Written by Steve Blaid
Just two pounds of pressure by the tip of his index finger and a man’s life would be ended. Sitting well back in the deep shadows of the room, feeling the rifle butt tucked snugly into his right armpit, Steve Blair could think of nothing else.
Outside it was that odd city twilight, coming as the sun sank below the tops of the buildings, but not far enough for streetlights to come on. But there was enough light on the sidewalks to pick out targets. Perfect timing for this mission.
A soft chirp in his ear told him that the cell link was up and working. Ready to feed him target data from the Intel street teams. There were four full Sheepdog teams down there, screening the operation’s target. Setting him up for the kill.
Part of Operations, Blair didn’t know any of the Sheepdog members. He’d worked with the teams before, though, and knew they were damned good at their jobs. It would be up to him to finish things.
On the surface it was a simple operation. At least in the air-conditioned, Power Point illuminated security of a briefing room with slides flashing on the white folding screen, punctuated by comments from an Operations Case Officer. Full face and profile photo images of a big man with a wide, friendly face and bushy salt-and-pepper mustache that almost covered his lower lip shared space on the pristine screen. “Rainbow.” The C.O.’s voice was flat. A skill they learned early in their training. “Mainly an arms dealer, but with a sideshow in information peddling. Recently he set up a member of Intelligence. So we got the call. Omega, the Chief tagged this one for you.”
Blair shifted slightly in his chair, feeling dampness gathering in the palms of his hands. He’d killed in the course of missions before, but only as a secondary goal. “I’m flattered. What’s the package?”
“Distance is the key. Rainbow always moves with at least two guards” – their images flashed by – “so a handshaker is out of the question. They’re known to carry automatic weapons as well, and not be too selective as to their targets. This is a message action, so explosives are also out. The Chief recommends a precision tap.”
A sniper hit. Now Blair understood why he’d been picked for this one. “What’s the operation window?”
“Four to five weeks. Intel will track and prep Rainbow for you. We’re sure of his location during that one week. It’s in the file. That gives you two weeks on the range and time to spare for planning. One of our teams will prep and sterilize your shooting site for you. All you need to do is pick the location.”
“Urban. One of the old districts of this city,” – Another flashing image, this time a map – “so it’ll still be fairly close. Any ideas?”
“Find an apartment. Within the next three days. If you’re sure he’ll be going through that doorway during the window, I’ll need an apartment in one of these three buildings.” Pulling a slim laser pointer from his jacket pocket, Blair picked out the locations with its bright red point. “It should be on either the third or fourth floors. With at least two exits. These two” – the point bounced between two buildings across the small square – “would be best, since they open onto other squares and other buildings. But I’ll want to look the map and weather data over first. I’ll give you some possibilities by tomorrow morning. And I’d like a ground recon as well before I settle on one location.”
“Good enough.” Pressing a small remote control, the C.O. turned on the lights and lowered the slide screen at the same time. For a brief moment the city map remained flickering on the wall before the projection system shut down. “What you’ll need to get started is in here.” He handed Blair a bulky folder, over three inches thick and filled with a variety of photos, documents, and maps.
“What about the weapon?”
“You’ve got total control there.” A pursed look around the Case Officer’s lips indicated that he didn’t agree with that decision but had been overruled.
“Good. I’ll use a Remington M700. One in .308 caliber. Common enough to be untraceable, but still have something of an American signature. I’ll need a 24 inch barrel on it, and a Zeiss telescopic sight with Mil Dots. Nothing more than a nine power at that range.”
Making a few notes on a Palm Pilot, the C.O. stood up. “I’ll pass it along. Now, you’d best get planning, Omega.”
Even now, in his dark little apartment lit only by faint golden beams dancing through the open window and yellowing lace curtains, Blair could still feel the disgust balling up inside when he thought about that Case Officer. Always there was something unsaid. Some lingering criticism, never voiced but always present. Just that feeling that he would do things differently, and presumably better.
In the end, Blair had gotten his way. Both with the weapon and the overall plan for the operation. It had taken some struggle on his end, but not much. Just a second request and some fast talking with his section chief. But that was one of the things he appreciated about CAG. In the end, the field operatives usually won out over the desk jockeys.
Shadows danced across the dirty floor of the apartment, catching the pattern of the curtains and twisting it into a psychotic spider’s web. Rubbing at the bridge of his nose, Blair turned his attention back to the narrow world of the telescopic sight. An entire existence bisected by two narrow wires. Dialed up on nine-power, he could see the people walking on the sidewalk as if he was just across from them. Here a man stopped to pick at his nose. There a woman dug quickly at panties that had obviously crawled up her ass. Little bits of life on the streets, and all unaware that they were being watched by a hawk. It was an experience that Blair still found a little unnerving. For if he was doing it, someone else might be doing it to him. Field paranoia, some called it. To Blair it was a realistic evaluation of his situation. He tried to plan accordingly.
