June 1635, North Frisian Islands
Standing on the deck of the USE Navy's dive tender Red Lion, George Watson stared at the cluster of prefabricated cabins that had been his home all summer. He couldn't see Grietje, but after the way they'd parted he wasn't surprised that she hadn't turned up to wave them off.
"You didn't have to end things with Grietje. You could have married her," Matt Tisdel said from beside him.
George had thought about it, but in the end he'd chosen to end things. "She deserves someone closer to her own age, not an old geezer like me."
"Being old enough to be her grandfather didn't stop you sleeping with her."
She'd been available. She'd been willing. And George had been desperate for some way of escaping his nightmares. Of course he'd slept with her, and continued to sleep with her over the summer. "I didn't realize just how young and inexperienced she was."
"So you've given her some money and left her to get on with her life?"
"And what did she have to say about that?" Matt asked.
George sighed. "She didn't say a word." Maybe if she'd yelled at him he wouldn't feel so guilty, but the way she'd just accepted him leaving like that didn't sit well.
The smell of napalm and burning was everywhere. The medic held out the whimpering baby for George to take. He didn't want to take the child, but the medic was insistent. The moment he touched the baby it started to scream. His heart raced as he felt the sticky burnt flesh and the smell of it flooded his senses. Then, in front of his eyes, the baby's face morphed into Grietje before turning into a long-drowned corpse. He screamed as he tried to get the body as far away from him as possible . . .
George looked up, stunned by the fall from his hammock. Sweat was dripping from his body. His heart was racing and his breathing was rapid. He lay on the floor listening, hoping that he hadn't woken Matt.
"You all right, George?" Matt asked.
No such luck. "Yeah, I just fell out of my hammock."
"You were having a nightmare. I thought you said you'd got over them?"
"Obviously I was wrong," George muttered. The old nightmare from Vietnam had started again after he rescued a young child and her father from the water in Arendal. Then, in Husum, he got involved with Grietje, and he'd been sleeping in her arms without any nightmares for weeks. But now, the very first night away from her, and the nightmare had returned, with a new twist.
Travemünde, a few days later
Sleep-deprived, George staggered into the main office of the boatyard he co-owned with Ernst Köppe. He gave Anna, Ernst's wife, a vague greeting as he headed for the kitchen to make some coffee. In his current state he needed a caffeine hit.
Anna followed him into the kitchen. "Are you all right, George?"
"I didn't sleep well on the way back."
"Okay. Did you have a good time on the islands?"
George thought about Husum, the island of Strand, and the devastation he'd seen. That wasn't what Anna wanted to hear. "It was okay."
"Good, good. Ernst's got some good news for you. He's in the main workshop."
George entered the boatyard's main workshop with a steaming mug of coffee in each hand and went looking for his partner. He found him supervising work on the Fair Value, a boat George had designed with Ernst's help, using various plans from his collection of boating magazines, as a replacement for the Outlaw he'd lost. She was a bit longer than the Outlaw's thirty-three feet, but she was a lot slower. Her hot-bulb engine gave her an estimated top speed in calm water of a bit over eight knots, and a range of just over three hundred miles. She was no speed machine, but she wasn't supposed to be. She was George's dream gin palace.
"Coffee, Ernst," he offered as he stepped up beside his partner.
"Thanks." Ernst took the mug of coffee. "So you're back at last. Did you enjoy your summer vacation?"
"It was okay. What are you doing with the Fair Value?"
"Checking her out for her delivery voyage."
"Delivery voyage?" That couldn't be right. The Fair Value was his boat, and he hadn't authorized her sale.
Ernst sipped his coffee. "We sold her."
"You've done what?" George roared at his partner. "The moment I turn my back you sell my boat."
Unmoved by George bellowing in his face, Ernst took another sip of coffee before answering. "It wasn't the moment you turned your back. You were gone two months before someone asked if she was for sale."
"Oh, two months. That makes all the difference. Ernst, she's my boat. I designed her, I supervised her construction, and I paid for her."
"Yep, and someone else is willing to pay three times what she cost you. And, as I assume you'll want to build a new boat using the fancy water-jet Derek Modi has designed, I thought you'd be happy for me to get the best price I could for her."
That brought George up short. "Derek's finished design work on the water-jet?"
Ernst took another sip of coffee and nodded.
