The old man came out to the garden.
Reseng tightened the focus on the telescopic sight and pulled back the charging handle. The bullet clicked loudly into the chamber. He glanced around. Other than the tall fir trees reaching for the sky, nothing moved. The forest was silent. No birds took flight, no bugs chirred. Given how still it was out here, the noise of a gunshot would travel a long way. And if people heard it and rushed over? He brushed aside the thought. No point in worrying about that. Gunshots were common out here. They would assume it was poachers hunting wild boar. Who would waste their time hiking this deep into the forest just to investigate a single gunshot? Reseng studied the mountain to the west. The sun was one hand above the ridgeline. He still had time.
The old man started watering the flowers. Some received a gulp, some just a sip. He tipped the watering can with great ceremony, as if he were serving them tea. Now and then he did a little shoulder shimmy, as if dancing, and gave a petal a brief caress. He gestured at one of the flowers and chuckled. It looked like they were having a conversation. Reseng adjusted the focus again and studied the flower the old man was talking to. It looked familiar. He must have seen it before, but he couldn’t remember what it was called. He tried to recall which flower bloomed in October--cosmos? zinnia? chrysanthemum?--but none of the names matched the one he was looking at. Why couldn’t he remember? He furrowed his brow and struggled to come up with the name but soon brushed aside that thought, too. It was just a flower--what did it matter?
A huge black dog strolled over from the other end of the garden and rubbed its head against the old man’s thigh. A mastiff, purebred. The same beast Julius Caesar had brought back from his conquest of Britain. The dog the ancient Romans had used to hunt lions and round up wild horses. As the old man gave the dog a pat, it wagged its tail and wound around his legs, getting in his way as he tried to continue his watering. He threw a deflated soccer ball across the garden, and the dog raced after it, tail wagging, while the old man returned to his flowers. Just as before, he gestured at them, greeted them, talked to them. The dog came back immediately, the flattened soccer ball between its teeth. The old man threw the ball farther this time, and the dog raced after it again. The ferocious mastiff that had once hunted lions had been reduced to a clown. And yet the old man and the dog seemed well suited to each other. They repeated the game over and over. Far from getting bored, they looked like they were enjoying it.
The old man finished his watering and stood up straight, stretching and smiling with satisfaction. Then he turned and looked halfway up the mountain, as if he knew Reseng was there. The old man’s smiling face entered Reseng’s crosshairs. Did he know the sun was less than a hand above the horizon now? Did he know he would be dead before it dipped below the mountain? Was that why he was smiling? Or maybe he wasn’t actually smiling. The old man’s face seemed fixed in a permanent grin, like a carved wooden Hahoe mask. Some people just had faces like that--people whose inner feelings you could never guess at, who smiled constantly, even when they were sad or angry.
Should he pull the trigger now? If he pulled it, he could be back in the city before midnight. He’d take a hot bath, down a few beers until he was good and drunk, or put an old Beatles record on the turntable and think about the fun he’d soon have with the money on its way into his bank account. Maybe, after this final job, he could change his life. He could open a pizza shop across from a high school, or sell cotton candy in the park. Reseng pictured himself handing armfuls of balloons and cotton candy to children and dozing off under the sun. He really could live that life, couldn’t he? The idea of it suddenly seemed so wonderful. But he had to save that thought for after he pulled the trigger. The old man was still alive, and the money was not yet in his account.
The mountain was swiftly casting its shadow over the old man and his cabin. If Reseng was going to pull the trigger, he had to do it now. The old man had finished watering and would be going back inside any second. The job would get much harder then. Why complicate it? Pull the trigger. Pull it now and get out of here.
The old man was smiling, and the black dog was running with the soccer ball in its mouth. The old man’s face was crystal clear in the crosshairs. He had three deep wrinkles across his forehead, a wart above his right eyebrow, and liver spots on his left cheek. Reseng gazed at where his heart would soon be pierced by a bullet. The old man’s sweater looked hand-knit, not factory-made, and was about to be drenched in blood. All he had to do was squeeze the trigger just the tiniest bit, and the firing pin would strike the primer on the 7.62 mm cartridge, igniting the gunpowder inside the brass casing. The explosion would propel the bullet forward along the grooves inside the bore and send it spinning through the air, straight toward the old man’s heart. With the high speed and destructive force of the bullet, the old man’s mangled organs would explode out the exit wound in his lower back. Just the thought of it made the fine hairs all over Reseng’s body stand on end. Holding the life of another human being in the palm of his hand always left him with a funny feeling.
Pull it now.
And yet for some reason, Reseng did not pull the trigger and instead set the rifle down on the ground.
“Now’s not the right time,” he muttered.
He wasn’t sure why it wasn’t the right time. Only that there was a right time for everything. A right time for eating ice cream. A right time for going in for a kiss. And maybe it sounded stupid, but there was also a right time for pulling a trigger and a right time for a bullet to the heart. Why wouldn’t there be? And if Reseng’s bullet happened to be sailing straight through the air toward the old man’s heart just as the right moment fortuitously presented itself to him? That would be magnificent. Not that he was waiting for the best possible moment, of course. That auspicious moment might never come. Or it could pass by right under his nose. It occurred to him that he simply didn’t want to pull the trigger yet. He didn’t know why, but he just didn’t. He lit a cigarette. The shadow of the mountain was creeping past the old man’s cottage.
When it turned dark, the old man took the dog inside. The cottage must not have had electricity, because it looked even darker in there. A single candle glowed in the living room, but Reseng couldn’t make out the interior well enough through the scope. The shadows of the man and his dog loomed large against a brick wall and disappeared. Now the only way Reseng could kill him from his current position would be if the old man happened to stand directly in the window with the candle in his hand.
As the sun sank below the ridge, darkness descended on the forest. There was no moon; even objects close at hand were hard to make out. There was only the glimmer of candlelight from the old man’s cottage. The darkness was so dense that it made the air seem damp and heavy. Why didn’t Reseng just leave? Why linger there in the dark? He wasn’t sure. Wait for daybreak, he decided. Once the sun came up, he’d fire off a single round--no different from firing at the wooden target he’d practiced with for years--and then go home. He put his cigarette butt in his pocket and crawled into the tent. Since there was nothing else to do to pass the time, he ate a packet of army crackers and fell asleep wrapped up in his sleeping bag.
Reseng was awakened abruptly about two hours later by heavy footsteps in the grass. They were coming straight toward his tent. Three or four irregular thuds. A torso sweeping through tall grass. He couldn’t decipher what was coming his way. Could be a wild boar. Or a wildcat. Reseng disengaged the safety and pointed his rifle at the darkness, toward the approaching sound. He couldn’t pull the trigger yet. Mercenaries lying in wait had been known to fire into the dark out of fear, without checking their targets, only to discover that they’d hit a deer or a police dog or, worse, one of their fellow soldiers lost in the forest while out scouting. They would sob next to the corpse of a brother in arms felled by friendly fire, their beefy, tattooed bodies shaking like a little girl’s as they told their commanding officers, “I didn’t mean to kill him, I swear.” And maybe they really hadn’t meant to. Since they’d never before had to face their fear of things going bump in the night, the only thing someone with muscles for brains knew how to do was point and shoot into the dark. Reseng waited calmly for whatever was out there to reveal itself. To his surprise, what emerged was the old man and his dog.