In this short story, we meet Eric Köhner, late of the SS and now right hand man of the malevolent menace known as the Guru.
I thought it would be fun to write a piece as viewed through the eyes of the master villain's deputy, someone who is all too aware of the short life expectancy of your average 'baddie's minion'. Unlike the deadly Kali, Köhner is a pragmatic mercenary, rather than a brainwashed loyalist to the Guru's cause. He cares little for his employer's devilish master plan; he's only here for 'the money and the bloodshed' (itself a shout-out to an obscure mercenary character played by In At The Deep End's Paul Heiney in the comedy film Water (1985).
The title of the story is taken from the original German title of Lili Marleen, Köhner's favourite song. Note the foreshadowing of the short story The Perfect Sage of Deaths, when Köhner muses on the Guru's apparent game-playing. Biberswald is the name of the town in a German textbook I read at school (hey, if Dr Who can reuse Latin textbook character Caecilius in Fires of Pompei...).
Köhner is one of those old Nazi officers who never quite salutes properly, as identified in this classic Smith and Jones sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_Z6tv7cQmM
Points will be awarded for naming the homage to a classic 20th century adventure novel in the opening lines, as well as identifying the origins of Köhner's two dogs.
* * *
Soldier on Watch
Köhner returned to base at 1500 that midwinter day with a mood as black as the old SS uniform he kept in his quarters. He had now spent some twelve weeks in the mountains and was thoroughly sick of the place.
Disembarking from the cable car and stepping out into the frigid air of the high
Himalayas, he scowled at his surroundings and stamped his
boots in the snow.
Nirvana was the base of his employer’s latest
project, some nonsense to do with satellites that he only pretended to understand.
That sort of thing was best left to over-educated scientists and the Guru
himself, who seemed to revel in every little technical detail of his infernal
schemes. To Köhner, it often seemed that his uncanny master saw these plots and
schemes as little more than a game, some ridiculously complicated game of chess
with thousands of pieces and a board the size of the world.
And what did that make Köhner himself? A pawn? Certainly not. Was he not a former Scharführer of the infamous SS, the so-called ‘Butcher of Biberswald’? Had he not commanded troops of his own, leading his men into the teeth of battle? Had he himself not ordered the deaths of countless others, be they armed enemy units, bothersome captives or simply intransigent local peasants? No, no pawn he, but not a king either, not while he leapt to the strange, often unknowable, whims of his cruel employer.
Köhner mused for a moment at his own self-delusion. To think of his relationship with the Guru as that of employer and employee, or even general and captain, was to put far too pleasant, far too civilized, a face on matters. Nobody ever left the Guru’s service, nobody ever mustered out or moved on to other opportunities, not even valued personnel such as Eric Köhner. To his knowledge, the only way anybody ever left S.H.I.V.A. was by their death.
As he marched across the icy compound to the bunker entrance, he found himself mentally tallying the staggeringly high mortality rate of S.H.I.V.A. personnel by the Guru’s own command: whether it was trial by deadly combat, to relieve his boredom or to blood a new assassin, as a hapless test subject for some new laser device or sonic cannon, or far too often, slain by the Guru’s loyal, beautiful shadow Kali as punishment for some failure to please.
How Köhner himself had survived this long in S.H.I.V.A. was nothing short of a miracle, though he liked to think it had a little to do with his unique combination of ruthless efficiency and a willingness to sacrifice an underling in case of disaster. Survival was all to Köhner, survival and the glorious roar of battle.
The bunker’s interior, shielded from the freezing temperature and merciless winds outside by several feet of concrete, was a welcome shelter from the elements, which Köhner had noticed had become even harsher since the Guru had begun experimenting with his latest electronic toy. He shook the snow from his outer garments as two guards saluted him sharply, as he had drilled them to do.
Köhner flicked back a casual salute of his own, too pre-occupied with his thoughts to register their faces, though it scarcely mattered. Why waste his time with the names and faces of men who could be dead by next week? Or tomorrow? Or within the hour, should the Guru’s mood take him? Besides, they were hardly soldier material, little more than uniformed thugs better suited to guarding the doors to some dingy
nightclub. Not like his old squad in Der
Zweite Weltkrieg, his dogs of death. Now those were real soldiers;
well-trained, well-armed, well-led. Not like this scum.