George stared at the Fair Value. She was a good boat, but the hot-bulb engine wasn't very powerful. "Three times what she cost me?" he asked.
"Do you have the money?"
"We've banked half, and get the other half on delivery."
That meant there was money in the bank to start work on a new boat. "Okay. You're forgiven. This time."
"That's good, because someone has to deliver her and train the new owner's crew."
It was difficult to miss the pointed look Ernst was directing his way. George pointed to himself. "Me?"
"You," Ernst agreed. "You're perfect for the job. You know more about the hot-bulb engines than anyone else in the shop, and nobody knows the Fair Value like you do."
George had to concede that point. He'd just said as much. "Who do I have to deliver her to?"
"Lord Holger Rosenkrantz of Glimminge, Lensmand of Hammershus Len."
"Lensmand of Hammershus Len? That sounds like something out of the Lensman series."
"Lensman series?" Ernst shook his head. "Never mind your silly up-time references. Lord Rosenkrantz is the—well, governor is probably the closest American term—of the island of Bornholm."
"Bornholm?" George thought about the map on the office wall. "That must be three hundred miles away."
"Two hundred fifty," Ernst said. "But you won't be lonely on the trip over. Derek's got someone who wants a ride."
"It better not be a dame." He'd run off with the dive team to escape the attentions of women who had eyes only for his money.
"Nope. It's Peder Halvorson, from Arendal. He and Derek are trying to sell Lord Rosenkrantz a steam ship."
"The guy's just bought the Fair Value. What makes them think he'd want a steamship as well?"
Ernst shrugged. "I'm sure they have their reasons for targeting him."
"You mean he's a rich prick with more money than sense?"
Grietje's skeletal hands grabbed George and started to shake him. . . .
"George, are you all right? You're having a nightmare."
George woke with a start. His breathing was labored and his heart was racing, but he was safe. The hands holding him belonged to Matt, who rented a room in George's house. "Yeah, right. A bad dream. I'll be okay now, Matt."
George couldn't make out more than the shape of Matt's face, but he knew it was going to show concern, just like it had the last time Matt had woken him from a nightmare.
"You need to talk to someone about your nightmares, George," Matt said before leaving the room.
George stared into the darkness. He had talked about his nightmares to someone, and that had helped. But that had been back in Husum. Telling Matt would just raise another can of worms he didn't want to think about.
George's cottage on Bornholm was located a short walk from the new anchorage being built in the shadow of the Hammershus castle. The Hammershus was a proper medieval castle, with few of the modern improvements that made the Schlösser of the nobility back in the USE nearly comfortable, which was one reason why George had chosen not to stay there. The cottage he was staying in was new to Bornholm, where stone was still the most common building material. It was one of a small group of the new cedar-clad prefab timber cottages being produced in Arendal that someone had had built overlooking the new boat harbor just north of the Hammershus. They'd had three of them at the dive team's base in Husum, and George had welcomed the modern conveniences that were standard features in the structures—not the least of which was head room.
The day had all the signs of being yet another bright and sunny summer's day, and he started it as he had started every day since he arrived in Bornholm, with a swim in the sea. It helped that it was virtually right outside the front door, but George was sure he'd have kept up his regime of daily swims even if he'd had to swim in the Hammersø, a lake a couple of hundred yards inland.
He walked down to the shore, dropped his towel, and walked naked into the water, pulling on his swim goggles as he waded in. Then he dived in and started swimming. The water was comfortable for swimming, and not just in comparison with what he'd been swimming in at Husum. He'd measured it with a thermometer the first day and it had been over sixty-two degrees.
Thirty minutes later he finished his swim and headed toward land. When it got too shallow to swim in he stood up, and discovered he had attracted an audience. Well, in so far as a girl barely in her teens constituted an audience. "Can I help you?" he asked, backpedaling into water deep enough for modesty.
"You George Watson?" the girl asked.
"Those things you're wearing help you see under water?"
"Yes. Look kid, where is this going? It's a bit too chilly to stand here chatting and I'd like to get out."
"Nobody's stopping you getting out."
It was clear to George that the girl wasn't going to leave, or at least turn her back, so the only thing to do was make a dash for his towel. He stormed through the water and up onto the beach to his towel, which he wrapped around his waist. With his modesty restored he turned back to the girl, who seemed to think the whole thing was a big joke. "You wanted to talk to me?"
