“Remember, Olivia. Take a deep breath, hold it, then squeeze the trigger.”
Houston, my mentor and de facto father, sits on the hood of his 2007 Prius. It’s an unassuming suburban blue, the kind your eyes just glide over and promptly forget. He keeps the inside neat aside from a soccer ball and a couple of Happy Meal toys he always leaves in the back next to the car seat base and diaper bag. The bumper likewise sports a “My child is an honor student” bumper sticker and a magnetic breast cancer awareness ribbon. Neither of us have any small children, but the details make us look boring, and that sort of thing matters.
I heed his advice, and peer down the scope of Bonnie Prince Charlie, my L115A3 AWM sniper rifle. The wind comes in from the southwest at four and a half kilometers per hour. My target stands about twelve hundred meters away in the middle of a Mississippi soybean field. I adjust my sights and put the back of that poor bastard’s skull square in the center. Taking the humid southern air into my lungs, I clear my thoughts, still my body, and squeeze the trigger.
The air erupts with the rifle’s booming rapport as hot lead roars from my barrel and plows home, splattering the surrounding crop with bits of bone and brain matter. The remaining half of the head slumps down, though the body does not. The scarecrow stand works just as hoped. If he hadn’t been a cadaver to start with, the man would be undeniably, no-respawns dead now.
“Well,” I say, beaming with pride, “I don’t know about you, but I would call that a successful kill.”
Houston squirms a little on the hood as he considers my shot. His rumpled slacks give the car perhaps the only polish it has seen in some time. When you couple his khakis with his off-the-rack short sleeve shirt and tie combo and his rounding center, he looks about as innocuous as a man of thirty-five could, like Dilbert without glasses. Had I not personally seen him kill a man, several in fact, I would never believe he was perhaps the most accomplished assassin operating on the east coast. He gives me a working class shrug, the kind TV dads give after a long day at the office when the kids ask to watch that one cartoon that makes him nostalgic for the good old days. “He would be dead, I’ll give you that. The shot was sloppy though.”
“Hollow points are going to leave a mess.”
“That isn’t what I meant, Olivia, and you know it. Your bullet placement was off center by a couple of inches.”
“I took off half the guy’s head!”
“Half,” agrees Houston in a way that manages to say he’s more right than me. “Against a perfectly still target. An inch or two more to the left and you would have missed entirely. What if he sneezed? The closer you can hit to center, the less likely you are to miss when fluke events spring up on you.”
I glower at him, one of those epic glowers that only teenagers being told no can pull off. He returns the stare but there is no wrath or malice. It’s a compassionate stare that says “I only want to see you succeed, sweetheart.”
Two can play that game. I square my feet and plant the barrel of my rifle in the dirt, supporting myself on the shoulder butt. This could be a long face off, but I’ve settled in. I can keep this up all day.
“Respect your weapon,” he says and nods toward my muzzle.
Groaning, I pull the gun up again and set about clearing the black Delta dirt from the barrel. With practiced precision, I quickly strip my weapon and begin unclogging the muzzle, only half listening as he prattles on.
“You need to keep your gun clean. Store it properly. When you fire it, listen to it, feel how it moves. Your gun is your dancing partner. Her recoil is her tango. Learn her steps, dance with her, sway with her, and she will take care of you every time.”
“She?” I blurt without realizing. “A sniper rifle is the most phallic piece of machinery ever invented by man, anatomically correct sex toys included. Hell, the whole point of one is to shoot your payload without having to get close to anyone. What strikes you as feminine about that?”
“I guess it’s just the romantic in me,” he says. Sliding a knife from his pocket, he rises from the hood of his blue sedan and crosses the long field to the body. I don’t know where he gets them, but he insists I practice on real human cadavers. Without one, he often tells me, I’ll never learn the right amount of pressure to put on a blade or the practical difference between a full metal jacket and an open tip. He’s probably right.
I lean my rifle against the passenger side door and follow him into the field. “Need a hand?” I ask as I draw near the corpse.
“I should make you do this all yourself,” he says. “You’re as bad at body disposal as you are at shooting.”
