By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are given a more than usually dangerous undercover task in a distant corner of Germany.
Disclaimer:— This story is ©2018 to the author.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"You want us to what?"
"What?" ATA officer and SOE member Gabrielle Parker sat on the hard-backed office chair, goggling at her commanding officer, Group-Captain Graham. "You must be joking,—sir."
"That's nonsense,—sir." Claire Mathews, Gabrielle's partner and secret lover, mirrored her companion's disbelief. "Whatever else he is, he's still the leader of a foreign state; and Britain doesn't go around assassinating Presidents, or Fuhrers, like any tinpot South American country. At least, not till we've had his worthless ass in front of a War Crimes Trial, anyway."
"We do now."
There was a pause as this sank in; neither listener, sitting in the small poky office in Somerset House on the banks of the Thames in London, felt up to assimilating the core of this statement. Finally Claire sat forward, eyeing her commander with less than an enthusiastic demeanour.
"Assassinate the Fuhrer? You mean, as in go into Germany; find the b-st-rd off-guard somewhere; and blow his brains out without any of the usual polite preliminaries? That sort'a Kill Hitler?"
"Yes, just so."
To Group-Captain Graham this problem may have simply been one of logistics—the right people with training, available at the right moment; but to the two seated women opposite him it vibrated with a highly personal alarming disquiet.
"You have the training necessary." Graham seemed perfectly relaxed, assured he had unarguable facts at his fingertips. "You have the correct fighting skills. You both, at present, are the best of our agents available. You are, simply, It."
"I may be in this sorry saga to help win the War for the good guys," Gabrielle came clean with her reservations. "but I don't figure myself, nor Claire here, for cold-blooded assassins. I'm not gon'na walk up to anyone, even the bloody Fuhrer, and stick a gun in his gut and pull the trigger. I mean to say—"
"What? What do you mean to say, Flying-Officer Parker?"
"She's not a stone-cold killer, sir." Claire came to the rescue of her revered companion. "Like me. I ain't gon'na become a murderer, not this late in the dam' war. We both may be soldiers; but we ain't Chicago hoods, knocking-off the opposition in back-alleys. That—that ain't British."
Another pause setttled on the stuffy warm air in the office—one window was partially open, but did nothing to help on this unusually warm March morning in 1944. At last Group-Captain Graham, who had appeared to have sunk into an unregarding coma, came back to life with a spring.
"You both may have noticed, lately—in fact, I believe it must have been impressed on your daily lives inexorably,—that the war is getting to that point where, ahem, long-held ideas of morality and, er, gentlemanly conduct, for want of a better term, have just about run their course." Graham leaned both arms on his desk; looking for all the world like a headmaster chastising two of his better pupils. "Nasty things are happening all round us; with nastier on their way, I'm sure. Recently I've had a briefing from someone pretty far up the chain of command; the end result being carte blanche, and full backing—in a wholly secret, disavowable manner, of course,—for what has been officially designated Operation Anathema. All we need now is agents who are capable of carrying out the mission successfully—I have chosen you two."
"I don't like it." Gabrielle shook her head firmly, glancing across at her partner. "A murder's still a murder; even if the victim is Hitler. Killing enemies in self-defence, during a dogfight, or by dropping bombs; all within the Geneva Convention—straight-up murder ain't, however you gild it, sir."
The Group-Captain sat back in his chair, regarding the women before him with narrowed eyes. After a few moments he fell to tapping the fingers of his right hand on the desk, deep in thought. Then he came to a decision; standing up, beckoning the ATA/SOE women to do the same.
"You've both seen a lot of action in this war; more than most, indeed." He ushered them to the office door, leading into the corridor on the third floor of Somerset House where this sub-unit of SOE had its highly secret HQ. "But you haven't seen everything; not by a long way. If you'll both accompany me along to the projection room—it's small, but adequate—there're some films I'd like to show you. Do you know anything about German concentration camps?"
"Stalags, you mean, sir," Claire gazed at her commander as they made their way down the narrow sickly-green painted corridor. "Where Allied troops and officers are held. Hear they're not exactly the Ritz or Claridges."
"No, Concentration camps."
"I think I read an article in a paper a year or so ago." Gabrielle scratched her chin, trying to remember the details. "Where German citizens who've crossed the Fuhrer end up, ain't it? Sort'a civilian Stalags?"
"Oh no," Graham shook his head, glancing at the women as he did so. "Something altogether different; altogether more—sinister. But here we are; if you'll both take a seat on these benches I'll get on the blower and have Sergeant Brown power-up the projector. These films are all very short—taken surreptitiously by Resistance members over the last three years; but as a whole they give a pretty good idea of what's going on over in Germany at the moment. There's a bit at the end where our own boffins and experts put in their professional opinions on the subject. Here, just let me put the lights out and we can watch; the whole thing only takes around twenty minutes. Right, Sergeant Brown, roll-'em."
