At daybreak the next day Sasha and Brandon quietly left the house and drove off in her steel-grey SUV. She was planning to attend a gun show and competition and he had decided to come along.
The morning was clear, bright, and chill. They drove down the Pacific Coast Highway in companionable silence. After a half hour she pulled off the Highway (which periodically became the main street of several small ocean-side towns) and parked in front of a Barbie’s Pancake House. A hundred yards further on was the wide San Diego Freeway, near enough for the whooshing sounds of high-speed traffic to come to them.
This early the day after Thanksgiving there were only a few diners. They got a booth by the window where they could see the PCH and the freeway and the rising sun. Brandon dropped the Venetian blinds and adjusted them to cut out most of the direct blaze.
“So what are you going for, again?” he said.
“They asked me to give a demonstration of Olympic pistol shooting and a give a little talk, then help oversee some amateur competitors while they shoot.
“But mostly it just sounds like fun. They let you shoot all sorts of weapons, including sniper rifles and fully automatic machine guns.”
“Just promise me you won’t buy ANOTHER gun.”
She grinned at him. In the floor behind the passenger row of seats were several gun safes. They could be unlocked and the carry boxes extracted. The SUV itself was a safe, its metal and glass and tires resistant to high-velocity rifle fire, with two kinds of anti-theft tech on the locks and an ignition cut-out. A lo-jack was also installed. Sasha stored all but her most expensive weapons in the SUV, many thousands of dollars worth.
“I hear you,” Sasha said. “Now, what’s happening with you and Allison? Why didn’t she come with you?”
“‘I hear you’ is not the same as ‘I won’t’.”
She smiled. “Who is it here who is avoiding an issue?”
A few miles north on the freeway brought them to beautiful San Juan Capistrano. They turned right, away from it, onto Highway 74, the Ortega Highway. This wound east and occasionally north through the Cleveland National Forest. If they kept on going they would end up at Lake Elsinore. But instead they drove only a dozen miles or so, past a country club and upscale housing, then tawny grassland folding upward toward increasingly hilly country. There was a stretch of forest, then more grassland.
Finally they saw the sign they were looking for pointing toward a dusty side road. After less than a mile on it they came to a large packed-earth parking lot filled with cars both expensive and battered, pickup trucks ditto, and several RVs. They parked next to an especially large RV which would make a memorable landmark.
Sasha walked to the rear of her SUV. Meeting Brandon there she handed him a spare car key with a remote attached.
“Here, just in case you need to come back and get something.”
Swinging the rear door wide she leaned in and punched in a combination on the face of one of several keypads positioned in a line near the rear. A handle flush with the floor popped up. She grasped it and pulled upward. A small door opened. She reached down inside and pulled out a brushed aluminum carry case.
“MaP on top of this door means Olympic match pistols. PrP on this one –” She pointed at a nearby door. “– means practical pistol. It has a Glock .45 caliber and an ISL .45 caliber auto, which looks a lot like the old 1911 Colt auto the army used for many years. Plus ammo, cleaning kit, and holsters.”
She extracted the Olympic match pistol case and set it aside for herself to carry. She gave him the rather heavier “practical” pistol case.
Brandon, peering in the SUV, pointed to several other doors, longer ones. Each had their own keypad. “What are those?”
“Match shotgun. Military shotgun. Match rifle. Military rifle. Each with ammo and cleaning kit.”
“That’s just four. There are three more.”
“Empty. Maybe I can pick up a sniper rifle or a machine gun here. Or something heavier.”
“Something heavier! You’re joking, right?”
Sasha just smiled at him.
They threaded through what felt like several acres of parking lot and vehicles, and might well have been. The bodies of the machines had accumulated and were radiating a good bit of heat. There was not a lot of breeze in this labyrinth. Brandon began lightly sweating. Sasha did not; her skin was doing something else to control the heat. A glance inward made her think it was absorbing and storing the heat somehow.
Was she becoming some alien from outer space? She shrugged off the thought.
Outside the parking area was a white picket fence which stretched maybe a quarter mile to the left and an equal distance to the right. Every few dozen feet along it was an arched gateway with a table shaded by a large umbrella. Behind each table were seated two or three people on white plastic garden chairs. Several clipboards lay on each table.
As they neared the closest gateway they joined a stream of people funneling into lines at the entrances. People were paying an entrance fee and taking a program booklet. Instead of money Sasha handed one of the gun-show volunteers her invitation to speak. The young woman tore out a rectangle from it along perforated lines and placed the badge in a clear-plastic badge holder with a long loop of plastic ribbon attached to the holder. She also made a guest badge for Brandon from a second perforated-edge rectangle.
“Where’s the tent I’m supposed to go to?”
The woman told her, unfolding the booklet and showing the location on the center-folded map within.
“Enjoy the show.” The woman glanced smilingly at Brandon while she held out a hand to the people behind them.
