“Not so fast”
As with most monsters, the man in front of Grant looked nothing like he had pictured. Even though he had seen the photograph from the golf course, even knowing it to be a few years old, Grant had somehow imagined a towering figure with ropy muscles, maybe a scar on his face, a neck tattoo. But Karl Bergmann-Fuchs could have blended in at Costco on Saturdays, or maybe in a water aerobics class at the Y. Wispy gray hair, hooded eyes, a gut that strained his tracksuit. Shorter than Susannah by inches, with thinner wrists and thighs. He looked like the kind of guy who did the crossword puzzle every morning and had a favorite character on CSI.
But as Karl approached, a grin seeped across his face and sent a shock through Grant that he hoped didn’t show in his knees.
“Good boy,” the man said. His voice unfurling like a tongue. “I’m glad to know some of you still do what you’re told.”
Bile like anger brimmed in Grant’s throat, but he swallowed it, felt it settle in his chest. “I did what you wanted. Now let her go.”
Karl flung Susannah at Grant’s feet, where she landed face down, heaving into the dirt. The eye of his silencer trained on her back. “Not so fast.”
Susannah moaned and clutched her stomach.
“Are you okay?” Grant asked, though he knew she wouldn’t answer. She probably didn’t even hear him as she folded into herself. “What did you do to her?”
“We just relived old times, didn’t we, Mrs. Wiley? A walk down memory lane. We’re old friends, you know. What has it been, dear, thirty years? I know Susannah well enough to read her mind.”
At this, she didn’t flinch, but Grant did. Karl must have noticed because he raised the gun slowly, tracing up Grant’s leg and chest until it aimed at his heart.
“You said you wouldn’t hurt her.”
“Oh no, my friend. I said I wouldn’t kill her. And as you plainly see, I kept my word. The question is, did you?” He nodded to the concrete table behind them. “Turn it on.”
It surprised Grant that he hadn’t even considered bringing a dummy computer, maybe his own or a used one from that place on Lenox Road. Not that it would have been wise to do so. It just reminded him how severely this man out-matched him, how foolish it would be to reach for his gun.
He walked backwards toward the table to hide his waistband. Karl followed, stepping over Susannah as if she were a puddle in his way.
“I haven’t looked at anything,” Grant said, as he pressed the power button.
A sloppy lie that seemed to amuse Karl, who perched atop the table to study him, that grin and its gun in place the whole time.
“Tell me,” Karl’s voice curled. “Wherever did you find it?”
“You know the house, the big one in front? They have a grill by the garage.”
Karl snapped his fingers. “Dangit, isn’t that always my blind spot? Pedestrian domesticity.”
The log-in screen appeared, and Grant tried to steady his hands to type the password.
“I have never understood that about people, how they can lead such predictable lives. With their barbeques and garages. The same name, the same people always around.” He plucked a leaf from the bench and snarled at it before flicking it to the ground. “I mean, honestly, the yard work alone would drive me insane.”
The computer thunked to announce the password had been wrong. He’d tapped the Caps Lock by mistake, so he tried again, his eyes on the keys.
“I do hope you’ll hurry,” Karl said. “I’m quite eager to be on my way.”
A patter in the leaves caused them both to turn, but Susannah was still clenched into herself, writhing in the dirt. Bruises were beginning to purple her eyes and birthmark. Blood from somewhere dabbled her sleeve.
Grant didn’t want to consider what the man had done to her, or how long he’d spent doing it. She wore the same clothes as in the cemetery, only her shoes missing, so Karl could have had all night with her, the long morning. Ceaseless hours to do whatever he pleased. It was meager solace, but if Karl was planning to kill them both, at least it would be fast. He wouldn’t take his chances breaking Grant’s ribs first. He would just point the gun and fire.
A chime rose from the laptop as that picture of him and Eliot filled the screen. Grant slid the machine toward Karl and started to stand.
“Not so fast,” he said. The silencer fixed on Grant, Karl adjusted the screen and smirked at it. “My, my. What a handsome couple. So very,” he pretended to search for the right words. “Hands across America.”
“Look at the bottom, right side. It’s a folder.”
Karl leaned in to squint.
The gun seemed to pulse against Grant’s back. He wanted to reach for it. Karl distracted, this might be his only chance. But his arms wouldn’t move when he told them to. His wrists wouldn’t bend. His whole body sat there, useless as the brittle leaves around their feet.
“Lovely,” Karl said, closing the laptop. He slung it under his arm and stood.
“Can I ask,” Grant said, without a plan for how to finish the question. He just felt the minutes draining, eager to white-knuckle what time he could.
“You have questions?” Karl raised one eyebrow. “By all means. An artist loves to share his process.” He lowered to the bench. “Hands where I can see them, if you don’t mind.”
Grant lay his palms up on the table. “Allen, or whatever his name is. Was all of this his idea or yours?”
“A little of column A, a little of column B. Our friend has quite the head for business, but he lacks imagination, which I provide in spades.”
“How did he get caught, then, and not you?”
“The problem with businessmen is their forward focus. Cost projections, quotas, and whatnot,” He waved his free hand dramatically. “Poor Allen didn’t pay enough attention to his paper trail. Now, artists, we gather and horde. You never know what might inspire your creativity. The muse could strike at any time.”
“You did this,” Grant said. “You turned him in.”
“Why? Why now?”
Karl sighed. “Even the greatest artists have their lapses in judgment. I was wrong to release Susannah. I had just grown so tired of her, and she was aging, as you can see. Less useful every year. Perhaps I am just too kind, but I thought she knew the rules by now. Then I hear she has taken a job in Atlanta. Stupid woman. It was only a matter of time before she was recognized.”
“Eliot,” Grant said, almost a whisper.
“Yes, your friend has proven very inconvenient for me. But no matter. What’s done is done.” He turned slightly, in the motion of standing.
“Did you know it was her?” Grant stammered. “A-at the yoga center? Did you recognize her?”
“Not at first. I blame my employees for that. No matter how often you remind them to be thorough, you simply cannot avoid human error completely. Man is but an imperfect machine.”
A car came up in the distance, its headlights winking in the rain. Its tires slid at the curve but then righted. The asphalt slick with leaves. They both watched the car drive past and disappear beyond the tree line. As it did, Grant pictured the roads between here and his apartment. Powers Ferry toward Blackland and Piedmont. The ramp onto 400, then 85. Past the tallest buildings in his city, the flashy billboards, the merging lanes. The distance felt impossible. He had never been so far from home.
When he turned back, Karl had aimed his gun.
“What are you doing?” Grant asked.
“Oh, I think you know.”
“B-but—” He shot up, knocking his knees against the table. For once, he didn’t even feel it. “You said you’d let us go. We won’t follow you. We won’t tell anyone.”
Karl wrapped his free hand around the silencer. “I find these things so clumsy. Necessary at times, but,” he gestured to the empty woods before starting to unscrew it. “Now be a good boy and step back. Blood can be such a chore to get out of concrete.”
“You don’t need to kill us.”
That grin again, those beady eyes. “Need, want. Tomato, tamahto.”
Grant groped for his waistband but found nothing there. Only a hard damp chill against his back.
He started to say wait, to say please, to beg, but the bullet was faster. It landed before he’d even realized it was on its way.