The Mississippi Delta South of Memphis
Rifle case in hand, a solitary figure moved among the trees and scrub brush made leafless by the season. The still, predawn air made fog as the man exhaled. The cold stimulated him. It brought back memories of the glacial eastern European mountains where he had spent his youth learning the art of murder.
Dressed entirely in camouflage, the man slowly and silently made his way through the woods on the damp leaves. Not that there was any danger here in this remote place. No enemy awaited him—only a target of his choosing, who was at that moment taking in and expelling a few last breaths. But being careful was reflexive. Caution made the difference between life and death.
The killer moved to the hide he had selected at the edge of the forest line—a sweet gum tree that had been felled by autumn winds. Kneeling behind the tree, he set his rigid case on the ground, unbuckled its latch, and lifted out the Dakota T-76 Longbow rifle topped with a powerful scope.
Although he much preferred operating at close range, he could nevertheless place a .338 Lapua Magnum round through a cantaloupe at twelve hundred yards. At three thousand feet per second, the bullet would punch a .34-caliber entrance hole in the target's skull, whereupon the hydrostatic pressure would literally hollow out the cranium, filling the air downrange with a vapor comprised of brain tissue, bone chips, and blood. Surviving such a cranial event was about as impossible as threading a needle in the confines of a dark closet while wearing boxing gloves.
The shooter gently leaned his rifle against the fallen tree's trunk. Reaching into the case, he pulled out a sand-filled canvas bag. Using the back edge of his right hand, he chopped a channel into the center of the bag before setting the gun's stock into the groove. A squirrel climbing the trunk of a nearby tree became aware of the man and chirped, its tail flicking nervously.
Taking up the gun, he opened the bolt and pressed it forward, watching as the brass case of the topmost shell slid from the magazine and vanished into the firing chamber. The mechanism sounded like a vault door closing in the quiet woods. Bringing the butt firmly against his shoulder, he lowered his cheek to the cold synthetic stock and looked downrange through the scope.
Ready now, the man behind the tree had only to wait for the morning light to gather so he could get a line of sight across the expansive field. Even after ninety career kills—not including collateral damage—the assassin felt the old mix of anticipation and adrenaline growing within him. He held out his hand and smiled to see that his fingers were as rock-steady as those of a surgeon.
Of all the people the man had neutralized, only three of them had been dispatched for personal reasons. Until two years earlier he had only killed because he was ordered to by the state, or, after the wall fell, had been paid handsomely to kill. He had come here to make one more personal kill, to clip one final loose string hanging from the fabric of his life.
The man had never failed to carry out an assignment because, unlike other professional killers, he always had an insurmountable advantage. It wasn't merely that he was more intelligent than his targets or their protectors, or that his lethal-arts skills were vastly superior—although those things were true enough. The killer's real edge was his vision of each assignment as a chess match—a game of strategy and deception, wherein he laid and sprang elaborate traps, always ending with a vanquished king. Because the stakes in his games were absolute, he always controlled the board, only making moves to spark his opponent's reaction. There was never any question as to the outcome.
Taking a toothpick from the open rifle case, he clenched it between his teeth, chewing on the tip until the faint taste of clove filled his mouth. Daylight was imminent, and as the hunter peered through the scope with his finger outside the trigger guard, a calm enveloped him. He knew—as surely as the sun was rising at his back—that this shot would kick-start the most challenging game of his career.
Sitting in a deer stand fourteen feet in the air, Winter Massey looked at Faith Ann Porter, a tall, skinny, fair-skinned thirteen-year-old with large blue eyes and reddish blonde hair.
Two high-powered rifles leaned against the rail in front of them.
As the sun rose, the woods surrounding the field came slowly into focus. The field, planted with rye, clover, and alfalfa, formed a natural basin bordered by two ridges that ran east to west. At one edge of the field, a line of tall bamboo created a natural wall.
Faith Ann smiled excitedly at Winter, her cold-reddened face surrounded by a camouflage fleece hood. Far to the north, another hunter's gunshot pealed like dull thunder. The shot was followed a few seconds later by another.
