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Authors: Stephen King

Billy Summers (24 page)

BOOK: Billy Summers
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“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“There you go again.”

“It's safer. What they don't know about you can't hurt you. Or come back to haunt you.”

He chewed that over for awhile. Then he said, “Yeah, you can make the shot, okay, but that's not what I meant. This is an actual guy we're talking about. Are you sure you can do it? Shoot him stone-cold in the brainbox and take his life?”

I told Tac I was sure. I didn't tell him that I knew I could take a life because I'd done it before. I shot Bob Raines in the chest. It was Sniper School that taught me to always take the head shot.

5

Billy saves what he's written, gets up, and staggers a little because his feet feel like they're in another dimension. How long has he been sitting? He looks at his watch and is astounded to see it's been almost five hours. He feels like a man emerging from a vivid dream. He puts his hands in the small of his back and stretches, sending pins and needles down his legs. He walks from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom, and finally back to the living room. He does it again, then a third time. The apartment seemed just the right size when he first saw it, the perfect place to hunker down in until things settled and he could drive his leased car north (or maybe west). Now it seems too small, like clothes that have been outgrown. He'd like to go out and walk, maybe even jog, but that would be a very bad idea even tricked out in his Dalton Smith gear.
So he paces the apartment some more, and when that's not good enough he does pushups on the living room floor.

Drop and give me twenty-five, he thinks of Sergeant Up Yours saying. And don't mind my foot on your ass, you useless cumstain.

Billy has to smile. So much has come back to him. If he wrote it all, his story would be a thousand pages long.

The pushups make him feel calmer. He thinks about turning on the TV to see what's going on with the investigation, or checking his phone for newspaper updates (newspapers may be failing, but Billy has found they still seem to get the salient facts first). He decides against doing either. He's not ready to let the present back in. He thinks about getting something to eat, but he's not hungry. He should be, but he isn't. He settles for a cup of black coffee and drinks it standing up in the kitchen. Then he goes back to the laptop and picks up where he left off.

6

The next morning Lieutenant Colonel Jamieson himself drove me and Taco out to the intersection of Route 10 and the north-south road the Marines called Highway to Hell, after the AC/DC song. We went in the l-c's Eagle station wagon, which was special to him. Painted on the back deck was a decal showing a black horse with red eyes. I didn't like it, because I could imagine Iraqi spotters noting it, maybe even photographing it.

There was no sign of Foss. He had gone back to wherever those guys go after they set their plots in motion.

Parked out there on the hilltop in a dusty turnaround were two trucks from Iraqi Power & Light, or whatever was written in the pothooks on their sides. They looked just like American utility trucks, only smaller and painted apple green instead of yellow. The paint was much thicker on the sides, but even so it didn't completely obscure the
smiling face of Saddam Hussein, like a ghost too stubborn to go away. There was also a Genie articulated boom lift with a bucket platform.

Two power poles stood at the intersection of the roads, with big transformers on them to step down the power-load to the residential neighborhoods of Fallujah and the surrounding suburbs. Guys in keffiyehs were scurrying around, plus a couple in those kufi hats. They were all wearing orange workmen's vests. No hardhats, though; I guess OSHA never made it to al-Anbar province. From across the river those men probably looked like any ragtag government work crew, but once you got closer than sixty yards, you could see they were all our guys. Albie Stark from our squad came over to me, flapping his headdress and singing that song about how you don't step on Superman's cape. Then he saw the l-c and saluted.

“Go someplace and look busy,” Jamieson told him. “And please in the name of Jesus don't sing anymore.” He turned to me and Taco, but it was Taco he addressed, because he had decided Tac was the smart one. “Give it to me again, Lance Corporal Bell.”

“Jassim comes outside most days around ten to have a smoke and talk to his adoring fans, probably some of the same guys that opened fire on the contractors. He'll be the one in the blue keffiyeh. Billy takes him out. End of story.”

Jamieson turned to me. “If you make the kill, I'll put you in for a commendation. Miss, or hit one of the hanger-arounders, which would be worse, and I will transfer the boot that goes up my ass to yours, only harder and deeper. Do you understand that, Marine?”

