The Gardens, December, 1634

"I found every last one of those sons-of-bitches. Every last one. Do you have any idea how much money that son-of-a-bitch spends on those sons-of-bitches?" Staunton Bell took a deep swig of pilsner beer, emptied the mug, and slammed it down with a victorious bang. "Could Tony find them? Could he?"

"No, he couldn't. Not at all. Not in a million years." LaDonna Marshall nodded into her beer mug in sympathy. She then straightened in her chair, chugged her mug down, and banged it on the table next to Staunton's. "We need more beer."

"But I found them. That is why I should be running the Department of Economic Affairs. Not friggin' Tony Adducci. He doesn't even have a degree in accounting. But they got him running the friggin' department." Staunton realized he was being loud, and tried to tone it down to a stage whisper. "He doesn't even have a degree!" He wobbled as he stood up and pushed back his chair, waved his mug, and shouted. "More beer here, wench!" He paused, noticed a few patrons glancing his way, glared back defiantly, and growled. "Sonofabitch." Seeing no challengers, he added a triumphant "Ha!" He sat back down with a self satisfied flourish, and looked at his co-workers.

"Staunton, be quiet. People are looking at us. This is supposed to be a little after work Christmas Party." Greta Greenwald felt tipsy, but not nearly as tipsy as the other three at her table. Her fellow down-time clerk, Katarina Zingerly, was a big woman who could drink. LaDonna Marshall, their up-time boss, appeared to be holding her own. Greta looked at Staunton Bell, and shook her head sadly. There was a man who could not hold his liquor. Drunk on his ass, as they say. Staunton was winding up again.

"Nasi thinks he is so damn smart. But he missed the first rule. Follow the money. That's what I did." He stood up again, knocking his chair over in the process, and announced to the room, "Follow the money!" A few heads turned to glare at him; he looked back through a pilsner induced haze, and met their glare defiantly once again. "Sonofabitch. Ha!" He then sat down hard on the floor, as he had not picked up his chair. Most of the room gave a quiet chortle.

Greta watched as LaDonna and Katarina helped the skinny and balding accountant back to his chair. It reminded her of two children with a pet ferret. She shook her head. "You should get home to that wife of yours, Staunton. And you should stop drinking. Before you get into trouble."

Katarina agreed. "You should go home, Mr. Bell. We think you've had enough for now." She started to whisper. "You did real well to find all of those hidden accounts of Don Francisco Nasi, you should feel good about the job, but you should not drink. It doesn't agree with you."

"That's right. I found it." He stood up. "Nobody else" he shouted. The glares returned. He returned them in kind. "Sonofabitch. Ha!" He checked for his chair, and sat.

Greta leaned across the table toward Staunton. "You shouldn't talk about work that way, Mr. Bell. Not that loud. You can get us all in trouble. You know we're not allowed—"

"That guy's just another Jew bastard who thinks he can hide his shit from me. I tell you they're all the same. They're all like that." He waved his arm clumsily. "Can't trust them to a man. Just like back up-time. Same shit. When I did taxes up-time—"

"Mr. Bell! You shouldn't say such things." Greta eyed Staunton from across the table. She had a good twenty pounds on the man. She figured she could drag him out of the Gardens if she had to. "We're supposed to be professional. We're auditors. And auditors don't do this, at least in public."

"Professional? Professional? Th-that is ridiculous." He belched loudly. "I have an antique computer that can barely run the software we use, and I use quill nib pens. With a friggin' inkwell, fer chrissakes. Some professional organization that is. Where the hell is my beer?"

LaDonna added her support. "God, I'm shitfaced. I haven't drank like this for a while." She looked around the table, smiled, and then unexpectedly turned green. "Uh-oh. Sh-shouldn't have eaten that—that sausage and ch-cheese. Excuse me pl—" She ran off, unsteady.

Greta looked at Katarina and rolled her eyes. "Up-timers can't hold their beer. My husband told me, but I didn't think it was this bad."

Katarina rolled her eyes too. "My husband said the same thing. I didn't believe him at first . . . "

Staunton looked like he was winding up yet again. "I bet Tony will take the credit for this. I know he will. I find out how the Jew is paying his spies, including some of his relatives, which is illegal as hell. At least it was." He shook his head to clear the fog. "Tony will take the credit. I know it. That's the sort of thing that just pisses me off."

At least he wasn't shouting this time, thought Greta. The waitress put another round on the table.

Staunton turned to her. "About time, bitch."

Greta watched as the down-time waitress looked at the two beefy down-timer women and then looked at the ferret-like man. "This idiot a friend of yours?"

They both looked at Staunton, and then back at the waitress a little sheepishly. "We just work with him," replied Greta, "He's our boss."

"I'm sorry for you." She turned and walked away.

