Tyler Cooper had just cracked open his third beer, when his wife, Karen, stuck her head out the screen door and hollered at him for what would be the fourth and final time. “How many times do I have to ask you to clear out that brush down by the pond?” she demanded. She did not wait for a reply, but simply turned back into the house, allowing the screen door to slam shut against her generous backside.
With a grunt, Ty set his beer aside and heaved himself out of the porch swing. He walked the ten yards down the steps and into the backyard, where he found his son, Charlie, stretched out in the hammock, earbuds firmly in place, his thumbs dancing across the tiny, digital keyboard on his latest cell phone. “Charlie?” he said. His son did not look up. He gave the bottom of the hammock a shove with his foot. “Charlie!” With that, Charlie pulled the buds from his ears and looked up at his father. “How many times do I have to tell you to clear out that brush down by the pond?” Tyler demanded.
“The what?” Charlie asked.
“The brush,” his father repeated.
“What? Like a hairbrush?”
“No, don’t be stupid,” his father snapped.
Although his wife was out of sight, he heard her customary admonition float back to him through the open kitchen window, “Don’t call the boy stupid, Ty, you’ll hurt his self-esteem.”
Perhaps, Ty thought, his self-esteem could use a good kick in the pants, if he was dumb enough to believe there was a hairbrush growing down by the pond. “Sorry, son,” he said with exaggerated patience, “I didn’t mean to call you stupid, but I was talking about the weeds growing down by the pond.”
“The pond?” Charlie repeated. “What pond?”
“Our pond,” his father replied, his patience waning fast.
“We have a pond?”
“Of course we have a pond, it’s on the new property.” Tyler waved his hand in the direction of the vacant land just beyond his own fence.
Charlie glanced back down at his phone.
“So are you going to go clear it?” his father asked.
His father rubbed his eyes with such ferocity, it looked as though he wanted to gouge them out.
Almost, Charlie thought.
“The brush by the pond,” his father said again. “Are you going to clear it out like I asked?”
“Isn’t that the neighbor’s property?”
“No, it’s ours. We closed on it last week, remember?” Ty replied.
“Yes, and you need to go down there and clear away all that brush.”
“That what?” Charlie asked, without a trace of irony.
Tyler slapped his forehead. “Never mind! I’ll do it myself.” He turned and stalked off.
Charlie smiled to himself, popped his earbuds back into place, and stretched out in the hammock.
“Dumbass kid,” Tyler grumbled. He’d gone into the house and was in the process of pulling on his work trousers, when his wife entered the room. He glared at her, willing her to start an argument.
She did not. She collected the laundry and was nearly to the door when she called back, “Dinner’s at six. Be back by then.”
By the time he’d thought of a sufficiently rude come back, she’d gone. He pulled a ball cap low over his eyes, grabbed his leather gloves from the shed, and trudged his way down the hill with a brush cutter in one hand and a can of fuel in the other.
The sight of his father heading down to the pond brought a grin to Charlie’s face. It was a satisfied, victorious sort-of smile and one he’d come to regret, whenever he looked back on that final conversation with his dad.
Officer James Donner snorted his way back to consciousness when the radio on his dash crackled loudly. Unfortunately, by the time he was fully awake, the speaker had completed the message and the radio had fallen silent again. He’d nearly convinced himself it had been a dream, when the voice returned.
“Jim, for cryin’ out loud, where are you?”
His grab for the transmitter was quick and clumsy. He succeeded only in knocking it to the floor. He fumbled in the dark for a moment before he managed to retrieve it. “I’m here, what’s up?”
“Finally! Where’ve you been?” He recognized the voice of Officer Kelly Morgan. She was clearly annoyed.
“I was…I pulled over a motorist-a kid-thought he might’ve been drunk.” He winced. The lie had been slow off his tongue. She’d never buy it.
Kelly sighed. “Fine, look, I need some back-up over here at the Parker farm. Do you know where that is? Off Davisburg Road?”
