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It was March the sixteenth, 1979. Karl Hoffmann had journeyed from Asunción in a second-hand car he’d purchased there, to the small, provincial Paraguayan town of Valdez. It was a hot sticky day and he wore a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, to keep the merciless brightness of the tropical Sun from his eyes. When he eventually reached the outskirts of the town a feeling of deep unease and foreboding overcame him, which, like the incessant heat, he couldn’t shake off.
It had been a long and taxing journey to Valdez. He had stalked his prey across half a dozen Central and South American countries over the previous eighteen months. In places as geographically diverse as La Paz, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Tegucigalpa, Valparaiso and Quito, he had sought to apprehend him, but the man had cunningly eluded him on each occasion as if some mysterious sixth sense had kept him informed of approaching danger.
In an envelope, in an inside pocket, he had a photograph of that same individual. An affable, well-dressed, healthy-looking man in his early seventies, with an easy smile and vivid blue eyes. The last person one could imagine to be a war criminal with the blood of thousands on his hands.
Max Kesselmann had been born into a prosperous, middle-class household in Dortmund, Germany. He was the only surviving child of the family; a twin brother having died in tragic circumstances in his late teens.
At any other period he would, in all probability, have pursued a comfortable, bourgeois career, like his parents, but on leaving university was instead seduced by the heady rhetoric, the drums, marches and banners of the National Socialist Party. Much to the disgust of his liberal-minded parents he joined the SS, Hitler’s black-uniformed guards.
An intelligent, though thoroughly amoral individual, he rose rapidly up the ranks of that grisly organisation, receiving a full indoctrination along the way, and after War broke out was put in charge of an Einsatzgruppen death squad, whose special purpose was the extermination of Jews and other racial sub-groupings, behind the lines, on the vast tracts of territory newly plundered by the advancing Wehrmacht, on the Eastern Front, following the invasion of Soviet Russia.
Of course, there were other Nazi war criminals to pursue at that time, with even darker records of inhumanity to their names. But there was a personal animus behind Hoffmann’s endeavour to track down that particular individual. One of Kesselmann’s many victims had been Karl’s brother, Anton. He had fled Germany, months after the Nazis came to power, to Lithuania, where he had relations – sensing, as not all did, what was to come in Hitler’s new Reich. Yet it was only a temporary respite he had bought. For when the Nazis pushed eastwards, in Operation Barbarossa, he, along with thousands of others, was tracked down by those special units whose task wasn’t warfare, but racial genocide.
It was in the dragnet of one such unit, under Kesselmann’s command, that he was caught. Within days, he, and several hundred others, were compelled to dig a vast trench in some open country outside of Vilnius. They were shot in the back of the head and pushed into that same trench, which was then covered over with soil. The unit, under its eager young commander, went on to cleanse further areas of their non-Aryan populations.
Karl himself had left Germany in 1933, for Britain, and then the United States, where he studied in various universities, and so avoided the fate that befell so many of his compatriots. Though he kept a keen interest in the fate of his family and compatriots, during those dark times.
Though having been suspected of escaping his homeland, via one of the infamous ratlines, as the Nazi state crumbled to rubble, Kesselmann had yet been unaccounted for since the end of the War. It hadn’t been known if he was alive or dead. Then there were sightings of a person who resembled Kesselmann; first in Bolivia, then in Ecuador, and then in Chile. And Hoffmann himself was convinced, despite the doubts that others expressed, that Kesselmann was still alive and residing, incognito, somewhere in the great landmass of Latin America.
Then a journalist, who had resided for some years in Chile – as the foreign correspondent for a respected newspaper, and who was sympathetic to Hoffmann’s cause – was informed by a contact that someone who bore a distinct resemblance to Kesselmann, was living in a quiet suburb of Valparaiso; and that he was, purportedly, a Swiss businessman, who went by the name of Andreas Schell. It was then that Hoffmann’s single-minded, almost obsessional quest to track down and bring to justice that notorious former war criminal, began.
