away from him into a fetal position and sobbing hysterically. He asked her what was wrong, and she turned to him in a fury. “Oh, like you don’t know,” she spat. He was able to convince her that he had no idea what the source of her distress was, but that only upset her more. “Then you’re more of an idiot than I thought you were,” she said. “I tell you I’m falling for you, and then you just…ignore me for the next however long…I know how much I’ve been thinking about you, burning for you, and you haven’t so much as called…”
The reason, of course, that Boseman hadn’t called her was because he was in the midst of the rigors of basic training, which, needless to say, taxed him significantly for most of his waking hours. She, meanwhile, as an MP, was equally busy. It wasn’t as though they had an abundance of time to be talking on the phone together, or in person. When he attempted to explain this to her, she really flew off the handle. “Oh, that’s the way you feel about it, huh? You’re saying you’ve been too busy for me?” It seemed so completely ridiculous to him, the way she could send the drama meter shooting from two to ten in the space of about a second. She was nearly twice his age, but she was acting like the younger, and far less mature, of the two. He wanted to laugh at the situation, but all the humor went out of it with the next thing she said. “And would you still feel the same way if I told you I was pregnant, smart guy? Would you be able to make a little time for me then, do you think?”
He felt like he had just swallowed an ice cube, when he heard the words, and he gave a full-body shiver. “You’re pregnant?”
She nodded. “I’m always really regular, and this time, I wasn’t. So I checked, and sure enough…” He asked her what she wanted to do, which kicked off a fresh bout of hysterics. She wanted to have the child, and she wanted him to marry her. The Ice cube in his stomach wouldn’t melt. It sat there, heavily, spreading its chill to all the internal organs that surrounded it. He wanted to ask her if she was sure it was his, but he knew better. He was beginning to understand just how much of a head case this woman was, and she had a side arm lying handy. He couldn’t believe he had been so stupid; he was in real trouble here. The conversation, and the encounter, ended with her plans for the future, and him making noncommittal noises. He felt completely divorced from reality. It was the rapidity with which the whole thing had happened that so overwhelmed him. He wondered what he should do.
Late that night, distraught, he decided to seek help from the sergeant, his direct superior. He knew that he was probably looking at some significant disciplinary action, but really, at that point, it was the least of his worries. He was still basically just a kid, and he was desperate for advice. The sergeant, a no-nonsense sort of man with multiple combat tours under his belt, heard him out, then promptly confined him to barracks until an investigation could be launched. Some hours later, this same sergeant came back and spoke to him, not unkindly, along with several others. It was revealed to him that this woman had recently been the subject of no small amount of troubling rumors. She’d been suspected, actually, of being little more than a sexual predator, having made overtures toward a number of the new recruits. Boseman’s story collaborated what others had said, and the higher-ups believed that they now had enough evidence of impropriety to confront her about the pattern of inappropriate behavior, and probably to put her on modified duty or remove her from her position altogether. The latter was, in fact, what ended up happening. Corporal Bianchi had been dealing with some sort of issues in her personal life, pressures or stresses, the details of which were never made completely clear to Boseman. She was dishonorably discharged, and she had not, in fact, been pregnant. Boseman considered himself unbelievably lucky, in the sense that not only was there no pregnancy, and he seemed to be free of STDs, when he got himself tested, but he also managed to avoid serious chastisement, being considered more victim than perpetrator. He was somewhat sorrowful about what had happened. He hoped that Vicki got the help she needed. He hadn’t seen her again…until now.
She was wearing brown and tan combat fatigues, and in her hand she had an army-issue Beretta nine millimeter pistol. Boseman didn’t know how she’d gotten onto the property, but if anyone knew how to do it, it would be a former MP. Boseman was unarmed. “Hello Vicki,” he said.
Her face had a faint sheen of sweat on it, and there was dirt on her pants. “Hello, my love,” she said. “Did you miss me?”
“Yes,” he said, and no one was more surprised than him that he sort of meant it. Unstable she might have been, or completely crazy, who could say, he was no psychiatrist, but one thing that he had enjoyed about her, before it turned toxic, was the intensity of her. The appeal of forbidden love, or at least forbidden sex, had been an unexpected and heady thrill.
She gave a short, barking laugh. “You probably think the worst of me, because I lied.”
“It’s okay. I guess maybe you weren’t in the best frame of mind at the time.”
