This story is by David Elderton and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Colonel Hank Lassiter possessed the uncanny ability to sense when someone was watching him. Like now. Fresh snow crunched underfoot as he approached his remote mountain cabin. He stopped mid-stride near a lone towering pine and listened.
Nothing. Not even a wisp of a breeze.
Lassiter sidestepped behind the tree for potential cover while he checked his surroundings. He leaned his shotgun against the tree, then fished out a pair of compact binoculars from his coat pocket. He scoured the snow covered landscape in a methodical 360 degree grid pattern, and even scanned the sky for drones.
There was no smoke or scent, no birds, no other footprints, human or animal, no visible breath vapor emanating from anywhere. Just immense, cold silence muffled further by a pristine blanket of snow.
Get a grip, old man. No one knows you’re here.
He shook the sensation out of his brain, but he still checked the perimeter as he neared the cabin. The only footprints were his. He released a disappointed sigh.
A stalking killer would be a welcome distraction.
Lassiter opened the door and welcomed the wave of warmth that enveloped him. His face thawed as he leaned his double-barrel shotgun in the corner. It took several minutes to unwrap himself from the multiple layers of insulation. He grasped the leather harness to remove the shoulder holster carrying his Glock 9mm, then stopped. His survival instinct, honed razor sharp over the decades, emphatically insisted he keep the gun on. He shrugged the harness back into position.
His early morning hunt yielded a single out-of-season ruffed grouse, the only creature he’d encountered. He shot the bird at close range as it huddled in the fluffy snow. A true sportsman never does that, but Hank Lassiter takes advantage of any opportunity presented.
After breakfast, he cleaned the bird and sealed the tattered carcass in a container to marinate. He picked out a book from the shelf to read. His goal was to relax and adjust to forced retirement. It required more time than expected, due to his reluctance to move on.
For three decades, he chaired the Sanction Compliance Division, where he’d ordered sanctions on hundreds of people. He even carried out a few himself, because he relished the challenge and the distraction they provided. He remembered each kill, but their faces didn’t haunt him. Why should they? Time caught up with him and long established protocols dictated he step down. But even as a Consultant Emeritus, he kept some authority.
Hours later, he finished the book and tossed it high into the air, spinning it so it hit flat on the table with a loud smack. The sudden sound chased the silence out of the room for an instant, then it cascaded right back in.
Now what? As if in response, his satellite phone rang.
He cocked an eyebrow. The person assigned to that ring-tone was dead, sanctioned by his order. Lassiter perked up and smiled. This should be interesting.
“Hello, Steven. I felt someone watching me, but… you’re dead.”
“Did you call for an apology? You’re not getting one, not after your stunt in Venezuela.”
Lassiter studied the silence, to discern any clue that might reveal itself. Ever the predator, he welcomed any opportunity to kill someone, even if he didn’t pull the trigger.
“Steven, you should’ve left it alone. You made a fatal mistake by contacting me.”
“You can’t kill a dead man, Colonel,” a digital voice said.
Lassiter chuckled. “Smart, using a voice modifier. Never know who’s listening and you want to stay dead, right?”
The Sanction Team had confirmed Steven’s death, but circumstances prevented recovering his body.
Lassiter retrieved his encrypted satellite phone and punched in the Level One emergency sequence to dispatch a Sanction Team to kill Steven Pyke. Again.
“Steven, so what’s this about? You out for revenge? Never make it personal, kid, that’ll get you killed.”
“You made it personal when you sanctioned me, sir. It’s payback time.”
“Stand down, mister, or we’ll erase your family.”
It was a partial bluff. If Steven killed him now, he’d evade the Team. Lassiter paced by the timbered wall and stalled for time.
“You don’t see the big picture, son. We’re one of seven divisions. We manipulate people and events to improve the world so Americans can live happily ever after.”
“Seriously? How do pandemics, lockdowns, inflation and food shortages factor into that, Colonel?”
“Forget it, it’s like describing color to a blind man. You earned a sanction when you executed an unauthorized target in Venezuela. Nobody goes against our will without consequence.”
