The Return of the Prodigal Son

May, 1636

Garrett’s Supermarket, Grantville

 

“I wouldn’t kick him out of my bed.”

The comment from Anna Beyer brought a smile to Marilyn Harris’s lips. She glanced up from the invoices she was checking. Her co-workers were, as expected, staring out of the window.

“He’s rather tall, though,” Maria Schröter said.

Marilyn’s smile broadened. Even for a down-timer Maria was a bit on the short side. “Don’t you two have work you should be doing?” she asked, pointedly riffling the pile of invoices she was wading through.

“Spoilsport!” Anna said without moving from her position by the window. “You don’t know what you’re missing.

“Oh! It looks like he’s already taken,” she said.

“What, can you see a ring?” Marilyn asked.

Anna shook her head. “No, but he’s stopped to look at the display in Osanna’s window.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s already taken.” Marilyn dropped the invoice she had been checking and wandered over to see what, or more accurately who, was so interesting.

“Ouch!” Maria giggled. “That had to hurt.”

“What?” Marilyn said, craning her neck, trying to look past the down-timer girls.

“The poor guy bumped his head on the top of the door when he tried to enter Osanna’s,” Anna said, a mixture of concern and amusement in her voice.

“I told you he was rather tall,” Maria said.

Marilyn could feel her heart starting to race. Osanna’s Baby Boutique was located in a standard up-time building, which meant the doorway was at least six feet, eight inches high. Her son had been nearly that tall when she last saw him a couple of years ago. “Where is he?” she demanded, pushing Maria and Anna aside to get a better view.

“Hey, no pushing, we got here first,” Anna protested.

Marilyn didn’t hear her. She was looking at a young man standing rubbing his head just outside Osanna’s. The hair was shorter than the last time she’d seen him, but it could only be one person. “Matt,” she said under her breath. Moments later she was out the door, flying towards her son, screaming out his name.

****

Matt Tisdel stood at the entrance to Osanna’s Baby Boutique rubbing his head where he’d bashed it on the door frame. It had been a while since he’d done that, and it hurt. He glared at the guilty doorjamb. He’d been led astray by the fact that it was above his eye level, rather like the seven-foot doorways in George Watson’s home in Travemünde. The doorways of most of the shops in Travemünde, where the navy’s dive team was currently homeported, were generally no more than six feet high, so he could usually see that he had to stoop down to pass through. But this was an American-built shop with a typical American eighty-inch doorway.

Matt heard his name being screamed out and turned to see who was calling him. He recognized the woman charging towards him just before she threw her arms around him. He dropped the sea bag he was still carrying just in time to catch her. “Mom!” he said as he wrapped his arms around her.

Marilyn didn’t say anything. She just continued to hug Matt. A few minutes later, tears running down her face, she pulled back a step. “You didn’t write!”

Matt winced at the hurt in his mother’s voice and pulled her back into his arms for another hug. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

“I didn’t know where you were,” Marilyn continued. “The moment you graduated you disappeared.”

“Uncle Melvin made it pretty clear that I wouldn’t be welcome in his home once I finished high school,” Matt said, “and I thought it would make things easier for you if I left.”

“But you could have written!”

The wounded look on his mother’s face was tearing Matt apart. “I’m sorry, Mom. I just thought it would be best if I cut all ties.”

“I missed you, so much,” Marilyn said, running a hand over the mark on Matt’s forehead where he’d hit the doorframe. “You poor thing. Does it hurt?”

“Oh, Mom,” Matt pleaded as he pulled his head back.

“A mother doesn’t stop caring just because her baby’s grown up.”

Matt sighed. It was nice to know his mother still cared, but did she have to show it in public? He glanced around to check who might have seen. Fortunately, there was no one he recognized. Reassured that his manhood had survived the encounter he pulled out the accommodation guide he picked up at the railroad station. “Can you recommend somewhere for me to stay during my leave?” he asked.

Marilyn snatched the booklet from Matt’s hands. “You’ll stay with us!”

