"Well, can you repair it?"
Charles "Duke" Hudson asked the question to the pair of legs sticking out from under his sink. He was a tall, no-nonsense middle-aged man whose brown buzz cut hair had gone mostly to gray, especially in the last two years. The response was garbled, so he bent over and repeated his question. The response come back garbled again. This time, recognizing the futility of answering while under the sink, the owner of the legs slid out from under it and stood. The blonde woman was almost as tall as Duke was. She was also muscular and in her thirties. For some reason, the term Valkyrie came to mind every time Duke looked at her.
"Yes, Duke. I can repair it. But it's going to cost you," Margaret "Lulu" O'Keefe replied. In addition to being the General Manager of O'Keefe Plumbing and Heating, she was also a close friend of both Duke and his wife, Claire.
"How much, Lu?"
Lulu grimaced before replying, not a good sign in a plumber, " But let's wait for Claire. That way I only have to be subjected to verbal abuse one time."
"That much?" Duke exclaimed, surprised.
"Duke, it's not like I can get in my truck and drive to Fairmont for parts anymore," Lulu said as she cleaned her hands with a kitchen rag.
Duke didn't need the reminder. Over a year ago the life of everyone in the West Virginia town of Grantville—and history itself—had changed forever. In a brief instant, on a Sunday afternoon. When, under unexplained circumstances, in what everyone now called the Ring of Fire, the whole town and its inhabitants were transported back in time to 1631 Germany. They'd wound up in the middle of the period that historians knew as The Thirty Years' War. Since that day, daily life had become a struggle for survival. Bits and pieces of the past—or future, depending on how you looked at it—ground to a halt, just like Duke's broken trash compactor.
Lulu sat at the kitchen table and pushed her toolbox next to her chair with her foot. "Maybe you need to retire the beast and accept the inevitable. Who knows, maybe one of these days someone will reinvent it. Anyway, it's just a labor saving device. And I know you're as well aware as I am that we have plenty of cheap manual labor available. In fact, I don't understand why Claire hasn't hired a maid. Think of all her responsibilities, working for the government yet. Where is she, by the way?"
"She's helping a German family that just moved down the block, the Hoffmans," Duke answered. "The man used to be a mercenary officer of sorts, I'm told. But now he wants to join our Military Police unit. He seems like a dependable sort and his wife, Ilse, is pregnant with their fourth child. So, Claire went to lend a hand with the kids and the house. You know how she likes to keep busy."
"Yes, I know. We all like to keep busy." Lulu sighed as she found a more comfortable position in her chair.
Unsaid between the two friends was that in Grantville everyone kept busy to forget. There wasn't a family in town that had not been affected by the event. In the case of the Duke and Claire, their two grown kids and grandkids were left behind. Lulu had lost her fiancé and older brother the same way.
"Well, while we wait, would you care for a beer?" Duke asked.
"Don't mind if I do. This is my last call before heading for home and another exciting night of educational TV and movies repeated for the umpteenth time."
Duke opened his refrigerator, took out two beer bottles and passed one to Lulu. The bottles were recycled but the labels announcing the latest product line from the Thuringen Gardens were new. He pulled a chair and sat across from Lulu.
She took a long sip before smacking her lips. "Wow, I think this batch is the best one yet."
"I think you're right," Duke replied, after doing his own tasting. "So, Lu, how's business?"
"I can't complain," she answered. "The business is booming, thanks to all the new construction. I've hired six more employees and we may need to hire more. The family is also discussing the possibility of starting our own plumbing fixtures manufacturing. We think there's an untapped market out there for the wonders of indoor plumbing, especially with this weather. And you, how are things with the MPs?"
"The usual," Duke said, relaxing into his chair. "Brawls after payday, fights just for the sake of fighting. Dan Frost still wants to form a Military Police unit like the Italian carabineers. But he's having problems finding someone to fill in for Elizabeth Pitre now that she's with the toy trains. And I don't want the job. She originally asked me to be her top kick."
"She made a good choice," Lulu said. "It's a damn shame that it didn't work out for you two." Lulu paused a moment and looked thoughtful. "You helped her become the kind of officer she is now. I remember when she was just a wet behind the ears shave-tail, wearing her cowboy boots in utilities."
