“Has he ever touched you?”
Oliver knew that Marilyn was still awake. Even though they had turned out the lights hours ago, coming to rest with one another even more recently, the shallowness of her breath made him believe that she was frightened. She hadn’t been able to warm up since that trip into the woods, and no amount of showering had been able to still her shivering. She had her back pressed to his chest, and though he longed to touch her and gather her body to his, but he could tell that she hadn’t been in the mood even earlier.
“Touch me how?”
“You know. Has he ever taken advantage of you?” He didn’t want to get graphic for fear of her leaving the bed, throwing on her clothes and telling him to go home. Still, he worried about her. Some memory had been drawn up during that hunting trip, but she had refused to talk about it before they had made it home. Then she’d just wanted to lie down for a bit. She couldn’t stand the thought of dinner, not after seeing that poor animal turned inside out, staining the ground.
She let out a deep breath and crossed her arms over his, which were circled around her waist. “No, he’s never tried that on me,” she admitted. He knew that he should have been relieved, but her tone carried a burden he had yet to ease away from her. “People don’t just have to do something physical to get to you though. I saw him kill a man and basically frame me, remember?”
Oliver struggled with trying to process this as a fact. How could she see something like that and not be constantly haunted by what had happened to her? How could she not tell a single person until he came along? He could question her story all he wanted, but he understood that at the end of the day, he would never understand what that was like. Seeing the other man hunt had been enough to convince him that he was a trained killer, even if he only targeted animals anymore.
“I don’t know how much longer I can pretend to be civil to this guy. He freaks me out.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement, but Oliver knew that an apology wouldn’t be good enough. He brushed her long, flaxen hair away from her neck and pressed a kiss delicately to her skin, one that spoke to no intention or expectation. It was only a gift. “I know you said that you have a plan, but I don’t like the way he looks at you. i think he’s starting to suspect that there’s something between us. When we were out, he kind of implied that I was chasing after you. It’s only a matter of time before he knows.”
He had never noticed how chilling her blue eyes were until she rolled over to stare at him. “You have to be ready for this. Once we decide that we’re going to do this, there’s no going back. You swear you’ll do what it takes to protect me and your family?”
“Of course I do. I will. I lo–”
His voice cracked, but the thought had already been released into the world. She gaped for only a moment, then released a girlish laugh. “You love me? Really? So soon?”
To him, the weeks that he had spent courting her had been the best he’d had in years. Instead of spending every waking hour anguishing about money, he at least got out of the house and could talk to someone who would show him the appropriate sympathy. Maybe it was moving quickly, but they had a much deeper connection than most people would ever experience or understand. “I’m thirty,” he said, as though that would justify the way he lived his life. “I don’t have time to mess around with things that don’t mean something to me. So yeah. I do love you.”
Marilyn was someone who kept her emotions behind a solid wall, but he could see the tears pressed up to the barrier, eager to flow over. All thought of revenge, of escape, of anything beyond that night left his mind when she wrapped her arms around him tightly and pressed her cheek to his chest, her lips to his skin. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered, her voice heavy with emotion. “After everything you’ve heard and seen, you shouldn’t. I can’t believe you can. I’m just so…”
“Fucked up?” he offered, though he had to laugh because he could hardly think it about her. There was a part of her that was mysterious, yes, but more than that, she made him feel as though he was not alone. “You don’t have to feel that way. I mean, look at me. At least you have a nice apartment and a job and a car that’s all your own. You’re going places, and you’re going to be fine after this. You’re beautiful and smart, and you know how to take care of yourself.”
She looked angry with herself when the tears began to drop on her cheeks, so he brushed them away with his thumb. That only made the flow heavier, a task of keeping her skin dry rendered impossible. “I don’t know why he picked you, but I’m glad he did. I’m terrified, but I’m glad I met you.”
“You don’t have to be scared. Don’t cry. Shhh.” He knew that soothing her was probably futile, but all his life, all he had ever done was try to take control. If he couldn’t fix his own life, at least he could do something for others. To surround himself with order might do more to balance out his own troubles than tackling them head on.
Her nails curled into his skin for a moment, cutting off any other comforting words he had to offer. “I am scared,” she admitted, “because I know that tomorrow he’s going to give you a final offer. All you have to do is get your dad to sign everything over, and then we just have to wait for the bank to process things. The sale has to go through first.”
Oliver laughed as he thought of the old house, with no boxes packed and the dust gathering by the day. “We don’t have anywhere to go. Even if you do expedite the sale somehow, and that’s a lot of money you want to move quickly, we still have to find somewhere safe for my dad to stay. Lily and I need to find homes, jobs. That’s not even thinking about utilities, keys, things like that.”
“You don’t have to worry about anything like that. He’s not going to put you out of the house.”
“What, so he’s going to let us rent our own farm? Pay to stay in our home?” The thought of being under the politician’s thumb made him feel sick. For too many years, he’d struggled to make things work. He may not have wanted to work on a farm, but with that aspect of his life over, he couldn’t stay. Even this town was too much. His mind was already racing at how he’d have to come up with another scheme, how he’d have to face Martin’s wrath for backing out on the deal, how he’d get his family out. He shoved back the blankets and let his feet touch the ground.