He sent a team of trusted confederates over to Valparaiso to keep a discreet watch over that mysterious individual. Photos were taken, by hidden cameras; and intensive background checks were made. And within a matter of months it was established that the alleged Swiss businessman was indeed the Nazi war criminal, Max Kesselmann. It seemed that his quest was about to reach fruition. A case was almost ready to be lodged with the authorities, for the apprehension, and extradition of Kesselmann, in order that he could stand trial for crimes against humanity. Yet by that time, Kesselmann himself – either through suspicions, or a tip off – felt that things weren’t entirely safe for him in the city that had been his home. With ruthless despatch he sold his business, and his comfortable suburban home – abruptly terminated the few relationships and friendships he had made, particularly with the expat German-speaking community – and hurriedly left the city for safer sanctuary elsewhere, to the acute consternation of Hoffmann and his associates. It was then that Hoffmann himself booked a flight to South America in order to try and track down Kesselmann and bring him to book.
For months Kesselmann disappeared. There were fleeting sightings of him in other cities and towns of Latin America. Hoffmann would make haste to any destination where it was thought he might be holed up. But Kesselmann always seemed to be a step ahead of his pursuer and would disappear again as soon as Hoffmann arrived on the scene. It was like chasing a spectre. Then there was a lengthy dearth of even those fleeting sightings of him. The trail had gone cold. Kesselmann had slipped off the radar screen; and no one knew, or could even guess where he was. Though Hoffmann had a number of dedicated associates scouring the continent for any sight of the criminal.
Then, after months of demoralising quietude, solid information arrived that told Hoffman where he could find his quarry, without the prospect of him slyly slipping away before he arrived on the scene. It was the obscure, little known town of Valdez, deep in the Paraguayan interior. Yet what made Valdez so strikingly different from any other of the destinations where he had sought to corner the elusive Kesselmann, was that he had actually been invited there by Kesselmann himself.
While in his hotel room in Lima, at work on his papers, he received a letter. It went as follows:
Dear Mr Hoffmann
I know well that you have been seeking to track me down for over a year now. I also know what motivates you in this singular quest, Mr Hoffmann, and why you wish to seek me out. I have grown tired of this life on the run that you and your confederates have forced me to lead, at home nowhere, without being able to settle in any one place, never secure, or at peace, and always wondering when vengeance will catch up with me. I am an old man, and perhaps not quite the monster you envisage me as being, Mr Hoffmann. The things that concern you happened so long ago, in a period of war and upheaval, where millions of people died, and where normal standards and values didn’t apply. Aside from which, as you must well know, I was merely a cog in the machine, an apparatchik, to use that old Soviet term, obeying the orders of my superiors, in a military command structure, and within a totalitarian system, where obedience was of the essence and where the questioning of orders was forbidden. Indeed, anyone foolish enough to do so would be deemed a traitor to the party and the fatherland, and would in effect be signing his own death warrant.
I am writing to inform you that I have been living in the small provincial town of Valdez, in Paraguay, for some weeks now, and intend to stay put for some time to come. You are welcome to come here, Mr Hoffmann. Perhaps we can discuss things, of mutual concern, in a quiet and civilised manner. Despite my reputation, you will find that I am quite a congenial person. I have neither horns nor a tail, despite all the things that are written about me in the newspapers; and am very much a mere human, as you are. You’re welcome to come at any time. Valdez is a small, provincial town, so you should find me quite easily. I look forward to seeing you, at some time.
Hoffmann was perplexed and puzzled by the contents of the letter. Was it a trick? Was he in Valdez at all? And if so, did he intend to turn the tables on him, and lure him, the hunter, into a trap, in that small, isolated, provincial town? Did he want to bribe him into giving up the chase? It was alleged that he was a man of considerable means. Or did he genuinely wish for a meeting, to discuss things with him, relating to his past, in the open? Perhaps even a mass murderer, in the twilight of his years, might have a change of heart, and might wish to express guilt and remorse for what he had done?