"It can't really be happening, can it?" Gabrielle was the most shocked of the trio, as they made their way back to Group-Captain Graham's office. "It's-it's just impossible to imagine. You'd have t'be completely barking, foaming at the mouth, mad to do such things."
Graham merely looked at the blonde ATA officer with one eyebrow raised.
"Here we are, then." Graham busied himself taking a series of cardboard folders from a metal despatch box on his desk as the women seated themselves once more. "After those, er, revelatory films, I have some more down to earth files and reports for you to read. Taken from various secret, but wholly reliable, sources,—you'll know what I mean. Read them here, if you will, there're accompanying photos, too; I'm just popping along to see someone about—something. Back in half an hour."
With this he rose, made his way to the door, and left the women in sole command of the small stuffy office.
"Files and reports."
"Yeah, just what we need, after those horror films." Claire bent over the bundle of folders and passed two to her lover. "Well, better get started—I've got a date with the gutter outside, in an hour or so, if not sooner, where I wan'na throw up big-time."
"I'm with you, babe. God, I hate t'think what's in these dam' reports."
"Seems t'me He hasn't anything at all t'do with the matter, sadly."
"But, I mean t'say," Gabrielle put a hand on Claire's wrist to stop her as they made their way along Whitehall, an hour later. "those are the most revolting things I've ever seen, or heard about. And, according to those reports, it's all true—happening as we speak; I still just can't believe it. Are we dreaming some kind of nightmare, or what?"
"Wish we were; but it looks like it's all too real, I'm afraid." Claire patted Gabrielle's arm as they continued on along the crowded pavement. "Those films an' the reports, not t'mention the dam' photos, are just too clear and precise about it all. It's really an' truly goin' on at this very minute."
They headed on along the road, in the clear sunshine of mid-morning, towards the spot where they had parked their Tilly van. They had, on finishing reading, handed the report files back to Group-Captain Graham, at the same time giving him their acceptance of the projected Operation. If, as Claire had said, one needed cold solid facts to base a judgement on, they'd certainly been faced with enough to change the opinion of the meekest of anti-war campaigners.
"We're in, sir." Gabrielle had wasted no time giving the Group-Captain their decision.
"Both of us, sir." Claire had nodded in wholehearted agreement. "Whatever it takes; whatever we have t'do, we're in it for the long haul."
"Good, good—excellent." Graham had taken this news with a thin smile holding no pleasure whatever. "I'll send an expert along to Little Lanning in a couple of days; to get you started on the basics of what's required. You'll both have to go to a particular, er, place we have on the South Coast, for training. But that shouldn't take long; Operation Anathema should be up and running in, what, three weeks? Goodbye."
The lower eastern corner of Germany looked so much like the Lake District, though on a much larger scale admittedly, that Gabrielle and Claire both felt a cold trickle of horror running down their backs on first sighting the immediate area around Berchtesgaden.
Back in Britain they had studied aerial photographs of the region around the Berghof, the Fuhrer's HQ; finding to their astonishment the building didn't hang off the vertical side of a mountain as they had thought, but instead sat on a gentle slope within a wholly suburban environment, surrounded by other buildings in close proximity. The famous terrace, for instance, where the Fuhrer seemed to spend most of his day when there, actually sat on the roof of the house's large garage, with a drop to the ground on one side of about ten feet followed by a gentle grassy slope. Not at all the vertiginous abyss that many photos seemed to suggest.
They had been informed about the special, tight, security surrounding the whole area, operated by a group of crack troops specially trained for the purpose. The terrain around the Berghof was, in some ways, perfectly suited for undercover operations; and in others wholly unsuitable, having vast wide meadows and pastures with no cover for hundreds of yards. Claire had put the matter succinctly—
"We've either got to be right up close, right by his side. Or far far away, using telescopic sights and hoping for a great deal of luck."
"Trouble is," Gabrielle had pin-pointed the difficulties with clear sagacity. "if far away we won't really know what the outcome is, till much later. Lot's of room to fail, there. Though, on the other hand, if we're in close proximity, how the Hell do we escape?"
"I'm beginning t'think Graham regarded this as a suicide mission from the start." Claire growled low in her throat. "It'd be just like him."
"Well, I ain't looking to face a Jerry firing squad anytime soon." Gabrielle had other ideas. "Get in, do the job successfully, get out safely. The emphasis, my emphasis, being wholly focussed on the last of those points."
At the moment they were ensconced in a wide thickly growing stand of trees a little way down the mountain from the Fuhrer's HQ. They had, with some difficulty and a great deal of luck, penetrated the outer ring of SS security surrounding the area; but were still outside the inner ring; the Berghof not being visible from their temporary position.
