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Authors: Stephen Hunter

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BOOK: Point of Impact
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Bob thought a while, took his time, and then delivered an answer.

“Some tiny percentage of the misses might be due to round deviation or equipment failure. But I’d bet the most usual cause is shooter failure. In the ’Nam, I missed my first shot. And my second. It takes practice to get used to staying relaxed while taking the trigger slack out on a man.”

You have to find a little cold place and be there by yourself for a while, he was thinking.

“That’s right,” Hatcher sang out cheerily. “So our theory is that if we can increase their confidence factor even by a tiny margin, it’s a great thing. You want that guy on the rifle knowing what he’s got in his chamber’s going to do its job if he does his. And one reason he’ll
believe it, we’re hoping, is because you’ve told him so and showed him how.”

Bob nodded.

“Can I see the vehicle?”

“No. Think of it this way, did the FBI agent see the vehicle any time before he had to fire? No, he didn’t and we want to put you where he was. And we’re not going to tell you the range either, that’s something we’d like you to dope out on your own. No, what we’d like is to put you up there on what’s supposed to be the fifth floor of the Tulsa Casualty and Life Building. It’s October tenth, 1986, and a bank robber named Willie Downing with a cheap Star 9mm and three female hostages is being driven toward Tulsa International Airport where an airliner is waiting, he thinks, to fly him to Africa. You’re Special Agent Nick Memphis of the FBI, SWAT trained, the best rifle and pistol marksman in the office. Sometime in the next few hours, Willie Downing will be before your sights, having killed a policeman and a bank guard and wounded two more, and now demonstrating serious signs of a PCP-induced psychotic episode. Your supervisor has determined that yours is the best shot; you have the angle and the opportunity. The real Nick Memphis was firing a Remington 700 in .308, but without the heavy varmint barrel—”

“Shouldn’t have mattered,” said Bob, “not for one shot.”

“Anyway, we’re going to tie you into a radio net and a lot of the information you’ll be getting is based on the actual transcripts, so you’ll be in about the same situation as Nick Memphis was. I’ll be on the mike down here, reading you the radio commands to play you just the way his supervisors played Nick Memphis. You’ll have plenty of time to set up, just like he did, and plenty of time to acquire the target while you’re waiting
for the green light. So, Mr. Swagger, now that you’ve seen it—do you want to play?”

Bob looked up the teetery structure of rods and lumber. It didn’t seem too damn steady. But it had him. His vanity was pricked. Gould he hit this shot, especially where some federal fool had failed, using up several lives in the process?

Suddenly, for the first time in his stay in Maryland, Bob let the tiniest hint of smile crease his face.

“Let’s do it,” he said, for the moment not giving a damn about Accutech but eager to the point of glee to take on Willie Downing and Nick Memphis.

They told him the real Nick Memphis had fired off of sandbags in a fifth-floor windowsill, and way up in the scaffolding, after a long climb, he discovered that setup, necessarily jury-rigged, but stable enough.

He put on the earphones and hands-free mike, and switched as instructed to Channel 14, the FBI Control Channel.

There was the hiss and crackle of static, then he heard, “Ahh, Charlie Four, do you read, Charlie Four, do you read?”

“Am I Charlie Four?” he asked.

“Affirmative,” came the response. “Charlie Four, please advise as to your position.” It was Hatcher, playacting Base.

“Well, I’m up here, dammit.”

“Bob, let’s put ourself in 1986 for the sake of the exercise,” said Hatcher over the earphones. “Just reply in standard radio argot.”

“Read you, Base. Ah, I’m situated in the fifth floor of Tulsa Casualty, I have a clear view east down—” he tried to remember from the map the name of the street down which Memphis took his shot, “down Ridgely.”

“Ah, okay, that’s an affirmative, Charlie Four, you just hold steady now.”

“What’s the situation?”

“Ah, Charlie Four, we have suspect heading your direction down Mosher. He’s gone through two ambushes but on-site command wouldn’t authorize a go because nobody could get a clear shot at the suspect. He’s surrounded by these damn hysterical women and we think he may have tied himself to them.”

“Read you, Base.”

“Please stand by.”

