The late-morning sun was already warm. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. The gloves felt hot on his hands. Climbing through the roof window had exhausted him. He rested against the chimney stack and caught his breath. A ladder, even a step stool, would have been useful. Something to keep in mind when scouting locations in the future. No sense denying it. Age was catching up with him. He kept in shape—jogging, yoga, some weights—but what was a cinch thirty years ago now taxed his body.
Around him a typical Parisian rooftop—gray metal cladding, two stone chimney stacks, each topped with four red clay pipes, and a parapet with regularly spaced notches to drain rain water.
The surrounding roofs baked in the sun. No one to be seen. August was always an odd time in Paris. The Parisians, self-assured and ornery, were gone. In their stead, hordes of tourists roamed the streets, aimlessly heading from one guidebook entry to the next.
He’d chosen a normal workman’s outfit, blue overalls, short-sleeved checked shirt and a blue cap. It was the least conspicuous, given his task. The only exception to the ordinary appearance were his shoes—dark ballistic nylon trainers with especially grippy rubber soles. His bag by the chimney stack contained a polo shirt, slacks and leather shoes. He could become one of the tourists in a minute.
In the northeast, the Eiffel Tower—that iconic folly built solely because Gustave Eiffel knew he could—rose into the sky. He could understand why many Parisians thought the structure ugly when it was first built. The curves of the first and second tier supporting the tower had a certain grace, but compared to the other famous buildings, even the Centre Pompidou, it was still a massive pile of iron. He remembered reading that Guy de Maupassant, the writer, ate at the restaurant on the second level everyday because it was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to look at the tower.
He thought of his first assignment in Paris, some thirty years ago. He was young and unseasoned then, took less care planning, counted more on his innate skills and speed. It worked out all right, but since then he’d learned that proper preparation saved time and nerves. That kept him sane and his clients happy. As he’d grown older, preparation had become increasingly important. He even turned down jobs that didn’t allow for the time he thought necessary. For this job, he’d scouted the street for two days, took note of the comings and goings, and secured access to the top-most apartment whose inhabitants had joined the exodus to the countryside.
The sun stood a little to high in the sky for his liking. In an hour it’d be higher still, and glare might be a problem. He crawled to one of the notches in the parapet about twenty yards to the left and checked the street again. With the sun more to his right, the massive wooden doors of the building across the Rue Cortambert were clearly visible. Adorned with intricate inlays, they reached the second floor. Two heavy iron handles were attached at hip level. During the two days of scouting, he’d never seen them open. Two regular-sized doors on either side accommodated the normal foot traffic.
The angle was awkward, but there was little he could do about it. Side streets in the 16th Arrondissement just happened to be narrow.
His knees complained about crawling on the hard surface. He should have packed some kneepads. As soon as the thought entered his mind, he chided himself. Step stools and kneepads? What’s next? Stop complaining. You sound like a ninny. But the admonition didn’t stop a vision of retirement from popping up again. The thought had peered above the edge of his unconscious before, and he’d successfully pushed it back. That got harder with time.
A pigeon settled on the chimney and eyed him curiously. Another joined it. He didn’t care for pigeons. Besides being dirty they could also get in the way of his work. Why did people continue to feed them? The didn’t feed rats. But people were crazy. Most of them, anyway.
Did pigeons ever feel too old to scavenge for food? Probably not. They just keeled over one day and died. Would that be his fate, too? Keel over some day, kneeling on a rooftop like this one?
He closed his eyes and shook his head to dispel that image. His mind took increasingly odd leaps these days. He’d see something, anything, and his mind generated a stream of thoughts that drifted off into utterly unrelated realms, often involving his death.
The hammering of an old diesel engine on the street below mercifully interrupted this sequence and focused his attention. An ancient Renault delivery truck had stopped in front of the building with the large doors, and a man carried two large vases filled with gorgeous cut flowers to the side door on the right.
He laid down behind the parapet and watched. A harried looking man in a dark suit appeared and harangued the flower guy. The sound of the voices carried up to his perch four stories above, but he couldn’t make out the words. The flower guy shrugged as Parisian delivery men had for centuries and went back to the van to fetch more vases.
The rest of the street remained quiet. It was a one-way, cars parked in solid rows on both sides except in front of the building across the street.
Laying on the warm roof made him feel drowsy. He considered using the three kilo sack of rice in his kit as a pillow and resting his eyes a little. His watch told him he had thirty minutes. Bad idea. It was time to get ready. He crawled back to his bag, took out a thermos instead and drank a cup of black coffee.
Below, the Renault drove away, leaving a blue cloud of diesel exhaust wafting up to him. The street was quiet again.
He carried the large rectangular case to the parapet and opened it. His tools lay in the foam padding exactly as he left them the night before.
He took out the dark walnut stock. It felt smooth to the touch. New materials regularly showed up in his profession. Composite materials that promised all kinds of benefits. He was old-fashioned. A good walnut stock—well oiled and maintained—became an extension of his body the moment he took a hold of it. Composite stocks never gave him the same sensation. A wooden stock also never felt clammy—a good thing given that the temperature was inching higher as the sun rose. But it was also heavier. And that was the rub. The case felt more unwieldy with every assignment.
The barrel, made of 416 type martensitic double-stress-relieved steel, was still cool to the touch. He fingered it and felt the thin oily film that protected the steel from oxidation. It was almost thirty years old, but of a quality hard to find anymore. Made by a tiny barrel shop in northern Italy, he had taken his time then to break it in properly. Over the years he had gotten a new stock and a new bolt action, but it would never occur to him to change the barrel. He peered through it. Of course, it was still clean. He wondered why he still did that every time he assembled the rifle. A nervous habit? No. His mind may be wandering, but he wasn’t nervous. Never had been.
