Authors: Peter Farris
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who taught me the rulesÂ â¦ and how to break them
for always believing
Some of the finest friends and family a guy could hope for: Nick Muller, Randy & Tanja Larsen, Jeff & Kim Hughes Caxide, William & Autumn Hamilton, Bernie Romanowski, Chris Fischkelta, Christopher Nelson, Phil Abbott, Christian McKenna & Kathlene Hoisington, John Refano, Matt Canada, Monte Dutton, Kerry Fitzmaurice, Wayne & Diane Donaldson, Maude & Agnew Wright, Billy Wayne & Marfa Donaldson, Tim & Sandy Windham, Aunt (“Titi”) Norma, Aunt (“Titi”) Lydia, Uncle George, Cousin Andrew and Cousin Laura.
I'd like to express my gratitude to all at Tor/Forge, especially Tom Doherty, Eric Raab and Katharine Critchlow.
A ferocious thanks to David J. Schow. Mentor, sage, supreme amigo and fellow lover of all things that go
An extraspecial thanks goes to the men and women of the Cobb County Police Department. In particular Sergeant Ray Lang, an early reader and champion of
indispensable resource and dear friend.
I am also indebted to my agent, Susan Gleason, and editor, Robert Gleason, for the years of guidance, friendship and unwavering support. This book would not be possible without their efforts.
And Heather. Always.
I'm just a failed convict. I got nothin' to lose.
By 6:45 a.m.
the sun had risen over Jubilation County. Like a drunken eye, it seemed to stare across the highway, ten lanes running north and south that cut like a river between restless walls of sweetgum and pine, oak and maple. It was Saturday. Few cars on the interstate except for a lone state trooper or delivery van. Tractor-trailers rumbled. Eighteen-wheeled earthquakes heading south toward the Piedmont. Passing by low hills and valleys, the exits marked by diners and gas stations and roads that disappeared behind kudzu-covered pastures and thickets of pine trees.
An hour from the big city the highway leveled and straightened. There was a university, the campus surrounded by a sprawl of development that included an airfield, car dealerships, retailers and restaurants and apartment complexes packed on either side of the main strip.
The parkway bustled day and night. The kind of location developers referred to as a “high-growth corridor.” And overlooking it all was a mountain where Joseph E. Johnston temporarily blocked Sherman's march to the sea in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Hicklin lit a
cigarette and drove due south. Down a winding, tree-lined road where houses rose from the earth like displaced coffins. Past the farmer's market, now in a state of disrepair. There was a rusty water pump off the side of the building, an abandoned well out back. Untended pear trees dotted the property. When Hicklin parked the car he saw in one of the trees a hornets' nest thick as a pumpkin. Its occupants stirring after months of hibernation.
He cut the engine and waited. The grass behind the lot grew waist high and if he remembered correctly there was a creek that ran all the way to the national park. He recalled playing in a standing pool and you had to keep an eye out for moccasins, but the pygmy rattlers were far worse. They didn't sound like regular rattlersâmore like insectsâand pygmies were never satisfied with just one bite.
Hicklin tamped out his cigarette in the ashtray and promptly lit another. The heat was creeping up on everything. One of those sticky summer mornings that called for a change of clothes. He was used to it, having been born and raised in Jubilation County, his body attuned to breaking that first sweat in May and not stopping until mid-October. But why suffer? Hicklin started the engine and turned on the air-conditioning. He was fortunate the car had a working unit. His own truck didn't.
He checked his watch. The sun had been up for an hour.
For the normals he knew it was all about forty-hour workweeks and two-week vacations, three-month and annual reviews. Time flew by for regular folks. But not Hicklin. He felt every tick of the second hand. A man used to time as if a glacier were pushing it for him. Hicklin tried to control his nerves by sucking down drags, forcing the smoke from his nose. But sometimes, looking at the windshield, he still saw bars.
Living in a cell with no windows did that to a man.
A couple weeks ago, after his release, he'd gone to an agency that supposedly helped ex-convicts find employment. There was the GED program, a little warehouse work for him up in Jasper. Manual labor hauling pulpwood or a job at a poultry plant loading pallets with boxed meat. Twelve-hour shifts. Seven bucks an hour. The lady at the agency made it sound like a decent wage, like he had options. She talked about how bad the economy was, how finding a job as a convicted felon was next to impossible. How they're fighting the system from every direction. She talked about recidivism and formal education and a lot of other things that weren't lost on Hicklin. But after twelve years in places like Jesup, Hays State Prison and the GSP outside Reidsville, he had a clearer understanding of what the future held for him.