“That’s for sure.” He was watching the pistol, which she was tapping against her leg. If she wanted to shoot him, he knew, there simply wasn’t anything he could do fast enough to stop it. He couldn’t rush her, and if he tried to run she’d drop him before he’d gotten two steps. He’d seen her on the firing range; he knew what a crack shot she was. “Listen, we don’t have a lot of time here together. I’m pretty sure they spotted me, and we’ll probably go on lockdown any minute. I just wanted to be with you, my one true love, when I did it.”
“Did what?” he said, as if he didn’t know.
She smiled at him. “Don’t be coy. They may say I’m crazy, but I’m not stupid.” She looked down at the gun, as if just remembering she was holding it. “Do you want to go with me?” she said. “This place…it’s no good here. It’s nothing but sharp corners and bright lights. There are no soft places…there’s nowhere to hide. Don’t you ever feel that?”
He had to admit that he did, but he didn’t want to die, and he told her so. He didn’t want her to die, either, and he started to say so, but she waved him off. “My mind is made up,” she said firmly, and at that moment a siren started wailing, lockdown, and he could hear shouting from somewhere close by. “This is better for me,” she said, and she raised the gun, placed it against her right temple, and fired. There was a spray of blood and bone and gray matter, a double handful of it smacking against the leaves of a nearby tree, and she toppled, toppled…the siren screamed out, and the sunlight stabbed through the branches, setting the leaves afire…
When an hour had gone by and Boseman hadn’t called in, Avery knew that it had gone tits up. He broke radio silence, but there was no response, not so much as a peep. He considered his options briefly, then lowered the Night Owls into place and approached the Dennison property, following in his partner’s footsteps. He hadn’t heard any shots, hadn’t heard anything. It was possible that it was just a communications malfunction, but he didn’t think it likely. No, something had gone wrong. He could feel it, with a soldier’s instincts. He came to the gate, unlatched and stepped through it, and secured it again as Boseman had done.
The rain in the past hour had neither slackened nor quickened pace. Avery took the Strike One out of its holster and made sure that he had a round in the chamber. He considered whether he should try and circumvent the house and meet Boseman where his partner had planned to station himself, but he thought better of it. He had a feeling, just a hunch, that he would find Boseman inside the house. So thinking, he made his way, slowly and cautiously, toward the front door.
He hadn’t gotten too far when he started to smell it, the same putrescence lately detected by his partner. He tried to ignore it, but a moment later his foot clunked against something, and he had to remove the Night Owls, not sure what he was seeing. He knelt down beside the object, picking it up gingerly between his thumb and forefinger. “Fuck me,” he said very softly. What he was holding was Boseman’s modified AR-15, but something had happened to it, something he had never seen before, or heard of. It looked and felt almost as though it was rotting. It was covered with a slimy green substance that somewhat resembled mucus, viscous strings of it trailing on the ground. He could feel that the consistency of the weapon had changed; it was no longer solid! Even as he held it, exerting very little pressure, it partially disintegrated, and he dropped it, suddenly repulsed, and he scrubbed his hands furiously on his pant leg. Looking down at the ground, he was now able to see, even without the Night Owls, that the stuff was actually seeping out of the ground itself. When he lifted each of his feet up, there was a sucking sound. And the smell was now stronger…he was trying to think of a way that he might cover his mouth and nose, when he had a strange sensation of lightheadedness, and a tingling in his extremities. It was similar to what happens when one has been lying down and stands up too fast. He shook his head, trying to clear it…and lights flashed past the window, vehicle headlights, some car heading south on Route 59 toward Victoria, or maybe somewhere further south, like Laredo. He was in the backseat of his dad’s Chevy El Camino, heading in the other direction, northeast toward El Campo, and Patsy Cline was playing on the radio. His dad was driving, a distinctive shadow in the front seat smelling of aftershave and cigar smoke, and Avery’s brother was in the seat next to him on his left, being obnoxious, reaching over and slapping at him. They were coming back from dinner at a cheap buffet, and Avery’s stomach was a little upset, something not sitting right. He really would have preferred that Jesse just leave him alone, but Jesse, sensing his discomfort, was only more inclined to mess with him. That was the kind of relationship they had, antagonistic, always roughhousing, forever racing each other to the bus stop. Jesse was the elder by nineteen months, and slightly taller and heavier, which gave him the advantage when they wrestled. They were trying to be absolutely silent, because their dad had already warned them to knock it off, and a second warning was just as likely to be physical as verbal.