It was with some reluctance that he left for Asunción and then Valdez itself. Though, in order to placate his growing suspicions he came armed with a fully loaded gun and spare ammunition.
The town was a mixture of crumbling old buildings, some dating to colonial times, and rather gimcrack modern structures, where the pace of life was so casual and unhurried it almost seemed to take place in slow motion. Old men, many with inscrutable, weather-beaten, Indian faces, and large wide hats on their crowns, sat – either lazily talking to each other, or in self contained silence – at street cafes or on benches, under shady, arcaded walkways. On the rutted, potholed roads, horse and oxen-pulled vehicles seemed to outnumber the motorised traffic.
After booking a room, under an alias, on the fourth floor of the town’s one half-decent hotel, he walked down the main street. Under the ceaseless sticky heat, sweat oozed down his limbs and torso. He waved the incessant flies away from below the brim of his hat. He stopped a passer-by; a tall, silver-haired man – hastily showed him the photograph of Kesselmann and asked, in Spanish, if he’d ever seen that particular individual.
The man studied the photograph. ‘I don’t know.’ He looked with a marked undercurrent of suspicion, at the well-heeled interloper from the outside world.
Hoffmann smiled wryly and nodded his head. Why shouldn’t an impoverished local use any available, and legitimate, opportunity for some extra remuneration. He would surely have done the same in his position.
He took two crisp notes from his wallet and handed them to the loca1, who looked down at them with wide, unblinking eyes. He swiftly pocketed them, thanked the stranger profusely and his memory suddenly revitalized by that transaction, he pointed an arm down the flyblown street.
‘There’s a cantina at the end of the street. He goes there every evening around seven and sits at a table.’
‘Thanks. You’ve been a great help.’
‘Thank you, senor,’ replied the local, quite sure, in his own mind, of who had been the greater help in that little transaction.
Just after seven Hoffmann tentatively entered the cantina. And sure enough, sat at a table, smoking a pipe – a bottle of wine and a half filled glass before him – was Kesselmann. Though he didn’t look nearly as jovial, avuncular and sartorial, as in the photo. Indeed he seemed almost like a local peasant, with his slovenly attire and unshaven face. Was this all an act and a performance, Hoffmann wondered to himself, in order to try and fit into to his new environment and draw attention away from his true identity and his criminal past.
Hoffmann slowly made his way over and, despite the beating of his heart and the shaking of his hands, he glowered down at the man he had tracked and pursued for so many months.
‘Max Kesselmann. It’s taken a long time to catch up with you.’
The German looked up at him with alarm and fear in his eyes.
‘What are you talking about, I’m not Max Kesselmann!’ he insisted vehemently, as the few customers and proprietor looked on in inquisitive silence.
‘But I have your letter. You—‘
In a state of great agitation the man got to his feet. He picked up his ragged hat, knocked the embers of his pipe into an ashtray, then spilled some coins onto the table top. ‘I’ve done nothing. I’m not a war criminal. I’ve nothing to be ashamed of. You must leave me alone. D’you hear.’ He stared at him with anger as well as fear.
Hoffmann was scathing in his contempt for that performance. ‘So you’re trying to deny it all now. It never happened. After inviting me all the way over here to Valdez. All those thousands you and your comrades murdered on the Eastern Front. Well that won’t wash Mr Kesselmann. We have the facts. We have the evidence.’
‘Leave me alone,’ he all but screamed, as he ran past the wide-eyed customers and the shocked proprietor, out of the cantina and along the road to the outskirts of the town.
Hoffmann made haste back to his car, parked in a forecourt of the hotel, drove off in the direction of the cantina, then followed the route Kesselmann had taken out of the town. And he wondered to himself all the while, in his growing confusion, why Kesselmann had sent him such an emollient letter, and then acted in such a querulous, prickly and frightened manner, when he had approached him? Or did he have a sudden change of heart at the prospect of opening the nightmare horror of his previous life and being brought to account for his frightful crimes?
