Rio de Janeiro, December 1954
Warm, blinding rain had transformed the crushed-gravel roadway into somewhat of a swamp. A lone man waited beneath a tin awning, watched the two-story house across the street. He’d been waiting a quarter-hour or so. He wasn’t expecting anyone in particular.
In fact, Cullen sought a dead man.
He watched a light wink off and on twice through the lace-curtained window next to the front door. A minute passed before the door opened. Cullen tossed his smoke and stepped off the sidewalk. He trotted across the street, his raincoat and boots scant protection from the monsoons. When he reached the door, an old man stepped into view and blocked the entrance. He had a bushy, white beard and matching eyebrows. The crags that ran through his face were visible even in the dim light.“You have something for me?”
Cullen nodded. He reached into his pocket and extracted a wad of bills.
“That’s right,” Cullen replied as he proffered the cash. “Problem?”
The old gent smiled as the U.S. currency disappeared uncounted into his pocket. “Of course not. Come in out of the rain, fool. Come.”
Cullen stepped inside and removed his fedora. Steam vapor rose from his coat.
His host gestured Cullen to follow as he turned and led him through a labyrinth of rooms. Everywhere Cullen looked he saw books—hundreds of books, thousands of books of every age and on most every subject from what titles he could make out—providing some explanation for why the man was known in circles as “the Archivist.”
They reached a door and beyond it descended a stairwell that opened to a cellar. The temperature dropped significantly and it was only when they reached the bottom Cullen realized it couldn’t have been natural. In the gloom he saw a bank of freezers against one, damp wall. Not cheap if even possible in the majority of this country. Such was a luxury only the wealthiest were able to afford, even back in the States. Obviously, the Archivist had connections at the highest levels.
The old man led Cullen through a maze of crypt-like structures until stopping before a slab. A linen shroud covered the form of a human body. The Archivist looked at Cullen who nodded, then whipped back the linen and switched on an overhead lamp. He stepped back so Cullen could get a closer look.
Cullen stared at the skull-like, sunken face of the corpse a long time.
The Archivist waited in silence until he could no longer stand it. “Is this the man you were looking for?”
Cullen shook his head and muttered, “I’m not sure… maybe.”
He reached into the pocket of his raincoat and removed the photograph. Was this the older, diseased version of the young and strong and arguably handsome face in that picture? The face of chiseled features, white skin and strong blue eyes bore a stark contrast to the black, Schutzstaffel uniform worn by the man in that photograph. That had only been thirteen years ago, give or take.
Could this sickened, gaunt, helpless face of torment before him now really be the same man? Cullen finally decided. Yes. This was the evildoer he’d sought, dead at a mere forty-one years old. Not that Cullen felt any remorse in that fact, albeit he derived no satisfaction from it either. He’d learned best how to be dispassionate in a grim job like this.
“What was the cause of death?” Cullen asked.
“Cancer in his lungs and throat,” the Archivist replied.
“Anyone else know his real identity?”
“He lived here under the assumed name of Dietmar Glöckner.”
Cullen sighed. “It’s the disease that wasted him away, makes identification difficult. But I’m convinced this is Hans Steinmahl, an SS captain who served at the Bełżec concentration camp from forty-two to forty-four. Personally responsible for overseeing the murder of nearly a half-million Jews, Gypsies, Russians, and Poles under direct orders from Himmler.”
“It is sad what man can conjure to do to his fellow man.”
Cullen said, “What’s sad is we keep doing it, even when we know how horrible we already are. Makes my business stink even to me.”
“Why were you hired to find this man?”
Cullen shrugged with a frown. “What else? Track him down and see he was brought to justice, dead or in bad shape. Preferably the former, although I’m never questioned when I say I found them deceased. Funny how that works. But the war has died slowly for some, and they just won’t rest until every last Nazi swings from the Nuremberg gallows.”
“Yours is a grisly business, Mr. Cullen.”
“Tell me about it.”
“And having now positively identified this as the man you sought, what are your instructions?” the Archivist asked.
Cullen returned the photo to his pocket and a spy-camera appeared in its place. He snapped a photograph of the man’s face, made a notation in his notebook, and turned to leave. As he departed the makeshift morgue Cullen muttered, “None. God beat me to it.”