The climb up the steep ridge in darkness was brutal, and the man's arthritic joints ached mightily. Security details had tramped up and down the slope all around him for hours, once passing close enough for him to make out the tattoo on the back of a young soldier's wrist -- Dios, Madre, Patria.
A lavender glow spilled over distant snowcapped peaks. He cradled the rifle in the crooks of his elbows and crawled the last fifty meters toward the depression he had scouted the previous day. Once in position, he pressed himself flat against the earth, drinking of her warmth and promise of eternal rest.
He meditated until his tired eyes could focus on the cobblestone square in the village below. Soldiers bustled like ants before a flood. They stacked sand bags around a machine gun nest, and put the final touches on a crude stage made of bamboo.
Inching the rifle forward, the man removed a scope from a velvet bag, and snicked it into place. It was set to pulverize a tangerine at a thousand meters, but his stealth ensured that he would not need such a great distance this day.
Olive green jeeps sprouting .50 caliber machine guns bounced over the rough streets near the plaza. Through his scope, he studied the government snipers stationed at each corner of the square. They had foolishly directed their attention toward a narrow area, leaving patrol of the perimeter to conscripts. Their arrogance amused him. Compadres, he thought, you before anyone should know that death comes from above.
On a low rise to his left not more than half a soccer field away, a dozen recruits smoked cigarettes and shivered in the morning chill. He was well enough concealed that they would not see him until it was too late. But he dared not look at them directly, lest more internal, forgotten senses alerted the young men to his presence.
Coughing, cursing the boredom and the cold, the young soldiers were any of the brothers in arms he had fought alongside over the years. They were unlikely to have volunteered for counterinsurgency, the most dangerous branch of the service. Like him, they were the sons of poor men-men who could not afford a blue chip or a white or green one when a trembling boy draws from a narrow box to learn where he will spend his military service. Only black chips for the sons of the poor. But if you are lucky and survive a few skirmishes with the guerrillas, the service is not without its opportunities. Like when a sergeant major, destined to become general and a candidate for president, watches a rookie soldier shoot a partridge in flight and asks, "Tell me, young patriot, have you given any thought to the sniper corps?"
The general had arrived by helicopter from Bogotá the previous evening. Four birds landed in a heavily guarded grass field on the edge of the village, making it impossible to know which helicopter held the country's most controversial candidate for president. The sharpshooter had a clear view of the fat, sweating man as he lumbered toward the village's mayor who was dressed in his finest to receive him. But the contract demanded a kill in front of the cameras, and so he waited.
He had studied the familiar face carefully through the crosshairs, marveling at how Yankee surgeons at the prime of their careers had so capably repaired the damage he had inflicted in his own career's greatest failing. Only thin scars were still visible. Though even such a mild disfigurement would doom a candidate in a gringo TV culture, the people of Colombia recognized the scars for what they were, a badge of honor. You cannot make waves in this country without pissing someone off.
The general was well respected in many circles-not an easy feat in a nation that nursed a forty-year-old civil war. He preached sympathy for the communist guerrillas, recalling their aim to represent the working class, though he denounced their slide into kidnappings and murder. He reprimanded the paramilitaries too-mercenaries hired by corporations to break up guerrilla groups and kill their families in the process. Yet his no-nonsense approach to crime and the economy hushed criticism that he was just another leftist. If anyone could right the badly listing ship of Colombian politics, it was he.
The general was as good as dead that afternoon five years ago. Two hundred and forty meters in good light with only the mildest of prevailing crosswinds. The contract had come from a narco-trafficker angry at the army for burning his cocaine plantation in the Western Cordillera.
The general was speaking at a ceremony where a bishop was to bless a shipment of new police vehicles. He reached a dramatic point in his address, pitching his head back for emphasis just as the hammer came down. The shot tore off the left side of his face below the ear. Security forces tackled the general. The sniper killed three of them before he had to withdraw, but they did not abandon their leader.
When his shot failed to kill the general, the narco-trafficker had put a bounty on the sniper's head, but after a bullet clipped the ashes from his cigarette while he rested poolside at his mountain estate, he decided their score was settled.
Despite the public failure, the sniper's reputation was intact. Since that day, he had been as reliable as the hand of Death.
