IRON SNIPER excerpt

IRON SNIPER

Blood only serves to wash ambition’s hands.

—Lord Byron

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

He was a young man in a killing mood. All around him, the landscape was lush and green with summer, but all he saw in the shadowy hedges and copses of trees were sniper hides and the potential for an ambush. That limited worldview had kept him alive so far.

With Micajah Cole, there was always violence simmering just beneath the surface. That violence ran deep as a vein of silver in the Appalachian mountains he called home. Instead of the sun’s caress this morning, he felt the cold metal of his rifle and the tension in the trigger beneath his fingertip.

“Will you hurry it up, Hillbilly?” muttered a voice just beyond Cole’s right elbow. The voice, with its Brooklyn accent, belonged to Vaccaro. Like Cole, Vaccaro was a sniper, but he was mostly Cole’s eyes and ears when he was focused on a target. “The rest of the Army is gonna be in Paris by the time you shoot this son of a bitch.”

Cole stayed quiet.

It was mid-summer, 1944. The countryside beyond the Normandy beaches had become a sprawling battlefront more than 60 miles wide, spreading far from the English Channel as Allied troops pushed deeper each day into France. Men and tanks and planes clashed on a vast scale to decide the fate of Europe. Whole towns lay in ruins near the French coast. Thousands had died in the fighting.

None of that mattered just then to Cole. As a sniper, his battlefield had narrowed to 30 feet across the face of a battered stone barn some 200 feet distant. That was the field of view through the telescopic sight mounted on his Model 1903A4 Springfield rifle, manufactured eight months previously at the federal armory on the banks of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The Weaver scope—fabricated in El Paso, Texas—had a magnification of 2.5, which meant that the details of the old stone and the cracks of the wood framing sprang much closer. There was no indication of the German sniper within.

In point of fact, Cole’s world was even narrower than the field of view of his rifle scope, for of that 30 feet he was interested only in the doorway into the barn. Maybe three feet across and six feet high.

Back home, most barns had big doors for driving a wagon or a tractor through. In his experience, most barns were wooden and even somewhat rickety from storm winds and the lack of repairs during the Great Depression.

Not this French barn, with its stone walls three feet thick. This barn was much older, with medieval dimensions from when a barn door was meant for cows and horses going in and out, rather than mechanized vehicles. A door that size could be closed up tight against wolves, which had still roamed the French countryside when this barn was built. No windows except for two openings in the gable ends. Squat and imposing, the structure before him was part barn and part fortress, really, which was likely why the German sniper Cole was trying to shoot had gravitated toward it.

The gable windows would have been preferable for the German, but the problem was that the windows faced the wrong direction, looking out across empty fields. It was the barn door that looked out over the dusty road, offering a good vantage point, much like an old 18th-century fort guarding a harbor entrance. From that barn, the German could shoot anything that moved on the road, which had become a problem for the American squad trying to reach its objective.

Vaccaro wasn’t one for silence. After a moment he added, “You see him yet? These boys are getting antsy to move on. It’s hot out, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Then go find yourself some shade, City Boy, and leave me the hell alone,” Cole muttered, not taking his eye from the scope.

“Since you asked so nice, maybe I will,” Vaccaro whispered, as if the German in the barn might hear them, although that was unlikely at this distance.

It wouldn’t be any problem for the German to see them, though.

“Keep your head down,” Cole whispered back. The warning was somewhat unnecessary, but it made Cole feel better to say it. Although they had been working together for weeks now as a team, Cole thought that Vaccaro’s occasional lapses in horse sense were going to get him killed. Maybe get both of them killed, for that matter.

Cole reckoned he had enough blood on his hands already, so he was making some effort to save Vaccaro’s sorry ass. It was a measure of Cole’s liking for Vaccaro that prompted him to say anything at all.

“No shit,” Vaccaro replied.

