April 1633, Salt Lick Run
“And then you store the fulminate of mercury in water until you need it, like this.” Dexter “Ape” Hart demonstrated.
Hans Rörer dipped a finger into the bucket of water and looked up at Ape. “Why?”
Ape sighed. Fucking dumb kraut. I already explained why. Don’t you understand proper American? He tried one last time, raising his voice to ensure he got the message across. “I’ve already told you. You keep fulminate of mercury wet because it’s dangerous when it’s dry. Do you understand?”
Hans nodded. “Dry is dangerous, wet is safe.”
“Hell no,” Ape roared, horrified at the thought of anybody ever considering fulminate of mercury to ever be safe. “This stuff is dangerous. People have died making it. Keeping it wet just makes it less dangerous to work with. The only time you let it dry is after it’s in the percussion caps.”
Ape walked to the door. He stopped and glared at the down-timers muttering amongst themselves. “Well, don’t just stand there talking, get busy. There ain’t going to be any money until you make something me and Monkey can sell. Come on, Monkey, let’s leave them to it.”
A month later
Joachim Schmidt watched the Harts walk away from the log cabin hidden in the woods until they were out of sight. “Only three hundred dollars for a week’s work.”
“Are you suggesting the Harts are stealing form us?” Christina Heine asked.
“Because I don’t think they are,” Christina’s sister Justina said. “The price they claim they sold them for is right. We know that, because we asked Maria Anna over at Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza.”
“I agree with the girls,” Hans Rörer said. “The Harts are being honest with the money. It’s just that we are producing so few percussion caps.”
“And whose fault is that?” Joachim asked. “It’s the Harts and their insistence that we only make small batches and then clean everything between batches. We’re wasting half our time cleaning the equipment, and it takes too many batches to make a useful amount of fulminate of mercury.”
“But they told us we can’t make larger batches until we know how to make smaller batches safely,” Justina protested.
“But we’ve already proven that we can. Haven’t we made nearly a hundred batches without a problem?” Joachim demanded.
Hans and the two girls nodded.
“Well, why don’t we make bigger batches?”
“You mean twenty gram batches like Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza?” Christina asked.
Joachim shook his head. “Why waste our time making batches that small? I say we go for the biggest batch size the equipment can handle and convert all of the mercury as quickly as we can. That way we can keep making primer composition without having to stop and start as the fulminate of mercury runs out.”
“But to convert all of the mercury we have . . . Will it be safe to store that much?” Justina asked.
“Herr Hart said it himself. As long as we keep it wet, it’s perfectly safe,” Joachim said.
“I don’t think that’s what Herr Hart said,” Justina protested.
“Who knows for sure what Herr Hart said? His English is almost impossible to follow. Besides, think of the money, girl. Think of the money. If we can earn three hundred dollars a week each making a few hundred caps a day, think of what we could earn if we were making thousands of caps a day?”
“It’s a nice idea, Joachim, but there is still the cleaning of the stills between runs,” Hans said.
“Well, if we increase the size of the batches then we won’t need as many runs to finish the mercury. And anyway, why do we have to distill the water? If filtered water from the creek is good enough for us to drink, then it’s good enough to use to clean the equipment. We can save a lot of unproductive time if we just filter the water instead of distilling it.”
Early morning, May 1633, heading east on Route 250
“What the hell?” Press Richards pulled the police cruiser to a halt on the side of the road.
“An explosion. Do you think it might be the place on Grays Run?” Officer Erika Fleischer asked.
Press looked towards the southeast where the flash had come from. “Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza? Nah, too far south for them.”
Press took in Erika’s obvious distress. “You got an idea what it might be?”
She nodded. “I have some friends who said they had found work making percussion caps at a place on the upper reaches of Salt Lick Run.”
Press looked back toward the southeast. Percussion caps shouldn’t cause that big an explosion. Not unless they were making a lot of fulminate of mercury, which meant . . . “Ah shit.” Press reached for the two-way radio. “Patrol Two to Base.”
“Go ahead, Patrol Two.”
“Responding to a possible backwoods explosives factory accident on Salt lick Run. Could you warn the fire and ambulance? Over.”
“Affirmative, Patrol Two. Hang on . . . right, Angela’s just got Anna Leah Robinson on the phone. She says there was an explosion further up the valley from her place and she can see fire. Her boarders are already heading over to see if they can help. Over.”
“Understood, Base. That sounds like it might be our explosion. Over and out.” Press put the cruiser into gear and glanced over to Erika. “Do you know how many people were working on the site?”
Erika shook her head. “No, sorry, just that two of my friends had found work there.”
Press winced at the screeching of branches on the metalwork as the police cruiser forced its way through the narrow track. More scratches to add to the collection. Finally the cruiser emerged into a clearing. “Oh shit!”
Press got out of the cruiser and looked at the devastation in the light of the headlamps. Debris and toppled trees radiated out from a still smoldering crater in the ground. There wasn’t much fire. Just a few broken pieces of wood and a bit of the ground cover. Behind him he could hear Erika issuing shovels and sacks to Anna Leah’s boarders and directing them to extinguish the fires.
He grabbed a spotlight pack and walked over to ground-zero playing the beam over the ground as he went. Occasionally he bent down to examine things on the ground, but he didn’t have to find human remains to know people had died. The whole place stank of burned flesh.
“The men have the fires under control,” Erika reported.
Press dropped the remains of a hand. “Right. Well, let’s scout around just in case anybody survived. It’s a pity we didn’t bring Pluto. He’d have been a great help finding any survivors.”
