Thursday, April 27, 1634

 

Astrid Schäubin looked up from her paperwork when she heard footsteps on the front porch of the building. The steps paused. He—it sounded like a man—was probably reading the sign that read "Neustatter's European Security Services" and then the hand-painted decal below it that read "Member of the Grantville Chamber of Commerce." The porch creaked again, and the door opened.

The man gave the Franklin stove along the back wall a quick glance as he stepped into the room. It was lit against the cool spring day. After a moment, he turned toward the desk. He was older, lean, and still fit. Everything about him—haircut, posture, clothing—showed he was an up-timer. Besides, Astrid recognized him.

"How can I help you, sir?" Astrid asked in accented English.

She knew what he saw: a young down-time woman sitting behind the desk, dressed in down-time-made clothes that nonetheless suggested "secretary." It was part of the image, as was the long, wavy blonde hair that spilled over her shoulders in an up-time style. Her desk was of local, post-Ring of Fire manufacture. The telephone obviously wasn't. A wooden nameplate on the corner of the desk read "Miss Astrid Schäubin."

"Ah, Miss Schäubin, I am looking into hiring an armed escort to Naumburg."

"Naumburg is not very far, and it is not a dangerous ride," she observed. "Our services can be expensive."

"Oh, I agree," the man assured her. "If I wanted to go to Naumburg myself, I wouldn't think anything of it. But I need some goods delivered unobtrusively. They absolutely must get through in time for planting."

Miss Schäubin frowned slightly. "You're planting crops in Naumburg?"

"I'm not explaining this well," he stated ruefully. "My name is Willie Ray Hudson. I am . . ."

"A consultant to the Grange who just turned down appointment as Secretary of Agriculture," she supplied with a smile.

Willie Ray blinked. "You're very well-informed."

She shrugged. "You are one of the leading citizens of Grantville, and before you claim otherwise, I will point out that you were nominated to the Emergency Committee by Mike Stearns himself."

Willie Ray laughed. "All right, all right."

"So you have something that needs to be delivered to Naumburg in time for planting? Seeds?"

Hudson came back to the subject at hand. "Yes. There are some people doing some good work. But they cannot be seen to be associating too closely with us."

"Naumburg is in Saxony."

"Yes. The people who need the seeds are in that area that Gustav transferred to us from Saxony. Supposedly temporarily. Kinda without asking." Willie Ray grinned. "As you've just demonstrated, I'm a little too recognizable. The delivery needs to take place without being noticed."

Astrid's face brightened. "Ah! I see why you want us. Make the delivery but blend in." She gave him her best earnest-but-innocent expression. "Of course the USE and Saxony are currently at peace. Perhaps you could simply publicize it as a gift . . ."

Willie Ray wasn't having any of it. "John George wants his land back, and there are people who are loyal to him. As far as Gustav is concerned, John George turned his back on him after the Ostend War started. Things are tense. And if anyone supports us too publicly, John George's supporters have ways of making life difficult for them."

Astrid nodded, all business. "Of course. If you put a deposit down now, we can reserve a number of guards for you. I will make sure that Neustatter knows that a steady team leader will be needed. He is on an assignment today, but I will have him call you when he gets back."

"Thank you." Hudson paid the deposit and returned to Grantville.

 

Friday, April 28, 1634

 

Astrid Schäubin listened to the riders outside and knew without looking out the window that Edgar Neustatter, Karl Recker, Otto Brenner, and her brother had returned from their assignment. The horses were being led around back to the stables for feeding and grooming. It would be a while before anyone came in. They would probably bring lunch inside—unless there had been trouble on the road, in which case they'd be cleaning weapons first.

Astrid went back to the books. Assuming the just-finished job had gone well, Neustatter's European Security Services should have enough money to buy another up-time weapon. It wasn't so much the actual purchase price but the perpetual expenditure of ammunition. Up-time ammo was expensive—more so if you were shooting from the saddle and couldn't recover your brass. Then you didn't get your deposit back.

Edgar Neustatter came in first, taking off his up-time fedora as he came through the door.

"Good morning, Herr Neustatter," Astrid greeted him with a hint of mischief.

"Good morning, Fräulein Schäubin." That was Neustatter's regular response to any sort of title, even Herr. She knew it was deliberate, too, because Neustatter made a point of always referring to her as "Miss Schäubin" in front of clients.

"Did the assignment go well?" she asked.

"Yes, no problems at all. Just like assignments are supposed to be. Are there any new jobs?"

"Only three."

Neustatter immediately reassured her. "Three is good. What are they?"

"The Strategic Resources Board has more shipments that need to be escorted from Schleusingen to Erfurt. They don't want the escort to be actual troops. They want us for the July shipment. Pastor Green has a Bible society of young men and women from the high school who are going to Jena to confer with the university professors in June. They include Catholics and Anabaptists. Willie Ray Hudson has something to be delivered near Naumburg before spring planting."

"Very good. I have an assignment to add," Neustatter said. "Herr Schrödinger will be traveling to Magdeburg again in a few weeks. This time he is taking his family along. This makes it difficult for us," he mused. Neustatter sat down and thought for a moment. "Do we ride to Halle or take the train and then rent horses?"

"Renting horses would increase our expenses, and you would also have to buy train tickets," Astrid offered.

"I could pass the expenses on to our clients," Neustatter said. "But I would really prefer not to. It is very helpful to have the client know we will not add costs for one thing and another."

Astrid frowned. "The up-time detective agencies you had me read about charged a set fee plus expenses."

"Yes," Neustatter agreed. "They did. But other up-timers, what they called defense contractors, often overcharged. Our firm is a defense contractor since we actually know very little about being detectives. It is a fine image for clients, but we must not confuse image with reality."

Astrid suggested an alternative. "Meeting the client in Halle is the least expensive option, but that does no good if something happens before they reach Halle."

"No one has hit a train so far." He shook a finger like a school teacher. "Tell me why that reasoning is flawed."

Astrid frowned. "It is unprofessional to trust the railroad people to protect our clients. You always say, 'Stay with the client.' "

"Very good. But that's why it looks bad. That isn't why it's a Really Bad Idea."

Astrid flashed a quick smile as she recognized the capital letters. A "Really Bad Idea" was Neustatter's polite way of saying a disorganized, dangerous mess. There were many American expressions for that sort of thing, few of which either Neustatter or her brother Hjalmar would share with her.

"People say the train is well-defended," Astrid said slowly. "But they do not really know, do they? Because no one has ever attacked a train."

Neustatter agreed. "Eventually some bandits will be smart enough—or stupid enough—to realize that."

Astrid thought that over. Neustatter said such things with the assurance of a prophet all the time. He usually turned out to be right, too.

"You could have some men on the train while a couple of others lead all the horses to Halle."

"A good idea," Neustatter said. "It gives us the most options. However, it ties up all of us when Herr Schrödinger is paying only four of us. I think we will take the train and hire horses later if we need them."

Neustatter broke off as the back door opened and Astrid's brother Hjalmar came in. He had food with him. Astrid rose to hug him.

"Welcome home."

"It's good to be back." Her brother glanced at Neustatter who shook his head. "Astrid, why don't you go with Neustatter for lunch? I will answer the door and the telephone."

Astrid gave them both a very sharp expression.

"I have no romantic intentions," Neustatter assured her.

Astrid nodded slowly. She had figured that out already. Neustatter was a very focused man, all business. This was an admirable quality, and in Astrid's opinion he would make a fine husband for some woman—for some other woman. If he were interested in her, Neustatter would have brought his considerable focus to bear. Subtle, the man was not. That was fine with her. It made him an easy boss to work for, once she had gotten past his often gruff manner. As far as romance, Astrid secretly liked the American ideal. She wasn't entirely sure what to do about that, but . . .

Hjalmar was grinning. She gave him her best sisterly glare.

As they waited for the tram, Astrid asked, "Where are we going? Cora's? You have sent me there to meet with prospective clients." The Thuringen Gardens was not only out of their everyday price range but also noisy. She had already figured out that Neustatter's purpose behind lunch was privacy, including from the rest of his employees, but he didn't say anything else until the tram pulled up. Once they were seated and the tram was in motion, Neustatter adjusted his fedora and looked at her.

"Anyone out of the ordinary at Cora's draws attention," Neustatter pointed out. "If a prospective client is not interested enough to come out to the office, then they are not ready to discuss destinations and times. So Cora's is safe enough for that type of meetings. Plus, the busybodies there know who you are and where you work, so it is free advertising." He watched Astrid digest that information.

When the tram pulled up in front of the hotel, Neustatter offered Astrid a hand down, and they went inside. Astrid looked around curiously. "What is this place?" she asked. The tables were almost empty, but quite a few people were crowded together in front of some blackboards, all talking at once.

"Table for two?" a waitress asked. Neustatter nodded, and she seated them.

"What is everyone doing?" Astrid asked.

"The stock market is open," the waitress answered.

"May we observe?" Neustatter asked.

"Yes, but do not buy unless you have the money with you."

"Indeed?" Neustatter asked. "We will just watch from the table, I think. What is today's special?"

