‘Come on then, if you think you can take me, come on.’
He was taunting me. I don’t like being taunted. I lifted my arm five inches. The gun was pointing at his forehead now. I heard a step creaking behind me. I spun round and dropped to my knees. A bullet flew over my head. My aim was instinctive. I pulled the trigger, once, twice, three times. My attacker collapsed and fell backwards down the stairs. I spun round again in time to register a dark shape about to bring a club down on me. I fired. He stumbled and blood oozed out of his chest. I rolled aside before he fell. I got to my feet, my gun aimed at his back. He lay still. I kicked him in the shoulder. He didn’t respond. I leaned down, grabbed him and pushed his lifeless body over. His eyes stared up at me; blood drooled from the corners of his mouth.
Karen put down the book, closed her eyes, pictured the scene. Replayed the action in her mind. Imagined herself in the role of paid killer, tried to smell the sweat and warm blood. She rolled over on the bed as she ducked to avoid the club being brought down on her, stretched out her arms, her hands together prayer-like, dhuw. One shot was all it took. Karen relaxed, sighed. She stretched across to her bedside cabinet, tugged on the drawer handle, remembered it was locked. She fumbled in her tight jeans pocket for the key. Small grey-metal key. She slipped it in the lock and turned it to the left. She pulled the drawer open and reached in, feeling her way gently. Her hand touched what she was after. She wrapped her fingers around the gun lying in the drawer on its bed of cotton wool. Her Glock 17 pistol. Her own shooter. She took it out, held it against her cheek and stroked it. She checked that the safety catch was on, put it back in its nest, relocked the drawer, and returned the key to her pocket. She lay back on her bed, staring at the ceiling.
‘Hey, Sarge, have you seen this?’
‘In the Police Gazette. It says the Met’s recruiting marksmen again.’
‘What? For London?’
‘Yeah, of course.’
‘You don’t want to go there. Dirty old city, full of criminals.’ Her sergeant had laughed, ‘Naah, you’re much better off down here in the country. Fresh air, a quiet life. What more could you want, bach?’
A lot more. Karen wanted a lot more. A highly trained marksman, she could take out a sniper with just one bullet. But she was stuck in a permanently damp backwater, playing the role of community policeman, just because she’d admitted being able to speak the language.
‘We need to have a marksman on call in that area, preferably one who can speak Welsh.’
There weren’t many who met those criteria and it had seemed a good idea at the time. But that was before she knew how she’d be spending each day.
Today she’d been into the local comprehensive school to talk to year 10 about life in the police force. She’d held the kids’ attention, no doubt about that. They were fascinated to meet a trained police marksman, the only female marksman in the area at that. A bit more interesting than a florist or hairdresser or even computer programmer. Until the inevitable question, ‘How many people have you shot, Miss?’
‘What? Not one?’
Only in her dreams. There she’d tangled with mobsters, gun-runners, terrorists, the most evil of humanity, and she’d come out on top. Every one of them brought down by a single, perfectly aimed bullet. She’d enacted it countless times, each time, calm, poised, in total control because she knew she could do it. Given the chance, she could do it. She could make that instant decision, to pull the trigger and save her own life and the lives of others. She wouldn’t hesitate; she would know that the malignancy standing before her deserved to be dead.
But this was the wild west of Wales not the Bronx. Not a lot of opportunity to use her skills here.
It was late now. She stood up, went across to the window. From her small flat above the craft shop, she could see the length of the main street. The Chinese takeaway six doors down was just closing for the night and the street was empty apart from a solitary couple walking hand in hand. There was a sudden movement on the pavement behind them. A drunk stumbled out from a doorway onto the road before staggering past. Karen sighed. At least he wasn’t driving. She drew the curtains and switched on her bedside light. She took the key from her pocket, unlocked the drawer again, took out her gun and placed it under her pillow.
The next day’s duties included visiting a community centre that had been having trouble with vandals, calling into a housing office to give advice on securing their new computer system, and reassuring some pensioners that the mobile library wouldn’t be given a parking ticket if it stopped on their road.
She’d stopped at the sandwich bar to pick up some lunch when her radio crackled into life.
‘Get your arse over here, Davies, your skills are needed,’ a voice croaked out of the radio.
‘What is it, sarge? Can’t it wait? I’m starving.’ The things Sergeant Thomas, who was six months away from retiring, considered her ‘skills’ usually involved crying women and breaking bad news.
‘No, it can’t, get over here now!’
He was pacing up and down when she arrived back to the station.
‘Where the hell have you been? This is an emergency. I’ve got the Chief Constable on the line every two minutes asking where you are.’
He reached down behind the desk.