Erika set off in the opposite direction to Press, scanning the ground with her spotlight. Unlike Officer Richards she was glad she’d left her dog back in town. There were bits and pieces of bodies everywhere. Pluto would have made a meal of the evidence.
“The silly bastards allowed their fulminate of mercury to get contaminated with copper fulminate,” Celeste Frost announced.
“What?” Press asked.
“I found traces of copper in the remains of the still your people found. If there’s copper in the still, then there’s bound to be copper contamination in the finished product. That copper contamination would have been turned into copper fulminate and copper fulminate is extremely sensitive.”
Press was lost. Celeste had been called in to help the investigation because she was the “go to” person for fulminate of mercury at Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza. If she said copper fulminate was bad, then he believed her, but . . . “What does copper fulminate contamination have to do with what happened here?”
“I’m guessing that they’ve processed all of their mercury and stockpiled their fulminate of mercury under water until it was needed, but it must have started drying out. When the traces of copper fulminate in the mix dried out, it exploded. That’d be enough to set off the fulminate of mercury.”
Press nodded. That made sense. “How much fulminate of mercury are we talking about?”
“Your people found empty containers for enough mercury to make over fifty pounds.”
“That much?” Press wasn’t really questioning Celeste’s estimate. It was more of an expression of horror. He took another look at the devastation. It looked worse in the light of day. He could believe it was that much.
Erika had spent part of the morning trying to locate her friends. Nobody had seen them and she feared the worst. She had Pluto with her now—for all his size he usually made a useful ice-breaker. She knocked on the door to Anna Leah Robinson’s house.
There was the sound of somebody with a walking stick approaching the door, and then it opened to reveal a small-framed white-haired woman. Pluto was the first to react. He advanced, butting her gently with his head until she started to scratch just behind his ear.
“Frau Robinson?” Erika asked.
“Yes, dear.” Anna Leah gestured down at Pluto. “And who is this?”
Erika grinned. Her dog was going to earn his keep today. “Pluto, shake.”
Pluto sat and lifted his right paw for Frau Robinson to shake.
“Oh, isn’t that sweet. Pluto you say? That’s a funny name for such a handsome dog. What is he, some kind of German Shepherd?”
Erika smiled kindly at Frau Robinson. Most people seeing Pluto tended to compare him to a wolf, but her betrothed, who had given her Pluto as a pup, claimed any wolf in his ancestry was at least two generations back. “Yes, some kind. Now, Frau Robinson, if it’s convenient, I’d like to ask some questions about last night.”
“Well, don’t stand out in the cold. Come on inside.”
“Stay,” Erika told Pluto before bending to remove her boots.
“Oh, let the poor thing come inside where it’s warm.”
Erika didn’t need to gesture to Pluto. He was already making up to Anna Leah. She followed the pair into the front room. Pluto made straight for the open fire and flopped down in front of it as if he belonged there. Anna Leah settled into an armchair beside a window with a commanding view of the road outside while Erika pulled out her notebook and sat down opposite her.
“About last night. Did you notice anybody coming or going from the property last night?” Erika asked.
“Not last night. They built a log cabin just by the creek and usually stayed there.”
Erika grimaced. It was sounding more and more likely that her friends were dead. “We’re trying to establish how many people might be missing, and who they are. Did you know any of the people working there?”
“I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t get out much these days. I’ve only seen them as they walk past and my eyes aren’t what they were. They were mostly down-timers. That much I’m sure of.”
“Mostly? And how can you be sure?”
“It’s the clothes. Not many down-timers wear black T-shirts and blue jeans.”
“Can you describe the people in the up-timer clothes?”
Anna Leah shook her head. “I only saw them the once and I didn’t get a really good look. There were two of them. Both of them with beards and enough beer-belly to do a woman nine months pregnant with twins proud.”
Erika noticed Anna Leah’s hesitant glance towards a pair of binoculars beside her armchair. “Is there anything more you can add? What about a logo or slogan on the T-shirt?”
Anna Leah touched the pair of binoculars. “I’m always nodding off in my chair these days. I think one of them had ‘Support the‘ above what might have been a female on the front of his T-shirt. I couldn’t read the rest.”
“Can you give me an idea of the number of people who might have been living in the cabin, and were they males or females?”
“About six all told. Four males and two females, and all but two of the men were dressed like down-timers. I’m sorry I can’t be more help.”
Erika closed her notebook and put it away. “You’ve been of considerable assistance, Frau Robinson. If you remember anything that might help, anything at all, please get in touch.” She passed Anna Leah one of her cards and got to her feet. “There’s no need for you to get up. We can find our own way out. Pluto, come.”
Anna Leah ignored Erika and pulled herself out of her armchair, reaching out a hand to rub Pluto’s ears. “Such a sweet dog. It must be nice having him around the house.”
Erika grinned. “The trouble is he eats us out of house and home.”
Ape Hart knocked and walked into his brother’s house. “Monkey, you around?”
“He’s in the workshop, Ape,” Monkey’s wife called back.
“Thanks, Cora Lee.” Ape headed for the shed where Monkey had his workshop.
“Monkey, you seen the . . . ” Then he saw his brother sitting dejectedly with the paper laid out in front of him. “You’ve seen it.”
“Yeah. No known survivors. And the police wanting to question anybody who might be able to identify the people involved. What the hell are we going to do?”
Ape grabbed a chair and sat down. “Nothing. We didn’t do anything wrong. The silly bastards must have made up all the mercury in one batch. We sure as hell didn’t tell them to do that.”