He turned down a concrete corridor and caught sight of a guard standing at ease by a laboratory door. Köhner came to a halt in front of him and looked the man in the eye. Snapping to attention far too late, the fellow fairly vibrated on the spot, beads of nervous sweat breaking out beneath his visor, his hand quivering against the butt of his shouldered rifle. He held the guard’s gaze for a few more seconds, leaning in slightly and breathing down his nose.
“As you were.” he drawled, and moved on. Spineless wretch. How could he hope to lead such as that into battle? Fear was a palpable presence in
as it was in all S.H.I.V.A. bases. It was something Köhner understood, and
harnessed as best he could, though even he felt its debilitating effects scraping
away at his well-ordered mind. Mount Nirvana
He came to the guards’ barracks and stood at the open door, nodding to his sergeant, an American brute called Cobb who had distinguished himself, though his former superiors in the U.S. Army might have said ‘disgraced’, by his bloody activities in
Southeast Asia. A useful man, Cobb stood to
attention, dropping an oily rag he had been using to maintain his sidearm, currently
in pieces on an upturned packing case. Glad to see someone as eager as he for
action, Köhner nodded to his subordinate and let the man get on with his work.
Before reaching his personal quarters, the Scharführer paused at some kennels, where two of the base’s savage attack dogs instantly leapt at the bars of their confinement, snarling and biting, their claws grating against the metalwork.
“Ach, you are hungry, yes?” inquired Köhner, squatting down to the beasts’ level, careful to keep just out of reach as they continued to snap and slaver with a near rabid fervour. He fished in the pockets of his outer coat and pulled out something red and ragged. “You like this, Struppi?” He dangled the scrap before one of the dogs, which lunged forward eagerly, teeth flashing inches from Köhner’s face. He grinned. “And you Blondi, you want this too, hein?”
Now both hounds jostled for the meaty morsel as he tossed it between the bars and let them fight for the treat, tearing it to pieces between them in seconds.
Seconds passed as he took in every detail of this ferocious, primeval scene. “We are not so different you and I,” he said, standing and idly wiping his reddened fingers with a handkerchief. “Like you, I hunger, for battle, for the glorious rush of the blood, the sound of men struggling for their lives, for their deaths!”
His voice had risen considerably in volume during his address, and a little self-consciously, Köhner nodded to the squabbling dogs and let himself into his quarters, closing the door with a satisfyingly well-oiled click.
The room was small - he did not require much space for comforts - but furnished according to his needs. A bed, a clothes stand where his old uniform hung, a wall-mounted rack for a few automatic weapons, a dog-eared, black and white photograph of Eichmann and an ageing gramophone player. He put a record on and moved the needle over. Scratchy, familiar words crackled out of the speaker as Köhner shrugged off his outer coat and sat down on the bed, closing his eyes to better take in the music.
“Ah Lili, it was always you, only ever you,” his mind drifting back across the years to a younger man, a soldier alone on the front. Köhner’s whole body began to relax, the months of inactivity up here in the mountains, the endless drills, the capricious cruelties of his master, the utter monotony, all melted away with the music. Now he was at peace, now he could-
security alarm sounded, drowning out the tinny old record. Harsh, insistent
klaxons which could only mean that there was a security breach. Köhner became
instantly alert, eyes now wide open, hands reaching for his weapons with
practised fluidity. Mount Nirvana
Bursting from his quarters, he raced along the stark corridors of the bunker heading toward his assigned defensive position, as he had long trained – dare he say hoped? – for.
Men scrambled from the barracks and other points, converging on Köhner, looking to him for leadership.
“You, you, you and you, with me, to the communications mast. Cobb,” the sergeant loomed at his side, “take two men and secure the radar array.” The American grunted and loped off across the compound.
“And somebody bring the dogs. Schnell!”