“Sure, don’t tell me you finally found him?”
“Who?” she asked.
Jim chuckled. “Who? Don Parker, of course.” He could tell she was distracted.
“Oh, God! No, sorry, I didn’t even think about that. But now that you mention it, that is a little creepy.”
“We’ve got another missing person’s report over here. The new owner of parcel B has gone missing. The guy’s name is Cooper. Tyler Cooper.”
“Yeah, the farm has been sold, did you know that? Although, I’m not sure if that’s accurate,” she corrected herself at once. “According to Mrs. Cooper, Don Parker’s niece inherited the whole kit and caboodle-all two hundred acres-when they declared him dead. She broke up the farmland and sold it off, but I don’t know about the house itself. That place is in pretty rough shape. I can’t imagine anyone would want it.”
“Not to mention the disappearance,” Jim put in. “A lot of people still think Don Parker met his end there.”
“Idiots,” she snapped. “There’s no evidence of that at all. Anyway, there’s still a sign up, so I don’t think it’s been sold.”
“Is that where I’m meeting you then?” he said. “At the old Parker house?” He pulled his seat belt across his chest and began to back out.
“No, sorry,” she said.
Donner put the car back in park.
“Like I said, the Coopers bought parcel B, which runs next to their existing lot. I’m at the Cooper’s place now. It’s the gray Craftsman bungalow just east of the Parker property. The address is: 2557 Eagle Court.”
“Got it. I’m on my way.” He’d started to pull out for a second time, when Kelly’s voice came over the radio again.
“Hey, Jim, I think we might need a psych consult too.”
He rolled his eyes and put the car back in park. “A psych consult for a missing person?”
“For the missing person’s son, actually,” she said. “I’ll fill you in when you get here, but please call Dr. Fisk and see if he can come by yet tonight.”
“Will do,” he said.
Ten minutes later, at just after one in the morning, Officer Donner arrived at the Cooper home. He found Kelly in the kitchen, talking to Mrs. Cooper. A young man sat in a chair in the corner. Jim guessed him to be in his late teens or early twenties. His arms and face were heavily bandaged, with blood seeping through the gauze in several spots. He had the dull, vacant stare Jim associated with shock. An ambulance crew was with him, but he seemed not to notice them.
“Officer Donner,” Kelly said, “this is Karen Cooper and her son, Charlie.” Kelly motioned to the kid in the corner.
“Nice to meet you both,” Jim said with a smile.
Charlie continued his deadpan stare out the kitchen window, either unable or unwilling to acknowledge what was happening around him.
“Jim, could I maybe have a word with you out front, please?” Kelly said.
He followed her out the door and onto the porch. For mid-July, the breeze was unusually mild. Heavy clouds obscured the full moon and covered the property in a velvety blackness, which was nearly absolute save for the glow of a single porch light.
“What happened to that kid?” Jim asked.
“Good question. I’ve been trying to figure that out for the better part of an hour.”
“He can’t talk?”
“So he can’t remember what happened? Is it shock?”
She ignored his questions. “Did you call Dr. Fisk?”
“I did, but I couldn’t get him. I left a message with his service. It is shock, isn’t it? When will he snap out of it, do you think?”
“It’s not just that,” she said. “He does remember, or, at least, he has a story about what happened.” She paced in front of the porch light, while moths beat themselves against it.
Jim raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean? You think he’s lying? You don’t think he had something to do with this father’s disappearance, do you? By the way, when did they see him last?”
“Yesterday. He was planning to clear the brush alongside the pond on parcel B.” She jabbed her thumb in the direction of the empty lot just beyond the Cooper’s existing property line. “No one’s seen him since.”
“Where’ve they looked?”
“Well, the son went down there after him, and…” She hesitated.
“And that’s why we need the psych consult. The kid claims he was attacked-”
“No shit!” Jim broke in. “A blind man can see that. Please tell me you don’t think those wounds are self-inflicted?”
