Short Story by Radek Pazdera

The Shot

Zig zag

I’m going to do it today.

It’s barely a quarter past five in the morning. I’m on a train, listening to the clatter of the wheels rolling down the uneven rails. My carriage is empty. It’s just me and my own faded reflection staring back from the window opposite. Sunken cheeks and bloodshot eyes, the man looks tired and older than me. My backpack sits on the seat next to me. I hold onto the handle, just in case. Everything around here reeks of bleach. I’m pretty sure there are bits of half-digested kebab in the corner next to the door where the mop couldn’t reach. I try not to think about that.

The first other passengers join me at Mile End. Two lads in safety shoes and high-vis jackets carrying a giant paint-splattered duffel bag between themselves. The tools inside the bag rattle when they drop it on the floor. They manspread over two seats each and start chatting in a language that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard.

I feel strangely indifferent, considering that I’m going to take a man’s life away just in a few hours. I’m looking at the builders’ bag, thinking that it isn’t that different from mine. I’ve got some tools of my own.

The carriage fills up when we reach Monument, and I have to move my backpack to my knees. I almost forgot how heavy it is. The builders are fiddling with their phones now, and the carriage falls completely quiet. People either keep their eyes closed or stare absently at the floor, wishing that the alarm hadn’t rung so early.

The thing is, the hand on the trigger will be mine, but Alistair Campbell really set himself up. After years of meddling and corruption, he will get what he deserves. He played with fire and will get burned.

‘Gloucester Road. This is a District Line train to Richmond,’ the robotic voice announces over the tannoy when the train stops. This one’s mine.


It’s still dark outside. The horizon above the townhouses begins to show the first hints of the daylight that is about to pour over the cloudless sky. I pause and look back inside the station building. These worn-out stone tiles and creaky ticket gates are my escape route. If I reach the tube, I’ll be safe. If not — I don’t want to think about that.

The cold wind bites into my lips and ears, forcing me to pull my hood on. There’s a Starbucks across the road, and I’d love a cup of joe, but it won’t open for another hour.

The pomp of South Kensington unravels around me. The terraces are tall with white stucco facades, roofed entrances and elaborate tiling. The house fronts are clean and decorated with real flowers in pots or beds. My neighbour’s front garden in West Ham has four reeking bins, mouldy mattress and a nasty old toilet that they replaced but never managed to throw away.

No empty beer cans are rolling down the street, no unfinished takeaway meals that somebody threw out of a running car. South Kensington is the home of future kings — that sort of anti-social behaviour doesn’t fly around here.

Dozens of people exit the station with me and scatter in all directions. These are the cleaners, cooks and baristas, the nurses in dark blue uniforms and builders in paint-splattered overalls. People who do real work need to start early, yet none of them can afford to rent as much as a parking place in South Kensington. They all take the tube.

I wait for the lights to turn at Cromwell Road, already thundering with engines pouring into the city. They’re mostly white vans and HGVs with the odd taxi migrating from the suburbs to Victoria and Waterloo and King’s Cross for the rush hour. From there, I turn into a narrow, cobbled passage called Atherstone Mews. The lighting grows dimmer, and the rumble of traffic subsides the farther I walk past the old stables.

I shift the weight of my bag from one shoulder to the other. I usually work with an 11mm, but I needed something much heavier for this gig. It cost me a fortune. I dread the thought, but I might have to leave it behind .

I hold my breath and glance back before rounding the corner. There’s no one there.

This is it. Queen’s Gate Gardens — one of the last few patches of greenery around here with a neatly trimmed lawn, surrounded by a barrier of densely packed trees and thickets behind a black, cast iron fence. ‘Members only,’ the notice stuck to the gate says. The spikes suggest that the people living in the fashionable houses around here prefer having their picnics away from the plebs.

In a carefully practised motion, I swing over it and disappear in shrubs. The dirt stirs under my feet while I follow the path through, and I can’t get rid of a feeling that someone is watching. I swallow, and the unease settles in to stay. I knew it was there somewhere.

I push through the hedge on the other side of the park so that I have a view of a mid-terrace house across the road. Number 70. Four marble steps leading to a massive black door with a round golden handle in the middle. The entrance is roofed with two classical columns at the front. No signs or names. From the outside, it looks just like the others. On the inside, it’s the unofficial Russian Embassy.

The four steps lead up but also down. And that’s where Alistair Campbell, will be going this morning. Provided my informer wasn’t lying, that is. But Igor wouldn’t try to screw me over, would he?

I put on a pair of black cotton gloves to keep my fingerprints off my kit and start setting up. I paid for everything in cash and sanded off the serial numbers. It won’t give them any hints when they come to collect it. I’m not thrilled about dumping it here, but I’d take precision over efficiency any time. I only have one shot, and I intend not to miss.

I unfold the tripod that I brought to make everything as steady as possible. I thread the extended aluminium legs between the branches of the shrubbery. It takes a few minutes of adjustments before it stands level.

Ducking down, I notice the make of the car parked in front of the building. It’s a black Jaguar XJ Sentinel with blacked out windows at the back — from the government’s armoured fleet. Igor was right; he must be inside. But why would he come in his official ministerial vehicle? He really must think he’s untouchable.

I aim at the giant black door and look through the optics — a perfect shot. The only thing I need to do now is to wait. Like that is the easy part.

