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Smith shifted the rifle, squinted through the scope, and centered the crosshairs on the target. This one looked much like the last two—a man in his mid-20s, fit, and fairly good-looking. But unlike the last two this man was drunk and getting a blow job.
The target perched naked on the edge of a hot tub. Two women and another man sat in the tub, steam rising around their nude figures in the moonlight. The kneeling blonde giving the blow job might or might not be pretty—Smith couldn’t tell from the back of her head—but her movements showed she was definitely enthusiastic.
The target leaned back with his eyes closed. He looked as though he were about to come. A few seconds earlier the scope had shown the three onlookers, each with a drunk-happy expression, watching closely.
Prone on the hillside above the target’s house and about a hundred yards from the hot tub, Smith considered the irony of killing the man at this moment. While having sex, he was also dying for sex—literally. Just as the other two had although they’d been engaged in mundane activities when Smith closed in on them. One mowing his lawn, the other dozing in the sun. The first never finished the lawn, the second never woke up.
Smith hadn’t been able to tell any of the three why they were being executed. Doing so would have been pleasant and certainly fair—the sporting thing to do, really—but Smith wasn’t willing to compromise success of the mission for the momentary satisfaction of looking into the targets’ eyes and explaining things.
The devil could explain in hell.
Meanwhile, two shots to the head—one to kill, one to make certain. Smith inhaled, crooking the index finger over the trigger as the shooting instructors had taught.
“Goddamn it!” that one sergeant had kept shouting into Smith’s ear on the Fort Jackson range. “Squeeze the fucking trigger, don’t yank it!”
The South Carolina sun had made sweat drip into Smith’s eyes, blurring the target and making it hard to keep breathing properly. But Smith and most of the other recruits had kept trying day after hellish day of boot camp until they could hit the target more often than not.
Although Smith didn’t usually wear shooting gloves, this uninsulated pair was thin and didn’t interfere with the shooting routine drilled into the bone six years earlier. Smith exhaled half a breath and then squeezed the trigger so gently that predicting the precise moment of firing would have been impossible.
And as the classroom instructor had said, whacking at the projected schematic with an ancient wooden pointer, the firing pin hit the base of the cartridge, igniting the primer that set off the propellant, and the bullet rocketed down the rifled grooves of the barrel, quickly becoming supersonic.
The rifle kicked Smith in the shoulder, and the crack! of sound rang in both ears. Smith kept looking through the scope as a black hole appeared in the target’s forehead and his skull jerked forward from the explosion of brains and blood out the rear.
Dead. Yes, surely, but in contrast to TV and movie shooters, a professional takes no chances. At least none that don’t have to be taken.
Smelling the familiar acrid odor of burned gunpowder, Smith worked the bolt to eject the brass casing and chamber another round as the target’s companions began reacting to the effect of the shot. The man and one of the women screamed while the other covered her eyes with her hands.
The busy blonde reacted last, pulling her head back and looking up at the dead eyes of the man she’d been pleasuring seconds before. Then she too began to scream.
The sound of the second shot made them shut up for a moment. A second hole appeared millimeters from the first, and the target’s head jerked again although less violently this time.
The blonde thrashed backward, and the target’s body slid into the bubbling water. As the water turned frothy pink, then red in the glow from the recessed lights on the tub’s inner walls, the dead man’s friends scrambled out, slipping on the wet surfaces.
Only one of them was still screaming, but now the others were shouting at each other, and Smith thought one of the shouts included the word “police.” Even if the witnesses weren’t calling the cops right now, they soon would.
Smith had expected to feel ecstasy or at least satisfaction at completing this difficult triple mission, but the actual feeling was one of numbness—a draining of emotion. Smith had focused on the mission so hard and long that the future was hazy, indistinct. No clue about what to do next.
Except escape. That was the immediate task, and it was time to start.
Smith was on the military crest of the hill, a few yards lower than the actual crest. Retrieving the ejected casing and crawling to the back side of the hill took only moments.
As the shouting died down, a neighbor called across the fence on one side of the large lot. Smith rapidly disassembled the rifle, acutely aware of the seconds ticking by. Working by touch in the darkness under the trees, Smith stowed the parts in their fitted case.
Smith didn’t plan to use the rifle again, but the same Remington Model 700—the civilian version of the Army’s M24 sniper rifle—had killed the mower. Although that hit had been in a different state, there was no point in helping the police use ballistics to link the two events to this weapon. Smith would dispose of the rifle components just as the parts of the pistol that killed the sleeper had been scattered in trash bins across three counties.