Vaccaro fancied himself to be a sniper, too, and he did have a sniper rifle much like Cole’s, but that was where the similarities ended. Vaccaro was somewhat better with the rifle than the average soldier, which wasn’t saying a whole lot. Mostly, he scanned for targets using a captured pair of Zeiss-made 10×50 binoculars while Cole stayed behind the rifle scope. Vaccaro also kept his eyes on the surroundings so that Cole could focus on the actual shooting.

If Vaccaro ever felt like second fiddle in the shoot ’em up orchestra, he simply reminded himself that Cole was gifted with a rifle. The hillbilly could shoot the way that Babe Ruth could swing a bat or that Norman Rockwell could wield a paintbrush. They were born to it.

Cole’s talent for killing Germans at long range—the Springfield could easily reach out to 600 yards—had not gone unnoticed. Just two weeks before, a famous reporter named Ernie Pyle had written a story about Cole.

“The sniper has a hunter’s lean build and clear eyes that must see like an eagle’s,” Pyle had written in the descriptive prose that brought the war to life for thousands of readers back home. “With a laconic manner and Southern drawl to match, the sniper looks and sounds the part of a mountain man from Appalachia, right down to the Confederate flag painted upon his helmet.”

They’d had to ask Lieutenant Mulholland what “laconic” meant.

“If you don’t know, then you probably are,” he explained. “It’s a man of few words.”

“That’s Cole, all right,” Vaccaro said. “Shoot first and talk later.”

Vaccaro and the other soldiers had ribbed Cole plenty about the article and about being famous—up to a point. Cole wasn’t somebody that you wanted to kid too much. He was laconic, after all.

It was a matter of pride to Vaccaro that Cole had made a point of mentioning him to the reporter, saying that they were a team. It wouldn’t do Cole much good to be one of the deadliest snipers in Normandy if some German sneaked up behind him, which was where Vaccaro finally became really valuable. At the moment, however, with an entire squad pinned down behind him, it was highly unlikely that any Germans were going to crawl up Cole’s ass.

Vaccaro snorted and muttered something that might have been a commentary on Cole’s mother, and then started to reverse crawl back toward a stone wall, behind which sheltered the squad. Silently, they willed Cole to hurry up and shoot the sniper before some officer came along and told them to get moving—right into the line of fire.

For weeks now, American and Allied forces had pushed across France, their objective being to sweep German forces ahead of them. Their ultimate objective was to cross the Rhine and enter Germany, where they could finally put an end to that madman, Adolf Hitler. But the stubborn defense by SS and Wehrmacht troops meant that there was always another field to cross, another barn to capture. Americans had paid for each small victory with blood and lives.

While Cole was well aware of the big picture, none it much concerned him. He was content to leave strategy to the officers. He was focused on that swath of barn that he could see through his rifle scope.

Heat drilled down at midday. While Cole’s eyes were focused on the barn, he was aware of the country smells all around him. As a country boy himself, he was reminded of home. He smelled green grass in the sun. Manure. Wet hay moldering where the farmers had abandoned their haystacks to flee the fighting. He registered the stink of a nearby carcass rotting in the heat—maybe a cow, but maybe not.

Cole lay still as a copperhead.

From a strategic viewpoint, the fact that there was just one fairly narrow door into the ancient stone barn had its plusses and minuses. In the plus category was the fact that there was just one approach to defend. In the minus category was the fact that a grenade lobbed through the open door of the barn would turn the German into raw goetta, which to the uninitiated was a dish that consisted of loose sausage and mush. Scrapple, Cole would have called it.

At least one brave idiot in the squad had tried that direct approach. Trouble was, not even Dizzy Trout could have hurled a pineapple grenade from the road through that barn door, even though the Detroit Tigers pitcher was leading the American League that summer in strikeouts.

It had been necessary for the soldier to creep much closer, then spring up to throw the grenade. He had been in the process of cocking his arm back for the pitch when the German shot him, causing the grenade to bounce just a few feet away and detonate.

Flies buzzed around the bloody remains. The squad had not sent in a relief pitcher.