“Let me finish,” she said, sounding more unnerved than angry. “He claims he was attacked by the brush.”
Officer Donner was sure he’d misunderstood. “By the…what? Sorry?”
“You heard me, by the brush. He thinks he was attacked by a bunch of weeds. He’s convinced that’s what happened to his father as well.”
Jim laughed. He couldn’t help himself.
Kelly gave him a shove. “Don’t let the mom see you laughing.” She glanced nervously back into the kitchen window.
He quickly turned his laughter into an unconvincing cough and said, “Okay, well, hostile weeds aside, someone obviously attacked that kid. Those aren’t scrapes. They’re cuts, bad ones. I’m guessing from a hunting knife of some kind. Have you gone down there yet?” he asked, indicating the pond with a tilt of his head.
“Why do you suppose I called for back-up? I’m not going down there alone.”
“No, right,” he agreed. “I’ll get the flashlights, you tell Mrs. Cooper, and I’ll meet you at the bottom of the stairs.”
He returned moments later, a flashlight in each hand, to find Kelly pacing in front of the porch steps. He handed her a light and led the way through the Cooper’s side yard to the property line, where he tripped over a low, split rail fence and fell face first into a field of murky vegetation. The beam from his flashlight flickered and dimmed, as though from a bad connection. He smacked it against his thigh. “This damned thing,” he muttered, “all frustration, no illumination.”
Kelly, trailing behind him at a safe distance, stepped lightly over the fence and directed the beam of her own light down over the dark landscape. The fuzzy fronds of maiden grass came into view, punctuated here and there by tall, blooming goldenrod.
She helped Jim to his feet, and they lumbered along through the waist deep weeds. Now and then they called for Mr. Cooper, but aside from croaking bullfrogs and a dog barking in the distance, they received no reply.
Something scurried through the grass at their feet, causing Jim to stumble backward. Kelly cast her light around quickly, but whatever it was had gone. “Probably just a mouse,” she whispered.
Or a rattlesnake, he thought. He continued forward one slow, cautious step at a time. From behind, he heard the smack of flesh on flesh. “Mosquito?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “Something brushed my cheek, not sure what.” The beam from her flashlight reflected off eyes staring back at them through the darkness. “Did you see that?” she asked. Her voice seemed to have gone up an octave.
“Deer,” Jim said, “They sleep in the tall grass.”
Twenty feet from the water’s edge, the maiden grass gave way to something else. As before, Jim was the first to wade into it. Kelly lagged behind. “Jim, what is this?” she asked, aiming her flashlight down at the plant to examine its leaves. As she touched the stem, it wrapped itself around her finger. It was a curious feeling, almost a caress, until the first barb struck. She winced and pulled away.
Somewhere to her left, she could hear roots being ripped from the earth and Jim Donner cursing, first in apparent anger and then, she was sure, in pain. “Jim, where are you? What’s going on?” She tried to force her way through the thicket, but the plant’s thorns snagged her clothing and seemed, almost intentionally, to block her path forward. She used the shaft of her metal flashlight to shove it aside, but the thick barbs found her exposed forearm and dug into her flesh. Recoiling from the pain, she released her grip on the flashlight, which hit the ground with a muffled, metallic thunk and rolled beneath the brambles, where it’s light was soon completely extinguished.
Jim’s curses turned to pleas for help and eventually to screams of agony.
“Oh, God! Jim, I’m coming. Hang on.” Kelly made several attempts to force her way through the tangle of vines, each more futile than the last. It was no good. With every step and swipe of her arms, she could feel the plant tearing into her flesh. It was like trying to wade through a sea of razor blades. “Jim,” she called, hoping he could still hear her. “I need to get help. I’m not going far. I’ll be right back. Hang on!”
