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.
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 rattlers—more like insects— and pygmyies 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 A branded on one clover leaf. The letter B 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.
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 tie—the 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 night . . . Humor for him was a reaction to humor in others, not an understanding of it. Charlie’s laugh—on the rare occasion he let one out—was 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.
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.
By 8:10 a.m. he had entered Jubilation County. On either side of the highway the hills were thick with trees. Suburban sprawl gave way to what looked like an endless pine forest in either direction, veined with back roads, the occasional truck stop, a processing plant, rest areas off the highway.
He exited and turned right onto Route 20. A mile down the road he passed through the unincorporated community of Strumkin, in the eastern part of the county. There was a drugstore and supermarket, unfinished sub-divisions. Finally the two-lane road narrowed. Small country homes and abandoned work sheds gave way to horse farms and pastures. He passed the turnoff that led to Momma’s old house before she got her job at the hospital and moved closer to the city. But that had been a long time ago.
Charlie remembered little about Jubilation County—the horse flies, summer thunderstorms, the awful smell from the paper plant, playing cards with Auntie Marfa while Momma attended night school—that and how to get to his job at the North Georgia Savings & Loan.
He’d thought about quitting before, maybe finding work closer to the apartment. He was attending school on scholarship, but there were still books to buy, and the car payment and insurance and rent. Not to mention his beloved hobby. Rocket kits, the parts and pieces, the tools. None of it came cheap. That and it was real hard to find a job. Charlie knew he was better off keeping his and suffering the long commute.
He passed by the barbecue place and a motorcycle repair shop. There was a vacant shopping center, most of the businesses going under in the last year. Charlie made a right, then drove around a bend in the road to the bank entrance. It was a modest building, one story, redbrick with a walkway bordered by flowering azaleas. A flagpole rose above the branch, the Georgia state flag and the Stars and Stripes hanging listlessly, waiting for a breeze.
He drove slowly through the one-lane drive-up window on the south side of the building, looking to see if the lights were on in the lobby yet. They were. Good sign. He circled the building once, eyeing the glass double doors at the bank’s entrance, the small alcove where the ATM was. There once had been a gas station and fast-food restaurant on the same lot. But like a lot of local businesses both had closed six months ago and never reopened.
Charlie didn’t see any other cars and that worried him. He hated being first. Not interested in opening the branch by himself. But as he approached the employee parking spaces, he spotted the teller manager’s car parked next to the Dumpster.
His boss, Niesha Livingston, was not in her car. Charlie figured she was inside replacing the tapes in the security cameras before putting the all-clear sign in the window by the employee entrance. This month it was a pink sheet of paper.
At the corner of the west wall was an employee door with a small window set in the center. Charlie parked his car on the other side of the Dumpster and turned back to look at the window.
The countryside flattened. All Hicklin could see were wild tall grasses bordering a tree farm and beyond the crests of yellow poplars and hickory. After a while more houses appeared. He slowed down. In the backyard of a motorcycle repair shop he thought he saw a woman sleeping in a hammock. A coonhound in a run slept while flies played around the dog’s water bowl.
Hicklin continued through an intersection. To his left there was a vacant shopping center. Not even the liquor store had survived. Tough times indeed. Around the first bend in the road he slowed and turned his head. The armored car had just pulled up to the North Georgia Savings & Loan. A portly, bearded guard was loading a dolly with cardboard boxes while his partner remained behind the wheel.
Hicklin drove past the bank.
He wheeled the car into the drive of an abandoned house. The yard weedy and littered with the rusty orange wreckage of farm equipment. Hicklin lit a cigarette. Turned the air conditioner higher. He had once spent three days in transit, in a cage so hot and foul he could still smell the urine- soaked heat. It was as if his senses would never let go of the foulness.
But sometimes they never knew where to put him.
Hicklin turned to the backseat. The lid on the aquarium had come undone, but no water had spilled. Next to the tank was a Mossberg tactical 12-gauge with a six-round capacity. The shotgun had polymer grips, a ghost ring and heat shield, a big twenty-inch barrel. He had slipped an ammo caddy over the stock, allowing for five more rounds of high-velocity buckshot.
Hicklin reached for a duffel bag behind him and pulled out a Sig Saver model P220, a full- size .45 semiauto with Trijicon night sights. Four magazines of eight and ten single-stacked rounds. Hollow-point plus-Ps, firepower that could turn an arm into a flipper at close range. Hicklin slammed in a magazine, released the heavy-gauge slide, chambering a round. He flicked the decocking lever with his thumb, dropping the hammer safely from single to double action.
