It was a balmy November day in Stalingrad, 14 below, twelve feet of snow, near-blizzard conditions. Another twelve feet were expected soon and tomorrow would be colder. At the intersection of Tauvinskaya and Smarkandskaya streets, near the petrol tanks, not far from the Barrikady Factory, the boulevards were empty of pedestrian or vehicular traffic, though arms, legs, feet shod and unshod, hands gloved and ungloved, even a head or two stuck out of the caked white banks that lined them. A dead dog could be seen there, a dead old lady here. The sky was low and gray, threatening; columns of smoke rose from various energetic encounters in the northern suburb of Spartaskovna a few miles away. A ruined Sd. Kfz 251, painted frosty white for camouflage, lay on its side, its visible track sheared, a splatter of steel wheels all over the street. Its crew had either escaped or been long since devoured by feral dogs and rats. Farther down rusted away a T-34 without a turret, a relic of warmer months, as was presumably its crew. On either side of either street for blocks on end, the buildings had been reduced to devastation and resembled a maze, a secret puzzle of shattered brick, twisted steel, blackened wall, ruptured vehicle. In this labyrinth, small groups of men hunted each other and now and then would spring an ambush and a spasm of rifle or machine-gun fire would erupt, perhaps the blast of a Russian or German grenade. Occasionally a plane would roar overhead, a Sturmovik or a Stuka, like a predator bird looking for something to kill and eat.
But for now, the intersection was quiet, though a riot of snow-flakes floated downward, swirling in the wind, covering bloodstains, human entrails, fecal deposits, muffling the screams of men who’d lost legs or testicles, the whole panopoly of total, bitter war fought at very close quarters in frozen conditions, under a gossamer surface of silky frost.
One man, however, was quite warm and comfortable. He was prone-positioned in what had been Apartment 32, 27 Smarkandskaya Street, a model Soviet worker’s building, which now had no roof and few walls. He lay belly-down on three blankets, under three blankets. His face was smeared with zinc ointment as a protection against frostbite, his hands were twice gloved, a white hood engulfed most of his head, and a scarf sheathed his mouth and nose, so that only the eyes, dark behind snow goggles, were visible. Best of all, every half an hour, a private would slither up the stairs and slip a hot water bottle under the blankets, its contents freshly charged from a boiling pot two flights below.
The prone man was named Gunther Ramke and he was a feldwebel, a sergeant, in the 3rd Battalion of the Second Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division in XI Corps in the Sixth Army under Paulus, facing the 13th Guards Rifle Division of the Soviet 62nd Army under Zhukov as the heavy fighting of Operation Uranus echoed in the distance. Zhukov was trying desperately to encircle Paulus as a preliminary to destroying him and his three hundred thousand colleagues. None of that mattered to Feldwebel Ramke, who had no imagination for any kind of pictures save the one he saw through his Hensoldt Dialytan four-power telescopic sight, set in a claw mount on his Mauser K98k.
He was a sniper, he was hunting a sniper. That was all.
The Russian had moved in a few weeks ago, a very talented stalker and shooter, and already had eliminated seven men, two of them SS officers. It was thought that the fellow had worked the Barrikady Factory zone before that, and possibly Memomova Hill. He liked to kill SS. It wasn’t that Ramke had any particular investment in the SS, which struck him as ridiculous (he was farm-raised and thought the black costumes were something for the stage or cinema; additionally, he knew nothing of politics except that the Fatherland had been starved into submission in ’18, then gotten screwed in the Treaty of Versailles), but he was a good soldier, an excellent shot (twenty-nine kills), and he had an assignment and meant to bring it off. It would keep his captain happy, and life was better for everyone in the company, as in all armies that have ever existed anywhere in the world at any time, if the captain was happy.
He knew this game was of a dimension he had not yet encountered. Normally you stalk, you slither, you pop up or dip down, and sooner or later a fellow with a Mosin-Nagant or a Red tommy gun comes your way, you settle into position, hold your breath, steady the weapon on bones not muscles, watch the crosshair ooze toward center body, and squeeze. The fellow staggers and falls; or he steps back and falls; or he simply falls; but it always ends in the fall. Plop, to the ground, raising dust or snow, followed by the eternal stillness known only to the dead.
But the character on the other side of the street was too good. So the new rules were, you never moved. You emulated the recently deceased. You never looked up or about. Your field of vision was your battlefield, and it covered about thirty feet at 250 meters. You stayed disciplined. The rifle was loaded and cocked so there was no ritual of bolt throw, with its bobbing head and flying elbows, either of which could get you killed. The name of this game was patience. The opponent would come to you. It was a question of waiting. Thus, Gunther was perfectly constituted for the job, being barely literate and lacking any ability to project himself in time or space. He was the ideal sniper: what was, was; he had no need for speculation, delusion, curiosity, or fantasy.
He was set up to cover the fifth and sixth floors of a much-battered apartment building across the street and the traffic circle that marked the intersection, with the knees of a statue of someone once important to the Russians still standing on a pedestal. If the enemy sniper was in that tightly circumscribed universe, Gunther would make the kill. If he was a floor lower or higher, or a window to the left or right, they’d never encounter each other. Tricky business. Wait, wait, wait.
