Department of First Stories

Burg's Hobby Case

by Matthew Wilson

On his day off, Hans Burg went to a junk shop. Some people called them antiques or memorabilia or collectibles, but Burg knew it was all just old junk. In their spring cleaning, people were smart about what to keep and what to get rid of, so most shops that dealt in antiques, according to Burg, were only fooling themselves and their customers. But Bad Kissingen was a good place for just such a shop. There were lots of tourists passing through for a spa, a Kur, and they could be seduced by material things from the past. A banker’s wife could fall for a token she could put on her mantel, something none of her rivals would ever find in a department store in Frankfurt or Munich.

For Burg, a day off was a relief. The murder case he’d been working had filled too much of his time. It was the first murder in Bad Kissingen in a decade. The last one was a domestic case practically closed the day it was opened by a man named Schmidt. That was back in ’67, when both Schmidt and Burg were only junior detectives, before Schmidt became Polizeihauptkommissar Schmidt, Burg’s chief. It was something to get used to, Burg thought at the time, a boss ten years younger.

Now Schmidt had assigned Burg the biggest case of his career, and Burg couldn’t understand why. He’d been slipping at work for a long time. There were too many late arrivals smelling of Katerfrühstück, the hangover remedy consisting of raw pickled herring, onions, and sour pickles. There were too many over-long lunches, with Burg returning to work in shirts and ties stained by Currywurst and Schweinsehaxen.

Any man in the station would have bet the murder case would go to Trautman or Waigl. They were competent men, not Burg. Sure, Burg could track down a pickpocket, one of those working the well-healed spa tourists, or a shoplifting American teenager, one of the children of the soldiers stationed at the nearby Daley Barracks. But not a dead girl in the park. And not just any park, but the Kurpark, where all those spa tourists strolled through a manicured landscape flowing between the resort hotels. The Kurpark, where Bad Kissingen made its money.

The junk shop, on the other hand, was on the very fringe of Bad Kissingen, far from the spa district, far from the gardens, the fountains, the mud baths, the massage tables. This particular shop wasn’t tidy enough, or profitable enough, to exist in the heart of Bad Kissingen, so it survived on the edge of it, like a scavenger.

Entering the shop, Burg could leave behind the murder case for another he’d been working in his spare time, his hobby case. It was not something on his actual caseload, but something on his mind, a little mystery he wanted to solve, to satisfy his own curiosity about someone. He was often distracted by these hobby cases, and he sometimes thought he’d be better off putting the energy he spent on them into his real cases. But there was something too attractive to Burg about a mystery no one cared about except for him.

When Burg pushed the door open, he heard the tinkle of the shopkeeper’s bell. The door and the bell, like the contents of the shop itself, were unwanted remnants of the bygone. The clerk or proprietor, Burg wasn’t sure, gave a “Grüß Gott,” barely looking up from the morning’s paper. He appeared as worn-out and used up as his merchandise.

Burg paced through the crowded and grimy shop. Only in a junk shop would people tolerate the dust and the unkempt displays. Any other shop and the neighbors would complain about the grit and hazard of the place, shaming the proprietor with scowls if not lodging an actual civil complaint. But this shop seemed not to care about such social pressure. It did have a kind of logic to its layout, even if the merchandise was haphazardly thrown around. There were whole sections dedicated to various classes of junk. There were shelves of ceramic figurines, dancers and maidens and farmers and cows. There was a corner for defunct or obsolete machinery for sewing and typing, and thrown in with those were old radios and simple Agfa box cameras. A collection of nutcrackers sat high up on a shelf to keep children from handling them. They stood lined up like florid sentinels, soldiers in lousy camouflage. There were shelves for old dolls and dishes, for binders of discarded stamp collections, and in another corner stood a beaten-up wardrobe, the doors open to reveal stacks of old magazines. A menagerie of beer steins cluttered up against another wall, and next to them were random pieces of silver—platters, knives, spoons, forks, coffee and tea sets. Burg was interested in none of this.

What he wanted to find, if it was here, would have to be kept in the back room. He browsed for ten minutes, attempting to give the impression of a tourist hoping for a random treasure. At a point that felt right, he approached the old man and his newspaper.

“I’m looking for something a little special,” Burg said, “something for my history-buff grandson in the States.”