Fortunately, Cole and Vaccaro had happened along and were in the process of solving the sniper problem.

Cole thought about where that sniper would be. Deep enough into the barn so that he was hidden in shadow, but not so deep that his own view out would be any more limited than necessary. He would be using something to rest the rifle on, maybe the top of a stall.

Cole did not lack for imagination, but he was equally good at concentration. He had grown up on a hardscrabble mountain homestead where absently walking behind a mule could mean getting kicked in the head, where missing a shot with the one bullet you had in your rifle meant that the family went hungry that night, and where a wandering thought meant that an ax landed the wrong way and took off a foot. A boyhood spent swinging a sharp ax trained one’s mind wonderfully in the art of staying focused.

Cole stared into the rectangle of velvety darkness, hoping for some flicker of movement. The sniper, however, did not betray his position. Cole could fire blindly into the barn, but his odds of hitting the German would be slim at best. In the process, he would be giving away his own position for the German to shoot back. He was going to need another plan.

“Hey, City Boy—”

“Goddammit, Hillbilly.”

“What? I ain’t even asked you for anything yet.”

“But I know what you are gonna ask.”

This was another reason why it helped to work as a team. One man could set up a lure. Snipers relied on subterfuge almost as much as marksmanship.

“Helmet on a stick?” Vaccaro suggested.

“These boys done tried that and he didn’t fall for it. Best use Gertrude.”

“Poor Gertrude.”

Gertrude was the nickname for the mannequin head that Vaccaro had found in what was left of a dress shop. He dug around in his haversack and pulled her out. Made of plaster, with bright yellow hair and lips painted into a red pout, the mannequin head made for such a startling sight as it popped above a wall that more than one German sniper had fallen for the trick, firing at the lure and revealing his position. Gertrude herself had paid a heavy price. There was a bullet-sized divot in her forehead. Most of her right ear had been shot away, so Vaccaro turned the head so that the good ear was toward the barn.

“Get ready, Hillbilly,” he whispered. “Here goes.”

He lifted the head, keeping his hands below the wall, and almost instantly a shot struck Gertrude. One of her prominent cheekbones vanished in a puff of pulverized plaster. Vaccaro lost his grip on the dummy head, which fell to the dusty road and split in two.

Cole fired at the enemy sniper’s muzzle flash.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Ike looked out at the perfect blue sky of a summer’s day and watched a squadron of P-47 Thunderbolts streak toward some unseen target.

“Good luck, boys,” he said quietly. “Go get ’em.”

The P-47s were more than up to the task, carrying up to 2500 pounds of high explosives in the form of bombs and rockets. Each plane was armed with eight Browning M-2 machine guns, four on each wing, that delivered 800 rounds a minute on targets below. A single plane was almost as destructive as an entire infantry division.

Out the window, the squadron looked no more threatening than a flock of birds in the sky.

It was a hell of a thing, Ike thought, to sit around headquarters, studying maps and looking out the window, not to mention endlessly chain-smoking cigarettes, while young American men fought and died. Ike would not have admitted it out loud, but he also thought with regret of the young German men who were also dying. He saw these German soldiers and the Wehrmacht itself as an adversary, but not really as an enemy—it was Hitler and the rest of his henchmen for whom Ike reserved his real enmity.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, was equal parts politician and general. He had to be, because his job involved juggling American leaders and touchy British leaders. The Brits had defeated Napoleon, after all, back in 1812, so they seemed to feel this gave them the expertise to win all over again in Europe. Then there were the Canadians—not terribly demanding, and good soldiers—and the Polish forces, eager for their pound of German flesh. Most difficult of all were the French.

Ah, yes, the French. Some of Ike’s colleagues couldn’t believe that they had the audacity to want their country back after years of Nazi occupation. The thought made him smile. The trouble was that there were various factions vying for power. They couldn’t seem to agree on the future of France.

