THE .50 SOLUTION
Most times I assess the client and then the target and only afterward do I set the price. It's about common sense and variables. If the client is rich, I ask for more. If the target is tough, I ask for more. If there are major expenses involved, I ask for more. So if I'm working overseas on behalf of a billionaire against a guy in a remote hideout with a competent protection team on his side, I'm going to ask for maybe a hundred times what I would want from some local chick looking to solve her marital problems in a quick and messy manner. Variables, and common sense.
But this time the negotiation started differently.
The guy who came to see me was rich. That was clear. His wealth was pore-deep. Not just his clothes. Not just his car. This was a guy who had been rich forever. Maybe for generations. He was tall and gray and silvery and self-assured. He was a patrician. It was all right there in the way he held himself, the way he spoke, the way he took charge.
First thing he talked about was the choice of weapon.
He said, "I hear you've used a Barrett Model Ninety on more than one occasion."
I said, "You hear right."
"You like that piece?"
"It's a fine rifle."
"So you'll use it for me."
"I choose the weapon," I said.
"Based on what?"
"You'll need it."
I asked, "Why? Long range?"
"Maybe two hundred yards."
"I don't need a Barrett Ninety for two hundred yards."
"It's what I want."
"Will the target be wearing body armor?"
"Inside a vehicle?"
"Then I'll use a three-oh-eight. Or something European."
"I want that fifty-caliber shell."
"A three-oh-eight or a NATO round will get him just as dead from two hundred yards."
Looking at him I was pretty sure this was a guy who had never fired a .50 Barrett in his life. Or a .308 Remington. Or an M16, or an FN, or an H&K. Or any kind of a rifle. He had probably never fired anything at all, except maybe a BB gun as a kid and workers as a adult.
I said, "The Barrett is an awkward weapon. It's four feet long and it doesn't break down. It weighs twenty-two pounds. It's got bipod legs, for Christ's sake. It's like an artillery piece. Hard to conceal. And it's very loud. Maybe the loudest rifle in the history of the world."
He said, "I like that fifty-caliber shell."
"I'll give you one," I said. "You can plate it with gold and put it on a chain and wear it around your neck."
"I want you to use it."
Then I started thinking maybe this guy was some kind of a sadist. A caliber of .50 is a decimal fraction, just another way of saying half an inch. A lead bullet a half inch across is a big thing. It weighs about two ounces, and any kind of a decent load fires it close to two thousand miles an hour. It could catch a supersonic jet fighter and bring it down. Against a person two hundred yards away, it's going to cut him in two. Like making the guy swallow a bomb, and then setting it off.
I said, "You want a spectacle, I could do it close with a knife. You know, if you want to send a message."
He said, "That's not the issue. This is not about a message. This is about the result."
"Can't be," I said. "From two hundred yards I can get a result with anything. Something short with a folding stock, I can walk away afterward with it under my coat. Or I could throw a rock."
"I want you to use the Barrett."
"Expensive," I said. "I'd have to leave it behind. Which means paying through the nose to make it untraceable. It'll cost more than a foreign car for the ordnance alone. Before we even talk about my fee."
"Okay," he said, no hesitation.
I said, "It's ridiculous."
He said nothing. I thought: Two hundred yards, no body armor, in the open air. Makes no sense. So I asked.
I said, "Who's the target?"
He said, "A horse."
I was quiet for a long moment. "What kind of a horse?"
"A Thoroughbred racehorse."
I asked, "You own racehorses?"
He said, "Dozens of them."
"Some of the very best."
"So the target is what, a rival?"
"A thorn in my side."
After that, it made a lot more sense. The guy said, "I'm not an idiot. I've thought about it very carefully. It's got to look accidental. We can't just shoot the horse in the head. That's too obvious. It's got to look like the real target was the owner, but your aim was off and the horse is collateral damage. So the shot can't look placed. It's got to look random. Neck, shoulder, whatever. But I need death or permanent disability."
I said, "Which explains your preference for the Barrett."