He placed the pistol on the passenger seat next to a matching paddle holster and a mask made from a sugar sack.
Charlie cut the engine when he saw Niesha appear in the window, taping the pink sheet of office paper to the inset. Then she opened the door and stepped completely out, following one of the last protocols of the bank’s opening procedure.
Charlie took his time, not really looking forward to another workday. Only three hours, he reminded himself. It’ll go by in a hurry. The door locked shut behind him. He turned right, walked through the lobby and behind the teller line.
Niesha led the way, a three-ring binder in one hand. She made eye contact with Charlie but, as usual, didn’t say anything until she was done with whatever task occupied her mind at that moment. She took a stack of deposit slips from a supply cabinet, a spindle of paper and a handful of color-coded money bands. She brought everything back to her station and went to work in the vault log.
The retail banker’s life. Money and its paperwork escort that had to be signed, initialed, accounted for, tallied, totaled, secured, strapped, balanced and banded.
Charlie stopped at his terminal, staring at the blank screen of the computer as if the machine had made an untoward remark. He turned an apathetic face to Niesha, who looked up from the thick binder and flashed a toothy white smile.
“Well, good morning, Coma!” she said, then realizing her error, “Excuse me, Charlie Colquitt.”
“Good morning, Sunshine—pardon—Niesha Livingston.”
It was one of many inside jokes they shared at the branch. A way to maintain sanity after a day’s work with the public. Anything to keep from jumping off an overpass during rush hour.
He put the travel mug between the MICR reader and validator at his station. Walked back down the teller line to the big, floor-to-ceiling Diebold safe. Niesha followed.
“You go first, dear.”
The inch-thick carbon steel door of the vault had two wheel combination locks. Charlie entered the combination to his assigned lock. Niesha did the same. No one teller could know the combination to both wheel locks.
The vault unlocked with a clank and Niesha swung the heavy door open. She regarded Charlie for a moment. His slouching figure accented by a jowl under the chin. Blond hair in need of a trim. An attitude of weariness wherever he happened to be. She had more or less grown accustomed to it.
Inside the vault there were eight teller lockers, a large cash locker and sealed cardboard boxes filled with rolled coin. Assorted binders and inventory logs were crammed into what available space was left. Another locker housed the consignment items. Cashier’s checks, money orders, traveler’s checks, gift cards in fancy gold envelopes.
Charlie spun the combination to his teller locker and removed the box and coin sorter. He carried them back to his terminal, the box balanced on his right hand like a meal a waiter was returning to the kitchen. Charlie cycled through his key chain until he found the one that opened the teller box. He popped off the lid, removed his cash bin and slid it into the top drawer. He placed the coin sorter on the counter next to the receipt tray and booted up his computer. Looking down, he saw a penny on the floor.
“Check the night deposit, would you, Charlie?” Niesha said.
He nodded, on automatic pilot, unaware of Niesha’s lingering stare. Thankfully the commercial deposit drop wasn’t too full. Only one bag from the pharmacy in Strumkin.
Niesha remembered when the bank had hired Charlie and she thought, What is wrong with this damn boy? He was tall, with lousy pale skin. Slumped shoulders that reinforced an impression of shyness. His face oval shaped, an enigma of blandness. She thought he might have been slightly retarded. But the human resources manager must have felt Charlie would be okay to handle other people’s money.
In a way Niesha pitied him. Never talked about friends, especially a girlfriend. Just Momma for lunch every Saturday. He was in engineering school, taking classes year-round so he could graduate early. Wanted to work for Lockheed because he loved rockets. Niesha knew he was bright, honors student smart. Also, he was good with the customers, though sometimes his demeanor could exasperate a person who had never been waited on by Charlie. At times he suffered from a peculiar aloofness, as if caught in a kind of meltdown. But just when someone might lose patience with him, Charlie snapped out of these funks to complete a transaction or laugh that hee-haw laugh of his or say something unexpectedly thoughtful and appropriate. It reminded Niesha that some people are just different but not hopeless.
Destined to be lonely and largely unnoticed.
Niesha usually picked up some donuts and coffee on Saturdays and today was no exception. She offered a coconut glaze to Charlie, leading with her right hand to show off the engagement ring courtesy of longtime boyfriend Da’Sean. Charlie shook his head, opted for chocolate with sprinkles from the to-go box. I’ll find that donut in the trash with one bite gone, she figured. As usual.