“Yeah, but four people dead.”
“They’re only down-timers, plenty more where they came from. Meanwhile we’re out nearly five grand that we can’t afford.”
“You’re sick. They were human beings.”
“Yeah. Well, they’re dead human beings because they didn’t do what we told them. And if I don’t start repaying the money I borrowed from Wilda soon, I’ll be joining them.”
“We could always get a job,” Monkey suggested.
The Grantville Police Chief, Dan Frost, looked up from the report he was reading. Dropping it to his desk he pushed his chair away from the desk so he could stretch out. “I think I know who Anna Leah saw.”
“From just the description she gave?” Erika asked.
Dan grinned. Anna Leah’s description was a little lacking in specificities. “I think she saw the Hart brothers. They fit the basic physical profile, and I’ve seen Monkey in a black sleeveless T-shirt that fits the description. We also know they’ve been selling percussion caps.”
“So what do we do now? Haul them in for questioning?”
Dan shook his head. “No. We don’t have any reason to.”
“No reason? But they were responsible for the deaths of four people on Salt Lick Run.”
Dan leaned over his desk and placed a hand over one of Erika’s. “No, they weren’t. Look, Erika, I know two of the dead were friends of yours, but even if the Harts were running the plant, the evidence is that stupidity caused their deaths. Whatever anybody wants to say about the Harts, nobody would call them stupid, at least not stupid enough to make up and store fifty pounds of fulminate of mercury.”
“So we do nothing?”
“I didn’t say that. I intend sending Neubert and Tipton to ask if they know anything about the accident. Not that there’s anything we can do even if they admit being involved—it’s not illegal to make percussion caps—but Neubert and Tipton will enjoy annoying Ape and Monkey.”
The Employment office, Grantville
Ape watched Kathryn Riddle pull an index card out of her box and read it. She flicked her eyes between him and his brother and shook her head. “What’s that job?” he asked.
Kathryn looked back down at the card in her hand. “Someone is looking for German speaking up-timers to help supervise the introduction of new technology in his factory. But you don’t speak German, so that rules that out.”
“We do too speak German,” Ape protested.
“Not well enough though, Ape.” Kathryn put the index card she was holding back where it belonged and continued searching. Pulling out a card every now and again and reading it, before shaking her head and putting it back. “The trouble is, you don’t have any qualifications. You both dropped out of high school and have been scraping by doing, well . . . ” She looked both Ape and Monkey in the eyes. ” . . . who knows what.”
“We was making hooch,” Ape answered. “The best hooch in the district, it was.”
“Unfortunately, while there is demand for people who know about distilling, most companies in that field require that their employees speak the language of the company, and more and more, that language is German,” Kathryn said.
“So what do you have that we can do, Kathryn? We both need work,” Monkey asked.
“Well, your lack of German and your poor education means you’re best suited to laboring jobs, and quite frankly, there are plenty of young, fit down-timers competing for those jobs. That leaves . . . ” Kathryn passed over the last index card she had pulled out of her file.
“Street sweeping?” Ape looked up from the card in his hands. “Pooper scooping for horses? I thought that was a punishment detail?”
“It was, and still is, but the courts don’t always sentence enough people to cope with the problem, so there are paid positions available for ‘street sweeping.'”
Ape passed the card over to his brother. “Is that all there is?”
“I’m afraid so.” Kathryn shrugged. “If you’d made an effort to learn German I could probably find you something better, but for now, that’s all I have to offer.”
“When can we start?” Monkey asked.
Ape glared at his brother. “Start? Are you seriously thinking of taking the job?”
Monkey nodded. “If it’s all that Kathryn has to offer, sure.”
“It is, and I suggest you both find time to take German lessons if you want to improve your employment prospects,” Kathryn said.
Rodney Jessup waved a finger under Ape’s nose as he spoke. “And this time, don’t let your workers screw everything up, understand?”
“Sure, Rod, we won’t leave all the mercury and stuff where the dumb krauts can get it this time. Instead we’ll only give them enough for a few batches at a time.”
“And I want you to do more than just go round once a week to collect the week’s production and give them their share of the previous weeks sales,” Rodney said.
“Hey, the krauts don’t like me and Monkey sniffing around all the time.” Ape thumped his chest. “They don’t like being around real Americans.”
Rodney snorted his disbelief. “Yeah, sure. Well just keep a better eye on your workers this time. I lost a lot of money when your last bunch blew themselves up.”
“We will, Rod. We will,” Ape promised.
December 27, 1633
There were eleven down-timers in the barn that represented the Hart brothers’ latest primer and percussion cap factory. Last week they’d had twelve employees, but just before Christmas one of them, they’d nicknamed him Pickles because his real name was Heinz Green, blew himself up when he fell on a batch of fulminate of mercury he was stealing. That should still have left eleven eager krauts pumping out primers and percussion caps. Except they weren’t working, they were packing in preparation to leaving.
“What the do you mean, you quit? You can’t quit. We’ve got contracts to fill.” Ape glanced over at his brother, Monkey, who looked just as stunned.
Georg Schrapel shook his head. “You have contracts to fill, Herr Hart. We were only employees, and we have decided to take our highly marketable skills elsewhere.”
“What highly marketable skills?” Ape demanded. “All you have is the ability to follow simple instructions.”
Georg nodded. “And all without blowing ourselves up. Rohrbacher Pharmaceuticals are most impressed.”