Avery made the mistake of thinking his brother had lost interest. He was looking out the window again, at some billboard they were passing, when Jesse came all the way across the seat and got a really good pinch in, grabbing onto some stomach fat and twisting. Avery squealed, a pretty undignified sound, but it had caught him off guard. His father turned around and said “Now damned if I didn’t just tell you…” and just at that moment, headlights from another vehicle, on their right, loomed suddenly bright in Avery’s vision. Before he could react, there was an impact, a scream of metal-on-metal, and his perspective changed, as the truck went up on two wheels, and then, a moment later, overturned. It seemed as though his body was being pulled in several different directions at once, and there were a multitude of noises, human screaming, a dragging and scraping, and an unearthly moan, the death call of some prehistoric animal. He was held in place by his seatbelt, but it was only a lap belt; this was the era before the modern shoulder harness. Still, when the truck flipped and landed on its roof, he partially left his seat and bounced the side of his head, hard, off the window. When the noise and the movement finally stopped, all was deathly silent, and he was still hanging upside down, unable to make any sense of the world, and his arm and shoulder were all sticky. He felt sure it was blood, but then he smelled it, and he realized it was vomit. He didn’t remember throwing up, but he must have. And then he turned, to look at the seat beside him…
With a supreme effort, Avery came back into himself, though whether this process was mental or physical, he couldn’t tell. He had gone to a dark place, been dragged there, actually. The incident that he’d been remembering, been forced to remember, had taken place when he was ten. They’d been sideswiped by a bus full of senior citizens on a gambling junket, bound for some casino. The driver had fallen asleep and drifted into their lane. This, in turn, had caused the El Camino to collide with the center divider and overturn. His father had broken an arm. Jesse, who hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, had suffered a subdermal hematoma. Later that night they’d operated on him, but he died less than a day later, have never regained consciousness. Other than a good whack to the head, Avery was unharmed. It was high in the running for the worst experience of his life. But that was in the past, twenty-five years gone, and some part of him had understood that, and had brought him catapulting back, to the here and now of western Kentucky, where he lay on the ground facing upward somewhere on the Dennison property, rain beating down on him, stronger now, causing him to shiver, or maybe something else was doing it.
There was a very strange sensation, actually, that was occurring. The best way to describe it was a gentle but insistent pressure, like something below the ground, tugging at him. It was happening to his entire body, as if gravity had increased, and was working on him harder than it normally would. It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, or painful, yet it was uncanny, and Avery somehow sensed, instinctively, that it was doing him harm. It was as though he was being anesthetized, and he tried to rise but found it difficult. Looking to either side of him, he could see that tiny green tendrils were reaching out from the soil, and had attached themselves to him. Indeed, the soil itself seemed to have bonded to him, seemed to be sucking at him; he could almost hear it, greedily siphoning off…what? His strength, vitality, essence? He didn’t know, but damned if he couldn’t feel it happening, and his entire body kept trembling slightly, and his vision was growing darker and darker.
Then he panicked, seized with a kind of animal disgust that must have come from some primitive portion of his brain. He bellowed and struggled, heaving first with one arm and then the other, trying to pull his shoulders up off the ground. It resisted, whatever it was that had a hold on him, not just physically, but in his mind. To his ears came a shrill hissing and screeching, sounding almost human but not quite, and the sheer alien quality of it galvanized him to even greater efforts, until with a last rip he was free, standing and swaying, eyes out of focus. As his vision came back and he looked down at the ground, he could see the tendrils retracting, disappearing into the earth again. It felt like only a moment or two that he’d been laid low, trapped in his own past, but, glancing at his watch, he saw that it was fully an hour since he’d passed the gate, and two since he’d last seen Boseman. Looking down, he saw his Strike One lying near, and he picked it up carefully, but it was as he’d feared. It was no longer serviceable, having rotted like the AR-15. A power was at work here, something unnatural and unclean. His Kabar knife had been strapped to his chest, secure in a slot on his flak jacket, and when he pulled it out, he was relieved to see that it was unaffected. Bending down, he used it to slash a piece of material from the bottom of his pant leg, and he tied it around his mouth and nose. He came on, in the rain, still cautious but angry now, too, sure that he was expected, but no longer caring. He hadn’t liked remembering…it had been painful, and he was determined that someone be held accountable for it.