A chirp in his ear was followed by a soft female voice announcing the target’s entry into the Beta Zone. It was almost time. Blair could feel the sweat starting to bead in the hollows of his hands. There was no avoiding it now. This wasn’t range time with those oh-so-realistic dummies with the blood sacks. Soon it would be time for him to kill.
The shadows grew across the room, teasing him with just the edge of their dark embrace. This wasn’t the first time he’d killed. There had been five others. But they had all been in the course of a mission. The first was a two-bit gunslinger in the pay of one of the Turkish right-wing groups. He’d managed to get off a shot before Blair’s training took over. Next had been a woman who might have been working for the Russians. CAG never learned who had hired her, but she came damned close to taking out a top consultant until Blair had shot her four times. Both of those kills had come while he was still with CIA. His final kill with CIA came in the back alleys of Mexico City. Working one of those thankless narcotics assignments, Blair had run afoul of one of the many segments of the National Police. Two cops had tried to kill him. One ended up spending the rest of his life in a chair. That was the lucky one.
After that, CIA had wanted nothing to do with Blair. Thanks, but no thanks, they’d said. But then the invitation had come. Blair “died,” only to come back to life in the arms of CAG.
But this was different than a gunfight in Mexico City. Or some ambush in the backstreets of Miami. This time he was planning to kill someone. Waiting until that person walked up and laid his head on the chopping block.
It had all seemed so different on the range. More a matter of ballistics and distance estimates. CAG had done well, setting up a tower on their range that gave Blair the exact height and lighting that he could expect for the real thing. He even had a chair and table for the rifle. Not much, but it was enough to simulate what he’d have to use in the field.
The rifle was the same one he’d find at the site. It rested on the table, waiting for him. A black synthetic stock with glass-bedded mechanism and a freefloating barrel. Just as he’d specified in his mission plan. And there wouldn’t be a single serial number or identifying mark on the weapon. S&T would have seen to that. Even the telescopic sight would be sterile.
Sitting down in the hard, straight back chair, Blair picked up the rifle. An open box of match-grade ammunition rested on the cheap table next to his right hand. The bolt knob was cool under his palm as he opened the breech and carefully fed five rounds into the magazine. Brass glittered in the half-light provided by a sun past its midpoint. There was a firm click as he closed the bolt, chambering a single round. Index finger on the outside edge of the trigger guard, Blair brought the rifle to his shoulder and peered through the sight. Thin wire crosshairs bisected his view of the artificial world below him.
Again, CAG had done an outstanding job. There was an assortment of mannequins on the simulated street below, moved by a complex series of wires and pulleys. Each had a detailed face, and among them would be his target. Blair had no way of knowing when his target would appear, and it would be varied from each session to the next. There would be no pattern. No easy knocking down of paper targets or tin men. Each time he’d have to identify his target and get his single shot in within a set time.
From his college psych courses, Steve Blair understood the method behind this training. It was a matter of conditioning a series of set responses. Identify and squeeze. Nothing more. No time to think. To form thoughts or, worse, regrets. The entire mission was reduced to two simple problems. Analyze the shot and take the shot. There were wind generators to add a wrinkle or two to the problem. Even rain, should it be a possible factor in the actual shot. But it still came down to that basic conditioning. Identify and squeeze.
When the mannequin with the correct face appeared, Blair squeezed every time. Each time obtaining a head or chest shot rated as fatal by the ballistic and impact computers. A clean kill. Good shot. Then he’d abandon the black weapon and practice his evasion route. There were even three times when live return fire was directed at his shooting spot to test his reactions under fire. That had never been a problem for him. Not after that first shootout in Turkey. It was the setup that still grated down somewhere inside. The thoughts that came before Identify and Squeeze.
A sharp breeze tugged at the curtains, bringing Blair back to the present. That was one thing they’d overlooked on the range: curtains. Smiling slightly, he turned his full attention back to the narrow, magnified world presented by his ‘scope. Identify.
There was a short beep in his ear. “Package moving north. On foot, with two strings attached. Should be in the box in five minutes.”
That was it. Showtime. Blair moved his index finger slightly. Feeling the serrations of the trigger under its pad. Watching the faces pass through his field of fire. Here a sweating, pale face belonging to an overweight businessman on some unnamed errand in this part of the city. There a mother’s face, with more lines than her age would indicate, leading three squalling youngsters on their normal shopping route. Each face seemed to hold its own story. So unlike those mannequins back on the range.