The old man didn’t look up, his eyes still on the newspaper. “One of those.”

“One of what?”

“Your daughter run off with one of the GIs? Make another soldier for America?”

Burg paused. Take offense or share the outrage? After the war, how many German men watched their sisters or daughters rush off with dollar-rich American GIs while they scratched out a life in the rubble of the postwar economy? He began to imagine a little chess match to enlist the old man’s help. The daughter was a fiction, so it was easy to allow her abuse. Burg said, “You think you raise the child right, but she has a mind of her own.”

The old man looked up from the paper. “Mine too. She’s in Kentucky, a place called Radcliff.”

Burg shrugged his shoulders, as if to say What can a man do? He patted his breast pocket and pulled out a red box of Marlboros. He flipped the top open and slid out a cigaret with his thumb, offering it to the old man. “They’ve got my grandson, but I’ve got their cigarets.”

The old man took the offer, grabbing a heavy brass tabletop lighter priced at ten marks. He lit up then passed the lighter to Burg. Before lighting his cigaret, Burg examined the lighter, a chunk of brass shaped like a horse’s head, the filament jutting out of the top between flares of mane.

“So what have you got for a boy who wants to collect historical artifacts?” Burg said.

“Look around this place. It’s all history. You want to know which film star dated a prince, check those old magazines over there. You want to pretend there’s no electricity, try one of those old oil lamps. Over there in the beer steins, see if you can find a keepsake. Avoid the cheap ones, though. You’ll have to open them up to tell. See if there’s a relief at the bottom, maybe of a farmer and his sweetheart. That’s very nineteenth century. Your boy might like that.”

Burg tapped his cigaret into the ashtray on the counter, a kitsch piece of ceramic shaped like a pool with a naked mermaid swimming up out of it. “My grandson, I think, is interested in more recent history, not so long ago as the nineteenth century.”

“Weimar? I’ve got some Weimar stuff right over here. Come, have a look.” The old man led Burg over to a drawer at the other end of the counter. He opened it and pulled out a few notes of currency. “Here, he might like this. One thousand marks.” He held up a single note, then shuffled some more, looking for another. “Here, how about this one. One million marks. In nineteen twenty-three it could buy you a loaf of bread. Now that is a piece of history. A real story behind it.”

Burg remembered his parents and grandparents telling him of the hyperinflation in the 1920s. He was just a boy then. But Weimar wasn’t what he was after. The old man handed him the bill, and Burg looked it over.

“My grandson might find this interesting. But to be honest with you, he knows nothing about Weimar. It would require a whole history lesson, and still the novelty would wear off quickly. Now, he’s not like most of the Americans, completely ignorant about Germany. He knows a lot about—”

“The Third Reich time, you mean?”

Burg paused, reading the man. “Yes, that’s his interest.”

“Come on. That’s all those people know about Germany. Your boy knows about as much as the rest of them . . . and besides, that stuff’s illegal. I couldn’t help you if I wanted to.”

Too far, Burg thought. Or maybe this old man really didn’t keep any of the outlawed memorabilia Burg was after. He thought about giving up, or at least retreating.

The old man drew on his cigaret and gave Burg a sideways glance. “You’re not a cop, are you?”

Burg coughed and looked down at his overgrown belly protruding through his open jacket. “Do I look like a cop? I’m just an old man like you. Except I have even less to keep me interested. Retired. And anyway, cops today are useless.”

“That’s God’s truth.” The old man paused before smashing his cigaret into the mermaid’s blue pool. “Come over here, let me show you something.”

He waved Burg back behind the counter. Burg stepped around the end of the counter and the old man led him through the door behind it. It opened into a small living space, as unkempt as the shop itself. There was a refrigerator and a small electric range in the corner, an electric bread slicer next to it with a half-consumed loaf of grey bread pressed against the blade. A table dominated the center of the room. Dishes and glasses, both clean and soiled, mingled on its surface. There was a couch doubling as a bed along one wall. In one corner was an old trunk. The old man went to the refrigerator, pulled out his last bottle of beer, searched the table for two clean glasses, found them, and filled each with equal parts of the beer. He turned one of the wooden chairs at the table out, offering it to Burg, and Burg sat and took the glass the old man had set in front of him.

