“You think I’m going to help you?”
His truck was still on Grant St. an hour later, its windshield foggy with dew. No boot for leaving it overnight, no parking ticket. He thanked the Uber driver who’d picked him up at the library, taken him to his house for the spare key and a jacket, and now dropped him here, where the road teemed with exhaust plumes, white against the air. The truck engine stuttered, but it started up. Its cogs groaning, just as his did, in the cold.
He knew they were right, Jules and Mallory. It was monumentally stupid, maybe even suicidal, to go alone. But still his foot was steady on the gas. His hands not shaking on the steering wheel. It was something that always surprised him after decades of imagined crises, so much practice flailing his arms against the water and gasping for breath—how when things got bad enough, he stopped drowning. He could simply put his feet down and stand.
“I’ll be fine,” he had told them. Despite the obvious reasons to call the police, the doubt vining across his chest. “Just focus on finding what you can.”
And then he’d left them at the bank of computers, Jules furrowed with frustration, Mallory ruddy and scared. If they were going to stop this guy from hurting Eliot, they needed proof they could take to the police, and Grant would be damned if they weren’t going to divide to conquer. He refused to waste any more time.
On the drive to Kirkwood, as calmly as he flicked his blinker and made those turns, Grant kept replaying the conversation in his head, the man’s voice like spoiled milk when he had answered, all curdled and sour.
“Mr. Maxwell,” he’d said. “How good of you to call.”
They had huddled outside the library doors, where the cell reception was stronger. Jules and Mallory on their tiptoes to listen in. All three of them, bracing. “What do you want, Karl?” he spit out the name.
The man’s smile seeped through his voice. “My, my. We have a live one.”
“I know who you are, and I know what you’ve done.”
The man chuckled. “Oh, I doubt that very much. But no matter. I take it you’ve learned of our dear friend’s unfortunate legal troubles?”
“They’ll come for you next.”
“I expect they will. Of course, they’ll have to find me. And that’s where you come in.”
“You think I’m going to help you?”
“Indeed I do. You see, I have an ace up my sleeve. Would you like to speak with her?”
At that pronoun, the world around Grant seemed to pause—the traffic, the pigeons at his feet. Clouds and airplanes in the swaths of gray sky. He had time enough to visualize himself falling, cracking his skull open on the slate tile, but then a woman’s voice over the phone caught him. It wasn’t Eliot, but it was close.
“Grant?” she croaked into his ear. “Is that you?” He heard a rustle behind her, the whack of a heavy object to her head.
“Susannah,” he said. “G-Ginger.”
But Karl answered instead. “I’m sorry, Susannah just went down for a nap. If you do what I ask, it won’t be her last one.”
Grant hesitated, hoping to swallow the bluff from his voice. “What makes you think I care about her?”
“Oh come now, Mr. Maxwell. You’re no murderer. You don’t want a woman’s death on your conscience. For me, what’s one more? But for you…,” he chuckled, then his voice snapped into a taut whisper. “Besides, if you don’t think I’ll find your Eliot and do the same thing to her, then you really haven’t done your homework.”
The grip on Grant’s chest had tightened, extending to his arms, down his legs, until he felt it all over. He could hear the women on either side of him, forgetting to breathe. “Okay,” he’d said finally, unblinking. “What do you want?”
He hadn’t asked why Karl needed Eliot’s computer, or what the man planned to do to them once he had it, if Grant could even find it in the first place. Despite his promises to skip town, disappear again, Grant suspected Karl wasn’t the type to leave witnesses behind. Still, what choice did he have? If he called the police, Karl had warned him, Susannah would die before they parked their squad cars. If Grant did nothing, who knew where this nightmare would end?
By now he had less than two hours, the clock ticking, to find the computer and get to the address already plugged in his GPS, but he needed to make a stop first. He hadn’t mentioned it to Jules or Mallory, knowing they’d have tried harder to keep him from going, tugged more insistently on his sleeves.
The small lot was empty outside Bravata, as it usually was, as it now would be until someone else bought it, another chef’s dreams taking shape. For the time being, Grant didn’t care what happened to the place. He’d burn it down himself, if he thought it would help. But if he lived through the next few hours, and if Eliot came home alive, he knew that he would ache for these walls later. Their mottled brick, that built-in chimenea. The split-level deck, the dogwood, those chairs. His name in careful stencil on the window. All of it would become just another pocket of memory too tender to touch.
He used the code to spring open the lock box and shouldered inside. Past the host desk and dining room, he kept walking, eyes fixed on the floor. In the office, he moved boxes of toilet paper and tin foil to get to the safe, where he knelt to spin the dial.
Months ago, he’d wrapped it in an old t-shirt and stuffed it behind the stacks of paperwork, so he had to feel around a little, but soon his fingers landed on it: a Glock G-19 with an olive green frame. It had been a gift from Allen, a kind of signing bonus, for whenever he had to take a big deposit to the bank, but Grant had never carried it, never planned to either. The one time he’d shot a gun, as a teenager in the woods with his buddies, he’d found the trigger too tempting, the shape of the grip panel too at home in his hand. As he rooted for the bullets, he tried not to wonder if he’d really be able to do it, aim the barrel at another person, shoot the gun. He would know the answer soon enough.
The box of bullets were hard to reach from this angle, so he started removing the files. First neatly, all order maintained, but then a folder slumped open onto the floor and he stopped caring. What was the point, anyway? It was all spreadsheets that didn’t matter anymore, cost projections for food they’d never buy.
Somewhere among the mess of paper, his eye caught on the corner of a blue envelope he had never seen before. He plucked it from the pile and tore open the flap. In it, a single photograph, its edges yellow. Two bare-chested teenagers squinty at the camera. A boardwalk stretched endlessly behind them. A beach just out of view.
Grant pocketed the photo and grabbed the box of bullets, not bothering to restack the paper or close the safe. Surely the police would be here soon enough with their warrant. No reason to make their job harder than it needed to be.
Back in the car, he took turns without braking, rolled through stop signs, sped up at yellow lights. He made it to Virginia-Highlands in 15 minutes and parked on the street. He had Frank’s keys in his pocket, but halfway up the path, he realized the door had been forced open, the jamb split. The chain lock clinked in the breeze.
He pulled the gun from his pocket and racked the slide. Aiming it forward, he walked slowly, arms extended, elbows soft. He kicked what was left of the door, but it barely moved. Something firm blocked it from behind.
Grant sidled up the stoop and took a breath before raising the muzzle again and stepping inside.