She ran back through the tall grass, which clung to the blood that now covered her arms and legs. Mrs. Cooper and the ambulance crew, alerted by the screams, met her on the front lawn. “It’s Jim,” she explained to one of the paramedics. “He’s being attacked. Get some…” A sudden, deafening silence quelled her next words more effectively than a canon blast. She turned back toward the pond. The screaming had stopped. The frogs were silent. Even the dog had gone dumb.
“We need more back-up,” she whispered.
By dawn, Kelly and six others had been taken to the emergency room. One officer, who’d waded into the thicket brandishing a machete, had barely escaped with his life.
“Did they find Jim?” Kelly asked, when her supervisor, Earl Carter, arrived at the hospital.
“We know where he is,” Earl replied.
“What the hell does that mean?” she asked.
He frowned. “It means we can see the blood trail, but we haven’t been able to get him out yet.”
“Why not? The sun’s up now. Just take a rotary mower and go in after him.”
“You don’t think we’ve tried?” he snapped. “You think you’re the only one brilliant enough to come up with that plan?”
“What happened?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know, but unable to avoid the question.
He shook his head and pulled a zip-style baggie from his pocket. “We managed to get a piece of it,” he said.
In the bright light of her hospital room, Kelly was able to see her attacker clearly for the first time. She thought the leaves looked vaguely familiar, but the thorns were unlike anything she’d ever seen. They made the stem look as though it were wrapped in green razor wire.
“What is it?” she asked, carefully turning the bag over in her hands.
“I have no idea,” he said. “All I know is, we sent the Bush Hog in there, and this thing,” he pointed to the clipping, “went berserk. It attacked the machine and wrapped itself around every moving part until the Hog ground to a halt. The poor guy driving the tractor was a mess. They’re still stitching him up.”
“Do you hear yourself? You’re acting like this thing is alive.”
“It is alive.”
“You know what I mean, like it can think for itself.”
“Self-defense is more an instinct than a thought,” he argued, “and plenty of plants are equipped for self-defense.”
“Self-defense?” she repeated. “I think you’re forgetting who started this war.”
Kelly scowled. “So now what?”
“Are you feeling up to an assignment?” he asked.
“Good. There’s a nursery about a mile from the Parker farm. I want you to take that clipping over there and see if they can identify it. I’d like to know exactly what we’re dealing with before we try anything else.”
Twenty minutes later, Kelly was speaking to Marge Wallace, owner of The Garish Garden nursery. “Do you have any idea what kind of vine this is?” Kelly asked.
Marge, a stout woman with steel gray hair and wire rimmed spectacles, took the baggie and turned it over carefully in her hands. “Well, judging by the leaf, it’s some kind of rose. But I’ve never seen thorns like this before. Where’d you find it?”
“Down the road a bit, on the Parker farm.”
The woman’s head snapped up at the mention of the name. “This is one of Don Parker’s plants?”
“Oh well, now that explains it.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Don Parker fancied himself quite the hybridizer. He came in here just about every month with some new introduction or another. Some of them weren’t half bad, to be honest. But forethought was always his downfall. Leave it to Don to breed something like this,” she said, casting a rueful glance at the bag.
“I’m sorry,” Kelly said, “I’m not a gardener myself. What exactly is a hybridizer?”
“Someone who breeds new plant varieties,” she explained. “It’s quite common in the industry. Hybridizers-good ones, anyway-try to breed the most marketable traits from each parent plant into the new offspring.”
“I see. But then, why would anyone want to breed that?” she asked, pointing to the bag Marge was still holding.
“Well, like I said, Don never was very good at thinking things through. It’s hard to tell from that clipping, what he might have been trying to accomplish. Did you see any flowers on it?”
Kelly shook her head.
“No, I suppose not. It’s a little late for roses, isn’t it?” She was muttering to herself now. “Where in the hell would he have gotten a thorn like that? It’s more like a barb than a thorn really. Reminds me of…” Without another word, she strode off in the direction of her greenhouse, still clutching the baggie.