"Amideutsch stew, red cabbage, and small beer."

"My favorite kind," Astrid said.

"What's in Amideutsch stew?" Neustatter asked.

"A little mutton, a little beef, spätzle, onions, carrots, celery, and some seasonings."

"How is that Amideutsch?" Neustatter asked.

"German stew has mutton. American stew would have beef and potatoes," the waitress told him.

"Dank."

After Neustatter had watched the stock market for a few minutes, he took out his pad of paper and added a note to his ongoing list. Astrid gave him an inquiring look, and he slid the notebook over. It read:

45. Do stock people need security consultants?

"Good question," Astrid acknowledged.

"Miss Schäubin, how many kinds of stew are there?" Neustatter asked.

"Everyone makes it a little differently. There must be hundreds of variations."

"There are seven mercenary companies in and around Grantville. All different. We chose to be security consultants, and we use the up-timers' Wild West and detective images. I think it is time to add something else. A female agent."

After a moment, Astrid realized that her boss was quite pleased with himself for leaving her speechless. "You want me to be a soldier?" she finally asked.

"A security consultant," Neustatter corrected. "Or a defense contractor, if you prefer." He paused. "You may join the army if you wish, but I would rather you continued working for me."

"Am I not a good enough secretary?" Astrid asked, dreading the answer.

"Miss Schäubin, you are a fine secretary. I want you to be able to act as a security consultant for two reasons. First, one of the assignments you obtained for us is escorting students to Jena. Some of them are young ladies. I would like a security consultant who is able to accompany them to whatever quarters they might find. And one who can talk to them."

"This sounds like what the up-timers call a liaison officer," Astrid noted.

"Liaison." Neustatter spat the word out. All of the military contractors got regular visits by liaison officers from the SoTF army. Some of the other outfits were definitely mercenaries and had typical mercenary attitudes toward requisitioning everything that wasn't nailed down. Periodic crackdowns made for a lot of extra paperwork—mostly for Astrid. "No, I want you to be a security consultant who can stay with the female principals and convince them to follow orders should something happen."

She considered that. "What do I have to do?"

"You can already ride. You need to learn how to shoot."

"Have you talked to Hjalmar about this?"

"About learning to shoot? Yes. He is in favor of it and offered to teach you himself. But I thought you might want to attend the free classes at the police station."

Astrid wasn't having any of that. "No, about me being a security consultant."

"He is not entirely in favor of it," Neustatter said very dryly.

"I did not think so," Astrid said.

"Hjalmar understands why we need at least one woman security consultant. He would simply prefer that it not be you."

Astrid smiled. "That sounds like Hjalmar."

"It is time to hire more men," Neustatter said. "We will still be the smallest of the seven companies, but I want to be able to take two jobs at once. If things go well, someday add an office in Jena or perhaps even Magdeburg."

Astrid blinked in surprise. She hadn't realized that Neustatter was planning that far ahead. She took a minute framing her words. "Hjalmar told me that you survived in Wallenstein's army by keeping the men from the village as isolated as possible from everyone else."

Neustatter nodded. "We knew many of the other men in our tercio. But they were associates, not friends. The men of the village stuck together. But now we need more men, and obviously we cannot get them from the village. Here in Grantville, unlike in Wallenstein's army, there are men we can trust. And it will be good practice for Hjalmar and Ditmar as team leaders to do some background checks. It would be easier if you were a security consultant first. If you are one before they are hired, it will be harder for the new men to complain."

"Who is going to be the secretary?"

"You are, much of the time," Neustatter answered. "I will hire someone for when you are on an assignment. You will be training her. Or him. Maybe Wolfram's wife Anna."

Astrid gave a firm nod. Her standards of organization were considerably higher than those of any of Neustatter's men.

"You do not have to give me an answer now," Neustatter said. "You and Hjalmar talk it over tonight. Let me know what you think."

"Okay."

 

Monday, May 1, 1634

 

Astrid was at her desk at eight on Monday. Some of the men were milling about. Neustatter came in five minutes later. He flipped through some paperwork and then looked up at his men. "Hjalmar, your team is on the range this morning. Ditmar, you have the desk."

"Yes, Sir," Hjalmar answered. "Karl, Otto, Astrid."

They got up and followed him out the door. Astrid thought it was very neatly done. It was apparent from Karl's expression that he had absolutely no idea what was going on, but Karl didn't question Neustatter's orders. He was just as easy-going as the up-timers—which was probably a good thing in a man who had once been made a blacksmith's apprentice because of his build.

As soon as they were outside, Otto Brenner did ask questions. "Hjalmar, why is Astrid coming with us?"

"Because Astrid is part of our team now," Hjalmar explained.

Otto stopped and looked back and forth between Hjalmar and Astrid. "Why?"

Hjalmar explained. "Astrid is going to go with us on some assignments. Sometimes we escort women. Astrid can be in their quarters. And sometimes we need more than eight men."

"Okay."

Hjalmar looked over at his sister and shrugged. Apparently Otto was fine with it, too.

Astrid smiled back. She had been nervous about the men's reaction.

****

Hjalmar's team returned to the office after range practice and lunch. They entered to find that Neustatter and Ditmar had their heads together at the desk working on upcoming assignments. Ditmar's team was sitting around the Franklin stove.

"Good shoot?" Neustatter asked.

"Good shoot," Hjalmar confirmed.

Otto began stacking his brass on the desk. Astrid stepped up next and put her brass in a single line.

"Why is Astrid on a team?" Stefan Kirchenbauer demanded.

Stefan liked to complain, Astrid reflected. It was annoying.

"Because we have an upcoming assignment where some of the principals are women," Neustatter answered. "And you are not going to be close coverage in their quarters."

"Of course not." He switched objections. "Why does Hjalmar get a bigger team?"

"Because he is going to keep an eye on his sister anyway. I will put Wolfram with your team."

"But we have been soldiering together for years."

"I am going to hire more men soon," Neustatter stated. His tone left no doubt that he was telling them, not asking them. "Anyone I hire will be someone we did not soldier with. You all know Astrid."

"We could go back to the village."

"No, Stefan, we cannot. Not unless we want a battle."

"We can take them," Lukas Heidenfelder stated.

Neustatter had a remarkably repressive tone. "No, Lukas. We are not going to go fight people we've known all our lives and get them and maybe some of us killed."

"But . . ."

"Lukas. Shut. Up." That was the end of it.

Neustatter stood up. "The next time Herr Schrödinger goes to Magdeburg, Hjalmar's team and I will take the assignment. Ditmar, you will be in charge here. Lukas and Stefan, you have security. Wolfram, you have class."

"Why doesn't Wolfram have to work?" Stefan complained.

Wolfram Kuntz grinned. "If you think I am not working, you may sit in on my classes."

Neustatter continued. "Lukas and Stefan, keep an eye on the houses and the office and get to the range at least once. Stefan, you are welcome to take up medicine after that.

"Now, the assignment is to escort Herr Schrödinger to Magdeburg. He is taking his family by train to Halle and then taking a barge the rest of the way. They plan to remain in Magdeburg for several days. Astrid and I are close cover. Hjalmar is the lookout. Otto is the invisible man. Karl, I have not decided your role yet. Take your regular weapons and three days of food. We will buy more in Magdeburg.

"Ditmar, I will telegraph you if we run into any trouble. So make sure there is someone here to receive an emergency message and check for messages at the AT&L office every day.

"Questions?"

"How do we know an emergency message will get delivered?" Lukas asked.

Astrid smothered a smile. He was definitely their resident cynic.

"Because I make sure to take the telegraph offices things from Grantville. Newspapers, gossip, small items. In our line of work, it pays to have friends."

"How do you know you will reach Magdeburg?" Stefan pressed. "There is a war on."

Neustatter picked a newspaper up off the desk and held it out. "The same newspapers. The navy's battle group shot its way past Hamburg, and Prime Minister Stearns has taken command of the city. General Torstensson has some of his forces there and the rest in Magdeburg. If the papers are right—and I think they are—Torstensson will be the one pushing the attack. The League of Ostend will not be coming for Magdeburg. They are still trying to take Lübeck. We will be safe enough in Magdeburg.

"Now, Ditmar and Hjalmar, I have an assignment for you. . . ."

 

Friday, May 12, 1634

 

The train coasted up to the platform at Naumburg station.

"Naumburg! Train leaves for Weissenfels in thirty minutes! You have time to disembark if you want to. Naumburg station has restrooms and a food cart. Keep your ticket stubs with you and show them to me to get back aboard."

Neustatter, Ditmar Schaub, Stefan Kirchenbauer, and Otto Brenner filed off behind several other passengers. They moved to the back of the train where a porter was handing down baggage marked for Naumburg. Neustatter caught the first bag and passed it to Stefan. In just a few minutes they had a small pile of bags at the end of the platform.

"Now what?" Stefan asked.

"Now I go buy lunch," Neustatter said.

He looked at the menu posted on the side of the food cart while he studied the three men running the cart. One of them was a typical German farmer. He looked fit, well-fed but not fat. Clearly his village was doing more than merely surviving. The second was a young man who resembled him—probably his son, perhaps a nephew. Some might have passed over the third man as just another villager who ran a food cart, but Neustatter noted how he carried himself with confidence.