“Except I didn’t kill him, Colonel.”
“Our intel says you did. Regardless, sniper assets are expendable. You answer to us, we don’t answer to you.”
“Wrong, Colonel, today you do. So will the rest of Preceptus.”
Lassiter was stunned. No one besides Preceptus members knew or used that name.
“I discovered the real enemy was you, Colonel, when you killed those five senators.”
“Listen, when our selected government officials don’t do what they’re told, rigid corrective steps are required.”
“Who appointed you to make those calls?”
“I’m a Highborn, you pissant! Since 1907, we’ve controlled this country. We predetermine and manipulate every facet of American life.”
“‘You’re nothing but an arrogant coward, no better than the rest of us, but you hide behind ego and money.”
Lassiter gritted his teeth and glanced at his Rolex. He had to stall a little longer. He breathed in deep to refocus.
“Steven, I must commend you on that 650 yard shot in Russia. The bullet passed through an entire building, in one open window and out another. Incredible. That’s the second greatest shot I’ve ever confirmed. How does it feel to be almost the best?”
“I heard about that shot at the Peruvian consulate in 2020.”
“Yes, it was a masterful shot. But what could you know about it?” Lassiter taunted.
“Distance was 726 yards. A monolithic custom machined bullet was fired from a Barrett MRAD chambered in .338 Lapua with a 1×9.4 barrel twist. It penetrated two walls and struck both high-value targets simultaneously.”
For the first time in decades, a chill bolted down Lassiter’s spine. The facts were correct.
His steel-gray eyes narrowed. “Who the hell is this?”
The voice modifier clicked off. “I’m Steven’s wife. Jessi Pyke.”
Lassiter stopped pacing. Steven’s wife? He met her once. She was slender and fit, but stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 115 pounds. This was the nemesis they tried to identify for years?
“Preceptus calls me the Death Angel,” Jessi said. “I’m no angel, but I will deliver death to you this day.”
“You will die this day, not me.” Lassiter checked the time. “A Sanction Team is on site to kill you. You came close, sweetie, but no cigar.”
“We intercepted your emergency call, Colonel. No Sanction Team is coming. I’m glad you had the chance to read a good book before you die. I see you’re standing by the bookshelf. Trust me, you don’t have time to start another one.”
Shit. She has thermal.
Lassiter closed his eyes, exhaled slowly, and assessed the situation as he paced.
The Death Angel is out there with a Barrett MRAD, determined to kill me… she has wall-penetrating bullets and no Sanction Team is coming.
Now it was Jessi’s turn to taunt. “The shot that kills Hank Lassiter will be legendary, and… hold still, sir… this little pissant gets the bragging rights. Smile, Colonel.… because… here… it…”
Lassiter was a rat cornered by a ravenous lion. He couldn’t allow her to take credit for assassinating him, and he knew she was recording the shot for confirmation. One sole option remained.
He yanked out his Glock and scurried to the window. He was in her cross-hairs for certain, but he figured he had two seconds before the bullet reached him.
“No cigar, bitch, no cigar!” He corkscrewed the barrel of his 9mm into his ear and pulled the trigger.
* * *
One thousand miles away, Jessi Pyke heard Lassiter’s body hit the floor and did a subtle fist pump. “Yes!” she whispered.
“Holy cow, Mrs. Pyke, you did it! You convinced that bastard to kill himself from 1000 miles away. That’s a 1ooo mile sniper shot in my book, and you didn’t even pull the trigger,” an exuberant General Martin said.
Jessi nodded in acknowledgement, but kept her eyes fixed on the monitor. Minutes passed until thermal imaging confirmed heat was dissipating from Lassiter’s body. Satisfied, Jessi disconnected from the satellite feed that was zoomed in on Lassiter’s cabin. She exhaled, then looked up at a patient, still grinning General Martin.
“And you coerced him into sending out an emergency code on his Preceptus satellite phone,” he continued. “We traced it and located the rest of them. Preceptus is finished. Americans can shape their own future. Well done, Mrs. Pyke, well done.”
“General, it was truly my pleasure. The world is better off now. I know I’m happier.”