Suddenly the smile disappeared and she was all business. "Viktor wants to know if you'd be willing to look for some guns that got lost overboard at the end of yesterday's shoot."
The word shoot had several possible meanings, but George was aware that someone had been shooting a movie up at the Hammershus. "You're with the movie crowd?"
The girl shook her head. "No, I'm with Viktor. He supplied the guns."
"And someone has lost some of them into the sea, and your Viktor would like me to look for them?
The girl nodded.
"Why me?" George asked. "Surely there are plenty of locals who'd be willing to look for them?"
"They tried, and failed."
"So what makes you think I'd have any more success?" George asked.
"You know how to swim, and you have those things that help you see underwater."
George was prepared to concede that unlike a lot of down-timers, he knew how to swim, and he guessed his goggles, or the face mask he had in one of his bags, would make searching underwater easier. "Okay, so say I'm interested in looking for your guns. What's in it for me?"
"Well, everyone knows you don't need the money, so Johann suggested you might be interested in shooting off a submachine gun. Viktor's prepared to let you fire off a magazine for each submachine gun you recover."
"Submachine gun?" He stared hard at the girl, not sure he'd heard her correctly. "You mean that gunfire I could hear wasn't special effects but actual guns firing on fully auto?"
"It was real guns."
George's eyes lit up. He'd always enjoyed shooting, and especially automatics. "You've got a deal."
The next morning
Today, solely because he was likely to be swimming around the sea floor and not because of how the girl the previous day had embarrassed him, George was wearing shorts. He finished smearing a thick layer of lanolin over his body while one of Viktor's employees rowed him out to the general area where the guns had been lost. Barely a stone's throw from shore Johann Hering stopped rowing and lowered an anchor. George watched the rope slip seemingly endlessly through his hands. "Just how deep is it out here?"
"About sixty feet," Johann said.
George had free-dived down to sixty feet twice in recent memory, and he knew that with fins he could get down that far, but he also knew it was cold down there. "Now I know why nobody could find your guns." He tried to see into the water, but the sun on the surface made it difficult. He pulled on his facemask and stuck his head into the water and looked down. Even though he couldn't see the bottom, the water was clear enough that he didn't think he'd have to go right down to the bottom to conduct a search. That made the whole exercise a lot easier. "Right. Whereabouts did they lose the guns?" he asked as he buckled on a weighted belt.
"Somewhere between here and that outcrop," Johann said.
George took in the landmark Johann was pointing to and pulled a thermometer and line from his dive bag. He lowered it down to the bottom and waited a few minutes for the temperature to stabilize before pulling it up. He looked at it and winced. It read just over forty-seven degrees. He was going to have to be careful if he wasn't to get hypothermia. He got the pot of lanolin out of his dive bag again and smeared a little more over his body.
"That stuff supposed to keep you warm?" Johann asked.
"It forms a protective layer that helps to keep me warm."
"Is that something you learned from the dive team?"
"Yeah. They use it when they use the shallow water apparatus."
Happy that he'd adequately covered his body with lanolin, George swapped the pot of lanolin for his swim fins and gloves before rolling backward into the water. Then he started to swim a search pattern, swimming from the boat to the shore and back again.
When he returned to the boat, he grabbed hold of it and pulled himself aboard.
"You are giving up already?" Johann asked.
George grabbed the watch-cap and woolen blanket he'd brought along and donned the cap. "It's effing cold down there," he said while he wrapped the blanket around himself. "Have a look in my dive bag. There should be a paper bag of peanuts. I'm going to take a break to get warm again before I go back in."
Johann found the bag and passed it to George, who grabbed a handful and started chewing on them. "Do you want some?" he asked, offering Johann the bag.
Johann looked dubiously at the peanuts and shook his head.
George shook the bag enticingly. "They're good for you, and they taste good."
"Now I know you're lying," Johann said. "Nothing good for you tastes good."
"It's your loss," George said as he finished one handful of peanuts and grabbed another. "Could you pass me the water bottle?"
George alternated peanuts and mouthfuls from the up-time sipper bottle for a few minutes while he warmed up before returning to swim another leg of the search.
Two legs with time on the boat to warm up between them later, he was free-diving at about twenty feet when he thought he saw something moving about twenty feet below him. As he went deeper he realized the movement was fish and other marine life feeding on something. It was only when he was virtually within touching distance that he realized they were feeding on a human body. The dead man was wearing a cuirass, and he must have sunk like a stone when he fell in. Bile rose in George's throat and he kicked furiously for the surface. He barely broke the surface before he was sick.
