The Smell of Gunpowder And Vengeance

A half-true story — but still a full lie.

The man peering through the scope wiped sweat from his brow. The subtle movement dislodged the rifle from the bipod where he’d laid still for over an hour. Despite the temperature being a rough 58 degrees, sweat formed on his brow like it once did in the desert.

At least this wasn’t the desert though — cause holy hell — there was nothing worse than lying prone for hours while sweat blurred your vision. Add insects crawling in your uniform — not to mention the uncertainty of who was on your side — and you had the beginnings of torture. Several years had passed since his time in the desert, but he never seemed to lose the edge he found during his time in the sand. When the day came that he once more needed his instrument of punishment, the thrill sat waiting like an old lover.

Grabbing the keffiyeh around his neck, he lifted a portion of cloth to the left side of his face where he traced an old wound. His wife often drew an index finger along the line leading from his eyebrow to chin. She — as did everyone — asked about the scar.

“Childhood injury,” he’d say. The story went that he’d gone to see the 80s dirt bike movie, Rad, and tried to jump a large dirt mound. The trajectory alone caused a panic, so he bailed mid-air, only to land on the bolts near the front wheel which tore his face open. People always flinched when he described the scene, despite the utter lie of it.

The wound was actually thirteen years fresh courtesy of an Afghan soldier. Some nights he still woke at the memory of a man dragging a blade down his cheek. He never roused after the vengeance he’d enacted — standing atop a corpse, blood dripping from his mouth. He always stirred moments before. Then the old echos of his former nickname would whisper like ghosts in night.

Should have seen Savage with the blood running down his chin. Like a fuckin vampire, man.

We kill men with bullets. But Savage? He rips out their throat.

Sergeant Mother Fucking Savage. It didn’t matter he buried that man years ago — he could always feel the monster rattling the cage built around the beast. Today, despite years of torment and denial, the bloody vigilante was free.

Savage adjusted the rifle and rotated his arm in small circular motions. One the stiffness subsided, he moved his cheekbone once more to rest on the buttstock. He scanned the sidewalk in front of the bistro, moving the crosshairs over each person walking past.

The day had all the nostalgia and beginnings of how he earned his “bike scar.” The sun high in the sky as it was now, thirteen years ago he’d been lying atop a Conex shipping container working next to his spotter. Both scanned the horizon looking for signs of enemy movement as the attacks on base had grown more brazen. On the outer permitter of their location stood small check points where Afghan Militia Forces had erected shanty housing. Curious, and somewhat bored, Savage reduced magnification and focused in on a group of men walking a young boy toward the hut. The small child could have been no more than eight years old. What could the Afghan Militia possibly want from a child? The closer they drew to the hut, the more the boy appeared terrified, looking nervously at each man. Once they entered the hut, the leader of the group mouthed something. The boy, in response, gazed at the floor. Savage moved the crosshairs of his rifle squarely on the man’s face as the Afghan grew incensed with the child. When the boy showed no signs of acknowledgement, the sturdy Afghan leader backhanded him.

Savage pulled away from the rifle and frowned. “Are you seeing this?” he asked his spotter. When the spotter didn’t reply, Savage smacked his arm to jolt the man out of a trance.

“Sorry,” his spotter muttered, ”was thinking about home. What’s up?”

Savage pointed to the Afghan hut on the horizon. His spotter pulled the binoculars to his eyes and then pulled them away with rapid speed. “What. the. fuck. Gimme the radio.”

As the radio crackled to life, Savage once more looked through the lens, this time to a scene he often wished he could forget. The boy was now naked, crying, and bent over a chair with the Afghan soldier straddling him from behind, pants around his ankles. The other men in the hut laughed as the child wept. Savage’s trigger finger itched, and he moved the selector on his weapon to “fire,” while closing his eyes out of respect.

A static voice on the other end of the radio blared. “Negative. Do not take the shot. These are allies.” Savage grunted in disbelief.

“Sir! They… Are raping a child!” Each word the spotter pronounced, he paused for dramatic impact. “Is this what the U.S. military now condones?”

There wasn’t answer, but only the low hum of static. Savage imagined a group of officers debating morals over coffee inside the base. He put his finger on the trigger while keeping his eyes closed as ice ran through his veins and fury coursed in his blood. The radio crackled to life once more.

“Negative, corporal. Stand down. This is their culture, not ours. We’re told it’s a common practice called Bach Play or some sick shit. Ignore and continue scouting for enemy movement.”

Savage’s spotter lost his cool. A sniper team was supposed to display little to no emotion under tense circumstances, but his teammate slammed the radio over and over on top of the metal container. Then he picked up the device without pressing the transmit button and screamed, “FUCK YOU! YOU SICK FUCKS!”