To his right, Winter spotted four deer moving cautiously down the slope among the trees. He placed a hand on Faith Ann's narrow shoulder and silently pointed to the animals. Nodding solemnly, she slowly lifted her rifle and, using the still to steady the weapon, looked through the scope at the animals. Using his binoculars, Winter watched a large buck trotting after the does, head up, ears flickering, nose sampling the air, steam issuing from his nostrils. Winter's heart quickened as he studied the antlers and counted the points.
"Is he a shooter?" she asked in a whisper.
"Eight-point," Winter said. "Take your time and pick your shot when he's between trees. Make sure of your sight picture, and—"
"I know. Squeeze, don't jerk."
Faith Ann put her cheek against the stock and her eye behind the scope. She flicked off the safety, keeping her finger out of the trigger guard as Winter had taught her.
The buck stopped fifty yards away, broadside to the stand. Faith Ann, doing as Winter had instructed her, used this opportunity to fix the crosshairs of her scope on the area just behind his shoulder, where the heart and the lungs were nestled.
Winter watched Faith Ann release her safety as a rustling sounded across the field. He turned to see a second buck breaking from the wall of bamboo. The huge deer's coat was dark, almost black, and the golden antlers growing from his skull looked like tree limbs glued onto his head, held up by a swollen neck.
"Hold your shot," Winter whispered. "Safety back on."
"Don't shoot?" she asked.
"Very slowly, look out in the field to your left."
Faith Ann turned her head and exhaled when she saw the animal.
Like a stallion, the buck trotted straight into the middle of the field toward the nervous group of does standing at the edge.
Faith Ann moved with deliberate slowness, careful not to make any noise or movements the deer might spot. A rutting buck would be less wary than usual, but anything out of the ordinary would spook him.
Winter held his breath and placed a hand on his rifle. If Faith Ann missed or couldn't bring herself to shoot—which happened even to seasoned hunters faced with such a trophy—he could make the shot for her. If she missed, he would have a second or two before the animal bolted, and he would fire before it took off.
Winter had never witnessed bucks in combat, but he knew that was exactly what was unfolding before them. Winter counted the points on the rack of the larger deer. Twelve points with such elegant symmetry was a rarity.
The eight-point marched into the green field, placing himself between the does and the mature interloper. Like gladiators, they circled each other slowly, heads low. The larger buck had perhaps three years and forty pounds on the eight-point, whose antlers were half as massive. The older deer's muscles were better defined, his neck twice as thick, and his muzzle turning gray. It was like a hound facing off with a mastiff.
The more experienced animal charged and although the eight tried to sidestep at the last moment, the larger deer hit him in the shoulder with his broad chest, knocking him off balance and skidding him sideways into the soft ground. The eight-point spun, lowered his head, and struck the larger animal head-on, locking antlers. With muscles tensed, they twisted their horns like wrestlers for advantage. The harsh clicking of antlers went on for a long minute until the smaller buck lost his footing and tumbled to the ground, expelling his breath in a hiss.
The bigger buck backed up and lowered his head. As he tensed for the rush, the other deer quickly made it to his feet and shook his head.
Lurching, the eight rushed the twelve. The sound of their antlers colliding was like a gunshot. The twelve's weight sent the eight reeling, and he whirled and lowered his head again, but the larger buck raked a blow down his length that opened the hide on his back leg like a razor. The smaller deer was breathing hard as his grizzled elder circled him carefully, seeking a vulnerable spot to ram.
Winter was watching the battle with such intensity that the unexpected clap of gun thunder raised him off the bench.
A dull boom in the distance brought Sean Massey to full consciousness. It took her a second to orient herself to her surroundings, enough to realize the sound was actually a rifle report. Morning light gave the closed curtains inside the motor home a warm yellow glow. She yawned and looked at the splayed toddler sleeping peacefully on her back beside her. Winter and Faith Ann had managed to get up and get out of the thirty-two-foot-long motor home before dawn without waking her.
