Woke up to see that we were in a fog on some mountain road, driving in the half-light of dawn. The road I could see up ahead looked more like a notch cut into the side of a mountain. There was no guard rail and hardly any room to spare on either side of the jeep. When the sun was up high, we came close to the top of a hill overlooking a wide valley with the road descending into a deep, beautiful vale with a forest of kapacs, cedars and maybe even mahogany, with what seemed like a river moving through the trees in the center of it all. You couldn’t actually see the river itself, but you could hear the tumble and roar of a waterfall over rocks and a rainbow mist above it. You could guess where the course of the river was located from a space in the shape of a winding gap through the solid canopy of trees through which it flowed.
Frank stopped the Jeep halfway down and just above the valley on a snake of a road, parked at the edge of a steep drop-off that overlooked a small village easily visible from there on the far side of the now visible river. Standing near the edge of the cliff, he leaned his back against the Jeep and scanned the area with a huge, expensive-looking pair of binoculars. He put them carefully down on the hood, walked around and reached into the back of the Jeep and under the canopy, pulled out a rifle and handed it to me.
He pointed down into the town and said, “There’s a man with a red beret down there. You can’t miss it. He’s sitting on the porch of that third house from the edge of town on the right. Follow my finger. See the house?”
He said, “Scan the porch. Tell me when you got him in the scope.”
Frank set a towel over the hood of the Jeep, which was hot to the touch. I got out of the Jeep, put my elbows on the towel, and the butt of the rifle against my shoulder. It was a light weapon, not one I’d ever used before, but one of those beautiful sporting rifles that wealthy hunters use on guided hunts and safaris in African jungles, a Weatherby.
Thoroughly expensive, unbelievably light, it was of a small caliber with a long, blued steel barrel, brushed in a way that gave a satin look to the metal, so it wouldn’t reflect the sun. The woodwork was dark and luxe, perfectly polished, well oiled. The small fore stock was deeply carved with shallow diamond-like studs and ridges in a pleasing pattern, further embellished with long smooth grooves bored into the sides that begged for a hand to hold it. The rifle rested on my shoulder like a woman rests in your arms. I’d never in my life held a gun so perfectly constructed and made a mental note to buy one for myself if ever I could afford it.
In spite of the towel, the hood of the Jeep was still too hot from the engine, so I moved, shifted to the back of the Jeep and leaned my elbows on the tarp cover over a space behind the seats. I slowly scanned the town with the scope, found the house, the porch, and saw the guy sitting in a chair with his feet up against a railing, smoking a pipe. Man had a thick mustache on his wide upper lip, white hair. He stared off up the road and into the little town, as though he was waiting for someone. The red beret was a bright scarlet, the color of blood when first it hits the air, slightly faded from age, stained and dark with sweat where it touched his forehead.
It was misty below, fairly quiet except for occasional bird calls.
No one was moving on the road.
I said, “Okay. Man with a red beret. Really stands out. I can see him.”
Frank quietly said, “There’s no wind that I can see. Easy shot. Take him.”
I looked up. “What?”
Frank pointed back down to the man, quietly said, “Shoot the son of a bitch.”
So I looked back through the scope and could see the old man hadn’t moved. Without looking away, I asked Frank, “You mean… kill him?”
“What do you think? Aim for the chest. And a little to the right. Got it?”
No shot I ever took, before or since, ever made so loud a report as that one.
The sound echoed back and forth in the valley so it seemed like more than one shot. Birds jumped into the air all over down there and you could hear the thump of their wings all at once, like there were thousands, each one shrieking as they took to flight. A woman ran out of the house, looked at the man on the porch where he lay, bleeding all over himself. I could see all this unfold through the scope in a kind of odd light that you experience with a telescope or binoculars. Everything looks ghostly pale, colors weak and washed in light that’s just a bit otherworldly. It’s hypnotic, the effect, and I couldn’t seem to look away until I heard the woman scream. Put the cross hairs of the scope on her head. She looked up then and must have seen us.
Turned to Frank and said, “She sees us. Now what?”
He said, “Let’s go.”
Frank grabbed the rifle from my hands, stowed it in the back seat, got into the Jeep and started the engine. When he saw I hadn’t moved, he yelled, “Get in. Now!”
When I came around and climbed into the Jeep, there were gunshots.
I looked back down to the house and couldn’t believe it, but the old woman was shooting at us from the porch with an automatic rifle in small bursts. And just as if he had all the time in the world, bullets kicking up dirt on the hillside behind us, Frank carefully turned the Jeep around and soon we were climbing the serpentine road back from where we’d come. As we pulled out, a wild bullet struck metal on the Jeep somewhere behind me. In less than a minute, we turned a corner in the road and were then out of sight.
It was over. Speechless for maybe an hour as Frank drove wildly through the hills, I finally said, “Who was that man?”
Frank said nothing. Acted like he wasn’t even listening.
I asked him again, said, “Why’d we do that?”
“All you need to know is the man needed killing and you earned yourself a bonus.”
“Who was he?”
Frank frowned, stopped the Jeep, turned to me, and said, “That man was your final exam… you passed.” Then he climbed out, came around the Jeep, stood beside me, smiled, and said, “Your turn to drive.”
After he showed me on a map where we were and where we were going, Frank went to sleep and left me to my thoughts. Been almost fifty years now. I’m still thinking.
My book, The Magic Bullet, is finished and I’ve begun a final edit. In a few weeks, when I’m happy with the results, I’ll begin inquiries for representation and/or look for a publisher. When there is news worth sharing, I will post it here.