The Americans and British were backing General Charles de Gaulle, who for all his difficult nature, had a clear vision of a democratic France that aligned with the American and British worldview. Unfortunately, much of the French resistance was controlled by Communists who, on the brink of ousting the Germans, seemed ready to welcome the Soviets with open arms.

The Russians were supposed to be allies, but Ike did not like the thought of liberating Europe from one despot, only to have him replaced by the likes of Stalin.

Ike sighed and stepped away from the window. He turned back to the endless maps and ringing phones.

“Sir, General Patton is on the phone for you. He says he wants to—”

“Tell the general I will call him back.”

He didn’t have the energy for Patton right now.

Ike lit another cigarette to gather his thoughts. It wasn’t quite noon, and he had already smoked a pack. These days, he lived off cigarettes, coffee, and hot dogs. In the evenings, he allowed himself two fingers of bourbon. Sometimes he watched a movie or played cards with Kay Summersby, the pretty young Irish WAC who had started out as his driver and become something more. Nobody was supposed to know that she was his mistress, but it may have been the worst-kept secret at headquarters. Ike was amazed that an entire invasion had been planned in secret, but an affair was impossible to keep quiet. From the strained tone of Mimi Eisenhower’s letters, it was clear that the rumors must have reached his wife’s ears back home.

The general decided that he would have to deal with that situation when the time came. At the moment, he had a war to win.

The arrival of July put Ike in mind not just of Independence Day, but also of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. As a student of military history and of the American Civil War, Ike had stood on that ground at Seminary Ridge and looked across that vast field the Confederates had crossed on July 3, 1863.

In hindsight, the decision by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to attack the Union position seemed like sheer folly. One Browning machine gun could very well have held off Pickett’s entire division. Any general who attempted a similar frontal—suicidal—attack today would be swiftly relieved of command, if not sent before a court martial. The Russians seemed to be the only ones who regularly went in for such madness.

Of course, there had been no machine guns at Gettysburg. Ike understood Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s vision—or perhaps it was better described as a hope. One desperate gamble, one grand gesture, and the war might be won or lost in a single July afternoon.

Unfortunately, the war in France was not so simple. For starters, there was not one field to cross, but countless ones.

July had come and gone without any version of Pickett’s charge. It was now August, and everyone knew that the battle for France was entering its end game.

As a cadet at West Point, Ike had been a pretty good football player. The battle for France was in the last quarter.

On June 6, Allied forces had come ashore on D Day. Operation Overlord had required months of planning and subterfuge to convince the Germans that the attack would come at Calais, rather than at Normandy. While the campaign of misinformation had worked, the success of the landing had not been guaranteed. The weather in early June was stormy, meaning a rough crossing of the English Channel. With only a narrow window of opportunity in the forecast and the tides, Ike had given the order, “OK, let’s go.”

Those simple words launched the largest amphibious invasion in history.

Thousands of good men had died, although some predictions of the losses had been far more catastrophic. Finally, the Allies had gained a toehold on the beach that June day. From there, day by day, week by week, Allied forces had pushed deeper into Normandy.

But the Wehrmacht was far from defeated. The fighting in the hedgerow country had been particularly savage and favored the defenders.

It was only after Operation Cobra that Allied forces had been able to break free of the awful hedgerow region. Just a few days previously, on July 25, the Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force had dropped millions of pounds of explosives on German positions. Those P-47 Typhoons and the RAF’s Hawker Hurricanes hit German fuel depots, convoys, command posts, troops in the field, and even trains. An unfortunate casualty had been the many French towns and cities in the path of the bombing.

The bombing had done its job, though, by utterly demoralizing German forces and throwing them into a disarray.

With the German stranglehold on Normandy broken, that was when the real charge across France could begin.

“Sir, it’s General Patton again. He insists—”

“He insists, does he?” Ike interrupted, unable to hide the annoyance in his voice. “Fine, I’ll take it.”