“Us?” Matt asked. “I hope you don’t mean with Uncle Melvin.”

“I married Baxter Harris on August 27, 1634.” She looked questioningly at Matt. “I wrote a letter.”

Matt shook his head. “I never got it.”

“Did you get any of my letters?”

Matt shook his head again. The lack of letters was one reason it had been two years since he last stepped foot in Grantville.

Marilyn sighed. “Come on, let’s get you home. I bet you’re starving.”

Food had not been the first thought on Matt’s mind, until that moment. Now, suddenly, he was hungry. “Lead the way.”

“I just have to stop off at work. It won’t take a minute,” she said as she turned to head back to Garrett’s Supermarket.

Matt’s stomach rumbled in protest as he fell in beside his mother. It knew, as well as he did, how long just a minute could be.

 

That evening

 

Matt was leaning back to allow his mother to remove his plate when he noticed his new stepfather staring at him. He returned the stare.

Baxter Harris smiled at him. “We were a bit surprised that you weren’t part of the Marine Force Recon team that showed up to help look for the Vice President’s plane when it went down. Marilyn thought it would have been right up your alley.”

“They aren’t Force Recon, Mr. Harris. They’re just a bunch of Marines that have been taught beach survey techniques who just happened to get parachute training.”

“Semantics,” Baxter said. “They’re parachute-trained Marines who do reconnaissance so, as far as I’m concerned, they’re Force Recon.”

“They were given parachute training just to give them something to do that would keep them out of trouble, Mr. Harris.”

Baxter waved a hand. “No need to be so formal. Trissie calls your mother Marilyn, so there’s no reason you can’t call me Baxter.”

“It’ll take me a while to get used to that.”

“Calling me Baxter, or that I married your mother?”

Matt shrugged. “That too, but I meant having a stepsister.” He glanced at the teenage girl helping his mother clear the table. “Not that I don’t appreciate having a stepsister, of course,” he hastily added when he saw the way she was looking at him.

Trissie snorted gently and headed off to the kitchen with a load of dirty plates.

Matt turned back to Baxter, and noticed the distant look in his face. “Is there something the matter?”

“My three other girls were left up-time with their mother.”

Inwardly Matt winced. He’d only lost one person he cared about left up-time, and that had been his grandfather. That had hurt badly enough, he didn’t want to imagine what Mr. Harris and his daughter had gone through.

Baxter shook his head gently. “So, back to my question. Why weren’t you part of the Force Recon team?”

Matt rolled his eyes. There was no convincing some people. “I did teach the Marine beach reconnaissance team how to swim properly, but the reason I’m not part of the unit is because I’m not a Marine.”

“But Marilyn said you went to Magdeburg to join the Marines,” Trissie said.

Matt glanced round at the interruption to see his new stepsister had rejoined them, with his mother right behind her. “I did go to Magdeburg intending to join the Marines, but the navy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“Oh, yes?” Baxter asked, a world of meaning in his voice.

Matt smiled back at Baxter. In a military context, an offer you couldn’t refuse was usually little short of a direct order. “I did actually have a choice,” he said. “The navy offered me a lot of perks and bonuses if I would volunteer to train as a diver.”

Trissie’s eyes lit up. “Do you use diving gear like King Christian of Denmark’s new execution machine?” she asked. “Mizz Zibarth, our physics teacher, showed us how it worked.”

“Trissie!” Marilyn all but roared.

“Hey, Mom. It’s quite safe,” Matt said, trying to calm down his mother. “I’ve been diving in the hard-hat rigs the Morton brothers had made for nearly two years without any trouble.” He chose not to mention the time when he almost died after an air hose was ripped apart when a cannon they were raising from a wreck had broken free from a lifting bag and fallen. After all, the accident hadn’t been caused by the dive gear.

“So, you’re a Navy diver now?” Trissie asked. When Matt nodded, she continued. “What do you actually do?”