Through the scope, Blair could read the number on his target door. 2234. What was so important about building 2234 that it would draw his target to its door so predictably? Was it a mistress? A child? Something else? The file had been silent about that, only guaranteeing that he would be at that door on this day. But the why was missing. Would he be ending the life of a child’s father this day? Leaving behind a wife and mother, adding lines to her face?
Shaking his head, Blair lost his sight picture for just a moment. There was no point in thinking like that. The target had already ended enough lives on his own. Added enough lines to the faces of fathers and mothers, wives and husbands. Left a few orphans in his wake. Besides, the decision had been made. Blair was just a tool. Nothing more than a sophisticated aiming system.
More faces passed through the crosshairs. Each one examined and quickly discarded. He could feel the sweat beading in the hollows of his palms. Making the black plastic stock damp. Lowering the rifle, he wiped his hands on his slacks. Nothing could interfere with his aim. Not sweat. Not a shifting rifle. And not his own thoughts.
Life continued on in the narrow world of the scope. Now shadows were starting to creep heavily across the buildings, adding their own daily five-o’clock-shadow to the city’s face. Traffic increased as offices closed for the day, making target detection harder. But it was still possible. Blair knew that from the range. And now he was experiencing it in the field. It was almost the same.
“Package should be in the box in thirty seconds.” Now his earphone was quiet. Mandatory silence before the elimination. Both for his peace of mind and to avoid any interception by the target’s guards. You never knew what sort of EW capability you’d run into these days. Tucking the rifle butt firmly into the pocket of his shoulder, Blair moved in a shade closer to the scope. Obtaining perfect eye relief. The ideal sight picture. Checking each face as if it were his dead parents come back to life. Looking. Searching.
There! Just coming into range and focus behind an overweight mother leading two children just shy of their teens through the crowded sidewalk. Even at this range, and in this light, that mustache was unmistakable. Blair focused in, examining the face between the crosshairs. It matched. Right down to the bend of the nose and the color of the eyes. He shifted a hair, looking left and right. Now he could pick up the guards, their eyes on the crowd and hands close to their loose overcoats. But they weren’t looking up. More concerned with a handshake job. “Idiots,” he muttered, more a whisper with his exhalation.
Now it was time to breathe. In. Hold. Out. A shooter’s rhythm. Watching the center of the crosshairs rise and fall with each breath. Checking for perfect aim. He could feel the conditioning taking hold. All other thoughts vanishing into that controlled breathing. In. Hold. Out. Smooth and steady. The crosshairs centering just above the target’s left ear. It’s a man! He’s alive! In. Hold. Out. But! In. Hold. Half out. . . Identify. But. . .it’s wrong.
Blair was aware of his shot when the rifle kicked back suddenly into his shoulder. Losing the sight picture for a moment with the recoil. When it came back, all he could see was a spray of red. There was no time. Dropping the rifle, he turned and rolled off the chair to the floor. The harsh ripping bark of sub-machineguns filled his ears as he crawled for the door. Idiots shooting wildly, with no idea where the shot had come from. It would be almost a day before he remembered the exact second that he’d squeezed the trigger.
The debriefing took place in a secure room in the basement of the American Embassy. On loan, perhaps, from the local CIA station. Blair didn’t know, and didn’t care to ask. Instead he sat in his appointed chair, watching the video presentation by the same CO who’d brought him this assignment.
“Perfect shot,” the man droned, picking out bits with his laser pointer. “You took him right through the brain stem. He was dead before he hit the ground.”
“Of course.” Blair was bored, and still more than a bit wired from the mission. Somehow he doubted if the CO had ever heard actual gunfire off the range, let alone shot at anyone. And he was sure the neatly dressed man had never been shot at.
“Yes. Well, there was some damage when those guards of his opened fire.” The image flickered as the CO pressed a button, replaced with a bloody street scene. “A number of people were killed or wounded before the police arrived on the scene.”
“What did you expect? I did mention that in my pre-mission plan. And I was overruled. ‘Operational risk’ I think it was called.” Blair could feel heat growing behind his eyes, and he forced himself to keep looking straight ahead.
“Of course. No one’s suggesting you were at fault.” The sneer in his voice revealed the lie. “But it’s a shame…”
“Have you ever been in the field?”
The CO flinched, not used to being interrupted. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“Just answer the question.” Blair was aware of the two other people in the room. One, a woman dressed in the neat suit of an executive. The other, a man in the odd green uniform of a Marine Corps colonel. Neither spoke.
“Well, no. Not really.”
“Then you’d be well advised to keep your ****ing mouth shut about things you don’t understand.” Blair’s words came quickly, fueled by his anger. “My profile warned you about those guards, and made recommendations. One Ops man with each of the Sheepdog teams could have taken out those bastards. I might have been able to get one of them myself, but I was overruled. The buck might stop with me, but there’s plenty of blood on it to go around.”
