An Excerpt from Three Hours in Paris
Sunday, June 23, 1940
Nine Days into the German
Occupation of Paris
Montmartre, Paris | 6:15 A.M. Paris time
Sacré-Cœur’s dome faded to a pale pearl in the light of dawn outside the fourth-story window. Kate’s ears attuned to the night birds, the creaking settling of the old building, distant water gushing in the gutters. It was her second day waiting in the deserted apartment, the Lee-Enfield rifle beside her.
Will this really happen?
She moved into a crouch on the wood parquet floor in front of the balcony and winced. Her knee throbbed—she had bruised it on that stupid fence as the parachute landed in the barnyard. She smelled the faint garden aroma of Pears soap on her silk blouse, which was dampened by perspiration. The June day was already so warm.
She dipped her scarf in the water bottle, wiped her face and neck. Took another one of the pink pills and a swig of water. She needed to stay awake.
As apricot dawn blushed over the rooftop chimneys, she checked the bullets, calibrated and adjusted the telescopic mount, as she had every few hours. The spreading sunrise to her left outlined the few clouds like a bronze pencil, and lit her target area. No breeze; the air lay still, weighted with heat. Perfect conditions.
“Concentrate on your target, keep escape in the back of your mind,” her handler, Stepney, had reminded her en route to the airfield outside London Friday night. “You’re prepared. Follow the fallback protocol.” His last-minute instruction, as she’d zipped up the flight suit in the drafty hangar: “Always remember who you’re doing this for, Kate.”
“As if I would forget?” she’d told him. She pushed away the memory that engulfed her mind, the towering flames, the terrible cries, and looked him straight in the eye. “Plus, I can’t fail or you’ll have egg all over your face, Stepney.”
As dawn brightened into full morning, Kate laid her arm steady on the gilt chair on which she had propped the rifle. From the fourth floor her shot would angle down to the top step. Reading the telescopic mount, she aligned the middle of the church’s top step and the water-stained stone on the lime-stone pillar by the door; she’d noted yesterday that the stain was approximately five feet ten inches from the ground. She would have been able to make the shot even without it—three hundred yards was an easy shot from one of the best views of the city. Next, she scoped a backup target, referencing the pillars’ sculptured detail. She’d take a head shot as he emerged from the church’s portico, fire once, move a centimeter to the left and then fire again. Worst-case scenario, she’d hit his neck.
With a wooden cheek rising-piece and a telescopic sight mount on its beechwood stock, the Lee-Enfield weighed about ten pounds. She’d practiced partially disassembling the rifle every other hour, eyes closed, timing herself. She wouldn’t have time to fully strip it. Speed would buy her precious seconds for her escape before her target’s entourage registered the rifle crack and reacted. Less than a minute, Stepney had cautioned, if her target was surrounded by his usual Führer Escort Detachment.
Her pulse thudded as she glanced at her French watch, a Maquet. 7:59 a.m. Any moment now the plane might land.
Kate sipped water, her eye trained on the parishioners mounting Sacré-Cœur’s stairs and disappearing into the church’s open doors: old ladies, working men, families with children in tow. A toddler, a little girl in a yellow dress, broke away from the crowd, wandering along the portico until a woman in a blue hat caught her hand. Kate hadn’t accounted for the people attending Mass. Stupid. Why hadn’t Stepney’s detailed plan addressed that?
She pushed her worry aside. Her gaze focused through the telescopic sight on the top step, dead center. Her target’s entourage would surround him and keep him isolated from French civilians.
That’s if he even comes.
The pealing church bells made her jump, the slow reverberation calling one and all to eight o’clock Mass. Maybe she’d taken too much Dexedrine.
But she kept her grip steady, her finger coiled around the metal trigger, and her eye focused.
A few latecomers hurried up the church steps. Kate recognized the concierge of the building she was hiding in. She’d sneaked past the woman yesterday, using her lock-picking training to let herself into one of the vacated apartments. An unaccustomed thrill had filled her as the locked door clicked open—she’d done it, and after only brief training in that drafty old manor, God knew where in the middle of the English countryside.
After the flurry of the call to Mass, a sleepy Sunday descended over Montmartre. The streets below her were empty except for a man pushing a barrow of melons. He rounded the corner. The morning was so quiet she heard only the twittering of sparrows in the trees, the gurgling water in the building pipes.
The wood floor was warm under her legs. On the periphery of the rifle’s sight a butterfly’s blue-violet wings fluttered among orange marigolds.
8:29 a.m. Her heart pounded, her doubts growing. Say her target’s plans had changed—what if his flight landed tonight, tomorrow or next week? She wondered how long she could stay in this apartment before the owners returned, or a neighbor heard her moving around and knocked on the door.