He was still smelling that stink, rotting vegetation, but he seemed to have become desensitized to it, and the effect was no longer as pervasive. He came across the junked-out cars, rotting hulks, entombed in that distasteful slimy substance, and dodged around them, feeling now as though they were obstacles set up deliberately to obstruct his way. Whatever he was dealing with here, degeneration or however one wished to describe it, it was outside of his realm of experience, and he wondered if their employer had been aware of any of it. She’d been on the property, had conversed with these people, isn’t that what she’d said? How could she have failed to notice something was wrong? Unless…was there some way these…defenses, if that’s what they were, could be deactivated? Was it something unique to Boseman and Avery that had triggered them? These thoughts flashed through his mind, but he dismissed them. The house was ahead of him now, a squat gray hovel, dismal in the rain, seeming to cant to one side, a nightmare given shape. He understood that now, felt it waiting for him, a drowsing animal, but predatory, beyond any doubt.
He mounted the porch steps, which groaned under his weight. He realized that in his haste to get away from those grasping tendrils, he’d left behind the Night Owls. He lowered the makeshift mask from his face and looked about him, peering into the shadows. There were objects piled up, more car parts, maybe, hard to make out in the gloom. The smell was much more intense here, and more densely layered, composed equally of rotting vegetation, sewage, and yes, death as well. Avery knew that smell, had seen charnel pits in Iraq, the work of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. He kicked the door in. The time for subtlety was past.
There was movement to his right, and, as he turned in that direction, something slammed into him hard from behind. He felt arms encircling him, squeezing him with impossible strength. His knife was pinned to his side; he couldn’t stab, or slash. He swung himself around and around, colliding with walls, toppling objects that he couldn’t see. He managed to lift his leg up and kick straight back, toward where he judged his attacker’s groin to be. He connected, making solid contact, and his unseen assailant released him with a groan. His knife hand free, he sliced with the Kabar at the shape in front of him, feeling it score, he couldn’t tell to what effect. But then he was grabbed again from behind and spun around, and before he could react a massive fist swung out of the darkness and smashed against his jaw. The blow nearly knocked him senseless, but not quite. He was aware of falling backward, of being caught up again in those strong arms. He heard a voice say “Bring him,” but the words were so garbled he could barely understand them. Stunned, he couldn’t resist as he was half-dragged, half-carried, through rooms and hallways, and then down stairs, his boots thudding against each step so hard his teeth rattled. Then for a while he was escorted through tunnels, earthworks, smelling of loam as well as the other unpleasant scents. He could see very little, but he could hear his captors breathing.
When at last they stopped, he was hauled more fully erect, and hands held his head roughly in place, so that he was forced to look straight ahead. Everything came gradually back into focus, but it wasn’t anything that a sane person would have been happy to see. He was in a long room with a low ceiling, probably about eight hundred feet square. He and the two who’d brought him had entered from a doorway or tunnel entrance in the far wall, and they’d dragged him most of the way across the floor, most of which was of earth, as were the walls. He was able to see the two that held him, somewhat, in his peripheral vision. He was unsurprised to see that one was the man he’d spotted earlier through the binoculars, and the other much resembled him; these were undoubtedly the brothers Dennison, about whom his employer had told him. Avery was a big man, but he could see that each of these had an advantage on him in terms of both height and weight.
All about them was in shadow, but there was a light source ahead and to the right of the trio, a handheld kerosene lantern sitting on the ground. It showed two seated figures. One, to Avery’s left, appeared to be an old woman in a rocking chair, or, at least, it was something that had once been a woman. Now she was more of a desiccated husk, maintaining a slight semblance of her previous form. She was wearing a nightgown, and her white hair was in a bouffant style not popular for at least a half-century. There was floor underneath her and the other seated figure, not just dirt as in the rest of the chamber, but wooden boards, and out of them vegetation was growing, which seemed to be in the process of throttling the woman. Avery could see that the growth was made up of vines, similar to those that had gotten hold of his earlier, but of differing sizes. There were smaller ones, of a lighter green color, almost fluorescent, others as big around as a man’s wrist, and others larger yet, nearly as wide in circumference as one of Avery’s thighs. Those ones were of a darker green and mottled like the scales of a snake. The vines were alive. This much was obvious to Avery, but what was unclear was whether the woman was. Her skin had a hideous green tinge, and her mouth was slightly open. Her eyes were blank and staring.
