Learning the Hard Way

I

He looked relaxed and why not; he sat with a beautiful woman on the most idyllic beach Toren had ever seen. Seabirds surfed the breeze above a crystal sea that proffered gentle waves to a gentle slope of pure white sand. The couple smiled at each other and raised their arms in a toast. There was nothing to dislike about the view through the rifle’s scope. 

From this distance, he could just see, or perhaps imagine, the condensation on their glasses. Guessing at the contents, he wondered at the minor triumph of wealth over nature and fantasized the sensation of cold champagne in his mouth. Here on the hotel room balcony, five hundred meters away, a bead of sweat ran down the cheek he pressed into the rifle’s stock. Cradled in his arms he felt the weapon and the eighteen lives held between them. Though Control didn’t appreciate the old firearm, there was no denying its provenance.

The wind wasn’t usually the sniper’s friend, but today he was almost grateful for the breeze. With the eye unoccupied by the view through the scope, he spied the flag atop the Tower Hotel begin to flutter. Standing roughly halfway between him and the beach, he calculated the necessary correction before reaching up and clicking the telescopic sight’s top turret. The gesture triggered a sense memory of a different but similar moment, one that was reinforced when a familiar voice spoke in his ear.

“Take the shot, Toren.” He ignored it; now was not the time for instruction. She should know that.

He inhaled slightly, brought his attention back to the head in the centre of the reticle, and gently squeezed the trigger. The gun barked and kicked into his embrace, though not enough to take the couple from view. The bullet would fly for a third of a second, and Toren began to exhale as he waited for the moment that would forever change the mind currently preoccupied with the good life. As he watched, a small plume of water detonated in the shallows beyond the couple. Oblivious to the near miss, the man raised his glass again as if to brush something from his ear.

“Shit,” the word barely escaped Toren’s lips before his mouth dried drier than the crispest champagne.

When the sound of the rifle shot reached the couple, the man paused only momentarily before rolling out of his deck chair and taking cover behind his companion. It was an automatic response from decades of fighting the proxy wars his country routinely prosecuted in the less affluent but resource-rich regions of the world. Peering up the beach through two expensively pedicured feet, he planned his rapid withdrawal.

“You missed, and as of now, that antique is retired.”

Toren closed his eyes, took his face from the gun stock, and stood up, feeling the ocean breeze evaporate the sweat from his face. Losing his touch felt like a relief, and to hold onto the feeling, he removed the earpiece and placed it on the table next to the smoking gun. That he didn’t miss was why he was here, but missing now would introduce consequences he didn’t care to think about.

He walked onto the balcony to look out at the beach shimmering in the distance. He felt his heart miss a beat as another memory overtook his consciousness. The sense of fresh blood and his arm thrusting into the chest of another man followed by the shattering concussion of something hard striking the back of his head. The flashback faded back to the ocean view, leaving him with an overwhelming desire to leave.

Packing the rifle away didn’t require thought, but the memory somehow found its way between the gun parts and the cutouts in the case. He pressed the barrel down awkwardly. Control was right; the thing was practically an antique, but it had been lucky for him. After he closed the case lid, he picked the earpiece from the table and dropped it into his pocket.

 

II

The taxi pulled up outside the motorhome that had served as Toren’s forward base. He was grateful the driver had recognised small talk would be unwelcome; now the exchange of cash could be followed by a simple request to meet again later that night. As the cab’s wheels kicked up the dust that had almost settled, Toren walked toward his temporary home, feeling for the keys in his pocket. As he opened the van’s door, he paused to let the hot air escape before stepping inside. Putting the slim case on the bed, he poured himself a glass of water before sitting down by the window and reaching for the packet and lighter on the table. Only when he lit a cigarette did he allow the future to overtake the past.

“He missed. It’s that simple.”

“If it were that simple, we wouldn’t need to be here. Could he be awakening? You said he hesitated.”

“Maybe. He certainly doesn’t seem to have the appetite he once did. But his debt hasn’t been fully paid, not yet.”

“Prematurity is rare, but he wouldn’t be the first.”

“I know, but progress cannot be on the grounds of error or uncertainty. It must be deliberate.”

“Agreed. So let’s see what happens next time.”