Marilyn tugged at his wrist before he could get to his clothes. “Oliver, you’re not listening to me. Everything’s going to be fine there. You just have to stick to the plan and get your father to sign.”
“I don’t know how I’m even going to do that. I can’t just tell him that we’re going to get a certain amount of money in exchange for all that he worked for his entire life. He won’t go for that. Add to that the fact that we’ll probably have to put him in a home? No way. He won’t do it.”
“Then you’ll just have to forge his signature.”
“For something this huge? How could I?”
“Because Martin is going to die!”
The words were practically shrieked. Marilyn drew her slim legs up toward her chest and rubbed at her eyes aggressively. Looking at Oliver anymore seemed to be too tedious a task. Her words were enough to make Oliver lose his footing, sink back down onto the mattress. “He’s what?”
“You heard me.” She drew the blankets up further to avoid exposing herself to him. No amount of withdrawing would take back what he knew now. She seemed remorseful and shied away from his touch.
“H-how do you know? Does he have cancer or something? You can’t really know how much time some–”
She held up a hand to silence him. “You trust me, right?”
“I already told you that I do.”
“Good.” She let out a breath and eyed him warily, as though to detect any hesitation in his devotion. All he wanted was for her to have the same confidence in him, so he offered her a hand to squeeze. This time, she took it, studying the lines of his palm. “We’re going to kill him, Ollie.”
The words sounded so ridiculous that he knew he had to have misheard her. Nobody just announced homicide in bed like this. “We’re going to kill him?” he echoed, trying to reign in his response.
“Yes.” As his laughter died, her expression grew dark. Those full lips were pressed together, eyes narrowed with contempt. “It’s not like I haven’t thought this through. There’s no other way.”
“Now, slow down.”
“Slow down? Slow down? The man put a bullet in someone in front of me. He’d do the same to you if given a chance. Don’t you get why he had to show off his knife to you? It was a warning. He’s not going to stop. He doesn’t have a reason to stop. He’s not going to let you walk away from this, not now that he knows that we’re close.” She could have told him how much she regretted drawing him into something like this, but she didn’t. She wiped her eyes and sat up taller, the redness of her eyes only making her look more furious. “You had to realize there would be no other way. He has connections across the whole city. We can’t just hand him over to the police and expect something to happen. He’s not going to stop, Oliver. He takes and he takes, and when he can’t, he just destroys. Do you think he’s just going to let me quit my job and walk away knowing what I know?”
A pang of protectiveness crashed into his ribcage. Had he ever allowed himself to fully consider what her plan had been? Yes, he’d thought about it. He’d imagined a heart attack induced by a scare, a farming accident faked on his property, an old-fashioned shot to the back of the head. But he hadn’t even been able to kill a deer. He couldn’t imagine how he would be involved in a conspiracy to murder someone and then cover up what happened.
She was serious though. He could see it in the way she became cold and rigid. She brushed her hair with her fingertips and leaned against the headboard, looking more put together than she had the whole day. “It has to be this way,” she told him, the emotion drained from her tone. “We won’t just be helping ourselves. We’ll be getting justice for who knows how many people he’s killed or robbed blind. We won’t have to live in fear anymore, and nobody else will have to go through what we have.”
Oliver touched his own wrist to check his pulse. He was surprised by how calm he felt. Yes, death. Death was just a matter of fact, the end of every timeline, a judgment no person could evade. Martin George did not deserve the existence he enjoyed, and no court would be unbiased enough to put him on trial for his sins. Oliver eased himself back into bed, chilled by his own desperation. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even consider it.
“How did you feel after your mother killed herself?”
He sneered. The question was cruel, but what he implied was far worse: How did you feel after you drove your mother to suicide? “If I’d stayed at school or just handled things myself, my mother would still be alive. It wasn’t until she saw what a fuck up I was that she couldn’t take the guilt of passing on that sadness. I was always trying so hard to cover it up in front of her because I didn’t want her to blame herself, like I just learned that you’re supposed to be sad all the time to get attention or something.” In that moment, he hated his sister for ever having said a word about their family and how he could have triggered the downfall of the whole clan.
Marilyn leaned over to him, her voice growing warmer, calmer. “And have you ever thought about doing it yourself? Following in her footsteps?”
These were the thoughts he did not give voice, the sentences that gathered in the back of his throat every time someone asked him how he was feeling. “Everyone thinks about it at least once, don’t they?” he asked. He knew he was deflected and that she understood the same. Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, he reminded himself that he had to trust her. “I couldn’t. I remember what it was like for me. For Lily and for Dad too. I couldn’t do that to them. It’s worse than carrying on and making them put up with me.”
“So you know what it’s like to take a life in your mind every day.” She slid over to him and laid her wrist upon his lap. She was pale enough that he could barely make out the jagged line across her flesh. The edges of the scar were a shade darker than the rest of her skin, but the path of the cut was bright and smooth like porcelain. The mark went up, following the blue tributary of her vein. “Most people make the mistake of cutting across,” she told him, letting her finger recreate the stroke she’d made instead. “You’re supposed to open it up and just let it all come out. So that’s what I did.”
“Who saved you?”