“Who the hell are Rohrbacher Pharmaceuticals?” Monkey demanded. “I haven’t heard of any company by that name making percussion caps and primers?”
“That would be because they are a family of apothecaries who have a facility to extract drugs from plants in Saalfeld and are not into anything so dangerous as fulminate of mercury. We were informed that they were looking for suitable staff,” Georg answered.
“You expect us to believe some pokey little family firm of apothecaries needs eleven new workers?”
“Of course not, Herr Hart. They only have places for half our number. No, the rest of us have decided to go out on our own and produce primers and percussion caps,” Georg said.
Ape clenched his fists. “You little bastard. I ought to push your fucking face in.”
“That would of course be assault, and I would be forced to make a complaint to the police.” Georg smiled.
Ape ground his teeth. The bastard was asking for it, but he couldn’t afford any more trouble with the police just then, not with Pickles dying suspiciously . . . just a minute. Who the fuck would want to screw around with their workers? Then he had it. That kraut police officer investigating Pickle’s death . . . “Fucking Officer Neubert put you up to this, didn’t he?”
Ape didn’t bother waiting for a response. For some reason the kraut cop had it in for him and Monkey. Talking their work force into quitting would be just like the kraut bastard. Certainly he couldn’t think of anybody else who might have it in for them. “If you quit now we aren’t going to pay you anything for the last lot of primers and percussion caps.”
“That was expected, Herr Hart. Consider it payment in lieu of notice.”
Monkey looked around the now empty barn. “What the hell are we going to do now?’
“At least everything is clean and ready for the next batch, except there isn’t a next batch. We’re going to have to get ourselves another bunch of krauts, and we’re going to have to get them quick. We still have to fill those orders from Santee and Johnson.”
“Yeah, but the new krauts are going to take time to get up to speed.”
Ape spat on the floor. “Bastards. They could at least have waited ’til after we finished the orders for Santee and Johnson. There’s only one way we can fill those orders on time.”
“You mean make them ourselves? We’ll never do it,” Monkey said.
“Of course, we’d never do it. No, the only way to fill Santee and Johnson’s orders is to buy from one of the other producers.”
“We’ll lose money if we do that.”
“Sure. And what do you think Santee or Johnson will do if we don’t fill our contracts with them? Either of them’d be happy to sue the shirts off our backs.”
Monkey fell backwards at the explosion. Fortunately it was just a small explosion as he’d been working with less than a gram of fulminate of mercury. “Shit, that’s it. I’ve had enough. This stuff is too damned dangerous. I say we quit this shit.”
Ape looked over from where he was loading primers. “It would have been okay if we could have got some krauts to do the work—who cares if they blow themselves up? You got any idea why we haven’t been able to get new staff?”
“I bet it’s fucking Officer Neubert again. The krauts always stick together. He’s probably put out the word that nobody should work with us.”
“Well, what are we going to do? I don’t know about you, but buying those primers and percussion caps to fill Santee and Johnson’s orders wiped me out.”
“Me too. I guess it’s back to the old standby.”
“Ah, shit. Not clearing the streets after the horses again? It’s freezing outside.”
“You got a better idea?” Monkey asked.
“How about asking Jessup if he knows of anything?’
“We were lucky Jessup was willing to help set up this operation after the fiasco on Salt Lick Run. He sure ain’t gonna help us out if we screw up again.”
“Salt Lick Run wasn’t our fault. How were we to know the fools would stockpile the stuff? We told them it was dangerous often enough.”
“Maybe, but I sure bet he’ll think having all our trained workers walk out was our fault,” Monkey said
“It’s not our fault Officer Neubert has it in for us,” Ape protested.
Two weeks later
Monkey swept the pile of horse droppings onto the shovel his brother was holding. “Jessup sent a letter.”
Ape looked up hopefully. “He’s got us a new job?”
“Tom Frost at Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza has worked out how to make an explosive called RDX and they’re set up a factory to make it. Jessup says Garland Alcom and Dennis Stull are involved. If we’re interested he thinks there might be a place for us in the new factory.”
“Are we interested? You bet we are.”
Monkey nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’ve already sent a telegram.”
March 1634, the explosives factory, Schwarza Industrial Zone
The four men had been playing for two hours when they heard the door open.
“And this is where . . . whoops, sorry guys, but Miss Siebenhorn wanted to be shown around.”
Ape carefully placed his cards face down on the table and turned round. He noticed the smug look on Carl fucking Duvall’s face and started to worry. There’d been rumors that somebody was going to replace the absent Garland as manager of the explosives factory. “Who the hell is Miss Siebenhorn?”
Ape studied the young woman pushing her way past Carl. He didn’t recognize her, which meant she was a down-timer, and with a name like Siebenhorn, definitely a kraut. Ape didn’t like krauts. Krauts were the cause of all of him and his brother’s financial troubles. He just hoped she wasn’t going to cause them any more trouble.
“As neither Garland Alcom nor Dennis Stull are available to handle the day to day management of this factory Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza have appointed me as the new manager,” Maria Anna announced.
Ape barely managed to hold back a groan. The krauts had installed one of their own to manage the company. Why hadn’t they installed an American as manager? What the hell made them think this kid knew how to run the company? He and Monkey were going to have to keep an eye on the girl. They couldn’t afford for this company to fail, it was the only decent job they were likely to get.
“You’ll want to be careful around the Harts. They’re a couple of redneck dinosaurs and regulars at 250 Club,” Carl Duvall informed Maria Anna as they walked away from the stockroom.
“And they don’t like down-timers,” Maria Anna said.
