ATLANTIC CITY, NEW JERSEY
THE FBI AGENTS climbed the grimy wooden stairwell smoothly, five sylphs in rubber-soled boots, black Ninja suits, Kevlar vests and helmets with visors lowered. Their Mach 10s were clean and loaded, their gloved fingers inside the trigger guards.
Melissa Gale followed them up the steps at a short distance, her sneakers, turtleneck, and bulletproof vest suddenly feeling inadequate. But it didn't matter. She wanted this guy so much it made her mouth dry. "Come on, Adalwolf," she said in a soft whisper, "be inside that room." She had a habit of talking to herself when the pressure was on.
The SWAT team leader reached the top of the stair and put his back to the wall next to the door while the other agents moved silently into postion. Next to the leader was a nervous rookie holding a Maglite the size of a night stick, and on the other side of the door was a veteran African-American agent from the Washington field office named Harris Johnson. In front of the door were two more agents with a battering ram.
Melissa climbed the steps until her eyes reached floor level beneath the wooden banister. It was rare for a prosecutor to join the FBI on an arrest-in addition to the danger, it could make her a witness-but there were unusual circumstances in this case. She was closer to the action than she was supposed to be, but the agents were too focused to notice. She pushed her brunette hair back and rested her double-gloved hands on the banister's lower rail, at eye level. Looking straight ahead, she saw the flickering blue light of a TV set coming through the crack at the bottom of the door.
He was in there. Seventy-five-year old Adalwolf-Josef Mengele's teenage lab assistant at Auschwitz, the last Nazi on her list-was watching television in a rooming house in Atlantic City's run-down Inlet section.
Melissa's heart felt fuel-injected. Since she'd gotten word five years earlier that he was living in the United States, capturing him had been like trying to grab smoke. Twice they'd broken down doors where he was supposed to be only to find nothing. As a lawyer for OSI, the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations-the "Nazi hunters"-she had arrested eight former Nazis living in the U.S. and deported them by court order, but none of them were like this. This one wasn't a toothless old geezer hiding out as a retired car salesman in Des Moines; this one was still active, still a menace. Although she couldn't prove it yet, she was sure he'd killed three people with a deadly virus called NTX. All Jews. The FBI's digital tracing program, called BackFire, had located him in this flophouse three hours earlier when he'd sent Melissa one of his taunting e-mails.
This time, he didn't know they were coming.
The SWAT team leader from the Newark field office raised his hand, signaling his men to get ready.
Melissa patted her pocket and felt the search warrant. She'd never set eyes on Adalwolf, didn't even have a photograph of him except for one taken in 1944 when he was the acolyte of the "Butcher of Auschwitz." But she knew how to identify him. Two death camp survivors had testified that he had a black totenkopf-the SS death's head-tattooed on his upper left arm. The judge's arrest warrant required her to see it as a condition of arrest. In addition, Adalwolf had no voice box, which she knew because she'd talked to him many times on the telephone. If they arrested him and got him to speak through his electrolarynx, she'd recognize his voice in a second.
The team leader counted down: three fingers, two fingers, one. When the last digit disappeared, the agents with the ram smashed in the door with one swing, knocking it off its hinges.
HARRIS JOHNSON AND the team leader went through the door with their submachine guns in hand yelling, "FBI! Don't move!" followed by two agents on their flanks, automatics at eye level. The rookie shined a beam of light into the subject's face.
Watching from the stair, Melissa caught a glimpse of an old man sitting in a worn club chair, his grizzled face stunned and confused, his eyes squinting at the Maglite and guns. Harris Johnson, whom she'd been working with on the case, put the muzzle of his weapon against the old man's head and said, "We can't prone him out, he's hooked up!"
Another agent said, "I say we put him down anyway!"
The team leader said, "Everybody hold what you got!"
Ordinarily they would have put their subject face down on the floor and cuffed his hands behind his back, but there was an IV pole standing next to him with a plastic bag of fluid at the top and a clear tube running down to his arm. She heard the team leader yell from beneath his lowered visor, "Okay, Harris, you've got the controls."