She laughed gently, the sound that had once reminded him of bells. “Saved me? Stopped me. I didn’t get to do the other arm.” She offered her other arm so he could compare. How fine the skin was there. How could he have not noticed before? “I did it right after we got back from that awful place. I was just so scared. I didn’t know what else to do because I knew I couldn’t get away. I thought, ‘This is my only chance to escape.’ I took my scissors and locked myself in the bathroom. It took me so long just to build up the nerve. My hands were shaking. It hurt at first, but then the adrenaline kicked in when I saw so much blood. I thought I was going to faint, but I kept going. And then.” She shrugged, her eyes going distant as she replayed the moment in her mind. “I was on the floor then, and I didn’t answer when he called to me. So he broke down the door.”
He shuddered as he tried to imagine what it would be like to be so close. If he had not met her, he would have been oblivious to the fact that his life was in dangerous, but maybe without her, things would be different. “Did he threaten you after that?”
“Yes.” She rubbed her wrist and then curled her arms around her body. How slight she looked then, how fragile. “He tried to patch me up at first, but the blood came too quickly. I’d gone too deep because I’d done it right.” A faint smile played at her lips at the memory of her brief victory. “He took me to the hospital and explained that I’d had an accident. I had a transfusion, some stitches. When I came to, he told me that if I ever tried that again, he’d make sure that I didn’t come back out of the hospital looking the same. I don’t really have much family left, so nobody could protect me from that.” She steadied herself and then looked to Oliver. “It’s been me or him for a long time now. I’ve just been waiting because I can’t do this on my own.”
Never had Oliver been more torn. He hadn’t even been able to save a farm that had generations of history behind its livelihood. How could he possibly stand up to this man where she had failed? And yet there was a part of him that burned with fury for the injustice she’d endured. Martin could just as easily exploit Lily, poor simple Lily with her difficulty making friends and lack of any real social skills. She would make herself over into just about anyone if it meant she could finally have a connection with someone else. Was Martin already honing in on her to turn her against the rest of the family? Could he poison her mind against Oliver?
Or was he just utterly paranoid because this girl was feeding his already sick mind?
He cleared his throat and stood again on weak fawn legs. He slipped on his boxers for the faintest sense of heat more than propriety, though fear made him approach the window to look outside. No cars were even parked there. There never were. “How did you intend to do it?”
“Poison.” She was there behind him quickly, her nightgown barely clinging to her body. Though she’d only had it on for seconds, the silk spoke of the warmth that was waiting beneath that material. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his shoulder lightly. “Well, an allergy actually. He’s allergic to fish. I’m sure we can find a way to expose him that will kill him. It’s not uncommon.”
“Wouldn’t he taste it?”
“We’ll figure it out somehow. We’ll put it in his coffee when he comes to your house, after everything’s been processed. It should kick in when he’s driving home. He’ll wreck his truck, which will cover things up even more.”
“Why do we have to sell if this is going to happen?”
“So you’ll get the money. Trust me.”
There was that word again. Could he trust someone who already had a plan in place to kill another person? Even if he loved her? As her hands began to roam his skin, he decided he could.
Lily hated leaving the house when her father was sleeping, but it was better than answering his obsessive questions. Where was she going? What was she doing? Who was she meeting? Why couldn’t he come along if she was telling the truth? Just thinking about it exhausted her. She left a note on the refrigerator and bundled up in a wool peacoat to ride her bike into town.
If she had friends, then they would probably be the workers of the library. There she could live thousands of other lives, experience love and heartbreak and adventure without ever having to make any sacrifices in her own life. Someone always had a new recommendation for her, but she wasn’t looking for books this time.
The Tuesday afternoon crowd was rather thin. Hopefuls applied for jobs or just wasted time browsing the Internet at the computer bank, but few patrons bothered to look through the book collection that somehow got thinner by the year. Carina, a small whippet of a grandmother, busied herself making sure the returns were properly arranged on the cart so they could be reshelved with optimum efficiency. She smiled warmly at Lily, already drawing out a list of new releases that technically weren’t supposed to be loaned out for another week. Lily waved her off, explaining that she was still making her way through a romance novel she had reluctantly accepted on the condition that it contained no bodice ripping. “Good to take your time on that. You’ll want your own copy,” Carina advised with a gleam in her eye. “What can I do for you then?”
“I’m actually hoping that you could help me with some genealogy.” Carina had taught a few classes on family trees at the library on the weekends, until budget cuts meant that available hours had been cut back to the most essential. “I have a friend who doesn’t really know much about her family history. I thought that for her birthday, I’d give her a little surprise, start her off and show her how easy and fun it can be.”
Carina clucked her tongue and looked over her glasses at her. “I wouldn’t call it easy, but mysteries were never meant to be. It’s sweet of you to give her something so personal.”
Lily hoped the older woman wouldn’t call her bluff. She had never mentioned friends before, and she was certain that most of the community knew her as something of a loner. Still, there was something about Marilyn Turner that bothered her. She’d tried to look her up online, but there were no results that seemed to apply to the blonde girl with the coy smile.
Karina looked around and then placed a sign on the front desk stating that she would be back in a few moments. Like Lily, she lived the most in her imagination, and little had more potential than a name with a story to be found. She tucked a pen into her severe schoolmarm bun and motioned for Lily to follow her. The back office was rarely occupied except when someone wanted to have some privacy for a meal, and they had the space to themselves. The equipment was tragically outdated, with the computer so old that a line swept across the screen at a steady pace, reminding Lily of a heart rate monitor. “Your tax dollars at work,” Karina commented dryly as she brought up her database. “Okay, give me the information you have.”