He stubbed out his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, as he girded his mental faculties for a conversation with the general. If it was Tuesday, George Patton would insist it was Wednesday. He was contrary and pushy. He saw himself as a modern-day Alexander, a conquering hero armed with an ivory-handled revolver, rather than a sword. It was only his incompetent superiors who kept him from attaining his full glory. Patton didn’t keep his opinion of himself, to himself. He had somehow covered his uniform with more stars than any other Allied general. Ike mused that there might even be more stars on Patton’s uniform than could be found in the Milky Way.

For the last year, Ike had kept Patton in the doghouse for slapping shell-shocked soldiers and other general asininity, such as making public speeches that included such nuggets of wisdom as a soldier who won’t fuck, won’t fight. Quote, unquote. Most of the troops loved comments like that; the public back home, not so much.

A hothead such as Patton caused Ike plenty of headaches, but he had his uses. Now, Ike was about to unleash Patton, who was the best battlefield general that the Allies had. The Germans were actually afraid of Patton, which was saying something.

Of course, if Patton had been called upon to navigate a single day of managing Allied headquarters, the war would have been lost by sunset. But for now, Patton and his 3rd Army were just what Ike needed to get the job done of kicking the Germans out of France.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Hidden in the tall summer grass, Dieter Rohde did not look like a stone-cold killer. He was apple-cheeked and baby-faced, making him appear even younger than he was. It was a face that could best be described as boyishly pretty, rather than handsome.

With his helmet off, his dirty blond hair was wavy and too long for a soldier’s. Women of all ages often had an irresistible urge to reach out and brush the unruly strands away from his face. They were rewarded with a smile, complete with dimples.

He had the warm brown eyes of a puppy, disguising the fact that he saw with the acuity of a hawk. And Rohde, having been spoiled all his life by women, viewed them in much the same way that a hawk saw a rabbit. Beneath his handsome adolescent appearance lurked a cruel heart.

Peering now with one of those keen eyes through the 4x Zeiss ZF42 telescopic sight on his Mauser K98 rifle, Rohde aligned the single-post reticule on a soldier in the distance. An American.

He had been watching the GI for a while. An entire squad sheltered in the thick hedgerow behind this one soldier. But this unlucky bastard had been designated as the point man. The scout. If there were Germans guarding this particular field, it was his job to reveal their presence.

To put it another way, the lone Ami was sniper bait.

Rohde could easily have taken him, but he bided his time.

Maybe the enemy soldier took some pride in his skills as a scout. He was half hidden behind a stone wall, peering across the field. If he was trying to spot Rohde, he was out of luck. The sniper had hidden deep in the underbrush. He wore a camouflage uniform, which made him stand out from most of the Germans in his unit, but which blended perfectly with the brush. Netting covered his Stahlhelm, and he had affixed bits of branches and grass to the helmet to break up his outline even more.

Rohde’s rifle rested on a stone. He had put a rag under the wooden forearm to cushion the stock yet more. Anchored by the stone and the French earth itself, Rohde could not have asked for a better rifle rest. Steady as a rock, he could wait all day if need be.

From the brush that disguised him to the sun at his back, it was the perfect sniper’s lair. Many of his fellow German snipers working to stop the relentless American advance after Operation Cobra preferred taking up positions in trees so that they had a better vantage point. However, a sniper in a tree could be trapped. It was not convenient to take one shot and move on, which was the best strategy for a sniper who wished to survive another day. Once discovered, a sniper in a tree was nothing more than target practice. The Americans had more than a few marksmen of their own.

Maybe this lone American was one of those marksmen, hoping to set his sights on a German sniper. Rohde kept watch through the scope. Although he handled it with the utmost care, even going so far as removing it at night to secure the optic in a wooden case, moisture had gotten inside and the lens had recently started to cloud over. Consequently, Rohde saw everything now through the scope as if a sea fog was rolling in. But for now, it would have to do. Unless it was the exact same Zeiss optic, affixing a scope to a K98 required the work of a machinist, so it was not a quick battlefield adjustment. Hohenfeldt, his unit’s miserly armorer, wasn’t about to issue him another telescopic sight, no matter how many Ami soldiers he bagged. For whatever reason, fat old Hohenfeldt had taken a dislike to Rohde.