And finally the ordeal seemed to be paying off. He was convinced that within the darkness of the rear of the apartment whose interior was defined by his sight picture lay a patch more intense and more shaped than had been there in previous hours. He convinced himself he saw movement. He just wasn’t quite sure, and if he fired and hit nothing, he would give this position up, and he’d have to start anew tomorrow.
He didn’t want to stare too hard through the glass. Eyestrain and fatigue led to hallucinatory visions, and if he let himself, he’d see Joe Stalin sitting in there, eating a plate of sardines and wiping his filthy peasant hands on his tunic. Realizing this as a trap, he closed his eyes every few seconds for some rest, so that he cut down on the pressure. But each time he opened them, he was certain there was a new shape in the shadow. It could have been a samovar on the floor, or the frame of a chair that lost a fight with a mortar round, or even the body of the occupant, but it also could have been a man in prone, hunched similarly over a weapon, eye pressed similarly to the scope. It didn’t help that discriminations were made more difficult by reason of an occasional sunbeam that would break through the clouds and throw a shaft of illumination into the room just above the suspected enemy. When this happened, it broke Gunther’s concentration and ruined his vision, and he had to blink and look away and wait until the condition passed.
But Gunther felt safe. The Ivan snipers used a 3.5-power optic called a PU, which meant that even if his enemy were on him, the details would be so blurry that no sight picture could be made, not at 250 meters, which was about as far as the Mosin-Nagant with that scope was good for. So he felt invisible, even a little godlike. His higher degree of magnification gave him enough advantage.
He would wait a little while longer. That low sun would disappear and full dark would come. Both opponents, if there was another opponent, would wait until that happened and then gradually disengage and come back to fight tomorrow. But Gunther had decided to shoot. He’d been on this stand a week, and he convinced himself that he was seeing something new, having moved in at about three in the afternoon, and it could only be—
He closed his eyes. He counted to sixty.
“Not much time left, Gunther,” came the call from his Landser, leaning out of the stairwell behind him. “Need more hot water?”
“Shhh!” said Gunther.
“You’re going to shoot! Maybe we can get out of here early!”
Then the soldier disappeared, knowing further distraction was to nobody’s advantage. Gunther, meanwhile, prepared to fire. He carefully assembled his position behind the rifle, working methodically from toes to head, locking joints, finding angles for his limbs, making nuanced adjustments, building bone trusses under the seven-pound 7.92mm rifle resting on a sandbag, pushing the safety off, sliding his trigger finger out of the sheathing of the two gloves via a slot he’d cut in each. He felt the trigger’s coldness, felt his fingertip engage it, felt it move back, stacking slightly as it went, until it finally reached the precise edge between firing and not firing. At this point he committed fully by opening his eyes to acquire the picture through the glass of the Hensoldt Dialytan, four times larger than life, and settled the intersection of the crosswires on its center. He exhaled half his breath, put his weight against the trigger, feeling it just about to break, and then saw the flash.
The round hit him on a slightly downward angle at the midpoint of his right shoulder, breaking a whole network of bones, though missing any major arteries or blood-bearing organs. It was not fatal. In fact, it saved his life; his shoulder was so ruinously damaged that he was evacuated from Stalingrad that night, one of the last to escape the Cauldron, as it came to be called, full of Paulus’s unhappy men. Gunther lived to be eighty-nine years old, dying prosperous and well attended by grandchildren on his farm in Bavaria.
However, at the point of impact it felt like someone had unloaded a full-swing ten-kilo sledgeweight against him, lifting him, twisting him, depositing him. He was aware that he had fired in reaction to the trauma but knew full well that the shot, jerked and spastic, had no chance of reaching the target.
Dazzled by the shock, he recovered quickly and tried to cock the rifle but found of course that the arm attached to the now-destroyed shoulder no longer worked. Still, on instinct, his face returned to the stock, his eye returned to the scope, and it so happened that his opponent, having delivered the shot, had risen to depart just as one of those errant sunbeams pierced the interior of the room. As the figure rose and turned, the hood fell away and Gunther saw a cascade of yellow hair, bright as gold, reflect in the sunlight. Then the sniper was gone.
Men raced to him, tourniquets were supplied and applied, a stretcher was brought, but Gunther said to anybody who would listen, “Die weisse Hexe!”
The White Witch!
Revue de presse
“Hunter knows his hero like a brother: righteous character firmly set, crafty intelligence thoroughly hidden, stone-cold willing to take the shot if a bad actor must die. . . . Swagger displays mighty tradecraft [and] Hunter loads up a whole magazine of action, double-dealing and gun porn.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“A remarkably textured novel. . . . Hunter does a wonderful job of jumping between and connecting his multiple story lines, and he peoples the stage with at least a dozen memorable characters, from Mili and her cohorts through the Nazis that hunt them, and, of course, to Swagger himself, an ever-more-complex character as he ages. Perhaps most memorable of all, though, is Hunter’s vivid re-creation of the carnage on the Eastern Front, where, as Mili notes, the Russians’ only advantage over the Germans was numbers: ‘If they kill us five to one, we bring six to one . . . we shall prevail because, all things being equal, we can outbleed them.’” (Booklist)
“Given the return of the Russians to bad-guy status, this book couldn’t be more timely. But any Swagger tale is a treat, especially one as layered and nuanced as this one. Hunter remains the absolute master of the action thriller and this is a terrific tale from a wondrous storyteller.” (Providence Sunday Journal)
“My favorite thriller author […] fun to read.” (The Herald-Dispatch)