Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
20 Breinhart Strasse
Magdeburg City, USE
August, 1635, 0930 Hours Local Time
Stop me if you’ve heard this.
A navy cop, a military police lieutenant, and Magdeburg’s finest meet at the entrance to a dark alley one cold cloudy morning . . .
As I looked at the body hidden in the shadows nearby, a male dressed in quality civilian clothing, I was pretty sure of the punch line. Don’t take me wrong. There is nothing funny about murder, but at my arrival I saw my companions’ grim expressions. I thought that someone ought to lighten this most assuredly historic occasion. My beloved wife assures me I tend to be a bit silly and possess a childish sense of humor. Perhaps she is right. On the other hand, the good ladies at Government House call this behavior a good coping mechanism. Regardless, sometimes you need something extra to let you face a cruel world day after day. I’m certain that our guest of honor wouldn’t mind.
My name is Günther Schlosser and I’m that navy cop.
More specifically, I’m both the director and Magdeburg Senior-Agent-In-Charge for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. My boss is Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John C. Simpson; he pays me relatively well for our cash-strapped times. However, he is not one to spend one penny more than he needs to, which explains the multiple hats I wear, as well as my current presence at an active crime scene. If our nation, the navy and NCIS manage to survive the next two hundred years and prosper, I expect the then-director will have hundreds of agents at his beck and call.
Lucky me, I was born two hundred years too early.
But I digress. Technically speaking I wasn’t even sure this was our crime scene. True, the body lay close enough to the navy yard that one of our combined military police and shore patrol units had stumbled upon him—smack dab on the imaginary line that divides our jurisdiction from the one controlled by the Magdeburg police department. Unlike up-timers and their hunger for precision, we down-timers prefer the “more or less” approach to life. That aforementioned lieutenant could have easily looked the other way and let the MPD have the glory and the headaches of trying to solve this murder.
Especially as at first glance, the portly, middle-aged man did not seem to be a member of our military. That made me wonder why the lieutenant had instead summoned NCIS, and me, personally.
Something in my gut told me that I was not going to like the answer.
The MP in question, my friend Brigitte “Britt” Strausswirt, is the yard provost marshal. Britt is in her early twenties, a fair-skinned and attractive redhead. I know her as a smart, by-the-book cop. However, she was no martinet and was well aware of our heavy workload. Whatever she had seen on her arrival had made her call for us; recognizing potential jurisdictional conflict, she had used her own initiative and also alerted the MPD.
I couldn’t fault Strausswirt for doing her job efficiently but I would have preferred that she had been a tad less diligent and delayed that notification, at least until we could clarify the scope of our involvement in the investigation. Certainly, it’s not a secret to anyone in the city—and probably half of Europe by now—that there’s no great love lost between us in NCIS and the former city watch of Magdeburg. Despite their up-timer provided leadership, new name, uniforms and training in investigative methods, I wasn’t completely persuaded they weren’t still the same watchmen who once saw me and mine as a collection of former thieves, thugs and whores. Granted, there was more than a smidgen of truth in that characterization; but I don’t think that what used to be a bunch of drunken, loudmouthed Luddites was in any position to complain too much.
As I said before, we are not exactly in a mutual admiration society. Perhaps that’s a shame, but although I pride myself on my own thick skin, I’ve been known to carry a grudge for a long time when my loved ones are involved. No one insults my wife, the mother of my child, and goes away unscathed.
Strausswirt was deep in an intense conversation with our city colleagues. Given my history with them, I decided to go around them and find out for myself why she had called me here in the first place. However, that became glaringly obvious as soon as I got close enough to the body to see his face clearly in the cloudy morning light. Feeling like someone had punched me in the pit of my stomach; I abruptly stopped and, very uncharacteristically for me, stood paralyzed looking down at him. I was well acquainted with the deceased, Ferdinand “Ferdi” Schwinger. You could say that he was—or had been—a very close acquaintance of mine, both professionally and personally.
He was my best friend.
Our acquaintance did not exactly start on what you would call “friendly” terms. When the admiral hired former Grantville Police Chief Dan Frost to educate, train and professionalize our force, we—and that means mostly me—went through a “Badges . . . ? We don’t need no stinking badges” period.
Chief Frost started to change my mind with his collection of up-time badges, or shields. He patiently explained the history behind each of the law enforcement organizations represented, until even I was impressed.
It quickly became apparent that, for him, the badge was more than a symbol of the office. It also stood for the implied promise and commitment of each peace officer that wore one to enforce the law impartially, and to stand as a shield in defense of society and its individual members, regardless of politics, religion or social standing. The chief compared our work to sheepdogs watching over the flocks to keep the wolves away.
Due to my own spotty upbringing and the lessons learned during my Committee of Correspondence days, this belief resonated deep within me. It changed my outlook about my new job and its complex and developing responsibilities, and helped in my own transformation from a former thug and bodyguard to a cop and law enforcer. Perhaps my view has become a tad sentimentalized now. My wife and fellow agent, Brunhilde “Brunei” Spitzer, likes to say so. But I notice that she takes care of her own badge as carefully as I do.
Herr Schwinger, who was one of the best jewelers in Magdeburg, had developed a profitable sideline providing the rank devices, medals, ribbons and other doodads that our military folk find so appealing. Not ones to reinvent the wheel, Chief Frost and I paid the man a visit with our proposed design for NCIS badges, and immediately ran into a brick wall. The prices that Schwinger initially demanded would have easily cost me a month of my people’s total annual salary.
We, of course, negotiated. After all, my mother had not raised little Günther to be anyone’s patsy. Chief Frost found it alarming that negotiations were conducted at the top of our lungs, accompanied with loud mutual accusations of “thief!” and “bourgeois exploiter of the people!” with the peanut gallery freely wagering who was likely to throw the first punch. As I told the chief afterwards, “negotiations” in my century were not for the faint-of-heart.
We finally did agree on a price which was more than I wanted to pay but much less than he had demanded. The observers, after agreeing that it had been an impressive display of haggling, and that the solution was equitable, declared themselves satisfied with the outcome despite the disappointing lack of bloodshed.
When my friend Strausswirt wanted to get her own shields for her MPs and masters-at-arms, I referred her to him. This led to more orders as more cities and towns formed police forces, or reorganized their city watches as Magdeburg had done. Schwinger’s became the de rigueur provider of quality police badges and shields for both the civilian and military markets.
As things often are between men, once we had matched wits, Schwinger—now and henceforth known as Ferdi to me—and I quickly developed a fast friendship. His wife Hannelore and my Brunei found this situation both amusing and exasperating due to our very different backgrounds and more than twenty years difference of age, but that never became an issue. Ferdi may have been in his early fifties, but in his mind was still very much an adventurous young man.
Our developing friendship cemented after he and his Hannelore accepted our invitation to join us at Movie Night at EGA, the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. That Kneippe, owned by Strausswirt’s parents, is the unofficial Marine and NCIS off-duty social club.
I was especially pleased to discover that, like me, Ferdi was especially fond of crime stories, detective tales, and up-time lingo. He also shared my somewhat lopsided and humorous view of the human condition. That was the first of many enjoyable evenings there, where we discussed the non-confidential aspects of my workload and interesting crime-related stories in the papers. We did it so often that our wives accused us of being police groupies. Our usual retort was that I was the police and he was the groupie.
When our family ranks increased with the arrival of our beautiful daughter, Magritte, the Schwingers presented us with a baby-sized NCIS badge as a christening present. As I looked down at his body, my fury and pain was barely under control despite my outward composure.
I knew I was going to miss him sorely and swore a silent oath that I would get whoever had murdered him.
All this ran through my mind as I mentally rearranged my schedule and reprioritized my commitments to accomplish my new goal. I had scheduled follow-up investigations in matters relating to some missing items during the attempt on the SoTF vice-president’s life at the request of Grantville’s Police Chief Richards. But, like him, I understood that this was a very long shot. In comparison with typical soldiers of my day, USE Marines were earnestly honest, but they were not plaster saints. No one was going to begrudge them taking mementos from an owner who will never have a use for them again. Not when they were expected—in the words of my friend Lulu O’Keefe—to jump from perfectly good aircraft to reach their objective. So, I could throw that one safely onto the back burner.
I was sure that the Marines of Captain Fink’s reconnaissance company were going to be pleased, but I doubted that the admiral was going to be happy. Frankly, I was beyond caring. My people were well trained and could go on without me for a while, plus I had my own secret ace in the hole to keep us on an even keel during my absence: Genghis, back in the office.
Deep in thought, contemplating my friend’s lifeless corpse, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up to see a concerned Strausswirt staring at me.
“Are you doing okay, Günther? I am so sorry about Ferdi, he was a good man,” she said with sorrow on her face. “As soon as I saw who he was, I sent for you.”
I blinked several times to clear my blurred vision but only dared to nod, not trusting my voice quite yet.
Behind her stood a city plainclothesman. The area in and around the alley had been secured by our MPs and MAAs to preserve the crime scene. As usual, they had done the through and efficient job expected from troops under Britt’s command. A couple of MPD’s patrolmen had also joined the cordon and were cooling their heels outside the perimeter, unable to approach Ferdi’s body. I was surprised that the detective had chosen not to make a big issue out of it on his arrival.
“Günther, this is Detective Karl Honister.” Strausswirt made the introductions. “He’s been assigned to the case.”
I was surprised when he stepped around her and offered his hand in the American manner. Despite my misgivings about the city watch, I found myself warming to him as I shook his hand. His grip was strong and confident.
“Herr Director, please accept my condolences. Lieutenant Strausswirt spoke well of your friend Herr Schwinger. I am at your service.”
We did not usually get that much cooperation from the MPD. Of course, I had heard of Honister and his reputation, but never met him until now. That’s quite a feat in a small city. I knew that he was in his early twenties, and supposed to be one of the brightest of their new crop of recruits. He even had some university education under his belt, which was a rarity for the watch, much less us in NCIS. I decided that if he was a sign of things to come, we might have to change our whole outlook on their organization.
It also dawned on me who I had to thank for throwing oil on the water and smoothing our first meeting. I had known Strausswirt since she was a child. Like everyone else who had been hanging around the Magdeburg Committee of Correspondence Golden Arches that day, three years ago, I had been dumbstruck when she stepped forward to answer Joachim Thierbach’s call for volunteers for Marine Officer Candidate training. Now, with a growing reputation in the USE military and civilian law enforcement circles despite her sex, Strausswirt possessed the air of self-control and authority of the consummate police professional. It was obvious that she had gained Honister’s respect.