The second figure was even more disturbing. It was directly in front of Avery, and this one was male, but it was impossible to tell its age. It was sitting or reclining on a veritable throne of plant life, vines and branches of all sizes, growing out of the wall behind and from out of the warped and rotting floorboards. Avery couldn’t tell if he (or it) was sitting in a chair like the woman was doing, or if it was only vines that were holding him up. Like the woman, the vines grew around but also through the seated figure. He could see them emerging and sprouting from arms, chest, legs, even the face. There was no doubt in Avery’s mind that it was sentient, all of the plant life; it rustled and quivered, making a slithering noise, and he could feel it in his mind, seething, and he thought no physical sensation could have been worse than that mental probing, like unwholesome fingers moving under his skin.
The wall just behind the two was a mass of vines as well, undulating and twining around one another. It was somewhat mesmerizing, but even as Avery watched them, he spotted something else, with his peripheral vision. To his right, just visible in the meager light from the lantern, was Boseman, only part of his body in sight, his face, torso, both his hands. The rest of him was completely swallowed up by the vines. His head was drooping down toward his chest, and Avery couldn’t tell if he was conscious, or even breathing.
Above the lit area was an open space, unlike the rest of the chamber, which was enclosed by the ceiling. Turning his eyes skyward, Avery could see the interior of some dark structure, and he could hear what he thought was rain beating on a roof. Rainwater was dripping down through the opening in several places, pattering against the floorboards. He was still processing all of it when a voice spoke, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. “So, we are all here,” it said. “The whole family, and both our guests.” Avery thought it was the seated man in front of him who had spoken, but he couldn’t have sworn to it. The lips seemed to have moved slightly, and the face to have changed position, but it was subtle, nothing dramatic. The second time Avery was looking directly at him, and there was no mistaking it. “I sense very little fear in you,” the voice went on. “Not that it matters. Brave men die too, as it turns out.” It was like no human voice that Avery had ever heard. It seemed rusty from disuse, and that was part of it, but also there was a choked and stifling quality to it. Avery could picture the throat, the vocal cords, being strangled by those vines, which, he was sure, were growing on the inside of that body as well as the outside. As he was thinking these thoughts, the man, woman, and all the plant life shook slightly, and Avery realized they were laughing. “Yes, the voice said, “you’re right. I’m more plant than man, and I grow less human with each passing year.”
He read my mind, Avery realized. “Who are you?” he said. “What are you?”
“A failed experiment, or maybe a too-successful one. At one time I was like you, a military man, Private Jonathon Dennison, 25th Infantry Division. Got drafted and sent to Nam, late in ’68. At the time, the 25th was involved heavy in the Tet offensive. But I never saw no combat. When the time come for my actual deployment, I told my superiors I wouldn’t fight. They thought at first I was, what do you call it, a conscientious objector, but I wasn’t…I was just yellow. I was eighteen years old, and I was piss-in-my-pants terrified, thinking about what it would be like to die in that jungle, getting blown apart by one of those MD-82s, getting fragged by some sniper, or getting snakebit, or gangrene, or some exotic disease I never heard of. There was a million ways to buy it, and I couldn’t deal with it. My mind shut down, just with the thought of them all. Legs turned to jelly. Some of them other boys, they was just so gung-ho about it, but I couldn’t be. It wasn’t in me.”
