It was about three o’clock in the afternoon, mid May, with a cool breeze dampening down the warmth of the spring sunshine. I was wearing the same blue suit I’d had on for the past week, crinkled from the hours sat in the car, driving the length and breadth of the country. I was unshaven, tired and had drunk far too much caffeine and way past caring.
I pulled up outside number 13 Cedar Lane, got out the car and walked up the gravel drive. The old cottage was set back from the road, surrounded by a clutch of evergreen trees, its exterior overgrown with sprawling ivy, an ideal spot for someone wanting to hide away from the world.
In the porch, a cracked bell jangled in the wind. I stood there and pulled aside a bunch of cobwebs and rapped on the door.
Experience had taught me to keep my expectations in check, this was just another lead to follow up on and I’d been disappointed by so many but as I stood there, something felt different.
After several beats, the door creaked open and a gnarled hand appeared at the edge pulling it wider.
An elderly man stood in the doorway leaning on a Zimmer frame. He had a shock of white hair and blue piecing eyes behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a burgundy tank top over a beige collared shirt and grey slacks.
“Mr Goldstein?” I said.
The old man squinted.
“Yes. Who are you?”
I detected a Germanic accent.
“I’m a journalist from the Herald. I wondered if I could ask you a few questions?”
“About your past.”
“What do you mean?”
“Goldstein is not your real name is it?”
The old man’s jaw slackened.
“Good day to you sir.”
“I won’t take much of your time, Mr Breitner.”
The old man shut the door and I heard the bolts slide across.
I flipped open the manila folder I was carrying and pulled out a black and white photograph. The young man in the picture, dressed in a Nazi uniform, was the same man I had just come face to face with.
Hans Breitner was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. Leading them to the gas chambers under the pretext of a hot shower. As the war ended, he escaped to South America and worked as a doctor in Buenos Aires. When he got wind of a plot by the Isreali secret service to track down and kidnap former Nazis and put them on trial, he boarded a ship back to Europe under the guise of a Jewish refugee. He ended up in London and got a job as a bank clerk. Nobody really new about his past; everyone he encountered in England thought he was just a kindly old Jew.
The irony, the nerve, the cheek, to portray yourself as a person from a race that was anathema to every cell of your being and one that you played a part in trying to wipe out.
I turned and walked away. I’d gone several paces when I heard an old accented voice.
“Young man…. I will tell you my story.”
I stepped inside and he led me through a dimly lit hallway in dire need of decorating, to the kitchen. He offered me a chair and I sat at the kitchen table. He filled a saucepan with water and put it on the stove.
“I take it you drink tea?” he said.
“Yes, just with milk.”
“The English love tea…….. So, what can I tell you Mr journalist?”
“I want you to tell me about your past.”
“I knew this time would come.”
He sat down opposite and looked at me, his thin lips pursed.
“Are you Hans Breitner, aged ninety three?”
“I think you know the answer to that now.”
“What do you know about Zyklon B?”
His eyes narrowed and turned steely.
The mention of the gas that killed millions of innocent people struck a cord. Gone was the kind face. I felt I was staring at the face of a Nazi.
“We were following orders. I was following orders.”
“You didn’t have to follow them.”
“Of course I did. If I didn’t I would have been shot.”
“Didn’t you feel anything for the poor souls you murdered?”
“They became like cattle to us. We had it ingrained in our minds. Exterminate the Jews. Ayrians are the master race.”
I couldn’t see any remorse in the old man’s eyes. I had re-lit the dying embers of evil.
“It’s taken you a long time to track me down.”
“You covered your tracks well.”
“What will become of me? I’m very old now.”
“You will be tried for your crimes.”
“At my age?”
“Justice must be done. You must pay for what you did.”
He stood slowly, went over to the window, stared out into the garden and sighed. A magpie alighted on a nearby branch. He seemed to lock eyes with it. The magpie stared back then flew away, the branch bouncing in its wake. The old man turned and pulled open a drawer and grabbed a bag of tobacco and a pack of cigarette papers. He sat back down and started rolling a cigarette.
‘”I haven’t smoked in a long time,” he said.
He lit the end with a match, sat back and drew on it for a while between his twiglet fingers. Wisps of smoke floated upwards and I imagined them forming the shape of a swastika or making the lightning bolt letters ‘SS’ above his head.
‘I must go now,’ he said, stubbing the cigarette out on the table.
With that he stood and without his Zimmer frame shuffled out of the kitchen.
I watched him go up the hallway and disappear into a side room.
Several moments passed and I started wondering what the hell he was doing. I slid back the chair and went into the hallway.
A gunshot rang out.