Carl snorted. “They like down-timers fine, just as long as they aren’t . . . Germans.”
“No need to be polite, Carl. You mean they don’t like ‘krauts.'”
“Yeah, well. No, they don’t like ‘krauts.’ But they are good workers,” Carl continued. “Don’t take any notice of the fact they were playing cards. They do that whenever they have a break.”
“Of course, I won’t hold that against them,” Maria Anna said. She glanced over at Carl. Yes, there was a look in his eyes that suggested he’d known about the card game and deliberately timed her visit to put the worst possible light on the Harts. She wondered why Carl had it in for them. She didn’t need to add to the reasons she didn’t like the brothers. There were enough of those already, and the biggest reason was that her friend Erika, a police officer with the Grantville Police Department, believed they were the principals behind the backwoods percussion cap plant on Salt Lick Run where her friends Christina and Justina Heine died. They’d certainly been behind another plant making percussion caps, but she and Erika had managed to talk the workforce into deserting them. She’d quite enjoyed the sight of the two overweight up-timers cleaning up after the horses on Main Street.
A few days later
The Hart brothers were blocking the corridor Marie Anna Siebenhorn wanted to pass through. Not that they were doing it deliberately, it was just that two large pot-bellied men who have stopped to talk tended to take up a lot of room. “Excuse me, could I get through?” she called to their backs.
“Sure,” Ape Hart said as he and his brother moved to let Maria Anna pass between them.
She had to turn sideways to slip through the gap they made. She felt Monkey Hart’s pot-belly touch her back and arched it to avoid further contact. Unfortunately, this pumped up her chest, much to the obvious appreciation of Ape.
Once past she strode away as quickly as she could. She really wanted to run, but that would only let them know their behavior upset her. Well, she wasn’t going to let them win. Right now she just wanted to get into her office where she could examine the company’s accounts. Especially those aspects of the company the Harts were involved with. The unions might not allow her to dismiss the Harts just because she didn’t like them, but if they were convicted of an offense, the union wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
A few days later
Maria Anna was ready to scream in frustration. Nothing. Not a goddamn thing. The books were clean. Sure there was a discrepancy, a massive thirty-eight dollars and fifteen cents, but she was pretty sure that there was a petty cash jar somewhere with exactly thirty-eight dollars and fifteen cents sitting in it.
She chewed on a tendril of hair. Maybe the books were too good? Maybe the Harts were smarter than she was. Hold it, Maria Anna, this is the Harts we’re talking about here. That left just one possible conclusion—that the Harts hadn’t been fiddling the books.
Maria Anna sat staring at the stockroom accounts for several minutes before finally slamming them shut and pushing them to a corner of her desk. The Harts had to be up to something. Doing actual work wasn’t in their makeup. It was just a matter of digging until she found it.
A week later
The Harts were standing talking to each other in the corridor as Maria Anna approached. Pulling her body up straight, she walked right past them.
Ape put his hand on Maria Anna’s shoulder and halted her, then pulled her around to face him. “Hey, Girlie, don’t try to walk past as if we ain’t there. What’s this we hear about you auditing our accounts? That’s not a nice thing to do. Anybody would think you didn’t trust us.”
Maria Anna looked at the hand on her shoulder. She imagined digging her nails into it and the sound of Ape squealing in pain. “Please remove your hand, and my name is not ‘Girlie.’ It is Maria Anna.”
Ape lifted his hand. “Hey, no need to be so touchy.”
“Yeah, Ape didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” Monkey said. “But you’re barking up the wrong tree if you think we’d steal from Garland. We ain’t gettin’ any younger, and with no social security, we need this job.”
“How much money do you have in the petty cash?” Maria Anna asked.
Monkey shrugged his shoulders. “Damned if I know. Maybe twenty or thirty bucks I guess. Why?”
Monkey stumbled into the stockroom in his brother’s wake, rubbing the spot on his ribs where he’d been kicked by G.C. Cooper in the fight the previous day. “Damned woman. Count everything in the inventory she says, and I bet she means everything . . . right down to the number of individual percussion cap blanks and the sheets of wrapping paper. Doesn’t she think we have anything better to do?” Monkey complained.
Ape sucked the knuckles he’d skinned hitting G.C. Cooper in the same fight and rubbed the bruise Officer Neubert had raised on his ribs when the cops arrived to break it up. “I bet Neubert put her up to it. The bastard’s always had it in for us.”
Monkey nodded. “Yeah, fucking krauts. Always stick together. So, what do we do?”
Ape snorted. “As if we have any choice. The little bitch has been looking for ‘just cause’ to fire us since she took over. Not following a direct order would play right into her hands.
“So where do we start?”
Monkey looked around the stockroom. With his ribs feeling the way they did at the moment, he didn’t want to do any heavy lifting. His eyes settled on a barrel. “How about we start with the percussion cap blanks?”
“Yeah, might as well. Gimme a hand to move it closer to the table then.”
An hour later
Ape slapped a pile of percussion cap blanks onto the bench and stood up. “The hell with this shit.”
Monkey put aside another pile of one hundred percussion caps and looked over at his brother. “You’d rather be shoveling horse shit?”
“Of course not, but that broad’s got it in for us. I ask you, what have we ever done to her to deserve this?” He gestured to the barrels of percussion cap blanks they still had to count. “There must be an easier way. Hell, it’s not as if anybody’s going to check our numbers, is it?”
Monkey sat back and examined his piles of carefully counted percussion cap blanks. “You still got that old set of reloading scales?”
