The slap knocked Willi sprawling, eyes watering with pain. He had to bite his lip hard to keep from crying out.
"Five nothings!" Willi felt Uncle's hand grab the back of his rags and haul him up. The hand shook him so hard he felt like a pea rattling in a cup. "You spend all day on the streets and all you bring me are three pins and two worthless quartered Halle coins!"
Willi dropped to the floor again. His head was spinning, but his hand had fallen across his stick. He instinctively grasped it, then pulled it to his side. It took a moment to rise to all fours. As soon as his head settled some, he pulled himself up on the stick.
"I'm sorry, Uncle, but the place where I was, not many people put coins in my bowl." He hesitated. "And . . . and I think someone took money from my bowl. It kind of sounded like it."
"What? Did you see who it was? Why didn't you stop . . . " Uncle's voice died away as he realized that no, Willi did not see who the culprit was and therefore could not stop him. "Hmm. Well . . . I guess that might not be your fault. But you'll have to do better in the future. Here." Something thumped into Willi's chest and dropped to the floor. "That's all you've earned today."
Willi knelt down again and felt around the dirty floor. Within a moment his fingers encountered what he expected to find—a dried hunk of bread. It was more than he had expected. When Uncle felt he had been cheated, those in his family were more apt to receive curses and blows than blessings and food. Willi gathered the bread up. He would go hungry tonight, he knew, for it wasn't much more than a crust.
It took Willi a moment to peer around and figure out from the play of light and dark which way his corner was. It took some time to make his way there, stepping with care and feeling his way with his stick. At least none of the family was in a mood to push things or plant feet in his way in the hope he would trip tonight. In the last four years, he had provided that entertainment many times, often falling helplessly to the ground with cruel laughter ringing in his ears.
Willi's blanket was still where he had left it, wadded up behind an old trunk so that no one would notice it. Threadbare and full of holes though it was, he did feel warmer with it wrapped around his shoulders. The winter was not even half over, and he felt like he hadn't been warm since forever.
The bread was eaten slowly, one small bite at a time; partly because it was so dry and hard that it took a lot of chewing to make it possible to swallow, and partly to make it last longer. It would at least give Willi the illusion of having enjoyed a full meal—a most uncommon experience in his short life.
The last bit was being swallowed as Willi heard someone coming toward him amidst the noise of the other children chattering and yelling. He cocked his head to one side, then smiled as he recognized the step. "Erna," he said.
"How do you know that?" the girl demanded as she took his hand and with care set a small pottery cup in it. "How do you always know it's me?"
"You walk different." Willi sipped the water in the cup.
"But even when I try to sneak up on you, you still know it's me."
Willi held his hands out and shrugged. That caused water drops to splash out of the cup, and he licked them from his hand. "I don't know how. I just do."
He felt her plop down beside him. "So where were you today?" she asked.
"By the cathedral."
"The cathedral? No wonder you were so late getting back. You'd better not let Uncle know you went there. He's told us more than once to stay away."
"Well, I won't tell him, so if you stay quiet he won't hear, now will he?"
Erna swatted his arm. "Why did you walk so far? Weren't you afraid of getting lost?"
"I've heard Fritz and Möritz talk about it, so I knew the way there. I hoped the folk coming out of the church would give alms, but they were as cold as the building itself. And what they did give, someone else took."
"That really happened?" Erna leaned close.
"Yeah. Someone tossed a coin in and then someone else snatched it back out before it stopped ringing. It was so fast I felt nothing, saw only a dart of shadow." It wasn't the first time that Willi had cursed his ruined sight. It wouldn't be the last.
"Well, next time take someone with you, to watch over you."
Willi was knocked sideways by her punch on his shoulder. "Yes, me. I can watch from a ways away and make sure nobody robs or cheats you."
Willi shrugged. "If you want to. But how will you earn your bread if you're near me?"
"Uncle's been teaching me some new stuff. I'll manage."
Willi wanted to ask what new stuff, but just then Uncle called out, "Lights out." As usual, his stinginess with lamp oil was getting the lamp blown out at the earliest moment.
Erna left amid the sound of scurrying around. A moment later she was back. "Lie down and I'll cover us." Willi curled up on his left side facing the old trunk, wrapped his arms around his stick and hugged it to his body. He felt the weight of first his blanket, then hers, covering him. Erna wiggled under the blankets and put her back against his.
The two of them were too small to gain a space close to the fireplace and its few coals—Uncle not being any less stingy with the firewood. Those went to the older, harder children; older than Willi's eight years. Forced into the outer part of the room, they had learned that if they shared their blankets they stayed warmer than if they slept alone. Even so, there were many nights that they shivered together as the cold cut through the meager coverings.
Erna went to sleep as soon as she stopped wiggling to find the right position. Willi was kept awake by his growling stomach for some time, but at length he drifted off.
The next morning Erna ripped the covers off of Willi. "Come on! It's daylight. If we don't get out there, we won't get anything." She barely let him use the chamber pot, and then they were in the street. "So, where to this morning?"
"Not near the cathedral, that's for sure." Willi pondered. "How about Zenzi's? I haven't been there in a few days."
