Richter exhaled a heavy sigh as he dropped his final employment insurance vouchers into the mailbox at the end of his block. Though he had not made a realistic effort to find work since the permanent closure of Canadian Forces Base Chilliwack had expedited his army discharge a year before, his disgust at the thought of applying for provincial income assistance benefits would inspire him to hunt for what he considered more dignified means of support. What he might find that matched his skillset as a shooting instructor was beyond him.

The anxiety provoked by his uncertainty met with a dusty gust as a junk removal truck loaded with refuse sped by to fill the surrounding air with the stench of a month-long sanitation workers’ strike. He choked back a fast gush of vomit, set a hand on the mailbox to steady himself, and gasped a few breaths before starting back home.

A trio of unsupervised First Nations boys played hide-and-seek amid fetid the garbage bag pyramids stacked along both curbs of his inner city street. A half-block from his place, he glanced up at his open bathroom window, a metre below the apex of the dilapidated, three-storey war-era house he had moved into on vacating the barracks. What had once been a comfortable single family dwelling now accommodated a mix of poor students, the unemployed, and working poor in small, self-contained units from basement to attic. His loft absorbed and intensified the muggy June heat, but he was broke and had nowhere else to be.

As he neared the house, he considered how poorly equipped for participation in the civilian workforce a decade in the army had rendered him. His specialization as a small arms and munitions expert and sharpshooter had left him lacking a viable resume in a competitive job market. Though his service record was as distinguished as a career non-commissioned officer’s who had not seen combat might be, his enlistment after secondary school graduation had left him short on contacts in the wider community.

Richter looked beyond the roof and noticed a dark band of cloud loom in at low altitude. Though proud of the numerous awards and commendations he had received over his ten years of service, he knew his area of expertise would limit meaningful opportunities. Openings in law enforcement had dwindled with the no longer official but ongoing freeze on recruitment of white men, a component of an affirmative action drive sponsored by the city of Vancouver, with special emphasis on its police and fire departments. A telephone inquiry he had made the week before to Royal Canadian Mounted Police human resources informed him detachments in the region were similarly affected. He could not decide which reeked more: the piles of trash that cluttered the walk to his place or what he considered a blatant reverse discrimination policy instituted and enforced by proponents of political correctness.

He had mulled over an offer from a small-time entrepreneur he’d met at a neighbourhood pub to teach beginners’ gun safety and shooting technique at a suburban range, but dismissed it as beneath him. The prospect of prostituting his small arms mastery to the assortment of bored cowboys he would encounter at such an establishment exacerbated the bouts of nausea he’d experienced since the strike’s third week. For him, shooting was an art, not a recreational pursuit, and he would not debase it as an instructor to those unable to appreciate his proficiency.

A warm drizzle started as he approached his stoop, further dampening his sweat-soaked tank top. He wiped his brow with the back of a hand halfway up the creaky stairs to the loft. A wave of heat greeted his entry. He checked his small refrigerator only to be reminded he had run out iced tea. Ming’s Grocery was around the corner, but the sound of hailstones pelting the Plexiglas dormers led him to wait.

Inside, the stale air clung to his damp clothes. He laid back on the surplus cot he had pilfered from the barracks on moving day, shut his eyes, and listened to the air pistol rap of hail. He rolled onto his side as it faded and reached under the bed for the stained oak case that housed the Colt Woodsman his late grandfather had given him on his 12th birthday. A black-and-white photograph of them, all smiles as they displayed their day’s kill (three brush rabbits and a ring-necked pheasant), was taped under the lid. It reminded him of their weekend trips to the wooded estuary along the Fraser River’s north bank, a few miles from his former base. The tract of regional district-managed hinterland had been a haven to them. It saddened him that the area had since been rezoned and developed into an industrial park for the burgeoning suburban construction trade.

His recollection led him to consider how he would not have acquired his love of shooting, or joined the military—one of few work environments that would further his talent—had it not been for his grandfather’s quiet counsel. Still on the cot, he lifted the long barrel, semiautomatic .22 calibre pistol from its felt-lined case, drew its slide back far enough to inspect the chamber, and then held it in firing position. Its manufacture was stopped in 1977 after 62 years of production, when less finely crafted Chinese knockoffs entered the world market. His was old enough to be classified an antique by collectors, but its sentimental value prevented had him from selling it.

He sat up, ejected the packed ten-round magazine, and tried to recall the last time he had fired the pistol. Its seven-inch barrel and simple automatic blowback mechanism made it the perfect weapon to learn target shooting with. In his eight years as an instructor to reservists and regulars, he had used more than a dozen modern, long-range handgun models replete with useful innovations and accessories, but he could not think of one that felt more natural in his grasp than did the Colt. Its balance and sleek design made it the only gun he had held that felt like an extension of his hand and arm.

Richter inspected the magazine, blew a speck of dust off its top end, and then slid it back into the grip. He laid back down on the bed with the pistol at rest on his chest and listened to the sheeting rain that now drummed against the dormers. As he relaxed, he remembered his grandfather out in the field, his gruff but quiet voice, the squint and fractional nod he would use to indicate the presence and direction of game, the hunting lore he had imparted with fervour on the drive home. “Grandpa,” he whispered to himself, “I’m cut out for more than roadwork or construction. Help me find a way out of this.”

A flash of lightning lit up the loft, followed by a few seconds of silence, and then a wicked crack of thunder that rattled the dormers enough to jolt him from his reminiscence. He set the Colt back into its case, closed the lid, and then slid it back under his bed.

A growl in his gut inspired his rise from the cot to check his empty kitchen cupboards. He could wait until the rain stopped, he thought, but decided a walk through it might cool him off. He pulled on an old army mac and a Canucks ball cap he’d won in a pub draw months before and then left the loft. As he stepped off the stairwell and into the downpour, everything in his field of view—a row of deteriorating social housing tenements across the street, a dying crow perched on an electrical wire, and an 18-wheeler spraying filthy water across the road as its tires met a rut—appeared in negative exposure as a massive bolt of lightning struck nearby.

A scorched tomcat greeted him at the curb. The coarse smell of seared hair and flesh that emanated from a deep abdominal burn forced him to double over and dry-heave. The cat’s stark, widened eyes and a nervous twitch of its tail indicated imminent death, so he lifted his hiking boot and crushed its skull beneath his heel. He lowered his cap’s visor, lifted his hood, and jogged off to the store.

***

This is an excerpt from Jay Black’s new novella, Guttersnipe. You can purchase the book from Terror House Press here.