“Ma’am?” Kelly called, chasing after her. “Mrs. Wallace, I’m going to need that back.”
“Need to check something,” Marge called over her shoulder. She made a quick turn past the roses, raced down a line of fruit trees, and stopped in front of a sprawling bush. She pulled a pair of leather gloves from her apron and slipped them on, then pulled a branch of the bush forward to examine it. Marge held the baggie up to compare. “Almost,” she whispered to herself. “They’re from the same family, so…”
Kelly leaned in for a closer look. “I think the thorns on the vine are thicker.”
“You keep saying this is from a vine,” Marge said, waving the baggie at her. “Are you sure about that?”
“Absolutely,” Kelly said.
“Did you check Don’s journal?”
“His journal?” Kelly repeated.
“Yeah, he kept a journal-brown leather thing, as I recall-with notes on all his projects. If you could find that, it might tell you specifically what variety he used. My best guess? This is a cross between some kind of rose and a blackberry bush.”
“He was trying to create a rose with berries on it?” Kelly asked.
Marge laughed. “No, I doubt that. It’s more likely he was trying to create an improved rose of some kind. The cross with the berry bush was probably an accident. They grow wild all around here. If he planted one of his experimental introductions near a patch of wild berries…” She shrugged. “Who knows what kind of Frankenbush Mother Nature might make from that? But the leaf is definitely from a rose, and if you’re saying this is from a vine, then it was probably a climbing variety. Never seen anything like it in my forty years of gardening,” she added, shaking her head. “See how it’s got all those little spikes in between the thicker thorns?” She handed the baggie back. “Can you imagine trying to prune that thing?” She glanced at the bandages on Kelly’s forearm. “I guess I don’t need to tell you though.”
“Mrs. Wallace,” Kelly said, “do you know if it’s possible for a plant to defend itself?” Marge opened her mouth to speak, but Kelly held up a hand. “Now I’m not talking about a passive defense, like these nasty thorns. I mean, can a plant actively decide to defend itself against a perceived threat?”
“Absolutely,” Marge replied without hesitation. “Some Trichomes, like Nettles, for instance, are not only equipped with prickly needles, but they also have glands that can inject poison into the wounds made by those needles.”
“How would the plant know when to release the poison?”
“The poison is released when the needles are deployed-so whenever the plant is touched.”
“Are you saying the plant can sense it’s being touched?” Kelly said, clearly skeptical. “You think it can feel?”
Once again, Marge set off through the greenhouse, leaving Kelly to hurry along in her wake. She stopped short in front of a delicate looking plant with intricate, lacy leaves. “This is Mimosa Pudica,” she said. “Go ahead, touch it. It won’t hurt you, I promise,” she added, noting the officer’s wary expression.
Kelly extended a slightly shaking finger and quickly touched one of the plant’s lacy leaves. Immediately, the leaf folded in on itself, like a shy child recoiling from a stranger. “That’s incredible,” she murmured. “Still, that seems more defensive than offensive.”
“Well, you did ask me about self-defense, didn’t you?”
Kelly had to concede the point. “You’re right, sorry. But have you ever heard of a plant wrapping itself around someone’s finger, rather than drawing away?”
“No, I can’t say…well…now wait,” she said, glancing down at the ground and tapping her fingertips to her forehead, as though that might improve her memory. “I do remember hearing about a rose that was designed to wrap around things. I don’t think it was ever released commercially though.”
“Designed by one of those-what’s that word again? Hybridizers?”
“Right, some grower in England, I think,” Marge said.
“Why create a plant that could wrap itself around the gardener?”
Marge chuckled. “Well, not the gardener, of course, but a trellis maybe, or a post. The idea was to create a climber that required no training.”
“Training?” Kelly repeated. The word made her think of a toddler learning to use the toilet.