Acrimonious thoughts would not help his shooting, so Rohde put his feud with Hohenfeldt out of mind and focused on what he could see through the slightly foggy scope.

Still, the American lookout had not spotted him. Slowly, the soldier eased over the stone wall and crept into the field.

Rohde let him, keeping watch through the scope.

Next, the American began to cross the field, running in a crouch, his rifle held to one side. Rohde guessed that the weapon was an M1 and he frowned. Like Rohde, most German soldiers were equipped with the bolt action Mauser K98. This was an incredibly accurate and reliable weapon, based on decades of use and refinement since the days of the Kaiser. In fact, the Americans had long ago stolen the bolt action design for use in their own Springfield rifles. Back before the Great War, the Mauser brothers had taken the federal Springfield Armory to court and won a judgment against the armory. It became one of history’s ironies that even as the war raged, the United States continued to honor its legal obligations by paying royalties to the Mauser firm.

But in many ways, the Mauser was a weapon from an earlier era, better suited to colonial occupations and the trench fighting of the First World War than to modern warfare.

The rifle had one major shortcoming, which was its reliable and much-copied bolt action design. Each time a soldier fired a shot, he had to manipulate the bolt, which ejected the spent shell. The spring in the magazine then fed a fresh shell into the chamber. Then the bolt was pushed forward, and with a swift downward motion, locked into place. Now the rifle could be fired again. In practice, it took just a second or two to complete this action in the hands of a competent soldier. Unfortunately, working the bolt action often meant that the shooter had to acquire the target all over again.

Given the opportunity for multiple targets, Rohde found this to be a huge disadvantage.

His rifle also had its own quirk in that the bolt tended to stick, forcing him to lock it down using a quick whack with the heel of his palm. Again, the motion cost precious time.

The M1 carried by the American was a semiautomatic. This meant that the weapon fired every time that the trigger was pulled. The rifle ejected the spent shell, loaded a new round from the clip of eight bullets, and cocked itself in a fraction of a second. The gas operation of the action slightly reduced the recoil. All the while, the shooter could keep his eye on the target. In terms of elapsed time, the advantage of the M1 over the K98 would seem to be an infinitesimal one, but in combat conditions the improved rate of fire was a huge asset.

Rohde wanted one of those semiautomatics. He wished for something new and modern. Not an M1, but the German version known as the Gewehr 43. There were even a few sniper versions outfitted with telescopic sights. They were few and far between in Normandy, but Rohde knew for a fact that that fat sausage of an armorer Hohenfeldt had one such rifle sitting unused, if one could believe it.

Again, Rohde forced himself to focus on the task at hand. Through the scope, he followed the progress of the American across the field.

Now that the soldier was halfway across, the American appeared to relax. He stood straighter. Before, he’d been hunched over. His gait seemed easier. He seemed to be thinking that if he’d made it this far, then nobody was going to shoot at him.

The sun was shining; it was too nice of a summer day to die.

The soldier kept going, and again, Rohde let him.

The sun beat down and turned the exterior of Rohde’s helmet as warm as a teapot. Rivulets of sweat ran down his handsome face. Some of that sweat dripped past his eyebrow and into his eyes, the salt stinging. He blinked to clear his vision.

Attracted by the moisture, an ant crawled up Rohde’s neck. Its tiny mandibles sank into the sweetness of human flesh, sampling the possibilities it offered. Rohde ignored the stinging. A red welt blossomed on his neck.

Other insects buzzed in the tall grass around him. A bird landed in a nearby bush, oblivious to the motionless human just feet away. Farther off was the chatter of a machine gun, a reminder that instant death lurked on this summer day.

Two hundred feet away, the American was now halfway across the field. Obliviously running at an oblique angle closer to the sniper.

This was as close as Rohde ever been to an American, not counting dead ones.