Matt shrugged. “Mostly underwater salvage work. My first job was salvaging the contents of the ships the Morton brothers sank in the River Trave back in October ’33. Then we were asked to check out the wrecks of the Danish ships outside Wismar.” He smiled. “We actually found the aft section of George Watson’s Outlaw.”

“I heard that the Navy’s dive team recovered the Outlaw’s engines. So that was you?” Baxter asked.

Matt nodded. “Me and my team.”

“Your team?” Marilyn asked.

Matt blushed as he nodded. “My team. I’m the commanding officer of the navy’s dive team.”

“You are?” Baxter asked, causing Matt to blush even more. “Hey. No need to feel embarrassed. You should be proud that the Navy thinks enough of you to put you in such a responsible position.” He gestured towards Matt’s mother. “Your mother and I are proud of you.”

“Me, too,” Trissie said.

“And Trissie, too.” Baxter grinned. “Melvin’s going to have to eat his words when he hears that the guy he called a no-hoper is . . .” He looked questioningly at Matt. “What rank are you? I’m thinking you have to be at least a second lieutenant, or whatever the navy calls them.”

“They call them junior grade lieutenants,” Matt said.

“So, you’re a junior grade lieutenant then?” Baxter asked.

Matt shook his head. “They made me a lieutenant commander.”

Baxter fell back in his chair and roared with laughter. “A lieutenant commander?” he asked between guffaws.

Matt nodded to confirm that Baxter had heard him correctly, and Baxter reacted by shaking his head in disbelief while his grin grew. “And you still a teenager. Melvin’s going to have an apoplexy when he hears that.”

Matt smiled. It seemed that his new step-father didn’t think much of Mr. Sutter, which was okay with him. “George says I must be laughing all the way to the bank,” he said.

“Are you?” Trissie asked.

“Trissie!” Marilyn and Baxter roared as one.

Trissie’s shoulders dropped. “I was just asking.”

“Well, don’t, it’s not polite to ask people how much they earn,” Marilyn said.

“George? Are you talking about George Watson?” Baxter asked.

Matt nodded. “I’ve got to know him quite well since he moved to Travemünde.”

“How well?” Marilyn asked.

“He and Grietje asked me to be godfather for their son.”

“Oh, so that’s why you were at Osanna’s,” Marilyn said.

“Osanna’s?” A confused Baxter asked of his wife.

“The baby boutique, Dad,” Trissie said. “Matt banged his head trying to enter the shop.” She turned to Matt. “Were you looking for something for your godson?” she asked.

Matt nodded, then he looked over at his mother. “Why did you think I was going into a baby boutique?” he asked, grinning.

“Never you mind what I thought,” she said. “I want to hear what you’ve been up to since you left.”

 

A few days later

 

There were several reasons for Matt’s visit to Grantville. In addition to mending his fences with his mother and making inquiries about a few things to do with work, there had also been the small matter of the girl he’d left behind. He shuffled his feet and shoved his hands into his pockets as he stood beside the fence staring blankly at the animals wandering around in the paddock beside the veterinarian clinic, trying to build up the courage to step inside and ask after her.

“You just have to be Marilyn’s boy,” a voice said from behind him.

Matt turned. He didn’t recognize the late-fifties up-time woman in the white lab coat, but she had a friendly smile on her face. “What gave it away?” he asked with an answering smile.

“Well,” June Clinter said as she started to count off on her fingers. “I’ve heard that you are . . .”

The list was long, and Matt’s face was red with embarrassment long before June finished.

Matt glanced heavenward and sighed. “What’d Mom do, take out an ad in the paper?”

June grinned as she shook her head. “She went one better, she talked about you at Cora’s. Anyway, you were standing outside looking a bit lost. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Matt took a deep breath and slowly released it.

“That bad?” June asked with a twinkle in her eye.

Matt shook his head. “I’m looking for Liz Manning. Back in ’34, she had hopes of training to be a veterinarian, and I was wondering if the veterinarians knew anything about her.”

June nodded. “I know Liz,” she said, “and she is part of the program.”