Out of the way the two set the gun boxes down and looped the badge ribbons over their necks. Checking the map against the tent-shaded booths before them Brandon nodded off to one side then the other. Sasha followed his gaze. At the ends of the picket fence a few people were trickling around them to enter the gun show.
“Guess the organizers don’t mind a few free-loaders.”
There were dozens of exhibitors showing all sorts of weapons-related products and giving away product literature. After the last row of exhibitor tents was a big gap then a long line of firing-line tents.
Guns were popping all along the firing-line. At one end Sasha recognized the deep-voiced cracks of .50 caliber or other single-shot rifles. At the other end was the ripping, buzzing sound of fully-automatic fire. She wondered how many tens of thousands of dollars of ammunition would be spent today.
As they approached their destination tent a loud horn went off. The firing sounds ceased, with one final full-auto load the last noise. Loud speakers all along the line said, “All weapons down. Unload all. Chambers open. Gun commanders report when secure.”
A smiling older blond woman was coming toward them from their destination tent. She wore a bush-master’s floppy hat and was dressed all in khaki safari clothing which she filled out admirably. Sasha sensed Brandon’s interest.
The two women embraced. Sasha sent a brief message into the woman’s body to ensure she would enjoy good health from now on.
“Honey, where’s your sun block? And in those skimpy clothes you’re going to be red as a beet real soon.”
Sasha was wearing open-toed flat sandals, no socks, cut-off soft blue-colored pants which were close-fitting but not tight, and a sports bra of the same color which she needed only for modesty’s sake. Her skin liked to be directly engaged with the environment. If she could have worn nothing she would have done so. Her skin was as white as an albino’s.
“I don’t burn any more, Martha. You’ll see.”
“Something to do with your coma, honey? OK, OK, I’ll shut up about that.
“Who’s this fine-looking fella you got with you?”
“This is Brandon, my brother. Bran, Martha Pickens. She was a pentathlete a few years ago and got hooked on guns.”
The two shook hands, looking each other over with obvious appreciation.
“Pentathlon?” he said. “That’s where you ride a horse and swim and run …”
Sasha said when he stalled, “And shoot a gun and fence.”
“Well, no wonder you’re in such good shape.”
“Why, aren’t you sweet? Honey, why don’t you come over and put those heavy boxes down. I’ve got someone for you to meet.”
The woman led the two toward a podium with a microphone and a table beside it upon which were various clipboards and a sheaf of paper held safe from the moderate breeze by a stone. A bedewed and frosted carafe of ice water and several glasses sat on the table also.
Rising from behind the table, facing into the tent, was a slender short woman. She was only a silhouette beneath the shadow of the tent and the bright sunlight behind her, but Sasha’s eyes automatically intensified the light so that her face was perfectly clear. She hurried to meet the pretty black haired woman with the dramatic dark eyebrows as she came around the table. They hugged, stood back to look at each other.
“Linda, how the hell are you? Pretty good, from just looking at you.” And sensing her interior.
“Ditto, you. Nice hair style.” Linda fingered Sasha’s straight snowy page boy. Her hair almost purred and Sasha restrained herself from caressing back with her hair. Wouldn’t that freak out her friend?!
“This is my brother, Brandon. Bran, this is Linda LeBec. When I was at the Olympic Training Camp in Colorado Springs four years ago she was my mentor.” That was just before her growth spurt which had ended her gymnastics career.
Linda was in a khaki outfit similar to Martha’s, minus the hat. Her café-au-lait skin only bronzed under the sun’s rays.
Her tiny friend eyed Sasha’s skimpy clothing. “Your brother is going to have to beat up a lot of guys, with you wearing that outfit.”
Her brother grinned as he shook Linda’s slender hand. “Sash’ doesn’t need anybody to do her beating up.”
Martha put an arm around Sasha’s waist. “I heard about that. Was it very terrible?”
Sasha tried to redirect the conversation. “Not that Bran would mind beating somebody up. He does that regularly. He’s just finishing up college under a football scholarship. Some of the pros are already sniffing around him.”
As the three women caught up on each other’s lives people had begun to trickle into the tent and take seats on the folding chairs within. They were of all ages and sexes, dressed in comfortable clothing for the most part. At the hour Martha stepped up to the podium and spoke over the microphone.
“For the last few club meetings we’ve talked about Olympic shooting and played around with the idea of getting started shooting that style. Today we’re lucky to have my friend Sasha Canaro. A few of you may know her as the new World Judo Champ in the middleweight class.”
She paused for a sprinkling of applause. A few people sat up straighter and stared at Sasha. She guessed they were remembering the news reports of her brush with crime.
“Sasha is also the reigning women’s world trampoline champ. Also this year she was bronze, silver, and gold medallist at the shooting World Cup events. People in the know think she’s going to the Summer Olympics next year.”