“You and I,” the old man said, “we are the same, aren’t we?”

“What do you mean?” Burg said.

“The old days. Still remembering the old days. This whole country wants to forget. Put it behind them. Lock it away and forget it. Like a retarded child kept in the closet.”

“Hmm,” Burg said, uncommitted.

“What we were willing to give for our country. None of these young people today understand that commitment.”

He flipped open his newspaper and spread it on the table. “Look at this.” The headline in big block letters screamed, “RED ARMY FACTION STRIKES AGAIN: PROMINENT INDUSTRIALIST MURDERED.”

Burg glanced at the headline.

“First we saved this country from the communists. Then, after the war, we rebuilt it from the ashes, and what do we get in return? A generation that spits in our face.” The old man moved to the trunk, still talking as he did. “It’s a disgrace, really. These young people . . . leftists, communists, like our sworn enemies . . . killing good citizens for something we fought against in Russia and Poland, our brothers dying all around us.” He began working the padlock on the trunk. “They think we were all just mindless automatons. Nazis. That’s all wrong. We weren’t Nazis. We were patriots.”

“But some were Nazis.”

“Well yes, some, sure. There are bastards wherever you go. But I was in the Wehrmacht. I saw my friends die in the Crimea. Good young men who loved their country, drowned in the Black Sea. They weren’t Nazis. For God’s sake, the Nazis betrayed them, just as they betrayed all of Germany.”

The trunk was opened and from it the old man pulled a couple of shoeboxes. He brought the shoeboxes over to the table, crowding dishes and glasses over to one corner to make room.

“Here, what do you want? How about this, maybe your grandson will like this?” He pulled out a shiny butter knife from one of the boxes. He handed it to Burg and Burg examined the engraving on the handle. The classic German eagle motif with the swastika crest, the year below that—1943.

“Or how about this one?” From the other box the old man pulled a tarnished silver ring with the same eagle and swastika emblazoned on it. Burg turned it over in his hand.

“And these?” The old man held out a handful of lapel pins. He dropped them on the table like worthless pennies. Burg took one up and examined it. A swastika lay in the center against a white background. A red circle surrounded the swastika, with black words emblazoned in the red: NATIONAL-SOZIALISTISCHE-D.A.P.

Burg said, “They must have made a million of these.”

“Ten million—a hundred million. Every damn man and his mother wore one—”

“If you wanted to keep your job.”

“Yes, you remember too. They made loyalty to Germany and loyalty to the party inseparable. That was a clever trick they played on us. My friends died thinking it was for Germany . . . but it was only for Hitler’s folly.”

“But every con man needs his mark. And we were willing to be marks for the party.”

“Yes, well. They played on our sense of honor, and we fell for it. Young people today don’t understand that, because they don’t know what honor is.”

“Honor got us shot. Honor sent us to Russian gulags. Honor turned our cities into rubble. Maybe these kids are smarter than we were about what to die for.”

“You think? Even these radicals in the papers, killing decent businessmen?”

Burg shrugged his shoulders.

The old man said nothing for a long time. He took a long drink from his beer before saying, “I’ve got some coins, some old documents with Third Reich stamps on them. They loved stamping documents. I’ve got a few small embroidered military patches. But that’s about all.” He pushed the boxes over to Burg. “Here, look for yourself. Let me know if your grandson wants any of this.”

Burg sifted through the boxes while the old man stood up and started clearing dishes from the table, placing them in the sink over in the corner that served as a kitchen. This guy was a lousy housekeeper, Burg thought. It was something else they had in common. Burg picked out one of the lapel pins as a gift for his fictional grandson. He also selected a small document with a fancy official stamp featuring the eagle and swastika. It was a draft deferment for a deaf man. In the picture the man had a shock of thick black hair and a handsome face. The lucky bastard, Burg thought. The lucky deaf bastard. No war for him. No hellish Russian front, no deadly African desert.

Burg negotiated a price with the old man and readied himself to leave. Still, he had not gotten what he came for. He took one last shot at it. “Any chance you know someone with a more . . . well, with a more extensive collection?”