"What about we don't try'n get inside the security any further," Gabrielle had been musing on this measure for some time, on this cold chilly morning. "but instead ambush his car on its way up the road? We could wriggle through the undergrowth at several places, I'm sure, and get close enough for a good shot at his Mercedes."
"What I say." Claire sneered somewhat contemptuously. "Take a bloody anti-tank weapon t'penetrate his car. That's out."
"But thanks for your input, all the same." Claire turned a grinning face to her loved companion. "Shows you're on the ball, at least, gal."
"Oh, very funny." Gabrielle shuffled in her prone position in order to deliver a soft punch to the ribs of the critic lying by her side. Then she returned her attention to the stretch of approach road to the Berghof presently within eyesight of their cover. "Hey, what's this? Visitors? Wonder who it is?"
Remaining cautious, they gently parted a mass of weeds and grasses right in front of them and peered across a wide pasture to where the narrow road passed on its way upwards to the Berghof. A single Mercedes purred along, going at a steady pace allowing the women, with their small binoculars, to have a sweeping view of the car and passengers, it being open-topped.
"Who's that, in the back seat?" Gabrielle screwed her eyes up behind the binocular lens. "Can't quite see—"
"Bormann, it's Martin Bormann."
"Huh, that slimy rat." Gabrielle was unimpressed. "Come t'soft-soap Hitler again, like he usually does."
The vehicle passed beyond their range of vision, and they lowered their binoculars to shuffle into more comfortable positions once more. At which point Gabrielle brought up a significant point of interest, at least to her.
"That car was open-topped, an' it was transporting bloody Bormann." She turned to fix her companion with a bloodthirsty stare. "An', come to think of it, the g-dd-m Fuhrer runs about all over the place in another open-topped car himself. Your idea of bullet-proof vehicles doesn't hold water, baby. He's as likely to appear in the one as the other."
"No well's about it; my plan stands—we can take a potshot at the b-st-rd en-route to somewhere, whenever he passes close enough, anytime we like."
"And escape, d'ya think?"
"Of course, escape." Gabrielle wasn't having any of this sloppy thinking on her watch. "We pick the right place, hit him when he passes; then scoot off into the undergrowth; where even these SS dolts'll never find us."
"Then heigh-ho for Home an' a well-deserved bacon butty, I suppose?"
"Works for me."
"Jeez, OK. I must be mad. No, which one of us is madder? Only askin'?"
"Hiirph." Gabrielle got down to the important nitty-gritty as they crawled away from their viewpoint of the road, into the undergrowth. "Which one of us is the better shot with a rifle an' a telescopic sight, is what y'should be askin', doll."
"That'll be me."
"No it ain't; it's me, by a whole mile."
"Oh God, another argument." Claire sighed as they scrambled to their feet, though keeping to a low crouch, as they passed into the shade of a small stand of birch trees. "I suppose you've already picked out a good sniper position, as it is?"
"Hitler's bodyguard are a specially trained section of the SS." Their instructor, Captain George Oldfield, was at pains to make this plain and clear to his two pupils when they had arrived at his secret camp. "Rather complicated logistically, though, I'm afraid; several differing Units and Nazi Departments, with overlapping responsibilities, depending on where the Fuhrer is at any one time. I shouldn't really try t'distinguish overmuch between the various squads, if I were you. They do nothing else but guard the Fuhrer wherever he goes, especially when in residence at the Berghof."
The un-named camp, situated somewhere on the South Coast of Kent, was referred to in official documents simply as L32. Its purpose was to train agents going into enemy territory, and as such ranked extremely high on the top secret, does not exist, never heard of it, official military records. Operating from a canvas military marquee of capacious proportions set in the closely guarded grounds of a requisitioned country house, the two women had been taken through a remarkable series of training sessions. Long range sniper rifles; how to kill someone quickly at close range; how to handle various nasty explosive devices and material; and, probably most significant, fieldcraft; the art of staying alive in hostile territory. The whole thing had taken just over two weeks and Claire and Gabrielle had been passed with flying colours by Captain Oldfield, on completing the course.
"Remember," was one of his parting advisory remarks. "hesitation is the worst enemy you'll have. When you come to the point; when the mark is in your sights, don't hesitate—act, and quickly. You certainly won't be given a second chance."
Their transport had been an Avro Anson, part of the SOE, piloted by an anonymous male pilot who barely spoke on the whole of their outward night journey. It had been decided they would parachute into Germany some miles away from the Berchtesgaden area and then proceed surreptitiously to the Berghof on foot. On Gabrielle bringing the point up, their escape plan had been found to consist of their making their way to a pre-arranged position, again some miles from the Berghof, where a Lysander would, for ten minutes only, be awaiting them on a particular evening. Non-appearance would result in their having to make their own arrangements thereafter.