8:31 a.m. As she was thinking what in God’s name she’d do if she was discovered here, she heard the low thrum of car engines. Down rue Lamarck she saw the black hood of a Mercedes. Several more followed behind it, in the same formation she’d seen in the newsreels Stepney had shown her. She breathed in deep and exhaled, trying to dispel her tension.
She edged the tip of the Lee-Enfield a centimeter more through the shutter slat. Kept the rifle gripped against her shoulder and watched as the approaching convertibles proceeded at twenty miles an hour. In the passenger seat of the second Mercedes sat a man in a white coat like a housepainter’s; in the rear jump seats, three gray uniforms—the elite Führerbegleitkommando bodyguards. She suppressed the temptation to shoot now—she would have only a one in five chance of hitting him in the car. Besides, that might be a decoy; her target could be riding in any of the cars behind the first Mercedes.
The second Mercedes passed under the hanging branches of linden trees. A gray-uniformed man with a movie camera on a tripod stood on the back seat of the last Mercedes, capturing the trip on film. She held her breath, waiting. No troop trucks. The cars pulled up on the Place du Parvis du Sacré-Cœur and parked before the wide stairs leading to the church entrance.
This was it. Payback time.
The air carried German voices, the tramp of boots. And then, like a sweep of gray vultures, the figures moved up the steps, a tight configuration surrounding the man in the white coat. He wore a charcoal-brimmed military cap, like the others. For a brief moment, he turned and she saw that black smudge of mustache. The Führer was in her sights now, for that flash of a second before his bodyguards ushered him through the church door. As Stepney had described, five feet ten inches and wearing a white coat. In her head she considered his quick movements, rehearsed the shot’s angle to the top step where he’d stand, the timing of the shot she’d take, noting the absence of wind.
The church door opened. So soon? Kate curled her finger, keeping focus on the church pillar in her trigger hairs. But it was the woman with the blue hat, leading the toddler in the yellow dress by the hand. The little girl was crying.
Why in the world did the child have to cry right now?
It all happened in a few seconds. A gray-uniformed bodyguard herded the woman and child to the side and the Führer stepped back out into the sunlight. Hitler, without his cap, stood on the top step by himself. He swiped the hair across his forehead. That signature gesture, so full of himself.
The wolf was in her sights. Like her father had taught her, she found his eyes above his mustache. Never hold your breath. Her father’s words played in her head. Shoot on the exhale. She aimed and squeezed the trigger.
But Hitler had bent down to the crying toddler. Over the tolling of the church bell, the crack of the rifle reverberated off limestone. A spit of dust puffed from the church pillar. The child’s mother looked up, surprised, finding dust on her shoulder. Any moment the guards would notice.
As calmly as she could and willing her mind still, Kate reloaded within three seconds, aimed at his black hair above his ear as he leaned over, extending his hand to the little girl’s head, ruffling her hair. The guards were laughing now, focused on the Führer, whose fondness for children was well-known.
Kate pulled the trigger again just as Hitler straightened. Damn. The uniformed man behind him jerked.
As the shot zipped by him one of the guards looked around. She couldn’t believe her luck that no one else had noticed. She had to hurry.
Reloading and adjusting once more, she aimed at the point between his eyes. Cocked the trigger. But Hitler had lifted the little girl in his arms, smiling, still unaware that the man behind him had been hit. The toddler’s blonde curls spilled in front of Hitler’s face.
Her heart convulsed, pain filling her chest. Those blonde curls were so like Lisbeth’s. Why did he have to pick this toddler up just then?
Killing a child is not part of your mission. This time, the voice in her head was her own, not Stepney’s. Agonized, she felt her focus slipping away.
Now. She had to fire now. Harden herself and shoot. Ignore the fact the bullet would pass through the little girl’s cheek. That the woman in the blue hat would lose her daughter.
The hesitation cost her a second.
The uniform slumped down the church pillar. A dark red spot became a line of blood dripping down his collar.
Hitler was still holding the child as she heard the shouts. She hadn’t yet taken her shot when all hell broke loose.
A guard snatched the little girl from his arms. Guards forced Hitler into a crouch and hurried him to the car. In the uniformed crowd now surrounding Hitler a man pointed in Kate’s direction. Through the telescopic sight she saw his steel-gray eyes scanning the building. She could swear those eyes looked right at her.
In June of 1940, when Paris fell to the Nazis, Hitler spent a total of three hours in the City of Light—abruptly leaving, never to return. To this day, no one knows why.
The New York Times bestselling author of the Aimée Leduc investigations reimagines history in her masterful, pulse-pounding spy thriller, Three Hours in Paris.
Now available in paperback & ebook
Three Hours in Paris | Cara Black | Soho Crime
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