After ten minutes he came across the bedraggled Kesselmann, walking hastily by the side of a country road, with bleak shrub-land on either side. He was a far cry from the arrogant, uniformed Nazi killer on the Eastern Front. Hoffmann slowed the car to a walking speed and wound down the window.
‘Well the boot’s on the other foot now, Mr Kesselmann. You hunted our people down in their thousands and murdered them without mercy. Now it’s your turn to be hunted down, and brought to justice.’
Kesselmann turned his haunted face towards Hoffmann ‘I’m not Max Kesselmann. I’ve killed none of your people. I wasn’t even there when it happened. I’m an innocent man. Why don’t you get out of Valdez and just leave me in peace.’
‘Still trying to deny it all.’
‘I’ve done nothing. And I’m not the one you’re looking for.’
‘You’ve managed to evade justice, all these years. But you’re going to pay for your crimes.’
He parked the car by a verge of the road, got out and followed the man on foot.
Kesselmann, having gone beyond words to express himself, took out an ancient revolver from an inside pocket and pointed it with tremulous hand, at his pursuer. ‘I warned you to leave me alone.’
‘What the hell are you doing!’ Hoffmann shouted.
A shot just winged past his right ear. Hoffmann ran back, and crouched behind his car, as another shot pierced the air. In desperation he retrieved his own gun, and as Kesselmann approached, intent on killing his tormentor, Hoffmann fired his gun. He tried to aim to merely wound and incapacitate, but he wasn’t a good shot and was too nervous and jumpy to steady himself. The old man was hit through the heart: he gasped, crumpled and fell, dead to the ground.
He hadn’t wanted such an abrupt conclusion to his search for Kesselmann. It was too clean and quick an end for such a monster. He would have preferred it, had he been arrested, stood trial, faced cross-examination, the testimony of witnesses and the few surviving victims of his handiwork, then a guilty sentence and a lonely prison cell for the rest of his life. Also, he hadn’t been able to tell him, to his face, that he had killed his brother.
Now it would be Hoffmann who would face a jail sentence if the nature of that killing ever came to light. Fortunately it was a quiet road and no traffic was about. The only eyes to see were those of birds and some nearby sheep that had been roused from their grazing. He pulled the body over a hedge and placed it in a ditch, which he covered with soil, branches, stones and pieces of wood, till it was completely obscured from sight. No doubt it would be discovered in time; but by then he hoped he would be safely out of the country.
He drove back to town. It was evening and the sleepy town was enjoying what little nightlife it aspired to. He swiftly made his way to his hotel room.
He poured himself a stiff drink to steady his nerves, swallowed half of it, left the glass on a table and hastily set about packing his belongings into a travelling bag. He took the bag down to the car and locked it in the boot. He went back to the hotel room for the last time, to check that he hadn’t left any incriminating material about. He entered the room, picked up his glass and took a sip, then suddenly froze, as he realised that the door had been left slightly ajar, when he distinctly remembered shutting it as he left to put the case in the car. He looked ahead of him. The glass door to the balcony was also open and a balmy night breeze issued into the room.
He noticed, with an almost nauseous feeling of dread, that a distinct form stood on the balcony, watching him, impassively. He daren’t move. He stood, with glass in hand, not knowing what to do. The moment stretched agonizingly, with only the ticking of a clock, the warm, lapping breeze, and his own heartbeat, to penetrate the appalling silence.
The shadowy form took on motion, and slowly entered the room. A tall, dapper man emerged into view. He wore a well-cut suit, shiny black shoes, and there was a stylish felt hat on his head, with a feather in its side; just as on some of the photographs he had seen. He wore a pair of dark glasses and a gun in his right hand was pointed directly at Hoffmann.
‘We meet at long last, Mr Hoffmann. I’ve looked forward to this day for some time now.’
The stranger removed his sunglasses, folded them, and slid them into his top pocket. Hoffmann looked on in open disbelief. He was the very incarnation of Kesselmann. The living duplicate of the man he had shot and killed that very day. Though this figure was a more elegant, confident apparition altogether.