There being, of course, no available resistance groups on the ground to ease their way, the women by necessity had to carry all their equipment in two knapsacks. Rather surprisingly they had made good progress; the defence forces in the area apparently remaining unaware of the cuckoo in their nest. Within two days Claire and Gabrielle had arrived in the vicinity of Berchtesgaden and the fabled Berghof, though it had taken another two days before they had been able to penetrate the inner security zone to catch a glimpse of the large villa itself—occupant, sadly, not in residence at the time.
At this juncture they had set up a concealed base-camp some 1½ kilometres away from the centre of their attention, much lower down the mountain-side. From here they made stealthy daily excursions to various areas of interest; mostly centred round the winding approach road leading up from the valley to the Berghof. Gabrielle had come up with an idea which had caught the interest of her companion and lover—to wit, they ought to blow up certain sections of the road, thereby blocking the SS from using wheeled vehicles in their search for the perpetrators of the crime the women hoped, in due time, to commit. It wouldn't, as Claire had agreed, stop a large search and destroy operation by the SS, but it would hamper them to some extent. So several days had been spent in placing charges at three chosen points along the road's meandering route.
They would have to be fired by timers; their plans to assassinate the Fuhrer needing to go like clockwork to a tight schedule if success was to be achieved; but, as Gabrielle said, it being their only sure chance of success, it had just bloody better work, and no doubts about it. This closing in on the point of action had brought another detail to the fore—
"What about those suicide pills we were given in our equipment; in case the Boche caught us red-handed?"
"First thing I threw away, in a local stream backaways." Claire sniffed censoriously. "Dammed if I commit suicide, whatever happens."
"Hope it didn't affect the fish."
"The fish?" Claire turned to give her partner a close inspection. "Here we are, about t'get ourselves definitively killed in a blindingly imbecilic operation that has about one point five percent chance of success, on a good day; an' you're worrying about some trout in a stream?"
"Well don't, lover." Claire sniffed disdainfully. "We got bigger, ha, fish than mere fish in our sights, lady—an' don't forget it."
"The trouble is, we don't have a copy of the b-st-rd's itinerary."
Gabrielle raised this problem a few days after their first arrival. The explosive road charges had been secretly laid; intense observation of the Berghof had taken place, from a distance, of course; and they had sat and watched various big-wigs come and go from the villa. Some in ordinary cars; some in military vehicles; some in the flashy Mercedes-Benz' affected by the top echelon of the German military and SS. A few individuals had been recognised, but most remained anonymous members of the Nazi party. At no time had they pinpointed the Fuhrer himself in residence—which was not to say, as Claire pertinently remarked, he wasn't there, or had come and gone in their many absences; for there were several hours during the day, and most of the nights, when the women just weren't in a position to overlook the various arrivals and departures.
As a result a slight change in their plans had been ironed out between them. Instead of setting timers on the charges to destroy the road at several places, it had been decided they would accomplish the prime directive of their mission, then fire the road explosives by hand during their escape away from the scene of their exploit. This left several matters pertaining to the whole plan a little hazy, but it was determined to take things by the seat of their pants, when everything went off, and just trust to luck thereafter.
This meant bringing their camp forward inside the inner SS security patrols, not an action without many dangers; but, again, luck was on their side and they were finally able to set up Camp Two within a kilometre of the Berghof, in a spot where continuing privacy could fairly well be hoped for, at least for a while. Their plan being that one woman should remain lower down the wooded slope, keeping an eye on the approach road, while the other lay in the dense undergrowth on the edge of a thick copse of trees with a sniper rifle trained towards the nearby Berghof. Whoever had a chance to take a potshot at the Fuhrer first doing so; the shot and commotion alerting the other who would then retreat down to take the agreed escape route; where they would hopefully meet again on their way to blow the road on their way out.
And so, one cold bright morning in early March, everything was in place, and they lay in their separate concealments awaiting any movement or appearance on the part of the particular enemy they wished to engage with deadly intent.
As luck would have it, on the second morning of their intense observation, the Fuhrer himself rolled up around eleven a.m. Gabrielle, down by the road, had no chance to take a hurried shot because there were six cars in a convoy; three military vehicles awash with soldiers, and three closed Mercedes' saloons. Knowing this meant something more than the usual desultory visitations she crawled quietly off and proceeded to head, with care and caution, to the spot near the Berghof where her black-haired companion had the situation covered.
"It's me." Gabrielle whispered this superfluous remark as she slid through the long grass, on the edge of the rolling woodland just five hundred yards from the bare green slope topped by the angled roof of the Berghof villa, to join her paramour. "Bunch o'apes arriving—oh, they're there, eh? Who are they?"