He heard a sound behind him. Someone heavy crawling through the brush. Trying to be stealthy about it, but making as much noise as an entire squad. He didn’t take his eye off the scope because he knew who it was. If it had been an American coming up behind him, Rohde would already be dead.

“What are you waiting for? Shoot him, Rohde.”

The disembodied voice belonged to Hauptmann Fischer.

Fischer had displayed a fascination on more than one occasion with snipers, or Jäger as they were sometimes known in the Wehrmacht. The German word meant hunter. Rohde half expected the impatient captain to take the rifle himself. It was Fischer, after all, who had seen Rohde’s talent and put the sniper rifle in his hands. Rohde had become his special prodigy, his secret weapon.

Up close, Fischer had a masculine smell of Sandalwood-scented aftershave mixed with tobacco and fresh sweat. Even now, he managed to be cleanly shaven, his uniform neat except for a few burrs that now clung to it thanks to his crawl toward Rohde’s position.

His neat appearance could have seemed prissy or affected in another officer, but Fischer had made it clear to the men in his command that appearance was synonymous with competence.

Rohde liked Fischer, even if he was wary of his increasingly frequent fits of temper. He was a capable officer from a Prussian military family, but like the Mauser rifle, he belonged to an earlier age. The Hauptmann would have been happier walking shoulder to shoulder in organized ranks toward the orderly files of Napoleon’s army, for example. Volleys of musket fire could then be exchanged at close quarters, with the engagement settled by a bayonet charge. The officers might seek each other out and fight with swords, like gentlemen.

While the Hauptmann might have preferred a more organized form of battle, he remained a realist. Fischer seemed to find this business of crawling about on one’s belly to be distasteful, even undignified, but that was modern warfare for you. He did not find it at all odd when German generals swallowed sodium cyanide—or the muzzles of their own pistols—when they had failed in their duty. It never occurred to a disgraced American or English general to shoot himself; most of them went home and ran for political office. Fischer took this as another indicator of German military superiority.

Fischer was a good soldier, but the long war was wearing him down. Still in his twenties, he was only somewhat older and more worldly than most of the troops he commanded. Lately, the replacement troops tended to be younger and younger to the point that he felt more like their father rather than an older brother. He had been a lieutenant for much of the war, but promotion was coming more quickly these days. At the rate the Wehrmacht was losing its officer corps in battle, he liked to joke that he might be a general by the end of the year.

He was a little too smart for his own good and in the heat of the moment he sometimes made deprecating comments about the German war effort that would have been dangerous if overheard by the wrong people.

Lately, he had developed a very bad temper. He had punched or slapped more than one soldier, and his men were sure that it was only a matter of time before he shot someone as a disciplinary measure. Such things were allowed in the Wehrmacht. In Fischer’s case, his anger was a symptom of combat fatigue. But like his men, he had no choice but to go on until the bitter end.

While Fischer was Rohde’s champion in granting him sniper status, he had also made it clear that he was still passing judgment on Rohde as a soldier. This guarded view was based entirely on the rumors surrounding Rohde’s older brother. Those rumors had left Rohde tainted goods in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, but the captain had given him a chance to be his own man. Fischer was pragmatic in that any good officer knew that his most important task was to make himself look good. Rohde helped him do just that.

“Why don’t you shoot, for God’s sake!” the captain muttered again. “He’s going to make it across the field.”

Rohde had come to realize that a good sniper was disconnected from time in a way that made others impatient.

There was no hurrying a good shot, but he couldn’t keep the Hauptmann waiting forever.

Rohde whistled. The noise was just loud enough for the GI to hear. It was a noise that was out of place in a field where the primary sound was the buzzing of insects.

Startled, the American pulled up short and listened. In doing so, he unwittingly presented the perfect target. He must have thought that he was hearing one of his own men signaling him. He looked in Rohde’s general direction, but could not see the concealed sniper.

Rohde fired.

 

END OF EXCERPT

Copyright © 2018 by David Healey

Intracoastal ebook and print edition to be published April 2018.