“The balance set? Yeah, why?”
“Just a thought. If we weigh each of those piles we’ll have a good idea how much a hundred caps weighs. That’ll give us an average weight per cap. Then we just weigh the rest of the caps and divide the total by the average weight of a cap.”
“You think the bitch will let us get away with that?” Ape asked.
“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Besides, it sure beats the hell out of counting every single one of the damn things.”
“True enough, bro. True enough.”
A few days later
Monkey emptied the box of wrapped explosives into the pan, checked that he had ten rows of ten blocks, and watched the needle as the balance scale to come to rest. “Ape, how much should a hundred blocks of the military explosive weigh?”
“A hundred pounds, of course,” Ape answered.
“That’s what I thought. In that case, I think we’ve got a problem.”
“What? What kind of problem?”
Monkey gestured to the needle of the balance scale. “Look for yourself. There’s a hundred blocks in the pan and one hundred pounds of weights in the other pan.”
“Maybe the wrapping paper . . . “
“Nah, that’d make them heavier.”
“Ah, shit!” Ape glared at the stacks of explosive. “Maybe somebody slipped in an empty wrapper.”
“Then we better see if we can find it,” Monkey said.
Half an hour later
Monkey surveyed the refuse of their unwrapping. There were one hundred pieces of wrapping paper and one hundred blocks of explosive. “Well, nobody slipped in an empty wrapper. Why else would the scales show underweight?”
“The only way that comes to mind is if some of the blocks are under weight,” Ape said. Let’s run them through the reloading scales and see what they weigh.”
“One hundred and thirty-eight grains,” Monkey called as he added the last weight to balance the scale.
“Shit, that’s ten out of ten underweight so far,” Ape said holding up a clipboard.
Monkey pulled over a chair and sat down, glaring at the offending scales and pile of weighed blocks of explosive. He held out a hand towards his brother. “Gimme the clipboard.”
Monkey read down the weights. All of the blocks had been close to one hundred and forty grains underweight. He looked at the other ninety blocks still sitting in the large balance scale’s pan, and then he looked at the several cases of explosive still to be examined. He had a horrible feeling. “Ape, open another couple of cases and take out a couple of blocks from each and bring them here.”
“Who died and made you the boss, little brother?”
“Just do it will you? Unless you want to weigh each and every block.”
“What?” Ape turned to stare at his brother. “You think all our stock is underweight?”
“I hope not, but there’s only one sure way to find out. So, if you’d be so good as to get me a couple of blocks from a couple of cases?”
“Okay, which cases do you want me to take them from?”
“Pick a couple at random.”
When Ape handed him the blocks of explosive Monkey unwrapped them and placed the first one on the scale. “One forty,” then the next, “One forty-two,” and the next, “one forty-four,” and finally the last one, “One thirty-nine.” He glanced over at his brother. “Near as dammit, one hundred and forty grains short, just like the rest.”
“Maybe the cutting gauge has just slipped a bit over time?” Ape suggested.
Monkey looked at the stacks of explosive. Nothing on the shelves was more than a few days old, so there was no way to check how long the cutting gauge had been measuring short weight. “At least we’re only responsible for counting what comes through the stockroom. It ain’t our fault if the stuff we get is underweight.”
“It might not be our fault, but it is our problem,” Ape said. “You got any idea what could happen if it got out that the company has been selling short weight?”
Monkey froze. “Shit, the company could go under, and our jobs with it. Well, we found the problem, doing anything about it is way above our pay grade.”
“So are you going to call in the boss or do I?”
“Little Emma?” They’d been fielding a bit of flack from the other guys at the factory over calling the boss “Girlie,” but “Maria Anna” was one hell of a mouthful, so they’d shortened it to her initials, and then they’d settled on “Emma”. That had satisfied the other guys, many of who were starting to use the name themselves. “Sure. You hold the fort while I go get her.”
Marie Anna was deep in the spreadsheet on her computer when Monkey poked his head through the doorway. “Hey, Emma, could you come down to the stockroom for a few minutes? There’s something me and Ape think you need to see.”
Maria Anna glanced up at Monkey. This was the first time either of the Harts had come to her office without being asked, and she wasn’t sure she liked the look in his eyes. It wasn’t threatening, or condescending, or anything like that. It was worse. Monkey looked worried. She closed the file she was looking at and stood. “Do I need anything?”
Monkey smiled. “Just yourself, but you might want to bring your pocket calculator.”
Maria Anna ignored Monkey’s smile as she collected her pocket abacus. “Lead the way, Arthur.” She grinned at his wince. Using his real name was her little retaliation for him and Ape calling her Emma. Their new name for her was an improvement over “Girlie” but it still wasn’t her name, and other people at the company were starting to call her Emma as well. Maybe if she called them Arthur and Dexter often enough they’d get the message.
Monkey held the stockroom door open for Maria Anna before leading her over to Ape, who was standing beside a work bench.
“Come and have a look here, Emma.” Ape pointed to a set of scales and some unwrapped blocks of the new RDX based “military dynamite” the company was producing. “Put one of those on the scales and tell me how much you think it weighs.”
Maria Anna looked at the balance scales and the range of weights. She had a nasty feeling she wasn’t going to like what she found. The block should weigh pretty close to one pound, or seven thousand grains. She put the one pound weight in one pan and the explosive into the other. It was underweight. She added small weights to the explosives side until the scales balanced. “A hundred and forty grains underweight.” She looked over to the attentive Ape and Monkey. “How many are underweight?”