"See if she gets a tip," growled Staunton. "Bitch."

"Watch it, Bucko. You keep talking like that and I'll kick your ass." LaDonna had returned. "She better get a tip."

He glowered at her as she sat down, and they all started drinking again. The girls talked quietly for a few moments about their families, Katarina's husband's job in the mine, anything but the office. Finally, it appeared to Greta that Staunton could contain himself no longer. "Did I tell you how I found the first one?" He started much too loud. "Nasi wrote him a friggin' bank draft. A bank draft! I can't believe the guy is that stupid! Once I had the account, then it was pretty easy to find another. From there, it really took off." He sat back into his chair and folded his arms. "Damn, I'm good."

"I suggest you be quiet, Staunton." Greta was startled by the calm and direct voice of Dennis Grady. She looked at his powerfully built body, and recalled hearing before he came to their Department of Economic Affairs, he had been a police officer. At the office it was not noticeable. But right now, well, Greta was glad she had been quiet. She turned to Staunton, who she expected to shut up. Greta felt her eyes go wide when the little man stood. Defiantly.

"I don't work for you, Grady. I don't have to listen to you. And we are not at the office. So just fuckoff." Staunton rolled his shoulders as if flexing to fight.

"Sit down, Staunton." Grady's voice was low. "Now."

"What if I don't, what are you going to do about it?"

Grady just looked at him with no change of expression. "Whatever I have to."

Greta did not fall off of the turnip wagon just the other day. She had been around more than one drinking establishment in her thirty-nine years. She slowly moved her chair back, in case things got messy. She sensed the rest of the bar feeling the same way.

"You're an asshole Grady. I'm the only real accountant your 'auditors' have." He snorted. "Professional Department of Economic Resources, what bullshit. None of you could find your ass with both hands if I wasn't there."

Greta inched back a little more.

"I'm the one who found the Nasi files—"

Greta really didn't see the punch from Grady. She was already ducking. She sort of felt it go by, and then sensed Grady straightening. When she opened her eyes, Staunton Bell was just starting to bleed in the area where his nose formerly protruded from his face. It was now turned to the side. His eyes were glazed. He teetered for a moment, and then fell like a stone to the floor, his head catching the edge of his chair on the way down, and laying open his scalp.

"Sonaofabitch," exclaimed LaDonna.

"Ha," added the waitress.

May, 1635, Grantville, High Street Mansion, SoTF Government Building

"Hello, Ursula." The up-time woman smiled from her office, as she had done for nearly every afternoon for the last two years.

Ursula Volz dropped her plain eyes to the worn wooden floor, nodded her head imperceptibly, and mumbled a quiet, "Good afternoon, Mrs. Carstairs," as she came into the back hall.

Ursula rapidly stepped by the lady in her office, past a large kitchen, and then threaded her way through a narrow hallway, arriving at the front foyer of the old mansion.

There was a guard station in what used to be the front hall. The regular night guard, Marcus Sauber, was sitting in a chair behind the desk. He was positioned facing the front of the building, where the public would normally enter. Ursula had entered by the employee and service entrance, at the back of the house.

The guard turned in his chair. "Hello, Ursula."

"Good afternoon, Herr Sauber."

"Right on time as always. Here is the note from the office manager, she tells me someone spilled coffee in the second floor hallway, and it needs to be cleaned up tonight." He handed her a note. "It's always something, isn't it? Spills or messes to be cleaned up. Night janitor is never a fun job, right, Ursula?"

"I don't mind it, Herr Sauber." She paused at the desk and signed in on the log book which Marcus Sauber kept.

"Good afternoon, Herr Sauber." Keeping her eyes turned to the floor, she turned to the staircase to the left of the desk, and headed toward the back stairs leading to the basement, taking a candle from the side table and lighting it as she went. There were no offices in the basement, because there were almost no windows. She went down the gloomy and musty stairs, and looked around. Something about being in a cellar always bothered her. The only things down here were storage for files and the cleaning supply closet, which was near the stairs.

Ursula gathered up her things from the supply closet, and trudged up the stairs. She usually started on the first floor, in the public spaces, and then moved to the offices in the later afternoon and evening. She began her work in the Lobby, by the guard station. It had rained during the day, and people had tracked mud into the hallway. With a mop and bucket, she started to scrub.

It was a good job, and Ursula liked it. It was quiet, especially later in the evening when everyone went home. It was interesting working at the High Street Mansion. It was built back when Grantville was a "boom town," owned by a man and his family who made toilets. When Ursula had seen it for the first time, she could not believe it was only for one man and his family. It took her almost a week to learn all the rooms. It was broken up into even smaller areas for more offices and rooms. The home was mostly empty when it came through the Ring of Fire, no one living there, and most of the contents had been auctioned off. Since it was big, and had plenty of light and windows, it was appropriated by the government as offices. Nobody bothered her much at this job, and she liked that too. The only thing a little bit irritating was—

"Ursula! Oh, I'm so sorry I'm late. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I got delayed at dinner with . . . umm . . . my mother. Aaand . . . she wanted to talk . . . about her new boyfriend."

