I am thinking about the East Coast man who kills from afar. I am thinking he's an outcast who fantasizes about being a Marine sniper. I am thinking he is a man in love with the taste of power over human life, a power that can taste divine.

It is 1997, and I am lying in a tent by a lake with a friend who once skinned a man.

My friend's father brainwashed my pal into skinning the man.

My friend's father ran a small cult near my home and told my friend when he was just a teenager that he was the son of God.

My friend was 15 when he killed the man. In 1997, at the age of 27, he got out of prison on a legal technicality. Most people wanted him electrocuted.

My friend's father claimed to be a Vietnam vet, a Marine assassin. He was lying. My friend's father taught my friend how to kill up close and to kill from afar.

One shot, one kill.

My friend's father was preparing his son to assassinate all the cult's enemies -- a substantial list. The state patrol showed up before the assassinations took place. Had my friend succeeded in the assassinations, he would have surpassed Charlie Starkweather as the worst serial killer in the history of the Midwest.

I am watching my 6-year-old son play "007" on Nintendo 64. His favorite weapon is the sniper rifle. It's my favorite, too. I can't explain why. I make him change the game's setting so the heads of enemy troops look like blocks with eyes -- less real. My wife catches us playing the game and makes my son return it to his friend. I'm embarrassed.

My friend skinned the man because he was trying to leave his father's cult. My friend and his father tied the man up in a pig shed and tortured him for three days. My friend shot the man, shot off his fingers, jammed a shovel handle up the man's rectum and then cut slabs of skin and meat off of the man's legs.

The tortured man was, by all accounts, a gentle, deeply religious outcast who came to my friend's father seeking direction in life.

The man was raised Mennonite, so pacifism and martyrdom were concepts always close to his heart.

The man didn't fight the torture. He apparently believed God wanted him tortured for his sinful wavering of faith.

He died when the shovel handle ruptured his bowels, the autopsy said.

I am lying in the tent next to my friend who skinned a man when I hear him say the most chilling thing I have ever heard a man say:

"Did I love the power? Of course I loved the power. How could I not love the power? I was 15 years old and I was the son of God and it was my decision whether or not a man lived or died. It's the heart of darkness, dude. And once you've experienced it, it's tough to turn back."

I slept poorly that night.

My favorite rifle is the 30.06. A neighbor in Nebraska used to take me target shooting on his farm. I once hit a bull's eye from 200 yards, and the high lasted for two days. I had never busted something from so far. My other favorite gun is the AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16. I once shot a carp in the Missouri River with one. The AR-15 likely is the assault rifle used by the Maryland killer. Any real marksman will tell you it's a crummy sniper rifle. But it's pretty good for shredding things up close.

I am reading about the tarot card allegedly left by the Maryland killer near the scene of his youngest victim. The card had the words "I am God" written on it. I think of the Vietnam snipers who left calling cards on their victims. I think of a lot of bad sniper movies and a lot of kick-ass sniper video games. I think of the distance the card was found from the youngest victim -- 150 yards. Big deal. I could hit a torso from there, and I suck.

I am 11 years old and I am fantasizing about shooting a boy named Patrick who says he plans to beat me up the next day. He is a foot taller than me. I don't have a chance in a fistfight. But I have a buddy whose dad has a 30.06. I imagine Patrick standing in the schoolyard bullying a friend. I imagine Patrick hearing a faint whizzing sound, then dropping into a slop of mud and his own brain pulp.

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Robert Nelson