by Zoë Sharp
Yesterday, I went out and planned the best way to kill a man.
Nothing new in that, of course. I can’t remember how many people have died by my hand over the years. They’ve been shot, stabbed, overdosed, strangled, torched, blown up with a variety of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), been run over by moving vehicles, pushed down staircases, ridden off the edge of cliffs, had their throats cut, and their skulls shattered with blunt instruments. Or, on more than one occasion, finished with a single empty-handed blow.
And, let me tell you, it’s been fun.
But yesterday I went and walked the actual killing ground, which is something I haven’t done in a while. So, what was different this time?
Originally, I intended to take the target down at his office, where he has a habit of standing by the window when he’s on the phone. Getting his number is easy, and I know exactly what to say to keep him on the line. But the more I went over his place of work, the more problems became apparent. Access, for one. Not that I need to get close to him, not by any means, but a clear line of sight is vital or the whole thing falls apart.
And then there’s the fact that my target is military. A career soldier – hard-bitten, experienced. He’s seen active service in every nasty corner of the world for nearly forty years. Sneaking up on such a man is not easy. Especially when he has a pretty good idea that someone’s gunning for him.
There’s no opportunity to set up a booby-trip, no time to rig his car, even though I’m sure I could cook up something that would do the job, in less time than it takes me to do the ironing. Taking him at home isn’t a much better option than work, which is probably why he chose to live there. Too hemmed-in for a long kill, too overlooked to get in closer. Because getting in close dramatically increases the chances of being seen, being caught. And, trust me, I want to get away with this, so egress is almost more important than access.
It’s got to be seamless, it’s got to work.
So, I’ve no option but to take him on the move, doing something routine, something he thinks is ordinary, even dull. Which is why we went out in the rain yesterday and drove the most logical route I knew my target would take from one confirmed location to another, and I looked for my opportunities.
Trouble is, I’m not dealing with open rolling countryside here. It’s chopped up, twisty, bordered by high hedges and dry stone walls a foot thick. It offers only short bursts of rapid-motion exposure, with little forewarning of his exact time of approach. Habitation is sparse, but people here are wary of strangers, and prolonged stay will attract their attention. It has to be done fast, in and out.
My target’s entire journey is less than five miles. I drive it, increasingly anxious, finding nothing for the first three. Then, there it is. A blind, ninety-degree corner onto a narrow bridge. Heading in the same direction as my target, car drivers are forced to brake almost to nothing before turning in. We park up and pace it. The bridge is thirty-three metres long, almost flat, crossing a disused railway line. My target drives an old Land Rover with all the acceleration and aerodynamics of a Post Office. I estimate it will take him between four and five seconds to cross.
And ahead of him, as he drives onto the bridge, the ground rises maybe eighteen metres to the tree line, a fifth of a mile away from that initial turn-in point. Three hundred and twenty-two metres. Back when I was actually shooting in competition, I could reliably take out the centre of a target at a little under that distance, even with an indifferent, rough-zeroed rifle and open sights. For this I have somewhat more specialised equipment in mind.
There’s a farm close by, but the trees provide a degree of separation. Not ideal, but a manageable risk, and there will only be a single shot. By the time the farmer gets his boots on, I’ll be gone. The elevation gives me uninterrupted visibility – a head-on target, travelling at relatively low speed for a calculable time period, at a quantifiable range. Not perfect, but as near as makes no difference.
It still confounds me, having stood and looked down from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, that the killing shots were not taken as the presidential motorcade progressed, slow and stately, almost directly towards the building along Elm. But instead the gunman – plural or singular, I’m open on this – waited until that awkwardly sighted, tight turn into Dealey Plaza, partially obscured by trees, to open fire.
But I digress. So, now, armed with no more than my notes from yesterday’s excursion in the rain, I can sit down, cosy at my desk, and write the fictional scene that makes use of all this fascinating research. What? You didn’t think I was actually going to …?
Sometimes, imagination alone is more than enough to write the kind of books we do, but if I can blur the lines between fact and fiction, slide some invention between the cracks of reality, so much the better. I’m not suggesting becoming a method writer, who has to see, hear, touch, taste and smell every experience before they can be portrayed. I didn’t go crawling round brothels in Brooklyn in order to describe the inside of one in THIRD STRIKE, although, I did seek advice from multi-award-winning Long Islander, Reed Farrel Coleman as to most probable locations. He sent me the kind of amazingly detailed answers that only a fellow crime writer can provide.
But I did spend a day going over a cross-channel ferry before I wrote ROAD KILL, and – even if I didn’t fill in all the blanks – the method of disabling it I used in that book is absolutely real. Not only that, it’s better than anything I could have come up with. Because I wouldn’t have made it so worryingly easy.
Working blind, I doubt I would have invented that bridge, that corner, that hill. If nothing suitable had turned up during that five-mile drive, I would have pinpointed a ficticious location entirely out of my head for my unknown, equally ficticious, assassin to carry out that hit. Somewhere that would undoubtedly have done the job, but it wouldn’t have had that extra little tinge of realism to it. I know part of our job description is that we Make Stuff Up, but to be honest, I couldn’t have imagined a better spot for an ambush if I’d tried.
So, what do you all favour – pure invention or partial reality? Do you need to go and walk the ground, take photographs, notes, clippings. And if you can’t get there in person, what do you rely on to feed your imagination?
This week’s Word of the Week is deadline, which was used for years in the newspaper business, where writers had to have their copy filed by a certain time in order to make the following day’s paper, or the story was considered dead. It’s a word that strikes terror into the hearts of authors everywhere, which is rather appropriate to its original meaning – it was supposed to. During the American Civil War, the prisoner of war camp at Andersonville used a white painted line instead of external walls or wire. Marksmen placed around the perimeter had orders to shoot any prisoner who attempted to cross that white line, no questions asked. Hence, you were allowed to go right up to the deadline, but woe betide you if you went over it.
I know the feeling …