Duke smiled fondly at the memory. When they were first introduced, Pitre had gone pale as a ghost when someone let her know that her new platoon sergeant was a former Marine DI. "Don't be so harsh, Lu. No one packed for the Ring, remember. She was only supposed to be in town for Mike's sister's wedding. I really didn't have to work too hard with her. There was a lot of good material already there. Besides, she had her colonel father's example to provide her a good starting point. She is definitely one of the best young officers I ever had the pleasure to train. Heck, I considered her good enough to be in the Marines. If anyone has the wherewithal to get that harebrained transportation scheme off the drawing board, it's going to be her. But, she needed a first sergeant with more transportation experience than I have, so I'm out."
"That's high praise coming from you, Duke." Lulu continued to stare intently at her beer bottle until she suddenly asked. "Do you miss it?"
"Miss what? The Corps?"
"Yes. The green machine, Uncle Sam's misguided children, our Corps."
"Yes," Duke admitted. "Sometimes. But I put in my twenty years and left others to carry on the mission. No one is irreplaceable, Lu. Besides, I wanted to keep my promise to Claire to return to our hometown."
"Come on, Duke," Lulu said. "You weren't like every other Marine. I did twelve years, you know. After Dad died and I had to request a compassionate discharge, I only got a pat on the back and a farewell bash at the NCO Club. I hear that you, on the other hand, got a phone call straight from Headquarters, Marine Corps, to try to get you to reconsider your decision. I've never heard of the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps doing that for any other gunnery sergeant."
"So what." Duke shrugged. "Like I said, Lu, I promised Claire and I don't like to break my word. And just how did you hear about that, anyway?"
"Willie Ray told me one day. It was a while back, one day when we were shooting the breeze at the Gardens. And just in case you want to know, he was happy that you didn't decide to stay in. Otherwise, after the Ring of Fire, he wouldn't have had any family left in town."
"I think," Duke muttered, "that my brother talks too much."
"Maybe so," Lulu said, grinning a bit. "But he told me that it wasn't until you accepted the job with Dan and the MPs that you started overcoming your doldrums. Then you took young Pitre under your wing and that helped to finally return you to your usual cheery self. Well, almost." Lulu leaned back in the chair and took another sip of beer before she went on. "That led me to suspect that you miss the Corps as much as I do."
"So what if I do? The Corps, like the rest of the twenty-first century and my kids are, and pardon the pun, past history." His bitter reply warned Lulu that she was getting closer to overstepping the line.
"Sorry, I know how much you miss Kathy and James. It was thoughtless of me."
Duke relaxed visibly before replying. "And I know how much you miss Billy and your brother. So why we don't drop the subject and talk about something else?"
"Fine with me," Lulu agreed, glad that they had managed to avoid a tender subject. "Have you heard the latest scuttlebutt about John Simpson?"
Duke shook his head and made a shivering motion. "No, I haven't. That's way above my pay grade and that's the way I like it."
Lulu snorted and plowed on in. She leaned forward with a conspirator's smile. "He's been put in charge of a special project. By Mike Stearns, no less."
Duke snorted and took another sip of beer. He was clearly amused. "Are those two talking again? I'm kind of surprised. I'd have thought that even after the elections, those two would still have some irreconcilable differences on most issues."
John Simpson's first attempt to push himself into a leadership position after the Ring of Fire and, later, his party platform during the elections that saw Mike Stearns elected as the new nation's president were generally reviled. That had strained his relationships with most of the town's residents. Most of the up-timers saw him as a representative of the managerial class. Considering that the closure of the local mines had condemned Grantville to a slow death, he wasn't a particularly popular man.
"They're talking. Just barely. But . . . " Lulu's reply was preempted by a familiar voice calling from the living room. "Duke, I'm home. Where are you?"
"In the kitchen, Claire," Duke called out. He heard his wife talking to someone and wondered who had dropped in.
"Ah, there you are," Claire said. "Hi, Lulu. I see you're loafing around my kitchen and drinking my beer instead of working hard. Let me guess, my compactor is dead, right?" Claire, a short and plump, but attractive, middle-aged brunette took off her woolen watch cap and mittens before kissing Duke.
"Well, girlfriend," Lulu answered with a grin, "unless you want to pay me a lot for handcrafted parts, I think you'd better call for a burial detail and the Wilson kid can play taps on his bugle. How's Mrs. Hoffman?"
"I guess Duke told you about our new neighbors," Claire answered. "She's about ready to pop, I think. But after three live births and two miscarriages, Ilse is pretty much matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Let's hear it for Teutonic phlegmatic practicality." Claire rolled her eyes a bit when she made that last comment and moved toward the sink and the coffee pot. She took the pot off the heating element and rinsed it out, saying, "And Duke, you have a visitor. John Simpson is waiting for you in the living room."