George stayed where he was, slowly kicking his legs to keep his head above water while he recovered from what he'd seen. Meanwhile Johann rowed over to him.
George grabbed hold of the boat and glared at Johann. "There's a dead man down there. A dead man who's probably only been down there since yesterday."
"But surely Katharina . . ." Johann paused mid-sentence. "No, maybe not. Sorry you weren't warned. Can you get a line around the body so I can pull it up? The family will want to give Claus a proper burial."
"Katharina being the girl I talked to yesterday?" George asked as he held out a hand for the line Johann offered him. "Why wouldn't she have warned me that he was down there?"
"Probably because Claus wasn't carrying one of Viktor's guns."
"He's not carrying one of her father's guns, so he doesn't count? That's a bit callous."
"Viktor's not her father, and Claus' fall did cause the man carrying the submachine guns to drop them."
It sounded awfully callous to George, but it wasn't really his problem. What was his problem was getting down to the body nearly sixty feet below. "Drop the anchor here and I'll follow the rope down."
"Anchor's on the bottom," Johann called a few minutes later.
George looped the end of the line Johann had given him around his arm, breathed deeply a few times, and then ducked under the water and pulled his way down the anchor rope to the bottom.
On the sea floor George wrapped the line around the body and tugged on it to let Johann know it was ready to go up. As the body rose George checked the sea floor around it. He collected a musket and haversack, which he slung over a shoulder. With his lungs starting to burst he had one final look around for the missing submachine guns, and saw something a little deeper down. He couldn't stay down any longer, and struck out for the surface.
He broke the surface by the boat and immediately latched onto it, gasping for breath. "Can you take these?" he called to Johann.
"Just a minute. I have to get Claus aboard."
The boat tipped to one side, then rolled back, and Johann's face appeared above George. "What do you have?"
"A musket and haversack."
Johann relieved George of his booty. "Did you see any of our guns?"
"Maybe. Look, I'm losing too much bottom time diving down. I want you to raise the anchor, and I'll use it to take me down fast."
Johann looked down at George for a few moments and then shrugged. "Sure, if that's what you want to do."
It wasn't, but it was a variation on a trick to increase bottom time that he'd tried while he was with the dive team in Husum. "I want to do it."
A few minutes later Johann had the anchor up. "Have you got a good hold of it?"
"Tell me when you want me to let go."
"Count of three," George said. He breathed in deeply and exhaled to Johann's count. On three he held his breath and Johann released his hold on the anchor rope. George went down fast. On the sea floor he swam down to the thing he'd seen. It was another body, but this one had been down here for a long time. The shape that had caught his attention turned out to be a sword. There was a necklace around the skeleton's neck. George removed that and shoved it into a pocket. A piece of sackcloth under the skeleton looked promising and he tried to pull it free, but it tore, revealing metal plates and candlesticks. It looked interesting, but it was time to surface.
He broke the surface and latched onto the rowboat as he gasped for breath. "I've found another body, but it's an old one."
"No sign of our guns?" Johann asked. "They should be close to Claus' body."
"Not yet." George carefully removed the necklace from his pocket and held it out for Johann to see. "There's some interesting stuff down there. Get the capture bag out of my dive gear and I'll go down again."
Johann accepted the necklace and examined it. "Pretty, but we're supposed to be looking for Viktor's guns."
"Yeah, I remember, and if I don't find them, I don't get to rock-and-roll with a submachine gun. Still, this stuff looks valuable."
Johann shook his head gently as he put the necklace into a bucket. "You don't need the money."
"Maybe not, but there's the excitement of finding the stuff."
"I'd prefer that you got your excitement finding Viktor's guns." Johann passed George the netting capture bag and asked, "You ready to go down again?"
"Count of three," George said as he prepared himself to go down again.
On the bottom George grabbed some items from the sack he'd found and put them into the capture bag before he hooked it to the anchor and swam to the surface.
Johann held out an arm. "Come on, it's time you had a rest."
"No, there's more stuff down there," George protested.
"You're looking awfully grey, George. Get out now while you still can. We can always come back later. It'll all still be there. Now take my arm."