Neustatter addressed the leader. "Sausage, onions, and sauerkraut on a bun. Fifty-seven of them." But he handed over money for only four.

The man handed him four sausage buns. "After the train pulls out, I'll come get you," he said quietly.

Neustatter took the food back to his men. After making sure they were out of earshot of anyone else, he said, "He will talk to us after the train pulls out."

While they ate, they watched the food cart do a brisk business.

"There are more people buying food than arrived on the train," Neustatter pointed out quietly. "Some of them came from Naumburg and are going back into town with their lunches."

"It seems odd that he does not take the food cart into the town," Ditmar remarked.

The train pulled out on schedule. The men at the food cart took care of a few more customers, and then the one in charge clapped the other on the back.

"You take it from here, Peder," he said loudly. "Stay for a couple of hours, then check with the station master and find out if there are any locals coming through. If not, come on home. I will see you there."

Then he harnessed one of the horses tied up beside the station to a plain farm wagon sitting near the tracks. As the wagon rolled slowly by, he called to Neustatter, "Are you men waiting for someone?"

Neustatter called back, "We were headed to Freyburg but the man who was to meet us has not arrived."

"My village is part way to Freyburg. I will give you a ride for a couple of coins. Perhaps you will meet your man along the way."

"Danke."

Neustatter and his men piled the bags into the wagon and then climbed in themselves. Once they were out of sight of Naumburg, the man said, "I presume you are Neustatter?"

"I am," Neustatter confirmed.

"Heinrich Kraft. Call me Heinz. Thank you for bringing the seeds."

"This seems like a lot of trouble just to deliver seed for planting."

"I do not think Duke John George would like what I am planting," Kraft stated.

"More than just food," Neustatter said.

"This area was pillaged in '31. Many of us fled. My wife and I ended up in Grantville. Our village has always provided food for Naumburg, but in Grantville we learned how to grow more vegetables. We came back here last spring. At first the up-time vegetables were just something extra. We convinced the gemeinde to grow more of them this year. When Gustav Adolf put this area under Thuringian jurisdiction last fall, Naumburg refused to let us enter the town any more. So now we have the food cart at the train station every day. Even the market is held at the station Tuesdays and Saturdays."

Neustatter made a decision to trust Kraft. "My men and I were drafted into an army. We surrendered to the up-timers at Alte Veste. Well, to Germans who had joined them. When we got home, it did not work out. We are security consultants in Grantville now."

"They have that effect on people," Kraft observed. "The code you were given? To order fifty-seven? A very large company up-time made that many food products and sold them across the up-timers' country. If villages here work together and grow more food than we need, we can sell it. Spread the new foods across the Germanies. Maybe use the railroad. Not be held down by the towns."

Neustatter nodded. "Freedom to control your own affairs."

 

Friday, May 26, 1634

 

Herr Schrödinger's party disembarked from the Grantville-Saalfeld local. Herr Schrödinger and Neustatter already had tickets to Halle in hand. The train was waiting at the platform. The engine was a converted pickup truck with a natural gas tank in the truck bed. It had three cars behind it—two of the short, stubby passenger cars and a boxcar.

"All aboard!" the conductor shouted.

"Miss Schäubin, what can you tell me about the other passengers?" Neustatter asked quietly.

Astrid watched the line ahead of them. She was nervous about her first mission and wanted to answer Neustatter's questions correctly. Two finely-dressed men wearing swords were first aboard the lead car with a pair of less ostentatious but still well-dressed men behind them.

"Two ritter with servants," Astrid whispered back.

"Ja, and the shorter servant has a concealed dagger," her boss added. "They've taken the front seats on both sides with the servants behind them."

Astrid eyed the next bunch. Two of them were also finely-dressed, but not in the same style. The three younger men with them wore robes.

"Bürgermeister and assistant clerks, I think," Astrid surmised.

"Ja."

Astrid saw that the next group was similar but wearing less-expensive fabrics.

"Two masters with their apprentices?" she guessed.

"Possible," Neustatter allowed. "But they look soft. Merchants, I think."

Astrid was annoyed with herself. Yes, now that Neustatter had pointed it out, she could see that they were probably merchants rather than craftmasters.

Then, as pre-arranged, Karl Recker boarded the first car and made his way to the back seat.

"And now we know those ritter will be useless for anything other than a frontal assault," Neustatter pronounced. "Man's got a rifle slung over his shoulder, and they just let him take a seat at their backs." The security consultant's disgust was obvious.

The conductor waved the rest of the passengers to the second car. First aboard were a pair of men, one old and the other in his late teens or early twenties. He was dressed almost as finely as the ritter.

"A tutor and his student?" Astrid ventured.

"I think so."

Astrid was glad to have gotten one right after her earlier mistake.

Herr Schrödinger's group boarded next. Otto was first aboard and swung into the front left seat across the aisle from the tutor. Astrid saw Neustatter tense and realized why when she reached the top of the three stairs—four men were already seated in the back of the car. The two in the back left were soldiers—one in USE gray and the other in SoTF blue. Halfway back on that side was an older man in up-timer clothes. He was seated sideways with one leg stretched out across the seat. The fourth man was seated between him and the soldiers. Astrid was pretty sure that one was what the up-time detective novels would describe as "a seedy-looking character." His rather wild hair and worn clothes contrasted with how he had a cloak neatly folded up in his lap with his hands tucked inside the folds as if it were a muff. Unfortunately, she had no choice but to sit across the aisle from him. Neustatter had dropped into the seat ahead of the up-timer, and Herr and Frau Schrödinger took the seat behind the tutor and his student. Their two sons sat behind their parents and ahead of Astrid. Hjalmar was the last passenger aboard and sat behind Astrid, across the aisle from the soldiers.

"Look me up in Halle," the unkempt man told her.

Astrid studiously ignored that. Not only did she find him personally repellent, but his position across the aisle from her made him a potential threat. He could have anything hidden in that cloak. Astrid assumed he was carrying at least a knife. Fortunately, Hjalmar was right behind her.

The conductor swung himself aboard, pulled the door shut, and the train pulled out of Saalfeld at 8:00 AM sharp.

****

Astrid marveled at how little time it had taken the train to reach Jena. It was not long after noon, and they were already north of the university town. She understood that the up-timers considered this slow. The stops seemed to be as much of a limiting factor as the actual speed of the train. If the railroad could lay enough track and cut out all the stops—what the up-timers called an "express"—they would be able to reach anywhere in the USE in two or three days.

Astrid sniffed in amusement. Well, if she could see that, so could anyone else. It was possible that one of the Ostender powers would strike at the Grantville-Halle line—although with the USE Army marching north, that did not seem very likely. She saw nothing out the window but open ground and occasional small stands of pine. She glanced over at Neustatter and nodded.

Neustatter returned the nod. His side of the train was clear, too. Astrid turned her attention back inside the train. She didn't particularly like the situation, but it hadn't changed much. The train had picked up a couple of passengers in Rudolstadt but they had disembarked in Jena. She went back to scanning outside and hoped that her month of training was enough to allow her to see everything she needed to.

The unkempt man leaned toward her. "How about . . ."

Astrid flinched away. The older man suddenly caught him by the collar and tossed him back against his seat. "Leave the lady alone," he growled.

Neustatter whirled around, and Hjalmar lunged up out of his seat. But each of the soldiers already had the man by a shoulder. Astrid flushed. She should not need five men to come to her aid.

"Easy now," the older man said. He tugged his overcoat aside, and Astrid glimpsed the six-pointed star pinned to the jacket underneath.

So did Neustatter. "Shouldn't you have cuffs on him, Officer?" he asked.

The older man pulled the unkempt man's cloak away. Astrid and Neustatter saw that his hands were indeed handcuffed together. "Sorry, there's no way to cuff him to the seat."

Neustatter nodded.

"Oh, and it's marshal," the man added. "Harley Thomas." He and Neustatter shook hands.

Their client's two children were staring at him. "What's a marshal?" one of them asked his father. That was nine-year-old Franz.

The master craftsman shrugged. "I'm not sure, son."

Franz turned around. "Miss Schäubin, what's a marshal?"

"Do you know, girl?" the unkempt man hissed at her.

Astrid turned to face him. "Yes. A marshal is like a city watchman, except he works for the Supreme Court of Thuringia-Franconia."

"Stinking city watch. Stinking courts." The man spat in the aisle.

Harley Thomas ignored it. "You're pretty well-informed for a governess."

Astrid ran her fingers across her vest, momentarily disarranging it so that Thomas could see the strap of her shoulder holster.

Thomas's eyes may have widened ever so slightly, but that was it. His prisoner seemed to miss it completely.

"A watchman?" their client's other son, seven-year-old Josef, piped up. "You don't look like a watchman."

"The only uniform a marshal has is his badge and his gun," Harley Thomas stated. "I don't work for a city. I work for the State of Thuringia-Franconia. Chief Justice Riddle assigns me and the other marshals a list of criminals to bring in. Some of them ran out on their bail. Others are fugitives. The other marshals and I find them and take them to the city or county where they broke the law."