Avery had been watching Dennison, as the man spoke. His lips moved, slightly, but Avery realized that the voice was less vocalization, and more taking place spontaneously, within Avery’s own head. It was the strangest thing to feel, to experience. There was an echo to it, like a conversation taking place inside a cave. But there was something else he was noticing, too. As Dennison spoke, the other members of his clan, the woman, the two brothers who held him, were mouthing the same identical words, all in concert with one another. “Some men came to see me,” Dennison said. “I don’t know what military branch, or they might have been private sector, I never did find out. They was some real spooks, I’ll tell you that much. They offered me an out…they was conducting an experiment, research, of a medical nature. Didn’t give me too many details, but they assured me it was safe. I was young, stupid…and I would have done anything to avoid combat. They isolated me, gave me injections. I knew that tests was being done with LSD, other drugs. I thought it might be something like that. But there weren’t no hallucinations. Nothing seemed to happen at all. They hooked me up to these machines, electrodes, wires, kept running tests. They never told me the results, but I could tell they was getting frustrated. Wasn’t getting the results they wanted. More than three years they kept at it. I didn’t know how many others was in the experiment, but I knew how many of our boys was dying out there. The body count reached fifty thousand, or so it was reported, but some people said Nixon was fudging the numbers, and it was actually a whole lot more. But I was living pretty good, getting better chow than the boys in the field, living in swankier digs. They’d even get me a girl, sometimes…
“But finally they got tired of me. The war was still going on, but they’d promised me they’d discharge me, and sure enough, they done like they said. Early in ’72, that was. It was an honorable discharge, they’d squared everything away, but there was just one thing. They wanted to keep an eye on me, see if there was any delayed effects. I come back here to this very property, it’s been in my family’s name for generations, you know. But every few weeks they’d show up, run more tests. They never found nothing, but the fact is there was things happening to me, I was changing…I just didn’t want to admit it, not to myself, certainly not to them. They’d have dragged me back to some lab, sure as you’re born. But I was able to hide it from them, and I was in denial, wouldn’t acknowledge it…then in ’76 I got married, to this girl I’d been seeing. A year later she bore me a son, and the next year another. It was six of us living here then, me and Hettie, Ephraim my eldest, and Eugene the younger, and my ma and pa. They’d given up on me then, the ones who’d run the tests, or else they’d plum forgot about me. The war was years over. But I was becoming…well, what you see now. It was real gradual, you see. I could hear what them around me was thinking, get a sense of their emotions, like, could get inside their heads a little. I didn’t want to do it, at first, but then, I have to say, I started liking it. Getting inside their minds, and crawling around.
“Other things was going on. I found that I could connect with all that was in the woods nearby, some of the critters, but more so the plants. The trees, the flowers and such like, I could send a part of myself out into them, and take a part of them back into me. It’s hard to explain. I didn’t want to do it, exactly, but at the same time I felt like I had to, like a bird needs to fly, or a fish to swim. I was becoming the plants, and the plants was becoming me. Hettie ran off. Can’t say as I blame her. She didn’t even bother trying to take the boys, which was just as well. They’ve got too much of me in them, whatever it is I passed along.” He stopped and his head moved slightly, back and forth, taking in the two brutes holding Avery, and the old woman sitting beside him. “Of course, that was many years ago now. Since then, we’ve grown so much closer, my kinfolk and me. We share everything, even each other’s thoughts, though, truth be told, these others you see, they don’t do as much thinking for themselves anymore. They can, if they need to, but mostly they rely on me to do it for them.”
He leaned back, and Avery could see the vines moving sinuously to better cradle him. “Over the years, I’ve grown much more comfortable in myself. We don’t have no income, the family, but we don’t need any. We live off the land, literally. This patch of ground, that I control, any little old critter that sets foot on it, I can drain them, if I choose to. I can take what I need from them, and what my kin need, suck it out of them, but leave enough for them to walk away, or I can take it all, and leave them like dried up shells. Animals is enjoyable that way, birds or varmints or something bigger, like deer, but humans is the best. They get close enough, and I can start to sense them, not quite read their thoughts, exactly, but at least get a sense of what they’re like, what makes them tick. That woman who wants this land, she’s right pretty, but her heart is black, you take my word on it. All I could sense in her is greed. It was no easy thing, getting Ma to stir her stumps, get her up to the house to take that meeting, and get her looking presentable.”
He made a gesture with his head toward the dark structure above them. “That there’s the barn, and this what we’re sitting on, me and Ma, it used to be the lift, for carrying bales of hay up and down, and such like. I couldn’t take the meeting myself, you see. No amount of dressing up is going to make me presentable for company, and the lift don’t work no more. My boys had to help Ma back through the tunnels to the house, and she didn’t much want to go. She’s not exactly alive anymore, in the traditional sense of the word, but she’s not quite dead, neither. When Pa died, more than twenty years ago now, I was reluctant to part with him, you might say, so I kept him around for a while. I still hadn’t completely figured out what all I was capable of, so anything that came near, I drained, and let the spunk, the energy, however you might call it, flow into him. I thought that I might bring him back, you know? But I couldn’t, so eventually I had to give it up. Then years later, with Ma, we’d all become so connected, and I could tell, through the bond we shared, that she was going too. So since then, most of what I take, I give to her. The boys are the youngest of us, and they’re plenty strong, so they don’t need as much.” He looked fondly over at the old woman. “I suppose I should just let her go, but I love her so much, you know? I always did…”
Avery had been listening with increasingly mounting horror. He had to get out of here, but how? The hands of “the boys” holding him were vice grips. He glanced over at Boseman. The man’s eyes were open! His partner was alive, but he was staring at nothing, and his mouth was slack, drool dripping down his chin. Even if Avery could somehow get him loose, how much of him would be left? When Dennison drained you, was the process permanent? He was still talking, but Avery found it difficult to listen to him. That voice was so strained and creaky! “It took all my power to get Ma to talk to that woman,” he was saying. “Really, it was my voice coming out of her mouth, and I know she didn’t sound too good, or look too good. I could tell from the expression on that woman’s face, she could see something was up. Although, being from up north, maybe she just figured everybody down here looked that way.” He sniggered. “Anyway, I tried to explain to her how long my kin had lived on this land, and how much it meant to us, and all that was true, but that’s not why I don’t want to leave. The fact is, I’m not sure that I can leave, not anymore. I’m not sure that I could survive if I had to pull up roots, so to speak, and I know Ma couldn’t. Maybe the boys, but I don’t think they could get along that well in society by themselves, at this point.”