Resentfully, George ignored the offered hand and tried to haul himself aboard the boat. But he couldn't. There was no strength in his arms.
Johann reached over for George's weight belt and hauled him into the boat. George landed face down on the dead body. He pushed himself off the body and rolled over to watch as Johann brought up the anchor and capture bag. Johann smiled at him when he dropped a marker buoy into the water. "See, I've marked the spot. Now let's get you back to shore."
They arrived back on shore to a welcoming committee. "Have you found my submachine guns?" a heavyset man asked.
"You'll be Viktor?" George asked as he pulled the blanket he'd had in the boat tighter around his still shivering body. Not that there could be too much doubt, given the way his arm was casually draped around Katharina.
"Sorry, I haven't found your guns, but I think we're looking in the right place."
"Then why did you stop looking?"
"Because of him," George said, pointing to the body in the bottom of the boat.
Viktor looked down at the body. "His family will be happy," he said as he gestured for the man with him to help Johann lift the body out of the boat. "So now you have delivered Claus, I expect you'll be going straight back out?"
"No." George shook his head. "I need a break. Diving like this is hard work."
"And he wants to have a look at this stuff," Johann said as he lowered the catch bag onto dry land.
Immediately a young woman pounced onto the bag. "What have you found?" she asked as she opened it and lifted out a large plate. "I think it's silver," she said as she slowly examined every detail. She passed it on to Viktor and pulled out the next item. She examined the gilded silver chalice briefly before saying, "Someone must have robbed a church."
"What makes you say that?" George asked.
The woman pointed to an inscription engraved on the chalice. "That says it was given to All Saints Church, and asks that they pray for the giver's soul."
George looked at his booty and sighed. "Is All Saints a church on Bornholm?"
"Yes, in Nyker," she said.
"Then I guess I better see about giving it back," George said. He looked around the assembled faces. Katharina looked a little outraged, but the others gave him slight nods of agreement.
"I'll find out who you need to talk to," the woman said. "Katharina, you want to come along?"
"She's still young and angry," Viktor said to fill the silence as Katharina and the young woman disappeared up the hill.
George didn't ask what she was angry about. He just nodded. "There's some more loot and some personal stuff still down with the body."
"And you want to bring it up," Viktor said. "Okay. And then you dive for my guns."
"But only after I've had a rest, and something to eat," George said as he dug his lunchbox and thermos out of his dive bag. He was going to find a quiet corner in a sun trap and get warm before he went out again.
A few days later
The smell of sulfur hit George as he raised his glass to sip the wine. He'd cleaned up as best he could after shooting off six magazines through one of Viktor's submachine guns, but his hands still reeked of sulfur. He just hoped nobody at this party objected to the smell. This evening he'd been invited into the castle proper, and not as a mere employee, but as a Guest, with a capital "G." It had taken another three days to locate and bring up Viktor's guns. He could maybe have done it sooner, but he'd made a few extra dives to make sure he got everything, including—at Viktor's suggestion—the skeleton of the second body. Laid out on a table were the items he'd recovered, all nicely cleaned, with the assistance of modern science, an aluminum camp plate, and baking soda. There were three plates, the chalice, a couple of goblets, some spoons, and a pair of candlesticks. On a separate table was the stuff he'd recovered from the dead man. Lord Rosenkrantz, having taken possession of the church silver, had graciously allowed George and Johann to keep all of the dead man's stuff. They, in turn, had agreed to split their booty seventy-thirty, and as he hadn't been interested in keeping any of it, he'd accepted Viktor's offer to dispose of it.
He'd never been one for religion, and the fuss the parish priest insisted on making about the recovery of his church's long-lost treasures made George uncomfortable. Eventually he escaped the priest to investigate the model of a ship that had intrigued him from the moment he entered the room. On first glance it could have been mistaken for a sailing ship, but closer examination revealed side-wheels and a smokestack.
"Is this the ship you're trying to sell to Lord Rosenkrantz?" George asked Peder Halvorson.
"Have sold to Lord Rosenkrantz," Peder corrected, "and I have to thank you for making my job easier."
"How did I do that?"
"You found the lost treasures from All Saints Church."
"How does that help you?"
Peder looked around the room to check nobody could overhear. "It is rumored that the island was ready to rise in revolt against Lord Rosenkrantz, but then the Swedes invaded. Of course the islanders rallied to fight the invaders, and Lord Rosenkrantz gained a lot of respect for his leadership. Add the return of the lost treasures, and Lord Rosenkrantz' position is secure for many more years."