Claire eased round, lying prone under the shade of overhanging trees, to examine her visitor with interest. "Who are they? Ya didn't see down by the road, then?"
"Nah, closed cars. I don't have x-ray vision, do I. Stop beatin' about the bush, dear; who are they?"
"Well, seein' y're so interested," Claire licked her lips in anticipation of a really snappy reply. "Three vehicles full'a SS stormtroopers; one car full o'minions; another full'a assorted Nazi bigwigs; to wit Himmler, along with someone I fancy might be Speer; an' one car full of Adolf Hitler, an' an unidentified young woman, possibly his bit of fluff."
"Clot, A. doesn't have bits o'fluff, everyone knows that. Must be a secretary, or something."
"If ya say so, dear, if ya say so."
For the second time Claire paused to consider the quality of the woman lying by her side, a soft smile twitching the corners of her mouth.
"Haven't ya done y're homework at all? Speer's Hitler's pet architect; built the Reichchancellery, an' that fancy rally-ground in Nuremberg out at the Zeppelinfeld."
"Oh, that guy." The blonde one sniffed, unimpressed. "Is he important?"
"Not so's one'd want t'waste time tryin' t'shoot him, no."
"Oh. Oh, well."
An hour later, just before noon, their big chance arrived. There was a flurry of activity on the wide flat terrace built on top of the large garage to the side of the main villa; servants bringing tables and chairs out and setting places with cutlery, plates, and what appeared to be a silver tea-service: all this clearly visible from the women's vantage-point under the shadow of thick trees at the edge of a wide grassy pasture giving an open panoramic view of the large building.
The mountain on which the Berghof was situated was, at this point, hardly more than a grassy-sided hill. The slope leading up to the house was relatively steep, but not too much so that a walker couldn't still clamber up comfortably. At the top of the slope a section of ground flattened out to form the wide terrace where the villa had been built. At the side and rear of the house, and attached to it by one corner, sat a wide garage capable of taking two or three vehicles. It's roof was flat and made up the terrace or patio where the guests sat in the sun. Various doors, here on what was the ground floor, connected with the interior of the villa; while the rear of the terrace melded smoothly into the back-garden of the house. At the back of the garage another wide stone stair, of some twenty steps, gave access to the terrace to anyone coming along past the garage side.
Then a crowd appeared on the terrace, milling around as such groups do when clearly awaiting the appearance of the main host, but as yet having to make do with small talk amongst themselves. A woman could be seen slipping about amongst the guests, apparently using a camera to photograph them.
"Looks like that gal's taking some home snapshots." Gabrielle, peering through her powerful Navy binoculars, curled a censorious lip. "Glad she feels so at home. Who is she?"
"The same woman who arrived along with the Great Slug." Claire tried not to let a note of triumph colour her tone, but failed. "His, ahum, secretary, as ya surmised. Seems t'have a pretty easy-goin' wide run o'the place, for a secretary. Fancy she's usin' a small movie-camera, by-the-by."
A minute later the group split apart as a small figure in a light-brown jacket appeared from a doorway, wearing a military cap. It didn't take any great deliberation to identify the Fuhrer in person; who now mingled with his guests as if he was holding a garden-party.
"Doesn't make much of a figure, does he?"
"Ya don't need t'be big t'be barkin' mad; comes in all sizes."
"Oh-ho, look who's just come round the corner."
"Heinrich himself, none other." Claire stared through her own binoculars steadily, taking in all the details of the scene. "Now he is your class A, certificated b-st-rd."
"And looks the part too, eh?"
"So, we gon'na take him out as well?"
"If possible, yeah; it might be possible." Claire squirmed back a few inches and turned to her companion. "You loaded fer bear, lady?"
Gabrielle had already slid the slim sniper rifle from her shoulder, holding it in an expert grip and snapping back the breach as she felt with her other hand in the capacious pocket of her camouflage jacket.
"You betch'ya. Flat-nosed, double-charge, lead dum-dum." Gabrielle, now knowing what her target was capable off, showed no visible concern as she slipped the bullet in the breach and snapped it closed. "Guaranteed t'make guacamole of his bloody brains, wholesale. Will we both mark the Fuhrer, or go for separate targets?"
Claire considered the matter for some seconds, glancing every now and then at the distant villa. Then she squiggled her shoulders as best she could in her prone position.
"You're the better shot, you take the Fuhrer; I'll mark Himmler, OK?"
But all was not to be so easily; a few seconds later Gabrielle was wriggling around in an ecstasy of impatience, growling obscenities into the grass stalks by her head.
"What the hell is that bloody woman doing?" Gabrielle lowered her rifle and dragged her binoculars forward to glare through them at her distant target. "She's waltzing around, getting them all to crowd up in a tight group, bloody idiot. Can't see the Fuhrer, but for the top of his cap. What in Hades is she doing?"