“Thank you, Detective. Would you mind if I examine my friend’s body?” I asked politely.
“By all means, Herr Director. I want to look at him, too.” Nodding, we both moved toward Ferdi.
Ferdi was on his back, his head facing left, away from the street and resting over what had been a large puddle of blood that had mostly soaked into the ground. Luckily for my peace of mind, his eyes were closed.
I said a brief prayer. The back of his head looked smashed in, and a blood-splattered brick lay beside his body.
I looked up at Honister as he also stooped, and with a nod he started to write in his notepad. We quickly fell into a routine: I would identify possible clues and he would record them, until the similarities of our procedures suddenly dawned on us.
As we exchanged an amused look, we had to shake our heads in disbelief. It was bound to happen one day: the first meeting of graduates of “Dan Frost’s School of Criminal Investigation” from two different agencies at a crime scene. If our numbers continue to increase, we may have to start thinking about putting out a newsletter, secret handshakes and annual conventions. Grinning at the absurdity of the whole idea, we returned to the task in front of us. That quickly killed any vestiges of amusement as we concentrated on our work.
The sudden increase of shouts and equine whinnies back on the street made me look, just in time to watch the arrival of two horse-drawn wagons from the navy yard: a carriage and an ambulance. In the absence of better tools, I had opted for summoning extra manpower. In one case, this was actually womanpower—my best crime scene investigator.
Even under these depressing circumstances, I felt a smile come to my face as I stood up and saw my partner in both the job and life. My lovely Brunei climbed down from the carriage. Once on the ground, she turned around to pick up a struggling infant from the young woman who followed her out.
I know that the up-timers’ books extol the virtues of plenty of fresh air and sun for the health of young children. I rather doubt that the advice extended to trips to active crime scenes. But with our regular sitter sick, we, like the Marines love to say, had to adapt, improvise, and overcome. So, we had our first take-your-baby-daughter-to-work day.
I expect that my little Magritte will either grow up to join the family business or else I’ll end up paying for her visits to an up-timer-trained shrink for a long time to come. I suppose those are the compromises I have to make when my wife refuses to be a stay-at-home mom.
As she approached the perimeter, Brunei stopped and handed our daughter back to her companion. I seriously doubt that, when she joined our ranks, Corporal, now Special Agent, Annalise Schuhmacher expected to find baby-sitting in her job description. As the oldest daughter in her family, she had the experience needed by two overprotective first-time parents, and we were very grateful for her help.
Her senior partner, Hans Leiss, a former river man and a solid and proven master-at-arms petty officer, had driven the carriage and now followed them after helping to unload the equipment of his two other passengers.
Photographer’s Mate Second Class Peter Zurich, together with his assistant, Seaman Apprentice Karen Berg, formed the whole complement of the US Navy Photography Service. Their organization came to into being several months ago, when one of our Marine recruits was discovered to be an honest-to-God Italian duchess. Although her story ended like a fairytale and gained us a great leatherneck, it was the second such incident on record. This led to a general tightening of our security posture. One of the measures implemented was a requirement for an official file picture to go with the personnel record. This required the establishment of an official photo shop, the first one in the USE Armed Services that I know of.
I did mention my admiral’s penchant for penny-pinching, right? In order to get full utilization out of the photo shop, Zurich and Berg were also made available to support any other naval photographic requirements, on an as-needed basis. This usually meant that NCIS took its turn in the queue with the other staff sections, although we did take precedence over the rest for homicide investigations. This was the first time that I had asked for their technical support for that purpose.
Both seemed to be a little reluctant to get close to Ferdi’s remains. This made me somewhat irritated and I wondered if, after I provided them some verbal encouragement in my own inimitable way, I could expect tears. Before I could find out firsthand, Strausswirt intervened. After some brief and pointed instructions, she managed to instill in them a new zeal and dedication for their professional duties.
What I can say? I felt disappointed but recognized that I just wanted to yell at someone.
In the meanwhile, Brunei had noticed my grim expression and had stopped beside me, puzzled. That is, until she took a good look at the body. Covering her mouth in horror, she muttered a soft, “Oh, Ferdi.”
Closing her eyes, she mumbled a short prayer before nodding to me in greeting, “Public Display of Affection” rules being in full force.
I introduced her to Honister. After another nod, she gathered her divided skirts and crouched to inspect Ferdi’s body closely.
I expected that tonight, when we were alone in our bed, she would allow herself the liberty to grieve; but now she was all cop. As she looked around the scene, I welcomed the occupants of the ambulance.
Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman David Dorrman, an up-timer in his early forties, was the NCOIC for the yard’s new naval hospital. Although we have Jena-trained surgeons on staff, none had the forensic experience that the Senior Chief had acquired working in prior cases with me. Along the way, he had become the closest thing to a medical examiner that our navy had.
Dorrman had also brought along a litter team.
“Good morning, Günther,” he told me, glancing curiously at Ferdi’s body as Brunei started to search his pockets. “Who’s the stiff? He doesn’t look like one of ours.”
“His name is—or was—Ferdinand Schwinger and he was my friend.” My stark and pain-filled admission caught his attention immediately. He looked back sharply as an expression of pity crossed his face.
“Then I’m truly sorry for your loss, son; you have my condolences. What I can do to help?”
“Thank you, Senior Chief,” I replied formally, but I was grateful for his kindness. “This is Detective Honister from the MPD.” He nodded at the detective before returning his attention to me. “You can start by telling me when he died. I already have a pretty good idea how it happened.”
Curious at my statement, he looked at the body. “Ah, the brick! You got it, Director. I’ll do that as soon as I make sure that your photo bugs are not going to pass out on top of Herr Schwinger.”
Zurich and Berg now looked decidedly green but gamely kept at their task. I felt a twinge of remorse, but looking at Ferdi laying there under their flashes, it quickly passed.
Honister was looking at Dorrman with curiosity and I guessed that he was wondering what the chief’s role was in the current proceedings. I held my tongue and left him to find out on his own; it’s a lot more amusing that way. Glancing one more time at the body, I signaled to Strausswirt and Brunei to join me in a quiet corner and included the MPD detective on my summons. Honister kept looking back at the senior chief as he walked toward us.
I scanned the growing crowd as I waited for my companions to join me. The large number and variety of police was attracting attention. I was relieved to see that so far no members of the press had graced us with their presence. I didn’t want to alert our quarry.
“First, Britt, thank you for calling us in.”
Strausswirt nodded as a slight flush colored her cheeks. She preferred to work behind the scenes and public acknowledgement of her deeds made her uncomfortable. “As I said before, he was a good man, Günther. My parents were very fond of him.”
I nodded. Her dad was known to occasionally sit with us and shoot the breeze. I then addressed our new colleague.
“Detective Honister, it is obvious that Herr Schwinger could be either in your jurisdiction or in ours. Since he was my friend, and we were here and had started working the scene first, I would appreciate it if you would allow us to take the lead in this investigation.”
Honister turned around and stared at the half-dozen or so of our troops controlling the crowd and assisting with their equipment as the photographers finished. He watched curiously as Dorrman, gloves on, pulled a long probe from his tool bag as his corpsmen prepared Ferdi’s body. I knew that the senior chief was going to do a liver temp but it still wasn’t a common procedure. I kept my eyes averted, trying to act nonchalantly. To my disappointment, Honister failed to have too much of a reaction, but for some reason that also pleased me. We manfully ignored the retching sounds as first Zurich then Berg finally managed to lose their breakfasts—away from the body, luckily for their safety and general well-being.
“Herr Director, I’ll agree for the moment. But, I’ll need to clear it later with Chief Reilly. I do insist on remaining as an observer, and I’ll require copies of all your notes, reports and photograph for my records.”
I nodded approvingly as my gut feeling that he was someone that we could work with was proven right.
“Not a problem, Detective. Welcome aboard,” I said, and even managed to smile as Brunei rolled her eyes at the birth of our first task force. That damn woman knew me too well.
Finished, Dorrman came over to join us. Despite his early indifference to the forensic examination, Honister gave him a wide berth. Unconcerned, the up-timer consulted his notes, frowned, made some quick calculations and after looking around to make sure that he had everyone’s attention, started his presentation.
“Director, ladies, Detective, according to my readings of temperatures, calculations, and the level of rigor mortis present, death occurred somewhere between 2100 and 2300 last night, more or less. It was a cold night but it did not either rain or snow, so I’m pretty confident of my timing. I think that it is quite obvious to everyone present that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the back of the head.” He punctuated the end of his report by closing his notebook with a snap.
“Thank you, Senior Chief. Can you prepare his body for return to his family?” I asked him.
“Sure thing, Director. It would be an honor. We’ll take him back to the hospital with us and give him a more careful examination there. I’m sure that Doctor Lutz will be able to assist me and if we find anything else, I’ll let you know. I’ll have his body returned to the family as soon as we complete our examination. So if you will all excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, have a good day.” We silently watched as the corpsmen under his supervision placed Ferdi’s body, with the bloody brick, carefully on a litter and then took it to the ambulance.
I needed the other carriage, so I took the opportunity to order Zurich and Berg to go back in the ambulance. For some reason, neither photographer seemed particularly enthused with the idea of returning to base in the company of a dead man or the murder weapon.
I felt sorry for them . . . really.
Smirking humorlessly, I mentally organized our to-do list and turned my attention back to the tasks ahead.
“Okay, people, what’s our timeline here?” I asked around.
Strausswirt glanced at her notes. “I was making my last round before calling it a night when I was told of the discovery of the body. Let’s say around 0600. As soon as I saw who he was, I called for you.”
I nodded. She had learned her work ethic from her parents and, to the chagrin of many of her officers and troops, was known to show up unexpectedly at any time of day or night. It kept everyone in the provost office on their toes. Honister raised his hand, seeking my attention. With some effort, I managed to keep a straight face and nodded my recognition.
“Herr Director, Frau Buchwald made a formal complaint to the duty patrolman about her husband’s absence around midnight last night. The watch commander assigned me to follow up this morning, after our initial search failed to discover his whereabouts.” At least Honister had the good grace to look embarrassed when he noticed my displeased expression.
I was betting that her complaint had been given a low priority because somebody higher up assumed, incorrectly, that Ferdi was somewhere safe—either passed-out drunk, or asleep in the embrace of his mistress. Honister’s expression also told me that he had not agreed with that assessment and it earned him several more brownie points with me.
Still disgusted, I looked at my wife for her take.