‘Right, Davies, this has been signed out ready for you. Let’s go.’
He handed her a 7.62 mm sniper rifle. She looked at him.
‘What’s this for, Sir?’
‘Didn’t I tell you, Davies, you’re the star turn at old age pensioners’ club this afternoon! What do you think it’s for? Get in the car and I’ll tell you on the way.’
While she drove — ‘Put the siren on, girl!’ — he explained the situation.
‘The Chief Constable’s been doing an informal tour of inspection. He’s supposed to be having lunch with the Mayor at 1 o’clock but he’s stuck in a traffic jam. A traffic jam that’s been caused by a rampant cow on the road.’
‘A rampant cow? You’re joking?’
‘It’s no joke, Davies. The farmer can’t do anything with the animal who’s behaving in a very peculiar and threatening way. And they can’t shift her off the road.’
‘Well, that’s a job for the vet, isn’t it?’
‘The vet’s been but he can’t get close enough, it’s too dangerous. So we’ve had our orders: you’ve got to shoot the animal. Now get your foot down.’
She glanced over her shoulder at the rifle on the back seat. Sergeant Thomas saw her.
‘You can do this all right, can you?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ she said, ‘it’s what I’m trained for.’
‘You ever shot anything before?’
‘I told you, Sarge, it’s what I’m trained for.’
‘But you ever shot anything living before?’
‘It makes no difference. I just aim and fire. It’s okay, Sarge, I’m a good shot, top of my class.’
The traffic jam extended in both directions for just over a mile. They stopped the car, got out and made their way down the traffic-free side of the narrow country road. As they passed, car drivers opened their windows and grumbled.
‘What’s the hold-up?’
‘Here, what’s that gun for?’
‘You took your time.’
‘Who you going to shoot?’
‘How much longer have we got to wait?’
They marched on, politely acknowledging the remarks without giving anything away.
At the heart of the jam it was chaos. Cars were spread across the road, where the drivers had tried to manoeuvre around the animal and got stuck when she’d changed direction. The road was covered in cow shit and there was a fair amount splattered over bonnets and windscreens: the smell was pungent.
An irregular unbroken circle of cars surrounded the cow, which was chewing some grass from the hedgerow.
The two police officers looked at each other and at the cow.
‘Looks harmless enough,’ Karen said.
‘Yeah,’ the sergeant nodded.
A thickset man in wellington boots and an old grey duffel coat came up behind them.
‘About time. Where’s the marksman?’
He looked Karen up and down.
‘You’re a woman.’
The farmer grunted, looked at Sergeant Thomas and said, ‘She’s a mad bugger.’
Karen turned and looked angrily at the farmer then she realised he meant the animal quietly watching them.
‘She doesn’t look very mad,’ she said.
‘Don’t let her fool you. She’s just having a rest. She’s a sick animal. Look at the sides of those cars.’
There were deep dents in the doors and on the wings of the cars closest to the circle.
Suddenly the cow threw back her head and mooed, a deep soulful song of the blues, before bending down and charging straight into the side of an almost new BMW. The whole car shuddered and the male driver cried out in terror, ‘Don’t just stand there, do something, can’t you?’ The cow was kicking and bucking like an unbroken colt.
‘Right, Davies, get on with it,’ Sergeant Thomas looked at his marksman. Her face was pale but composed.
She stepped forward and lifted the rifle. As she did so, the cow stopped in her tracks, turned round to face Karen. Lined herself up for her own execution. There were strands of grass dangling from the sides of her mouth and her jaws were moving slowly, methodically. Karen released the safety catch, steadied the barrel, took aim. The cow continued to study her.
She drew back the trigger and fired. The air was silent. The bullet crashed through the animal’s skull directly between its eyes. Her aim was perfect. The cow stood calmly before its legs crumbled and it fell to the ground.
Karen was aware of people getting out of cars, shouting, crying, Sergeant Thomas saying something to her but she couldn’t hear any of it. All she could hear was the whistle of the bullet and the shattering of bone.
She turned and pushed her way through the crowds of people rushing forwards. She started to run, oblivious to the shouts of gratitude and accusation that assailed her, and didn’t stop until she came to a gate into a field. She clambered over it and got behind the hedge just in time to throw up. She sank to her knees as her abdominal muscles contracted and she retched violently again and again. When there was nothing, not even bile, left she sat up. As she wiped her hand across her mouth, she realised she was still clutching the rifle. There were specks of vomit on the barrel. She took out her handkerchief and cleaned it carefully, checking that the safety catch was back on. She stood up, brushed down her uniform, started to walk towards the gate.
Later she’d remember eyes the colour of hot chocolate. For now it was enough that she’d killed; she was blooded.