George had been listening, but he was still none the wiser. "How does that help you?"
"With the church now firmly on his side, the threat of rebellion is now almost nonexistent. And that leaves Lord Rosenkrantz with more money to spend on other things, like my paddle-steamer."
"So, when do you start building her?"
"We'll start work on her as soon as I get back to Arendal."
The next morning George felt absolutely lousy as he climbed the rope ladder onto the ship that was to take him, Peder, Viktor and his people, and the remains of the film crowd back to the mainland. He'd had a night of almost no sleep. He'd gone to bed late, after eating all the wrong foods and consuming insufficient alcohol at the end of shoot party, and what sleep he'd had had been broken by dreams involving the sea and being eaten by fish.
His mood wasn't helped by the ship's captain wanting an early departure, and as there was no need to wait for the tide, that meant getting aboard at first light. George took his bags and found a quiet spot on the deck and curled up to sleep.
Some time later he woke up in a panic. He thrashed about a bit until he realized where he was, and that the hand on his shoulder belonged to a living person.
"You all right, George?" Johann Hering asked, his hand still on George's shoulder. "You were having a bad dream."
George wiped a linen shirtsleeve across his forehead. "Nightmare," he corrected. "Thanks for waking me."
"Was it anything to do with finding Claus?"
George nodded. The partially-eaten Claus had featured in his dreams. He'd had bad dreams for years after Vietnam, and they'd come back with a vengeance since Arendal. Helping with body recovery at Husum, where not all of the dead had been reduced to skeletons, probably hadn't been a smart move, but just as the dreams had turned to nightmares Grietje had entered his life. Things had improved while he was with Grietje, but then he'd left Husum without her, and things had been going downhill ever since.
"You want to talk about it?"
George thought about it. One advantage of Johann over Matt was that he didn't expect to see Johann again. "Back up-time I got caught up in a war in a place called Vietnam." He eyes glazed over as he remembered that time, and he began to talk.
"The nightmares started after one particular battle. The air force had napalmed a friendly village." He paused to see if Johann understood.
"Like you Americans used against the Wartburg?"
"Yeah, that kind of stuff. Anyway, a medic passed me a baby who'd been splattered by burning napalm." He stared at Johann. "Have you ever smelt burned flesh?" He didn't wait for a response, but kept talking. "Anyway, there was the smell. The kid's flesh was coming away in my hands, and it was screaming. That's stayed with me all this time. Over thirty years."
"You've had nightmares for thirty years?"
"No. After the first few years they dropped off, until I'd almost completely forgotten, and then, this summer I visited Arendal with the dive team and some grateful mother tried to thank me for saving her husband and kid's life. The kid started screaming." George shook his head gently. "That brought it all back in a rush.
"Then we went to Husum, and the dive team started pulling up the dead."
"That can't have helped."
"It didn't," George agreed. "I would have thought that after nearly six months they'd only be recovering skeletons, but some of them looked almost human. If it hadn't been for . . ."
"Grietje?" Johann suggested.
"Yeah. How did you know?" Even as he asked, George had a fair inkling of how Johann might have heard that name.
"You called out the name."
He'd been afraid of that. "Anyway, Grietje entered my life, and kept the nightmares at bay."
"So what happened to Grietje?"
"Nothing. As far as I know she's still working in the new flour mill in Husum."
"Why'd you let her go? Is she already married or something?"
"She's just a kid. I'm old enough to be her grandfather. The only reason she had anything to do with me was because her sister got too ill to work and she had to look after her and buy medicine."
"So she was desperate. George, look at Katharina. She'd run away from home and was so desperate she turned to prostitution to survive, but she was lucky enough to have Viktor as her first client, and they've been together since."
"She's just his mistress," George muttered.
"So what was your Grietje?" After a few seconds of silence Johann's brows shot up. "You were thinking of marrying her?"
George turned away from Johann's eyes. "She's got her whole life ahead of her. Why should she tie herself to an old croc like me?"
"Because she wants to?" Johann shook his head. "I don’t understand you, George. You find a girl you like enough to think of marrying, and what do you do? Walk out on her. What's the worst that could happen?"
"I could get sick and become a burden on her!"