“I can tell you one thing, Günther, it wasn’t robbery. He still had his pocket watch and money bag when I examined the body.” I had noticed that earlier on my own examination and found that extremely curious. Ferdi was well-regarded in town and, as I can attest, didn’t have any known enemies. Under those circumstances, the most common and logical cause for his demise was likely to be robbery. However, that wasn’t so in this case, and I didn’t have to consult my gut feeling to know this was important. Brunei continued, “All the footprints around his body were fresh and made by military or police issue boots.
“I saw two earlier-made ones, however. One of them belonged to a woman,” she said.
Honister looked at her, curiously.
I’ve seen similar reactions many times before, and not only from MPD personnel. Brunei is a petite, pretty-looking blonde—at least in my own very biased opinion—in her mid-twenties and yes, she is a tad younger than I am. At least, since Magritte’s birth, my so-called friends have stopped accusing me of being a cradle robber. When Brunei wants to, she can put on an innocent face and do a great empty-headed impression, masking her sharp wit behind it.
Hands down, I recognize that she is much smarter than I am.
During our first murder investigation, she had been impressed with the tracking abilities of Marine scout-snipers—not something that your run-of-the-mill city cop or NCIS agent sees in our line of work. So later, during her pregnancy-imposed light duty, she trained with them. The scout leader, First Sergeant Hoffman, considers her one of his best pupils. Other women knit booties and blankets during the wait for their blessed events. My wife became a tracker.
There are reasons I love her so much.
Her expression remained troubled. In one of those telepathic communications purported to exist between married couples, I knew immediately what her concern was. “Honister, has anyone notified his wife yet?”
“No, Herr Director. I was on my way to his shop, when I was ordered to come here. Do you want me to send a patrolman to do it?” he asked.
“No, Detective, Frau Buchwald is a close family friend. My wife and I will deliver the news. Of course, you are invited to come along with us and deliver your respects too, if you wish.”
“It would be my honor, Herr Director,” he said with a slight head bow.
Brunei gave me a sad little smile of thanks.
“Britt, can I borrow one of your men to serve as my driver? I need to use Leiss and Schuhmacher to start canvassing the area. Someone around here ought to have heard something last night.”
“Günther, you can have Seaman McCain and I’ll assign a section to help your agents.”
I nodded my thanks.
“Herr Director, I too will place my patrolmen under your agent’s command. This is their beat and I expect that they will be also helpful,” Detective Honister said.
I had to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at his earnest cooperation. I decided right then that perhaps it was high time to bury the hatchet with the MPD. “Thank you, Detective. It would certainly speed our tasks. Okay, folks, Herr Schwinger usually closed his shop around 2000, that’s our starting time. So my intentions are, first, to visit Frau Buchwald to deliver the bad news and get her take, and go from there to his shop to talk to his employees. They are likely to be the last people that saw him alive. I hope they will help us fill in the time between him closing his shop for the day and the discovery of his body. Everyone agree with me?”
I looked around our circle and watched them nod in agreement. With everyone on the same page, Brunei recovered our daughter while I instructed Leiss and Schuhmacher to start the canvassing. By the time we departed, Leiss was giving individual assignments to his new command.
The Schwinger Residence
Magdeburg City, USE
1115 Hours Local Time
Our relatively short, but uncomfortable, ride to Ferdi’s home was done mostly in silence. I might have preferred to walk, but with Magritte likely to catch whatever befell her sitter, we did not want to expose her more than necessary to the cold air, and took our chances with the carriage’s suspension and Magdeburg’s uneven streets. First time parents, you know.
Honister spent his time during the trip reviewing his notes and looking out of the window as Brunei cooed to our daughter while feeding her. It provided me with a charming vision of the young Madonna and child and a delightful eyeful. Although very much a lady, my wife is not exactly the shy type. Her past experiences and former life cured her of any excessive prudery. Like our women Marines, “she don’t mind much if you look as long as you don’t touch” or linger. Despite the interesting view offered, I was left alone with my thoughts as the same question kept popping back into my mind no matter from which angle I approached the problem.
What the hell was Ferdinand doing in that part of town at that time of the night?
That was puzzling, and so far outside the norm for security conscientious Ferdi that I found myself baffled and clueless. That alley was in the opposite direction from the route that he would have normally taken to go home. Despite the MPD assumptions, he was not a drunk, nor did he have a mistress on the side. Like Brunei and me, he shared a happy family life with his wife Hanne, although their marriage had been arranged. Their parents had taken particularly good care to match them well for temperament, and the two had fallen in love almost since their first meeting.
Any further speculation in any other direction came to an abrupt halt with our arrival at Ferdi’s house.
I was the first one to step out of the carriage and Brunei handed Magritte down to me. I looked down at my little agent-in-diapers, now sleeping without a care in the world, and honestly envied her.
I wasn’t looking forward to what we needed to do now, a sentiment apparently echoed by my wife and Honister as they stood beside me staring at the green door atop the short flight of stairs. Like me, each was unable to take that first step.
I don’t know about Honister’s hesitance but in Brunei’s case, we’re talking about a woman who, in the course of our official duties, had been known to stare down Italian mercenaries and had to be occasionally physically restrained to prevent her from being the first one though doors. However, death notification calls are the toughest tasks to accomplish in both military and law enforcement circles. No decent human being wants to inflict pain on the innocent. Doing what we were expected to do to a woman that we both considered a close friend was above and beyond.
But with rank comes responsibility and I had never believed in ordering something that I could not do myself. So, with a sigh, I handed the baby back to Brunei, pinned my badge to my lapel and walked up the steps. I was ready to knock when the door suddenly opened. With a small curtsy, a smiling maid bid us to come in. She fussed over Magritte while taking our cloaks and hats before going out in search of her mistress.
Hannelore Buchwald was ten years younger than her husband; now in her early forties, the years had been, mostly, kind to her. As blonde as Brunei, though with a lot more gray, she shared with Ferdi a belief that what a person decides to do with the rest of his or her life is what makes the difference; neither had ever looked down a nose at our backgrounds. We had been welcome in her house since Ferdi and I became friends. As neither Brunei nor I had live parents or close family, the Schwingers had filled the role of older relatives that we could rely on to seek advice on marriage and parenting.
It was easy for me to see her smile was plastered on a face that hadn’t seen enough rest in the last twenty-four hours, no doubt due to the anxiety clearly etched on it.
“Günther, Brunei, what an unexpected and delightful surprise! And you brought your precious Magritte along with you, welcome. However, my husband is out and . . . ” Hanne’s welcome spiel suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Her smile froze as she finally registered our grim expressions, my badge, and Honister’s presence. I had seen it too many times: the initial confusion followed by a sense of dislocation and disbelief, followed by overwhelming grief. Before her knees buckled I was at her side and, to my surprise, so was Honister. Between the two of us, we lowered Hanne onto a couch while she emitted an animal-like keen that broke my heart.
The commotion quickly brought out the rest of the household, who, after being told of the reason of her distress, joined in. No surprises there, as my friend had been well-liked, even by his staff. It made me wish I could join them and share their grief. However, time was at a premium if we wanted to have any chance to catch his murderer.
Before I could take any action, Brunei handed me a screaming infant and waded into the fray. By the time Brunei had everything under control and the household working to prepare for the necessary funerary arrangements and notify those of the family not present, Magritte had calmed down. After a stiff drink and quiet words of sympathy, Hanne seemed ready to talk to us. Honister found a quiet corner, pulled his notebook out and got ready to record without being asked, allowing me to concentrate on her interview. The way that he did that once again impressed me.
Before I could phrase my first question, Hanne started with a pain-filled voice. “Günther, can you tell me what happened?”
I momentarily debated how much information to give her, but looking into her eyes, I decided that only the unvarnished truth would do.
“His body was discovered early this morning by MPs in an alley at Breinhart Strasse. Someone hit him repeatedly on the back of the head with a brick.” I watched as her hands covered her mouth and she seemed to crumble.
Brunei propped her up and gave me a dirty look. By her expression, I guessed that little Günther was not going to visit little Brunei anytime soon. Well, that’s why in our family, she is the diplomat.
Hanne finally calmed down and I continued my questioning.
“Hanne, I’m truly sorry to impose on you under these circumstances. But I’m trying to gather as much information as possible to help me catch whoever did this.” She stared at me with teary eyes for a moment before nodding and glancing at her hands. “First, had he received any threats or do you know of anyone that wanted to harm him?”
She looked back up and gave me a look that made me feel six inches tall.
“No, of course not, Günther. How can you say that? Everyone loved my Ferdi.”
“I’m sorry, Hanne,” I said, and I was. “But I need to ask. It could lead us to intent and motive.”
“Just like one of your damn up-timer videos and books, right, Günther?” she said angrily. I knew that in her grief she was liable to strike at anyone in range and kept my silence. Hanne looked away, annoyed but deep in thought. Suddenly, she turned back. “Perhaps this is nothing but for the last couple of days, Ferdi seemed worried.”
My mental alarms went off and I saw Honister’s eyebrows raised almost to his hairline.
“Worried?” Brunei gently prompted her.
Hannelore looked at her. “Yes, I think that it was something to do with the shop. I asked him to tell me what it was but he always changed the subject and told me not to worry about it.”
My eyes met Brunei’s and Honister’s. Both nodded in agreement; there was something worthy of pursuit there.
“God, I sent Julius to watch over the shop today when Ferdi did not show up!” Hanne suddenly exclaimed in alarm. Julius, a soon-to-be university student, was their eldest son. “He needs to be told.”
Brunei reassured her, patting her hand. “Don’t worry, Hanne. We are on our way there next and will send him back here immediately.”
“Detective Honister, do you have any other questions for Frau Buchwald before we depart?” I asked him, standing up.
“No, Herr Director,” he said, closing his notebook and giving her a slight bow. “Frau Buchwald, my name is Karl Honister and on behalf of the Magdeburg Police Department, please accept our deepest condolences for your loss. We are at your service.”
She nodded weakly at him before looking back at me. “Günther,” she said quietly.
“Please get whoever did this to Ferdi and make him pay.” There was fire in her eyes, when she asked me to do that.
“You have my word on it.”
Strangely enough, I knew that I would.
4 Weimar Avenue, Magdeburg, USE
1235 Hours Local Time
The emotional scene with Hannelore and her family had taken a toll on us greater than we had bargained for, and we made the trip in silence.
