So quiet. No sign of our targets. The sergeant gave a hand-sign to lay low and wait.
There were five of us, including the sergeant. The others were spread everywhere in this wasteland in other small groups, each with their own target to hunt down.
“They will pass that rice fields to reach that empty village.” the sergeant said. “It’s only a matter of time before we spot them. You’d better rest while you can, boys. I’ll take the first watch.”
No need for him to repeat that. We were all exhausted after three days and two nights without any rest, and his words sounded like the blessing of a holy saint to a dying villain. The others immediately stretched their bodies luxuriously on the grass. Me, I walked a bit further before I sat on a large flat rock on the edge of the cliff. I released the magazine off my AR-10, checked the rounds, and rammed it back in place. Then I took my .38 revolver out of my shoulder holster and started cleaning it up. The sergeant took off to patrol the perimeter, his Ithaca 37 slung carelessly on his right shoulder.
As I sat facing the valley below, watching the villages ruined by the massive earthquake, for the thousandth time I thought, “How did it all come to this? How could I be involved in this…. this horror?”
It was all started by the aftermath of the earthquake. Nothing was ever the same after that disaster. That was when I and some friends formed a group of volunteers rescuing and evacuating the victims since Day One, and in later days delivering whatever needed supplies we could gather. With little resources that we had, we tried to do what we could to help. To say that it was hard is truly the understatement of the year. It’s more psychological than physical, actually, although I wouldn’t say five days and four nights without any sleep is the physical equivalent of a walk in the park either. It was not an easy thing to see so many wounded people, who at the same time have lost everything they had in the earthquake. It was even harder having to see to the injured children and babies.
I was not ready to see the dead children and babies, though. I nearly went crazy in those early days, and on the third day my brain snapped and I could not quite remember what happened. My teammates told me later that they found me holding two dead babies close to my chest, weeping helplessly, singing lullaby to them, as if trying to console them. That was bad, and let me tell you one thing, I never get over it. Not really.
That day left a deep scar. And it never healed properly.
And it changed me.
I became more easily agitated since that day. When I saw a bunch of disaster-tourists – people who came to the disaster site only to watch and take pictures – blocking the road with their cars and motorcycles, I went into a berserk mode instantly. I floored my jeep and rammed it into their vehicles and left them screaming in terror.
That was the first time I did such a thing, and that was not the last. When I heard about the existence of the fake “command posts” spread all over the area, fake posts who pretended to help circulating the aid sent by donors but actually smuggled them into their own warehouses, I could not control my icy rage. I went with several friends and started a vigilante-like raid on those posts. Those we found we burned down, and the goods were confiscated and delivered to the local police stations. The persons behind the fake posts? Let’s just say we gave them some lesson they would never forget.
Things got better after that episode. Helps were arriving from virtually every directions, and for the first time after two weeks of hell, the volunteers could actually rest a bit. I was even thinking about getting my family back to this city.
Then came the rumor about the robbers. It was said that they came in groups from several different cities and started looting the houses left by the refugees. In several places they even murdered the people who were left behind to guard their damaged houses and took their belongings. Once again I felt such a helpless rage.
That was when the sergeant came to me. He was direct and right to the point.
“I’ve heard about what you did with the fake posts.” he said, “And we have checked your background. We can use a man like you.”
“Doing what?” I asked him, confused.
“Rather similar to what you’ve done. I suppose you’ve heard the rumor about the robbery and murder in the south?”
I nodded. “So it wasn’t a rumor.”
“No. It’s not, and we are going to do something about it. However, we need somebody with knowledge of the area. Somebody who can also take care of himself. That’s why I come to see you.”
I was a little bit bewildered. “But why me? You people have enough resources to do that without me, don’t you?”
He shook his head gravely, “In normal times, yes, but there is nothing normal about this situation. Most of our people are out for the disaster relief efforts. So my commanding officer formed a task force, small task force of 24, to deal with it. Unofficially. And he checked your background personally. We know you’ve had some sort of military training from your grandfather and uncle who served as a military officer and a policeman back in your hometown, so we are sure you can handle firearms if necessary.”