Harris Johnson looked at the old man a moment, then yelled, "Okay Gale! We're ready to make an ID!"
Melissa Gale pulled her industrial mask over her nose and mouth, adjusted the elastic straps behind her head, and climbed the remaining steps toward the open door. Entering the room, she saw an old man in gray sweatpants and a dirty T-shirt sitting upright with his arms resting on tattered armrests, his feet on the floor, his head wobbling but proud and erect. She thought he looked more like a dying tennis player than a killer.
She looked around the room and saw his ratty slippers, an unmade Murphy bed, magazines and junk strewn around, a grimy window at the back wall, a Styrofoam coffee cup, and a TV set still flickering with a Seinfeld rerun. To her right was a kitchenette with dirty pots in the sink, a Formica table with a laptop computer on it, lid up, screen dark. On the wall was a movie poster of Saving Private Ryan.
She stepped up to the subject and looked into a pair of watery eyes. Could this old coot with salt-and-pepper stubble and a Zane Grey paperback on his lap still be killing people? Yes, he could. Evil didn't look like Freddy Kruger, evil looked ordinary. Banal. Like him.
"He looks doped up," an agent said.
"Don't take anything for granted!" Harris Johnson said.
"Maybe he caught his own virus," the team leader said. "He looks like he's got the flu."
Melissa stepped in closer.
Harris Johnson said, "Come on, Melissa, we need positive ID."
She stooped down with her face level with his. "Who are you?" she said through her mask. He didn't speak. "Nod if you are Adalwolf." He didn't nod. She stood up and reached toward him slowly. He stared at her through bleary eyes as she rolled up the sleeve of his T-shirt.
It was right where it was supposed to be: a faded black tattoo of a human skull-the Totenkopf-the symbol of the Nazi SS.
She turned to Harris and nodded. He looked at it and agreed. She stooped in front of the old man again and pulled her mask down around her neck, revealing her face.
"Hello Adalwolf," she said. "It's me. Melissa Gale."
He stared at her a moment, then, as if he finally understood what was happening, slowly raised his right hand from the armrest. When it was a few inches off the fabric she could see an object taped to his palm-something dark and metallic-something resembling a-
"Gun!" an agent yelled.
WEAPONS CLACKED and Harris Johnson pushed his Mach 10 hard against the old man's skull.
Without warning, the rookie rammed the large end of the flashlight into the old man's chest, knocking spit out of his mouth.
"Easy!" Melissa said angrily, "It's not a gun, it's a microphone!" The team leader yanked the rookie's hands back, but the old man's wind was already gone. As much as Melissa hated him, she didn't like seeing him bashed in the chest. He wheezed, his face red, the veins on his neck prominent. Then his eyes glinted and the muscles in his arms rippled and a warrior's spirit inside him came alive. This, Melissa thought, was more like the Adalwolf she expected. He let out a phlegmy cough.
"Put your mask on," Harris Johnson told her.
She pulled the white shell over her mouth and pinched the frame onto the bridge of her nose. His eyes were watering and his lips dry. He raised the microphone another inch, and she thought, That's strange. His fingertips were wrapped in wet gauze.
The old man's hand stopped moving to let them see that he was holding an amplifier, not a weapon, then continued rising slowly. Despite the drugs or fever that clouded his mind, he understood that there were loaded guns pointed at his head. When his hand was about a foot away from his stoma-the hole at the base of his neck where his larynx used to be-Melissa noticed that the plastic IV line was dangling next to his elbow, unattached to his arm. And the liquid medicine wasn't draining out.
His hand-held electrolarynx continued approaching the base of his neck. He opened his lips to speak. Melissa's eyelids widened at the sight of a silver glint running up inside the clear plastic tubing.
"Wait!" she said.
But he didn't wait. He pressed the transmit button to talk. She heard the click of the battery-driven speaker and his first two electronic words -"You are-" The transmission sent an electrical charge up the silver wire into an explosive cap at the base of the IV bag, igniting a liter of liquid naphtha masquerading as medication.