Ferdi’s shop was in one of the most prosperous areas of the new city, as befitted his commercial success. Taking inspiration from up-timer commercial styles found in Grantville, it had display windows, albeit small, to showcase some of the wares in their inventory. At my suggestion, the wares displayed were fakes, the windows were reinforced with iron bars, and armed guards were always on the premises, all quite modern.
One of the windows was dedicated solely to military displays with mannequins wearing USE Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force uniforms, with all their insignia and appropriate accoutrements on display. A new addition to those wore an MPD uniform. I found it all quite ironic, since five years ago no one had seen, or even heard of, military or police uniforms, or knew there was a market for their insignia.
I call that progress.
We located Ferdi’s eldest son, Julius, back by one of the glass-sided counters. He was showing a tray of wedding rings to a young couple. Lately I had been thinking about surprising Brunei with one. After giving me such a beautiful child, the woman had more than earned it.
Julius saw us and, after asking one of his employees to take over for him, came toward us with a welcoming smile that vanished when he got close enough to read our faces. “Günther, Brunei, what happened to my father? When I left this morning, he had not yet arrived at the house.”
“Julius, is there somewhere private where we can talk with you?”
“Certainly—we can go to my father’s office. Please, follow me.” We took the familiar route to the back of the store, passing the busy workshop where half a dozen artisans and apprentices were hard at work. The shop was well-lit with gas lamps that showed the beauty of the pieces displayed.
I wondered if I could ever afford buying something like that for the wife. Not that Brunei would allow me do something so extravagant. Thrifty by nature, she carefully squirreled away any extra money for our children’s future education and our retirement.
Our little parade hadn’t gone unnoticed. The attention of everyone in the shop was on us and on Julius’ stiff posture and pale face. Everyone could see that something was wrong. I hoped that we wouldn’t have a repeat of the earlier turmoil at Hanne’s.
Ferdi’s office was richly appointed, with up-time inspired furnishings. He told me once that was so their more “elite” customers could have a venue to inspect his wares in private.
I had to admit, the man knew how to make money.
Julius, with visibly shaking knees, sat heavily in one of the visitor’s chairs in front of his father’s desk, already dreading the news. He looked at me with fearful eyes. I swallowed hard before beginning. Certain things do not become easier with repetition.
“This is Detective Karl Honister of the Magdeburg Police Department, Julius,” I said. He nodded politely to Honister and then looked back at me.
“I have unfortunate news. Early this morning, Marine MPs discovered your father’s body in an alley near the navy yard. He was murdered. You don’t know how sorry I am to have to tell you this.”
Julius buried his face in his hands, his body shaking from uncontrollable sobs. In a now well-practiced routine, Brunei handed me Magritte and went to crouch down by his side, the natural mother in her easily coming to the forefront as Honister and I exchanged uncomfortable glances, wishing that we could be somewhere else.
We distracted ourselves by inspecting our surroundings. Behind the desk was a display of all the police badges that his shop had designed. As far as I know, it’s the first and only one of its kind in the whole world. I noticed the NCIS badge sample held a place of honor in the wall display.
At times I had suspected that Ferdi had secretly wished he was twenty years younger and able to join our ranks. At heart he had been very much one of us, a sheepdog. I think that he would have made an excellent agent. There was nothing wrong with his analytical capabilities and critical thinking.
Truth be told, Honister reminded me of him a bit.
While I mulled this over, Brunei managed to calm Julius down. She looked back at me, stood up, and gave me a quick nod.
“Julius, I talked to your mother earlier today and she told me that your father had been worried about something for the last couple of days. Do you have any idea what he was concerned about?”
He looked at me with tear-filled eyes, thinking hard. “Günther, I noticed . . . but he never confided in me. As you know I’m away for most of the day at school.”
I nodded. His father had held the firm belief that learning was important and had wanted all his children to receive a proper education.
“Perhaps, Herr Bieber can help,” he offered. “As my father’s shop manager, he was privy to a lot of information.”
I looked at Honister and he went out, returning shortly.
Albrecht Bieber is close to becoming a master craftsman, rumored to be one of the best in his trade in the city. He followed Honister into the office, but immediately went to Julius’ side when he noticed his distress. “What’s the problem, lad?”
“Herr Bieber . . . my father is dead.”
I watched carefully for his reaction, and saw him go deathly pale, needing to grab the back of Julius’s chair for support. Seeing that, I felt certain that I could take him off my list of suspects. As befitted a man of his age and experience, he quickly recovered, his inner strength obvious. My gut feeling told me that the Schwinger family would be relying heavily on him and that strength for the foreseeable future.
“Herr Bieber?” I said. “I think we have met before. Günther Schlosser, NCIS. This is my wife, Special Agent Spitzer, and this is Detective Honister of the Magdeburg Police Department.”
He nodded gravely to Brunei and Karl and smiled at Magritte, still in my arms.
I continued my interview as Honister resumed his note taking. “Frau Buchwald and Julius have mentioned that Herr Schwinger seemed worried about something lately. Do you have any idea of the source of his concerns?”
He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment before replying. “Indeed, Herr Director. Fact is, when I brought my initial predicament to Herr Schwinger, I was hoping that he would make you aware of the problem.”
I was left speechless and stunned for a brief moment. I felt an acute sense of dread, compounded by guilt. Only Brunei’s hand gripping mine pulled me out of my spiraling despair. Putting my feelings aside, and imbued with a new sense of purpose, I looked back at the master craftsman.
“Herr Bieber, I’m sorry to say that Herr Schwinger was prevented from sharing your concerns with me. Perhaps you would like to elucidate for us what those concerns were.”
“Certainly, Herr Director, but why I don’t show you instead?” He moved to the file cabinet as I passed Magritte back to Brunei. I stepped to the desk where Bieber spread open a sales file. Honister, Julius and Brunei crowded around us and looked curiously over our shoulders. “Last week a gentleman came in to place a test order for ten badges for the new Hamburg Police Department. Both Herr Schwinger and Julius were out of the store.”
I nodded. I’d heard rumors that the Committee of Correspondence members on their city council were pushing for a more modern, and much less partisan, law enforcement organization than their old city watch.
“I found that strange because usually our customers from outside Magdeburg use the postal service and don’t come to order in person. He also told me that his name was Otto Meyer, but he spoke in no German accent that I could recognize.”
I looked at Honister, caught his eye, and significantly raised my eyebrow. He immediately copied the address and other relevant information in the ordering form.
Bieber continued. “Here in Schwinger’s, we pride ourselves on providing unique products. So when Herr Meyer showed me his design, I told him that we have done something similar for another client and that I would be more than happy to redesign it for him at no extra charge. However, he insisted that this was what the Hamburg council had approved and he was not inclined to go against their wishes.
“I finally agreed because Herr Schwinger always told us that ‘the customer is always right.’ Besides, he made the down payment in cash. But it kept bothering me and three days ago, I brought it to his attention. Yesterday, when Herr Meyer returned to pick up his order and to pay the remainder of his bill—again in cash—Herr Schwinger talked to him. I don’t know what was said but Meyer took the badges and left in a hurry. Herr Schwinger remained upset, then told me to take care of the shop and left early.”
Bieber finally pulled the Hamburg design out from underneath the invoices and placed it where we all could see it clearly.
Brunei stiffened beside me and I didn’t have to read her mind to know what had upset her. Honister and Julius looked at the drawing with puzzled expressions at first but then looked up to stare at Ferdi’s badge display. I knew what they were looking at. Except for the lettering, it was the same badge that Brunei and I wore, the NCIS shield.
Headquarters and Field Office, NCIS
Provost Marshal Building
Magdeburg Navy Yard, USE
1500 Hours Local Time
Before we left Schwinger’s, we asked Bieber to describe the so-called “Herr Meyer,” and he told us that he could do much better than that. After a short detour to verify that the address in Magdeburg that Meyer had given him was bogus—no surprises there—we dropped Julius at home. We rode back to the yard, sharing our first impressions as we examined the pencil-and-ink drawings Bieber had made for us.
There was no question that Honister would stay on the case, although it was obvious this was now an official NCIS investigation. By this time Brunei, Magritte, and I considered him part of our team. He was smart, knew when to keep quiet, and didn’t miss a thing. I suspected that he was also watching us closely and taking notice of how we did our jobs.
Honister seemed particularly impressed with our teamwork, but I can’t take all the credit there. There are some distinct advantages to being married to your partner. Perhaps he needed to find a partner of his own . . . Schuhmacher wasn’t seeing anyone. Alas, matchmaking would have to wait until we put this case to bed.
I owe it to Ferdi and his family.
One day I hope NCIS will expand enough to warrant our own facility, but at present we have to share the second deck (floor, for all you non-sailors) of the provost marshal’s building, not far from the navy yard stables.
Seaman McCain drove our wagon back there after dropping us in front of the building entrance. I was looking forward to a long delayed visit to the head and my comfortable desk chair when another arriving carriage caught my attention.
The Provost Detainee Transport Unit, known to all and sundry as the paddy wagon, made its way toward us at a leisurely pace. Sitting shotgun beside the Marine driver was Hans Leiss. This surprised me, because with all the time our group spent chasing clues around Magdeburg, I assumed that Leiss would have been inside and on his second cup of coffee by now.
I watched the wagon stop in front of the Provost’s building with growing interest and gawked as first Schuhmacher climbed out of the back followed shortly by a MPD patrolman. They in turn assisted a civilian woman in handcuffs to climb down.
Her look, the cut and the quality of her clothing, gave me a pretty good idea of her chosen profession. Her slovenly appearance, slurred speech and unsteadiness told me of her drunkenness. Not that that prevented her from launching a long spiel about the injustice of her detention and her overall innocence, interrupted by bouts of cursing that would have made a chief bosun’s mate blush. Sadly, her magnificent display of eloquence was brought to an abrupt halt by an explosive episode of retching.
I counted myself lucky that we were too far away to be in range, although not far enough that her stench did not fail to clear our sinuses. Unfortunately, that was not true for either Schuhmacher or the patrolman, who, after taking a fresh grip on her and with grim and determined expressions, marched our unexpected guest inside for booking.
Shaking his head at the debacle, Leiss turned and gave us his report. It seems that after we left, he and his posse had scoured the neighborhood in search of witnesses, initially to no avail. Their luck improved when one of Patrolman Honker’s snitches recalled seeing a lady of the evening fleeing the area roughly during the time frame indicated by Dorrman.