Smith clicked the case shut and began moving down the hill, stepping quickly and quietly but not running through the underbrush still common in this lightly developed neighborhood. Walking might create the appearance of someone searching for the shooter instead of the shooter fleeing the scene.
But being seen wasn’t likely. Dressed in black boots, pants, and long-sleeve shirt and wearing a black watch cap, Smith was sweating lightly in the midsummer California night but blended into it like one shadow cast on another.
At the bottom of the hill Smith paused just inside the tree line. Across a shallow ditch lay a two-lane road that needed repaving. The rental car was parked on the other side, already headed in the direction of the airport.
Smith didn’t see any headlights. That wasn’t surprising on this back road at almost midnight and was the third reason for choosing the road. Good access to the target and the exit over the hill were the first two.
Then Smith heard the siren. It was on the other side of the hill, somewhere in the web of streets that led the target’s house. A few seconds later a second siren joined the first.
A flashlight beam probed the top of the hill. That must be the neighbor. The witnesses were probably too scared to do anything but wait for the police. Well, they wouldn’t have long to wait.
Smith pulled out the key and stepped into the ditch. Just then the glow of headlights appeared to the right. Smith could get across the road before the vehicle arrived but might be caught in the lights.
Smith dropped flat in the ditch. There had been enough rain recently to soak the bottom, and Smith cursed at having to lie in the mud.
The vehicle went by—a car or light truck from the sound, nothing bigger—and Smith rose enough to check the road. All clear.
Smith sprinted across the road and unlocked the car. Having previously turned off the dome light, Smith entered and started the car in darkness. After the headlights came on, no one could see the driver’s face very well. Smith checked the rear-view mirror and pulled onto the road.
The trip to the airport would take about 40 minutes at normal speed, and Smith didn’t drive faster than that. The nondescript car wouldn’t attract attention unless it was speeding.
At the first big intersection a motorcycle cop zoomed into the middle of the road and stopped green-lighted traffic while an ambulance went by. Smith was pretty sure where the ambulance was going.
Smith was at the head of the line of stopped vehicles, and the cop was staring into the car. Smith sat still, keeping gloved hands out of sight and maintaining a neutral expression, not looking right at the cop but not looking away either. After the ambulance passed, the cop waited a moment, still staring at Smith, then waved the car forward and went back to his motorcycle.
The watch cap must’ve caught his attention, Smith thought. Shit! Should’ve taken that off.
Smith drove on, taking deep breaths but not removing the cap or wiping away the sweat until through the intersection and well away from the cop.
To discard pieces of the rifle, Smith made three quick stops on the way to the airport, each time turning off the main road and going a couple of blocks to some closed and dark business that had a large trash bin out back.
At the second stop Smith smashed the scope—reluctantly and only after again admiring its fine craftsmanship—so that no one who found it would be tempted to keep it. After the third only the case was left, but Smith didn’t want to throw it into a bin containing any of the parts that fit the case.
Near the airport Smith pulled into an all-night service station, choosing the island farthest from the cashier’s window. Smith topped off the tank as an excuse for stopping and to streamline returning the rental car.
Smith paid at the pump with the same credit card the rental was on, one purchased along with a fake driver’s license from a dealer in such things. A dealer who claimed to sell only quality goods and charged accordingly.
But it was worth every penny, Smith thought, to be able to do the job without worrying about leaving a trail. To be able to remain free, anonymous, and—best of all—alone.
Smith changed clothes in the restroom, afterward wrapping the boots, watch cap, and gloves inside the black pants and shirt. The mirror above the sink reflected red eyes and white lips in a pale, strained face.
Well, it was done now. Completely done. All three men dead, simply, cleanly, neatly. No evidence left behind as far as Smith knew. At least not enough to lead police to the killer.
Smith knew there was no perfect crime, let alone three, but apparently the detailed planning and careful preparation had paid off.
And luck—don’t forget the vital element of luck. You couldn’t count on it, but you had to have it to pull some things off. Smith had seen that many times in the desert and now had seen it three times back here.
Smith also knew you could press luck too far—use it up until you were naked and defenseless. Then you had to face whatever the luck had shielded you against. Usually that was the last thing you ever faced.
Back at the car Smith turned away from the cashier to put the bundle of muddy clothes into a trash barrel, pushing the bundle down as far as it would go and covering it with crumpled newspapers and oil-stained paper towels. Then Smith retrieved the rifle case and did the same thing with it, being careful to smear any fingerprints that might have been left on the latches and handle of the case.