She nodded to Sasha and let her take the podium. There was light applause.
“Thank you. It’s you people who support shooting around the world. Some of you may someday compete in the Olympics or in the World Cups.
“You can find all details about the competitions and the equipment and techniques used by going on the Internet and to the library. What I’m going to do today is to hit some high points and answer some questions.”
She paused and took a sip of water. She did not need or want it, but she liked to punctuate her talks to let people digest its parts. She had learned that from her mother, who was a speaker much in demand.
“The first point is that Olympic shooting is the same as any other shooting. What you already know will stay the same if you ever do get into it. What’s one of the basics?”
An older man in a Western outfit spoke up. “Keep your eye on the front sight.”
As he said that a couple of people in the back row got up and left. A few people had gotten onto their cell phones also but were speaking softly. Sasha was used to that and ignored it.
“Right. Another is learning to breathe right, isn’t it?” Heads were nodding and some people were leaning forward in their chairs, drawn into the subject because she was making points they knew well from their own experience. She had also made them colleagues rather than students listening to some Great Mind.
“Another is to SQUEEZE, and let the trigger break surprise you. And that’s it. See? You’re already on the way to being an Olympic athlete.”
“Yeah, ri-i-ight,” said a teenaged boy in the front. Sasha and everyone laughed. A few people drifted in and took up seats at the back. Always at the back. She had seen it many times in her talks. Well, not everyone. Here came a bulky man in desert camo who sat right up front to one side, close to her brother.
Grinning, Sasha said, “Yeah, easier said than done, isn’t? Hard to breathe right when you’re beginning to panic a little bit during timed fire and you wonder if you’re behind everyone else. Hard not to hurry up your squeeze when you know any second now that gun is going to jerk in your hand.
“There are two women’s shotgun events, one for trap and one for skeet. The equipment and performance is pretty much the same as regular trap and skeet, though some competitors like to buy super-expensive equipment. They like to think it gives them an edge. I use standard equipment and I just won gold in both World Cup events, so you can guess what I think of the practice.”
Several heads nodded at that, mostly older men who were likely shotgun shooters. A couple of them had just come in. The seats were almost full now.
“There are two rifle events. The 10-meter air rifle uses equipment that is pretty specialized. It fires a .177 caliber diablo wad-cutter pellet, has an anti-recoil butt, and wraparound grips. The 50-meter rifle is a .22 caliber long rifle cartridge and the weapon is closer to what you may have at home. It’s shot from three positions, standing, kneeling, and prone.”
The chairs were all filled now and people were beginning to stand at the back and sides. She was a good speaker, but not that good. She began to have the awful suspicion that the word had been passed that “Crime-buster Canaro” was here.
“They give you plenty of time to get into position and to fire. I’ve ruffled some feelings because I still use a standard rifle instead of fancier sports rifles. And I get into position and start shooting as fast as the rules allow. And I shoot in the minimum time. This has pissed even more people off because they want the event to be ritualistic and ornamental. I prefer something more realistic. There’s even been talk of banning me from competition. But I’m four golds and breaking records so that hasn’t gone too far.”
She reached down and picked up her match pistols, one in each hand. They were her backup pistols; her primaries were in bank storage boxes like the expensive treasures they were. She lifted one higher.
“This is for the 10 meter air pistol event. It shoots a .177 caliber pellet. Looks kind of like an old-time dueling pistol, right?” It did indeed, with its long barrel made to seem fat by the equally long blue aluminum compressed air cylinder underneath it, and its sharply angled butt which curled around one’s hand. She sat the gun on the podium and lifted the other, its slide locked back.
“This is the 25-meter .22 long. Walther and other European gun-makers turn out some good stuff, but I prefer the High Standard and the Smith and Wesson. And I prefer a butt just a little shaped to my hand. Again, I’ve pissed off some people who say I’m ruining the sport. But again I’m winning all the competitions, which kind of makes it hard to say I don’t know what I’m doing.
“Now I’m going to answer some questions. Think about what you want to say while I lock my babies away.”
She turned to the table beside the podium and positioned her pistols into their foam beds alongside her cleaning equipment and case of fifty cartridges and package of pellets. She engaged the locks and sat the case in under the podium’s overhang. She took no chances that someone would snatch the case with its cargo worth thousands of dollars.
Plenty of hands were up. She pointed a young girl who looked especially eager.
“Is it true you are Crime-stopper Canaro?”
Damn! Her guess had been correct. The word had gotten around that she was here.
“Dear, if you were a little older I would be rude to you. Because that’s a rude question.”
At the girl’s hurt expression she said, “The incident that you’re thinking of happened several months ago. I’ve been asked over and over again about it, and some of the questions have been damned silly and insulting. I’m sick of the subject, and I want to move on. Understand now?”
The girl nodded at Sasha’s smile, not so unhappy now. “I’m sorry.”