‘May I introduce myself. I’m Max Kesselmann.’
‘You can’t be Kesselmann. He’s dead. I shot him this evening.’
‘You shot my brother, Heinz. My identical twin brother.’
Hoffmann shook his head. ‘But your brother died back in the Twenties. It’s on the record.’
‘That’s what the authorities think, Mr Hoffmann. Perhaps I should tell you the full story. My brother killed a man in a brawl, in a beer cellar, after they had argued with each other.’ He smiled, bleakly. ‘And like many arguments at that time, it was all about politics. But he managed to escape before the police arrived. My family and I didn’t want to see my brother tried and hanged, so we arranged for a little accident to happen. We flung his jacket, with his papers, his wallet and a small photograph of himself, into a lake. I alerted the police and when they found his jacket, and the identifying material it contained, it was assumed that he had either died in a boating accident or killed himself. The case was closed. At the same time, using some influential family connections, we managed to obtain some new documents for my brother. And with the aid of a new name and identity, we smuggled him out of Germany. He knew that he could never return to his homeland again, and he went all the way to Paraguay. He spent the first twenty years in Asunción, where, with the money we supplied him, he managed to establish a new life for himself. And then he moved here, to Valdez, where he set himself up as a small farmer.’
‘So I killed your brother.’
‘Indeed,’ Kesselmann smiled, ‘just as I killed yours, all those years ago. Yes, I’ve done my research on you as well, Mr Hoffmann. At least on that score we’re now even.’
‘Why did you write to ask me to come here, Mr Kesselmann? To Valdez?’
‘I was sick of being the prey, the hunted one, Mr Hoffmann. It goes against all my instincts. So I decided to turn the tables on you. I invited you over to Valdez, precisely because my twin brother lives, or rather lived, here. I may have saved his life back in the Twenties, but my brother and I never saw eye to eye on politics. He was a committed communist. While my beliefs, of course, were the polar opposite. And from the day I joined the National Socialist Party, we have had no contact with each other.’ He smiled again. ‘Until recently that is. He wanted nothing to do with me, and like yourself, detested everything I stood for. And he was resigned to living his anonymous, almost peasant life, as long as he could distance himself as far as possible from all connection with his twin brother. And so imagine his horror and disgust, when, after all those years, I contacted Heinz, and informed him that the famous Nazi-hunter, Karl Hoffmann, was shortly to arrive in Valdez, with the mistaken notion that he, Heinz, was the war criminal, Max Kesselmann. I knew that it would drive my brother to the brink of madness; and that as such, he would be capable of the most desperate and irrational behaviour.’
‘So the letter was just a sham.’
‘It certainly served its purpose Mr Hoffmann. If you were to kill my brother, or he was to kill you, I would find myself in a much more agreeable situation. If he killed you, I would be free of my greatest tormentor. If however, you killed him, as is now the case, there could also be positive consequences for me. Seeing that he is of German origin and physically identical to me, it would be rapidly concluded that this was indeed the notorious war criminal, Max Kesselman; who had assumed another persona, and had adopted an invented name, and had lived an obscure life in the interior of Paraguay, in order to hide and conceal his true identity, just as Eichmann, Mengele and others had done. And many would regard his death as being the work of Mossad agents. The case would be closed and I would be free to resume my existence as a blameless Swiss expatriate.’
‘What d’you intend to do now?’
‘Of the two options, my brother killing you, or you killing my brother, I would have much preferred the former. You’re a resourceful and intelligent man. I feel that you would have suspected that something was amiss, and dug deeper into my brother’s background. You are after all a professional investigator. You may well have found out that the man you killed, was another person, entirely. And then it would be back to square one.’
‘So you intend to kill me too!’
‘I’m afraid that it has to come to this, Mr Hoffmann. I will never be safe and secure while you are still alive.’
