As the gator clamped its powerful jaws around Jeffrey Flaum’s neck, crushing his C2 vertebra and thrusting splinters of bone into his brain stem, he had a final fleeting thought in that nanosecond between being and unbeing: I deserve this.
Had he a choice, he would have preferred a less horrific end. One on the battlefield, perhaps, where he might have redeemed his tattered reputation. Or in his own bed, where peace could find him at last.
But the decision on where and how he would breathe his last wasn’t his to make. It belonged instead to a man who had chosen Jeffrey Flaum as the first of the six to die. And in that last instant, when the gator mercifully ended his guilt and pain, Jeffrey Flaum knew it was fitting.
Just a few hours earlier, his ample rump had been planted against the wooden fence that separated his home’s ample property from the less-than-ample, par-three 12th green of the exclusive South Miami Country Club. A thread of smoke from the cigar he held in his stubby fingers coiled upward and dissipated into the darkness. He enjoyed a good cigar – and this was a very good one, indeed, a hand-rolled La Gloria Cubana from the Little Havana El Credito Cigar Factory. The smell of it was intoxicating, nearly sexual, in fact, and it infuriated him that every time he tried lighting up inside the lavish house he shared with his wife and their two dogs, he was banished outdoors. His filthy habit, she said, “stinks up the place.”
Stinks up the place? Filthy habit? He was a cigar smoker before he met her and never hid it while they dated. Back then, he smoked in the house, the car, even the few restaurants that still allowed such God-given American freedoms, for which he fought and risked his life. She knew who he was and what his “filthy” habits were.
So why, once they were married, had she decreed that lit cigars in the house were off limits? Was it because that after hooking him and landing him she no longer had to pretend that the smoke and whatever other filthy habits – plural, apparently – he had didn’t bother her?
The cigar tip glowed bright as a ruby in the blackness. He took a deep draw and blew the smoke out slowly through his pursed lips. Yes, a fine cigar.
The evening was hot and cloying, and a line of sweat snaked down the back of his neck, staining the collar line of his $150 Nat Nast shirt. If a La Gloria Cubana now and then was the worst of his filthy habits, his wife was a lucky woman. He didn’t cat around, didn’t play poker with the guys every Thursday night, didn’t go to the track and gamble away their savings. He did go to church every Sunday morning and faithfully, if stoically, attended all the family outings with minimal protest; even the ones hosted by his wife’s sister, the one with the slob of a husband and all the screaming kids.
Jeffrey Flaum knew he wasn’t the sexiest man on the planet. Since leaving the Marines, he had developed a potbelly from too much beer and too little exercise. His hairline was in full retreat and he had the flatiron face – what was that old joke? – yeah, the flatiron face of a guy who kissed an 18-wheeler in Boston and hung on ‘til Denver.
But he compensated his wife in other ways. With cash. Lots and lots of cash. Cash that bought cars, and jewelry, and clothes, and two frou-frou pedigree poodles – Romulus and Remus – that stubbornly refused to be housebroken (talk about your filthy habits), and three humongous homes, one in Aspen, another in Hawaii, and, of course, here, where homes went for … well, a fucking lot.
Aspen and Hawaii? Neither of them skied and they got to Hawaii maybe once every two or three years, the trip being such a long slog – thirteen hours – from Miami. So, most of the time, the homes sat empty, burning cash to keep the lights on, the water running, and the grounds groomed.
There wasn’t much he could do about his face, but the money … as long as that kept flowing why couldn’t he smoke a good cigar in his own home whenever he damn well felt like it?
Filthy habits, he thought. Haven’t I paid for the privilege to have a filthy habit, even if that’s what it was, which it wasn’t? Wasn’t that what I was doing in Afghanistan? Defending the nation? Didn’t that earn me some stinking rights?
Don’t go there, he quickly warned himself. Don’t.
But it was too late, and the memories of his time in-country flooded through the leaky dam he’d tried to erect to keep them in check. It was like that now. A stray word here, an unguarded thought there, and it all came rushing back.
It had ended badly, his time in the Marines. He wasn’t one for introspection, but he knew he wasn’t an exemplary leader. Knew his unit believed that nobody would ever confuse him with George Patton. Knew that behind his back they called him Major Creep.
But, he told himself, he’d at least been effective … right up until he gave the orders that would forever change the lives of those he commanded. He’d had the opportunity to maybe make it right, if that were possible, which he knew deep down that it wasn’t, but in the end, his foolish pride had only made things worse.
You will all die screaming.
The words leapt into his mind unbidden and unwelcome, tunneling deep into his brain like an earworm.
You will all die screaming.
It had been, what, three years since he’d heard the threat spoken out loud, and though he didn’t believe it then, it still had the power to quicken his breathing, and turn his hands clammy.
After all, the person who’d said it was a dangerous man. Is a dangerous man.
Jesus, he wished he could just erase that entire period of his life, forget all the responsibility and the pressure and especially what had happened that blistering night out in the desert. But he knew that wasn’t possible and forgiveness was a ghost that would haunt him until his last days on earth.
What he didn’t know, what he couldn’t at that moment fathom, was that his last days on earth were about to come sooner than he expected.
Much, much sooner.