He paused, and took an envelope from his fading TAD jacket and gave it to me. “Open it.”
So I did. And I was not ready to see what was in it. Photos of houses burned down, of dead bodies, terribly mutilated.
“As I’ve said, it’s not a rumor.” the sergeant said. “Any doubt you have must be gone by now.”
I nodded slowly. “OK, I’m with you. What can I do?”
He grinned. “I know you would agree to join us. Come to the base tonight. My commanding officer will explain and give you a briefing personally.”
The morning after, we started our operation. There were twenty five of us, including the commanding officer and the sergeant. Of those only two of us were civilians.
No ordinary civilians, though. The other guy was a sharpshooter who can shoot the ear of a rabbit from two hundred meters away with his Remington 700; an Olympic athlete in his better days. And me, I knew the area better than any of the team members, and I can handle firearms properly, as the sergeant said. We are divided into five groups, spread into different areas.
In the afternoon our group reached the empty village marked in the mission profile. The sergeant said, “Spread out and check every house. According to the intel we received, this village is still untouched by the robbers, but we’d better make sure no one is around. I’ll see you all in the village hall. That will be our base for tonight.”
So we did, and later gathered in the hall to rest and eat. At sunset, the sergeant called softly, “Get ready and take your positions as planned. Three of them are coming in.” And to me he said, “You come with me.”
Ten minutes later, from our hidings, I could see them. Three big men, walking carelessly into the village. Each carried a knife and a home-made pistol stuck on the belt, and one of them also carried a rifle.
The sergeant chuckled. “Cocky assholes. They are so sure they will get away with it.”
“Who will come out and make the arrest? You?” I asked.
He grinned mirthlessly. “Who said we’re going to arrest them?”
It took me a few seconds before I fully understood what he meant. “Hold it. You are not going to…”
“I’m not. We are.” he replied. “You can’t back off now. As for now, everyone is an operative. Remember that photos. Remember what those bastards did. Now get your rifle ready and take aim. And aim for the head.”
They didn’t stand a chance. They didn’t even know what hit them, bullets shot from three different directions, all aimed to the heads.
And one of them was mine.
And every single operation that followed went in similar fashion. We tracked them down, we hunted them down, we arrested none of them.
Have you ever heard stories about how hard it was to get over your first time of killing another human? Those stories were true enough, but none could prepare me for what I felt later. Instead of feeling endless remorse, I began to feel a grim satisfaction.
So we kept hunting them down, and we took them down one by one. Mostly from a distance, but for a few times from up close so I could smell their fears.
And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed their pain, their fear, their blood, their death. I kept telling myself that I was doing it for the good of the people, that those robbers deserved to die after all the robberies and murders they committed, that I was simply doing what was right, that if I didn’t do it somebody else would.
I kept telling myself that although deep inside I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that I enjoyed every second of it, but that was not the worst part. The worst part is when I found out that I felt guilt as well, and that was the worst cocktail the almighty bartender could ever mix: guilt and satisfaction. And yet I went on with it. I killed and killed and killed. No hesitation at all. Until tonight.
I heard the sergeant called softly from among the trees. “They’re coming. Take your positions.”
As I crouched and took aim with my AR-10, I felt the guilt coming up again. I felt that if I killed again, I would never be able to wash the blood off my hands. I felt such a bitter irony, knowing that I started as the protectors and helpers of people, and I would likely end up a ruthless death-dealer. I knew that I’ve nearly crossed my Rubicon, the point of no return where I had to decide what I wanted to be: a human, or a monster.
The group of five robbers were crossing the rice field. Soon they would reach the single tree in the middle of the field, which was the mark of the killing ground as set by the sergeant earlier. I knew I had to decide. I knew it was my one last chance to prevent myself from turning completely into an inhuman monster.
They reached the tree.
And I pulled the trigger….