Vignette: The Quiet Max

By Charles EP Murphy



On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).


The theme for the 48th contest was Pulp.

 

When the freikorps came roaring into a village on their DKW’s and NSU’s, you got the hell out of that village.


If they were just some regular veterans who liked to bike around or bored bourgeois playing dress-up over the weekend, you took their money and smirked behind their back. Many a village was kept going in the lean months by the weekend bikers. Even the dumb sucker teenage hoodlums who liked to claim they were proper criminals but still had all their zits, you could shut them down if they got out of hand. But your actual freikorps, in unwashed leather padding and helmets modified to look like pickelhaube’s and their models on their jackets? Beatings, wreckings, rapes, murders all up and down Germany? Even the police don’t want to be in a village when they show up, because those guys enjoy taking police scalps.


Which was a problem because Polizeiobermeister Max Ernsting was in the village when the freikorps came roaring in.


He’d been telling off one of the local herberts for petty shoplifting when the gang tore down the main road in a regimental formation of three-man ranks. Both sides of the road, forcing the few cars to ride on the pavement sharpish. Every freikorp in the nearest rank turned to look at him and the kid on their way past, sneering and spitting as they went. Beards and scars and broken noises; at the rear was one of the gang’s girls, and she had a battle-scar across half her face.


“Max?” whispered the little herbert, who’d been a swaggeringly surly hooligan just a minute ago. “They’re not going to stay, right?”


“Go home and stay there.”


The freikorps were splitting up now, which he knew from reports was a standard move. They’d ride up and down the whole village, especially all the side roads – “we can go anywhere we want,” it said. Then they’d all get back together for… whatever it was.


Helmut the Hauptmeister had somehow picked this exact weekend to be ‘visiting the in-laws’, which left Ernsting the most senior officer out of three people. Max Ernsting, a soft-voiced fair-headed lanky man, had to lead the polizeimeister’s Fat Henrik and young Sophie against fifteen barbarians.


A house window broke because a freikorpsman had thrown something through it. Just to show he could.


Ernsting stayed in village policework to keep away from the chaos and violence of the city police. He’d had enough excitement in the World War. Everyone in Germany, everyone on Earth, should have had enough excitement in those two years of global hell; it left them masters of half of Europe but at the cost of half of Europe. But the freikorps, well, they’d either been broken going into the war or they’d been broken coming out, but they were broken and trying to get their adrenaline rushes back by breaking others. Ernsting didn’t want to tangle with them.


But like in 1940, he’d taken the uniform by choice so he had to do it.


The police station was his first port of call, running there in his gangly dorky run. Sophie was there, waiting for orders and plainly thinking ‘don’t send me out there’; Henrik was there with their rifle in his hands, sweating in terror. Ernsting ordered her to follow protocol: put a call in to the regional headquarters and request they send backup. Big, heavy backup.


“And we’re just going to wait for them?” asked Henrik, though he sounded like he hoped the answer was ‘yes’.


“You two are. If what I’m about to try fails, there need to be two other officers to delay the bastards.”


“What are you going to try?”


“Asking them to leave.”


Sophie broke in, exasperated: “They wouldn’t do that if you were Kaiser Louis! This isn’t a drunk yelling at their neighbours, Max!”


“We can’t wait, we don’t have the numbers for violence, this is the only play left. It’s not ideal but there it is.”


And there it was.


The freikorps had made it easy for him by going to the pub first, the venerable old Black Pig. There had been enough room for all the bikes, but the tables outside had all been hurled down the road to ‘make more room’. Inside, he could already hear raised voices and the Rock-Ola playing bavarijazz on too high a volume. This would be the start of it, they’d move on to the rest of the town at random.


Ernsting steeled himself and ambled in.


The freikorps were sprawled out across the pub and had forced random youngsters to sit at their tables, the floor was awash in beer, and the barmaids looked like they’d been drafted into the fallschirmjägers for the Battle of Paris. One of the freikorpers had been slouched in the corner to see anyone coming in, the lookout, a rangy man with a shaved head and oversized ‘tache. That guy looked at him and whistled.