“Most climbing plants don’t take to a structure right away. They have to be trained to climb, usually by tying the plant to the structure with string. It can take the better part of a season to train a new vine.” Marge glanced down at the baggie again. “Come to think of it, I wonder if that’s maybe what Don was working on. Seems to me, he was the one who told me about that guy in England.”
“Do you happen to remember the name of the guy in England?” Kelly asked.
Marge shook her head. “I do remember the name of the rose he created, though. It was called ‘Climber’s Paradise’.”
“And why was it never released?”
Marge frowned. “They couldn’t control it. It climbed on everything, including the gardener.”
Kelly took a deep breath. “Just one more question, Mrs. Wallace. How do I kill it?”
That afternoon, Kelly returned to the Cooper home to find Mrs. Cooper sitting on her front porch, staring down at the pond with the dazed expression of one assessing the damage after a tornado.
“Mrs. Cooper,” Kelly said quietly as she climbed the steps. “Do you remember me? Kelly Morgan?”
Mrs. Cooper blinked rapidly several times. “Hello, Officer Morgan,” she said. “Yes, of course I remember you. Please, have a seat.” She motioned to a chair near her own, before turning her attention back to the pond. “Any word on my husband?”
“No, ma’am, but I was hoping you might be able to help me with my investigation.”
“How so?” she asked.
“I understand you purchased this property from Don Parker’s niece, is that right?”
“Are you still in touch with her? Would you be able to get ahold of her for me?”
“Could you ask her, please, to bring me her uncle’s gardening journal? I’m told it’s a leather bound book full of notes on his hybridizing projects.”
If Mrs. Cooper found the request odd, she didn’t show it. She nodded for a third time, her gaze still fixed on the distant pond.
The next day, journal in hand, Tami Parker arrived at the police station. She handed the book to Kelly and took a seat opposite the officer.
“Thank you for bringing it in,” Kelly said.
“No problem. I’m very sorry to hear about Mr. Cooper’s disappearance. Of course, I understand just how upsetting a tragedy of that kind can be. What I don’t understand is how my uncle’s gardening journal can help.”
“Were you aware of your uncle’s hybridizing activities, Miss Parker?”
“You make him sound like a drug dealer. He wasn’t working on anything illegal,” she said.
“I never said he was,” Kelly countered. “I was just wondering if you knew what he was working on at the time of his disappearance.”
She shrugged. “Who knows? He was always working on some crazy, new thing. A single tree to grow a whole fruit salad, or a daylily that blooms all season. None of it ever went anywhere.”
Kelly opened the journal, skimmed through the last few pages, and paused to read a passage aloud, “I believe I may have to naturalize my ‘Devil’s Paradise’. I hate to see all that effort go to waste, but it’s becoming far too aggressive.” She looked up at Tami. “Do you know what he means by ‘naturalize’ it?”
She laughed. “That was a bit of a euphemism he liked to use. When his plants died, or if he just didn’t want them anymore, he’d take them to an empty part of the property and just dump them there.”
“And did you ever see this ‘Devil’s Paradise’?”
Tami shook her head.
Kelly flipped a few more pages before stopping to read an earlier passage. “I’m beginning a new project today. I’ve managed to obtain a cutting from Nigel Fletcher’s ‘Climber’s Paradise’ rose. Unfortunately, it’s a very bland shade of pink. I plan to cross it with ‘Devil’s Own’, in the hopes that the deep, burgundy red of the latter might prove to be the dominant color. I plan to call my new introduction, ‘Devil’s Paradise’. With luck, I’ll have it in stores by next season.”
Kelly snapped the book shut and looked up at Tami.
“It never amounted to anything,” she said, clearly disappointed. “None of his plants were ever released commercially.”
“Thank heaven for that,” Kelly said.
Tami looked affronted.
As soon as Tami Parker left the station, Kelly was on the phone to Earl Carter. “I know what it is,” she said, “and how to kill it.”
“Fantastic! Talk to me. What is it?”
“It’s a climbing rose, an experimental climbing rose. The lady at the nursery told me that we should tarp it, deny it sunshine. If we do that, it should die back on its own.”