"Zenzi's it is. C'mon." And so, stick in one hand and Erna tugging on the other, Willi was towed to one of his favorite places, a bakery that was several blocks away.
"Here we are," Erna announced in triumph. "You want your usual spot?"
"I can find it." Willi pulled his hand away and reached out to touch the front of the building, then walked along the front to where a beam jutted out. He put his back to that bit of corner and settled to the ground with a sigh. Reaching inside his ragged jacket, he pulled his bowl out and set it on the ground in front of him. He leaned back against the corner, set his stick against his shoulder, settled to wait for opportunity.
Erna crouched in front of him. "Lean forward."
"What?" Willi was confused.
"Lean forward, I said."
Willi did so. He felt a band of cloth cross his eyes and get tied behind his head. "What did you do that for?" His hand fumbled at the cloth, only to get slapped.
"Leave that alone." Erna leaned close enough that he could feel her breath on his face. "Willi, you can't see. But the people can't tell that unless they get a really good look at your eyes. This way they can tell right away and you'll most likely get something from them."
"But I can see!" Willi's voice broke, to his embarrassment.
"Willi." Erna's voice was full of pity, which only deepened his embarrassment. "It's been almost four years. You only see light and shadow. You try to see more, and all you get is more falls and more of those bad headaches. Just wear the rag. You'll feel better, and you'll make more coin, too." Willi heard her sit back. "I'll be up and down the street, doing my thing and keeping an eye out. Won't nobody dip into your bowl without my seeing it."
"All . . . all right," Willi choked out, feeling as if he was giving up on his dreams to see again.
Erna patted his cheek, for all the world like she was the mother he could hardly remember instead of a slip of a girl not much older than him. "That's my Willi. I'll keep watch." He heard her stand and walk away.
Willi sat in his darkness. The rag soaked up his tears.
The two men with sergeant stripes on their sleeves marched into Frank Jackson's office, stopped in front of his desk, then saluted smartly—or as smartly as a couple of West Virginia hillbillies with no military service could manage.
"Cut it out," Frank said in a weary tone. "Bill, shut the door. Siddown, both of you." He looked at Bill Reilly and Byron Chieske. "We," Frank emphasized that word, "have a problem. You guys are going to help solve it. You know who Otto Gericke is?"
The two men looked at each other. Byron shrugged. Bill turned back to Frank. "He's some kind of mucky-muck here in Magdeburg, right? Burgomeister, or something like that?"
"Yep, he is; one of several. He's also the engineer appointed by Gustavus to rebuild Magdeburg. And a more thankless task I can't imagine." The other two men nodded in agreement. "But when he's wearing his burgomeister hat, he's the only one of the city council who can pour water out of a boot even when the directions are written on the heel. As a consequence, he's the one who's in charge of anything important, including the city night watch. And he's asked for help in upgrading them into something resembling a police force."
Bill looked to Byron again. Byron looked puzzled. "So why doesn't he approach the admiral for some help from that investigative unit he set up?" Although there had been pretty wide-spread deprecation of the "NCIS" unit at first, after a few successes in investigating some crimes, including a bloody double murder, no one thought they were a joke now.
Frank grimaced. "There's been one too many exchanges of insults. That wouldn't stop the Navy guys from working at it—the admiral keeps them on a pretty short leash. The city boys, though, have been 'insulted,' they claim. They refuse to work with the Navy.
"Mike's pretty pissed about it. He doesn't need extra trouble right now, and for a squabble to boil up between the Navy and the civilian government is just not a good thing in more than one way. I wasn't in the room, but my understanding is that he more or less told the admiral that if his investigators couldn't keep from talking trash, he'd better muzzle them. Oh, it was a little more polite than that, but the message got across." Frank grinned an evil grin. "I also heard that the admiral's subsequent talk to his crew chief was a bit . . . ah, blunt." He sobered. "But the city watch still won't have anything to do with them."
Frank folded his hands on his desk. "Bill, I know you were about done with your degree. What was your major again?"
"I was in my last semester for a degree in Business Admin, with a concentration in business law and contracts."
"Right. And you worked for that security firm in Fairmont for a while, right?" Bill nodded.
Frank turned to Byron. "And I know you were majoring in criminology and had just qualified to serve as a reserve officer for the county sheriff. Correct?" Byron nodded. "I checked with Dan. He said something about you doing some ride-alongs."
"Yeah, some for Dan and some with the sheriff's deputies."
"Were you bucking to join the Grantville PD?"
"Ah. Well, that's all water under the bridge. Dan Frost's partner, Dennis Grady, is based here in Magdeburg, so by rights this job ought to go to them. Building police forces is what they do. The city council is too cheap to pay their consultancy fees, though, so Mike told me to handle this problem.
"Here's how it is. You two have more experience in law and law enforcement than anyone else I can lay my hands on, so you're it. As of now, you are no longer part of the transportation detachment. You're seconded to the USE Department of Justice. You'll have to find out where it's at and who's in it—I don't have a clue. Your first assignment, straight from the Prime Minister, is to shape the Magdeburg city watch into something more than a good-ole-boy's club that walks around at night with torches."