Lulu almost gagged on her beer. Duke's face was a study and he appeared to be speechless for a moment. She and Duke exchanged puzzled glances and then looked at Claire, who continued making coffee. Claire was apparently totally without a clue as to the bombshell that she just dropped on her kitchen. Duke finally managed to clear his throat. "Come again?"
"I said that John Simpson is waiting for you in the living room. I found him at our doorstep, ready to push the bell, when I got home. I told him I was going to make some coffee and that I'd find you. Will you tell him that it will be ready in a couple of minutes?"
"Sure, love," Duke replied. He stifled a laugh when he saw Lulu making signs to ward off evil in the direction of the living room. He made a severe face in her direction and rose to go see what John Chandler Simpson wanted.
Duke entered his living room to find Simpson carefully looking at his "love me" wall. This was the first time Duke had seen Simpson up close. The older man was tall and distinguished looking, regardless of his secondhand coat and clothes. Simpson looked to be at least in his late fifties or early sixties. Surrendering to the inevitable, Duke cleared his throat, catching Simpson's attention.
Startled, Simpson turned around. "Oh, sorry, Mr. Hudson," he said. "You caught me unaware. This is quite an impressive collection of awards and recognitions, sir. We haven't actually met, I'm afraid. I'm pleased to meet you. I'm John Simpson." Simpson advanced with his right hand extended to shake hands.
Duke was put a little off guard by John Simpson's unexpected friendly demeanor. He shook Simpson's hand automatically, noticing the firm, confident grip, and stammered a response. "Thanks, Mr. Simpson. My wife asked me to tell you that coffee will be ready shortly. Would you like to have a seat?"
"Don't mind if I do, Mr. Hudson," Simpson said. "And I'll gladly accept a cup of coffee. It's a little chilly out there at this time of year." As Simpson sat down, Duke noticed an unnatural stiffness in his left lower leg. A stiffness that was familiar to anyone who had been around military hospitals. Two purple hearts had gained Duke a somewhat regretted experience with those institutions.
Simpson noticed his gaze and replied to his unspoken question. "I lost my lower leg to an RPG in Vietnam. I was with the Navy's riverine forces. The boat section under my command was ambushed by the NVA as we tried to relieve a South Vietnamese battalion. I lost a lot of good men that day."
A shadow of sadness swept over Simpson's face. A veteran combat leader himself, Duke didn't need to be told what was going through this man's mind and he didn't have to wonder which loss was more important to him. That spoke volumes about Simpson, the man. Embarrassed and oddly intrigued by this revelation, Duke could only offer his apologies. "I am sorry, Mr. Simpson. It was rude of me to stare."
"I don't mind it too much," Simpson said. "I saw by your wall that you're in a good position to understand. In fact, that's the reason I'm here. Mike Stearns has asked me to head a new project. When I started to look for people who could help me with it, your brother was kind enough to tell me about your qualifications."
"My brother may be exaggerating a bit there, sir. And frankly, I don't know if I can be of any help to you." Duke immediately got the impression that his low-key answer provided the right tone. Simpson smiled at him.
"I doubt it, Gunnery Sergeant Hudson. I think you're the right man for the job. And, I have a proposal for you."
Claire Hudson woke up suddenly and realized that her husband was not beside her in bed. She raised her head and looked around the darkened room until she saw him sitting in one of the recliners by the window. He was staring out into the night, deep in thought. She then looked at her nightstand clock and almost cursed at the early hour, before continuing to stare at him. Even after more than twenty-five years of marriage, he was still occasionally an enigma to her. Tonight, though, she had a pretty good idea what was on his mind. Damn John Simpson, she thought.
Claire still felt as much in love with Duke today as she had when she was seventeen. Through all those years Duke had been a gentle, caring husband and truly her best friend. Now, as she watched his not-quite ominous presence in the darkened room, she couldn't fail to think of that other aspect of his persona, the warrior. It was an aspect that he had struggled to keep hidden from her and their kids through his time in the Corps. Unlike other Marines she knew, he seldom raised his voice or tried to run his family like an extension of his unit. Watching other women struggling with husbands who, unlike Duke, couldn't keep their lives in the Corps separate from their lives at home had made her feel truly blessed.