The barrel locked into place with a satisfying click.
The suppressor was the most awkward part of his kit. Adding a thick extension to the sleek barrel, it ruined the symmetry of the rifle, making it ugly. An odd reaction, really. Without it he couldn’t do the majority of this work.
The Carl Zeiss scope was even older than his barrel. It came from an WWII sniper rifle and he’d never found a better scope. With it, he could see the beard stubbles on a man’s chin at 1,000 feet. At least he used to. Two years ago he’d first noticed a slight fuzziness when looking through the scope. At first he thought moisture had gotten into the optics. But then it dawned on him that his eyes were going. He’d adjusted the scope and that eliminated the problem, for a while. But the fuzziness kept coming back a little at a time.
He peered through the scope at the door across the street. The mortar between the large sandstone slabs looked coarse. Would the large doors be opened when the time came? Probably not. As far as he knew, the target was to be dropped off. No need to push those heavy wings open.
A round seal was attached above the door. It looked no different than the seals he’d seen on other embassies. They always left a stale feeling inside him. Countries were such strange things. Seals, flags, anthems, all that nationalistic nonsense held no attraction for him. His job gave him regular glimpses behind the curtain of nationalist rhetoric. All he’d seen were unbridled ambition, greed and corruption. It paid his bills, but that didn’t mean he liked it. How often had he seen the very people who hired him wrap themselves in whatever flag they stood for, spouting empty phrases of national unity? It was little more than modern crowd control.
A bicycle bell rang down on the street. He shifted the scope down and saw a girl, maybe ten, riding on the sidewalk. She had blonde hair, braided into two loops. Just like Elsa, his granddaughter. He focused the scope on her face. A fresh face full of excitement; like Elsa when she rode her bike.
Elsa’s birth had changed his life. She’d tiptoed into his heart when he first held the one-year-old. He felt a connection with the girl he hadn’t felt since first falling in love with his wife. His divorce had ended that and he’d been a loner until Elsa. He visited her whenever he could, treating her to ice cream cones, holding her back while she tried to ride her bike without training wheels, reading stories to her. He lived for those moments.
There was a purity in Elsa that outweighed all the hideousness of the world. One evening, maybe three years ago, he was surprised to feel tears in his eyes after saying goodbye to Elsa. Later, traveling to another assignment, he understood the reason for those tears. They were tears of gratitude. Being with Elsa wiped away the ugliness of his work. Since then he’d also realized that they were tears of shame, shame for using an innocent child to ease his own guilt.
He never had the same closeness with his son. He knew he was responsible in large part for that by keeping his son at arm’s length for much of his life. After his divorce twenty years ago he saw little of him. Only when his son entered the university did they reconnect. Since he couldn’t tell him what he did for a living, a fissure remained between them despite their mutual efforts to be cordial.
During one visit while holding Elsa in his arms, he’d felt a deep urge to reveal everything, to be honest with his son, to chuck the whole thing and just sit there and hold Elsa. His son also noticed that moment, had looked at him, searching his face, hoping for the truth. But the moment passed.
The girl on her bike had stopped at a house further down the street and disappeared into a door. Everything was quiet again.
He attached the scope to the rifle, checked the 7.62mm cartridges in the magazine and jacked the magazine into its slot. He pulled the bolt handle back, heard the cartridge slip into the breech and locked the handle again.
He laid the three kilo sack of rice behind the notch in the parapet, placed the front of the rifle stock on it and laid down behind the rifle. He was ready.
A black Mercedes rolled down the street at the appointed time and stopped in front of the doors. A young man jumped out the passenger door, his right hand concealed under his suit jacket. The man checked the street in both directions, the windows of the surrounding houses and, finally, the roofs.
From behind the parapet, he watched the right door of the building open. His breathing and heartbeat slowed, the rifle became an extension of his body, the scope an oversized eye. He saw the man who’d dealt with the flower guy step towards the rear door of the car and open it.
The target emerged from the car. With a minute movement he directed the scope to the back of the target’s head. He had five seconds to make the shot. The target turned around, his forehead large in the scope. The target ducked back into the car. No worries. It’s probably just his briefcase. The target appeared again, carrying something. It wasn’t a briefcase. It was… His heart thumped fast. The rifle shook. It was a small child. The man was carrying a little girl.
He willed his heart to slow down again. He focused the scope on the target’s head again. His index finger began to tighten around the trigger.
The target turned to the side. The little girl’s face filled the circle of the scope. She peered straight into him. It was Elsa’s smile. His vision blurred. It couldn’t be Elsa. His eyes were playing tricks. He closed them, hoping to clear his vision. But Elsa’s face remained etched into his retina. What was happening? His heartbeat refused to obey his mind’s commands. Blood pulsed in his temples like a storm. Sweat dripped from his forehead, his chest, soaking his shirt. His fingers felt damp around the stock of the rifle. He lay on the roof unable to move a single muscle.
When he forced his eyes open again, the target had disappeared through the door. He eased his finger off the trigger.
Drenched in sweat, he lay on the roof for a long time. A voice inside tried to tell him that he had failed, that he’d blown the first job in his career. But the voice was swept away by thoughts of Elsa, bicycles, playgrounds and ice cream cones. When his heartbeat had steadied again, he crawled back to the roof window and let himself into the attic. He changed his clothes and climbed downstairs. On the street, he tossed his bag into a trash can and headed for the La Muette Metro station. The Line 9 took him to Nation, where he switched to Line 1. He exited at the Gare de Lyon. There’d be a train to Lausanne.
Back on the roof at Rue Cortambert the rifle pointed into the sky like an old piece of artillery on a battlefield long since abandoned.
Paris rooftops. Photo by Jorge Royan. http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.