That led to more questions. Marshal Thomas seemed to spend a lot of time staring at his prisoner while he explained "bail" and "fugitive." "No," he answered a follow-up question, "we do not beat or torture suspects. If I catch any town watch doing that, I'll be arresting them."

Astrid noted that the tutor up front whipped around so fast his neck would probably regret it later. His student was rubbernecking, too.

"How do you know where to find the bad men?" Josef asked.

Marshal Thomas looked relieved by the question. "Well," he answered, "part of what I am is a detective."

"What's a detective?"

"Franz, Josef, stop bothering Herr Marshal Thomas," the children's mother directed.

Harley Thomas smiled. "It's no bother, ma'am. A detective figures out what happened. Look at your fingers. See the little patterns there? Do you know every person's are different? Now, have you ever touched a window or a glass and left it smudged?"

"Many times," their mother confirmed.

"If I sprinkle powder on the fingerprints, then I can lift them up with tape and take them with me," Marshal Thomas explained. "And then someone can check them against our files and match them to the person who left them."

"Wow!"

"Detectives can do the same with other things, too. Now, are your names really Franz and Josef?" Having been assured by the children that they were indeed, the marshal said, "There are books about two up-time detectives with your names. Well, they have American names—Frank and Joe—but they're the same as Franz and Josef. Their last name is Hardy. A lot of us up-timers read Hardy Boys books when we were your age or so. I assume there are some in the school library."

Astrid mostly hid a smile at Franz and Josef's rapt attention. They were kneeling on the seats, facing Marshal Thomas. Their mother was frowning and likely to reprimand them at some point.

But that wasn't Astrid's concern. She noted that the prisoner seated between Thomas and the soldiers looked distinctly uncomfortable. Perhaps he is wondering where he left his fingerprints, she mused. Neustatter was also paying attention. She assumed Otto and Hjalmar were, too, but didn't want to point them out by looking at them.

Harley Thomas looked over at Astrid. "There's another series of up-time detective books about a girl detective named Nancy Drew. There should be some somewhere in Grantville."

"Dank," Astrid responded. She was surprised that the marshal had passed that along.

The man across the aisle from her wasn't having any of it. "So you think you could be a watchman, do you?"

Astrid ignored his sarcasm.

"I said, so you think you could be a watchman?" the man hissed. He reached out and grabbed at her hair in spite of the cuffs.

Astrid jerked away from him. Should I go for my gun?

Hjalmar, the USE soldier, and Marshal Thomas all hit the prisoner at the same time. Neustatter was a split second later, only because he'd started from further away.

"Slow learner, this one," the soldier commented.

"Sure is," the marshal agreed, looking down to where the man had fallen into the aisle. He left him there until they pulled into the station at Bad Kosen.

Astrid sighed. She had had to be rescued again.

****

"Naumburg station!" the conductor shouted. "Train leaves in thirty minutes! Keep your ticket stubs if you want to reboard!"

Neustatter turned from the window and said, "Herr Schrödinger, there is a food cart at this station. Marshal, Sergeants, it's good food."

Since the platform also had restrooms, everyone aboard disembarked. While they were eating, Astrid knew she needed to talk to Neustatter.

"I am sorry I screwed up, Neustatter."

"You did not screw up, Miss Schäubin," he told her.

"The master craftsmen who are really merchants. Not drawing my gun on the prisoner."

"The first takes practice. And it is good that you did not draw on the prisoner. I believe he still thinks you are the children's governess."

"But . . ."

"You are doing fine, Miss Schäubin," Neustatter told her.

The restroom door opened. The prisoner stepped out and lunged back against the door, slamming it against Marshal Thomas. Then he dashed across the platform.

Neustatter saw it from ten yards away. "Karl!" he shouted.

Karl Recker looked up and stuck his foot out as the prisoner ran by. The man tripped, fell off the platform, and faceplanted.

Thomas limped over. "Dank."

"Bitte schön."

Neustatter and Karl helped Thomas haul the prisoner back up onto the platform. His nose was bleeding.

"Thanks," Harley Thomas said. "You're one of Neustatter's, too, eh? I owe you guys one." He winced. "Slammed it into my bad knee, too."

"I am curious. Where are you taking this prisoner, anyway?" Neustatter asked.

"Magdeburg. We picked him up in Grantville for breaking and entering. While he was doing his time on a road crew, we got a wanted notice from Magdeburg. More breaking and entering up there."

"Is that worth trying to escape?"

"I'd like to keep all my fingers, danke," the prisoner spat.

"They don't cut off fingers anymore," the marshal told him. "Legally abolishing that is the only way they can get extraditions from Justice Riddle. Nope, if found guilty you'll probably get assigned to a night soil detail."

That seemed to upset the prisoner even more. "But . . . but . . . the status . . ."

"Well, then you should probably stop taking other people's stuff."

****

Herr Schrödinger's party left the train at Halle. After collecting a bundle from the baggage, Neustatter motioned to Astrid, and they entered the station.

"What are we doing?"

"Meeting someone," Neustatter answered. "The schedulers' office is over here." He held the door for her.

The cramped room had a sturdy table against one wall with several pieces of equipment on it. One piece was chattering away. One of the three men in the room was transcribing the message. The second—this one in uniform—was reading over his shoulder.

"Tell the northbound he's cleared to Teutschenthal. Then tell Jena to hold that southbound local until we hear back from the track crew." He looked up and saw them. "Neustatter!"

"Sergeant Hudson." Neustatter handed over a bundle. "Grantville newspapers and some liquor from Tip's. And the movie schedule."

"You're a lifesaver."

"This is Astrid Schäubin, first of my new agents."

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am. So, Neustatter, what movies have you seen lately?"

"The Hunt for Red October and Maverick. Both at the high school."

"Popular, but quality," Eric Glen Hudson admitted. "Now if I could just get you to watch Citizen Kane."

Neustatter shuddered. Astrid sensed this was some sort of running joke between the two men.

"Ha. When are you coming back through?"

"Next Friday."

"See you Friday. Who knows? The war might be over by then."

 

Friday, May 11, 1635

 

Astrid thought back to her first field assignment for Neustatter's European Security Services. In just over two weeks, she would have a full year in as a security consultant. She cringed a little as she remembered how inexperienced she had been in the beginning. But since then she had escorted the Bible society on trips to Jena and Erfurt, been part of several other assignments in Thuringia, and most recently guarded a crime scene in Grantville. Her team was escorting the Schrödinger family again this morning. She checked her weapon and kit as she waited. The newest Schödinger was in full cry at the moment.

"Neustatter!" Franz and Josef charged out the door, followed by a cat. "Fräulein Schäubin!"

"Franz, Josef." Neustatter greeted them calmly.

"Are Hjalmar and Ditmar coming?"

NESS had guarded Herr Schrödinger enough times that the boys knew several of them by name.

"Not this time," Neustatter said.

By the time little Anna was mostly settled down and the cat was securely back inside the house, they had just enough time to catch the early-morning tram to Saalfeld Station where Hjalmar and his team had been guarding Schrödinger's cargo all night.

"The cargo is loaded on the first boxcar," Hjalmar told Neustatter and Astrid. "Quiet night."

"Gut. We will take it from here. You men go get some sleep."

Hjalmar hugged Astrid. "Stay safe, Astrid."

"It is a train ride to Magdeburg, Hjalmar. Ja, I will stay safe."

Astrid eyed the train. The converted pickup truck engine was pulling two passenger cars and two boxcars. That was odd. This morning's train was a semi-express, stopping only at Jena, Naumburg, Halle, and Magdeburg.

"Aren't they using the pickups mostly for locals now?" she asked.

"After the steam engine crashed last month, they had to put pickups back on some of the slower long-distance runs," Neustatter told her. "The railbuses are already committed to a lot of the expresses."

Astrid watched passengers start boarding. The clientele had changed some in the past year. Using the railroad was less of a status symbol and more a matter of business. It was running closer to full capacity, too. One adel family boarded the first car—Herr, Frau, one child, and three servants. But they were outnumbered by four different merchants with a total of five assistants. There were a pair of professors. Finally, there was Phillip. Attitudes had changed, too. Neustatter had not even thought about slipping Lukas and his rifle into the first car. Instead he sent Phillip with a concealed pistol and without his yellow kerchief.

The Schrödinger's party sat in roughly the same pattern as on Astrid's first mission the year before, except on the other side of the aisle. Herr and Frau Schrödinger were in the second seat on the left with the boys behind them and Astrid and Wolfram behind the boys. Wolfram Kuntz had just earned his EMT certification, and Neustatter was eager to get him back out in the field. The front seat was occupied by two men, one of them enthusiastically telling the other about learning one of the metal trades in Grantville. His reluctant listener had a neatly trimmed beard and a nose that had been broken at some point. The last seat behind Astrid and Wolfram was also occupied. The man in the window seat had already hauled out a pad of paper and seemed to be a scholarly type, but the man in the aisle seat was a rougher sort.