“That’s not…” I want to say fair, but one look from him cuts me short. “…entirely inaccurate,” I finish after much deliberation.
He cuts away at the ropes that hold the body up and lets it crumple to the ground. My stomach turns no small amount as it contorts before me, its half-of-a-head staring me down. What’s left of the brain slides out of the skull with a slosh like Jell-o from a bowl, and I just know he’s going to make me pick it up.
“I don’t see why I have to learn this. If I’m using a sniper rifle, I’m probably not going to have to dispose of the body. That’s a pretty public execution. And if a guy has an aneurism or gets drunk and drowns in his pool, I don’t need a gun, and I don’t need to do any clean up. Accidents are meant to be found.”
“If you want to be a proper killer, you have to get your fundamentals down. You’re a prodigy at staging accidents. When it comes to natural causes, you’re spot on. But sometimes the client wants to send a message. Sometimes that message needs to be public, but sometimes it’s showing their enemies that sometimes people just disappear. What are you going to do then?”
I want to tell him I’ll turn down the job or that I’ll figure it out when it comes to it, but I know he won’t take either of those answers, and I don’t want to let him down besides. Instead, I keep my mouth shut and help him carve the body into the six major pieces. A few construction-grade trash bags later and we’re ready to head out.
Houston reaches into the back seat and pulls out the diaper bag. Without looking, he tosses me the baby wipes to clean my hands and shoves a few diapers into the body bags to soak up any fluids that might drip out. Blood stains tend to ruin the illusion that this car belongs to a wholesome family
“Thanks,” I say and toss the used wipes into the bags along with the dead-guy-splattered plants that had taken too much gore to clean off quickly.
As I pull out my rifle’s case, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel and turn to see a Coahoma County sheriff rolling up on our location. My heart pounds in my chest like the steady burst of fire from a nice automatic pistol. I’m brandishing Prince Charlie about as openly as any person can, obviously not expecting company. This deep into Delta country, who would? Instinct makes me want to turn quickly and hide it, throw it away like a grenade, anything but stand there holding it. Sensing my fear, Houston gives me a calming nod.
“We’ve been over this a million times, baby girl. You know what to say. You take this one.”
I smile back at him and slip into character. Given the circumstances, I decide to use Reese Witherspoon from Walk the Line. It’s one of my better impressions. Leaning the rifle against the Prius, I give the officer a warm Southern wave. Reflexively, I constrict my throat a little, shift my tongue back, and ready my country girl accent.
“What’s goin’ on, officer?” I ask in a drawl as thick and sweet as molasses.
He eyes my gun, then my breasts. I’m not exactly flaunting the girls, but then, that doesn’t exactly matter. He seems like the kind of fellow who would never turn down an opportunity to look at a pair, no matter whose. Maybe it’s the greasy black hair or his beady, almond colored eyes that drift back and forth between my face and chest. It takes more than a little of my steely reserve not to shudder under his unsettling leer.
“I think that’s my line,” he says as he leans out the patrol car window. “I’m just drivin’ through. Thought I heard a gunshot a couple minutes ago, and just wanted to see what the action was.”
Houston steps up beside me, puts an arm around my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. Then he offers his free hand to the sheriff, who politely accepts it.
“Just takin’ a day from the office to teach my daughter how to shoot her new toy,” Houston says in his own warm, affected twang as rich as the black soil. Then his expression becomes hard steel wrapped in velvet. “My baby girl’s a mean shot, sheriff. You don’t need to worry about anyone behaving in any untoward fashion against her.”
He emphasizes the last words enough to draw the policeman’s eyes off my figure and onto just about anything else. The lawman glances at the trash bags, the diaper bag, the bumper sticker.
“Got kids, I see?”
“Yessir,” I say. “Two of ‘em. Little boy in first grade and a little baby girl. They’re with their mawmaw right now.”
He eyes my hands and clicks his tongue a little. “Not married?”
“No, sir. Their daddy’s a good for nothin’ bastard I wouldn’t piss on if he was on fire. But he’s locked up in Yazoo, so he ain’t no concern of mine. Not for a few more years at least.”