"Directin' her actors." Claire nodded to herself, knowingly. "Didn't I tell ya she's usin' a film camera. She's directin' the scene."
"F-ckin' b-tch." Gabrielle was not in a forgiving mood. "If I have a spare second, after offing the little fella, I'll bloody reload, an' send her somewhere she never thought she was ever gon'na visit, see if I don't."
On the distant terrace something pretty much like a crowd scene in a film now developed; at one point the anxious snipers could see the woman responsible standing to one side, obviously filming the set-up she had created; then there was a general dispersal and, before either Claire or Gabrielle could react the terrace was again empty except for a handful of servants wandering around doing servanty things—the nobs having retreated indoors out of sight.
"Oh, f-cking Hell."
"No use gettin' heated, there'll be another time."
"Not so perfect as this might'a been, I bet." Gabrielle slid round, growling fiercely. "Best chance we could ever have had, dammit. That bloody woman—who the hell is she, anyway?"
"God knows, some friend or girlfriend, or something." Claire puckered her lips as they moved quietly backwards into the shadow of the wood surrounding them. "Even tyrants have their, what, inamoratas?"
"Huh, wh-re, more like."
"Now, Gabs, let's not get vulgar." Claire couldn't help but smile gently as they proceeded to stumble through the undergrowth, bent low. "It's only just past midday; we'll come back in a coupl'a hours, see if things haven't improved."
When the two women returned in mid-afternoon to their observation spot almost on a level with the Berghof, on the edge of the straggling wood climbing the slope of the mountain, there was once more activity going forward on the garage-top terrace; but not of the kind suitable to anxious snipers. A couple of servants were moving quietly about, but the main focus was on the two uniformed men standing by the low wall on the edge of the terrace chatting to each other and consulting folders of some kind.
"The guy on the left, nearest the terrace wall—watch that nettle, Gabs—he's Himmler—"
"I'd already sort'a guessed, dear, not being entirely thick—"
"—and the other joker is, I think, Kaltenbrunner."
"God, didn't ya read any of those files we were given back at base?"
"Well, t'tell the truth, not exactly all, no."
"Jeez; alright, deep breaths, deep breaths." Claire sighed softly into the long grasses hiding them from view. "OK, I'm fine now. Kaltenbrunner is a particularly nasty Nazi; about one of the nastiest, below Himmler an' Goebbels."
"There's only one problem, at the moment."
"And that is?"
"Hitler ain't there."
"What d'you mean, not there." Gabrielle paused to take a close view of the terrace through her binoculars. "I can see he ain't on the terrace right now, but d'you mean he's gone away entirely, in our absence? How'd you know?"
"No, no; he just ain't on the terrace is all I'm sayin'."
"Jeez, why the hell scare a gal like that." Gabrielle snorted disapprovingly, giving her companion a dirty look. "If he's just gone in t'visit the bog, why not just say so, an' stop a gal having a heart attack. So, when's he gon'na appear for the afternoon matinee, then?"
This was too much for Claire, who slipped back in the thick undergrowth and squirmed round to favour her lover with a cold glance.
"Who d'ya think I am, Maskelyne the magician, or what?" She shook her head sadly. "I'm sure he's there; he's just not shown his face yet. Maybe takin' an afternoon nap."
"So, what do we do?" Gabrielle hunched her shoulders, unimpressed with her partner's actions. "We can't take out Himmler; not by himself, that'd just put the cat among the pigeons, t'no good purpose."
"We just got'ta wait, is all. Y'still got that bar o'chocolate? I could do with a bite right now; it might be a long wait."
"God, here; an' don't take it all, I need my sustenance too, y'know."
An hour later, when they were beginning to worry about the waning light, the Fuhrer made his second appearance on the wide terrace at the side of the Berghof. Still dressed in dark trousers and a light honey-coloured double-breasted military jacket with peaked military officer's cap, he sauntered about slowly, engaging the others there in what appeared to be desultory conversation.
"I still can't get over the fact that bloody house ain't perched on the vertical side of a huge mountain." Gabrielle returned to a topic which had stirred her irritation since first noticing the circumstance. "All those photos you see of the dam' Fuhrer, an' his cronies, on that bloody terrace make it look like there's a huge vertical drop off the side of the terrace, straight down a vertiginous cliff of hundreds of feet. In fact, they're only a few feet above the road alongside the garage they're standing on the roof of. And from the ground there it's just a relatively gentle grassy slope down the hill. The whole set-up's a grifter's con."
Claire sniggered quietly where she lay beside the incensed observer.
"Why, did ya harbour hopes of gettin' on the terrace unnoticed, sidling up behind him, an' pushing him off the edge for a long drop? Ya did, didn't ya?"