If only the general had not made that awkward gesture. That is what he told himself. Perhaps the Virgin altered the bullet's course in mid-flight. In any case, the miss was not intentional. No, certainly not. The sniper owed the general no favors and besides, he had no influence over these matters. He was but an instrument, acting with the permission of the Almighty though at the behest of some fairly lowbrow characters. He sent men to their slumber in the earth's bosom, and who but God could say it was not their time?
He helped important men to settle differences of opinion. Not in the manner of the guerillas or the paramilitaries, crudely gunning down the offending party at a stoplight or in his bed at home. Rather, his services allowed for a more personal touch, as if to say, "For you, my respected foe, I have chosen the best. Go to your eternal rest knowing that you were sent by the best assassin the Colombian military ever produced or her government ever corrupted."
There was no animosity toward the men he killed over the years. That was left to others. Nor had he been burdened by mercy, as that was never his to bestow. At confession, he asked forgiveness for many sins-gluttony, avarice, sloth-but never murder.
He tensed as a sleek limousine crept from a side street into the square. The driver held open the door, and a large man emerged wearing the distinctive green and black of Las Culebras, the army's most elite counterinsurgency unit.
Espinoza was head of security, and the general considered him a trusted friend, but it was no secret that this trust was misplaced. Funding for Las Culebras depended on the guerillas they combated. There could be no peace treaty. A pacifist general running for president was ironic even for Colombia, but for him to think that dismantling Las Culebras would go over without protest was absurd. And so a man on a hilltop with a high-powered rifle had entered the equation.
Espinoza marched across the square, his men eagerly describing the security measures in place. He pointed toward the overlying hills, his question obvious. The sniper could almost hear the soldier's enthusiastic response; the hills are secured, sir, our forces are deployed in overwhelming numbers. Only a fool would try anything today...
Only a fool. Perhaps. Because Las Culebras could not be implicated in what happened this morning. Because Espinoza must kill him, sooner or later.
A flock of chattering parakeets landed in a nearby pine. He held very still lest they take wing and give away his position.
Movement from below meant that the time was near. He watched the general's motorcade snake through the crowd and come to a stop near the podium. His heart pounded in his chest like it had not done since he killed his first police captain thirty years ago. He worked to slow his breathing-one deep breath, two, and his control returned to him.
The news cameras were in position. Dignitaries took their seats on stage. A crowd of peasants spilled from the square up the narrow streets and alleys in all directions. The general's words had little meaning for them-their fathers and their grandfathers had listened to these speeches for decades, yet though they remained hungry and disaffected, the spectacle alone was worth suffering through another one.
A high school band blared the "Gloria Inmarcesible," the politicos mouthing the words with their hands over their hearts. The general climbed the steps and took his place on stage, his guards positioned close around him. Espinosa stood a safe distance to the general's right. Six hundred meters, sharp descent, no wind. The general rustled his notes on the podium, the cameras rolled, the crowd leaned in. If the sniper were to amend his greatest failing, this would be his only chance.
He counted backwards from three, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle recoiled hard into his aching shoulder. The bullet clipped the general in the flesh of his hip and spun him violently. For appearance's sake, he thought. Forgive me.
Like that afternoon years ago, the general's men piled onto him with abandon, their loyalty for the man leaving no concern for their own lives. And Espinoza stood apart, unprotected, affecting a look of shock for the cameras.
The sharpshooter squinted at the green and black uniform through his crosshairs as security forces charged up the ridge towards him. Three-two-and Espinoza's chest exploded.
Shouts-he had been sighted. Gunshots erupted from all sides. The soldiers were nearly upon him. He stood stiffly.
Gripping his rifle by its muzzle, he swung it in a high arc up and out over the ridge. It spun end over end into space. With luck, the general would be back on the campaign trail in a week.
The sniper crossed himself, then stretched his arms out over the valley below. Be our finest president, General, and bring us forth out of this great darkness.
About the author:
James D. Wright is a clinical psychologist who writes short fiction every chance he gets. He was recently published in Mikrokosmos, and has had stories appear in several online magazines, including flashquake, Heist, and The Copperfield Review.