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DER MEISTERSCHÜTZE

When he hit them, they slid into the rubble, stained but not shattered. A 6.5-millimetre killed with velocity, not impact; it drilled them and, failing deflection at bone or spine, flew on. Repp was even convinced they felt no pain from the way they relaxed. He didn’t even have to move the rifle very much, he could just leave it where it was, they were swarming so thickly. He’d fired five magazines now, twenty-five rounds. He’d killed twenty-five men. Some looked stupefied when he took them; others angry; still others oblivious. Repp shot for the chest. He took no chances. Nothing fancy.

They had spotted him of course. Their bullets thunked and cracked around him, chipping at the bricks, filling the air with fine dust or snow, but he felt magical. He kept dropping them. The white bodies were piling up….

Books by Stephen Hunter

FICTION

Pale Horse Coming

Hot Springs

Time to Hunt

Black Light

Dirty White Boys

Point of Impact

The Day Before Midnight

Tapestry of Spies

The Second Saladin

The Master Sniper

NONFICTION

Violent Screen: A Critic’s 13 Years on the Front Lines of Movie Mayhem

For Jake Hunter and Tolka Zhitomir

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A good many friends and colleagues assisted the author in the preparation of this manuscript, though they are in no way responsible for its excesses. But they should be thanked nevertheless. They are James H. Bready, Curtis Carroll Davis, Gerri Kobren, Henry J. Knoch, Frederic N. Rasmussen, Michael Hill, Binnie Syril Braunstein, Bill Auerbach, Joseph Fanzone, Jr., Richard C. Hageman, Lenne P. Miller, Bruce Bortz, Carleton Jones and Dr. John D. Bullock. Two special friends deserve their own sentence: Brian Hayes and Wayne J. Henkel. Lastly, the author would like to pay tribute to two extraordinary people: his wife, Lucy, and his editor, Maria Guarnaschelli, of William Morrow, without whom all this would not have happened.

Marksmen are not limited to the location of their unit and are free to move anywhere they can see a valuable target….

—Instructions for use of S.m.K. cartridges and rifles with telescopic sights, 1915

Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue

he hits you with leaden bullets his aim is true

—PAUL CELAN, “A Death Fugue”

PART ONE

Schützenhaus

(Shooting Gallery)

January-April 1945

1

The guards in the new camp were kinder.

No, Shmuel thought, not kinder. Be precise. Even after many years of rough treatment he took pride in the exactness of his insights. The guards were not kinder, they were merely indifferent. Unlike the pigs in the East, these fellows were blank and efficient. They wore their uniforms with more pride and stood straighter and were cleaner. Scum, but proud scum; a higher form of scum.

In the East, the guards had been grotesque. It was a death factory, lurid, unbelievable, even now eroding into fantastic nightmare. It manufactured extermination, the sky above it blazed orange in the night for the burning of corpses in the thousands. You breathed your brothers. And if not selected out in the first minutes, you were kept caked in your own filth. You were Untermensch, subhuman. He had survived in that place for over a year and a half and if a large part of his survival was luck, a large part also was not.

Shmuel came by the skills of survival naturally, without prior training. He had not lived a hardy physical life in the time he thought of as Before. He had in fact been a literary type, full of words and ideas, a poet, and believed someday he would write a novel. He had written bold commentaries for Nasz Przeglad, Warsaw’s most influential Yiddish newspaper. He’d been the friend of some real dazzlers too, Mendl Elkin, Peretz Hirschbein, the radical Zionist poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, Melekn Ravitch, to name but a few. They were great fellows, talkers, laughers, great lovers of women, and they were probably all dead now.

Shmuel had not thought of literature since 1939. He rarely thought at all of Before, knowing it the first sign of surrender. There was only now, today. Perhaps tomorrow as well, but one could never be too sure. But he persisted in his literary habits in just one way: he insisted on looking into the center of things. And he’d been puzzling over this strange new place for days now, ever since he’d arrived.

They’d been trucked in; that in itself was an astonishment, for the German way was to herd Jews through forests and if some—or many—died along the way, well, that was too bad. But a truck had bounced them in cold darkness for hours, and Shmuel and the others had sat, huddled and patient, until it halted and the canvas blanketing its back was ripped off.

“Out, Jews, out! Fast, fast, boys!”

They spilled into snowy glare. Shmuel, blinking in the whiteness of it, saw immediately he was at no Konzentrationslager. He knew no German word for what he saw: a desolate forest setting, walls of pine and fir, sheathed in snow, looming beyond the wire; and within the compound just three or four low wooden buildings around a larger one of concrete. There were no dogs or watchtowers either, just laconic SS boys dressed in some kind of forester’s outfit, dappled in the patterns and shadows of deep trees, with automatic guns.

More curiosities became evident shortly and if the other prisoners cared merely for the ample bread, the soup, the occasional piece of sausage that it had become their incredible good fortune to enjoy, Shmuel at least would keep track.

In fact he and his comrades, he quickly came to realize, were still another oddity of the place. Why had the Germans bothered to gather such a shabby crew of victims? What do we have in common, Shmuel often wondered, we Jews and Russians and Slavic types? There were twenty-five others and in looking at them he saw only the outer aspects of himself in reflection: small, wiry men, youngsters many of them, with that furtive look that living on the edge of extinction seems to confer. Though now it was a fact they lived as well as any German soldier. Besides the food, the barrack was warm. Other small privileges were granted: they were allowed to wash, to use latrines. They were given the field gray flannels of old Wehrmacht uniforms to wear and even issued the great woolen field coats from the Russian front. Here Shmuel experienced his first setback. He had the bad fortune to receive one that had been hacked with a bayonet. Its lining was ripped out. Until he solved this problem, he’d be cold.

     

 

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