“Every one we’ve checked so far,” Ape answered.
“Shit!” Maria Anna looked guiltily at the Harts. They were still just standing there waiting for her to make a decision. Her use of an obscenity seemed to have completely passed them by. “How long has this been going on? How far back have you checked?”
“Just to the beginning of the week,” Ape answered. “We don’t have anything in stock older than that.”
Maria Anna was worried. Selling short weight was a crime nobody wanted to be associated with. She looked at the Hart brothers. The survival of the company rested on their ability to keep quiet about this little problem. Could she trust them? Probably not. But what was it they’d said to her back in March? Something about their needing this job. Suddenly hopeful, Maria Anna looked them over. “Ape, Monkey, I hope you realize how important to the survivability of the company it is that this little problem is handled with the utmost care and discretion?”
“Yeah, we know all about why bakers created the ‘bakers dozen.’ They come down real hard on people selling short measure here and now,” Monkey said.
“That’s right, so I want you to let me handle this problem. That means you don’t say anything about what you’ve discovered until I’m ready, okay?”
“How long are you thinking it’ll be until you’re ready? Monkey asked.
“A day, two at the most . . . right now I want the pair of you to count the number of blocks of explosives we have in inventory and when you’ve done that, check the cutter and if necessary, reset it,” Maria Anna said.
“Sure, we can do that. What’ll you be doing?” Monkey asked.
Maria Anna paused at the doorway. “Checking the computer to make sure the number of blocks in stock is equal to the amount of explosives that should be in the stockroom.”
“What are you suggesting?” Ape asked.
“Hopefully nothing, but either we have two percent more blocks of explosive than we should, or we’re missing two percent of our production.”
Monkey and Ape stared wide-eyed back at Maria Anna. “Missing?” Monkey muttered.
“There are other words for it, but that’ll do for now.” Maria Anna shut the door on the Harts and walked slowly back towards her office. She was worried. A better word would have been “stolen,” but who would want to steal military explosive in dribs and drabs? It would have to be somebody in the company, and she didn’t think it was the Harts, she’d been keeping too close an eye on them. So who could it be?
Ape didn’t like working with an audience, especially when it was made up of krauts. He accepted the last of ten samples from the newly adjusted cutter and put it on his scales. It wasn’t quite a pound. Adding a few weights to the scale, he called out the final weight. “Six-nine-nine-seven grains.”
“Right. That’s it then. All ten samples are within the permitted range.” Monkey turned to the down-timers who had been watching him and his brother do their quality control check. “It’s all yours, guys, but now we know the cutter gauge can slip we’ll be making random checks from now on so that it doesn’t get so far out of range again.”
Ape picked up the scales and followed his brother out of the room. “The cutter gauge can slip? Some bastard fixed that cutter deliberately,” he growled.
“Shush!” Monkey put a hand over his brother’s mouth and looked around to see if anybody could have overheard. “Not so loud.”
“Yeah, well, we better go see Emma and tell her someone rigged the cutter gauge.”
Monkey opened the door to Maria Anna’s office and poked his head in. “You got a moment, Emma?”
“Sure, come in and take a seat. I’m just about finished calculating how much explosive should have been made in each batch this month.”
Ape passed a soiled sheet of paper over as he sat down. “That’s the counts for each batch in the stockroom.”
“Thanks.” Maria Anna took the sheet and compared it to what she had on the computer in front of her.
Monkey read the emotions on Maria Anna’s face. “Somebody’s been stealing explosives, haven’t they?”
“I think so, but you seem awfully sure . . . “
“Yeah, well, we would. We’ve just finished resetting the cutting gauge. There ain’t no way that gauge slipped. Somebody deliberately set it to short.”
Maria Anna nodded. “I’m not surprised. Near enough precisely two percent is a bit unlikely to happen naturally, but who? It has to be somebody working for the company.”
Monkey stared back at Maria Anna. “Don’t you think it might be me ‘n Ape?”
Maria Anna shook her head. “No, of course not. You wouldn’t have put the whole company at risk like this.”
Monkey was a little dumbstruck. He knew he and Ape wouldn’t, but here was Emma not even considering the idea that he and Ape might. “Well, gee, thanks for the vote of confidence. For a while there me and Ape kinda thought that maybe you didn’t like us.”
“What’s not to like?” Maria Anna asked, desperately trying to keep a straight face as the brothers puffed up their chests.
“Yeah, we’re just regular likable guys, but if you don’t think we did it, who do you think did?” Monkey asked.
Maria Anna shook her head. “I’ve got no idea. We don’t even know how long ago the cutter gauge was set. It might have happened when the machinery was first set up, or it might have happened last week.”
“Whoever did it was looking to the future,” Ape said.
“How do you mean?” Maria Anna asked.
“Well, it’s obvious. They weren’t greedy. A couple of percent of our current production is hardly anything, but as production grows, so does the value of their theft,” Ape answered.
“If Schmidt and company had been half as smart as our thief, we wouldn’t be here,” Monkey said.
“Schmidt?” Maria Anna asked.
“Joachim Schmidt. We started up an outfit to make percussion caps and primers up Salt Lick Run last year . . . ” Monkey started.
“And we were doing okay until Schmidt and the rest of the crew decided they wanted to run before they could walk,” Ape added.
“Run before they could walk?” Maria Anna asked.
“Yeah, coming from Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza you probably know making fulminate of mercury-based caps is dangerous. We wanted the crew to stick to one gram batches until we were confident they knew what they were doing.”