“I doubt we’ll have long to wait.”

“You’ll keep an eye on him then?”

“Of course.”

“But be careful not to lead, for all the compassion in the world, his karma is his own.”

III

The odds had been skewed by nature and his body working against him. The freshening breeze, the sweat on his face, and a memory had all conspired to make him miss. He watched smoke curl around the glass and felt small: some things you could change, others would forever remain beyond your control. He struggled to accept the conclusion and its implications; they’d only obscure the work before him. As the sky gently pushed the sun into submission, Toren began to plot a course through the night that closed the distance between another man and another bullet.

A noise like a trapped insect interrupted the silence and distracted him from thinking about anaesthetics and guns. As he turned toward the tiny voice that ordered his purpose and shared his memories of moments stretching into eternity, he realised he didn’t want to be reminded of failure or success, but there was the rub: he was an assassin, a means to an end. Returning to duty with another mouthful of water and smoke, he recovered the voice from the jacket’s pocket.

“Come out, come out wherever you are… pick-up Toren, we don’t have time.”

“I’m here.”, Toren refitted the earpiece.

“That wasn’t your greatest moment.”

“Greatness wasn’t what I was aiming for. Where is he now?”

“They went back to his villa and haven’t left. Now what will you do?”

“You’re well informed.”

“That’s my job Toren. Are you still capable of yours?”

“That’s two questions.”

“Just like you, I have my orders.”

“So let’s work together to fulfil them. The mission is still viable and it’ll end tonight… with your help.”, Toren deliberately left a pause before finishing the sentence to stop the balance of power from slipping further away from him. Managing authority took effort that just now he could ill afford.

“Agreed.”, that’s better, he thought.

“I’ll revisit tonight then. Will he still be there?”

A silence followed whilst information was compiled into an answer.

“Yes, he’s not moved since returning, probably busy with security.”

“And might you provide some things I could take along with me? It’d be rude to arrive empty handed.”

“Of course, anything for you dear.”

“Control, you know you’re just the best.” He said with a hint of sarcasm that acknowledged the condescension in her response.

“The address then, floor plan, torch, small bottle of isoflurane, mask, and not to forget a silent pistol with blunt bullets.”

“You’ll permit me to make a concession to the twenty-first century with the last two.”

“Dealer’s choice, and in keeping with the modern world, a timely outage of the power supply when I arrive.”

“That can be done.”

“You make it sound easy”

“Your wish is my command.”

“Your can-do attitude is refreshing, I’ll try and reciprocate.” he replied, indulging them both in the banter.

“We’ve not always, agreed Toren, but believe me, my interest in your success goes beyond lengthening the list of your victims.” 

He wondered what that might mean, until now their interactions had been purely transactional.

“I didn’t realise you cared.”

“I’ve always had your best intentions at heart. I’m as tired of this as you are.”

“You’ll forgive me saying that seems somewhat contrary.”

“Of course, but there are wheels within wheels that must turn before either of us are free, and the circle of your particular wheel is a hard one to square.”

Toren’s grip on the conversation slipped in the riddle’s confusion.

“But don’t let me distract you, I’ll make the arrangements and allow you to get on with yours.” 

He took the speaker from his ear. Besides facilitating his nefarious activity, she had hinted at another agenda which haunted him for the rest of the afternoon.

As the temperature dropped slowly, Toren sat at the table rehearsing in his mind what he was to do. when the sound of a car had him look up. Through the window, he watched a white pickup truck pull up. As the driver got out, Toren watched him pause and reach for something in the cab. There was no mystery to this visit, and opening the door, Toren took what was offered, leaving the courier to depart as efficiently as he’d arrived. Putting the bag on the table, he unpacked its contents. Removing the gun and ammunition, he pressed home the magazine with the heel of his hand and chambered a round. Emptying the bag, he checked the beam of the torch and briefly opened the valve on the cylinder before putting everything back and re-zipping it shut.

Though the list had been unusual, it had been fulfilled within a few hours, which made him wonder at the resources Control commanded. He checked for a serial number on the gun and found none. It was as cold as they come, diverted somewhere between the production line and the factory gate, kept and delivered at short notice. Though Control had always shown a remarkable ability to manage situations, he doubted even a national military machine could fulfil such an order in half a day. Her jurisdiction was uncanny. As he watched the view from the window turn from day to night, a tide of questions rose up in his mind.