That explained the female footprints that Brunei had discovered at the scene. With that information in hand, they had checked out all the local whorehouses and known individual entrepreneurs. They hit pay dirt when one of Schuhmacher’s acquaintances volunteered that a new arrival to the city was seen late at a local tavern trying to drown herself in liquor. The prostitute was overheard to mumble repeatedly something about not wanting to get involved and that she was nobody’s fool.
With that clue and a physical description, our people hit all the possible sleeping places. After hours of searching, Fräulein Ilse Cramer was discovered, passed out, in a local flophouse. Cramer, after she was finally roused from her stupor, was advised of her rights and told of the charges, but denied any knowledge of the whole incident. However, Schuhmacher noticed bloodstains on the hem at the back of her dress. Confronted with the physical evidence, she broke down and admitted to being present during Ferdi’s killing but refused to say anything else for fear of reprisal. She remained silent, regardless of all attempts to get her to talk, assisted no doubt by her half-inebriated state.
Leiss finally decided to kick it upstairs and let me take a crack at it. His confidence in me was heartwarming and I hoped not to disappoint him.
My mentor and friend, Günter Achterhof—yes, the other Günter—taught me that anyone can be made to talk if the proper techniques are applied. However, effective torture requires skilled operators and an independent way to verify the information. This is due to the sad truth that under torture, anyone—even someone like me—can be made to admit to anything. That limits its effectiveness for that purpose. Plus—and even Achterhof agreed on this—it is bad for one’s soul.
So, Fräulein Cramer was to be spared any harsh measures, even if my personal desire for revenge screamed for it. Besides, being the top law enforcer in the naval community required me to set the example. The admiral would never give me carte blanche to treat her harshly without a damn good reason. I had other tools in my arsenal but those required careful preparation. I gave explicit instructions to Leiss, who sped off to implement them.
While we waited for Leiss to set the right conditions, I gave Honister the nickel tour after a quick visit to the head.
He seemed impressed with the organized police activity of the personnel around us. Strausswirt runs a tight ship. I could see no small amount of envy in his eyes and I could understand the reason. The citizens of Magdeburg were still coming to terms with the concepts behind a modern police force. Still, most of them treated their new police officers with the same contempt that they once held for the old city watch, a step above knackers or executioners. On the other hand, like the rest of the navy since our successful campaigns of ’34, the provost office and NCIS were respected, understood, and supported by our community. I continued the tour up the ladder to the second deck to allow him to feast his eyes on NCIS Central.
Sadly, we were ambushed on our way to my office.
Several months ago, I had mentioned to Senior Chief Petty Officer Dietrich Schwanhausser, the admiral’s yeoman and Chief of Naval Administration, that we were drowning in paperwork, which was cutting our time in the field. A week later, Yeoman Third Class Hanna “Genghis” Metzger and her typewriter of death descended upon our peaceful abode with all the enthusiasm of a Mongol invasion. Without any mercy, we had been folded, stapled, and mutilated into conforming to administrative regulations, and overnight our problems seemed to disappear. There was something frighteningly intense in the petite, bespectacled brunette’s ruthless efficiency; so much so, that I gulped hard when I saw Genghis patiently waiting for us on the second deck landing, clipboard of doom in hand.
“Good afternoon, Herr Director, Agent Spitzer. I have the duty rosters, your evaluations and the weekly report to the naval staff ready for your signature.” During the short trip to my office, I signed or initialed at least ten different forms. I am not quite sure, but I think that on one I may have volunteered our next child for human sacrifice. The whole exercise seemed to amuse Brunei and Honister to no end.
“And finally, Petty Officer Zurich dropped off copies of the photographs that he took this morning. I placed them on your desk,” the little dynamo concluded before departing, leaving a trail of pixie dust in her wake. With abject horror, I watched a mesmerized Honister follow her with interested eyes until she reached her desk. There’s no accounting for taste.
As Brunei put Magritte down in the crib that we keep in our office, I looked at the pictures; and once again, my mood darkened. I passed the pictures to Honister one at a time, and watching the flashes of anger on his expression, I bet that he shared the same desire for justice that ran through my veins.
Yep, the kid was a sheepdog, too.
Interview & Record Storage Room
Headquarters and Field Office, NCIS
Provost Marshal Building
1615 Hours Local Time
It took us an hour to set the right conditions for Fräulein Cramer’s interrogation, time that I confidently expected was well spent and would save us countless hours in the end.
Honister observed everything in the process quietly, and I was quite certain he was taking copious mental notes. That is, of course, in those instances when his eyes had not wandered toward a certain desk outside my office. I guessed that the interest was mutual, since Metzger also discovered countless excuses to fuss around my office. I seriously considered using the fire hose at the damage control station outside my door to give them a good dousing, but Brunei seemed amused by their antics. Not one to rain on my beloved’s parade, I restrained myself, although I thought she was taking her tendency to matchmake to an extreme.
Eventually, Leiss knocked on my doorframe and nodded once, indicating that everything was ready.
I thanked him, and with Magritte out for the count and back in her crib, I instructed Brunei about her part in our little play. I was planning to use the old up-time “bad cop, good cop” routine or in our case, the “bad cop, worse cop” version. Honister, all ears, listened. Brunei nodded, gave me some suggestions and a small grin, and with a quick peck on my cheek, departed. Together with Honister, I went to collect my props as I explained my overall plan, leaving Genghis to watch over Magritte.
Our “interview” room was where we stored our records. Thanks to Metzger’s organizational skills, it could now be used without anyone tripping over boxes. The idea of a dedicated room for interrogations came to me after watching police TV dramas during Movie Night. Perhaps one day we may have one of those in our own facility. In the meantime, we make do.
We, of course, are missing the two-way mirrors and the recording microphones of the up-time versions, but with ingenuity and some elbow grease, we are able to substitute convenient peepholes and ventilation-grid listening posts.
I used one of the peepholes to check how Cramer was doing. It was easy to see that life in the streets had not been easy on her. Her face seemed older than her reported age, and her teeth looked even worse. Cramer, in the words of my friend Lulu O’Keefe (and pardon the pun), looked like she had been “ridden hard and put away wet.” She now looked reasonably alert, although not completely sober or sure of herself.
I watched Brunei enter the room, place a cup of hot broth within her reach, and then go sit at the other end of the table. Carefully—one of her hands was now cuffed to a ring bolt in the table—Cramer took the cup and sipped the beverage. Brunei remained quiet and expressionless. No trace remained of Magritte’s loving mother, or the compassionate friend that I had seen throughout the day. I guess that Cramer was parched, because she finished the broth in record time and started to look curiously around the room. For a moment, she stared at the file cabinets. I wanted her to get the impression that this was a place where secrets were extracted and preserved. The small shudder that shook her body and the abruptness with which Cramer swiveled her head back toward Brunei told me that she was halfway there already. Minutes dragged by as Cramer stared at my wife, waiting for her to speak. When that did not happen, Cramer started to loudly protest her innocence again.
Brunei remained impassive and silent, and just stared back at her. I know how unnerving that stare can be, and I work extra hard at avoiding its being directed at me. Frustrated by the silence, Cramer went from protesting her dubious innocence to cursing with an impressive vocabulary that showed her close, personal association with our friends in the sea trades.
For all the effect that she was having on my beloved, she might as well have been reading romantic poetry. I did mention that Brunei had stared down mercenaries, right? Finally, her patience gone, Cramer grabbed the now empty cup and threw it. My wife, without missing a beat, changing her expression, or even uttering a single word, reached out and caught the mug in mid-flight before placing it gently back on the table.
Cramer crumpled, burying her face in her hands, sobbing. In my opinion, she seemed softened enough. I invited a very impressed Honister to take my place at the peephole and collected my props.
I entered the room unannounced and stopped by her side. My arrival forced Cramer to look up, and keep looking up. I’m as tall as an up-timer, generally broader, and my face has been in one too many fistfights. Occasionally those physical attributes can come in quite handy.
Cramer gulped at my stern expression and her face grew pale. Before she could utter a word, I slammed the bloodied brick in front of her, not hard enough to break it but hard enough to make the table reverberate like a drum. Cramer almost jumped out of her skin and stared at it, completely mesmerized.
One by one, I pulled out the black and white photographs taken at the crime scene, placing them in front of her. Cramer jumped away from the table as far as the handcuffs allowed, eyes wide open in horror and guilt. Frankly, I had been counting on it. I let her stare at them for a while, before loudly clearing my throat, forcefully returning her attention to me.
“It’s clear, Fräulein Cramer, by both the physical evidence and your confession to Agent Leiss, that you were a willing accomplice in the murder of one Ferdinand Schwinger, a leading citizen of this city and a friend of our navy. The question before us is the manner of your execution,” I said, using my sternest prosecutorial tone of voice.
Her eyes went wilder and her pupils dilated. I was almost sure that Cramer was going to pass out. With one hand, I pushed her back in her seat.
“Nein, Herr Offizier. I’m innocent and don’t have anything to do with his death,” she started to beg. “I was told to lure him into the alley, so we could find out why he had been following Mons . . . I thought that we were only going to rough him up and possibly steal his money. I did not know that Pa . . . he was going to keep hitting him like that. You have to believe me, please!”
I ignored her pleas and continued speaking. “Under the circumstances, the judge is likely to call for your hanging.”
“Hanging?” She parroted back in alarm, her voice becoming quite strained.
“Say, Spitzer, when was the last time we hanged a woman in Magdeburg? It’s been a while and I forgot,” I deadpanned.
“I believe, Herr Director, that it was six months ago. The butcher’s wife, you remember?” she deadpanned back.
“Yes, now I remember, the woman who murdered her husband with poison. Ugly affair that one! Say, Spitzer, isn’t death by hanging supposed to be quick? The poor woman lingered for a while.”
“It usually is, Herr Director. But, it all depends on what kind of knot the executioner uses in the rope. If he used a hangman’s noose, the fall is supposed to break the condemned’s neck and death is relatively fast and painless. With a regular knot, you strangle to death,” Brunei said, without even batting an eyelash. Believe me! Never play cards with that woman.
“But sadly, you are correct, Herr Director. That poor woman lingered a bit, although I heard rumors that the butcher’s family slid a few gold coins to the executioner to make it so. If I recall, Herr Schwinger’s family is also well-to-do, right?” Brunei continued with apparent sincerity.
Cramer sat speechless, white as a ghost and terrified out of her wits. It was time to reel her in.
“We may be able to convince the judge to show leniency, even perhaps to forfeit the death penalty all together, Fräulein Cramer. Of course, that will require complete cooperation on your part. So what say you?”