In the darkness, hidden in a copse of trees along the 16th fairway, Jeffrey Flaum’s soon-to-be killer lay still as a stone. Dressed in green camouflage fatigues, the shooter was all but invisible. He could remain motionless for hours, even days or weeks if necessary. For most, time layered itself day-by-day, brick-by-brick on their shoulders until it eventually crushed them. For Flaum’s killer, time surged around him like water around a rock, and there were moments, like this one, in which he could almost make it stand still. He’d once lay hidden for five days in a blood-drenched ditch filled with rotting bodies, an incident that would never make the nightly news because who cared about some no-name village in the middle of some no-name country. Despite the oppressive heat, and the stomach-churning stench, and a swarm of black flies so plump from feeding on the decaying flesh they all but blotted out the sun, he never moved. His mission was to end the life of a high-value target and if that meant making a home among the dead and the flies, that’s precisely what he and his spotter would do, no matter how long it took. He never failed to complete a mission.
And he wouldn’t fail this time. His rifle was snug tight to his neck, his target silhouetted in the gun’s powerful Unertl scope that bathed the night in a hazy green glow. The man who called himself Cutter glassed his victim through the scope. It was a simple shot, one that Cutter had made a thousand times in training and dozens more in combat.
His drill instructor’s instructions spooled in his head.
Wind, distance and elevation, gentlemen. Wind, distance and elevation.
There was no wind to speak of this night, the elevation was perfect – the target was on high ground and still as a can on a rail – and the 200-meter distance minuscule, particularly for this gun, a specially modified M40A3 sniper rifle with a muzzle velocity of 2,550 feet per second and a chamber pressure of 50,000 psi. The clip held five rounds of M118LR ammunition, but for a gun capable of extreme levels of accuracy and a shooter with Cutter’s skill only one would be necessary.
“Two hundred meters,” his spotter murmured. “Slight breeze from the west. Should have no effect.”
“Shssh,” Cutter hissed, knowing how sound can carry on the night air. He didn’t need his spotter jabbering in his ear, ruining his concentration. He didn’t need to be told how easy a shot it was. Cutter could clip the wings off a fly from twice as far away.
It wasn’t a gnat Cutter was stalking, but a man.
A military man.
Former major. Jeffrey Flaum, Major Creep, the prick who’d ruined the life of Cutter and the woman he loved.
These days, Flaum was a high-ranking officer of MDS Bank, the repository his daddy founded fifty years earlier. An officious corporate drone sitting in a big, air-conditioned office with leather chairs and plush carpeting and cherry wood paneling and a shimmering view of Biscayne Bay, Flaum’s primary responsibility was to crush the dreams of small businessmen seeking loans because they could barely make ends meet. Flaum offhandedly junked these requests without a trace of sympathy or empathy.
Just as he once rejected, with the same casual heartlessness, her appeal for a hardship dispensation from her duties. Just as he once ordered the others to teach her the most demeaning lesson a woman can bear.
Jeffrey Flaum was going to pay for his sins, for all he had done, and all he had failed to do.
He would pay for what he did to her.
The others will follow Flaum in death. Cutter will erase their little by-the-book lives pixel by pixel until they dissolve into nothingness. They will suffer as she suffers. Feel the pain she feels. Know the utter hopelessness of loss that devours her soul like a ravenous beast. They will all experience the intense desire to breathe their last.
The first, former Major Jeffrey Flaum, was now in his sights.
Cutter exhaled, quieted his body, and tightened his finger on the trigger when Flaum’s wife slammed open a sliding glass door and stalked briskly to her husband. Tall and thin, the woman had a bullhorn voice that could be heard all over the golf course.
“Out here smoking that filthy cigar again!” she bellowed.
“The operative word being out, Babs,” Flaum said, weary of this particular argument but thankful for the distraction from the writhing rat’s nest of his own mind. He waved the cigar, the smoke trailing like a ribbon on the breeze. “As in outside. And this … this isn’t a filthy cigar, it’s a …”
“Don’t you dare tell me it’s a glorious Cuban …”
“La Gloria Cubana …”
“Gloria shmoria. It stinks. And I don’t care if you are smoking outside. When you come inside and sit on my sofa, you bring that stinking smoke with you. It’s all over your clothes and it gets into …”
“Your sofa?” Flaum said. “If I remember correctly, it was my money that paid for the sofa, which, by the way, is one of the most uncomfortable pieces of furniture my ass has ever had the misfortune to meet.”
“I’ll have you know that is tufted leather, and it …”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah it absorbs odors,” he said. “How many times do I have to listen to this? It’s a fucking sofa.”
“You’re a crude man, you know that?”
“Yeah, well, the Marines will do that to you.”
“Marines,” she said, her mouth filled with repugnance. “Marines are supposed to be gentlemen. You’re no gentleman.”
“Kill them both,” Cutter’s spotter whispered in his ear.
Cutter considered the suggestion, but almost as soon as the thought crossed his mind, Flaum’s wife huffed back to the house trailing a “fuck you” over her shoulder.
Stiffly, Flaum pivoted, placed his hands on the rail of the fence and peered out into the dark, alone again with the scars that only he could see. He raised the cigar to his lips, but suddenly lost his taste for it and flicked it away, sending it sparking into the night. If only he could …
“Now!” cried the spotter. “Now, now, now!”