She slipped out of bed and dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and ankle-high muck boots. Closing the bedroom door behind her, she looked out into the galley where Rush Massey, her fourteen-year-old stepson, sat at the table, dressed warmly for the day ahead. He had his fingertips on the page of an open book, the paper blank but for the raised dots of Braille. He tilted his head as his bright blue eyes seemed to focus on Sean.
From under the table, Nemo, Rush's Rhodesian ridgeback Seeing Eye dog lying with his chin on his forepaws, turned his eyes on Sean and wagged his heavy tail.
"Morning, Sean," Rush said cheerfully. "You hear that shot?"
"I sure did."
"I bet you a dollar it was Daddy's ought-six. I bet Faith Ann couldn't shoot one," Rush said. "I bet Daddy had to do it."
"You think that was them shooting?" Sean asked, taking a box of cereal off the counter and filling a bowl. "There are a lot of hunters around here."
"I know it was. The direction was right and the loudness too."
"And you think Faith Ann doesn't have what it takes?"
"She is a girl," he replied. "No offense. Girls don't shoot like men and they don't kill either."
Sean smiled. If you only knew. "None taken. You want breakfast?"
"I ate right after they left," he said. "I washed my bowl. I know it was them since the stand is east of here and about four hundred yards away." He pointed over his shoulder. "It was definitely from that direction. We're parked on a northeast by southwest bias."
Sean put her hand on Rush's head as she passed by to sit down across from him.
"You want a cup of coffee?" Rush asked.
"Would love one, you dear boy," she said, pouring milk into the bowl.
Rush rose, opened the cabinet, got a cup, and, using his finger to gauge the level of the rising hot coffee, filled it to an inch from the lip. After replacing the pot, he set the cup on the table before Sean and took his seat across from her. She looked into his eyes. If she hadn't known the orbs were painted acrylic, she would have sworn he was studying her.
Rush had lost his eyes in the plane crash that had killed his mother, Eleanor, a flight instructor who was giving her young son lessons when a Beechcraft Baron entered the landing pattern from above and behind the two-seater Cessna and swatted the smaller plane out of the sky. A seasoned pilot, Eleanor had somehow managed to retain enough control so that—even though the small plane, whose back was broken by the collision, fell to earth from an altitude of five hundred feet—she had crash-landed with enough forward speed that Rush wasn't killed. A section of the shattered windshield cut just deep enough into his skull to destroy both of his eyes without damaging his brain.Eleanor wasn't as lucky. Her brain stem had been functional enough to let doctors put her body on life support until Winter, then a deputy U.S. marshal, arrived to hold her just before the machine was switched off. As per her wishes, the doctors had managed to harvest most of her organs, and Sean had seen the collection of letters written by grateful recipients.
Eleanor's heart had gone into an eighteen-year-old girl. Her liver had been sectioned to save two recipients, both middle-aged men, and her undamaged kidney had been implanted in a woman.
Sean finished her cereal and set down the bowl for Nemo, who rose and lapped the milk slowly. She gazed out the window beside her at the opening in the trees where the logging road entered the woods.
The land was owned by Billy Lyons, a high school friend of Winter's. He was a lawyer who had missed the hunt because he was in the middle of a trial in Memphis. Winter's other regular hunting buddy, Larry Ward, friend since middle school, was the chief financial officer for a large securities firm and had pressing obligations that kept him in London. Sean and Winter had decided to make it a family event and rented the motor home to add a degree of comfort not afforded by the one-room, wood-frame shack the men usually shared. The cabin was fine for a group of men, but between the wood-burning stove, mattresses that looked like they'd been salvaged from the side of the road, and an outhouse fifty feet from the back door, it didn't rise to the level of comfort Sean thought Faith Ann deserved. And Olivia Moment Massey, their child, was at the stage where she walked where she chose to go, wanted to do everything herself, and, when frustrated, was vocal at a disturbing volume. Enough said.
Nemo went to the door and stared at it, whining once—his signal for wanting to be let outdoors.
Excerpted from Smoke & Mirrors by John Ramsey Miller. Copyright © 2008 by John Ramsey Miller. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.