“If I speak, they will kill me,” she pleaded.
Without a word, Brunei pulled a short piece of rope from her pocket and idly started tying it in knots reminiscent of a noose. That got her message across rather well.
“His name is Paul, Paul Diermissen,” Cramer told us in a rush. “He told me that he was from Hamburg but his accent doesn’t quite put him there.”
I pulled Bieber’s drawing from the folder and showed it to her.
“Is that him?” I demanded, noticing how she stiffened looking at the drawing.
“No, that’s his boss, Monsieur Baricourt, Philippe Baricourt, although I have also heard him go by Meyer.”
Bingo, I thought. “How many other men does Monsieur Baricourt have in his employ, Fräulein?”
“At least five more that I could see around the house. The numbers varied depending if he has any couriers waiting for messages or arriving with them. They only needed me to do their cooking, carry messages around town and occasionally service their needs, and did not tell me anything about their business.”
I decided not to touch that statement.
“One more thing, Fräulein Cramer. Can you tell us how Herr Schwinger ended up in that alley?” I needed to know.
Cramer looked at me with renewed fright in her eyes and in a very small voice replied, “Monsieur Baricourt noticed that he was being followed and was unable to shake him off. So he asked Paul to get rid of him. We waited for Herr Schwinger in the alley and when I screamed for help, he came to my rescue.”
For her protection, I moved away from the table and faced the bulkhead as my hands clenched into fists. I wanted to hit it as hard as I wanted to hit her, black rage coursing through my body.
I felt a soft touch on my arm and looked down to see Brunei’s concerned blue eyes. She didn’t say anything but I could see her love and, once again, that knowledge drained my anger away. I mouthed a quick “thanks, love” and turned my head toward Cramer.
“Fräulein Cramer, Agent Spitzer will take your statement now. I want the address and directions to Herr Baricourt’s residence, their routine and a layout of the place. If you know what’s good for you, I strongly encourage you to be precise.”
Without a further word to her, I left the room.
The Provost Marshal’s Office
Provost Marshal Building
1635 Hours Local Time
Outside the interrogation room, I was met by Honister, Leiss, and Schuhmacher. They matched my angry steps, with Leiss bombarding me with questions about why Ferdi was shadowing Monsieur Baricourt and his cohorts. I finally stopped on the landing and faced them. “Detective Honister, can you show the drawing to Agent Leiss?”
Karl pulled the drawing from his notebook and I watched as both Leiss and Schumacher stared at it, speechless.
Leiss finally looked up. “Okay, Skipper, I sort of understand now and I got a bad feeling about the whole thing, but why NCIS badges?”
“Hans, the only thing that comes to mind is that they want to be able to get into the yard,” I speculated. “Most of our people are unknown to the community at large. Having badges is a lot simpler disguise than trying to steal enough navy or Marine uniforms unnoticed.”
“Herr Schwinger probably had the same idea,” Schumacher said, continuing my thought. “He must have tried to follow them back to their hidey-hole before reporting his findings and suspicions. I just wish he had called for backup first.”
All of us nodded in grim agreement.
“He did what any of us would have done, Skipper,” Leiss concluded in a somber tone. “He paid for his heroism with his life, but he may have saved dozens by his actions.”
I nodded in grim agreement and led the way down the ladder. Down in the provost section, I asked one of the yeomen if her boss was in her office. I wasn’t surprised when she answered in the affirmative. Strausswirt seriously needed to get herself a life.
On our way there, Honister asked, curious, “Is there anything in what you told her in there that was not true, Herr Director?”
I looked at him, grinning humorlessly. “Not a thing, Detective. If she had not given up her cohorts so readily, she would have likely ended up hanged for her involvement. Unless it is absolutely necessary to lie, I always prefer to stick to the truth.”
I knocked twice on the provost’s door, and waited for her invitation to enter. As soon as I opened the door, I saw that Strausswirt had another visitor, Captain Annette de Ventron. Luckily for us, she was the next person on my list to talk to. She had once been the regimental adjutant for First Marines, but was now one of the assistant directors for the Office of Naval Intelligence.
I introduced Honister and then gave them both a summary of our findings. As soon as I finished, de Ventron exchanged a strange look with Strausswirt and then stood up.
“Okay, everyone inside. Annalise, secure the door,” she commanded.
With a muttered “Aye, aye, ma’am,” Schuhmacher almost slammed the door shut on poor Leiss as he darted inside. De Ventron waited until we found more comfortable positions in the small, and now rather crowded, office. “What I’m going to say now is classified top secret, so remember your oaths. Herr Honister, you may consider yourself under an imperial seal. Is this understood?”
“Yes, Captain.” The poor man looked like he wanted to be somewhere else.
“Günther, I’m truly sorry about your friend. He was a good and brave man. We may never be able to truly appreciate what his sacrifice saves us. Mes amis, we have been getting reports from confidential sources that a major action has been planned against the yard. So far, we’ve only been getting scattered rumors in support of that information. That is, until last week, when we were informed that the action was imminent.” Everyone was glued to her words, so much so that you could probably have heard the proverbial pin drop as she continued.
“The admiral authorized ONI to take the necessary steps to thwart this threat. I was sent to give you a heads-up and step up our defensive measures. It seems, though, that Herr Schwinger’s brave sacrifice has given us the means to go on the offensive instead.” She paused again, perhaps for effect, not that she needed to, because we were hanging on her words. “Britt . . . Günther, you are hereby ordered to marshal your forces and, in coordination with the Magdeburg Police,” she said with a small nod toward Honister. “Eliminate this menace to the safety of our community. Is this understood?”
“Aye, aye, ma’am,” Strausswirt and I parroted together, she because of her Marine training, I because de Ventron has that effect on even free-spirited, confirmed civilians like yours truly.
“Good,” she said in a more normal voice, “Günther, before you ask, yes, you may tell your wife and anyone else that you deem to have a need-to-know. I’ll coordinate with the imperial representative and Admiral Simpson but, on behalf of the boss, I would consider it a personal favor if you don’t burn the town down in the process.”
I rolled my eyes. One little fire and a small explosion and now everyone thinks that I’m a confirmed pyromaniac.
“Now if everyone will excuse me, I need to go talk to the commandant. Britt, I will see you at the nunnery tonight.”
I was ready to either wonder aloud “who was that masked woman” or ask her if her visit to von Brockenholz was professional or personal in nature when Strausswirt gave me the “you better behave now” look. It was obvious that she was in cahoots with the love of my life, both trying to mend my errant and uncouth ways.
With a smile, de Ventron left the office, leaving a noticeable vacuum in her absence as we continued to stare at the door.
Strausswirt cleared her throat.
I exchanged a weary look with her.
“Günther, we have lots of work ahead of us,” she said and I sighed but could only nod in agreement.
Magdeburg City, USE
0430 Hours Local Time, Two days later
It had taken a relatively long time to make the necessary preparations. Some of the delay was caused by the need for coordination with outside agencies. There was a time after the siege and burning of Magdeburg that any military unit could do whatever it wanted in the city. Fortunately for everyone concerned, that time has long gone, but occasionally, in instances like this, we could be excused for wishing that we still had the same freedom of action.
Once we all agreed on the basics, Strausswirt, Honister, and I left Brunei, Leiss, and Schuhmacher behind to start organizing our respective efforts and trooped over to see Honister’s boss at home.
Magdeburg PD Chief William “Bill” Reilly heard us out as he quietly took notes. He was surprised to find that what had started as an ordinary murder investigation had transformed into a major counter-intelligence operation. He readily agreed to support our operation and ordered Honister to continue serving as our liaison.
However, he requested that in light of the latest developments, we also brief his boss. Once again, we packed ourselves back into the carriage and went to pay a late night visit to Herr Otto Gericke, Mayor of Magdeburg.
We got him out of bed.
Herr Gericke sat stonily silent in his robe during our presentation, heard Chief Reilly’s recommendations, and through all this I felt that he was looking directly at me, warily. It was painfully obvious that my reputation had once again preceded me.
Surveillance of the objective, a two-floor nondescript residence several short blocks away from where we had found Ferdi, had started. It lasted throughout the next day and most of the next night, and care was taken not to alarm the occupants of the house.
No one really was able to sleep too much. The close watch was done discreetly; we never could have gotten away with it without using the combined resources of all agencies involved, the provost, MPD and us.
Outwardly nothing seemed out of place. Perhaps one or two extra patrolmen making the rounds at random intervals; a street vendor here or there—activities that were so normal, and so very much part and parcel of the usual street scene that nothing seemed amiss. Using the information provided by Cramer and our combined observations, we refined our plans, learned the lay of the land, examined the attack routes, and looked for any possible avenues of escape.
Finally, we felt confident that we could perform the assault with a minimum of disruption to the neighborhood. We took the time to carefully rehearse it several times.
You might be asking yourself why we went to all that trouble. The simplest answer is that dead men can’t talk. If this had been a simple case of murder, we could have bombed the place flat and let God sort them out without giving it a second thought, an option that still held a great deal of attraction for me.
This, however, was possibly the first of many enemy operations. There was a crucial need to capture as many of them alive, with as much intact materiel, as possible, in order to generate intelligence information that would help us stop those later attacks. Another of those up-timer notions that seemed absurd at first thought, but was eminently practical.
Around 0300 we started to move from the yard to our assigned assembly areas in small groups, wagon wheels and horses’ hooves muffled with rags. The Provost Special Response Team, or PSRT, led the way as we ghosted through quiet streets and empty alleyways holding onto the harnesses of the man or woman in front of us. We hoped to take advantage of the late hour to catch our adversaries asleep and unable to respond rapidly. Behind us, the MPD closed off the streets as we moved in and manned an outer cordon of barricades where—to my immense chagrin—fire crews also stood by. They had also, earlier, under the cover of darkness, quietly evacuated the neighbors on both sides of the target.
While we waited word from the scouting element, I told Honister to jump up and down several times, much to Brunei’s amusement. Using pieces of cord, I securely tied down any jangly items in his kit, a trick that I learned from “the man” himself, Sergeant Major Hudson.
In the dark courtyard, I felt and heard rather than saw when Strausswirt finally returned from her leaders’ recon and final inspection. Like us, her face was covered by a black wool balaclava, and she was wearing dark gloves and camouflage utilities, so that only her eyes could be seen clearly.
“All right people . . . Snipers and illumination are in place, let’s move out,” she commanded in a low voice.