A businessman and his assistant had the front seat on the right side, then Neustatter sat across from Herr Schrödinger. Next came another businessman and assistant, followed by a couple of craftsmen across from Wolfram. Lukas had the back seat to himself, by virtue of looking as tough as the man across from him and carrying a rifle.

The train pulled out on schedule. Franz and Josef were soon kneeling on their seat, facing backwards and regaling Astrid with the plots of a few Hardy Boys books. Given the number of times a crooked adel came up, she realized that someone had to be writing down-time versions. She retaliated with a Nancy Drew story she had recently read.

"Excuse me." The studious-looking young man in the rear seat leaned forward. "Are you describing The Secret of the Collegium Jenense?"

Astrid turned around. "Ja, I am."

"I thought so. Kaspar Both wrote that one."

"You know the author?"

"A number of us in the arts program at the University of Jena write," he said. "It pays the bills. I am Wilhelm Reuber."

"Astrid Schäubin."

"Pleased to meet you." They shook hands.

"What do you write?" Astrid asked.

"I wrote a couple of the new Hardy Boys books."

"You did?" Franz and Josef exclaimed in stereo. "Which ones?"

"Ja. The Mystery of the Crusader's Sword and The Haunted Schloss."

"The Haunted Schloss was scary!" Josef said.

"I was not scared," Franz declared.

Astrid rolled her eyes. Hjalmar and Ditmar had been like this when they were growing up.

Franz's expression changed. He had obviously just thought of something. "You are not Franklin W. Dixon."

Wilhelm glanced around furtively. Then he said quietly. "There is no Franklin W. Dixon or Carolyn Keene. We do it just like up-time. Everyone who writes those books uses those names."

"Are you writing one now?" Josef pressed.

"Nein. You have to write them a certain way. I would like a bit more freedom in how I write so I am working on something else."

"What is that?" Astrid asked.

"The Guardians of Germany series."

"What's that?" Franz asked.

"Can we read it?" Josef asked at the same time.

"It is written for older children, even if it is somewhat like the up-timers' comic books," Astrid told them.

"A comic book?"

"There are only a few illustrations, and it is scarier than The Haunted Schloss."

"You have read them, then?" Wilhelm seemed hopeful.

"Nein," Astrid answered. "But many of the students at the high school read them. I have heard them talking about it. From what I understand, they have Frederick Barbarossa awake under the mountain, sending out these heroes."

Wilhelm looked very gratified at that.

"Which one are you writing?" she asked.

"The Saxon Ghost. It is about the man they say is trying to free western Saxony from John George's tyranny."

They continued discussing the new books. Astrid checked her side of the train periodically. It was all clear. South of Jena, the conductor came back to point out the steam engine that had derailed last month and assured them all that the track had been inspected just yesterday and all the ties and spikes were in place.

Finally the conductor called, "Naumburg Station! Train pulls out in thirty minutes! Restrooms and food cart at the station!"

Neustatter glanced over the menu at the food cart. "I don't see your regular sausage on a bun."

"Nein, you don't," Heinz Kraft told him. "Naumburg is saying that they can tax any product we sold in town back before they closed the town market to us. Obviously they cannot, but we do not need more trouble like last summer. So we changed every product we served in '33. Try the kosher beef sausage."

"Kosher? Can you do that?"

"Not on our own. The gemeinde asked some Jews to buy in and take over most of the meat side of the company." Kraft dropped his voice. "Look for our regular sausage and strong beer as soon as the USE Army crosses the border. War is coming soo—" Kraft's voice took on an urgent tone. "There is a man from your train wearing a greenish-brown cloak. Tall, broken nose, long hair, neat beard . . ."

"Second car, front seat, left side," Neustatter returned. "A journeyman metal worker told him his whole life story on the train."

"He works for the Saxon loyalists. It was the Saxon Ghost who broke his nose."

"Dank." Neustatter straightened up. "We had better get the Schrödingers' food back to them."

On their way, he brushed into Phillip and muttered, "Excuse me. Broken nose, cloak. Saxon agent." As kosher sausages got passed around, Astrid saw Neustatter nod at her. He had warned Lukas. She nodded back; she had passed the information to Wolfram.

The train pulled out of Naumburg on schedule. The railroad tracks followed the Saale River in a semi-circle around the north side of Naumburg before making another semi-circle in the opposite direction before the river resumed its generally northeast course. The Unstrut tributary flowed into the Saale near the northernmost point of the first semi-circle. A small military camp lay a little over a mile beyond the Unstrut.

Astrid caught sight of several horsemen riding across the ridge behind the camp.

"Wolfram." She nodded at the window.

"I see them." Wolfram raised his voice. Neustatter was two seats forward and across the aisle. "Neustatter! Mounted men on the left! Up on the ridge!"

Neustatter's head snapped around. "Column of twos, scout out front . . . That is a military unit. Mounted infantry, not cavalry."

"Probably Saxon," the businessman behind said. He sounded bored.

"It should not be. Not on the west side of the river," another said.

"That depends on who you think owns the west side of the Saale, does it not?"

When the tracks curved south, they lost sight of the horsemen.

Soon the river, the tracks, and the train turned back north. Neustatter pointed out the Schönburg on the other side of the river. Up ahead a low ridge crowded toward the Saale, narrowing the fields at the village of Eulau. And then the train slowed.

"What is happening?" someone asked as the train coasted to a stop.

The man in the drab cloak shot to his feet and turned around. Astrid saw metal gleaming.

"Gun!" she screamed.

BLAM! Neustatter drew from a shoulder holster and fired before the other man leveled his weapon. He crumbled to the floor.

BLAM! The shot from behind her almost deafened Astrid. She whirled around to see the tough-looking man bringing a smoking pistol around, and Lukas Heidenfelder slumping across his seat as his rifle clattered to the floor.

Wolfram Kuntz was already into the aisle, drawing his pistol with one hand while intercepting the tough's double-barreled pistol with the other. The pistol discharged as they grappled, sending the two craftsmen diving to the floor as the round shattered the window next to them. Astrid drew her own weapon, thrust it against Wolfram's opponent, and pulled the trigger. The man dropped back into his seat with blood already staining the side of his shirt. Wolfram smashed him unconscious with his pistol and hurried to Lucas's side.

"Threats." She remembered Neustatter's words from their training sessions. A quick look revealed no other gunmen in their railroad car. Then several shots rang out from in front of the train. A boom answered them.

"Clients." Schrödinger looked shocked. His wife looked frightened. Astrid assumed she was the source of the scream she dimly recalled hearing. Franz and Josef were wide-eyed and right in the middle of it all. But they didn't seem to be in immediate danger and moving them would just create more confusion.

"Secure the area." Wolfram had Lukas's shirt torn open and was getting pressure on the wound. Astrid pulled the rifle out of his way, then unbuckled Lukas's cartridge box.

"Not necess—"

"I need it," Astrid said. She hurried down the rear steps of the train car.

Neustatter came down the front steps and appeared ahead of her. At least two shots immediately came their way.

"Down!" Neustatter dropped to the ground and fired two shots back. Astrid threw herself down on hard-packed earth and winced at the impact. Another burst of fire kicked up a few stones from the trackbed.

A series of shots answered back, punctuated by a couple of pistol cracks.

"Forward!" Neustatter shouted. He was up and running past the front passenger car. He hit the ground at the front of the car. Astrid dashed forward. A shot was fired, and she dove to the ground still some yards behind Neustatter. He fired twice and glanced back at her.

"I need rifle fire!" Then he rolled under the train.

Astrid had little experience with the heavy U.S. Waffenfabrik rifle. But she aimed it downrange. A tree lay across the railroad tracks, and several men were using it as cover. She picked one who wasn't using it well, centered on his chest, and squeezed the trigger. The man dropped. Astrid rolled onto her side and pulled the rifle back. She pulled a round from Lukas's cartridge box, bit the end and tried to pour the black powder down the barrel. She had to tip the barrel way up in the air. The Minié ball went in next. Then she drew the ramrod and awkwardly forced it down the barrel. The bad angle meant she actually ended up facing away from the ambush. After what seemed like forever, the bullet was seated. Then she had to fit a percussion cap. All the while shots rang out around her with some weapon at the front of the train replying fast and loud. Rifles cracked, and someone screamed. The loud weapon went silent.

Astrid rolled back into a prone position and saw with a shock that her previous target was back up. He and another man had advanced. She took aim, fired, and missed. This time she didn't worry about staying down. Astrid came to one knee and loaded the rifle in half the time it had taken her before.

Neustatter rolled back out from under the engine. He had acquired a long arm and shot her target. Astrid winced at the shotgun's blast. Astrid took aim at the other attacker, and this time she didn't miss.

Someone shouted, "They're falling back!"

Astrid dropped the rifle in favor of her .22 pistol and dashed forward, dropping to the ground beside Neustatter.

"Get the train moving!" Neustatter shouted.

"Can't! Gotta move that log first!" the engineeer shouted back.

"There are four of them behind it!"

Neustatter reared up, fired, and hit the ground. He drew three shots, none of which came close. Neustatter surged back to his feet. "Charge!"

Four of them ran forward—Neustatter and Astrid from the left side of the train, and Phillip and one of the other passengers from the right side.