Bob took a second to look at the rough “street” down which he’d be shooting. The problem, of course, was range. Known-distance shooting was easier, because then you can calculate the bullet drop by the ballistics tables and your own experience. But Bob had no natural feeling for range. Some men could look at something and by the weird mechanics of the brain simply know what the distance was. Not Bob. So he had worked out a crude naked-eye system in Vietnam. If he could make out eyes, he knew he was inside a hundred yards—the rare shot. If he could make out face, he was under two hundred yards. If he could just make out head he was under three hundred. If he could make out only legs, he was under four hundred. If he could make out body, he was under five hundred; if he could only see movement, he was under six hundred.

From his vantage point, he watched as technicians scurried over the killing ground beneath him, examining the chain that would tow the car, fussing with the engine that would pull it, adjusting video cameras mounted on tripods down the roadway. He fixed them in his mind, reading their shape and making his calculations off them. He figured the shooting site would be about 320 yards out.

Meanwhile, the crackle and hiss played against his
ears, as he heard other reports from police and FBI units checking in for instruction; it was a constant chatter, a torrent of loose noise. Why hadn’t poor Memphis had a spotter with him, someone to run interference and to shelter him from the hundred distractions?

Though Bob could only see blue-humped mountains and rolling forest and though the breeze played against his skin, cooling it, he had no trouble imagining Memphis in the hot little office behind the sandbags and the rifle, his tension and agitation growing as he waited alone, his excitement bounding as the situation drew nearer and nearer to him.

It was the excitement that fucked him, Bob thought. You don’t shoot from excitement or haste or urgency. You shoot out of calm professional confidence, rooted in the belief, built up over a thousand hours’ practice and a hundred thousand bullets fired, that if you can see it you can hit it.

“Charlie Four, you there?”

“Affirmative, Base.”

“Command advises that suspect vehicle has just turned down Lincoln, entering your district.”

“I have that, Base.”

“ETA four minutes.”

“Read you, Base, back to you.”

“Ah, Charlie Four, I’m getting real bad reports from people in the field, they’re telling me this guy is waving his gun and screaming at the hostages and that every time he sees a police vehicle he acts a little crazier. He’s bad news, bad, bad news.”

“Reading you, Base.”

“Charlie Four, you think you’d be able to make that shot?”

Bob squinted through the scope at the road down which the hostage vehicle would travel.

“I have it big and clear, Base. The shot is there for me if it’s there for you.”

“Charlie Four, this guy could go off at any moment and hurt some more people.”

“I read you, Base. You got an ETA for me?”

“He’s at Lincoln, Charlie Four, Lincoln and Chesley, and a uniformed officer says he’s really flipped out. Makin’ me nervous, very nervous.”

“Base, I make the shot three hundred twenty yards. I can put it in a fifty-cent piece at that range. Confidence is high here.”

“Ah, Charlie Four, I’ve been in contact with command and it’s getting real hairy in that car. We’re, um, we’ve decided to authorize a green light for you, Charlie Four.”

“I’m reading you, Base, and making ready to shoot. I’ll be off the air now.”

“Ah, Charlie Four, that’s a negative. I’ve got two spotters here; I’ll be notifying you when suspect gun is pointed in safe direction and you can go for a head shot, Charlie Four. We can’t risk a spasm shot, do you read?”

“Negative, Base, I can’t be concentrating on anything but my shooting.”

“Then, stand down, Charlie Four, I won’t authorize a green light unless I’ve visually verified suspect’s gun position, just like the book says.”

So there Nick Memphis had had it. Caught right on the horns. He’d have some guy yelling in his ear as he was shooting, or he’d have to stand down and walk away from it.

“All right, Base, you talked me into it. I’m sliding into shooting position now. You sing out when your people say it’s clear.”

Bob slid the rifle into his shoulder, watched as the scope came up big and bright and clean, a movie-screen world, all in primary colors bold and furious.

“Charlie Four, he’s turned down Ridgely, he’s coming into your kill zone right about now.”

Bob threw the bolt, feeding one of the Accutech .308’s into his chamber. He drew the rifle to him, found the hands-free mike got in the way of his spot-weld, and thus quickly and savagely bent it out of the way, to take his place behind the gun.

It was a modified sitting position, with the weight on his left ham, his body canted slightly as the rifle was pulled to him, while resting solidly on the sandbag barricade. It felt completely moored to the bags, its weight entirely on them. His upper body supported itself on elbows, and the rifle rode a fulcrum of the sandbag, guided by his hands pulling it tight against his shoulder. His hip flared a bit under the strain, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.