Still, she was very much aware of his potential for, and expertise in, applied violence. Not from him, of course. She had tried early in their marriage to get him to open up and confide in her. But that was before she learned from older and more experienced Marine spouses to let sleeping dogs lie. In an organization of close-mouthed professional warriors, her husband set unbeatable standards for that trait. However, other Marines and occasionally their wives had slipped up and told her of his exploits. The stories were usually told with a strange measure of admiration, awe and wonderment at his courage. Sometimes they seemed to describe a legend in the making. Even when the Corps deigned to recognize those exploits, like his Silver Star after the Gulf War, it had come as a total surprise to her. That day, darn the man, he just told her that they were giving him some kind of award and it would be nice if she and the kids could dress up and attend. The presentation and the divisional parade that followed managed at the same time to annoy her with his discretion and make her feel truly proud as she stood with the wives of the other men receiving awards.
Now, once more, the warrior aspect of his persona was being summoned. After Simpson and Lulu left, Duke had told her about Simpson's proposal for a new Marine Corps. And then he had refused to discuss it any further. She knew that he was conflicted and had an inkling of the source of that conflict. She had hoped he could resolve it on his own. But, Claire chided herself, she knew full well that, in a roundabout way, it all depended on her. She was no longer the innocent girl who was unaware of what the love of her life did for a living.
Claire thought hard for a few moments. Was she strong enough to demonstrate that she was a warrior's wife? Claire had never been either horrified or frightened of Duke's feats. She knew, all the way to her core, that as long as he and his brothers stood guard against all enemies, she, their children and their nation would be safe. So, maybe she was a warrior's wife after all, she thought. There was only one way to find out.
Clearing her throat, Claire said, "Duke, it's too early. Come back to bed."
Her husband, startled, broke from his introspection and looked at her for a long time before replying. "Sorry, sweetheart, I couldn't sleep and I didn't want to wake you up."
"I know, Duke. Come back to bed, please. It's too cold to sit up like that." She watched as he reluctantly got up from the chair, shed his robe and slid in beside her. Claire immediately spooned against his back, ignoring the chill from his skin and clothing. "Why you don't tell me what the problem is, Duke?"
"I don't know if I want to discuss it, Claire."
"Well, why I don't start then?" She felt his surprise as his body stiffened. Don't chicken out now, Claire Louise, she admonished herself. "You're concerned about me and my feelings, right? Don't be. Do you remember why I originally got you to promise to put in your twenty and move back to this town? Did you forget?"
Duke turned around under the covers to face her. "Claire, I think that you lost me there."
"The kids, Duke. I wanted them to know what it's like to grow roots somewhere. And we did that, in the few years that we had together before they grew up and left home. And, after the Ring, I am so glad that we did it that way. They grew up to be such wonderful people and friends. And, I hope, they have a great future ahead of them. Kathy, our wise little girl, found this marvelous young man and . . . " Claire stopped as she read his expression. With an accusatory tone, she snarled, "Stop rolling your eyes, Duke. I can see them."
Duke smiled and propped his head with his hand as he looked down at her. "But we are talking about the long-haired freak, Tim?"
"Yes, the no longer long-haired freak. When are you going to admit that you love him as much as I do? He says the same thing of you, by the way. Men, you have a funny way to show you care. I swear I'll never understand you at all," she said, with feigned disgust.
"We like to be mysterious. Yes, I like the freak. He actually grew up to be a solid man and a good husband for Kathy."
"Yes, he did. And I'm sure that the fact that he got a degree, a good job and even joined the Guard, helped. I'll remind you that without any prodding in your part, he went through their OCS and got commissioned as an infantry officer. Our Kathy is a warrior's daughter. She would never have settled for a lesser man. They had given us two beautiful grandchildren, well . . . three by now." Claire stopped and started sobbing as Duke hugged her tightly. They shared the pain for the grandkids that they could no longer watch grow up. It was a pain that time might ease, but never erase.
After a seemingly long time, Claire cleared her throat and looked up. "Thanks, sweetie. I'm better now. Anyway, Jamie, excuse me, James. He's a grown man now and hated that nickname with a passion. You told me that he was well on his way to following in your footsteps, right?"
"My last report from Patrick at Parris Island was that he was a shoo-in for honor graduate. By this time, I expect him to be well into his first tour." Duke smiled with pride at the memory and then chuckled. "And yes, he hated to hear that nickname from everyone else but you, Kathy or Kim Chaffin . . . Okay, sweetheart. I see your point. But what about you? I was also doing this for you."