Smith drove the rest of the way to the airport and found the rental-return area. Smith parked and handed the key to the attendant. He was a pimply young man who, Smith noted with relief, was too sleepy or stoned to pay much attention to his late-night customer.
Of course it was actually early morning now. And it would be almost noon when Smith got back east.
Home. Get undressed, crawl into bed, and sleep for a week. Sleep until this time and the other two times were just unpleasant memories. Okay, bad memories—but surely not as bad as the recollection of the horrible night that started things. No, that would always remain the worst memory of all.
Smith grabbed the carry-on from the back seat and moved briskly toward the terminal. Halfway there a man carrying a small black bag emerged from a row of cars and walked in the same direction.
Smith glanced at the man, who was tall and trim with a pale, hawk-like face. He was looking straight ahead, so Smith merely edged away and kept heading for the terminal.
“Nice job.” The man kept his voice so low that even if other people had been around, no one but Smith would have heard the remark.
Smith was startled but tried not to show it while thinking rapidly of what an innocent person would say. “Excuse me?”
The man looked at Smith and smiled. A cold smile, reptilian, with no mirth in it. “You heard me. And you know what I’m talking about—that guy in the hot tub.”
Smith stopped and frantically looked around to see if there were any possibility of escape. Ducking into a row of cars and trying to run seemed the only way, and Smith knew the odds were poor at best.
Who was this man? To know what he knew, he must be a plainclothes police officer even though he wasn’t talking like one. Smith didn’t know whether he was armed, but given the situation, it seemed likely.
Nevertheless Smith was about to drop the bag and run when another man, a short, stocky black guy, stepped out in front of Smith. He wasn’t carrying anything and bent his knees and spread his arms slightly as though preparing to make a tackle. He must be the other one’s partner, Smith thought.
Smith looked at the tall man, who smiled that cold smile again. “Plus the other two earlier. All good, clean hits.”
Smith fought the panic that was like being strangled with strong, cold hands. Caught. They seemed to know everything, and there was virtually no chance of escape. Still, Smith wasn’t going to prison. Not if there was any way to avoid it. Death was preferable to rotting in a cell for the next half-century or longer.
Smith swung the carry-on at the tall man, who dodged it easily but had to step back to do so. Then Smith threw the bag at him and began sprinting for the closest row of cars.
The tall man used his bag to bat Smith’s to the ground. “Go!” Now loud, his voice echoed off the concrete and metal. The short guy ran to intercept Smith, moving very fast for someone built like a wrestler.
Smith made it past one car, then another, but the runner caught up at the third. He grabbed a shoulder and twirled Smith around. Pinned against the side of a vehicle, Smith twisted and bucked, trying to get free, but the man was so strong that only Smith’s head could move freely.
The man laughed softly, his face close to Smith’s, and Smith could smell his dinner on his breath. Something with onions. The smell combined with tension and fatigue to make Smith’s stomach surge. I wonder how he’s going to like me puking on his shoes, Smith thought.
“No need to fight,” the man said in a raspy but surprisingly gentle voice. “We caught you fair and square.”
Smith was too choked with fear and nausea to say anything. The tall man walked over to them, carrying Smith’s bag as well as his own. He set the bags down and pulled a pistol from his pocket. “I was pretty sure we’d have to do it this way.”
Smith’s eyes grew big as the man put the pistol up to Smith’s arm and fired. Smith felt a sharp, painful sensation like being jabbed with a knife. For some reason there was no blood.
But there had to be blood, even from a small-caliber bullet. As Smith stared at the entry wound, the world grew dark. Within a few seconds everything was completely black, and Smith slumped into the short guy’s arms.
The tall man looked around, didn’t see anyone. “Come on. We’ve got to get out of here.” He picked up the bags. “Can you make it to the car?”
The stocky man lifted Smith easily and motioned with his head for his partner to lead the way. “Sure, doesn’t weigh much.”
Then he looked down at Smith’s face. “You know, for a big, bad killer, she’s really pretty small.”
Timothy J. Lockhart is a lawyer and former U.S. Navy officer who worked with the CIA, DIA, and Office of Naval Intelligence. He is the author of the novels Smith (2017), Pirates (2019), A Certain Man’s Daughter (2021), and Unlucky Money (scheduled for 2022), all from Stark House Press. In addition, he has written articles and book reviews for a variety of publications, including Naval Intelligence Quarterly, Naval War College Review, and The Virginian-Pilot. He lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with his wife and daughter.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.