“That’s good,” Matt said, and he meant it. Liz had spoken of little else but her love of animals and her wish to become a veterinarian in the short time they’d been together before he left for Magdeburg. “You wouldn’t be able to tell me where I might be able to find her?” he asked.

June nodded. “She’s got classes at the Vo-Tech today.”

“You mean she’ll be at the high school right now?” Matt asked, flicking up his wrist to check the time.

“All day today,” June confirmed. “Are you thinking of wandering over to the school right now?”

“If you don’t think it’ll be a problem,” Matt said.

June shook her head. “No, but if you’re going that way, would you mind dropping something off at the office.” She smiled impishly. “That way it won’t look like you’re actually searching Liz out.”

Heat shot up Matt’s face. He looked at June. She was looking at him sympathetically, which didn’t help with his blushing face. He decided to respond with humor. “Just how big is package you want me to drop off?”

“Nothing a big strong young lad like you should have any difficulty with.”

Matt stared hard at the smile on June’s face. He was suspicious, and he was sure it showed, because June’s smile just got bigger.

 

Sometime later, SoTF State Technical College

 

Liz Manning was adjusting the mirror on her microscope to better illuminate the slide when Julia O’Reilly nudged her.

“Isn’t that Matt Tisdel?” Julia asked. When Liz looked up she gestured towards someone walking towards the Vo-Tech building.

There was no way Liz could mistake those shoulders, nor, for that matter, the fact that the guy in question was at least a head taller than most of the people milling around outside. “Yes,” she said. It came out rather breathlessly, as if she’d missed the guy, which of course she hadn’t. After all, how could you miss someone you hardly knew, especially when he walked off without a backwards glance and never answered her letters? “I wonder what’s in the bucket he’s carrying?” she wondered aloud, in the vain hope that Julia hadn’t noticed.

“Whatever it is, it looks like he isn’t happy carrying it,” Julia said.

“But what could he be carrying?” Liz asked.

Rudi Müller loomed over them. “Why are you two looking out the window when you should be looking at your specimen?”

Liz jumped in surprise before looking round at their tutor. For all his size Rudi was very quiet on his feet. “Sorry, Herr Meister Müller,” she said, “but we were just wondering what Matt was carrying in that bucket.” She pointed towards Matt, just in case Rudi didn’t know who she was talking about.

“Ah, the specimens for the next lab. Frau Clinter called earlier to say she’d found someone heading our way to carry them over.”

On the other side of Rudi, Julia clamped her hands over her face in a failing attempt to smother her laughter. Liz had a smile of her own. Now she knew why Matt didn’t look too happy. He was carrying cow dung for a class on bovine parasites. “I wonder how he got roped into carrying that over?”

“You’ll be able to ask him soon,” Julia said. “No, wait a minute. Mr. Saluzzo has stopped him. Matt’s showing him the bucket and now . . .”

Liz saw Victor Saluzzo, the high school principal, call over another student and Matt pass the bucket to the boy. She was sure she hadn’t imagined the soulful look Matt had sent in the direction of the technical college before letting Mr. Saluzzo lead him off. “I wonder what Mr. Saluzzo wants with Matt?”

“We may never know,” Rudi said. “Just like you may never know what is on those slides if you don’t get back to the task at hand.”

For Rudi, that was a subtle hint that they’d wasted enough time already. “Yes, Herr Meister Müller,” Liz and Julia said in unison.

 

A couple of hours later

 

Liz and Julia were amongst the last students from their class to file into the school cafeteria. After loading up their trays and paying for their meals they glanced around, looking for familiar faces, and somewhere to sit.

“There, in the corner,” Julia said.

Liz didn’t have to ask which corner, because she’d also seen Matt. “What’s he doing here?” she asked.

“Why don’t we wander over and ask?”

A couple of minutes later they halted by Matt’s table. “Hi, are these seats taken?” Liz asked.

Matt looked up, then shot ungainly to his feet. “Liz!” Matt stared dumbly at Liz before gesturing to the empty seats. “You’re welcome to join me.” He grinned. “You might even be able to help me,” he said as he sat down again.