“But effing Schmidt wanted to make batches as big as Brennerei und Chemiefabrik Schwarza were making.” Ape shook his head. “Hell, they were making three hundred bucks a week, each. I would have been happy to make that much. Heck, me and Monkey were only making seventy-five a week and we were happy.”
“Yeah, because just like our thief, we weren’t greedy. If we’d got production up to twenty grams a batch we’d have been sitting pretty right now,” Monkey said.
Monkey sat silently for a few minutes while he considered what might have been, and the deaths of the four down-timers who’d been working for them. Joachim Schmidt was no great loss, but he felt bad about the two girls. He sighed and looked over to Maria Anna. “What happens now?”
“Now? I guess I talk to the police,” Maria Anna said.
Monkey sat up straight. “Not the freaking police. Those bastards have got it in for me and Ape.”
“Yeah,” Ape agreed. “Especially Neubert. He’s gonna do everything he can to prove we done it.”
“But you’re the people who reported the problem to me,” Maria Anna protested.
Ape shook his head. “You just don’t understand cops, Emma. They’re lazy. Why try and find out who done it when they can pin it on me and Monkey.”
“I’ve got a friend on the force. Maybe if I talk to her, off the record of course . . . ” Maria Anna looked hopefully at Ape.
“A down-time cop?” Maria Anna nodded. “She’ll side with Neubert,” Ape said.
“No, she won’t. Not if I explain.”
Monkey stared at Maria Anna. She seemed sure of her friend, and they had to let someone official know that someone had been stealing explosives. “If you’re sure she won’t think two Harts in the hand is better than looking for somebody else in the bush . . . “
“I’m sure,” Maria Anna confirmed.
“Then I guess that’s the best we can hope for. When are you going to talk to your friend?
“This evening, right after work.”
Monkey sighed. It looked like he and Ape might get visits from the cops later this evening. Cora Lee was not going to be happy. He rose to his feet. “Come on, Ape, we better get back to work.”
“See you later, Emma,” Ape called as they left.
Later that afternoon
The sound of the door rebounding off the wall and slamming shut was the first indication that they had a visitor. Monkey and Ape lowered the box they had been lifting and looked towards the door. A very agitated Maria Anna was storming towards them.
“The unmitigated gall of the bastard,” Maria Anna uttered loudly.
Monkey was surprised at Maria Anna’s language. Something had their normally unflappable manager in a tizzy. “Something the matter, Emma?”
Maria Anna stopped and glared at Monkey. “Something the matter? Something the matter? I’ll say there’s something the matter. I just had a visit from some government creep who seemed to think I’d be happy to produce evidence proving the pair of you have been supplying the black market with high explosive.”
“Did you tell him it wasn’t us?” Ape asked.
“Tell him? You bet I told him. He didn’t like it when I told him that it had to be someone else because it wasn’t you two.”
“Yeah, well . . . we told you so,” Ape said.
“I can’t see a man for the government just taking your word, Emma,” Monkey said.
“He didn’t.” Maria Anna sniffed delicately before continuing. “I was able to provide him with documentary evidence that all explosive produced in this facility has been accounted for, and I informed him that if military dynamite was appearing on the black market it had to be coming from somewhere else, like maybe military stores.” She smiled. “He didn’t like that.”
“Emma, you lied. You actually lied to a man from the government.” Monkey chuckled and hugged her. “We’ll make a redneck out of you yet.”
“Not wanting to interrupt or anything, but doesn’t that mean we can’t report the theft of explosives?” Ape asked.
Monkey stepped back from Maria Anna. “Yeah. You kinda ruined any chance we might have had of reporting the thefts.”
“And somebody gets away with stealing from the company,” Ape stated.
“I’m afraid so,” Maria Anna answered, “But at least we caught up with them before we went into full production. We’ll just have to take what satisfaction we can in the fact that they’ll be sitting back somewhere watching the shipments of explosives going out the door while they calculate how much their two percent would have been worth.”
Ape sniggered. “That’s not very nice, Emma.”
“Yeah, that’s the kinda thinking me and Ape might do,” Monkey said.
“What can I say?” Maria Anna asked. “The pair of you are a bad influence.”
Walking back to her office Maria Anna mopped up the sweat that had beaded on her brow while she talked to the Harts. Fortunately neither of them had asked why the man from the government might have expected her to willingly produce evidence against them. She’d realized that the Harts weren’t really to blame when they proclaimed the fact that they weren’t greedy. She’d had to accept that Christine and Justina’s own greed had killed them and Arthur and Dexter hadn’t deserved to have their last percussion cap operation fail through no fault of their own. The man from the government had told her about the debts the brothers had as a result of that failure and her conscience was niggling her, making her feel guilty. She’d have to make it up to them somehow. Pay their debts or something. Preferably without letting them know how she’d contributed to the business’ failure. She thought about it for a moment. Then she smiled. She could give them the money, calling it a reward for discovering that someone was stealing explosives. If they questioned the amount, she could hint at it being hush money, buying their silence to protect the company. That would probably appeal to them. They’d never suspect it was guilt money.
She walked a few more steps, paused, and turned to look back towards the storeroom. It was all their own fault. If they didn’t constantly try to live down to their reputation she’d never have thought them responsible. Who could blame her for believing the image of the Hart brothers everyone in Grantville painted? Nobody. She smiled, and turned and continued to walk back towards her office satisfied in her own mind that she hadn’t really done anything wrong.
Character illustrations by Jaime Patneaude