THE BAG BURST into a blazing sun and dropped onto the old man's head, shoulders, and lap, splashing in all directions like spilled milk, engulfing everything in its path. Melissa and the agents leapt away with their hands shielding their faces as Adalwolf lit up like a self-immolating Buddhist monk. A bonfire swirled around him with a roar, turning his face into black silhouette behind a veil of orange.
Harris: "Keep it off your clothes!"
The team leader: "Over there!" Pointing.
Two agents yanked a braided rug from under a coffee table and threw it over Adalwolf's head. Flames licked out and joined the burning liquid on the floor.
"Water coming!" one of the agents yelled from the kitchenette. He had the faucet at the sink running full blast into a pot which he grabbed and threw toward the burning chair. Another agent stamped his feet on the flames; yet another beat them away from an agent's burning legs. Smoke and hot gases and the stench of burned flesh filled the room. Everyone was coughing.
"Get everybody out of the building!"
Three agents hustled through the open door and moved past tenants who were already standing on the stair to see what was going on. Agents ran up and down the stairwell yelling and knocking on doors, entering rooms, pulling residents out.
Harris Johnson and the rookie wrapped Adalwolf in the rug and carried his body down the steps. Melissa backed up to the door, looking at the flames creeping toward the walls. The full-throated wail of a fire truck sounded in the distance.
She saw the laptop on the table.
She ran between the licking spikes, grabbed the computer, and dashed to the door through a wall of fire. When she reached the stair she looked down at her legs and saw smoke drifting up from the soles of her shoes, but no flames. She jogged down and met Harris coming up.
"Is everyone out?" he shouted as he passed her.
"I don't know," she said.
Out on the sidewalk she stood looking up at smoke billowing from one of the old man's windows that had shattered from the heat. A wet December snow was falling with the ash.
The first fire truck arrived and the firemen jumped off just as Harris and the team leader came out the door. Everyone was out of the building, Harris said, and walked to an emergency medical van that sat idling with its rear doors open, about to receive Adalwolf's rug-covered body on a gurney. Harris and Melissa looked at his smoldering remains. Harris expressed his sentiments in a low voice: "Damn."
Melissa carried the laptop to the hood of the ambulance, lifted the top, and hit the function key. The screen lit up.
If you are reading this, Melissa, take no satisfaction from my death. You and your jackboot friends-at least the ones who survived-are going to miss me. But enough is enough. My work is done, and I choose to depart on my terms, not yours.
Joseph Goebbels wrote the Third Reich's epitaph in Hitler's bunker shortly before the end: "When we depart, let the earth tremble." The world has waited fifty years for that to happen, and now the time has come.
Look to a child to complete the Fuhrer's work, Melissa. The Final Solution isn't over, it's just begun.
P.S. The butter cookies in the round tin are terrific.
She closed the laptop and picked it up and found Harris.
"You okay?" he said.
She nodded and shivered. The wet cold was going to the bone.
"He almost nailed us," Harris said. "We've got two agents with burns."
Melissa looked over and saw them lifted into an ambulance. "How bad?"
Harris shrugged. They stared at each other.
"What?" Harris said.
"I don't understand why he killed himself," she said.
Harris yelled at an agent, "Jim-ride with the EMS, okay?" To Melissa he replied, "He knew his days were numbered and he wanted to take a few of us out before he went."
Melissa knew Adalwolf was capable of killing himself if he had good reason, but was trying to kill some FBI agents good enough? She didn't think so. His suicide was a sideshow to cover up something else. And why do it with fire? He hated fire. He'd once said in an e-mail to her, "Fire is for ovens, and ovens are for Jews."
Watching Harris walk over to a cluster of FBI agents, she held up the laptop to show him she had it, then headed for the helicopter.
Adalwolf loved the game. How had he won it by losing?
Excerpted from THE LAST NAZI © Copyright 2011 by Stan Pottinger. Reprinted with permission by Coronet Books. All rights reserved.