“Well, if you ever need anything…”
Houston squeezes me tighter and gives the officer another hard stare. I wonder how much of his protective embrace is an act and how much he means. “Don’t you worry about that. My baby girl’s got the second amendment to keep her safe, least until those godless Democrats take it away.”
The officer nods, taking the hint. “Amen to that. You shoot straight and listen to your old man, little lady, you hear me? And keep those babies of yours safe.”
“Yessir,” I say with a warm smile and a wave. The sheriff looks like he wants to say something else, but must think better of it, because he pulls his arm back inside the car, rolls up the window, and drives off.
Houston has always told me the best place to practice targeting was the South. Sparse population, varied terrain, and nobody bats an eye when they hear a gunshot or see a big ass rifle next to a baby carrier. I tease him about it, tell him it’s all just his thin excuse to get authentic shrimp and grits. It’s not until now that I realize the sense of it. The man’s a professional through and through, and he knows his trade. I don’t know why I never gave him the benefit of the doubt.
I pack up Prince Charlie and climb into the passenger side, grateful for the AC and satellite radio. Who knows what sort of god forsaken stuff they play on the FM stations this far away from civilization. I swing up and down the thirties looking for something good and luck upon “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen. Houston pulls himself into driver’s seat. I give him a smile, my eyebrows bouncing as I nod toward the radio.
“Eh? Eh? I’d call this a pretty auspicious beginning for our Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
Houston only shakes his head, so I up the ante, shoulder bumping him as I belt the lyrics to the chorus at the top of my untalented lungs.
A small groan escapes his lips, and his eyes roll as he cranked the car.
“What?” I ask, about as defensive as they come.
“Echo and the Bunnies?”
“Bunnymen,” I say. “How can you not like the Bunnymen? You grew up with them!”
“I grew up with my brother. I don’t like him.”
“But… but… ‘The Killing Moon!’”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t like Echo and the Bunnymen. I don’t like the Smiths. I don’t like the Cure. I don’t like any of that New Wave crap. The 80s were a vomited mass of black clothes and black make up and gloom gloom gloom, or its opposite, spandex, aquanet, inch thick make-up, legwarmers, and toxic, blinding neon colors, and dumb hair all around. Why you young people get so excited about the 80s, I’ll never know. Flush it all and never look back, I say. Except for Peter Gabriel. He can stay. Genesis too, obviously. And the Talking Heads. And Billy Joel. And a lot of the movies. But as to the rest, get thee hence, Satan.”
I furrow my brow and screw up my lips at him, but not for long. It’s a dad’s right not to like your music, even if it was his music first.
“Thanks for my princess present,” I say. “I really like Prince Charlie.”
“Is that what you’re naming this one?”
I nod as I watch the endless fields roll by out the window.
“Any particular reason?”
“I don’t know. He just looks like a Prince Charlie.”
“Yeah.” Houston shrugs, his head bouncing a little as he considers the firearm. “Yeah, I can see that. I’m glad you like it.”
“So,” I ask after a pause, “what’s the occasion?”
“Can’t a guy do something nice for someone just because?”
“They can. You don’t.”
He just gives a noncommittal grunt and keeps his eyes on the road.
Since I was a kid, Houston’s been giving me princess presents, guns in pretty pink dress boxes and poisons in jewelry cases. Usually I get them for my birthday or Christmas. I’d come downstairs and see the box waiting for me with the note For my little princess. No names. Just that tag and something that killed or helped kill. Recently, he’s begun giving me presents out of the blue. Then he teaches me all about it, maybe takes me out to practice using it. He’s always done that, but lately, afterward he’s taken to having me help plan a job using that particular item, explaining how what I’ve learned could help kill this diplomat or that mobster.
He hasn’t said a thing about a job yet, and it’s beginning to make me nervous. The next half hour, during which he listens to my New Wave music without saying one cross word about it, downright terrifies me. It isn’t until we drop the body off at an animal crematorium whose owner owes him a professional sort of favor that he drops the hint. Or rather, that he drops the plain manila envelope.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Job,” he says, stuffing a gas station churro into his mouth as he speaks.