“Her name is Marilyn Turner. She was born here on…” She trailed off and bit her lower lip. She had presented this as a birthday gift, but she didn’t know how old the girl was, let alone when she was born. She cursed herself for having not thought this through better. All she could do was give a faint laugh. “I’m completely blanking on you. I should have written this down first, shouldn’t I? She’s twenty-four. At least that was what she told me, but you know how girls are.”
“You couldn’t pay me to be twenty-four again, but it was a very different time. Do you know the names of Marilyn’s parents?”
“No. They died when she was younger.” She couldn’t remember if this was what she’d been told or if she was making things up anymore. All the more challenge for Karina, she told herself.
“Well, at least that means we’ll be able to pick her out of the results if it shows that her parents died when she was little.” The screen was filled with so many options that it made Lily’s head spin. What exactly was she hoping to find? It wasn’t as though she’d discover that Marilyn was secretly dead and haunting them. You’ve read too many trashy novels.
“Are you sure Marilyn’s her first name? I’m not getting any results.”
Lily’s heart sank. She didn’t want this mysterious woman to retain all her secrets. “Did you spell her name right?”
“Unless you know of another way to spell it. Maybe she goes by her middle name. I could just run a search for the Turners around here, but that’s going to take a while.” She patted the boxy computer tower beside her, the gesture all she needed in order to explain. “Then I’ll have to sort through the results.”
Lily could only linger on her disappointment for a moment .She knew she had to find out more, and the only way to do that was to pay Marilyn a visit. “Well, if you get bored, I’d be grateful if you stuck with it. I’m actually running a little late to meet her for lunch, so I’ll ask her then and give you a call if she clues me in on anything useful. How about that?”
“If you could find out her parents’ names, it’d be much easier.”
“I’ll see what I can do. I’ll check back later.” She felt grateful that she didn’t flush at the first sign of trouble the way her brother did. It was embarrassing how clueless she had been. In a film, she could have marched in there and pulled up all of the public information available on Marilyn, right down to a scan of her birth certificate and driver’s license. Reality was more than disappointing.
Since she was already in town, it took little time for her to find Martin George’s offices. She had never seen where the city council worked, and the old building filled her with a sense of awe and frustration. Martin hardly needed the marble columns and bay windows in order to feel self-important. She felt underdressed in her simple tan sweater and faded corduroys, but there was no time to change into a business suit. She wanted to channel a famous detective, but she was lacking the proper attire and the appropriate sidekick.
All she could do was smile warmly at the building receptionist and try her best. “Excuse me. I have an appointment with Mr. George,” she explained.
“Name?” the girl asked, barely looking up from her laptop. Between her computer and her headset, she looked more like a telemarketer than any sort of assistant.
Improvise, she scolded herself. “My name is Lily Pratt. He’s buying my father’s farm, and he was supposed to finalize the offer. I was just supposed to pick up some paperwork from him to take back to my father to have him sign.” She swallowed thickly and pressed on. “He said that if he was out, he would leave it with his assistant or someone nearby.” The woman regarded her skeptically. She knew she had to kick things up.
She was surprised when the tears came. She was not the sort of woman who let herself become overwhelmed by emotions, but she was exhausted and frustrated. She had no idea what she was doing or what she might discover. She was worried, not just about her father and her future but for her brother and what he was getting into with his girl. “My father’s very sick,” she said between gasps for breath. “I need to go get his medicine after this. I don’t know if this is when I was supposed to come in. I don’t have a lot of time.”
She could hear the woman’s fingers fly over the keyboard, hammering at the keys. “I’m not seeing you in his calendar, but there is the name Pratt here. It says Oliver instead.”
“That’s my brother.” More and more, he had been disappearing throughout the day. She’d stopped asking him questions as she had only reminded herself of her father. “Oliver’s been the one doing the negotiating.”
“Can I see some ID, please?”
Rather than feel weighed down by her brother’s involvement, Lily chose to be relieved that he had gotten her this far. She fished into her small purse and pulled out her license. She expected the woman to just check her name and picture, but instead she pushed away from her desk and walked over to a Xerox machine. She made a photocopy of the ID and stapled it to some printout. She wanted to ask what the fuss was about, but when the woman returned her license without so much as a word of thanks, she decided against it. “His suite is the last door on the left.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” She returned to the hall before she could thank the woman a third time for her rudeness. She made no eye contact with anyone as she marched down the hall and knocked lightly on the door. No answer. She tried again, then shyly barged in.
Lily was mildly embarrassed to find herself alone in a waiting room. Of course I wouldn’t be walking right into his office, she reminded herself. A secretary with a severe black bob gave her a chipper “I’ll be right with you” and then went back to typing frantically on her computer.
She considered taking a seat and flipping through a magazine, but she was too anxious. Instead she bounced on her heels in front of the desk and waited for the woman’s hands to stop their frenetic clatter.
“Sorry about that. You’re Oliver Pratt?”
The question made her want to laugh, but she kept her composure. “His sister. I believe he had an appointment with Mr. George.”
“Yes, but I’m afraid Mr. George is out of the office until tomorrow. I assume they discussed rescheduling. It’s not like him to have a conflict on his calendar like this.”