The two of them looked at each other wide-eyed for a moment, then turned equally horrified glances on the Army chief. Frank stared at them for a moment longer, then grinned. "You're both officers now—Reilly, you're a captain, and Chieske, you're a lieutenant. Carve up the work however you want, but one of you needs to work with Gericke and try to get the organization and procedures laid out. The other one needs to start working with some of the watch, so they can get used to the idea of us Grantvillers poking our nose in their business."
Frank focused on Byron alone. "Chieske, you're probably going to end up with the second job. I think you can do it. But there's one thing you won't do. You take the strong and silent type to an extreme. You make Calvin Coolidge look like a town gossip. I haven't figured out yet if you just don't like to talk, or if you caught on at an early age if you kept your mouth shut you'd stay out of trouble. I don't care, actually. But you will knock it off with the city watch."
The general directed a stern look at him. "I don't mean you should turn into a smart-aleck motor-mouth. But you will talk to these men, using reasonably complete sentences. You will instruct them. You will correct them. You will even, God help you, discipline them if you have to. You're not one of those street corner white-faced clowns. You're an officer in the Army, my army, and you will do your job to the best of your ability, no matter how much it makes you uncomfortable. Is that clear?"
"I said, is that clear?" Frank's voice was frostier in tone.
Byron shivered a little. Frank sometimes had that effect on people.
General Jackson smiled again. "Who knows? If you play your cards right, Gustav Adolph might draft you. You could end up in the history books as the first two agents of the Imperial Bureau of Investigation. Or maybe the first two USE Marshals." He stood and shook hands with them. "Odogar has got your rank insignia and badges in his desk in the outer office.
"Get to work."
Frank's thoughts were right. They divided the work so that Bill Reilly—Captain Reilly, now—worked with the burgomeister. That left Byron to work with the men of the watch themselves.
A few days after trying to work with all of them, Byron had decided that it was going to be tough to get through to the watch as a group. Despite the fact that many of them were close to his own age, or even older in a couple of cases, they reminded him of nothing more than a group of high school jocks. He knew they weren't stupid—these were the cream of the patrician and merchant families, after all—but they had adopted a uniform "We don't need to know anything you have to show us" attitude. Byron had muttered a few words about the NCIS to Bill, who sympathized with him. They both knew that there was plenty of pride and arrogance to go around. The watch had almost certainly given as good as they got in the insult arena, but that didn't make the results any easier to deal with. Byron had gone to Otto Gericke and asked the burgomeister to designate one member of the watch—one who might be a little more open or reasonable than the others—to partner with him.
The result was Gotthilf Hoch, one of the youngest members of the group and from a minor patrician family. Byron watched him as he squirmed a little in his chair. He had been sizing Gotthilf up for the last day or so. He thought he could work with him. No time like the present, he supposed, so he had asked the young man to step into his office.
"So, why did you join the watch?"
Gotthilf's eyes widened in surprise. "The statue speaks!"
Byron grinned. "I'm not that bad, am I?"
Gotthilf returned the grin uncertainly, as if he didn't know how Byron would react. "Nay, but there are those who have wagered you would only speak when spoken to or when ordered to. Coin changes hand tonight when I tell them of this."
"All right, so I don't talk a lot, unlike some others I could name." The grins returned at the thought of a few of the members of the watch. "So, why did you join?"
Gotthilf flushed a little. "After . . . after Tilly's men destroyed the city, I thought to help protect it again."
"And . . . I thought it would be good to be seen as a member of the watch." That all came out in a rush.
"Aha. You liked the idea of wearing the sash and carrying a musket or torch around at night with a bunch of other guys." Byron glanced at the younger man, only to catch his profile as he stared down the street in his turn. "That sounds like the ambition of a fifteen-year-old boy." Gotthilf's flush increased. "But the idea of protecting your city, now . . . that's a goal worthy of a man."
Gotthilf turned to stare at Byron.
"Yep, that's an ambition I can respect," Byron continued. "Thing is, it doesn't go far enough."
Gotthilf's stare turned puzzled.
"You were thinking of protecting Magdeburg and your family from outsiders. What about protecting Magdeburg and its citizens from assault from within?" Byron pointed out the window to the street. "These people have the same desire for peace that you do. Shouldn't they be given your protection? From theft and murder and rape, not by soldiers but by those who are just stronger and more vicious?"
Gotthilf's eyes followed Byron's finger. For long moments he stared out the window. When he turned back to Byron, his jaw was set firm. "The talk is that you Grantvillers come to overturn our laws and create anarchy, that you are all but lawless yourselves. Look at how your admiral insulted the city by raising those outside the law to enforce it in his precious NCIS."
"The rumors have it wrong, as usual. We believe in laws, but we believe in moral laws; laws that are based on reason and logic, not on custom and ritual. And the admiral has his reasons—after all, sometimes you have to set a thief to catch a thief. But that has nothing to do with protecting your people." Byron smiled at Gotthilf's surprise. "You already have the tools you need to reach your desire. Eyes to see, ears to hear, and a mind to reason. If you have those, all you need to know is how to use them."
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- The Grantville Gazette Staff