"You're a rich man, George. She'll be able to afford help. And when you die, you can take comfort from the fact such a rich widow won't be lonely for long."
George glared at Johann, who continued to smile good-naturedly back.
"George . . . you said Grietje kept your nightmares at bay. They've started again. What are you going to do? Go back to Grietje, or find some other woman, an older one of course, to take her place?"
"Nobody can . . ." George realized what he was saying and snapped his jaw shut.
"Meanwhile, Grietje will no doubt find herself a new man."
"You . . ." The smile on his face told George that Johann was deliberately taunting him. "You think I should go back to Grietje?"
"The girls do."
George looked beyond Johann to where Tat'yana and Katharina were sitting with Viktor and another man. "What do they know about Grietje?"
"They were watching over you while you slept, and heard you calling out her name."
His head shot back to Johann. "Watching over me? Why would they do that? I don't need looking after."
"That's what you think. You came on board a ship alone amongst strangers, and just found a corner to sleep. You could have been robbed blind while you slept if it hadn't been for the girls."
George thought about that. He'd been too tired to care when he boarded the ship, but he knew Johann was right. "Thanks, but why did they care?"
"You helped Viktor."
"What? All I did was dive for some guns he'd lost, and I was well rewarded for my efforts."
"Sure. But the girls had to sit somewhere while they talked, so why not do it where they could keep an eye on you? It didn't cost anybody anything."
George nodded vague acceptance of the explanation. He'd just remembered one very significant little issue. "There's one problem about going back to Grietje."
"You parted on bad terms?"
"Worse. She didn't say anything when I told her why we were parting."
Johann whistled. "I'd have to check with the girls, but I think that you really hurt your Grietje."
"Tell me about it," George muttered. The more he thought about how they'd parted, the worse he felt.
"Still, if you don't ask her to take you back, then you'll never know."
George sighed. "You can leave me alone now. I won't be going to sleep again for a while."
"You want to think about your Grietje?"
Husum, North Friesland
George got off the boat at Husum and walked towards the cluster of buildings that had been the dive team's onshore base over the summer. He was feeling tired, guilty, and hopeful as he pushed open the door of the building that had been turned into a general store. Hope started to evaporate when he saw the look on the face of Grietje's sister.
"Why have you come back?" Volkje asked.
George broke her gaze and looked down at the floor. "I've come back for Grietje, if she'll have me."
"You mean you will marry her?"
The loud sniff Volkje gave was full of disapproval, but as she wasn't ordering him out of the store George started to feel more confident. "Follow me," she instructed, and led George into the living quarters attached to the shop. She pointed to a divan. "Wait there."
The divan was an old friend from the dive team days. George slumped into it and thought about Grietje.
Grietje adjusted the throttle of the hot-bulb-powered flour mill that the USE Navy dive team had imported when they realized how many of the local mills had been destroyed by the floods and stood back to admire her handiwork. George had taught her how to care and feed the beast, and she earned a good living running the flour mill. Thinking about George reminded her of the letter she'd received from his commanding officer. She'd struggled to read it, but thought that it said George was suffering from his bad dreams again. Silly man. Matt thought it was only a matter of time before George saw the light and ran back to her. She patted her belly and thought that he'd have to turn up soon, or she'd have to go looking for him.
"Grietje, where are you?"
"In the engine shed," she called back to her sister.
The sisters met at the door of the engine shed and Volkje let Grietje lock the door before dragging her far enough away that they could talk without raising their voices. "He's back. He says he wants to marry you."
There was only one possible he. "What have you told him?"
"Nothing. You absolutely forbade me, your own sister, to mention that he left you with child."
That meant he wasn't thinking of marriage because he felt he had to. "Where is he? How is he?"
"In the lounge, and he looks ill."
Grietje abandoned Volkje and hurried to the building that doubled as a general store and their home. She found George slumped back in the divan, sleeping. He looked tired and worn, as if he hadn't had a good night's sleep in ages.
She settled down beside him and wrapped her arms around him. "Oh, George, what have you been doing to yourself?" she muttered.
Instead of answering George nestled into her body. There was a sigh of contentment, and his whole body relaxed.
Grietje sat there, with George's head in her lap, and gently stroked the hair on his head. He'd come back for her. That was all that mattered. She knew the baby she was carrying was going to scare him, but maybe a baby of his own would help him forget the baby in his past.