"Oh shut up. Your rifle loaded? Sure y'can get a clear shot at Himmler? What happens if I get my shot at Adolf, but Heinrich's out of alignment for you?"
"You take your shot, drop the b-st-rd, then we both leave the scene at a rate of knots for pastures new—Himmler, sadly, livin' till another day, another sniper; hopefully not either of us."
"Dam' straight, lover." Gabrielle shuffled into position, rifle loose at her side. "Right, to business; let's keep an eye on them through our sights, an' see what crops up. I'll give the order t'fire, darling. If you've got a bead on Hellish Heinie, take it too; otherwise it's Plan B like you said, let him off, an' we run for cover, OK."
The problem most associated with marking a victim in a crowd is the fact they are part of a crowd; a crowd which acts in strange illogical ways, almost like a single-headed and minded beast. The individuals making up the group mill about seemingly aimlessly, almost always obscuring any clear sustained sight of the one person of most importance to the interested spectator. If ever a clear view of the target appears, it is only for a few seconds during which the amateur sniper doesn't have time to collect their wits and aim precisely; then the moment has passed, and someone again obscures the view. It can get to be quite enervating, not to say damned annoying.
"God damn it." Gabrielle having reached this zenith-point of tension. "You'd think he was a film star, and those people enthusiastic fans. Haven't had a head an' shoulders view of him in the last ten minutes, never mind a full-figure, cap to toe, sighting. By the time I get a shot my bullet've gotten too rusty t'fire."
"Relax, we don't need t'hit the jackpot on our first day." Claire put a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Not that it wouldn't be other than great if we did; but we've got almost another week yet."
"If the dammed SS goons don't stumble across our camp, meantime."
"Well, Hell, don't let's make problems for ourselves." Xena eased herself back into position and sighted along her rifle once more. "Jeez, bloody Himmler looks like he just loves himself, in that fancy black SS uniform; sort'a a cocky, I'm so important ain't I, way o'holdin' himself an' walkin'. What wouldn't I give t'blow his bloody brains out—all over the dress of that g-dd-m annoyin' woman; she's still waltzin' about with that bloody film camera, y'know."
"So I see, dam' her. Who the hell is she?"
"F-ck knows. Somebody who's obviously caught the eye of the Fuhrer, anyway, that's fer sure." Claire grunted disgustedly. "Takes all sorts, I suppose."
It was now around 3.30pm and it looked as if the Fuhrer had elected to take afternoon tea on the terrace. Everyone crowded round three tables set out in a group, attended by servants; and once again bad luck frowned on the two snipers, Hitler sitting across from two civilian-clad men who hid the Fuhrer almost completely from the view of the distant prone women.
"Christ, still can't get anything like a clear shot." Gabrielle had taken to mumbling into the grass stems again, not without reason. "All I bloody want is twenty clear seconds, with a good view of him—why's that too much t'ask?"
And then—a dog barked in the near distance behind the two prone women.
"Keep yer breath for runnin', gal."
"Huur, whi—which way?"
The two women had abandoned their cosy nesting-place with unseemly speed, hearing the SS dogs unexpectedly on their heels. The good part was the surrounding woods, almost a forest, in fact. There were, though, many wide open spaces, fields and meadows and such-like, but they were mostly conjoined by arms of the widespread woods which clothed the lower slopes of the surrounding hills where the Berghof was situated. With luck the women could stay under cover for most of their escape route—if Luck stayed with them.
"Which way?" Claire had paused under the shade of the firs to glance from left to right. "A good question."
They were standing on the edge of one of the out-reaching arms of the wood covering most of the slope of the hill they were now racing down. To their left they could stay under the trees out of sight of the trailing SS men and their dogs; but this seemed to inexorably lead them back uphill, not what they wanted at all. The right-hand meant crossing a wide meadow, but on it's far side was a much denser branch of the wood which they knew would see them safely back to their original escape route; though it would be much more physically demanding, especially at speed.
"Right." Claire had made her mind up. "No sense goin' up the f-ckin' mountain, it'll only end in us takin' afternoon tea with the Fuhrer on his Berghof terrace—sure he'd just love that; though it won't get us far. Our good luck is there's at least three fairly large streams to the right, across the slopes of the hill, goin' down."
"Streams, what's the point o'those?" Gabrielle, even in this tight situation, being chary of her comfort.
"Those dam' dogs." Claire was gasping for breath herself as they dashed through the long grass of the far too open meadow, the firs on the far side seeming miles off to the sweating and scared women. "The more water we can cross, changing our direction as we do, the better chance the hounds'll lose our scent."
"Ah, with you; right, let's do it." Gabrielle let this suffice, finding she needed her breath for more important things as they finally reached the second fir tree line and slipped under its dark cover. "Doesn't look as if the SS saw us, thank God. But those dam' dogs, listen t'em; they haven't lost us yet."