The old man found a soiled and torn envelope among some scattered papers. He pulled a ballpoint from his breast pocket and wrote down a name and address. Handing the envelope to Burg, he said, “This man has what you’re looking for. Just be careful. None of your defeatist talk, or he’ll throw you out. And if you’re a cop, I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

*   *   *

As Burg drove away from the junk shop, the radio broadcast the news and the weather, but Burg ignored it. He was thinking of the old man and of his complaints. Young people today. It was a time-honored grievance of the old. He caught himself sometimes trapped in these same thoughts. The young uniformed officers at the station, they didn’t understand him. He sensed their contempt for him, for old Burg, with his fat belly and stained lapels. No doubt they eyed his job—Kriminalkommissar—and believed they could do it better. But what did they know of the world? They had no memory of dead comrades, no recollection of cities turned to piles of stones, no acquaintance with killing and death.

Then there were the radicals in the papers. People like Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Baader with his bank robberies and Meinhof with her manifestos. Meinhof, she condemned all the old bald-headed Germans, men like him. She said they never really did give up their fascist ways, that they took the Marshall Plan money and built a soulless new Germany, one without enough shame, a consumerist dystopia, one with old Nazis still pulling all the strings. He could see how the old man at the shop, with his tabloid newspaper gripped in his fist, would resent such juvenile upstarts.

But Burg tried to turn off his resentment, because he remembered his own young self, full of ideas and hopes, of longings and disappointments. He occasionally went soft on pickpockets and shoplifters for this reason. Once, a skinny American kid caught with a box of candy in his pants fell onto Burg’s caseload. It was like that—they always gave him the least important work. Burg watched the kid’s limbs tremble at the thought of his tough soldier father meting out punishment, so Burg brought the kid over to Daley Barracks, the American family housing area, and quietly dropped him at his mother’s door, and somehow all the paperwork for this minor offense disappeared.

As Burg drove on, the news and weather switched to music. Some brass, an accordion, and a woman’s voice came out of the radio. For a moment his mind drifted to the dead girl in the park. He wondered what kind of young person she was—a scared child, like the shoplifting kid, or something else?

*   *   *

Burg checked the address the old man had written on the envelope just to be sure, then stepped out of his Volkswagen and walked up to the cottage. The facade of the cottage was grey and faded, and there were spots where the plaster had disintegrated, crumbling away from the surface and leaving gouges, so that the front of it resembled a pockmarked face. The Kur tourists would be surprised to encounter such a cottage only a village over from Bad Kissingen, only a Sunday drive from the luxury suites of the spa district.

At the door, Burg was greeted by a man with a single arm. His name was Jochim Fuchs. He wore a mustard-colored cardigan with the right sleeve pinned up. It was awkward to shake his hand. People who met Fuchs would naturally reach with the right hand for a greeting, and Fuchs had to shake it with his left, and it wasn’t quite a proper handshake. It felt like holding hands, like a parent and a child—or, even more awkward, like young lovers. Because Germans were so big on handshaking, Fuchs could never escape the discomfort that came with routine encounters with neighbors and acquaintances. Except if he didn’t go out, if he stayed in. Then he didn’t have to shake anyone’s hand. And that’s how Burg found him, all alone at home, avoiding the bother of people, of greetings and pleasantries, of Guten Morgens and Grüß Gotts.

When Fuchs answered the door, Burg told him who sent him—the old man in the junk shop—and Fuchs asked if he was a cop, and Burg told the same story, about the uselessness of cops, and Fuchs believed him, but with more reluctance than the old man at the shop. Fuchs showed Burg in, and they sat on old furniture and drank strong coffee and made small talk. The house was not such a mess as the last one. There wasn’t the clutter of the old man’s place, and the aged furniture was in better shape, as if it had been cared for with dedication.

When the coffee was done, Fuchs went right to business. He took Burg down to his cellar. They walked past the oil furnace, past a decrepit washing machine and sagging laundry lines, past shelves of root vegetables, to a door with a padlock. Fuchs unlocked the door, turned the old-fashioned light switch, and said, “Come in.”

It was like a small, windowless shop. Lining the shelves to the left were neat displays of cutlery, buttons, badges, armbands, belt buckles, hats, and jewelry. There were framed propaganda posters and vibrant red pennants on the far wall, and on the right was a floor-to-ceiling display case with pull-out drawers.