“I think so, sir.” What I was thinking was that Sergeant Uppington could have delivered that line with far greater force and conviction. Still, I had to give the l-c props for trying. Months later he lost most of his face and all of his eyesight to a roadside bomb.

Jamieson motioned over Joe Kleczewski. He was another member of our squad, which we called the Hot Nine. Most of the “utility workers” were. They volunteered for the job. They had to because Taco told them to.

“Sergeant, do you understand what must happen as soon as Summers takes the shot?”

Big Klew smiled, showing the gap in his front teeth. “Get them down ASAP, then exfil like a motherfucker, sir.”

Although I could tell Jamieson was nervous—I think we all could—that made him smile. Most times Klew could coax a smile out of the stoniest face. “That about covers it.”

“If he doesn't show, sir?”

“There's always tomorrow. Assuming the attack doesn't happen tomorrow, that is. Carry on, Marines, and none of that
oorah
shit, if you please.” He jerked his thumb at the Euphrates and the bear trap of a city on the other side. “It's like the song says—voices carry.”

Albie Stark and Big Klew tried to cram into the bucket. It was supposed to be big enough for two, but not when one of them was Kleczewski's size. He almost knocked Albie over the side. Everybody but Jamieson laughed. It was as good as Abbott and Costello.

“Get out, you lummox,” the l-c told Klew. “Jesus wept.” He motioned to Donk, whose brown combat boots were sticking out from beneath his pants, which were too short. This was also comical, because he looked like a kid clumping around the house in his daddy's shoes. “You. Pipsqueak. Get over here. What's your name?”

“Sir, I am Pfc Peter Cashman, and I—”

“Don't salute, you dimwit, not in an op zone. Did your mother drop you on your head when you were a baby?”

“No sir, not that I remember, s—”

“Get in the bucket with what's-his-fuck, and when you get up there…” He looked around. “Ah God, where's the fucking shroud?”

Maybe technically the right word for what he was talking about, but wrong in every other way. I saw Klew cross himself.

Albie, still in the bucket, looked down. “Uh, I believe I'm standing on it, sir.”

Jamieson wiped his forehead. “All right, okay, at least somebody remembered to bring it.”

That had been me.

“Get in there, Cashman. And deploy it with utmost haste. Time is marching.”

The bucket platform rose in a whine of hydraulics. At its maximum height, maybe thirty-five or forty feet, it shuddered to a stop beside one of the transformers. Albie and Donk danced around, yanking at the shroud and finally managing to get it out from under their feet. Then, aided by some inventive cursing—including some learned from the Iraqi kids who came out to beg candy and cigarettes—they got it deployed. The result was a canvas cylinder around the bucket and the transformer. It was held at the top by hooks on one of the pole's cross-arms and snapped together down one side, like the button-up fly on a pair of 501 jeans. The outside was emblazoned with a bunch of pothooks in bright yellow. I had no idea what they said and didn't care as long as it wasn't SNIPER TEAM AT WORK.

The bucket came back down, leaving the cylinder behind. It did look like a shroud once the waist-high rail of the bucket was no longer holding out the sides. Donk's hands were bleeding and Albie had a scratch on his face, but at least neither of them had taken a header out of the bucket. A couple of times it had looked close.

Taco was craning his neck to look up. “What's that thing s'posed to be, sir?”

“Sand guard,” Jamieson said, then added, “I believe.”

“Not exactly unobtrusive,” Taco said. Now he was looking across the river at the crammed-together houses and shops and warehouses and mosques on the other side. It was the southwestern part of town we'd come to call Queens. A hundred or so Marines came out of there in body bags. Hundreds more came out with fewer body parts than they had going in.

“When I want your opinion I'll give it to you,” the l-c said—an oldie but a goody. “Grab your gear and get up there toot-sweet. Put on a couple of those orange vests before you get in the bucket so anyone looking sees them when you go up. The rest of you men
kind of swirl around and look busy. The last thing we want is for anyone to see that rifle. Summers, keep your back to the river until you're under…” He stopped. He didn't want to say
until you're under the shroud
and I didn't want to hear it. “Until you're under cover.”