“That’s okay. I actually came by because I wanted to talk to his assistant.”
The woman blinked at her impatiently. When she didn’t elaborate, the woman said, “That would be me.”
“No, no, I mean his other assistant.”
“I’m sorry. He doesn’t have another assistant.” There was alarm in the woman’s dark eyes, and Lily could see her moving back.
“I don’t understand. I’ve met her before. She came to my house. I mean Marilyn.”
“Oh, Mary.” The woman put a hand to her chest and laughed politely. “She told you she was his assistant? That’s just like her. She’s always pushing people to see how far they’ll believe her. That girl.” She took a second to shake her head. “I’m sorry about that. Mary’s not Mr. George’s assistant. She’s his daughter.”
Oliver had forged his father’s signature so many times on lesser documents that his hand didn’t even shake when he surrendered their property. It felt appropriate somehow to secure their future so simply, with the other occupants of the house unaware that technically, they were trespassing. The day the money appeared in his bank account, he couldn’t stop laughing. He would have to set up other accounts, of course. He couldn’t risk anyone else seeing all that money and asking questions. Not when there was so much left to do.
His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He knew who it would be. “He wants to meet with you. Have dinner to celebrate you doing the right thing, no doubt.”
“We can’t do it here.” She’d promised that they would be able to keep their home after it all happened, but how could he ever face his home knowing that he had killed someone there? He wouldn’t murder for a piece of property, but for love? He was learning how far he would go.
Marilyn sighed on the other end. “Ollie, you know we’ve been over this.”
His house was remote enough that the chances of a man having a heart attack wrecking his vehicle were great. Any traces of a crime could be easily covered up, destroyed, or explained away in his own home. Yes, officer, of course my fingerprints are on the chair he sat in. I live here. They knew the terrain, so there would be no way for him to make an escape.
“I just don’t think it’s safe for Lily or Dad,” he said. Through the wall, he could hear his sister’s voice reduced to a whisper as she shouted his name. Soon she would be in the room, no doubt criticizing his newly discovered love life. “I haven’t even told them about the sale. Dad would never allow it, and Lily would freak out on me. How could I explain to them that that guy was here again?”
He could hear her frustration from across the town. “Okay, okay,” she said, mostly to herself. He could picture those beautiful eyes pressed shut as she focused. “We’ll just have to do it at my place. Anywhere else will be too risky. Come over as soon as you can so we can get everything set up. For dinner,” she added, as though anyone could be listening in on their conversation.
“I’ll be there soon. Love you.” She hung up without saying a word, but he didn’t mind. His heart was racing to think that the day had come at last. His life would never be the same, but was there really much that he wanted to preserve anyway?
He was just getting his shoes laced when Lily threw open his door. A surge of regret raced through his bloodstream, not guilt for what he was about to do but because the last few weeks had pushed them apart. He could see how much the stress was getting to her, wasting away the weight in her face to make her cheekbones look more severe, her eyes wild. “We need to talk, “she told him.
Sorry, but I’m going to be late to murder. “I agree. I have to be somewhere, but when I get home, we’ll sit down and talk. We’ll go over everything that we’ve been ignoring for the last few weeks. I miss you, Lily, I really do. We’re going to fix everything and figure out how we’re going to keep the house. It’s all going to be okay.”
He’d expected the speech to sway her, but the tension was still written across her tensed features. “You’re not going to see Marilyn, are you?” She barely gave him time to remain silent on the matter before she gripped his arm tensely. “We need to talk about her. She’s not who you think she is.”
He let out a terse laugh. “What, do you think you know her better than I do? Honestly, Lily, you need to just take a day off and relax.”
“Oliver, please. She’s leading you on.”
Anger flared up within him, red and raw. Pulling himself away from her meant that her fingernails scratched into him and his body bashed into the doorway, but he could no longer feel his body. “What, because she’s young and beautiful, there’s no way she could want to be with someone like me unless she had some ulterior motives?”
“I’m disappointed in you. I thought you’d support me and be happy for me. You know it’s hard enough for me to put myself out there with another person. I’m trying to just have a tiny bit of happiness right now while everything else is fucked up. Can’t you just let me have that?”
He decided to leave his coat behind rather than push past his sister to get to the closet. His left shoe was threatening to fall off, but he stormed out of the house, pausing only to grab his keys from the stand by the door. He was already in the Oldsmobile when Lily made it to the porch. He reversed down the lane to make sure she couldn’t chase after him.
The steering wheel took the brunt of his aggression, his palms bashing against the plastic as he cursed his sister’s name. Wasn’t he doing this for her? Yes, but also for Marilyn. What could she possibly know about her? Meek, antisocial Lily, who would probably live in that house for the rest of her life and never issue a single complaint? She couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to feel the fear he did for Marilyn’s life. She was abused, and she was in danger. This was the only way.
She looked perfectly calm when she answered the door, but Oliver still wrapped his arms tightly around her. She laughed quietly but untangled herself from his gangly limbs. “You know you can’t act like that when he gets here. You have to be professional.” She smacked his bare forearm and pulled him inside. “What the hell were you thinking, not even bringing a coat? I didn’t mean you had to get here that quickly.”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on making you sit on my lap when your boss is over. Has he been here before?”