"Hold them! Fire! Fire!" one of the men behind the log shouted.

Rifles crashed, and he slumped against the log. The remaining ambushers broke and ran.

Half a dozen horsemen burst over the hill. They angled toward the fleeing men. The cavalry charge seemed more than a bit haphazard to Astrid, even though she had nothing but a couple of up-time movies to compare it to. But one horseman—presumably the leader—quickly outdistanced the rest. While the other horsemen were struggling with their rifles, he cut down one man with his sword as he galloped past. A quick adjustment and another went down. The last man ran for the river. The horseman knocked him senseless with the flat of his blade.

Neustatter stopped at the tree. "Halt! Grab their weapons!" As soon as they had tossed the weapons aside, Neustatter began checking the casualties. "Medic!"

"Neustatter!" Astrid said urgently. "Lukas is hit! Wolfram is with him!"

"The guard riding shotgun in the engine is hit, too," Neustatter said. He looked up from where he knelt next to a casualty. "This one is alive. So is that one over there."

"This one is dead," the fourth member of their party stated.

Neustatter looked over. "Ritter . . . ?"

"Johann Andreas of Stassfurt."

"Edgar Neustatter. Grantville. Danke."

"What did these men want?"

"I do not know. They had two men in the rear car and shot one of my men. We are about to find out." Neustatter pointed. Several of the cavalrymen were riding in their direction.

"Neustatter, they are wearing halstücher over their faces," Astrid pointed out.

"Everyone casually get on the other side of the tree with a rifle," Neustatter said. "Do not point them at the horsemen."

At a gesture from the leader, the horsemen reined in a short distance away. He and one other man dismounted and approached. While his men wore kerchiefs over their noses and mouths, the leader wore a complete hood with holes for just his eyes.

"Ritter Johann," Neustatter said.

The two of them started forward. Astrid watched carefully as they met. She saw their body language relax, and then Neustatter and the cavalry leader shook hands. They talked briefly and then the leader waved the rest of the cavalry toward the tree.

"Dismount. We need to move this tree. Look, they did not even cut it all the way through."

Neustatter grabbed the ax the ambushers had used and severed the tree from its stump with a few blows. Everyone pitched in and hauled the fallen tree out of the way. Then the masked man gave orders.

"Neustatter, take the train and the wounded to Halle. Do not stop in Weissenfels or Merseburg. These men are retainers to Saxon adel loyal to Duke John George. I do not believe the duke ordered them to attack the train, but you will find no help in those towns. Take the survivors with you as USE prisoners."

"And you?"

"I need to disappear. Tell the USE to remember when the war comes that there are those who are loyal to the USE and those who are loyal to John George on both sides of the border."

Neustatter nodded. "I will pass that on."

"Oberst von Hessler's Saale levies will have heard the gunfire and be here soon. He is no one to take lightly." He handed Neustatter a handkerchief. At his signal the cavalry mounted up and rode off.

"Phillip, have the engineer bring the train up here. We will load the wounded and dead."

Ritter Johann looked at Neustatter. "Herr Neustatter, who was that?"

Neustatter held up the handkerchief. It had two holes in it like the man's hood. "That was the Saxon Ghost. You have heard the stories, ja?" He gave him a crooked smile. "Astrid, get the women and children in the first car. We'll put the wounded in the second."

As the train coasted to a stop where the log had been, a couple of the craftsmen hurried down the stairs. Astrid pointed at a wounded man. "Help me with this one." She was not at all eager to see his injuries up close, but it wasn't nearly as bad as she'd feared. He had taken one bullet high in the shoulder. One of the craftsmen helped her move him aboard the train while the other teamed up with Wilhelm Reuber to move another casualty. Reuber was pale but doing what he could to help out. Wolfram already had the railroad's own guard aboard and was working on him. Astrid spotted Franz and Josef glued to the windows.

"Boys! Come here. I have something for you to do." Two heads turned toward her. She pulled a bullet from the small cartridge box on her gunbelt. "Go back along the track and pick up all of these." They raced down the stairs. She was glad to have pointed them away from the carnage.

Just a few minutes later, Neustatter grabbed the conductor. "Do we have everyone?"

"Yes. One of yours, our guard, two passengers, and three bandits wounded. Six dead bandits in the first boxcar."

"Excellent." Neustatter looked around. "Phillip, take the shotgun and one of their rifles and ride in the engine. If you see anybody blocking the track, just open fire." He handed another of the attackers' rifles to the conductor. "Here, take this. And the cartridge box. Astrid, stay with our clients in the first car. Two rifles, then your .22." Finally he pointed at the conductor. "Let's go."

As the train gathered speed, Astrid glanced back toward the second car. She hoped Lukas and the guard would be okay. Then as the tension wore off some, a whimsical thought struck her. How was she going to tell her boyfriend on the Grantville Police forensics team that she had just sanitized a crime scene?

Franz tugged at her sleeve. "Are they going to be all right?"

"I do not know," she told him. "But Wolfram is our medic, and he is an EMT."

A few minutes later, the conductor warned her the train was approaching Weissenfels. Astrid opened the back door of the first passenger car and gingerly crossed to the second car. She knew they weren't going as fast as the trains in any of the up-time Westerns, but moving between cars was still unnerving.

Neustatter looked up as soon as she opened the door.

"The conductor says we are almost to Weissenfels."

"Understood."

Wolfram was treating the guard. Neustatter put a hand on his shoulder. "Wolfram, if you hear shots, I need you firing back."

"I will," Wolfram assured him.

"Astrid, you've got the forward stairs on the station side. Put Ritter Johann and his servant on the rear stairs. I've got forward here, and the metalworkers have the rear. Don't start the war early, but if there's any trouble . . ."

"Understood."

"And have someone watch the other side, too."

Astrid took her position just as the town of Weissenfels came into sight.

"Saxon troops!" There were a couple of dozen of them waiting on the platform.

The train blew right by the platform. It was hard to get a good look but Astrid thought she saw some confused faces. More importantly, no one fired.

"Coming up on Merseburg!" the conductor warned about half an hour later.

The Merseburg platform had some people, but no soldiers. The train rolled on by. After twenty minutes by the conductor's watch, Astrid went back to confer with Neustatter.

"He says we are ahead of schedule," she concluded.

"Gut. I want Lukas, the guard, and the three surviving attackers carried off the train by two men each. Then the rest of the passengers. You and Phillip have security. I'll get Sergeant Hudson or Sergeant Allen and get some medics on their way."

The engineer kept the speed up almost all the way to the station. Then he threw on the brakes and sent sparks flying.

Neustatter and Astrid jumped down from the stairs as soon as the train stopped moving. Astrid took a knee and held a rifle at the ready. Phillip piled out of the pickup engine's passenger door and did the same. Neustatter was halfway to the station office when the door burst open and Sergeant Eric Hudson ran out.

"Neustatter! What's going on?" he demanded. "This train must have done thirty all the way from Naumburg! If I hadn't pulled the local when we started getting incoherent messages from Weissenfels—"

"We were ambushed," Neustatter cut in. "Saxon retainers, not army. Look, we've got wounded. We need army medics and a guard detail."

"Come with me!"

The next two hours passed in a blur of getting the wounded to USE Military Medical Service medics, explaining what happened to Sergeant Hudson and the rest of the railroad people, and settling the Schrödingers in at an inn when it became apparent that the train wouldn't be going any farther that day. It was another hour after that before Neustatter caught up with them. He had two Army officers with him.

Neustatter was still battle-minded, Astrid noted. She felt exhausted, and from something in Phillip's stance she thought he felt about the same.

"Lukas is still in surgery," Neustatter stated. "Wolfram is assisting. The guard died. The MMS medics said Wolfram did really well to keep him alive all the way to Merseburg."

"How is . . . how is Wolfram?" Astrid asked.

"He is working really hard to save Lukas. Astrid, can you guard our clients on your own for a while? I need someone to be there with Lukas and Wolfram. That's you, Phillip. The Army is guarding the train and the cargo tonight. I need to make some arrangements."

Astrid nodded. She really was exhausted, but she could not fault Neustatter's assignments. There was a lot to do, and she and Phillip were the only two who were interchangeable.

"I am senior, so I guard our clients," she said.

Neustatter nodded his approval. "Now, how would Georg Meisner handle the investigation?" he asked.

Astrid smiled. "Georg would handle ballistics and bloodstains but I had the boys collect the brass, so that will not work. So he would say that police officers should take statements from witnesses."

"That was a good idea," Neustatter told her. "It was more important that any Saxons not be able to read the scene. We do not have any polizei aside from Halle's town watch, so these officers will take our statements. Captain Rudolf Keller and First Lieutenant Moritz Felder of the Red Lion Regiment. Astrid Schäubin and Phillip Pfeffer of NESS." Neustatter grinned. "Rudi was a sergeant back when he captured the rest of us at Alte Veste."

Astrid blinked.

"Ja, sure," Captain Keller said. "I do brag about it now and then when I see your name in the newspapers but I remember that you all calmly laid down your weapons after fragging your captain and sergeant."