Three squads, one carrying an assault ladder, headed toward the darkened house at a quiet trot. I had assigned an NCIS agent to each one. Handguns drawn, Strausswirt, Honister, and I, together with two corpsmen, formed a fourth squad that silently followed the rest.
She took us to the corner of the street where the house was located and waited for the rest of the teams to glide into their final assault positions. We watched our second-story element as they placed their ladder against the targeted windowsill. The element lead MP climbed carefully up the ladder to fasten something small to the window and climbed halfway back down. A match was struck; a charge cord started to burn furiously; and everyone crouched down to wait for the detonation.
The explosion was rather anticlimactic. I had caused bigger ones by accident, but it did the job, smashing the window open. The element on the ladder scrambled through the resulting opening. The other two squads crashed their battering rams into the front and rear doors, forcing them open and gaining access. Strausswirt led our element at a trot through the front entrance amidst angry yells and curses in several languages, and shouted commands in French and German to the occupants to lie down on the floor with their fingers laced on the backs of their heads.
As you could expect, the scene was chaotic, with half a dozen naked or almost-naked men flat on their stomachs with shotguns or pistols to their heads while they were handcuffed. Schuhmacher and another female MAA forced one of the naked guys to stand up and then marched him toward the door. It was cold outside, and I hoped that someone would remember to throw a blanket over him.
In the meantime, and following my instructions, Honister and Brunei were inspecting each prisoner, carefully looking for Monsieur Baricourt, AKA Herr Meyer, with no luck so far.
I saw Leiss come down the stairs escorting another handcuffed captive, but when I yanked his head back to check his face, I quickly saw that he was not our quarry. I told Strausswirt that we were going to check upstairs and led my companions to the next floor. Not surprisingly, we found that it was just as chaotic. We soon realized as we inspected each of the captives taken that there were at least a dozen men altogether, counting those on the first floor, and not the half-dozen that Cramer had told us about originally.
My gut feeling told me that de Ventron had been right, and that we had been mere days, perhaps hours, away from whatever was planned. I could see the heavy hand of irony all around. Had they simply left Ferdi alone or hidden his body better, we would never have found out about their plan until it was too late.
“The best laid plans of mice and men,” I reminded myself.
Staff Sergeant Dallas Chaffin, the enlisted leader of the PSRT, and one of his men dragged a bleeding man out of the last room. It seemed that he had been a tad too close to the window when the entry charge exploded. I was surprised that he was still alive, much less on his feet. To my deep disappointment, it was not Herr Meyer either. Chaffin shouted that his team had finished clearing the whole floor and there was no one else left.
Brunei, Honister, and I started a methodical search for incriminating evidence. During our hunt, we got a message from Strausswirt that they discovered in the basement quite an impressive arsenal but no trace of the ghostly Herr Meyer.
After finishing the last room without finding anything or anyone, we met in the hallway. Honister looked as tired and frustrated as I felt when we removed our helmets and balaclavas. Brunei looked distracted and I assumed that she was thinking about our daughter, currently under the tender mercies of Genghis.
I was ready to ask Brunei to get her head back in the game when she turned toward me and asked, “Günther, do you smell smoke?”
I looked at her and then turned to look at the gaping hole where the window used to be. To my immense relief, I did not see any indications of fire. I doubted that my battered reputation would ever live it down if another house burned. She continued to sniff around. I knew that her nose was incredibly sensitive.
Brunei started to move toward one of the rooms that we had already cleared, sniffing all the way. Honister and I exchanged puzzled glazes and wearily followed her. To my surprise, after I entered the room, I too could smell smoke and, by the surprised look he gave me, so could Honister.
We looked around but there was not a discernible source for the smell.
Suddenly, Honister shouted, “Quick, people, douse your lights.”
Brunei and I complied and as soon as our eyes adapted, we discerned some barely visible but flickering light coming from the bottom of one of the interior walls.
I knew that whatever was going down behind the false wall needed to be stopped quickly, and there was no time to call for tools. My dear, departed mother had always warned me that I was far too impulsive for my own good and that it would lead me into trouble. Once more I proved her right by taking a running start and, using my shoulder, crashed through the wall as if it had been made of smoke—well, actually, paper. My momentum kept me going and I tripped over the framing and found myself sprawled at the feet of our long-lost friend, Herr Meyer.
I had rudely interrupted him as he was setting fire to some very interesting documents and diagrams.
Before I could say something clever like “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” or something even more appropriate to the occasion like, “Hands on top of your head and back away from that fire,” I found myself staring at a double barreled shotgun while my own weapon was still holstered, a cop’s worst nightmare.
I discovered that I was not truly scared for myself but hoped sincerely that Herr Meyer or Monsieur Baricourt, whatever his name was, did a good job of blowing my head off. I was quite sure that otherwise, Brunei was likely to finish the job herself for my being such a heroic ass and making her a widow. I watched his finger tighten on the trigger, trying to come up with something clever to answer my mom’s “I told you so,” on my arrival in heaven.
Suddenly, a body flew overhead and tackled Meyer as the shotgun went off, luckily into empty space. Brunei daintily stepped over me, after delivering a swift and hard kick to my butt, and kept her weapon centered on Meyer’s forehead while holding her penlight. The situation reversed. He could only stare into the light meekly as Honister handcuffed him.
Finding myself still in the ranks of the living, albeit with a sore rear and a bruised ego, I stood up and tried to extinguish the fire with my gloved hands as the room behind us filled up with cops.
Strausswirt and Chaffin elbowed their way through the pack and jumped to help as someone called for the firemen.
Oh, who could have thought it possible; we had to use the fire crews after all. Maybe I ought to ask Meyer to shoot me anyway.
12 Vasa Strasse
Magdeburg City, USE
0830 Hours Local Time
Once the fire department arrived, we explained to the fire chief that we would prefer if they didn’t damage our evidence with excessive water. He finally agreed but we were still forced by them to wait outside the house. To top it off, after we were finally cleared by the fire chief, Strausswirt stopped us from going back in, instead ordering everyone to wait for the arrival of combat engineers. Of course, I couldn’t fight her reasoning after Meyer’s secret room discovery. Who knew what else might be hidden in there, especially booby traps?
While we waited for Gunner Hobbs and his merry band of explosive ordnance disposal experts to arrive and work their way through the house, we received other visitors. Chief Reilly and Captain de Ventron joined us and, to my chagrin, neither of them seemed particularly surprised to see firefighters on the premises. I guess that my growing reputation as the local pyromaniac remains secure. I took the opportunity to commend Honister’s actions to his boss. I had already thanked him in private.
Herr Meyer and associates were escorted under heavy guard to the yard brig where they were to be kept isolated until time for their interviews.
If they survived those, Magdeburg could have a crack at them for Ferdi’s murder.
Hobbs and his EOD engineers finally made an appearance and got to work; they specialize in a job that no one can pay me enough to do. Lacking adequate up-time technology for protection, they were truly left with only one option if something goes terribly wrong. The sign attached to their wagon succinctly captured this: “EOD—If you see us running, try to catch up.” I guess a good sense of humor and nerves of steel are a must to work there.
At last we got the all clear and everyone went back in to do a through search, assisted by the MPD. Brunei, Honister and I escorted de Ventron, Strausswirt and Chief Reilly to our secret room and were pleasantly surprised that we did not have to wade in ankle-deep water to do it. It took a mere moment to finish the removal of the false wall. It soon become clear that Monsieur Baricourt or Meyer hadn’t taken into account the possibility of sudden discovery or made any kind of arrangements for the speedy destruction of the incriminating evidence.
Despite his best efforts, we discovered documents and plans secreted in nooks and crannies everywhere. In a soft cloth bag in one of those nooks were ten shiny new Hamburg Police badges.
We piled everything on top of the bed.
De Ventron and Honister, who could also read French, went through the pile. He was the one to hit the jackpot. We crowded around him and de Ventron as they opened the large diagram. Neither Honister nor Reilly knew what they were looking at, but the rest of us did. In almost perfect unison, we gasped in surprise but had to keep quiet as neither Honister nor Chief Reilly had a-need-to-know.
The shipyard drafting department serves also as a cover for the naval research activity, known to some of us as NSA for “no such activity.” Officially it did not have a name and was mainly known by where it was located. The building was a small non-descript two floor edifice, sheltering an organization devoted to turning up-time ideas and knowledge into down-time functionality with occasional detours toward the road never taken. The brainchild of the admiral, it operates with a shoestring budget and handful of personnel in the fulfillment of unique naval needs.
It could be a powerful force multiplier, as the Danes found out the hard way in ’34, and has not stopped working since, waiting patiently for our cash-strapped nation to provide the budget to move its newest shipbuilding projects into reality. They were located in one of the most out-of-the-way, and well-protected, areas of the yard, far from the general activities and knowledge of most members of our naval community.
Now, spread on the bed, lay a rather detailed plan of the building, with all the known active and passive security measures. Under no conceivable circumstance could this be considered a good thing.
I looked at de Ventron with wary eyes and quickly noticed how pale she had become. I couldn’t blame her; the diagram was the last piece of the puzzle that put together Ferdi’s assassination, the false badges and this nest of spies.
However, instead of tying everything together with a nice pretty bow, it introduced a whole new set of troubles and unanswered questions.
One thing was glaringly obvious; we had a mole inside the Navy Yard.
We scoured the house from top to bottom in search of anything that could help us pinpoint the source of the leak or the identity of the mole. Apart from a stash of shipyard workers’ uniforms, nothing else of significance was discovered.
De Ventron left early with the diagram and other materials to brief Simpson and to give her superiors at ONI a heads up.
I didn’t have to read tea leaves to know that everyone’s morning at ONI was going to be ruined. The ferreting-out of moles and spies is more their kind of game than ours, although we, like the provost office, will stand ready to provide assistance.
At last, concluding that we had gotten as much site exploitation as we were likely to get, we prepared to return to the yard, leaving behind a house whose walls seemed to have endured the attention of a flock of overzealous woodpeckers. For the moment, the MPD was going to secure the premises until we all agreed on its disposition. Anxious to return to the yard Brunei, Strausswirt and I thanked Chief Reilly and Honister for their assistance.
In return, Reilly thanked us back for allowing his department to assist and for the professional way we had conducted ourselves throughout the whole process. He also suggested we get together more often to conduct training and improve inter-agency communications. Much had happened in less than a week, because for the first time that I can remember, I actually thought it was a nifty idea and didn’t add any of my usual wise-ass comments. Perhaps it was a sign that I have finally buried the hatchet with the MPD. The chief excused himself and, looking at his up-time wristwatch, made an off-hand comment that if he hurried up, he might able to make it to the Schwinger service.