Again he readjusted himself, the vines rippling as he tented his fingers in front of him. “So now you know a little bit about the family you decided to visit this evening. We’re not bad people, I don’t think, we’re just a little different. We just want to be left alone. And we will be, one way or another, because money won’t move us, especially not out of the wallet of no damned carpetbagger, and the likes of you won’t get it done neither. I don’t hold no personal feelings against you or your boy yonder, seeing as we’re all former military men. I know you’re just trying to make a living. You just picked the wrong family to try and muscle this time, that’s all.”
Avery had been thinking pretty much the same thing. He was just at that moment considering how much he would have liked to throttle Martina Northover, for getting him and Boseman into this mess. In all likelihood, though, the woman probably hadn’t had any idea of what she’d been throwing them up against. Not that it mattered at this point, anyway. He had to think of some way out of here. But even as the thought entered his head, Dennison’s lips lifted in something resembling a smile. “There ain’t nowhere to go,” the man said, his voice barely audible in that subterranean chamber, but loud and clear in Avery’s mind. “Nowhere that you can run, not fast enough to escape me. You see, this close, I can peel you like an onion, even if you haven’t got strong natural defenses. Let him go, boys.” The brothers released their hold and stepped back. Suddenly free, Avery staggered, but held himself upright. Before he could think of casting about for a weapon, or hurtling himself at the abomination in front of him, something else was gripping him, something inside his mind. He was being bombarded with images, so realistic and immersive that he immediately lost all sense of his true surroundings. What he was seeing, experiencing, living through, were episodes from his whole life. From his very first days outside his mother’s womb to times as a toddler, then as a boy, adolescent, then teenager, on into young adulthood, progressing all the way to the current day, he was reliving things that had happened to him, many of which he had long since forgotten. It was like a vault had been opened, and all of these times were real again, as inescapable as if they were happening at that very moment. But what Avery was going through was every negative moment that had ever happened to him, and, over the course of roughly thirty-five years, the sheer amount of those moments was more than he would have dreamed possible. Every time that he had ever been disappointed, every time he had ever been afraid, every blow that life had ever dealt him was relived with the same urgency and potency that had accompanied it the first time around. The entire year when he’d been so sure a monster was living in his closet that he’d insisted on sleeping with the light on. The era when he’d been wetting the bed, and the shame he’d felt. The times his father had struck him, and the times he’d been reprimanded in school. The times he’d been bullied on the playground, the time he’d asked a girl out and she’d laughed in his face, the time he was caught shoplifting. Times when he’d been made to feel inferior because of his social status. The time that he’d eaten mescaline and had the quintessential bad trip, when he’d cowered in a corner for hours, convinced that spiders were crawling all over him. The time in Afghanistan when he’d seen a good friend of his blown to bits by an I.E.D., practically right in front of him.
On and on they went, so many of them. Pain, anguish, hatred, terror, embarrassment, suspicion, jealousy. So many missteps, on his part, and so many things that had befallen him. If you had asked Avery, he probably wouldn’t have told you that he’d had a bad life. He would have said that it had been a mixed bag, as is true of most people. There had been plenty of joy and triumph for him, parceled out in bits and pieces, in the usual way. But this concentrated burst of everything that had ever gone wrong, each instance fired at him like a bullet from a gun, was an attack unlike anything for which he could have prepared himself. He tried desperately to regain a sense of where he was, and what was happening to him, but it was hard. When the images stopped for a moment, he found himself on his hands and knees in the soft earth, trembling, his vision fading in and out. He felt drained, weakened in a way he had never before experienced. He felt less substantial, somehow. He held a hand up to his nose, and it came away bloody.
Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw the two Dennison brothers, standing stoically. Obviously, they no longer considered him to be any kind of a threat. Turning forward again, he regarded Dennison, and the rustling, swaying greenery behind him. The look on the man’s ruined face was one of megalomaniacal delight. Avery had no doubt of the man’s sadistic tendencies. He could talk all he liked of how he’d learned to use his abilities, comparing the process to a fish swimming, or a bird flying. What was clear was how much he enjoyed the infliction of pain, what a sadist he had grown to be. And then, without warning, the images came again, pummeling him, and he was defenseless against them.
It seemed an eternity that the process went on. While it was happening, time had no meaning for Avery. When he came out of it again, he was lying on his side, twitching like he had received an electric shock. His vision was further reduced; everything had turned gray, and in his ears was a rustling and creaking that knew to be the dry laughter of the vines and creepers that were an extension of Dennison, which shared his perverse sense of humor. Avery understood that he was dying. He no longer had the energy to run or fight. This time, when the attack resumed, he would not be waking up. Still, there was something else that was bothering him. Even as he’d been reliving his darkest moments, he’d been aware of something, a presence, watching him, imploring him, trying to get his attention. For some reason that he couldn’t fully comprehend, he thought it was Boseman, his partner. It was as if, through the mental conduit that Dennison had opened with Avery, Boseman had also been trying to impart something, a message of some kind. Now, as Avery looked over at his partner, likewise dying, and the two shared the briefest moment of eye-to-eye contact, the big Texan thought he understood what Boseman was asking of him, and he nodded his head very slightly, to show his agreement.
Groaning, he crawled toward Boseman, holding one hand out, as if seeking some kind of solace or commiseration with the man. As he’d hoped, Dennison didn’t instantly hit him with another of those mental blasts. The freak probably enjoyed seeing him humbled. When less than a foot separated the two soldiers-of-fortune, Avery reached out toward Boseman again…and unbuckled one of the pouches on the “utility belt” his partner was still wearing. As his hand closed around the hard, circular object, he was struck by another mental attack. Dennison had realized the two were trying to get something over on him. But even as Avery felt himself being spirited away, to another place and time, another painful touchstone in his life, he pulled the pin of the M-67 hand grenade. Dennison shouted a warning to his two oversized offspring, and the brothers rushed forward, but it was too late…and five seconds later, a massive blast shook the confines of the underground chamber, rattling the boards of the disused barn above.
When Martina Northover hadn’t heard from her two mercenaries in a week’s time, she tried to reach out to them through an intermediary. When this proved unsuccessful, she tried to do it directly, with no better luck. When another week passed, she sent one of her underlings to the Dennison property, on the pretext of making one final offer on the place. Martina wasn’t willing to go back personally; the thought of being in the presence of that hideous old crone again nauseated her. Her flunky reported back that there was no sign of life, not in the house, nor in any of the land surrounding it. He also told her that the house and barn both seemed to have deteriorated to an astonishing degree, considering the short amount of time that had elapsed, and that there was a stench of decay so bad that at last, he’d turned tail and run, getting out of there as fast as his legs could carry him. Not long after, legal proceedings began, expedited through certain funds moving through the proper channels. In less than six months’ time, the former Dennison holdings were owned, mineral rights and all, by the conglomerate represented by Miss Northover. Martina was pleased. She didn’t know what method Boseman and Avery had used to make the Dennison family disappear so expediently, and she didn’t much care. She was even more pleased by the two men going missing so considerately themselves. If they showed up to claim the money at some point, so be it. If not, she would make a case to her superiors that she should be entitled to some of it. It might be enough to cover the cost of the in-ground pool for her summer residence she’d been mulling over for a while.
Steven Finkelstein is a graduate of the English Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is primarily a novelist but has also written numerous short stories, essays, screenplays, etc. His work has appeared in dozens of publications online and in print, in the U.S. and abroad. Three of his novels, Transitional Period, The Woods, and Hell To Pay, as well as the short story collection A Long, Slow Burn and Other Stories, are now available on Amazon for Kindle and print-on-demand. For more information on Steven and his work, please visit www.stevenfinkelstein.com.
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