The scent of meat already filled the modest apartment. Oliver bent over the slow cooker but could not make out anything more than the brown of roasting meat and the orange of carrots. “A couple of times. His job isn’t exactly the sort to keep normal business hours.” She noticed him snooping and waved a wooden spoon at him. “Venison. He gave me a ton of it yesterday. I thought it would be poetic justice.”
“How are you going to get the fish in there. Won’t he be able to taste it from the start?”
“The plan changed.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and squeezed past him to put a tray of pre-made rolls into the oven to bake. “I figured it wouldn’t look good if someone who knew him so well let him come in contact with the one thing he’s terribly allergic to, especially when there obviously isn’t any fish in this food. Plus you’re right. If he tasted it and didn’t have enough of a reaction, what would we do? We’d be fucked.” He wasn’t sure if he had ever heard her swear before. It somehow added gravity to the situation. “I’ve done my research. Belladonna can induce a heart attack, and he’s big enough that nobody will find it suspicious.”
“You’ve been looking up poisons? They can trace what you look up online.” His stomach gave a nervous kick, and he knew already that he would struggle to eat more than a bite during the meal.
“They won’t have any reason to suspect foul play, so it doesn’t matter. But I was careful. I looked things up at the library. You can get anything online. Apparently it’s great for helping with eye problems and migraines. I used a pre-paid card, had it sent to a P.O. box. I didn’t want you to worry.”
“It’s hard for me not to worry when we’re talking about killing someone.” He tried to think of the last person he had seen dead. When was the last funeral he attended? Had he ever seen someone slip away in the hospital?
“Just remind yourself that he’s not a man. He’s a monster.” She went through the cabinets and found a couple of wine glass with frosted etchings of snowflakes. A bottle of champagne was waiting in the refrigerator, and she tore away the foil over the cork. “I was going to save this until after he was gone, but I think that we could both use a drink.”
He was tempted to just ask her to give him the entire bottle. “So we’re going to slip him poison in his drink? How traditional.”
“Why mess with a good thing?” she asked with that coy smile of hers. Her full lips were lashed with red, but the shade somehow did not look severe on her. She struggled with untangling the wire to get to the bottle’s cork, but she did not ask for help. “My fingers are shaking. I can’t believe this is actually happening. I’ve thought about it for so long, but now it’s real. I feel so…free.” She laughed quietly. “And loved.”
“You are.” He drew her to his chest and closed his eyes, trying to focus on how real she felt, how warm. Yes, he did love her. He had to. There was no other way.
“What do you think, Oliver?”
Oliver flushed as he tried to remember the topic they were discussing. His eyes kept sweeping over Martin, trying to spot some obvious hint that the poison had begun its work. He had no idea what to watch for–sweating, discomfort, red skin or pale? Any hint that something was happening would suffice.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured before taking a sip of water. “I think the wine’s going straight to my head. What were you saying?”
Marilyn lifted the napkin from her lap to daintily dab the corners of her mouth.” He wanted to know how it was that you’ve gotten tired of venison so soon during hunting season,” she said patiently. “You’ve hardly touched your food.”
He’d managed to put back a couple of soft carrots and a few slivers of meat, but the thought of poison made him too nervous. One misplaced drop (Grain? Crumb?) could put him in danger. He managed to cut another slice of the meat, refusing to look at how generously pink the flesh remained. “I think I’m coming down with something.”
“Best defense is to get some good food inside yourself then. Red meat will build up your defenses,” Martin insisted, pointing at him with his fork. “Of course I don’t blame you, what with all the stress you’ve had lately. It can’t be easy. I just hope that you can take a load off for a little while and figure out what you really want. You can leave all the concern about that big field to me.”
The words slipped out before he could censor himself, but if Martin was bothered, he didn’t let on. Instead he just winked and took a drink of his wine. “I’m coming up with plans already. I can’t wait to get to work. How’s the hunt for a new place going for you, anyway?”
“Well, we’ll definitely be downsizing. Right now it’s just a matter of finding a nursing home with a vacancy so we know that Dad’s looked after properly. Then Lily and I can figure out where we’re going to go and how to divide things up.”
“A niece of mine actually works at The Good Shepherd. It’s a ten-minute drive or so, but I’m sure you’re used to taking trips. I could put in a good word.”
“Yes, that’d be really good of you. You’ve done so much already.” Pretending to feel any sort of warmth for this man was a struggle, so when his phone vibrated in his pocket, Oliver barely resisted the urge to jump out of his seat and run from the room. “I’m sorry, I’m getting a call. Dad’s ears might be burning. I should take it just to make sure he’s okay. I’ll only be a minute.”
The cell phone had been buzzing against his thigh almost continuously since the dinner had started, but he’d been doing his best to ignore it. He wasn’t surprised to see his sister’s name on the display. “I told you that I was busy tonight,” he snapped, not caring what great excuse she might have for the intrusion.
On the other end, Lily gave an audible gasp. He could picture her trying to gather her thoughts, chewing at her thumbnail as she tried to sort out exactly how she was supposed to approach the problem from another angle. “Are you with her right now.”
“Yes.” He saw no point in lying to her. From the kitchen, he could see Marilyn pouring more wine for her boss. Had she already slipped the poison in, or was she going to take this moment as the perfect opportunity to distract him and administer the nightshade?