While Charlie thought to himself, Thank god Da’Sean finally asked her.
Niesha took her coffee and donut and walked back down the line. She logged on to the bank system, unlocked the drawers and mini-vault of the standing-height pedestal at her teller station. Scanned the money supply. They probably had about fifty grand between them.
The bank didn’t open for fifteen more minutes. The financial specialist and branch manager were both on vacation. A travel teller was on the schedule but had called out sick. Niesha and Charlie would be the only employees working that Saturday, abbreviated hours that ran from nine till noon.
“You need to order cash?” she said, mouth full, chasing a bite of donut with a sip of coffee.
Charlie opened his cash drawer and did a quick count.
“I should be fine,” he answered. “Maybe a couple rolls of quarters. Saturdays are slow.”
“Don’t bet on it being slow today, Charlie,” she said, finding some satisfaction in the torment of her favorite teller. “Delivery didn’t come yesterday. You should have heard me on the phone. I let that lady down at the distribution center have it. Forgetting us on payday like that! Be glad you took off to take that exam of yours. I thought we’d barely make it when those boys from H and P Construction came in with their fat checks. More of ’em will be by today. That’s why I ordered extra large bills . . . just in case.”
Charlie sighed, the prospect of a lobby full of check cashers enough to ruin his morning. Paydays were the worst. Most people didn’t have an account with North Georgia S&L. In fact, hardly any at all spoke English. He looked over at Niesha blankly, tried to make a face like he’d heard and agreed with her. But sometimes he knew his expression didn’t let people know he was paying attention. As though he was only partially present for any human interaction. Niesha ignored or was used to his distracted nature. Just talking to myself. As usual.
She just wanted to fill the air with something.
The radio was broken.
“There they are now. Late as usual,” Niesha said, nodding to thearmored car pulling up to the front doors.
The guard was in and out of the bank in five minutes. Charlie helped Niesha with a quick inventory. They both initialed the log and secured the shipment. Niesha still had to verify every strap of cash, and that was going to take some time. But they had to open in five minutes. Which meant cutting corners, bending the rules and, Charlie’s favorite of all the middle-management talking points, doing more with less.
“You mind taking customers while I verify the shipment?” she said.
Charlie shrugged, knowing it had to be done. And it wasn’t worth complaining about. He kept reminding himself it was only three hours. Three hours and he could get back to that workbench, back to his models.
He settled into his pneumatic stool. The lighting in the lobby made everything look synthetic, like props on a soundstage. The ATM in the alcove emitted a series of beeps. Beyond the panels of bullet-resistant glass not a car or person showed in the parking lot. For Charlie another workday was about to begin.
Hicklin turned the car into an empty lot where there had once been a fast-food restaurant. The night before he’d boosted the Toyota Camry from an AMC 12-plex. He imagined the owner, laughing at some dumb comedy inside. His or her car vanishing into the night.
It didn’t matter.
To Hicklin, everyone was a mark. Even his own partners.
He watched the bank. Had a good angle on the intersection and entrance. He waited until the armored car disappeared down Route 20. A rural county not yet awake. Not a goddamn car or pedestrian in sight.
Hicklin pulled the sugar sack over his head. The eyelets gave good visibility, a crudely cut hole over his mouth revealing a crooked slash of bottom lip. A long-sleeve black tee bulged from the Kevlar body armor beneath. He wore black gloves, combat cargos, steel-toe boots.
He drove across the cracked pavement to the employee entrance of the bank, which had no customers.
Hicklin left the engine running. Popped the trunk. Grabbed the Mossberg.
There was also a foldout hand truck in the trunk. He lifted it out, not in a hurry.
Charlie was hand-counting two thousand dollars’ worth of hundreds, the bills facedown because the grip was better. Had to strap the money when he was done, lock it in his second drawer. The tellers had cash limits and he was right at his. He looked up at the sound of a glass entrance door being kicked open.
Niesha had finished initialing transfer and verification forms for about $150K worth of cash and coin. Half the cash still wrapped in the plastic from the distribution center. The vault door was wide open. She had left her coffee behind Charlie’s teller terminal and was reaching for the cup when she heard it, too.
And all she could think of in that moment of comprehension was: They don’t pay me enough.
