Paul Ruta

The Arc of a Bullet

Guerillas by Nicholas Roerich

Malik waits. He is a professional. He focusses through the scope without distraction, a patch over one eye. He stifles a cough that would startle birds and betray his position. He has learned how to work phlegm noiselessly up through the trachea then down the throat. Others don’t survive the first week of camp.

He had set up in cool darkness. Now, in the blistering afternoon, he enters a state of controlled euphoria. His mind floats above his camouflage of rock and brush, no longer sensing the thorns, the damp, the centipedes. He feels apart from his body yet remains keenly alert. This is what he trained for. For the third time today he urinates into a cloth.

Malik considers the thinner air at this altitude. The lack of humidity. A shot will travel fast and slice cleanly.

Malik considers the distance: over a kilometer across a nameless valley, in view of a simple structure built into a hillside, hazy and colorless in the heat. At this distance even the curvature of the Earth enters into the equation.

He calculates and recalculates.

He considers the bullet: a slender shaft of metal the size of a woman’s ring finger. He reminds himself that an assassin’s bullet is what set the First World War into motion, which seeded the ground for the Second, which forever changed the shape of civilization. Malik reminds himself that bullets of assassins also find their way to drug lords and dictators as well as people of peace and pop stars – and nothing in the world truly changes as a result.

He wonders which kind of bullet is now loaded into the chamber by his cheek, patiently waiting its turn.

Malik is scrubbed of emotion. But then, as if carried on the hot breeze, an image floats across his thoughts: a snapshot of his wife and infant son. He scolds himself for indulging in such weakness, dishonoring the first rule of his profession. Yet the image lingers. Many times he has been advised of the consequences that await his family should his mission be revealed. Or worse: should it fail. It would be better to shoot them himself and then put the pistol in his own mouth. He tells himself it would be an easy decision to make.

Malik closes his eyes and breathes deeply, deliberately. He must push away foolish sentiments and restore his concentration or risk losing it entirely.

Malik detects a change in the ambience. It’s too slight to be sure if it’s a sound, a smell, or another sensation. He inhales slowly and savors the air. He listens. He raises his head and lifts the patch in time to see a band of black birds take flight behind the far hills. He quickly returns his eye to the scope.

A van appears. A blackened Mercedes creeps along the gravel, too slowly to raise dust that would inform a distant rifleman of wind speed and direction. For that reason the personnel exiting the van wear no loose clothing. They offer Malik no clue that might make a useful difference.

Malik’s heart rate jumps. He settles it with steady breathing. In through the nose and out through the mouth. He becomes aware of the blood pumping harder now through his body to his fingertips. He feels it pushing through. He can almost hear it. He matches the whole notes of his breathing with the quarter notes of his pulse, synchronizing their rhythms so he can squeeze the trigger in the stillness of the offbeat.

The target emerges from the van. His people keep him moving gently this way and that, swaying like a ripened poppy, never stopping long enough for a clear shot. They are professionals, too.

Malik needs three perfect seconds. One to choose the moment. Two for the bullet to arc through the air. It will cross the valley in silence and arrive at its destination three times faster than the report will reach their ears. Only a hit is acceptable. A miss is unthinkable.

The target pauses at the door of the structure as someone fumbles with the lock.

Is this the moment? Yes or no.


The air shifts. Gusts from the wrong direction. Malik recalculates.

Now? No, not yet.

The lock is unlocked. Perhaps three seconds of opportunity remain.

Yes no yes no yes.

Malik makes the decision.


The door is pushed open and the target is ushered inside.

Today is not the day. There is tomorrow. Malik is a professional. He waits.


About the writer:
Paul Ruta is a Canadian writer living in Hong Kong with his wife and a geriatric tabby called Zazu; his kids live on Zoom. Recent work appears in Cheap Pop, F(r)iction, Reflex Press, Ghost Parachute and Smithsonian Magazine. He reads for No Contact magazine.

Image: Guerillas by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Tempera on canvas. 18.1 x 31.4 inches. 1943. Public domain.