“No need to be. You asked a question. Now you are wiser.”
The questioners avoided the touchy subject and asked her questions about equipment and practices at the Olympic. After twenty minutes Sasha said, “One more question. Think well, make this one count.”
On the front row to the side the stout man in desert camo mumbled to the man at his side.
“I’d like to know how that skinny bitch would do shooting a real man’s gun, know what I mean?”
Unfortunately that man was Brandon. He said, eyes hard, “That ‘bitch’ is my little sister.”
Camo Man blanched. Brandon was six feet four inches of hard muscle and big bone. And his demeanor did not look friendly.
Sasha had heard the exchange but ignored the man’s comment. She cared no more for its content than to that of a bird calling to another. Brandon’s response was a different matter, however. Once again her mother’s example came to her rescue.
“Actually, Brandon, the gentleman’s question is a valid one. Let me see if I’ve got it right. I heard you say ‘I’d like to know how that little girl would do shooting a real man’s gun.’ Did I get that right?”
She said it almost straight-faced, but with a wicked gleam in her eye. The people near the two men who had heard the exchange burst out in laughter. The rest of the people in the tent and those spilling out of its shadow looked puzzled.
Martha, who rarely missed anything, was frowning at Camo Man. “Crockett, I can’t believe you said that. You better hope I say nothing about this to your mother.”
Meanwhile Sasha had bent and taken her Practical Pistol case from under the podium. Sitting it on the table she unlocked it while the room buzzed with conversation, those close to the action passing it on to the less-informed. Laughter swept away from the two men in a widening circle. It left behind it people watching her, wondering what she would do next.
She took her time to let everyone get up to speed, while taking out a pair of butterfly holsters and stringing them onto her belt, one to each side. She tripped the lock on each open to receive pistols. Those she removed one at a time, pointed them downrange, and racked the slides open to a locked position. She showed each to the audience to let them know they were unloaded, according to range rule: wear OK, loaded not.
“These are both .45 automatics. For target and practical shooting I’ve read that middle-weight lead balls are best to minimize shatter off of the target. I think Crockett here, who is so interested in what real men do, would agree that one or two of those would slow down a man of even Crockett’s, erh, sturdy proportions.”
Everyone laughed, even the victim of her joke. He carried more than a little extra weight.
It seemed as if the older she got the more she appreciated her mother’s wisdom. A defeated enemy well-treated may come to identify with their victor. They may even brag how ferocious their victor is, since only such an enemy could have defeated themselves. With warnings to watch out for exceptions.
“This –” she hefted one weapon so they could see it better. “– is a Glock off-the-shelf. It’s tolerances are tight enough to be used in matches. This –” She hefted the other. “Is an ISL Premium Grade Colt 1911-inspired weapon, with little extra touches up the ying-yang, as my brother Brandon would elegantly put it.” She got laughter at that, and approving glances for her brother from not a few women.
“It’s also match grade. But with tolerances to let it handle the dirt of practical situations.”
She holstered the weapons with a flourish, clicking the locks on the paddle holsters closed. She could now do acrobatics and the pistols would stay put, but a finger’s press would loose them for a draw.
She gazed out at the audience. They were wholly caught. The men and not a few women by the twin appeals of a lightly and tightly clad pretty woman and deadly weapons. The women (and not a few men) proud to see one of her sex so gloriously competing with men.
“If you’re wondering why I brought these guns, and bought them, I’ve been thinking lately –” (that being just a second ago) “– of getting a degree in criminology in college and joining a police force, maybe the FBI. Today I’m thinking of participating in the Practical Pistol shoot. Maybe my old pal Crockett here could give me a few pointers when I do. Maybe even show me how it is done.”
He nodded back sheepishly.
“Meanwhile, we’ve still got twenty minutes of our session on Olympic Pistol. All of you who came here just to see Crime-buster Canaro get out of here. The rest of you who want some pointers while we do a bit of shooting, come on up here where Martha and Linda can get you situated. Quick, now!”
She clapped her hands sharply and turned to Martha. That worthy woman was already giving her own commands and the tent’s occupants hurried to do her bidding.
At the hour the firing stopped and people began to leave the tent, thanking Martha and Linda and Sasha as they went.
Martha said, “Good job, Sasha. And thanks for treating Crockett so gently. I like his mother and am hoping some of his edges will rub off soon.”
Brandon said, “If they don’t someone will rub them off him.”
Martha continued, “Linda and I have to stay at the tent till noon. We’ll be relieved then. Suppose we grab a bite to eat at the open-air cafeteria. It’s food is not too bad this year.”
“Because Martha got onto the organizers for that,” Linda said. She and Brandon were watching each other more than their two companions. Sasha wondered if anything would come of it. They were near the same age and compatible in a number of ways.
“See you then.” She and her brother walked away to browse the many product tables.