"Ja," Neustatter acknowledged. "We were done with the war. So when I saw the opportunity, I took it."

"I expect you made some observations under pressure today, too. So tell Lieutenant Felder about the ambush and the Saxon Ghost," Keller directed. "He's the adjutant in charge of the investigation. I'm just in charge of the company that will be leading the attack if we have to go after the Saxons."

 

Saturday, May 12, 1635

 

After they gave their statements, Astrid was left alone guarding their clients. She was fighting to stay awake by the time Neustatter finally returned.

"Miss Schäubin." Neustatter's voice was still crisp. Didn't the man ever get tired?

"Neustatter."

He tugged his notebook from a coat pocket. He might actually be tired if he is not relying on his memory, Astrid realized.

"Lukas is out of surgery. He is hurt badly but the medics think his chances are better than even if there is no infection. The two civilians are fine. I sent Wolfram to bed. Have the Schrödingers said anything about their plans?"

"They want to go on to Magdeburg as soon as possible and get away from here," Astrid told him.

"What I figured. Sergeant Hudson let me telegraph Grantville. A replacement express is leaving Saalfeld at dawn, and Ditmar's team will be on it, along with some Mounted Constabulary and SoTF National Guard. When it gets here, all the passengers from today are going aboard, and it'll pick up the two box cars. You and I and Phillip and a couple of men from Ditmar's team will go with the Schrödingers to Magdeburg. Ditmar will be in charge here. If the medics want Lukas moved to a regular hospital, Ditmar will do that. We will check in with him on the way back to Grantville and take Lukas back with us if that is advisable."

"Understood."

"Excellent. Why don't you get some sleep? I will wake you to go relieve Phillip in a few hours."

"Dank."

****

Neustatter woke Astrid before dawn. She sighed, sat up, and reached for her boots and gunbelt.

"Where's your pistol?" Neustatter asked.

Astrid pulled it out from under her pillow.

"Ha! I like it."

"Anything I should know, Neustatter?" she asked.

"Nein, nothing new. Take Phillip's spot and send him to bed."

Astrid made her way to the makeshift infirmary and found Phillip and a squad of soldiers outside.

"Astrid!"

"Morgen. How is Lukas?"

"About the same. He is asleep. So is Wolfram. One of the Military Medical Service medics is watching Lukas. And this is Fourth Squad of Bad Company of the Red Lion Regiment. Sergeant Johann Tanner here is in charge."

"Sergeant Tanner. I'm Astrid Schäubin from NESS."

"Pleased to meet you. You are welcome to stand guard here, but we have been on only a couple of hours."

"Dank," Astrid said. "But Lukas is one of our men. One of us needs to be on guard. Phillip, you have been up all night. Go back to the inn and get some sleep."

****

The replacement train rumbled into the station in the early afternoon. Astrid was still outside the infirmary when Ditmar and Stefan came running up.

"Astrid! How is Lukas?"

"He is still unconscious. You got through okay?"

"No problem at all. The Saxons were gone—almost as if they had been waiting for your train in particular."

They wanted to see Lukas for themselves, of course. Wolfram shooed them out and then came outside himself.

"I am glad to see you two. Lukas is doing about as well as can be expected. . . ."

****

An hour later, Astrid found herself on the replacement train. She was seated next to Hans while Richart and a USE soldier watched the whole car from the back corners. Other USE soldiers were near each door, and every one of them had his rifle ready. Neustatter was in the first car talking to the sergeant in charge. They reached Magdeburg by nightfall with no further incidents.

 

Saturday, May 19, 1635

 

Magdeburg was bigger and busier than last year. But Astrid was too concerned about Lukas to enjoy the capital. Even so, she could easily sense the tension in the air as she accompanied the Schrödingers seeing the sights, meeting with other master woodworkers, and visiting the markets. Neustatter stayed in touch with Ditmar via daily radio telegrams.

 

Saturday, May 26, 1635

 

Finally, early Saturday morning they boarded the train for Grantville. Instead of a separate engine, this one had a railbus up front pulling two passenger cars.

"Can we ride in the bus?" Franz asked.

"Ja, the bus!" Josef agreed.

Herr Schrödinger glanced at Neustatter.

"Okay, boys, but if the train gets ambushed, I want you on the floor," Neustatter said. "Phillip, you take the middle car."

The Schrödingers settled into seats toward the back of the bus, and Astrid, Hans, and Richart easily found seats around them.

"Nobody is sharing our seats," Astrid observed.

"No one needs to. The train is only half full," Hans pointed out.

"That makes no sense. The bandits are either dead or wounded and captured."

Meanwhile, Neustatter had located the sergeant of the squad of SoTF National Guard soldiers on the train. Like the sergeant on the replacement northbound, Sergeant Roder was only too happy to have five more armed and experienced people on board.

As the train rolled south, Astrid worried about Lukas. Neustatter had relayed near-daily updates from Ditmar and Wolfram, all of which suggested Lukas was doing about as well as could be expected. But with a gunshot wound to the torso, that really could not be very good.

****

"Halle Station! Fifteen minutes! Railbus passengers please use the front door! Loading wounded at the rear door!"

Astrid stayed with the Schrödingers as Neustatter, Richart, and a couple of soldiers helped maneuver Lukas' stretcher aboard. They wedged it into a seat, stretching across the aisle. Once Wolfram had pronounced him safely in place, Neustatter and Sergeant Roder had a quick conference on the platform with Sergeant Eric Hudson.

"How's Lukas?" Astrid demanded as soon as Neustatter returned.

"Complaining. Mostly for form's sake, I think. Go see him."

Astrid made her way back to Lukas as the train pulled away from the platform. He looked pale and sunken and had a tube in his arm with a bag of something hanging from the overhead luggage rack.

"Lukas?" she managed.

His eyes opened. "'Tag, mädchen."

Astrid forced herself to voice optimism that she did not feel. "You will be okay, Lukas. We are going back to Grantville now."

"Talk to you and Otto later. Too tired now." He closed his eyes.

Astrid frowned. Otto was not on this mission; he was with her brother Hjalmar in Grantville.

"He said that before, about talking to you and Otto," Wolfram supplied. "I think because you two were the ones who wanted to go to the other churches."

"Oh." Now Astrid was really scared. If Lukas wanted spiritual counsel . . . "How is he?"

"Not bad, for someone who has been shot. It will take him a few months to recover. He goes straight to the hospital in Grantville. As long as we can avoid infection . . ."

Astrid nodded. "You saved his life."

"The MMS medics saved his life," Wolfram said.

"But you got him there."

Wolfram nodded.

Astrid took a minute to compose herself before she returned to her seat to tell the Schrödingers that Lukas was going to be fine.

In less than an hour, Sergeant Roder made his way back to Neustatter. "If you would send your men to positions, Neustatter? We are starting the Saxon Run."

"The Saxon Run, eh? NESS, battle stations," Neustatter ordered.

Astrid quickly found out why Roder had been so delighted to have two teams from NESS aboard—he now had enough men to cover every door and put a man in the railbus' roof hatch. She dropped to her hands and knees and crawled under Lukas's stretcher to reach her place at the rear of the railbus.

"Schkopau!" the conductor called as the train slowed. "Five minutes!"

Sergeant Roder swore. "Neustatter! Soldiers on the platform! Tell the other cars but hold your fire!"

Neustatter threw the back door open and crossed to the first passenger car. He reentered the railbus just as soldiers were trying to push aboard.

Wolfram poke-checked the first one in the sternum with his rifle barrel. The soldier landed on his butt on the platform. The next soldier grappled with him while the third tried to force his way past them. Neustatter kicked him in the face, tumbling him back down the railbus' three steps.

The fourth one was finely dressed, obviously adel. He bellowed, "I seize this train in the name of Duke John George!"

And then the man behind him tackled him. "Halt! Stopp! Levies, stand down!"

Some of the men immediately drew back. A couple of them actually dragged others clear. Wolfram tossed his opponent off the train, and it was suddenly still. The adel who had been tackled stumbled to his feet and staggered around to face the man who had struck him.

"What do you think you are doing, von Hessler? I will—"

"Saving your life," the other man snapped. He pointed at Astrid. "She had a rifle three feet from your head."

Astrid was leaning over the back seat, rifle aimed. "Still do."

The adel turned red. "I will have—"

"You will do nothing. My orders were to greet the train, not seize it." He stepped forward. "Who is in charge of the train?" he called.

"I am!" the conductor shouted back.

"My apologies. Of course you are in charge. Oberst Hans Heinrich von Hessler, commanding the Saale Levies. Perhaps I should come aboard and meet your military escort? Jürgen?"

Von Hessler boarded the train, accompanied by only one of his soldiers. Sergeant Roder and Neustatter met him at the top of the stairs. Roder saluted. Astrid watched von Hessler return the salute with no hesitation.

"Oberst Hans Heinrich von Hessler of the Saale Levies."

"Sergeant Ernst Roder, SoTF National Guard."

"Edgar Neustatter, Neusttatter's European Security Services."