“Can’t we just poison it? Maybe put down some kind of herbicide?”
“I said the same thing. Problem is, this rose seems to have crossed with a wild berry of some kind, and she tells me they can be very resistant to herbicides. We’d likely kill the visible parts of the plant, but the roots would survive. Not to mention the fact that we’d need a ton of herbicide even to attempt it. We’d end up nuking the entire area, the pond, everything!” She heard him sigh heavily on the other end of the phone. “Earl, what is it?”
“Well, the local press got wind of the story. Folks started getting nervous.”
“Yeah, and?” she said, feeling a bit nervous herself.
“And the mayor started getting nervous.”
“And?” she demanded again.
“And we’ve already started putting down the herbicide. We’ve got equipment over here spreading it on all two hundred acres.”
Kelly was so outraged she could barely speak. “All two hundred acres? But we don’t even know if the plant has spread to the other lots.”
“The mayor felt it was best not to take chances. He was afraid of seeds blowing over, or clippings taking root, that sort of thing.”
Kelly let out a string of obscenities that made even the seasoned cop blush like a school girl.
“We’re doing the right thing,” he said. “Think about it, how could we have put tarps down without losing more men?”
She hung up without giving him a response.
In a matter of days, the Parker property resembled a toxic wasteland. Small plants curled up and turned brown, trees lost their leaves, and the duck weed that had once covered the pond disappeared. The bullfrogs had fled or perished. But, as Earl Carter was quick to point out, the ‘Devil’s Paradise’ had also been eliminated.
“It’s died right back to the soil,” he boasted, as emergency crews removed the remains of Tyler Cooper, Jim Donner, and Don Parker from the scene.
“You’re exactly right,” Kelly said, in a tone that was more confrontational than conciliatory. “It’s died right back to the soil. But has it died back beneath the soil? Are you sure you’ve killed it to the root?” she demanded.
Earl Carter rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. “What do you want from me, Kelly? It’s dead. Doesn’t it look dead to you?”
Kelly’s eyes fell on the stretcher carrying what was left of Don Parker. “Why didn’t the search crews encounter the ‘Devil’s Paradise’ all those years ago? When Don Parker first went missing?”
He shrugged. “He didn’t have any family. His wife had died years earlier, and they didn’t have kids.”
“He had a niece,” Kelly said. “She inherited the farm.”
He nodded. “I stand corrected. What I meant to say was, he didn’t have any family that cared whether he was alive or dead. Tami was living out of state at the time. I think it was the mailman who finally called the police.”
“So nobody bothered to investigate?” Kelly shot back.
He regarded her with the tired indifference of a man whose entire career had been spent dealing with government bureaucracy. “The squeaky wheel gets the government funds, Kelly. You know that.”
“Have there been any other missing persons reports filed in this area in the last seven years?”
“Two,” he replied shortly. “We’re still looking into them.”
“How do they play into your squeaky wheel theory?” she snapped.
He let out a humorless laugh and headed back up the embankment to where rescue workers were loading the body bags into an ambulance.
Much to the dismay of the mayor and his minions, the first new shoots of ‘Devil’s Paradise’ had already poked their way through the poisoned ruin of a landscape just weeks before the first snow was expected to fall. It was Kelly who discovered it. Apart from reporters and the occasional thrill seeker, snapping cell phone selfies where Don Parker’s body had been found, Kelly was the only one who still made regular trips out to parcel B.
Mrs. Cooper and her son had gone to live with relatives in Cleveland. She’d hoped to sell the house, but had been unable to find an agent willing to take it on. She’d stuck a ‘for sale by owner’ sign into the poisoned front lawn on her way out of town, but had not, so far as Kelly was aware, had so much as a nibble.