I said roger that and up we went, me with my M40 held at port arms and my back to the city, Taco with his feet planted around his spotter stuff. Snipers are glamor boys, the ones they make movies about and the ones Stephen Hunter writes his novels about, but it's the spotters who really do the work.

I don't know how real shrouds smell, but the canvas cylinder stank like old dead fish. I undid three of the snaps down its seam to create a firing slit, but it was in the wrong place unless I wanted to shoot a goat wandering in the direction of Ramadi. The two of us managed to work it around, grunting and swearing and trying to keep the goddamned thing on at least two of the crossbar hooks as we did it. The canvas flapped in our faces. The dead fish smell got worse. This time I was the one who almost fell out of the bucket. Taco grabbed my orange vest with one hand and the strap of my rifle with the other.

“What are you men doing up there?” Jamieson called. From below, all he and the others could see were our feet shuffling around clumsily, like grammar school kids learning to waltz.

“Housework, sir,” Taco called back.

“Well, I suggest you stop the housework and get set up. It's almost ten.”

“Not our fault those nimrods put the slit facing the wrong direction,” Taco grumbled to me.

I checked the new scope and my rifle—there were many like it, but that one was mine—and used a square of chamois to wipe everything clean. In the suck, the sand and dust got into everything. I handed my piece to Taco for the mandatory recheck. He handed it back to me, licked his palm good and wet, then stuck it out through the firing slit.

“Wind speed nil, Billy-boy. I hope the bastard shows, because we'll never get a better day for it.”

Other than my rifle, the biggest piece of equipment we had in the bucket with us was the M151, also known as the Spotter's Friend.

Billy stops, startled out of his dream. He goes into the kitchen, where he splashes his face with cold water. He has come to an unexpected fork in what has been, up to now, a perfectly straight road. Maybe it makes no difference which of the diverging ways he takes, but maybe it does.

It's all about that M151. It's the optical scope the spotter used to calculate the distance from muzzle to target, and with eerie (it was to Billy, at least) accuracy. That distance is the basis for MOA, minute of angle. Billy needed none of that for the shot that took out Joel Allen, but the one he was responsible for making on that day in 2004, always assuming Ammar Jassim left his storefront to make it possible, was much longer.

Does he explain all that, or not?

If he does, that means he expects, or just hopes, that someday someone will read what he's writing. If he doesn't, it means he has given up that expectation. That hope. So which is it to be?

Standing there at the kitchen sink he flashes back to an interview he heard on the radio not long after he got out of the sand. Probably on one of those NPR shows where everyone sounds smart and full of Prozac. Some writer was getting interviewed, one of the oldtimers who was hot stuff back in the days when all the important writers were white, male, and borderline alcoholics. For the life of him Billy can't remember who that writer was, except it wasn't Gore Vidal—not snarky enough—and not Truman Capote—not quacky enough. What he
can
remember is what the guy said when the interviewer asked him about his process. “I always keep two people in mind when I sit down to write: myself, and the stranger.”

Which brings Billy back full circle to the M151. He
could
describe it. He
could
explain its purpose. He
could
explain why MOA
is even more important than distance, although the two are always joined together. He could do all of those things, but only needs to if he is writing for a stranger as well as himself. So is he?

Get real, Billy tells himself. I'm the only stranger here.

But that's okay. He can do it for himself if he has to. He doesn't need… what would you call it?

“Validation,” he murmurs as he goes back to the laptop. He once more picks up where he left off.

7

Other than my rifle, the biggest piece of equipment we had in the bucket with us was the M151, also known as the Spotter's Friend. Taco set up the tripod and I shuffled out of his way as best I could. The platform bounced a little and Taco told me to hold still unless I wanted to put a bullet in the sign over the shop door instead of in Jassim's head. I stayed as still as I could while Taco did his thing, making calculations and muttering to himself.

BOOK: Billy Summers
5.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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