I take the envelope and turn it gently over in my hands. He never really speaks at this point. Normally, he waits patiently, all the while slurping down a cup of coffee or chomping away at a pastry as I look over the files. When I’m ready, I’ll usually give my take on it, explain how I would apply what I just learned to do a proper of job of things. Still, he never waits this long to hand me the contract/dossier combo pack. My veins pump solid polar ice. Is it someone I know? Is it me? Is that why he’s been so hesitant to talk, or why he gave me such a lavish gift? An L115A3 is no slouch piece of gear.
My hands shake as I undo the clasp, and despite my best efforts to appear calm—an assassin is always calm and collected in the face of danger—I can’t help but tear the envelope a little as I open it. My fingers close on the contents, ready to pull it out, but I freeze. I can’t bring myself to look at the photograph.
“Whose is it?” I ask, my voice quivering like a leaf in a storm.
“It’s yours,” he says. I can hear his voice crack and I know this contract frightens him as much as it does me.
“Because it’s time. I knew this couldn’t go on forever. I knew this day would come eventually. I just didn’t expect it so soon.”
“Why is it time? Why now?” I want to cry. My mentor, the only father I’ve ever really known has a contract on me. Any moment now, he’ll try to kill me, and Prince Charlie is too far away to reach and too large to use in these close quarters anyway. I don’t even have Lady Di(e) on me. Lady Di(e), who isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with her subjects. Why would I? When I got dressed this morning, I had no reason to suspect I would need a little 7.65mm peashooter, especially not when I was going out to shoot a big dreamboat like the Prince.
“Just look at it,” is all he says, barely getting the words out. “You’ll understand when you read it.”
I oblige him and slide the contract from the envelope, bracing myself to see a black and white shot of me through a telephoto lens. Instead, I see a press photo of a balding man in his sixties waving to a crowd. I’m not nearly as photogenic as I thought.
“Who is this?” I ask, confusion wrapping me up like yellow sponge cake around my creamy relieved center.
“Bill Thompson. CEO of-“
“Thompson’s? The big box department stores? What did he do to get a hit put on him?”
“Don’t know,” says Houston, brushing churro crumbs from his lips. “Not my business to ask.”
I keep reading, skimming over the usual stuff. Height, weight, blood type, allergies, medications, associates, hobbies, habits. Important stuff, but not the most crucial. I skim down until I see the juicy bit: client notes.
“Wow, John Smith sure wants a lot of people dead. Seems like every other job you get is from a fellow named John Smith. We should give him a bulk buy discount.”
I glance over to see if he cracks a smile, but he wears the same somber face he had when he handed me the envelope. My joke is going down with all passengers screaming. It’s not like him not to respond to a dad joke, especially one that was work related.
I keep reading. Thompson needed to die during business hours, ideally some time between ten and two. Cause of death: accidental or natural, no whiff of foul play. Translation: no body disposal. The job is right up my alley. Except there’s no room for a sniper rifle or clean up anywhere in the job. So why the gift? Why the lecture on fundamentals?
As if on queue, Houston speaks up. “It’s yours. Your first solo job. Well mostly. I’ve done all the preliminary work. Noted his habits, the places he goes, his associates. The kill, though, that’s all you. Falls nicely within your skillset, too. You asked why now. Because I think you’re ready.”
“But what about the gun? I won’t need it for this job.”
“So you’ll have time to practice with it before whatever job you will need it for. Time to fly on your own, little bird.”
His eyes begin to fill with tears, which he wipes away with a Subway napkin. “You’re just growing up so fast.”
I am not even remotely used to this sort of open display of emotion from him. It makes me feel all… squeamish. I reach over and give him an awkward side hug and a still more awkward, “there, there.”
“Wait,” I say, pulling back. “Does this mean I have to move out? Is this just so you can watch TV in your underwear without worrying about me walking in on you?”
He laughs. “No, kiddo. I genuinely think you’re ready for this.”
Inside, I squee a little and do a happy dance in the passenger seat.
Houston gives me a fatherly pat on the back. “Getting the place to myself is just a bonus.”