Margit. Her co-worker. She finally arrived. About a half hour late, as usual. Ursula sighed. Margit always had excuses, and some of them were very entertaining. But tonight, Ursula was not in the mood. "I will finish this, you can start on the back hallway."

"Don't you want to hear about my mother's new boyfriend?"

"Not especially, Margit. And you used that excuse last month."

"Oh."

"Back hallway, Margit?"

"Okay. Let me get my stuff from downstairs. Back in a minute." She turned and half-skipped down the hall, humming a little tune. Ursula smiled just a little as she watched her disappear around the corner.

After finishing the public spaces and the offices on the first floor, they started up the stairs to the second, where more offices and desks were packed into rooms. Margit leaned over to Ursula. "Are you going out after work tonight, Ursula? You never go, and we have so much fun." Margit turned and bounced mischievously in her stride.

Ursula looked at her and shook her head. "I need to be home and to sleep so I can help my mother with the sewing as soon as it gets light."

Margit frowned. "Ursula, when are you going to have some fun in your life? How do expect to meet anyone if all you do is work here in the afternoon, go home and sleep, then sew with your mother from first light until you come to work again? You are what? Twenty-one? Twenty-two?"

"I'm very plain, Margit. Who would ever want me? My father is a casket maker. He has no social rank."

Margit stopped on the stairs and blocked Ursula's path. "How many times have I told you it doesn't matter here? It must be a thousand times by now." She changed the tone of her voice, deepening it with authority. "Ursula, it doesn't matter here." She changed back to her impish grin. "There. One thousand and one."

Ursula paused. "Twenty-five. Almost twenty-six."

"What?"

"I will be twenty-six in two months."

Margit's hand went to her mouth. "I'm so sorry, Ursula. I had no idea you were ahhh—were that—ummm . . . " Margit stuttered some more, and after a pause she half-heartedly added, "You look remarkably young for your age . . . " Margit turned red behind her grimace.

Ursula looked at her with a frown. Margit was almost a full head shorter than she, and here on the stairs they were eye to eye. Margit always had several boyfriends, she was always talking about them. Ursula sighed.

"There was a boy in Magdeburg, before the war. But my father said he was not worthy. Since then there has been no real time or stability—we moved so many times to stay ahead of the wars."

"Wait just a second, Ursula. You've been here for two years. And you've been working this awful schedule that prevents you from meeting anyone. You've had plenty of time to meet someone." She turned coyly. "Or even several some ones." She finished with a girlish giggle.

Ursula had little patience with girlish giggles. "Life is what it is, and life is what it shall be. And that's all there is to it. No more. No less. That's all life is." She shrugged and began to climb the stairs.

She trotted past Ursula and once again blocked her path. "That's your father talking. The famous Eeyore Volz. The man with the darkest disposition in town."

"He's a very practical man, Margit. He's provided for us even in the worst of times, since before Magdeburg. You know he got my mother and me out of the city before the siege. He sold everything, cancelled his lease, and moved away. He had the foresight to act before . . . "

Margit grew quiet. "I had a cousin and an uncle there."

"My father is very smart, Margit. We were in three different cities and towns before we moved to Magdeburg. In each one of them, we moved out before something terrible happened. Papa was able to figure it out, before it happened. We think he is very smart, and that has kept us alive and together as a family."

"But he never smiles. I have never once seen him smile. People stay away from him."

"People don't talk to Papa very often. Mr. Blackwell, who owns the funeral home where Papa works, said most people won't talk to you much when they find out what you do. I'm sure that's why. And we never really had many friends, no matter where we lived. Papa said that suits him just fine, too."

Margit put her hands on her hips and looked Ursula in the eyes. Her short red hair and freckles made her look far younger than she really was. "What am I going to do with you, Ursula Volz?"

"There is nothing you need to do. Things are just fine the way they are."

Margit turned and began bouncing up the stairs. "Maybe. Maybe not." She turned and looked back at Ursula. "But I am not going to let you be an old maid without getting you to have some fun." She skipped off around the corner.

Ursula stood on the stairs for a moment before heading up after Margit. Together they found the spill in the hallway, and then, as usual, Ursula continued to the third floor of the mansion, where they told her the "ballroom" used to be.

Rolf Burger, the night guard was at his post. He had a tiny desk and chair with a logbook where people signed in and out. His post at the top of the stairs put him between a heavy door and the hallway. Ursula was never really sure why they had the extra guard up here. The Department of Economic Affairs had something to do with money, she supposed from the name. Although she never saw any money there. As he saw her coming around the corner, he was already taking the keys off of his belt.