"Meine Herren, this is a delicate situation. I have orders from His Serene Grace Duke John George of Saxony to prevent any soldier from the USE or its provinces from setting foot in Saxony west of the Saale. I also have orders from the State of Thurinigia-Franconia to keep the railroad line open and in service."

"Following both sets of orders would be a fine trick," Neustatter said.

"Nevertheless, I propose to thread the needle. Now, Sergeant, I see you and your men are wearing the military police armbands."

"Ja, Herr Oberst."

"Then since you are not the infantry and not the cavalry, clearly Saxony west of the Saale is not being invaded today. And you, Herr Neustatter . . . I believe one of your men was injured in the attack on a train last week."

"He is right over there. We are taking him to the hospital in Grantville."

"Ezcellent. You have my sincere apologies for not having my levies in place to defeat that attack. But I understand the nefarious condottiere who calls himself the Saxon Ghost came to your assistance?"

"Ja."

Astrid was momentarily afraid that von Hessler had caught the Saxon Ghost.

"The insolent pup actually exchanged shots with my fort. He was gone before my men and I could reach the scene but we tracked him across the fields and nearly had him near Freyburg."

"I was told you were no one to take lightly," Neustatter said.

Astrid saw von Hessler hesitate for a fraction of a second. She realized why just as he smoothly said, "We will get him in time. But that is for another day. You are escorting a wounded man . . ."

"And a client."

"Gut, gut. Then by no means are you invading Saxony. Meine Herren, I have considerable experience working with military police in a liaison role, so since what we have here are liaisons and private citizens, I propose that a squad of my men protect this train. We will, of course, include anyone on board who is armed in a common defense plan."

"And the rest of your men and the very upset adel?" Neustatter asked.

"Regretfully I had no choice but to restrain Herr von Trotha when his enthusiasm carried him right into the young lady's sights." Von Hessler nodded in Astrid's direction. "I do appreciate an adel assisting me, but I am afraid that I will have to charge Herr von Trotha and his retainers with holding Schkopau Castle against possible attack while my men and I escort this train."

"Your men would be the ones with green straps?"

Astrid looked out the window to see what Neustatter meant. The soldiers who had tried to board the train were wearing an adel's livery. But the others wore civilian clothes with nothing in common except strips of green cloth around their right shoulders.

"Ja. My levies do not have uniforms. That is how we identity each other."

"I believe that would be acceptable," Sergeant Roder said. Astrid thought he did an admirable job of keeping a straight face and a level voice.

Von Hessler stepped off the train. "Levies, board the train! Herr von Trotha, I will run this train out of Saxon territory. I charge you to hold your castle at Schkopau against any attack until my return."

Von Trotha started to say something, but all Astrid heard was von Hessler talking over the top of him. "Nein, Hochwohlgeboren, you have already stopped the train. I must ask you to hold your castle on the northern border. Thank you for your assistance. I will commend you in my dispatch to His Serene Grace."

Von Hessler leaped aboard the train as it started to pull away from the platform.

Sergeant Roder and von Hessler's Sergeant Jürgen put their heads together. Neustatter caught Ditmar's eye and waved him in that direction.

"I am impressed," Neustatter told von Hessler. "One might think you are actually commending von Trotha."

"Oh, I intend to," von Hessler assured him. "Just as I intend for him to hold Schkopau Castle against any attack. Wolf Friedrich von Trotha's brother Georg is my very capable executive officer, and he is married to my sister."

"Family," Neustatter said.

"Family," von Hessler agreed. "Sometimes family needs guidance. My brother, for instance, is a battalion commander in Torstensson's army not far north of here."

"Is he?" Neustatter's tone conveyed nothing but idle curiosity, but Astrid was sure he was thinking the same thing she was. No one to take lightly, indeed.

****

"Soldiers on the platform!" one of Sergeant Roder's men called as the train approached Merseburg.

"Those men are from our Merseburg Company," Jürgen stated. He was first off the train, and the soldiers were at attention by the time von Hessler disembarked. Five minutes later, the train was rolling again.

More of von Hessler's men were waiting on the platform in Weissenfels, where the train picked up a few passengers.

"We will be coming to Eulau in a few minutes," von Hessler stated. "There will be no ambush this time."

"You sound confident."

Von Hessler pointed out the window. "Those are my men on the ridge."

Astrid saw them—several men on horseback. There was something odd about them. Neustatter squeezed her arm before she could say anything.

"Mounted infantry?" her boss asked.

"Ja."

A few minutes later the train rumbled by the army camp north of Naumburg. Astrid noted freshly-turned earth where von Hessler's men were improving the defenses. The black-over-yellow Saxon flag with a coat of arms in the center was flying from one barracks and the Thuringian-Franconian flag from another.

"If you do not mind me asking, how are you managing to fly two flags?" Neustatter asked.

"I am flying the Saxon flag," von Hessler answered. "Captain Cotta's SoTF military police liaison teams live in the other barracks. So long as there is no USE flag . . ."

The train pulled into a busy Naumburg Station just over a mile from the fort. The market was crowded, and there was a long line at the village of Kleinjena's food cart. Some of the passengers who had embarked in Weissenfels got right in line. Von Hessler's unit was patrolling the station—Astrid could see pairs of men with green straps around their shoulders moving in patterns.

"My men and I disembark here," von Hessler said. "May I trouble you for the bandits' rifles? I believe they match inventory stolen from one of my camps last year. I recognized a couple of bandits by their description. I know which adel they served."

"Of course." Neustatter and his men handed over the weapons.

"I wish your wounded man the best. Sergeant Roder, Neustatter, perhaps we will work together again sometime."

"Dank, Oberst."

The train got underway again right on schedule. They crossed into the State of Thuringia-Franconia proper near Camburg, and the trip from there to Grantville Central was uneventful. A pick-up truck was waiting for Sergeant Roder and his men.

"Neustatter!" Roder called. "Load your man aboard! We will take you to Leahy."

Neustatter, Astrid, and Wolfram crammed into the back of the pickup with Roder and two of his men. The others followed on foot.

 

Monday, May 21, 1635

 

They lost most of Monday to debriefings.

The man who had identified himself as Leutnant Schmidt finally asked, "What can you tell me about Oberst von Hessler?"

"Well, now." Neustatter fiddled with his notebook, obviously organizing his thoughts. "He is the sort of man who knows his brother will not go anywhere near Schkopau."

"That is cryptic, Neustatter."

"But accurate."

Finally, though, Schmidt said, "Dank. Your information will be most useful. The railroad situation is going to be fairly awkward for a few months."

"Seeing as how we are about to invade Saxony and Brandenburg," Neustatter supplied.

Schmidt winced. "The trains clearly need to be guarded, and we cannot use USE or SoTF troops without putting Oberst von Hessler in an even more awkward situation. We already have a number of MPs working with him but not enough for every train. So, Neustatter, how would you like a regular assignment guarding trains? I am approaching all seven mercenary companies in the Grantville area. Whoever is interested goes in a rotation. You might get one train every week or two. One military police NCO per train as a liaison—or a Mounted Constable if I can get one."

"Put us in," Neustatter stated. "How many men per train?"

"Eight to ten."

"We can do that. Astrid, start working up a schedule with Hjalmar and Ditmar's teams on the first train."

Astrid nodded. Apparently NESS's railroad missions were not over.

 

Thursday, July 19, 1635

 

Although she had the day off before the mission tomorrow, Astrid stopped by NESS in the afternoon and set a bundle down on her desk. Neustatter, Hjalmar, and Ditmar were seated in the back near the Franklin stove, although it was finally warm enough that the fire wasn't lit.

She tossed her brother a newspaper. "Newspapers for you. A book from the Bibelgesellschaft for Lukas. Hopefully it will answer some of the his questions about how God uses events in a person's life." She handed that one to Neustatter and put a second book aside.

"Is that one about dealing with stress?" Neustatter asked.

"Ja." Once they had returned to Grantville, she had had some nightmares. Krystalnacht hadn't helped.

"Are you ready for the Saxon Run tomorrow?"

"Ja." This would be her fourth Saxon Run since the bandits attacked the train.

"Do not stay out too late. You will be in command of the third car."

"Are you and Georg going to the range today?" Ditmar asked.

Hjalmar glared at his cousin.

"It is okay, Hjalmar. I can shoot targets all day long," Astrid stated. "Paper or otherwise. But I do not want black powder in my hair."

"You got your hair cut," her brother observed. "You look like an up-timer."

"That is the idea," Astrid agreed. Her hair was in open curls, almost waves, that hung forward over both shoulders. "Besides, I like it."

Neustatter handed her a package. "This came for you."

Astrid opened the accompanying note.

 

Fräulein Schäubin,

I and everyone else on the train that day are in your debt. This time Nancy is following in your footsteps. I finished the other one I was writing, too. Enjoy the books.

Your servant,

Wilhelm Reuber

 

Astrid unwrapped the package and held up more books. "The Mystery of the Train Robbery. A Nancy Drew mystery. And Guardians of Germany: The Saxon Ghost."

Neustatter laughed.

"Why are there two of that one?" Hjalmar asked.

"Wilhelm probably expects us to find the Saxon Ghost and give him his own copy."

****