While the horde didn’t snap to attention, they all shifted positions to see him and get up when they wanted. The local boys and girls, unwanted drinks in their hands and trapped in their seats, looked at him with hopeful panic. (Except young Albrecht, who seemed annoyed. He’d always wondered about young Albrecht)


“No crimes committed here, boss,” said a hulking man, looking over at the bar owner. “Is there?”


Ernsting couldn’t let them go down that road, had to cut off their momentum.


“I want to speak to your rittmeister.”


A once-handsome man with old burns across his face unfolded himself from the corner. His knuckles had Viking tattoos on, his jacket held medals for distinguished service and for fighting in the Orient Front, and he moved like he was about to punch you.


“Your mother didn’t teach you to ask nicely?” he asked in a Sudeten accent. “You think because you’re a pig, you can talk to people like that?”


“I want to make a deal. If I can beat you in a bike race, you leave. If I can’t, I’ll leave.”


Not a great deal but turning it down would be a loss of face. The rittmeister grinned like he meant it and took the deal.


Everyone came out of the pub to watch, with the freikorps dragging everyone else. The rittmeister – “Von”, everyone called him – took his battered and snarling DKW, Ernsting collected his own and let everyone laugh at it as last year’s model, inferior to Von’s. And it was, and that wasn’t the best, but it was the only option.


“Four-lap relay around the village,” said Von.


“Done.”


One of the horde’s women – with her own medal, she was one of the ‘Danzig Angels’ who’d held off the sea landing, Jesus wept – took the role of waving the chequered flag. She’d torn the state flag off the pub wall for it. But don’t focus on that.


“GO!”


Ernsting and Von both gunned their engines and shot off down the road, speed climbing to 45mph.


Ernsting heard swearing to his side. Von hadn’t expected him to go that fast.


The first side road was coming up. Von slowed down slightly to make the turn – Ernsting just turned.


He almost fell off but righted himself in the split second; kept going, speed up; spin round at the end and come back, catch Von coming halfway and the look of shock on his face. Pull out of the side road, now speed up—take it all the way to fifty


At every side road, he scaled down to 45 and then back up when he was out. He was leaving Von far behind with every little cut.


The coldest part of Ernsting’s mind calculated the odds. The smartest thing his foe could do was give up, but he could not let himself be smart if he was to remain a freikorp rittmeister; discount that. The next smartest thing would be to match Ernsting’s speed as best he could, assume he could catch up in the end or Ernsting would make a mistake; low odds, not when Von would feel humiliated. So what he’d do…


And on the road back to the pub, a straight run, Von sped up and up and up until he was bombing along at 60mph to catch up. Faster than that now. Faster still.


They were almost at the pub. Von would have to pass him or at least pull level to save face with his gang.


Ernsting increased his own speed to 60.


Von was still coming up fast, now at 70. Maybe more. Fast as death.


And Ernsting rolled the dice and jerked his bike just so, like he was about to veer into Von’s path. If he was off by the slightest motion, the meanest split second, he’d fall off or actually veer in and it’d be over.


But Ernsting stayed on, and Von – every instinct yelling to avoid collision – yanked too hard on his bike handles and came crashing down on the pavement at 70 miles an hour. He skipped like a stone on water.


Ernsting snapped into a swerving halt at the pub and watched the freikorps’ faces as their rittmeister’s bike came screeching towards them on its side.


“I see he’s forfeited,” he said, still in his quiet manner but no longer as affable as he’d seemed before. “Victory for me by default.”


One or two men looked like they’d get violent over this, but Ernsting had his sidearm out. This wouldn’t have intimidated enough when the freikorps numbered fifteen, inside, with hostages, and hadn’t seen their leader fail and bleed. But now?


“Go.”


The freikorps rode out as fast as they could. Once they’d left, Ernsting checked on the fallen Von but he was very, very dead. Not really the sort of thing the policeman wanted to do but better one lowlife than some of the villagers.


Von’s medals had come off. There was an Order of the Red Eagle there, for whatever he’d done during the war in China or Korea. A shame. He wondered what the man had done, if it had been good or worthy.


Few people knew Ernsting had a Red Eagle of his own, and a Pour le Mérite, for his services in the Luftwaffe. Motorbikes weren’t as fast or dangerous as that, not as exciting, but he’d never tell people that. He didn’t want the excitement anymore.

 

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Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen and Comics of Infinite Earths both published by SLP.