Hicklin chucked the hand truck into the lobby of the bank. Place was as empty as he’d expected. He leveled the shotgun on a white boy behind the teller line. Charlie rose slowly from his stool, as if he might be about to ask a question. Hicklin swung the muzzle to a round black body in a flowery dress, hair done up nice. A hand crept underneath the counter.
“Let me see your fucking hands, nigger!”
Niesha’s hand kept moving.
Hicklin squinted his left eye and shot her.
Charlie felt his body spasm at the noise of the shotgun. His vision dimmed for a moment. Legs barely holding him up, Charlie held his hands out to Hicklin, palms up, as if gesturing for a man to stop at a crosswalk. He heard Nieshas’s body drop to the floor. Some of her head had splattered on the drive-up window behind them. Charlie raised his hands higher, eyes searching for a way out, but the masked man lunged forward, the smoking shotgun closer now.
With his left hand Hicklin hoisted the dolly over the teller line. Charlie caught it on his forearms and staggered backwards from the blow. Hicklin backed up, then bounded like a panther onto the counter, deftly keeping the shotgun trained on Charlie. He turned and gave the lobby a once-over, his focus jumping from the front entrance out toward the parking lot. All clear. The vault door was cracked open. Dead woman sprawled on the floor. Don’t think she reached that button. But she was makin’ a move. Yet anytime now someone was likely to show up. They always did. Hicklin figured he’d been in the building about a minute. He was looking to shave time.
Another two minutes. Not a second longer.
Charlie felt himself go in his pants. The training video during employee initiation hadn’t prepared him for this.
Just give the robber what they want and this will all be over. . . .
Don’t be a hero.
Police should be on their way.
But Niesha was dead and all he could think of was that he had left his mini-vault and the transaction drawer unlocked and there was no silent alarm alerting some remote dispatcher and I wonder if I can use this as an excuse to get out of lunch with Momma? while he stared at the 12- gauge muzzle, smelled it, saw Hicklin talking to him, and Charlie not hearing a word.
Hicklin pressed the muzzle against Charlie’s forehead.
“I said, open that fuckin’ safe!”
The muzzle burned the skin near his hairline. Dropping to his hands and knees, Charlie reached with a shaky hand and pulled the mini-vault door open.
“And the fuckin’ drawer!”
Charlie reached up and pulled the drawer open. He glanced at the panic button under the counter of his terminal. It was close enough, just within reach. A quick movement and he could push it, hold the button down long enough to trigger the alarm. But then what? Was it worth it? What was Niesha thinking? He looked up at the white mask, the dark eyelets, waiting for more instructions. There was an urgency in the man’s eyes. Violence. Capability.
Reaching into the drawer, Hicklin intuitively grabbed straps of hundreds, fifties and twenties. Ignored the loose cash. He figured the paint pack was embedded in the stack of tens but he couldn’t know for certain. He shoved Charlie aside, leaned over and took what was in the mini- vault.
Hicklin stuffed the wrapped money in a black duffel slung from one shoulder. Then, strapping the Mossberg over his other shoulder, unfolded the hand truck and began loading cardboard boxes of plastic-wrapped cash. This took less than a minute, but to Hicklin it felt like half a day. He wielded the shotgun and gestured for the boy to take the handle of the dolly and follow him out of the bank.
“Move! Move! Move!”
Charlie pulled the hand truck, struggling over a door runner andthreadbare carpeting. He caught a glimpse of Niesha on her side.Blood everywhere. Fighting the urge to vomit, Charlie backed out ofthe rear employee entrance, where a sedan was parked, idling. Henumbly began to load the vault monies into the trunk at gunpoint.Hicklin opened a backseat door and dumped the duffel bag’s worthof teller cash into the aquarium.
Hicklin thought about killing him right there in the parking lot. Leave no witnesses. But the adrenaline had Hicklin jumpy, hearing things like another car or sirens. He stared at Charlie, at his pale blue eyes, the dumpy waistline, the cowardly expression on the teller’s face, before impulsively forcing him into the passenger seat. Useful later, maybe. Hicklin had trusted his gut for too long to second-guess the move, as stupid as it seemed.
But his skin prickled with warning. The message loud and clear.
This is all wrong.
When he got into the car Hicklin punched the teller in the head. Charlie’s eyes rolled and he slumped against the window. Hicklin put the car in gear and sped off. Away from the bank and down a wooded road. Heading north into the foothills.
Toward a refuge where the living were few and far between.