Kelly was walking through the property on the second Tuesday in October, when she felt a tiny barb claw into her leather boot. It was about six inches in length, just long enough to slink up her boot and make a grab for her ankle. She set down a large, canvas tote and took from it a pair of gauntlet style, leather gloves and a trowel. She pulled on the gloves, kneeled, and removed the plant-roots and all-from the ground. Even after she’d done so, the barbed stem still writhed in her gloved hand. A vivid image of the full-grown specimen curling itself around Jim Donner’s neck popped into her mind’s eye and she had to fend off the urge to fling the little plant into the pond. Instead, she pulled a trash bag from her tote, shook it open, and slipped the length of vine inside. She’d only walked a foot or two before she encountered a second vine, and then a third.
She pulled her cell from the tote and dialed. “Earl,” she said, “they’re back. I’m at the Parker property and they’re everywhere. Call the mayor. We have to lay down the tarps before the seedlings are big enough to put up a fight.”
It was not the news he wanted to hear. Truth be told, the only news he wanted to hear was that the weed was completely dead and would never threaten his work day again. “How in the hell are we going to tarp all those plants?” he snapped. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“Am I? I suppose you want to lay down another coat of poison, is that it? How many would that make now? Ten? Twelve?”
On the other side of the phone, Earl flinched. The remark hit a little too close to home. He’d opted for herbicides in the beginning because it seemed the quickest, easiest solution. But in the small, agricultural community, where healthy plants meant a healthy economy, the lingering effects of the poison had been a PR nightmare for the sheriff’s office, to say nothing of the mayor’s reelection campaign. Now it seemed it had all been for nothing. “Fine,” he said at last. “I’ll give you the budget for the supplies and the manpower, but you’re in charge of this one. If it all goes south, it’s on your head.” With that, the line went dead.
It took the rest of October and the whole of November to tarp off what remained of parcel B. More than once, Kelly asked herself if perhaps Earl Carter had been right. Maybe it was a ridiculous, futile plan. The rose they were hunting had slipped between stones, crawled under fallen branches, even grown up trees. She had no way of knowing whether they’d gotten it all, and if even a single stem of it survived, what then? What she did know was that she was under constant pressure from Earl Carter and the whole of the mayor’s office to make the problem go away. The details of how that was to be accomplished seemed irrelevant. They simply wanted assurance that the problem had been solved.
Finally, on a bright day in early December, Kelly decided the task was complete, as much because the cold and snow had made it impossible to continue as for any other reason.
“Think you got it all?” Earl Carter asked.
“Sure,” she replied without conviction.
“You’re going to have to be a damned sight more convincing than that when you talk to the press,” he said.
“The press?” she repeated, sounding appalled.
“Well yeah,” he said, “you were such a vocal critic after the herbicide debacle, who better to reassure the public that the situation is now under control?” The smug smile that clung to his face as he said this made her teeth clench painfully.
Kelly Morgan gave that press conference. She even stayed in town until the following fall, when the tarps were pulled away and it was determined that the ‘Devil’s Paradise’ had indeed died back to the roots. Once that had been confirmed, however, the list of reasons to leave seemed too compelling to stay. Whether it was the nightmarish memory of Jim Donner being torn to pieces right beside her, or the vicious acrimony that had developed within the sheriff’s office following his death, her life there had become unendurable. Still, the most compelling reason to leave, and she hated to admit it even to herself, was her own lingering doubt. Thoughts of a deeply buried root, or a single seed carried on the breeze, kept her awake at night long after she’d left the little town.
Two years later, when a real estate website she’d been monitoring confirmed the sale of the home at 2557 Eagle Court, she finally went into therapy. Had she known the McKenna family, who bought the property for twenty thousand below the asking price, had a seven year old daughter, she might have done something more. But the website made no mention of it.
She was, therefore, blissfully unaware of little Lisa McKenna’s exploratory walk along the pond’s edge, during which the girl discovered a thin vine that seemed to creep up her arm voluntarily. It was a curious feeling, almost a caress, until the first barb struck.