“I don’t have to stand here and take **** from you!” The CO shot up from his chair, eyes blazing. “Just where the **** do you get off…”
“Sit down.” The colonel had a voice that was more a growl than a bark, and it brought the CO up short.
“But, sir, I…”
“You nothing. You’ll sit down and take it.” The colonel, who’d earned his bones as an enlisted Scout-Sniper before obtaining his commission and working his way up through Force Recon, turned to face Blair. “I read your original report, Omega. And all its recommendations. A fine piece of work.”
“Thank you, sir.” Blair knew the colonel by reputation. He also knew that the man didn’t hand praise out like Halloween candy.
“I don’t know why the recommendations you made were overruled, but I’ll be finding out. You can be damned sure of that.” The colonel looked straight at the CO, who sank back into his chair. “And there will be consequences. Of that you can be damned sure.”
Now the woman spoke. Blair had no idea who she was, but it was obvious from the way the colonel deferred to her that she was high up in CAG’s organization. She had a soft voice with that throaty hitch that Blair associated with seduction, but there was a comfortable note of command in it as well. “You can leave now.” Her eyes fixed on the CO, who avoided her gaze and left the room. “Now. I believe this was your first operation of this kind for us, Omega.” She waited for Blair to nod. “I’m sorry that it was such a planning mess. That won’t happen again. Some people get through the system. That man is a fine analyst. A genius at image interpretation. But he’s never been in the field.”
“I gathered that.” Blair sat, glad that the dim light hid the look in his eyes. He could still feel the anger coursing through his veins, and was trying to keep that edge out of his voice.
“Yes. Well, he’ll be going back to his images and his reports. What did you think about the operation?”
“What she means, son, is how do you feel about killing a man.” The colonel’s voice was low, carrying a message of shared understanding. Of shared guilt.
“Well…it’s different when someone’s not shooting back at you.” This was a place Blair didn’t want to visit right now. “I didn’t even think about it until after the rifle recoiled. And even then I didn’t really think about it.”
“Could you do it again?”
“Yes.” Blair didn’t even think before he spoke, and was surprised at his answer. “I mean…”
“I know what you mean, son. You get no enjoyment from it. No matter what people may think about us, it’s never something that we enjoy. But it has to be done. That man you took out was a real bastard. The intel information didn’t get that across as clearly as it could have. You saved a number of lives by taking him out.”
“I know, sir. It’s the civilians killed that bothers me.”
“I understand that, too, son. But don’t let it. Easy to say, but damned hard to do. If it’s any help, that bastard was set to meet with some known terrorists later tonight. He was brokering a deal for two hundred pounds of C-4. For car bombs. You saved hundreds of peoples’ lives today with that one bullet. There’s a phrase that comes with my profession. It doesn’t sound too good, but sometimes it’s true. Acceptable losses. What happened in that street could have been avoided, if some idiot had followed your recommendations. But it was still acceptable losses. Compared to what could have happened. And what would have happened if you hadn’t have neutralized your target.”
The woman smiled, shifting in her chair. “You must be tired, Omega. We’re got a room ready for you. Why don’t you eat something and get some sleep? You’ll be flying out in the morning.” Once Blair left, she turned to the colonel. “What do you think, Rich?”
“He’s got what it takes. No doubt about that. That shot was dead on. And his plan was damned good as well.”
“But can he do it again?”
“Oh, I think so, boss. I really think so. Did you see the look in his eyes when he talked about the target? He’d read the information and accepted what needed to be done.” The colonel nodded to himself, having done the same thing himself in a number of ****ty Third World countries in interventions lost to the history books. “He accepts the orders, but keeps a part of himself separate from it.”
“He reminds you of someone, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, ma’am, he does. Myself when I was that age. Fresh out of Scout-Sniper school and just itching to go.” The older man smiled, shifting in his chair. “He’s got that touch, though, that I didn’t at that age. A tactical sense that you just can’t teach someone. Hell, that original plan of his was about as perfect as I’ve ever seen. He anticipated the guards’ reactions, and had two great alternatives for neutralizing them. Heads are gonna roll over this one.”
“I suspect it was the CO who cut that out.” The Chief of CAG turned to face her Director of Operations. “How that got missed in the Psych Eval I don’t know, but I want you to find out. We’re a new organization, Rich, and we can’t afford having people like that in positions where they can create FBI situations for us.”
“Roger on that. You think the boys on the Hill will get wind?”
“No. This one won’t leave the fifth Ring. You know that. Still, I’d like to get Omega back out in the field soon.”
“I’ve got a short list of targets, ma’am. I can start him on those as soon as I get the word.”
“Consider it given.” Turning, the slender woman with the cool blue eyes looked towards the closed door. “I think we might have found our ace.”