Savage would find the man from his rifle sights a few days later. During a night op, they cleared a village searching for high level targets. This time, he found the Afghan with a different child. The boy, however, was even younger and chained to a bed. When he kicked in the door, the large Afghan soldier smiled and said through broken English, “Meesta…same team,” then pointed to his Militia patch above a U.S. flag. Savage set his rifle down and raised his hands in response. When the Afghan relaxed, he rushed the man. The reign of blows delivered wasn’t enough despite his rugged physique as the body armor slowed him down. When the Afghan soldier’s knife came out, Savage realized he’d hedged his bets poorly. Soon enough, both men were wrestling on the floor, Savage pinned down while the weight of his ammo and armor increasingly signed his death warrant. The Afghan held him down and grinned once more as he dragged the knife from eyebrow to chin while Savage screamed. The rest of the evening’s events became a legend among his platoon when they found him carrying an unconscious child, while the American soldier who stood before them became the embodiment of vengeance.

Savage steadied his breathing once more and opened his eyes to peer through the scope. They’d been closed while he wrestled with the old memory from Afghanistan. As his eyes adjusted to the magnification of the scope, the platinum blonde District Attorney he’d been waiting for crept into the crosshairs.

The woman wore a wedding band and a cross necklace, the only pieces of jewelry that accompanied her miniskirt and a yellow top. Savage moved the crosshairs over the necklace which rested between her breasts. The way he envisioned today’s shot was with a bullet hole in the cross. Once the bullet entered the cross, it would then exit the backside of her black heart. A most poetic ending, he mused.

The DA was a rising star not just in her career, but as a powerhouse within evangelical circles. Her polity helped secure high profile speaking gigs and become a common name among pastors who sought legal advice. There were always the rumors though — corruption, bribes, and the cover-up of alleged sexual abuse. No one believed a lick of the stories though, and as fast as someone reported them, the accusations were dismissed by adoring fans and church parishioners. She was the picture of moral integrity, so how could such claims be true? It was slander. Character assassination of God’s chosen instrument.

Savage wouldn’t have believed the tales either were it not for a young woman who approached him in a grocery store parking lot. She spooked him initially when reaching for his arm to signal Savage’s attention. Out of reflex he produced the knife he carried, smacked her arm to the side, and brought the weapon to her throat. She cried. He apologized. After the woman calmed, she produced a brown folder then ran off, breaking into audible sobs once she gained distance.

Savage didn’t look at the folder until he climbed back in the van. Once inside, he rubbed at his temples, then slammed his fist against the steering wheel multiple times until his knuckles bled. What was wrong with him? Hadn’t he put these demons to rest? After staring out the windshield for several minutes, Savage reached for the brown folder containing Pandora’s Box. Once he opened the tattered edges, the demons trying to pry their way out of his chest found their escape hatch.

Inside the folder were photographs, memos, emails, and enough evidence to condemn the DA into an eternity inside the seventh circle of hell. Emails showed she helped facilitate an underground ring of child sex slavery to appease the “urges” of those in the pulpit and political sector. Document after document connected her to some of the most powerful men and women inside the government and religious institutions. When confronted by victims, she’d remind them how important “the Lord’s work” was. As Savage flipped through pictures and evidence, his mind drifted toward the small Afghan boy bent over the chair. Inside the van that day, he swore he could hear the boy’s cries and the men’s laughter. He only needed to dwell on the memory a few moments longer before the dam cracked, and Savage was back. Not three days later, he scouted rooftops for the best angle and concealment, and began to track the DA’s movements.

The DA stopped to shake hands with a few people outside the bistro, her wedding ring shining in the morning sun. Savage stared down at his own band, remembering the way he danced and laughed at his ceremony. His heart broke knowing he was about to rob a husband of joy he once knew. While she greeted her adoring constituents, he moved the crosshairs from the cross on her chest to just over her right eye. “If the eye is dark, then the whole body is dark,” he remembered his Sunday school teacher saying.

Savage listened to the rise and fall of his breath, steading the rife, while the crosshairs hovered over her eye. “Til death,” he exhaled as the final breath left his lungs and the rifle grew still. Then he pulled the trigger.

The ejected shell casing glinted rays of sunlight while red spray bathed the sidewalk. The bullet hit through the woman’s right eye and exploded out the back of her skull. She didn’t have time to register the hit or draw a hand to her face in confusion. Instead, she toppled forward, face smacking the concrete with a wet crack. Only then did the screams begin.

Police secured the rooftop where the shot was fired two hours later, and what they found baffled them. On top of a brown folder, stood the shell casing that had killed the DA. Placed over the casing was a gold wedding band with an inscription that read: “To Frank: ’til death, my love.” The most confusing piece of evidence, however, was the large stencil splattered with white spray paint.

The stencil would come to haunt police, pastors, pimps, drug dealers, traffickers, and anyone with a connection to crime. They would whisper his name as they looked over their shoulders, certain that if they said it too many times, the Candyman would appear covered in blood. With time the stencil became a calling card.

For the stencil was in the shape of a skull and smelled of gunpowder and vengeance.

Wallpaper Punisher art created by LilWeedler

Author’s Note: Bacha Bazi — child sexual slavery and prostitution — remains one of the most glaring and under-reported human rights violations. To this day, senior officers often tell American soldiers to turn a blind eye the sexual abuse of children in Afghanistan (I was told to ignore as well).

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic: https://benjaminsledge.com

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