Dry stalks of grass crunched underfoot, and thorn bush pulled at her clothing. The air was hot and humid from a light rain earlier. Soon the birds would be winging their way back to their night roosts, but until then it was just another afternoon on the hillside.
Not too far below, a line of attached houses strung its way along a neat narrow road. The fronts of the houses faced the hillside, a pleasant prospect for hawkish estate agents who would sell an outhouse for a fortune. Soon, very soon, they would have another prospect.
But not yet. There was work to be done.
She walked on some more, picking a way through the tangled scrub, to a little shelter that carved its way naturally out of a clump of low-branched young acacias. She twisted her left shoulder and lowered the long beige bag to the ground. A deep breath and a curl of her neck to undo the knots, then she knelt down.
The leather straps with their elegant buckles unfolded like little serpents, and the beige cloth fell open.
Cool, hard steel barrel. Burnished. A patina of oil, the linseed fragrance competing with the smell of the vegetation.
Long, chocolate brown, wooden stock. Cherished. Beautifully kept. As yet untouched by the hands that would mar its surface.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the little plastic bag. It had once contained pastel pink knitting wool. Now its cargo was no less delicate but so much more threatening. Six cartridges, .22 calibre. Not the subsonic rounds which Christopher had used when he showed her how it worked, shooting doves down by the quarry. These would definitely be heard when fired. No pathetic little splat now.
She looked up. Focussed her eyes on the row of houses and counted from left to right. So what if she knew she could pick out the house instinctively? She needed the ritual.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Neat privet hedge. White wrought iron gate. Rose bushes nodding in the sunlight. Perfectly painted brickwork and trim.
A glance back at the fourth house. Tangled creepers and twisted weeds. A lone hollyhock bobbing in the breeze. The walls peeling with pale yellow paint and the window frames dried out from a year of neglect. The swing frame showing rust from disuse.
Back to the fifth house. The glossy white door opened. Bang on time. Four p.m.
A man paused on the top step, surveyed his domain and walked sedately down the three red-painted steps. A wicker basket dangled from his arm and a thermos flask was clutched in his other hand. He walked along the path towards the iron gate and stopped near a low bench.
She watched, muttering under her breath, “Put the basket down. Now put the flask down.” Her faced creased in a mirthless smile as his actions echoed her words. “Find the little cutters. Thank you.”
She knelt down and hefted the slim rifle across the crook of her right arm. Digging in the left pocket of her old waistcoat, she found the empty clip. Six slots awaiting.
“Come on, Albert, come on,” she whispered, watching the man putter around the rose bushes. “Get to the pink ones at the front.” She sighed as he paused, but she used the moment to flick six rounds into the clip. It felt heavier and somehow more reassuring.
She shifted the rifle to her left arm, wedging the stock against her hipbone as the barrel laid a cool path across her inner elbow. The loaded clip slid into place with a solid snick.
“Where’s your mom, Albert?” she sighed, “Gone shopping? I hope so. I would hate her to see exactly how you died. That would not be right, really. Same as I don’t know exactly how Evie died. The only difference is that they will probably know who did it to you. Pity they didn’t believe me when I said it was you who did that to Evie. No evidence, they said. Searched you and your house and found nothing. Months and months, I waited, but they could not find the culprit.”
She spat harshly onto the dusty ground. “Hah! No reason to suspect it was you, they said. Didn’t even believe me when I told them how you would spy at Evie on the swing, peering through the hedge. Looking at a little girl like that. But I saw you. And I kept Evie close to me, even when she was playing outside.”
At this point, her jaw tightened and the words burst from her like short explosions.
“How… how you… how you… got her. How did you get… her to go outside the house? You must have known… must have heard that I was… in the bath, listening to the news on the radio, like I always do. Listening to the posturing and posing of politicians prattling about disarmament. But the threat was nearby and I never knew…”
Her words faded into the sunlit air, and she gasped for breath, her throat aching as if it was on fire.
“But her daddy is looking after her now. He took care of her. He was there to welcome her so that she would not be lost and alone.”
She took a deep breath. And another. The heat faded from her face. Another breath. The pulse in her throat slowed.
She knelt down, then crouched into a comfortable seated position, the rifle lying easily along her arm, its barrel resting perfectly along the carved-out soil of the ant-hill. Always be prepared, Christopher had said. Always know that you can take the shot. Do not guess.
No guesses now. Only certainty.
With a flick of her right thumb, she released the safety. Tilted her hand and grasped the bolt. Twisted it up a quarter turn anti-clockwise. Slid the bolt forward. Heard the round click into the chamber. Slid the bolt back and lowered the bolt back down a quarter turn. Smooth action. Perfect engineering.
She lowered her right eye to the sight, pulled the wooden stock into her shoulder and peered into the black tube. Colours danced crazily in her vision and then she steadied her wrist and found the perfect white door. A slight shift to the left and she could see the top of the bench. Another move to the right and Albert’s face swam into view.
His red cheeks, shiny skin and balding head caused a rush of bile into her throat, and she felt her resolve waver. Then he lifted a hand to his mouth and licked wetly at a fingertip, and that was all she needed to see. The pendulous lips, and pale eyes. The deliberate, nauseating actions. Enough.
She exhaled. Breathed in very slightly, and hooked her index finger around the cold trigger. At first, she thought something was stuck, but then she realised it was the pad of flesh under her finger that was being pressed against the metal. It had its own thickness to travel before it could make an impression on the trigger. There. Contact. Albert framed by crosshairs and pink roses, licking his lips as he muttered to his precious subjects.
Albert, gone. A bloom of red in the sights.
They would come, but now she had limitless patience. She sat back and raised her eyes to the sky.
© FIONA TIPPING. January 2003.