It dawned on the rest of us that there was something else that we needed to do before we could call it a day. I had an idea and told them what I wanted to do. Everyone agreed with my proposal, and I sent for Stoffel and Trina Hudson. Our fast trip through the Magdeburg streets in full assault gear would become a source of gossip and much comment in the succeeding days, but no one tried, or even dared to try, to prevent our passage.
The church, as befit my friend’s standing in the community, was packed. To the consternation of the pastor and many of those present, members of the PSRT and NCIS, together with MPs, MAAs, and two very out-of-place junior Marine musicians, filed into the sides and back of the nave.
Flanked by Brunei and Strausswirt I walked down the center aisle, with Honister bringing up the rear. Our arrival had stopped the service cold, and everyone was looking at us, astonished. We ignored comments about our grimy appearance, or our apparent lack of manners. Nothing of that sort mattered to us as we marched the whole way down the nave, heads held high and holding our helmets smartly under our left arms until we reached Ferdi’s plain coffin.
I was later told that we stopped as one and bowed our heads in unison but I am not surprised that we did so. We were now a team. I turned and faced left, where Hanne and her children sat in the front row pew. She had an expectant look on her face as she held Julius’ hand and stared at us. In the pew behind them, I saw Chief Reilly taking his seat beside Herr and Frau Gericke, and I gave them a small nod before walking toward Hanne.
When I stood in front of her, I passed my helmet to Brunei and knelt on one knee. Taking hold of her free hand, with suddenly blurred eyes, I told her: “We got him! We got them all!” Disregarding propriety, and my dirty gear, she hugged me, crying.
Sadly, Magdeburg had grown accustomed to military funerals, but had never seen one for a policeman. We all agreed that by his actions, Ferdi had earned the honor. So, he got the uniformed pallbearers, the three volleys and a boy bugler playing “Taps.” As we lowered his coffin, a girl piper played “Amazing Grace” with such a feeling that there was not a dry eye around. He also got one more thing before they nailed the coffin lid for the final time.
I pinned an NCIS badge, a real one, to his chest.
The Eagle, Globe and Anchor (EGA) Kneippe
The Strausswirt Family, Proprietors
Magdeburg City, USE
2000 Hours Local Time, A month later
It was another Movie Night at the EGA, and the place was packed to the rafters. Everyone seemed to be having a good, but orderly, time. There are some distinct advantages to having one of your daughters as the local provost marshal, and imperial agents and military police hanging around your place when off duty. It was my first night back here since Ferdi’s memorial service last month, and I told everyone that I had been busy, which was pretty close to the truth. I really did want to keep a low profile. The town was still buzzing several weeks after our impromptu parade and colorful participation in his funeral, and the press continued to write about the raid and its aftermath.
Admiral Simpson agreed with my assessment of the value of Ferdi’s deeds. Three days after the funeral, I escorted him to the Schwinger’s’ residence to pay his respects, and to present Hanne with the Navy Commendation Medal. Ferdi also became the first civilian in the brief history of our navy to be mentioned in dispatches. I hoped that it would ease some of her pain, and her children’s pain, by giving his loss meaning, and a purpose.
Only time will tell.
Our mole is still at large, which was the reason I had been genuinely busy. Our interviews with Herr Meyer and the rest of his cohorts were not as productive as we all hoped. We discovered that, except for Meyer, everyone had been a hired hand, perhaps a better kind of mercenary than we were used to dealing with, but mercenaries nonetheless. Even Meyer had been hired as force commander through intermediaries, and although he had received copious amounts of intelligence materials, he had never met anyone directly involved in its collection. This alone showed a sophisticated level of compartmentalization that we had not seen before. Remember, we are talking about Magdeburg, a place where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a spy.
Our conversations with him also led us to an interesting conclusion. While their attack plan was carefully designed to inflict a maximum amount of death and destruction on our R&D efforts, their escape plan did not rise to the same level. For all practical purposes, this was intended to be a one-way mission. The level of ruthlessness that this implied was awe-inspiring.
De Ventron even admitted to me that, although Meyer and his main lieutenants were French, she could not tie the blame to Richelieu, or even to France, and her gut feeling was that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to provide misdirection.
This was most significant. If you knew how she felt about the good cardinal, you can understand how much soul searching it took for her to admit that. That leaves us back where we started. There is still a hidden and ruthless enemy out there, gunning for us. This was not the time to lower our guard.
We did get some names, and other leads, and ONI is following up on them. In the meantime, we in NCIS have been redoing the background checks of everyone working, or having any connection with NSA, so far unsuccessfully. Nothing significant has jumped out at us. There is, however, one thing that we and ONI have learned, and that is patience. We will get him, or perhaps her; it’s just a matter of time.
One of Meyer’s associates, Pablo Rodriguez, a Spaniard better known to us as Herr Paul Diermissen, confessed to Ferdi’s killing. He was the same guy who had been too close to the window-breaching charge but had survived to tell the tale.
To my surprise, Rodriguez corroborated Fräulein Cramer’s account of her involvement with Ferdi’s death and saved her life. Perhaps there was, after all, honor among thieves.
Life goes on. After much nagging and the occasional threat of withholding of marital privileges, Brunei had her way and dragged me here. They are showing Lethal Weapon, one of my favorite movies. Normally, it would have been enough to pull me out of my doldrums, but it also had been one of Ferdi’s favorites. So I kept thinking about him as I sipped the same tankard of beer, its contents remaining mostly untouched for the last hour. That was strange; I have lost comrades before, so I couldn’t really justify how I felt.
Darn shame that I was not at my usual sharp wit, because the place was a target-rich environment. To start with, Britt Strausswirt had an actual day off and dressed like a girl. No one could remember when that happened last; many wondered aloud if those were signs of the apocalypse.
These portents could only be explained by the presence of her pet fly-guy and under-the-table flight instructor, Eugene “Woody” Woodsill. I gave the guy points for bravery: showing up at a Marine club in air force uniform is not something done by the faint-hearted. On the other hand, if my guess about the why of his presence here tonight is correct, Woody may have preferred mauling by a whole Marine regiment instead of the deep conversation that he was having at the moment with Herr Strausswirt.
I heard shouted greetings and turned to look at the new arrivals. To my great surprise, I saw Karl Honister entering the kneippe in the company of an unknown young civilian woman. He looked happy and relaxed. Good for him, I thought, and then I took a good look at his companion and did a double-take. Dumbstruck, I emptied my whole tankard before daring to glance again.
My eyes were not deceiving me.
Genghis Metzger, the navy’s dark mistress of administration and signatures-in-triplicate cleans up pretty well. She also looked very much like a woman in love as she held hands with Honister. The looks that he was giving her in return made it clear that he was a goner, too. I suspected that he would be stopping by Schwinger’s in the near future to check ring prices at police discounts. It is sad to see how the mighty have fallen. Both saw me and, to my horror, made a beeline for my table. I plastered a smile on my face and rose.
“Good evening, Herr Director.”
“Good evening, Detective, but please its only Günther here,” I told him, smiling as we shook hands. “The only three persons that go by their rank in this place are Admiral Simpson, Colonel von Brockenholz and Sergeant Major Hudson. House rules, you know. Good evening, Ghen . . . I mean, Hanna,” my ears burned at the slip.
“That’s okay, Günther. I actually like being called Genghis. It’s amazing how the right nickname can speed up the delivery of supply requisitions,” she told me, dimpling a smile. Oh, damn! She just looked adorable!
“I want to thank you for your invitation, Günther. I have never been to your famous Movie Night before.”
I smiled, without a clue.
“Frau Spitzer told me that this movie is one of your favorites.”
Ah, clarity at last. I looked in Brunei’s direction and saw her devilish little grin as she kept an eye on me. Darn that woman!
“Yes, indeed it is, Karl. It will be at least a half hour before the movie starts. Would you two care for something to drink?”
“Not for me right now, sir. I think that I’m going to check on Annalise. She looks sort of green,” said Genghis. I turned to look, Schuhmacher had been sitting with Brunei and Frau Strausswirt and if I knew them well, they were probably regaling the poor kid with harrowing tales of childbirth. I felt sorry for her . . . really.
With a gesture, I invited Karl to sit.
“I hear that congratulations are in order. Official Liaison to Naval Law Enforcement; it sounds impressive.” I said.
He looked embarrassed. “Chief Reilly told me that as long as I was hanging around with you guys, he might as well make it official.”
Yes, I had been told that Romeo here had become quite a regular fixture in our office at lunch breaks. So far, I had been fortunate not to catch the love birds in action, but my fire hose is always standing by.
“So, Karl, have you considered my offer,” I asked. Hey, I may be clinically depressed, but I’m not crazy, and he is definitely NCIS material.
Again, he looked sort of embarrassed. “Well, Günther, I’m really flattered by your offer, but you know something?”
I listened intently as I signaled the barmaid to bring us another round.
“When Chief Reilly and Lieutenant Chieske recruited me, they talked about wanting to professionalize the city watch and turn it into a real police force. Despite the obstacles, we have made great progress and I want to stay and help them reach that goal. So, thanks, but no, I think that Magdeburg and the MPD need me more, and anyway competition is good for everybody.”
I smiled and nodded in agreement. He definitely was one of us, a sheepdog. It was a damn shame for NCIS, but he did have a good head on his shoulders and the right ideas, so it was definitely a gain for Magdeburg and the MPD. I made a note to talk soon to Reilly, informally. He needed to start looking for more kids like Karl.
The barmaid deposited two new freshly filled tankards and picked up my now empty one. I pulled my money purse out. The EGA had a strict pay-as-you-go policy on drinks.
“No, Günther, my treat,” Honister said, paying the maid. I’m neither a fool, nor likely to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I readily accepted, but I did make a mental note to get the next round. Honister waited, and I realized that he wanted me to give the toast.
“Absent companions!” The Marine traditional toast to fallen comrades sounded strange for those who heard it in the first place. He looked puzzled at first but still touched his tankard lid to mine. It was time to move on, and I took inspiration from another of my late friend’s favorite movies. I knew that, wherever he was, Ferdi would approve.
“You know, Karl, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Dedicated to the Sheepdogs that man the line against the Wolves, you know who you are.
Special recognition goes to Sarah Hays, Neil Hansen, John Harvell and John Johnson for their help on navigating my usual grammar-free zone and Virginia DeMarce for her comments. Thanks, guys!