February 13, Washington, D.C.
Dexter Whitlaw carefully sealed the box, securing every seam with a roll of masking tape he had stolen from WalMart the day before. While he was at it, he had also stolen a black marker, and he used it now to print an address neatly on the box. Leaving the marker and roll of tape on the ground, he tucked the box under his arm and walked to the nearest post office. It was only a block, and the weather wasn't all that cold for D.C. in February, mid-forties maybe.
If he were a congressman, he thought sourly, he wouldn't have to pay any freaking postage.
Thin winter sunshine washed the sidewalks. Earnest-looking government workers hurried by, black or gray overcoats flapping, certain of their importance. If anyone asked their occupation, they never said, "I'm an accountant," or "I'm an office manager," though they might be exactly that. No, in this town, where status was everything, people said, "I work for State," or "I work for Treasury," or, if they were really full of themselves, they used initials, as in "DOD," and everyone was expected to know that meant Department of Defense. Personally, Dexter thought they should all have IDs stating they worked for the DOB, the Department of Bullshit.
Ah, the nation's capital! Power was in the air here, perfuming it like the bouquet of some rare wine, and all these fools were giddy with it. Dexter studied them with a cold, distant eye. They thought they knew everything, but they didn't know anything.
They didn't know what real power was, distilled down to its purest form. The man in the White House could give orders that would cause a war, he could fiddle with the football, the locked briefcase carried by an aide who was always close by, and cause bombs to be dropped and millions killed, but he would view those deaths with the detachment of distance. Dexter had known real power, back in Nam, had felt it in his finger as he slowly tightened the slack on a trigger. He had tracked his prey for days, lying motionless in mud or stinging weeds, ignoring bugs and snakes and rain and hunger, waiting for that perfect moment when his target loomed huge in his scope and the crosshairs delicately settled just where Dexter wanted them, and all the power was his, the ability to give life or end it, pull the trigger or not, with all the world narrowed down to only two people, himself and his target.
The biggest thrill of his life had been the day his spotter had directed him to a certain patch of leaves in a certain tree. When his scope had settled, he had found himself looking at another sniper, Russian from the looks of him, rifle to his shoulder and scope to his eye as he tried to acquire them. Dexter was ahead of him by about a second, and he got his shot squeezed off first. One second, a heartbeat longer, and the Russian would have gotten off the first shot, and old Dexter Whitlaw wouldn't be here admiring the scenery in Washington, D.C.
He wondered if the Russian had ever seen him, if there had been a split second of knowledge before the bullet blasted out all awareness. No way he could have seen the bullet, despite all the fancy special effects Hollywood put in the movies showing just that. No one ever saw the bullet.
Dexter entered the warm post office and connected to the end of the line waiting for service at the counter. He had chosen lunch hour, the busiest time, to cut down on the chance of any harried postal clerks remembering him. Not that there was anything particularly memorable about him, except for the cold eyes, but he didn't like taking chances. Being careful had kept him alive in Nam and had worked for the twenty-five years since he had returned to the real world and left the green hell behind.
He didn't look prosperous, but neither did he look like a street bum. His coat was reversible. One side, which he now wore on the outside, was a sturdy brown tweed, slightly shabby. The other side, which he wore when he was out on the street, was patched and torn, a typical street bum's coat. The coat was good, simple camouflage. Snipers learned how to blend with their surroundings.
When his turn came, he placed the box on the counter to be weighed and fished some loose bills out of his pocket. The box was addressed to Jeanette Whitlaw, Columbus, Ohio. His wife.
He wondered why she hadn't divorced him. Hell, maybe she had; he hadn't called her in a couple of years now, maybe longer. He tried to think when was the last time--
"Dollar forty-three," the clerk said, not even glancing at him, and Dexter laid two ones on the counter. Pocketing the change, he left the post office as unobtrusively as he had entered it.
When had he last talked to Jeanette? Maybe three years. Maybe five. He didn't pay much attention to calendars. He tried to think how old the kid would be now. Twenty? She'd been born the year of the Tet offensive, he thought, but maybe not. 'Sixty-eight or 'sixty-nine, somewhere along through there. That made her...damn, she was twenty-nine! His little girl was pushing thirty! She was probably married, with a couple of kids, which made him a grandpa.
He couldn't imagine her grown. He hadn't seen her for at least fifteen years, maybe longer, and in his mind he always pictured her as she had been at seven or eight, skinny and shy, with big brown eyes and a habit of biting her bottom lip. She had spoken to him only in whispers, and then only when he asked her a direct question.
He should've been a better daddy to her, a better husband to Jeanette. He should have done a lot of things in his life, but looking back and seeing them didn't give a man the chance to go back and change any of them. It just let him regret not doing them.
But Jeanette had kept on loving him, even when he came back from Nam so cold and distant, forever changed. In her eyes, he had remained the edgy, sharp-eyed West Virginia boy she had loved and married, never mind that the boy had died in a buginfested jungle and the man who returned home to her was a stranger in all but face and form.
The only time he felt alive since then was when he had a rifle in his hands, sighting through the scope and feeling that rush of adrenaline, the heightening of all his senses. Funny that the thing that had killed him was the only thing that could make him feel alive. Not the rifle; the rifle, as true and faithful a tool as had ever been fashioned by man, was still just a tool. No, what made him feel alive was the skill, the hunt, the power. He'd been a sniper, a damn good one. He could have come back to Jeanette if it had been only that, he sometimes thought, though he was years past trying to analyze things.
He'd killed a lot of men, and murdered one.
The distinction was clear in his mind. War was war. Murder was something else.
He stopped at a pay phone and fished some change out of his pocket. He had already memorized the number. He fed in the change and listened to the ring. When the call was answered on the other end, he said clearly, "My name is Dexter Whitlaw."
He had wasted his life paying for the crime he had committed. Now it was someone else's turn to pick up the tab.
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September 29, 2003
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