San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina -- April 20th
The old man in the rumpled wool suit was altogether unremarkable as he shuffled along the dirt path adjacent to Ezequiel Bustillo Avenue. To his right and through the fragrant pines he noticed the late-day sunlight shimmering on the crystal waters of Nahuel Huapi Lake, easily one of the most pleasant sights in all of Argentina. He stopped for a moment both to catch his breath and to admire, as he had done so many times before, the snow-capped Andes that encircled the town like gentle and loving giants. The outdoor temperature was only fifty degrees, but he was sweating from the exertion.
His beloved Deutschland still owned Heinrich Schimpf’s heart, but Bariloche, settled by German-speaking immigrants in the late nineteenth century, had become a comfortable old friend over the decades. Because of its quaint, Swiss-inspired architecture, the town looked more like a European mountain village than a remote outpost of civilization at the bottom of South America, and it was a simple matter to find excellent bratwurst, sauerbraten, and spätzle in local restaurants. Best of all, he had his coterie of German-speaking friends, each of them old and, like him, white-haired, and each of them bent over as though carrying the weight of the world on his frail shoulders.
After twenty minutes of labored walking, Schimpf reached the home of compatriot Josef Nebbe, who lived unpretentiously but well alongside the beach not far from the Hotel Chamonix. The meetings always took place at Nebbe’s home. He was the oldest of the men as well as the most senior in rank. Meeting someplace else had never been an option. Oskar Heider stood on the porch by the front door, a stein of dark-brown AugustinerBräu beer in hand, watching Schimpf negotiate the first of the five steps.
“Guten abend,” Heider said warmly. In the early years, after they both had fled from Germany to Bariloche, he hadn’t cared much for Schimpf, whom he still considered something of a slow-witted plodder. But because fate had kept them together since 1944 and had now reduced the group to three, Heider saw no reason not to treat the older man more compassionately.
“Am I late?” Schimpf wheezed. He tried, and failed, to sound less exhausted than he was. The hike had been a challenge, and now the stairs were almost too much for him. He nearly toppled backward from the fourth step.
“Ja, but not by so much this time,” Heider laughed.
“Good. I am not as spry as I once was.”
Schimpf finally reached the porch and eagerly accepted the stein that Heider offered him. Two mouthfuls of rich beer from the homeland revived his spirits.
“So, we are here once again. Still alive and well.”
Heider nodded and led Schimpf into the sparsely furnished living room whose bay window faced the gleaming lake. Josef Nebbe was seated on a wooden rocker near the roaring fireplace, and he raised his half-empty stein to the newest arrival. Since Nebbe outranked Schimpf, he did not stand. It was up to Schimpf to hobble across the room and salute.
“Heil Hitler,” Schimpf bellowed, extending his right arm and raised hand toward Nebbe.
“Heil Hitler,” came the stiff reply and casual, bent-arm salute.
Pinned to the wall behind Nebbe was a large Nazi flag: black swastika in a white circle on a blood-red background. Nebbe had brought the flag with him from Germany and now kept it safely in a storage locker except for the one day each year it hung boldly on the living room wall: April 20th, the day of Hitler’s birth.
“Late as usual, Schimpf,” Nebbe said, not too unkindly. “We were to begin at 6:00 p.m., and here it is 6:18 already.”
“Next time I will leave home earlier. Walking has become more difficult for me. Perhaps,” Schimpf offered delicately, “it’s time for me to take a cab.”
“No cab! We do not need anyone tracking our movements. Even after all these years we must remain cautious.”
Sufficiently chastened, Schimpf bowed slightly and retreated to the couch, where Heider had already poured himself a second beer and was munching laugenbrezel, the large pretzels that Nebbe had shipped to him throughout the year from Munich. The local pretzels, in his opinion, were no more than adequate. The ones from Germany were worth the extra price, especially for important occasions like this.
The three men drank a toast to the Führer, offered up a brief prayer of thanks for the safety they continued to enjoy in Argentina, and once again swore their loyalty to a Fourth Reich that would one day, God willing, succeed where the Third Reich had failed. They fervently believed God intended for Germans to rule the world, and that day would come even if they weren’t alive to see it.
Each of them had served the Third Reich as a proud member of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, the most fanatical and most dangerous of Hitler’s faithful. SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Nebbe, now ninety-four, had served as a senior adjutant officer at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where more than a million people, mostly Jews, were murdered. SS-Obersturmführer Oskar Heider, ninety-one, had been one of Nebbe’s loyal aides at the same camp, while SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Schimpf, ninety-two, had been a junior officer at the Treblinka extermination camp, where he willingly helped kill as many as nine hundred thousand Jews.
Schimpf had reached Bariloche alone with the help of Nazi sympathizers in Argentina, but he quickly met Nebbe and Heider there as well as a half dozen other Nazi renegades who had since died. These three former SS officers could no longer fight for Hitler, but each year on his birthday they gathered to reminisce, pledge their loyalty, and imagine a new world order led by Deutschland.
At 7:56 p.m., well after nightfall, a young man in a black nylon jogging suit opened the front door of Nebbe’s home and interrupted the men’s off-key rendition of Ein Prosit, one of their favorite drinking songs.
“Guten abend, meine herren,” he said in flawless German. “Good evening, gentlemen.”
The man had moderately short black hair, heavy stubble on his weathered face, and grey eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. He gently closed the door behind him.
“Who the hell are you to walk into my home uninvited?” Nebbe growled.
“You extended the invitation yourself many years ago, Josef Nebbe, when you slaughtered the innocent. Surely,” the young man said, “you did not think America would forget you.”
Nebbe set his stein on the small lamp table next to him and reached for the drawer containing his antique Luger, the same gun he had used to execute Auschwitz prisoners at point-blank range whenever they failed to show him proper respect. But the young stranger kicked the table away from Nebbe’s outstretched hand and sent it clattering against the stone fireplace. Then he studied Nebbe’s face, looking deep into the old man’s hate-filled eyes and noticing the slight quiver of his thin lips, wondering what sort of demented creature could have taken enjoyment in the suffering and death of so many men, women, and children.
“I took my orders and did my duty,” Nebbe hissed.
“As do I. The ghosts of Auschwitz send their regards.”
In one smooth motion, the young man raised his silencer-equipped Glock 20 and placed a single 10mm round in the center of Nebbe’s forehead. The hollow-point bullet expanded as it penetrated, and the former SS officer’s head came apart like an overripe pumpkin that had been dropped from the top of a skyscraper. Bits of it decorated the Nazi flag on the wall.
Heider struggled from the couch and attempted one final Nazi salute before having most of his head blown through the bay window. At that point Schimpf lost control of his bladder and begged for mercy.
“I was young,” he pleaded, “and had no choice.”
“I am young,” the stranger said, “and have no choice.”
The bullet caught Schimpf between the eyes.
The assassin calmly opened a bottle of Augustiner-Bräu and drank half of it before setting the explosive device. In precisely one hour the house would become a fireball, and the last three Nazis of Bariloche would join the Führer in hell.
At the moment that happened, Travis Delta would be at Kutral, one of the most popular local bars, buying a second margarita for a lovely young young woman named Catalina.
A man in his line of work always needed a good alibi.