“It may seem like a small collection,” Fuchs said, “but let me assure you it’s the best you will find around here. I’m sure you remember how it was in forty-five. All the cowards who burned their flags and threw out white sheets at the first sight of a Sheridan.”

Burg feigned agreement.

There was something that puzzled Burg. It took effort and wit to find his way to this man’s illicit shop, so how did he attract customers to make it worth keeping up such an inventory? His curiosity distracted him for the moment from his initial purpose.

Burg said, “I cannot believe you have such a fine collection. I thought for sure my poor grandson was going to have to settle for a plastic Messerschmitt from the hobby shop. They won’t even put a swastika on those things, only the iron cross. Very inauthentic. But this . . .” and Burg swung his hands around as he said it, “. . . you have a real gold mine here. A collector’s dream, an historian’s dream, really.”

Fuchs looked pleased.

Burg continued, “You must have good contacts with scholars and military historians, since you cannot really advertise, can you?”

“Are you kidding me? People today, they want as far away as possible from my collection. The scholars, if they are interested in the Third Reich, all they write about is the so-called ‘Final Solution.’ Nothing about the bravery of the men in Stalingrad or Bastogne. No, the only Germans I see are old men like us. A little piece to remind them of those days. For whatever reason. Everything else, I sell by mail order. Mostly to England. They can’t get enough of swastikas.”

Burg looked over at the display case. Fuchs invited him to browse, so he did. He pulled out drawers and examined old documents. He found flags and banners folded neatly, as if waiting for the season to change so they could be brought out. In drawers he found more personalized items. Pieces with names on them, letter openers and regimental steins, and Burg asked Fuchs about them, and Fuchs said the personalized stuff always went for more money, especially if you could place the original owner somewhere historical. The Luger of an officer in Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The last love letter of a hero fallen at Stalingrad, stamped with a censor’s approval. A dish from Hitler’s dining room at Berchtesgaden. The monogrammed cuff links of a well-known Munich gestapo chief.

Burg picked up something close to what he was after. It was a lighter made of brass, its shape falling somewhere between a cylinder and a rectangle. One side was blank, the other adorned with the twin lightning bolts of the Waffen-SS. Above the lightning bolts was a year, 1941, and above that the initials L.F. He pulled the cap end off to reveal a flint wheel. He pictured a man in the rain in Poland or Russia, working the wheel with his thumb, flicking away, fighting the damp and the wind . . . and the pleasure of the smoke, a little break from his grim work. “This is nice,” Burg said.

“Yes, the lightning bolts are a good touch. Not everyone appreciates them as much. Everyone wants the eagle and the swastika.”

Burg looked it over, making a show of considering it. “Any others like this? This one’s in a bit of bad shape.”

Burg depended on Fuchs’s pride, and his German sense of order. Fuchs pulled out several more lighters and set them with care on a velvet display mat. From the adjacent drawer several Third Reich ashtrays appeared. And from the drawer under that came what Burg was after. Three mint-condition silver cigaret cases.

“Ah,” Burg said, “these are lovely.” He began examining the cigaret cases. The first was a plain rectangle with a thin blue framing line, a thin circle in the same blue, and a black swastika in the center. The second was more detailed and quite a find for a collector. In the center of it was the ubiquitous eagle with its wings draped down dramatically over a swastika. Below that was an inscription in initials of the National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, with a place and date:

N-S-D-A-P

Nürnberg

1935

Impressive, but it wasn’t really what Burg was after.

The third case was a rectangle like the others, but rounded at the top and bottom. In the center was a crest with the Waffen-SS lightning bolts. The bottom corners below that featured two other decorations. In one corner lay a small eagle, the wings spread, the talons resting on a round crest with a swastika. Out of the other corner grew a small flower. Burg patted around his pockets for his reading glasses to get a better look. Coming up empty, he took a magnifying glass Fuchs kept at the ready. Burg held the glass between his face and the cigaret case, stretching his arm out to hold the case farther out, shifting the glass back and forth until the image of an edelweiss blossom came into perfect, brilliant view.

This third cigaret case was the one he wanted. He had seen it before, or at least he had seen a near copy of it, coming out of the jacket of Polizeihauptkommissar Günter Schmidt.

 

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Copyright © 2017. Burg's Hobby Case by Matthew Wilson