On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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I’d been hunting him for four years by the time I entered the forest, on a cloudy winter night at a little after nine in the evening. I’d already visited the location two evenings earlier, and studied the entire area on satellite imaging. I knew I was in the right place.
The house was modern in the ugly way. All glass and steel, with highlights in wood which the owner probably thought were tasteful, but actually just made even a natural material look fake and showy. It was an architecturally primitive thing, with angles that drew too much attention to themselves, as if they were designed as a fuck-you to the beautiful landscape all around.
I won’t lie: I would have liked to set the whole thing on fire.
My thermal camera indicated there were five individuals in the place, and I had photos of each one of them. His wife, his fifteen-year-old son, his eleven-year-old daughter, a spade-faced thug who served as a driver and brute security, and the faithful housekeeper whose name was Lena and whose age was a sprightly sixty-three years.
The man himself was already en route, and would arrive back at this forest haven within ninety minutes. I was tracking his vehicle’s progress. I would have liked to set that on fire, too. But I had other plans.
These days he was a semi-respectable retired politician, but only because respect was the only option that the cowardly western governments decided was viable. Before, he had been a warlord in all but name; a self-installed life-term president who had never really left the state’s secret intelligence services, and whose idea of government was brutally repressive autocracy. It was in that capacity that he had my wife killed.
I was a journalist for one of the last independent outlets, before he had them all closed down and their staff imprisoned on trumped-up charges of sedition and treason. My wife was a schoolteacher, harming no-one. I was reporting from yet another of his illegal war fronts beyond our borders when they came to my home.
The police said it was a robbery gone wrong, but robbers aren’t armed with military weapons, and they don’t leave behind a thorn of the plant that serves as the ruling party’s symbol and emblem. The message was clear. I came home to bury her, and then I went away again.
The political landscape has changed considerably since then. The rumour is that a war-crimes tribunal was avoided due to western dependence on the country’s fuel exports, but that his retirement was mandatory unless the capital city would like to know how it feels to be the target of waves of hypersonic missiles. And so he got to just walk away, here to his sanctuary in the forest as well as several other homes, while I waited, and I trained, and I honed my rage and loss into something so much sharper and colder.
The weapon concealed within my tactical harness had cost an extraordinary sum, but I had paid it easily by killing other criminals for a fee. The first time was surprisingly easy; I felt like the indifferent hand of justice. All the other times were little more than businesslike.
But not today.
I closed to within fifty metres, and saw that I’d had a stroke of luck. The big thug was standing outside, probably meant to be patrolling the perimeter, but really just sucking on one of his filthy, cheap cigarettes — the only ones still available here. I wouldn’t waste my precious little miracle of man’s inhumanity on him; the rifle would do just fine. I unslung it from my back, took aim, and waited until he inhaled. He tipped his head back obligingly, his eyes half-closed as the nicotine hit, and I put a bullet between them. The snow on the deck was ten centimetres deep and it muffled his fall, but he still went down as heavily as he’d recently stood, and my luck wavered: Lena the old housekeeper appeared at the sliding door after a few moments, and stepped out uncertainly. I was prepared for that contingency.
Another gentle squeeze of the trigger, and she went down like a tree, never to sweep a kitchen floor, or sing an old folk song, or bake a sweet pie again. I was up and moving before the night birds resumed their overlapping cries.
Thermals confirmed that the other three occupants were all in the large lounge area at the opposite side of the building, and none of them made any abrupt movements. My luck had returned, or perhaps it had never left me in the first place. I covered the distance without any trouble, a ghost against the snow, even my rifle sheathed in white. They weren’t looking up when I drew level with the glass front of the room, and the adjacent door was actually unlocked. I stepped inside and drew my second weapon from its concealment in a single motion.
The son looked up from a videogame device, and the daughter looked up from her phone, and the wife dropped her book, her worry-lined but still tiredly beautiful face already in my sights. They said nothing.
I removed my mask with my free hand, and I saw the dawning of recognition on the woman’s face. Dear God, she said in her native tongue, and I shook my head just once. There would be no deliverance to paradise tonight.
I had come not to absolve, but to erase.
I sensed that the son was going to spring up a fraction of a second before he moved, and so I shot him first. Thousands of hours of tactical practice, many of them in rough replicas of this building’s own rooms, exploring every scenario until I became a part of the place; a viper within the walls. My aim was true, as it had always been for some time now, and it took less than a second to reorient and shoot the daughter too. Both of them flopped down on their respective sofas, the boy even sliding onto the floor, then rolling forward until his face was pressed into the garish carpet.
The wife, to her credit, did not scream. She did not beg. She didn’t even weep. Within the horror I saw in her eyes, I could recognise something else: the inevitability of this night. I allowed her a moment to contemplate the path of her life up until this point, and to look upon the still bodies of her children, then I shot her neatly in the throat.
I left no calling card, because none was needed. Instead, I returned to the cover of the forest, going almost to the limit of my binoculars, and continued to watch the tracking dot that I’d placed in his vehicle, drawing closer and closer each minute. At some point, I ate and I drank. At last, I saw the wash of headlights from somewhere behind the house.
I saw it all from my place within the white darkness. He came into the lounge after a couple of minutes, and I admit that my pulse quickened when I saw his face, enlarged grotesquely in my eyepieces, and I saw his confusion and his concern. He gestured, and took a step forward, and then he stopped.
His wife was standing in the middle of the room, with a protective arm around her daughter. The son was moving aggressively but cautiously forward, fists clenched. I could even see the small red mark on his neck. The wife was facing across my field of vision, towards the right, and I could read her lips even from that distance — though I barely needed to. The alarm and suspicion on her face said everything I needed to hear.
“Who are you?”
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