Hoffmann looked down at the black gun muzzle of the luger and a bitter smile came to his lips. ‘Well, it won’t be the first time will it?’
‘No, but it should be the last.’ He smiled, with the apparition of good humour. ‘And then I can go back to resume my quiet existence, with my adopted identity that I have become quite comfortable with. Though this time I shall take up permanent residence in Asunción.’
‘And you think you’ll get away with it?’
‘I don’t see why not. Indeed, until you and your associates appeared on the scene, my life was quite secure on this continent. And I would point out, Mr Hoffmann, that Paraguay isn’t exactly a liberal, Western democracy. And it’s leader, General Stroessner, a man of German extraction I should add, has always been quite sympathetic to expatriates, of my nature. But, we’ve talked long enough, Mr Hoffmann, it’s high time that matters were concluded. To tell you the truth, I wish that things had never come this far, or that my brother had had to be involved in this regrettable business. But you’ve made this a question of my survival, or yours.’
He leant over and with his free hand switched on the radio that stood on an adjacent table. An anonymous pop track blared through the speaker. He turned up the volume till the sound was loud enough to cover the noise of a gun shot.
In an act of spontaneous impulse, as Kesselmann straightened himself, to re-aim his gun, Hoffmann flung the contents of his drink into Kesselmann’s eyes. He shrieked and shook his head, as Hoffmann leapt across and pushed the man backwards. They fell into the balcony, upending the table and sending the radio crashing onto the floor in the process. Kesselmann managed to push Hoffmann aside. He clambered to his feet and with fear and panic jumped backwards to avoid further entanglement with his pursuer, and to find some space from which to shoot and kill Hoffmann. But in his haste and impatience he went too far and too fast to be contained safely within the narrow confines of the balcony, and his body, carried away by its own momentum, crashed against and then over the parapet. He waved his arms helplessly, shrieked a wild curse in his mother tongue, and fell, for what seemed an interminable time, until he collided with the stone paving below, and died on impact.
Birds squawked and took wing into the black, clammy, tropical night. There were screams from some passers-by. Running steps were heard on the dark spaces below. Lights flickered on behind various windows, and blinds were opened.
In the gathering confusion Hoffmann unplugged the radio, ran from his room, down the steps, out of the hotel and into his waiting car. He drove, at full speed, towards Asunción.
It was with a sense of profound relief that he took a flight, from the Paraguayan capital, to Lima.
Michael Noonan lives in Halifax (home of the Piece Hall), West Yorkshire, has a background in food production, retail and office work. Has had stories published in the anthology volumes, ‘Even More Tonto Stories’; and ‘Shades of Sentience’. A fairy-tale he penned, entitled, The Guardian of the Wood, has been published in the Fantasy Arts and Studies journal in France, and a story he wrote, called, The Personality Cult, has been published by Terror House Magazine, based in Budapest, Hungary. Has had a short story, The Labyrinth, printed in the anthology volume, Colp: Underground, in Australia, and his tale, All the Time in the World has been published in Fission #2 Volume 1: Stories from the British Science Fiction Association. Has had an article on the Titanic published in a literary anthology called Watermarks, in aid of the Calder Valley Flood Relief Charity, and an article he wrote – using the pseudonym, Albert Hall - about J.G. Ballard has been published on the cultural literary website; www.literaryyard.com. He won second prize in the Pen Nib International Writing Competition 2021 for an essay, Who Guards the Guardians (about the unacknowledged power of the press and the media). Has had a book of stories published, entitled; Seven Tall Tales, that is available on Amazon, as a book or a kindle. His comic one act play, entitled, Elvis and the Psychiatrist, has been shown at the Sundance ten minute comedy festival at the Sixth Theatre in Racine Wisconsin. Another one act drama, A Restive Audience, has been published in Hello Godot! An Anthology of One Act Plays Volume 2 by Fresh Words publishing company in America; and another play, The Conference Speech, has been published in another anthology by the same company. He also enjoys painting, drawing and photography.