As he looked through the scope, Bob made subtle corrections in his grip and body position, trying to find, given the circumstances, an equipoise: one position where everything was tucked just right, where he felt most comfortable, less stressed, where his breathing was natural and loose, and yet through it all he still felt anchored into his chair and the bench and the bags.

Through the scope, he watched the slight tremble of the cross hairs, matching his breathing. That was the enemy, really: not Willie Downing or Nick Memphis or Accutech or anything—no, it was his own heart, which he could not quite control (nobody could) and which would send random messages of treachery to the various parts of his body. At these last moments, the heart could betray anyone, firing off a bolt of fear that would evince itself in a dozen tragic ways: a trigger finger hitch, a breath held too long, a weirdly detonating synapse that caused the eye to lose its sharpness or its perspective; an ear that suddenly heard too much or not enough; a
foot that fell asleep and distracted its owner from the serious business at hand.

Bob blinked quickly, ordered himself to chill out, and tried to see in the lazy tremble in the cross hairs not something to hate (his own weakness) but something to make peace with—something to forgive. Self-forgiveness was a large part of it: you can’t be perfect all the time. Nobody can: accept your weakness, try to tame it and make it work for you.

Bob breathed slowly, letting the air hum half into his lungs, then humming it half out. He didn’t want a lot of oxygen in them, ballooning out on him at the awkward moments. But dammit, he still didn’t quite feel comfortable. It was all so strange: sitting up there in the pretend building, pretending to be an FBI agent, pretending it was 1986, trying to pretend it was real.

There is nothing to pretend, he told himself. There is only shooting, and that’s never pretend.

He’d figured the math out much earlier. Having memorized the ballistics table, he knew that at 320 yards the 150-grain bullet was programmed to drop about ten inches and would have slowed, by this distance, to a velocity of about 2,160 feet per second. But he also knew that this Accutech stuff was a bit hotter than the standard. And so he figured it would only drop eight inches. But he was shooting downhill, a slightly different problem than shooting flat; this meant he’d add more of a drop, because bullets fired at an angle fall farther; he took another inch out of the equation. That put him nine inches low at 350 yards, except that the wind, just a slight breeze, would move the bullet as it traveled perhaps four inches to the left. So he had to hold nine inches lower and four inches to the left. Then he had to lead to compensate for the speed of the car; and he had to do it on cue, when he got the green light command over his earphones.

“Charlie Four, do you read?”

Fuck it, thought Bob, what does
he
want?

He said nothing. The mike was bent under his chin and to pull it back into place was to blow his spot-weld, his hold and his peace. He would not give that up.

“Charlie Four, goddammit, where are you?”

Bob was silent, awaiting the arrival of the vehicle in the bottom right quadrant of his scope.

“Charlie Four, goddammit, get on the air! Do you acknowledge? Call in, goddammit, Charlie Four, I need you authenticated.”

Bob was silent, trying to flatten out that bit of tremble from the reticle. He tried to make his mind blank and cool and drive out any sensation of his own body. There should be only two things: finding the right hold and preserving it through the trigger pull.

“Charlie Four, you don’t call in, I’m not gonna green light you, goddammit, I have to have you on the air so I know you’re reading my commands!”

Bob held silent. His breath was rougher now; he felt like tossing the earphones away! Talking to him! Now!

He tried to clear his head, to make everything go away except the shot. He could not.

“Charlie Four, green light canceled. Abort it. Hang it up, if you’re there, Charlie Four. Do you read? Shot authorization is canceled. There’ll be no shooting, goddammit, Charlie Four.”

And now he saw it.

The limo body, hauled by the chain, slid into view. Its angle from him was not acute but more like forty degrees; the car appeared to be moving at about twenty miles per hour; Bob had no trouble pivoting the rifle on the bag through a short arc as he tracked the car, looking for his hold. He tried not to note the details, but he could hardly help it. Downing, for example, was, preposterously, a watermelon; the four hostages around him
were balloons. It was crude but effective, especially in the way the wind made the balloons waver in unpredictable ways and the bump and grind of the two made the melon queerly elastic, nearly human. Bob almost laughed. All this money to shoot a melon! And he knew it was absurd, too. A hundred men could hit a melon like this, but only one of them could hit a head.

BOOK: Point of Impact
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