I hear a faint whistle coming from the street, and I duck down behind the tickets. Frantic, I’m looking for the source. I close my eyes and sigh when I see the clue come along. It’s a street sweeper, pushing his creaking trolley along the terraces. The chap looks to be in his 60s, wearing a blue cap, humming a familiar David Bowie tune. No stray Veuve Clicquot empties to pick up around here.

My heart rate returns to normal, but I keep low, just in case. The sky is several shades lighter now. I need to be careful.

Gusts of icy wind sweep through the trees around me, making the branches sway and leaves rustle. I wish it wasn’t so cold. I stretch my numb fingers and rub my palms against each other to warm up.

I let my mind wander. The large black door looks like the gate to hell. The funny thing is that hell is on this side, as Alistair Campbell is about to find out. I think about all the work that has gone into this operation — the countless hours of investigation, interviewing questionable sources and chasing false leads. My shivering hand on the trigger will either make history or flush it all down the drain.

I’m the one shooting, but the real damage will come later. The Guardian has been briefed; articles have been written. They’ll push the first piece out as soon as the thing hits the newsroom. It will spread as other news outlets pick it up, and by nine o’clock, half of the country will have read it on their phones or heard the breaking news on the radio on their way to work. The live news feeds will be rife with speculation. Speeches will be delivered. The public will be urged to remain calm. There will be anger and disbelief. When people get home at 7 p.m., the election polls will be upside down.

I have to press my jaw tightly together to keep my teeth from rattling. I’ve been here well over an hour now. I divide my time between looking at my watch and playing stare-down with the two pigeons that have been waddling around me for the past half an hour, picking out leftover grain from the lawn. Someone must come here to feed them regularly, hopefully not early in the morning.

Then the door swings open. The golden handle sinks in the gloom of the corridor behind it. A jolt of anxiety passes through me. I stop breathing and press down when I see him emerging from the darkness. And nothing happens. My finger, numb from the cold, slips off the trigger, and it completely throws me off.

He’s wearing a cap and long navy overcoat, carrying a black leather briefcase in each hand. I focus on the sharp contours of his clean-shaven face, ready to shoot again. But I freeze.

That isn’t him.

The indicators of the Jaguar flash twice, and the boot opens up as the man walks down the stairs. He deposits the briefcases in there and takes a seat behind the wheel.

SHIT! My heart is racing. I sit down behind the shrubbery and breath slowly to recover from the shock. I almost fucked up.

This is nuts! I think. My breath stutters, my mind flips to overdrive.

Why did I agree to do this? The whole thing is too risky. It would be so easy just to get up and leave. Pack my stuff and go. Sell the gear again. Blame it on Igor. Tell them that Campbell wasn’t here. Nobody would question that.

I close my eyes and count to ten. The pigeons flutter away when I scramble up to my feet. Back in position, I fix my eyes at the target and my finger on the trigger.

The driver’s busy playing on his phone, but I stay low in the foliage in case he looks sideways. Every second drags on and on, and each new one seems to last longer than the past.

It can’t be long before the minister comes out. My hand steadies, my focus sharpens. The fear dissolves and fills my blood with raw energy. I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. Nothing can distract me now.

The door glides opens once more. Two bald heavies in black suits and sports shades lead the way. One heads down the stairs to the car. The other stands between the columns, his hands locked in front of himself, looking up and down the street. Alistair Campbell saunters out next, apparently in good spirits, with the Russian general in tow. In contrast to Campbell’s styled hair and impeccable suit, the general doesn’t wear a jacket or a tie. His shirt is stained from sweat and unbuttoned halfway down his enormous stomach. His chubby cheeks glisten when he smiles and sticks his clammy palm out to Campbell to shake. It couldn’t possibly get any better than that.

I hold my breath and fire the first shot when their hands meet. The shutter of my camera clicks once and twice. I double-check the exposition on the screen before launching a burst.

Click, click, click. The camera sounds like a mini machine gun, sweeping the enemy to the ground, taking image after image after image. For a moment, I think that they might not notice after all, but the street is too quiet. Now, they’re all looking at me.

‘Oi!’

I keep shooting while the expression on the politician’s face goes from a jovial smirk to sheer horror. He covers his head with his jacket and heads down to the car.

‘Stop it!’ the minder on car door duty screams.

‘Give me the camera now!’ Both the heavies swoop across the road to the iron fence.

I have to wait for the red light at the back of the Canon that means that all the shots have been saved.

‘Come on, come on.’ This might have been the longest four seconds of my entire life.

It flashes off, just as their tattooed hands reach the iron fence. I flick the little door on the side of the camera open, pop both the memory cards out. One, two. I get the second one just before they grab the tripod and smash the lens against the metal bars. It’s time to get out of here.

Across the lawn, over the fence, head left and take the first right into Atherstone Mews, don’t get run over at Cromwell Road and disappear inside the station. They’ll have to go around the whole park, and that’s my advantage.

A blue Ford Fiesta will be parked in the passage around the corner with Nathan hiding in the footwell. I’ll throw one of the cards through the window when I run past. He’ll take it to the Guardian in case I don’t make it.

I think of the station building at Gloucester Road — the exposed brick facade, the narrow entrances. As long as I can get there, I’ll be fine. They wouldn’t dare shooting in such a busy place, would they?

I grasp a card in each hand and run.


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