“Ollie, listen to me.” Her voice was agonized with tears, and he could hear that she was trying to choke back sobs. “I went to City Hall to try to talk to Marilyn about something. She doesn’t work there.”
“Of course she works there. I’ve been there and saw her behind her desk.”
“That wasn’t hers. I don’t know what she has to gain from pretending that she’s just working for Mr. George. She’s his daughter, okay? Everything she’s told you is a lie. I’m sorry. I know you really care about her and you think she cares about you. I just thought you needed to know. Before things went further.”
There was a noise in the other room. Martin was struggling to unbutton the collar of his flannel shirt, kicking his heels against the floor in frustration. Even from the kitchen, Oliver could see the sweat that was breaking out on his forehead. His free hand groped for his glass of water on the table, but he just sent silverware clattering to the floor in the process. “I really can’t talk right now, Lils. I’ll see you tonight. Or tomorrow. I don’t know.” He held the power button on his phone until his fingertip turned white and the phone vibrated to indicate that it was off. He tried to push it back in his pocket, but it bounced to the floor. He hardly heard it as he ran back to the table, where the man seemed to be choking.
“How much did you give him?” he asked as he looked around for some way to help. Surely there had to be something he could do. Every instinct was crying out to him that he had to save someone who was struggling to preserve life.
Marilyn glared at him but stood up as well. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said sharply. “Something’s just not agreeing with him. I think that Mr. George should go home now.”
“How’s he going to get up and drive away when he can’t even breathe?”
She looked at the older man clawing at his throat and pursed her lips. “I guess we’re going to have to help him get into his truck at least. It’s not going to work otherwise.”
Oliver took one look at him and knew that his knees were shaking so hard that he could barely keep himself upright. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Well, I’m not going to have him die at my kitchen table.”
“Why, because he’s your father?”
For a moment, pure rage flickered over her features. She brought a hand back as though to slap Oliver, but then she turned around and took a deep breath, steadying herself. “My abusive father. Yes, okay, I didn’t tell you that. I didn’t want you to think about your own dad and have misgivings, okay?”
“You lied to me.”
“I didn’t. I just didn’t tell you. But now you know. And when he is gone—“ She jerked a hand at the man whose eyes grew wider and redder by the second. ”—I am going to inherit everything of his, including your farm. So see? I love you and am protecting you and your entire family. You can keep the money and your home. Everything works out for you. We can be together and be happy.”
The sounds that came from Martin were no longer words. The damage has already been done. Even if we got him to the hospital, we’d have to explain what happened to him. They’d run tests and see that he was poisoned. There’s no hope for him. There wasn’t any as soon as he sat down to the table. You could have stopped it before, but you didn’t. You didn’t want to.
Oliver closed his eyes. He couldn’t look at that face any longer. He knew it would haunt him for the rest of his life. “We can just drag him out into the yard. Get him next to his truck and say that he fell. We found him there.”
“Is that going to be enough?”
“It’ll have to be, unless you want to spend all night trying to hoist him up into his truck just to dump it someplace.”
“I’d be more comfortable if there were some accident to cover our tracks.”
A slam behind them demanded their attention. Martin tried to drag himself across the floor. With the way he pulled himself forward with swollen fingers, it soon became clear that he was going for Oliver’s cell phone. He jumped over the older man, the millionaire who had tried to pay to make all his problems go away, and kicked the phone over to the doorway.
You can’t save him. You can save her. You can save yourself.
“Your driveway has a slope,” he panted. “We’ll just have to get him inside and set up, then get him going downhill. Gravity should take care of the rest.”
“Good, that’s good.” To Oliver’s surprise, she was actually looking to him with something resembling admiration. She was actually expecting him to help plan this out in the moment.
“How are we supposed to carry him?”
The satisfaction began to fade from Marilyn’s features as reality set in. “Something with wheels,” she mumbled to herself. “A chair?”
“We have to try.”
There was a terrible smell. Martin had given up on crawling and had rolled on his back to focus on gasping. He was making so much noise for someone who couldn’t speak that Oliver wanted nothing more than to hit him just to make him stop. For a minute, all he could do was bend over the kitchen sink, struggling not to gag up the little food he’d forced down.
Marilyn cursed as she pushed the dining room table aside to make room for an awkward, old leather office chair. “This is the best I can do to roll him.” She looked at her father, then back at the chair. “Should I get a belt to strap him in or something?”
“This is fucking ridiculous.” Oliver gritted his teeth and tried not to snap at her. This wasn’t a game. This wasn’t an act. They–she–had some something they couldn’t walk away from, and the best they could do was protect themselves from the consequences. “Why can’t we just stick him in the bathroom and say he was in there too long, so we had to check on him?”
“Do you want to be the one to pull his pants down?” she snapped. When she looked down at her father’s body still writhing on the linoleum, it was with a mixture of fear and annoyance. “We can’t just leave him inside. What if they make it a crime scene? What if they run tests and find the poison?”
“Wouldn’t they run tests to see if he was drunk driving? Shouldn’t you know if it’ll turn up on a test?”
“I didn’t think of everything, okay?” she shrieked. That crack in her calm, that glimpse at the depth of her rage was all it took to make Oliver stop asking questions. Her temper collapsed as quickly as it had erupted, and she was left with tears in her eyes. “Please, Ollie. I need you to help me with this. I don’t know what to do.”