"So how is my fine, beautiful Ursula Volz this evening?" Rolf Burger was pushing sixty-five, had no teeth, and a twinkle in his eye. A mixer. That's what Ursula's mother had said when she described him. A mixer. Mostly harmless.

"I am fine, Herr Burger"

"What's a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this?"

"Working at her job, Herr Burger." She signed in on his log book. As he let her in, purposely he brushed against her as he backed the door open. He grinned a toothless smile at her as she stepped back. She cast her eyes at the floor and went into the hallway. There was a long hall with a half-dozen doors on both sides. She set about her tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, methodically working through one office at a time. Trash, feather dust, sweep, repeat. She settled into a calm rhythm, so when she opened one of the doors to what she thought was an empty office, she was startled to see a huskily built man hunched in front of one of the computers. The screen cast the only light in the office.

"Oh. Excuse me. I didn't know you were here. I can come back later—"

"No. That's quite all right. I don't think we've met before. What's your name?" He stood.

Ursula was still surprised by the up-timer forwardness. The man was very friendly; all up-timers seemed to be. At least the ones she had met. She quickly looked at his hand to see if he had one of the up-time marriage bands. She was relieved when she saw he did. When her eyes went back to his face, they were observing her carefully. She immediately felt the blush, and looked at the floor. "Ursula Volz, sir"

"My name is Grady. Dennis Grady. Nice to meet you, Ursula. I'm sorry I startled you. I was just finishing up some work. You can just skip my office for tonight."

"Yes, sir." She backed out of the room and closed the door. In a few more minutes she had completed the floor, and she headed for the guard station. She opened the door to find Rolf sipping a hot beverage, with an up-time device steaming in the background. "Cup of coffee?"

Ursula's eyebrows raised. "Where in the world did you get that thing?"

"One of the ladies in the kitchen gave it to me. She said it was broken, so I took it to the tinker. You know we have one here now? He fixed it. The original glass is broken, so I use this ceramic mug. It only makes two cups at a time. This is the first night I have brought it to work."

"That's nice, Rolf. It smells good, too."

From behind her a masculine voice spoke up. "It sure does, Rolf. Smells darn good." Dennis Grady inhaled through his nose, enjoying the aroma.

"Hi, Mr. Grady. Do you want some too?"

Grady looked at the mug wishfully. "Going to have to take a pass. I need that stuff in the morning, not last thing at night before I go to bed. Sure smells good though."

Rolf's rubbery face lit up, and he turned to Ursula. "I have made this for my Ursula tonight, too. She knows I am in love with her, but she will never acknowledge it."

Ursula blushed and looked at the floor, as the old mercenary soldier flirted shamelessly. "Herr Burger, you are full of—poop, as the Americans say." She looked up at him and smiled, like she usually did. "How is your wife at home? I hear she was feeling ill last week? And your grandchildren, how are they?" She quickly glanced over to Herr Grady, and he smiled at her. She blushed again.

Rolf put his hand to his heart and looked crushed. "Oh, Ursula, what am I to do? You are about the only person who comes up here to see me at night. You never ask about how poor old Rolf is doing, you ask about my wife, my grandchildren, but not poor old Rolf. What am I to do?" His rubbery face was pouting and grinning all at the same time.

"Herr Burger. I ask about your wife and grandchildren to remind you it is not polite to flirt with younger women, especially single younger women. One of these days I will tell your wife how you are a shameless flirt with me."

The active rubbery grin left Rolf's face, and left only a pout with twinkling eyes remaining. "She already knows I'm an old goat, my dear." He laughed. "Just don't tell Eeyore, he might look at me and after a while I would jump off the ring wall cliff, I would be so depressed." He continued to grin.

Rolf seldom mentioned her father. Her mild irritation with the old guard was usually playful, but tonight, between him and Margit, Grady, and the spill, she'd had about enough. "My father is a good man who provides an important service to the town. He is not this 'Eeyore,' he is wise. And you should remember that, Herr Burger."

He looked hurt, his pout disappeared, and his eyes softened. "I meant no offense; it's just he is always so pessimistic. So sad. And it rubs off on you too, my dear, you are too young for that. Live a little, have some fun. Soon you will be old like me, and your life will be gone." He brightened and sat with mock suggestiveness on his stool. "However, I am not dead yet, my dear. Come and sit on my lap and . . . "

She turned on her heel and stormed down the stairs, leaving the two men. She was headed for the basement where she could cool off and put her equipment away. She knew she shouldn't let Rolf get to her that way, especially in front of an important up-timer. When she came down the first floor steps, she saw Margit sitting casually on the guard's desk, swinging her feet. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked at Margit. Happy, carefree Margit.

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