He flicked the cigarette out the window. Put a pair of black shooting gloves on. Checked his watch again. There was a shamrock tattoo under the band. The letter
branded on one clover leaf. The letter
on another. Inked with a tattoo gun made of guitar string, a pen and the motor from a handheld fan. Some Low Rider from Pensacola had done it. Done them all. They were cell mates for two years. Hicklin hooked the Pensacola dude up with hooch and even orchestrated a hit for him. Never got busted for that one. But last Hicklin heard homeboy had ratted on one of his own and was living in a snitch pad out west.
The back piece was solid, though. The tattoos on Hicklin's neck and chest had hurt the worst. They were all years old now. Etched into another body, it seemed. Like canvases stowed in an attic.
Hicklin looked at his watch again. Then he drove on.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The first of
three alarm clocks went off near Charlie Colquitt's head. The alarms were set to chime one minute from each other. At 7:30 a.m. a chorus of digital squawking began.
His momma called him Coma.
Charlie reached for the first clock. By 7:34 a.m. the room was silent again. He forced his eyes open as if the claws of a dream were trying to close them. Be so easy to fall back asleep, he thought. The bedroom nice and cool. Then the phone rang. On the third ring he was up and moving around his modest apartment. Mostly students in the building, living off-campus from a university that largely enrolled commuters. He answered the phone, grouchy as usual.
“Yes, Momma. I'm awake.”
Charlie listened for a while.
“Okay, Momma. I'll stop at the store before I come over.”
He hung up. The coffee machine beeped twice and began brewing on automatic. He stood for a moment, watching the percolator, picking the sleep from his eyes, absently scratching himself. Sometimes his mind just wouldn't cooperate. He'd have to stare at something just to focus.
Charlie showered and dressed for work. Slacks, a shirt and tieâthe Spartan attire of an office drone. He bought most his clothes at Walmart and never gave much thought to the brands or if the combinations matched. His dress shoes were dusty and scuffed. No matter. The customers at the bank never saw his feet anyway.
Charlie poured a bowl of cereal and ate in silence.
The shopping bag on the coffee table contained a new boost glider with a pop pod and a small-scale Tomahawk rocket kit with a parachute recovery. He went every Thursday to the hobby store. Didn't always buy something. A lot of times he just walked down the aisles, admiring the X-ACTO knives and glue and kits in their colorful cardboard boxes. Like an aspiring writer visiting the local bookstore, wishing his name were one of those on the shelves. After some custom modifications, Charlie planned to take his most recent purchase to the park by the mountain. Maybe after work. Maybe after Momma.
School. Work. And Momma. His life distilled.
He owned a television but rarely watched it, having little use for the shows and movies that his classmates endlessly referenced. Charlie was never one to share a joke with, and certainly not the person to turn to with a conversation-starting
Did you see that bit on so and so last nightÂ â¦
Humor for him was a reaction to humor in others, not an understanding of it. Charlie's laughâon the rare occasion he let one outâwas tempered by vacuity, an embarrassingly idiotic noise, geeky and loud, like a mule getting tickled to death.
Yet Charlie was a fine conversationalist, if a person was willing to discuss point-mass approximation altitude, spin rate and oscillation frequency.
Charlie stayed vaguely current with the Internet and by listening to the small talk of his customers at the bank. The occasional headline of a newspaper in its dispenser. At the doctor's office, the scrolling ticker of a corner-mounted television while Charlie waited for a checkup. In most cases Charlie gave the outside world, with its fluctuating rhythms and spikes of relevance, a glance before his mind would return to its comfortable obsessions. Model rockets and space travel and an interior monologue that only he might understand.
He filled his travel mug with coffee. Added a tablespoon of creamer, two teaspoons of sweetener. Measured out with precision.
Thoughts drifted to the remainder of his weekend. He hardly had what you could call a social life, beyond monthly meetings with a local model rocket club, most of whose members were shut-ins like him. He was close with a professor at school, but the man was pushing seventy, their interactions usually lively discussions on the way to the parking lot. If only he could skip dinner with his mother, work on that new Tomahawk, study for his Biostatistics final, hit the park for a quick launch. Well, then maybe he'd find time to wash the week's worth of dishes in the sink and tend to the pile of dirty laundry in the corner.
Charlie grabbed the car keys. Before he left he looked at his cell phone on the kitchen counter. A light blinked, alerting him to the dozen missed calls and voice mails from his mother over the past few days.
No one but Momma ever called him anyway.
Charlie left the phone.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
He drove north
on the interstate; the radio was on but barely audible. Unlike most of his apartment, Charlie kept the interior of his compact car spotless. An air freshener, shaped like a Saturn V rocket, dangled from the rearview mirror. His mother had bought it for him. A childhood visit to Kennedy Space Center.
If he tried hard enough, Charlie could still recall the scent.