I stood over him. Arnaldo looked frightened, yet not nearly frightened enough as far as I was concerned. I fired two rounds, one on each side of his head. He screamed as if the bullets had hit him. Dirt exploded upward, soiling his face and throwing debris into his eyes. He covered his face with his hands and screamed some more.
I returned to the Lexus. I set the SIG on the seat and started the car. My hands were shaking as I drove away.
Greg Schroeder was waiting in his car at the mouth of the long narrow road that led to Mr. Muehlenhaus’s estate. He started it up and fell in behind the Lexus when I drove past, making it look as if he had been escorting me all along. We drove to the end of the driveway. There was an enormous amount of room, yet Schroeder insisted on parking at an angle on my rear bumper so that it would be difficult for me to drive away without him first moving his vehicle. He left his car in a hurry and approached mine. I watched him in the mirror. By then the jitters from my confrontation with Arnaldo had mostly subsided, and I was calm enough to be amused by his behavior.
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” I said, quoting Rembrandt. Or was it King Solomon?
He opened my door and gestured for me to get out.
“Really, Greg?” I said.
“This is where I remind you that I saved your life. Twice. C’mon, play along.”
I let him pull me out of the Lexus by my arm and give me a shove toward the colossal house. Muehlenhaus was standing between the white columns that held up his porch. He descended the steps as we approached, the massa greeting his field hands. We stopped when we reached him. Schroeder released my arm and took a step backward.
“Here he is, Mr. Muehlenhaus,” Schroeder said.
“Thank you, Gregory,” Muehlenhaus said.
I found it all sort of entertaining. I turned my head and looked at Schroeder to see how he was taking it. That’s why I didn’t notice Muehlenhaus raise his hand.
He slapped me.
It wasn’t a particularly hard slap. I had been hit harder by teammates who were congratulating me for scoring a goal in a hockey game, an admittedly uncommon occurrence—and I was reminded that despite his robust health, Muehlenhaus was an eighty-something-year-old man. Yet none of that registered until later. What flashed in my brain at the moment of impact like a lightning strike was Arnaldo Nunez and his threats against Nina.
I slapped him back.
I regretted it immediately. I was angry with Arnaldo, not him. Only there was no way to take it back.
Muehlenhaus reeled at the blow and brought his hand up to cover his mouth.
Schroeder dashed past me and grabbed the old man by the shoulders to keep him from falling.
“He hit me,” Muehlenhaus said.
“I saw that,” Schroeder replied.
“What do you want me to do, Mr. Muehlenhaus? Do you want me to shoot him?”
The way that Muehlenhaus’s eyes grew wide, I realized that was exactly what he wanted done.
“If you want me to shoot McKenzie for not taking your bitch-slap like some kind of indentured servant, I will. That’s what you would have done, right, Mr. Muehlenhaus? You would have just stood there and taken it.” Muehlenhaus’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Just say the word. You’re my employer and my friend. If you want me to kill him, I will.”
“No,” Muehlenhaus said. He pushed Schroeder away and stood on his own two feet. He glowered at me. “There are other ways to deal with someone like McKenzie.”
“No, there really aren’t,” Schroeder said. “There’s nothing that he needs…”
Except Nina, my inner voice said.
“Nothing you can take from him that he can’t do without. We’ve already talked about this.”
“We agreed that’s what made him useful to you,” Schroeder added. “So let’s decide right now what to do about this. Do you want me to kill him?”
“No,” Muehlenhaus said.
“Hire a couple of guys to beat on him?”
Muehlenhaus muttered the words under his breath, yet I heard them just the same—“Fucking McKenzie.”
“What exactly do you want from me, Mr. Muehlenhaus?” I asked. “You didn’t really bring me here to slap me around, did you?”
“I told you to stay out of my family’s business.”
“You didn’t really believe I would, did you?”
“Riley has run away.”
“I had nothing to do with that.”
“I want my granddaughter back safe and sound.”
“I agree with the safe and sound part, but—”
“She did leave with Navarre voluntarily.”
Muehlenhaus stepped in close, and for a moment I thought he might take another poke at me. I clasped my hands behind my back so he could have a clean shot.
“Navarre is a criminal,” he told me. The way he said it, Muehlenhaus could have substituted the most vicious personal slur and he would have meant the same thing. “Riley does not have enough pertinent information to make a sound judgment about the man.”
That was probably true, I told myself.
“It is up to us to decide what’s best for her,” Muehlenhaus added.
I wasn’t entirely sure about that. Out loud I said, “For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Navarre is a danger to her.”