He nodded. I nodded back. A Thoroughbred racehorse weighs about half a ton. A .308 or a NATO round fired randomly into its center mass might not do the job. Not in terms of death or permanent disability. But a big .50 shell almost certainly would. Even if you weigh half a ton, it's pretty hard to struggle along with a hole the size of a garbage can blown through any part of you.
I asked, "Who's the owner? Is he a plausible target in himself?"
The guy told me who the owner was, and we agreed he was a plausible target. Rumors, shady connections.
Then I said, "What about you? Are you two enemies, personally?"
"You mean, will I be suspected of ordering the hit that misses?"
"Not a chance," my guy said. "We don't know each other."
"Except as rival owners."
"There are hundreds of rival owners."
"Is a horse of yours going to win if this guy's doesn't?"
"I certainly hope so."
"So they'll look at you."
"Not if it looks like the man was the target, instead of the horse."
I asked, "When?"
He told me anytime within the next four days.
I asked, "Where?"
He told me the horse was in a facility some ways south. Horse country, obviously, grand fields, lush grass, white fences, rolling hills. He told me about long routes through the countryside, called gallops, where the horses worked out just after dawn. He told me about the silence and the early mists. He told me how in the week before a big race the owner would be there every morning to assess his horse's form, to revel in its power and speed and grace and appetite. He told me about the stands of trees that were everywhere and would provide excellent cover.
Then he stopped talking. I felt a little foolish, but I asked him anyway: "Do you have a photograph? Of the target?"
He took an envelope from his inside jacket pocket. Gave it to me. In it was a glossy color picture of a horse. It looked posed, like a promotional item. Like an actor or an actress has headshots made, for publicity. This particular horse was a magnificent animal. Tall, shiny, muscular, almost jet-black, with a white blaze on its face. Quite beautiful.
"Okay," I said.
Then my guy asked me his own question.
He asked me, "How much?"
It was an interesting issue. Technically we were only conspiring to shoot a horse. In most states that's a property crime. A long way from homicide. And I already had an untraceable Barrett Ninety. As a matter of fact, I had three. Their serial numbers stopped dead with the Israeli army. One of them was well used. It was about ready for a new barrel anyway. It would make a fine throw-down gun. Firing cold through a worn barrel wasn't something I would risk against a human, but against something the size of a horse from two hundred yards it wouldn't be a problem. If I aimed at the fattest part of the animal I could afford to miss by up to a foot.
I didn't tell the guy any of that, of course. Instead I banged on for a while about the price of the rifle and the premium I would have to pay for dead-ended paperwork. Then I talked about risk, and waited to see if he stopped me. But he didn't. I could tell he was obsessed. He had a goal. He wanted his own horse to win, and that fact was blinding him to reality just the same way some people get all wound up about betrayal and adultery and business partnerships.
I looked at the photograph again.
"One hundred thousand dollars," I said.
He said nothing.
"In cash," I said.
He said nothing.
"Up front," I said.
"One condition," he said. "I want to be there. I want to see it happen."
I looked at him and I looked at the photograph and I thought about a hundred grand in cash.
"Okay," I said. "You can be there."
He opened the briefcase he had down by his leg and took out a brick of money. It looked okay, smelled okay, and felt okay. There was probably more in the case, but I didn't care. A hundred grand was enough, in the circumstances.
"Day after tomorrow," I said.
We agreed on a place to meet, down south, down in horse country, and he left.
I hid the money where I always do, which is in a metal trunk in my storage unit. Inside the trunk the first thing you see is a human skull inside a Hefty One Zip bag. On the white panel where you're supposed to write what you're freezing is lettered: This Man Tried to Rip Me Off. It isn't true, of course. The skull came from an antique shop. Probably an old medical school specimen from the Indian subcontinent.
Next to the money trunk was the gun trunk. I took out the worn Barrett and checked it over. Disassembled it, cleaned it, oiled it, wiped it clean, and then put it back together wearing latex gloves. I loaded a fresh magazine, still with the gloves on. Then I loaded the magazine into the rifle and slid the rifle end-on into an old shoulder-borne golf bag. Then I put the golf bag into the trunk of my car and left it there.