IV

The taxi arrived on time, the only other moving vehicle he’d seen since the courier departed. As he retraced the earlier journey, he rehearsed the events he’d planned for the next few hours in the same silence as he’d replayed the memories of that afternoon. Looking out the window, he watched the flat, arid plain give way to downtown blocks before reappearing between the mansions of the town’s wealthiest suburb. The walls that protected privacy and privilege rolled by until the taxi pulled up before a gated drive lit along its length by coloured spotlights. Though the owner had clearly found wealth, taste had proved more elusive. Repeating the earlier transaction, Toren got out and walked over to the villa’s entrance.

“As pretty as this is, now’s the time to turn the party lights down and let me in.” The earpiece didn’t interrupt the sound of cicadas tricked into song by the artificial light show.

“Come on Control, curtain up.”

“Every arrangement has been made. This need be the final act Toren, so ‘break a leg’.” As the gates swung open and the rainbow footlights and insect chorus faded, he slipped into the darkness.”

V

The man awoke imagining he was sitting in a dentist’s chair, a vision conjured by the synthetic taste in his mouth.

“There you go.” The voice came from beyond his imagination. Instinctively he reached for the gun under his pillow, but without feeling his arm respond.

“And be reassured this isn’t amateur hour. I have your gun and the anaesthetic has your limbs. Look, I don’t know if you deserve this visit or not, but someone’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to arrange an introduction.” In the silence that followed, Toren’s calm overtook the man’s fear. 

“You escaped the beach today because of my mistake and – ” Toren was interrupted by a familiar voice,

“Forego the speech and just finish the job.” 

“- and I want to know what you’ve done to deserve me.” He walked around the bed to look down at the figure before him. Preparing for another unwelcome contribution, he removed the earpiece and let it drop to the floor.

Shrouded in satin sheets, lay an almost outstanding military career that had culminated in leading an elite commando squad before health and wealth prompted early retirement. The form before him was a testament to the fortunes of war and the kilogram blocks of cooked opium which were its currency. The champagne and expensive nail polish had come off the backs of faceless brown people living on less than ten dollars a day.

“I was a soldier who followed orders.” The simple admission lingered in the warm night air between them.

“You were a good soldier?”

“Good enough to be kept busy.”

“Me too.”

They were then both subject to bloody command, actors in a shadow play, pawn sacrifices in somebody else’s game. Toren turned away from the bed toward the ache at the back of his skull. As he turned he punctuated the silence with the sound of the earpiece cracking underfoot. He paused and turned back to the younger man. 

“Whoever you are and whatever you’ve done, I don’t know if you deserve to die, and I don’t know if I deserve to kill you, so take this as a lucky break soldier. I’ll not deny your conscience.” He lowered the gun pointed at the paralysed figure before him and left the room as silently as he’d entered.  A sense of profound relief accompanied his retreat to the mansion’s gate and the long walk back along the road out of town. As he walked relief gave way to weariness as darkness gave way to sunrise.

VI

“You were right. He is awakening. He showed compassion?”

“Perhaps something more like humility, but it stayed his hand nonetheless.”

“That is enough then, enough for this time, release him.”

After a lonely, contemplative journey, Toren approached the empty lot where his van waited. Though the sun was hot by the time he arrived, it had not been enough to evaporate the sweat from his brow. As he went, he pushed back questions about what he’d done with memories of smoke and cold water.

Walking over to the dust-covered vehicle, he paused to fish the key from his pocket. When a flash of light spotlighted the door in front of him, he turned around to find the source only to be momentarily blinded by a reflection from a distant tower. Recovering his sight, he recognised the flag hanging limply from the building’s roof before being thrown back so hard his feet left the ground. Falling heavily, the impact of concrete on the back of his head was the last thing that passed through his mind.

From somewhere high up between the ocean and Toren’s bloody form came the distant bark of a bullet exploding into action and, lost to the wind, a familiar voice speaking through another earpiece:
“Nice shot.”

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