He knew that getting him into the truck would be impossible. The front stairs alone would take them hours, and he didn’t want to be caught hauling a dead or dying body outside just in case the noise called attention from neighbors or people driving past. Every second that Martin spent on the floor, he became more of a liability. The phone could ring, the doorbell could chime, people could just decide to come over. Oliver took care of other people. That was just what he did. “Do you have keys to your bathroom?”
“I have…” She bit her lower lip as she thought about the question. “A skeleton key. It works.”
“We’ll put him in the bathroom then. Put him on the floor. He’ll have collapsed. We can clean up the food and drink, say that we were getting ready to call it a night when we realized he was still in there. We’ll wait long enough to call for help when it’s too late. Get them to break down the door. Lose the key somehow. I don’t have motive since I just got a ton of money from him. You…” He didn’t have to explain to her. She had everything to gain from her father’s body growing colder.
He expected her to look worried, but she’d left that behind long ago. She had administered too much poison to be patient. She had waited for this moment for a long time, and she wasn’t going to let her father walk out of the apartment and potentially survive the encounter. This had been her real plan, Oliver was certain, whether she had decided it long ago or in the heat of the moment.
“I can get emotional,” she vowed. “Does anyone know that you were coming over here?”
He remembered the fear in his sister’s eyes when he had been leaving the house, how alarmed she had sounded on the phone. She’d been resolute in believing that something was wrong with Marilyn. She just doesn’t know what it’s like to be abused. She grew up in a loving home. We’ve always stuck together. Marilyn has had no one. She’d been to the edge of what anyone can take. This is it. She has to understand. I’ll make her.
“No,” he said at last. “We should get him in the bathroom now.”
It was the quiet of the kitchen that scared Oliver the most. He had been able to focus when Martin had been choking and thrashing, but his body had grown still with acceptance. His chest still struggled to gather in the air to just survive, but anything more was beyond his reach. He seemed to be more corpse than man, and the burden of reality was settling heavily over Oliver. This was a man who had refilled his wine glass and clasped his hand warmly, who had frightened him, yes, on multiple occasions but who had also infuriated him. It was a flawed human who had been reduced to a dying animal before his eyes, and he knew that he was responsible. This was a feeling that few would ever experience, the power of taking a life—or to just refuse to save it.
What he wanted more than anything was the ability to feel anything. Instead an icy numbness had taken hold of his mind. Preservation was all that what was going through his mind. He’d found distance from his body as his hands slipped under the man’s armpits, the thin material of his shirt soaked through with sweat. It was another man who pulled hundreds of pounds up, up, a woman positioning a chair for the dead weight to settle into seamlessly. He found himself thinking about bruising and how to be gentle. He would feel sorry for them, he was certain, for the way the universe had forced them to take matters such as this into their own hands. It was clear to him that they were not professionals and would never truly understand how to do this efficiently.
Relief, that was his ultimate goal. He wanted to rest. But first he had to go ahead to get to the bathroom. It was important to make sure that there was enough room to get Martin inside while closing the door. Once he felt confident, he helped Marilyn wheel her father inside. They bickered over who would stand inside to guide the body down and who would be the one tipping the chair. Marilyn had been firm about taking care of the chair, citing the fact that she was far too frail to catch the immense weight of her father, but Oliver vetoed that decision. If Martin George was going to die of a heart attack, then he would go down quickly and roughly. Oliver would put his back into it and fling him down. She would just have to make sure that he fell the right way and didn’t damage anything of hers that it would hurt to lose.
From behind his emotional wall, he could see that it was a struggle to get Martin’s slumped body out of the chair. He considered breaking off the arm, but that would be too much. He crouched down and put his shoulder beneath the seat while pulling the wheels back toward himself. The result was violent but effective: the chair snapped back against Oliver and buried the wheels into his stomach, but the older man hit the black and white tiles with a sickening finality.
It was difficult to see what had been so intimidating about the man known as Martin George as he took up most of the floor, his arm bent at an odd angle and his temple resting against the floor. A pool of red began to leak slowly from his body. Oliver wondered if that meant that his heart was still beating. Would he bleed to death first? Could he still feel and hear? Did he understand exactly what had brought about the end of his life?
Marilyn recoiled from the blood and stretched her slender legs as far as possible to leap from the bathroom over the threshold into the hall. She slammed the bathroom door behind her and turned the key in the lock. It had been her choice to do this, to bring about this end. Oliver found himself almost amused that the end of this man’s myth was not a nail in the coffin but a key in the doorway. Most keys seemed to give way to potential. This one closed off the last opportunity to survive.
Oliver finally found his breath and righted the chair so he could slump against the cushions. They were still warm from the body that had previously occupied them. He wanted to ask what they should do first, get rid of the key or go about cleaning up the kitchen so most of the dishes and food had been cleared away before police could arrive. Or should they figure out their story so even if they were separated, they would give the same details and break down at the right moments, describing the discovery of the body in the same disturbing detail?
“How do you feel?” she asked. He didn’t realize that she’d slid into his lap until her arms were around his neck, not squeezing but embracing lightly, lovingly.
“Numb,” he answered. “You?”
“Alive,” she said, though she hardly had to when her body was gathered so tightly against his.