In my house I propped the racehorse photograph on my mantel. I spent a lot of time staring at it.
I met the guy at the time and place we had agreed. It was a lonely crossroad, close to a cross-country track that led to a distant stand of trees, an hour before dawn. The weather was cold. My guy had a coat and gloves on, and binoculars around his neck. I had gloves on too. Latex. But no binoculars. I had a Leupold & Stevens scope on the Barrett, in the golf bag.
I was relaxed, feeling what I always feel when I'm about to kill something, which is to say nothing very much at all. But my client was unrelaxed. He was shivering with an anticipation that was almost pornographic in its intensity. Like a pedophile on a plane to Thailand. I didn't like it much.
We walked side by side through the dew. The ground was hard and pocked by footprints. Lots of them, coming and going.
"Who's been here?" I asked.
"Racetrack touts," my guy said. "Sports journalists, gamblers looking for inside dope."
"Looks like Times Square," I said. "I don't like it."
"It'll be okay today. Nobody scouts here anymore. They all know this horse. They all know it can win in its sleep."
We walked on in silence. Reached the stand of trees. It was oval-shaped, thin at the northern end. We stepped back and forth until we had a clear line of sight through the trunks. Dawn light was in the sky. Two hundred yards away and slightly downhill was a broad grass clearing with plenty of tire tracks showing. A thin gray mist hung in the air.
"This is it?" I said.
My guy nodded. "The horses come in from the south. The cars come in from the west. They meet right there."
"No real reason. Ritual, mostly. Backslapping and bullshitting. The pride of ownership."
I took the Barrett out of the golf bag. I had already decided how I was going to set up the shot. No bipod. I wanted the gun low and free. I knelt on one knee and rested the muzzle in the crook of a branch. Sighted through the scope. Racked the bolt and felt the first mighty .50 shell smack home into the chamber.
"Now we wait," my guy said. He stood at my shoulder, maybe a yard to my right and a yard behind me.
the cars arrived first. They were SUVs, really. Working machines, old and muddy and dented. A Jeep, and two Land Rovers. Five guys climbed out. Four looked poor and one looked rich.
"Trainer and stable lads and the owner," my guy said. "The owner is the one in the long coat."
The five of them stamped and shuffled and their breath pooled around their heads.
"Listen," my guy said.
I heard something way off to my left. To the south. A low drumming, and a sound like giant bellows coughing and pumping. Hooves, and huge equine lungs cycling gallons of sweet fresh morning air.
I rocked backward until I was sitting right down on the ground.
"Get ready," my guy said, from above and behind me.
There were altogether ten horses. They came up in a ragged arrowhead formation, slowing, drifting off-line, tossing their heads, their hard breathing blowing violent yard-long trumpet-shaped plumes of steam ahead of them.
"What is this?" I asked. "The whole roster?"
"String," my guy said. "That's what we call it. This is his whole first string."
In the gray dawn light and under the steam all the horses looked exactly the same to me.
But that didn't matter.
"Ready?" my guy said. "They won't be here long."
"Open your mouth," I said.
"Open your mouth, real wide. Like you're yawning."
"To equalize the pressure. Like on a plane. I told you, this is a loud gun. It's going to blow your eardrums otherwise. You'll be deaf for a month."
I glanced around and checked. He had opened his mouth, but halfheartedly, like a guy waiting for the dentist to get back from looking at a chart.
"No, like this," I said. I showed him. I opened my mouth as wide as it would go and pulled my chin back into my neck until the tendons hurt in the hinge of my jaw.
He did the same thing.
I whipped the Barrett's barrel way up and around, fast and smooth, like a duck hunter tracking a flushed bird.
Excerpted from Bloodlines by edited by Jason Starr and Maggie Estep. Copyright © 2006 by Jason Starr. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.