"The first stream's this way, lover." Claire grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder, dragging her unceremoniously in the right direction. "It's deep, mind, up to your butt, maybe; but that'll be good for hamperin' the bloody hounds."
"Su—supposin' it hampers me, t'death by drownin'."
"Hah, always loved yer sense o'humour, doll. OK, here we are, so shut it, an' start swimmin'."
Just over a week later Claire and Gabrielle once again sat on the hard chairs in Group-Captain Graham's cubby-hole of an office in Somerset House, London.
"Dam' close-run thing, eh?"
"You can say that again, sir." Claire nodded in full agreement of the recent drama. "If it hadn't been for those aniseed-soaked rags, that were part of our equipment fer leaving a false trail, those dam' SS dogs would'a torn us t'pieces."
"Thankfully, after Claire an' I siddled in'ta the trees an' made our break for safety,—across half the bloody rivers in Germany—the hounds took the line of false bait instead an' left us be." Gabrielle still, days later, looked a trifle paler than usual. "Six or more dogs, there were, sir. Big things, by the sound o'their howlin'. Dam' glad we didn't get t'make any closer acquaintance. At least the Lizzie came t'rescue us on time."
"Dam' pity you had t'abort the mission." Graham still harping on what might have been. "I mean, so dam' close—just a single trigger-pull from success."
"It was that dam' woman." Gabrielle passing the buck like a heroine. "She was all over that bunch o'losers on the Berghof terrace. Playin' around with her silly camera. Seemed t'think ol' H. was Cary Grant, or somebody—b-tch."
A quiet pause filled the small room as everyone considered how close to success, and the end of the war, they had come. Then Graham sat forward, sliding a couple of thin carboard-bound files across to the two women.
"Well, that's all for another day, ladies; and other agents." He indicated the files with a yellow nicotine stained fingertip. "Your latest assignment—you'll love it, I assure you. Take a moment to read through an' digest the matter, if you will."
Four minutes later, and after gazing to her left to assure herself her loved partner had also finished perusing the documents, Gabrielle took it upon herself to comment.
"You want us to what?"
"Fly a Mosquito along the Champs-Élysées, dropping propaganda leaflets; as the file, there, outlines."
"What?" Gabrielle goggled at her commanding officer, appalled. "You must be joking,—sir."
"This's nonsense,—sir." Claire Mathews, mirrored her loved companion's disbelief. "Fly along the main thoroughfare of Paris, at tree-top height, scatterin' pieces o'paper like dam' confetti? That's madness."
"Worse things have happened in War." Group-Captain Graham was capable of flights of tortuous humour, when pushed; now being a classic. "Oh, there is a War on; who'd have guessed? Tomorrow, three pip-emma; bring the bloody Mosquito back in one piece, they're valuable."
There was a pause as this sank in; neither listener, sitting in the small poky office in Somerset House on the banks of the Thames in London, felt up to assimilating the core of this statement. Finally Claire straightened, eyeing her commander with less than an enthusiastic demeanour.
"Leaflets? Leaflets over Paris?"
"By George, I believe you've got it, Flying-Officer Mathews."
"You mean, sir, go over t'France; find the capital; drop a load o'paperwork all over it an', somehow, then come home unscathed?" Claire gave her commander a woeful look, as of a spaniel with a headache. "That sort'a Fly Down the Champs-Élysées?"
"Yes, just so."
"Well, I'll be jiggered."
"What was that, Flying-Officer Parker?"
"Oh, only saying, yes sir, that's all; yes sir."
"And you, Flying-Officer Mathews?"
Something between a groan of pain and a whimper of agony sussurated quietly in the dusty office, where this severely secret sub-unit of SOE had its HQ; then Claire regained control.
"I'm with my partner. That is, yes sir, too, sir. er,—"
"Fine, glad t'hear it. Nothing like straightforward patriotism, I always say. Well, that's all, ladies. You'll find your Mosquito, bombed-up with the necessary paper, waiting for you at Little Lanning when you get back there. Good luck."
"Yes sir, thank you, sir."
"Yeah, thanks, sir."
Outside, a few minutes later, on the pavement going up Whitehall after they had left Somerset House and Group-Captain Graham's secret eyrie, they finally felt free to voice their true opinions of their Commander's latest brilliant plan to foil the Nazis.
"Hey, that's what I wanted to say." Gabrielle growled low, like a hungry hyena determined to have a night out on the tiles. "Just leaves me with, G-d-dam."
"Har. Come on, let's go an' get a cuppa. There's a Lyon's Corner House just along here."
"An' a buttered scone, with raspberry jam?"
"Jeez, don't ya know there's a war on? OK, let's hope fer the best."
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.