Liz was feeling very happy with the world as she carefully laid down her tray before collapsing into the seat opposite Matt. She’d known him for all of three years before he high-tailed off to Magdeburg, and in all that time one thing he’d never been was ungainly. Other tall students might have had difficulty coordinating their long limbs, but Matt hadn’t been one of them. He’d always had the grace of a cat, a very big cat. “So, what do you need help with?” she asked.

“Mr. Saluzzo has informed me that he would like me to present the Commencement Address to this year’s graduating class.” Matt sighed and pointed to the still unmarked cheap newsprint notepad. “I have absolutely no idea what to say.”

“I think Mr. Saluzzo will want something about how hard work at school can lead to great careers,” Julia said.

Matt snorted. “You do know that I’m with the Navy’s dive team, right?” he asked.

Julia nodded. “And, according to Trissie Harris, that you are a lieutenant commander.”

Matt sighed. “The only reason I was invited to join the dive team is because the Morton brothers knew I could swim, and the only reason I’m a lieutenant commander is because the Navy didn’t want to pay for someone of suitable rank to lead the dive team who would sit around twiddling his thumbs most of the time.”

Julia grinned. “Okay, so maybe you’ll have to lie a little.”

“Lie a lot,” Liz said, getting into the spirit of the situation. “Hang on, Daniel Pistorius has just walked in. Now he’s someone who can probably help you.”

“Who?” Matt asked, turning his head in the direction Liz was looking.

“The big guy just picking up a tray. He’s this year’s valedictorian,” Julia said.

“Which means he’s had to prepare a speech of his own,” Liz said. Then she stood up, put her thumb and index finger into her mouth and blew an attention-grabbing whistle. Nearly everyone, including Daniel looked at Liz, who waved and called out. “Daniel, over here!”

Daniel nodded, pointed to his tray, and held up three fingers.

Liz sat down. “He’ll be over as soon as he’s loaded his tray,” she said

“While we wait for Daniel, Matt, why don’t you tell us how you got lumbered with bringing over the bovine excrement samples,” Julia said.

“I was standing innocently outside the veterinary clinic looking at the animals in the paddock when Mrs. Clinter asked if I was heading towards the school, and if so, would I mind dropping something off at the technical college.” He grinned. “Little did I know . . .”

Liz could see holes in that story you could stampede a herd of horses through, the biggest one being why was he standing innocently outside the veterinary clinic in the first place. She hoped it was because of her. Not that she intended calling him on it. She shot a speaking look at Julia, just in case she was tempted to say anything. The possibly sticky situation was saved by the arrival of Daniel.

“Hello all,” he said as he laid his tray on the table. “So, what’s your problem, Liz. You have a math assignment giving you trouble? Or maybe you need some help with your Latin?”

“Nothing like that,” Liz said. “Matt here has been roped into giving the commencement address to this year’s class, and he has no idea what to say. I was wondering if you could help.”

“I’d be glad to. However, there is the small matter of my fee,” he said.

“I can pay,” Matt said.

“He doesn’t mean that kind of fee,” Liz said to Matt. She turned to Daniel. “I’ll let your sister ride Speedy on Saturday.”

“Perfect,” Daniel said as he sat down. “I accept.” He pulled a pad and pencils from his satchel and turned his attention onto Matt. “So, tell me a little about yourself and what’s happened to you since you graduated from high school.”

No one listened more intently to Matt than Liz, who learned a lot about him and what he’d gotten up to over the next twenty minutes.

Daniel consulted his notes. “I’m sure we can allude to the return of the Prodigal Son,” he said. “It’s not a perfect fit for you, but nothing else springs to mind. Of course, the school has to be portrayed as the Good Shepherd.” He paused before making some more notes. “There is always the Lost Sheep. That’s actually a good fit.” He grinned at Matt. “The color of the sheep that got lost is never actually mentioned, but I’m sure it could have been a black sheep. Now . . .”

****

The three of them, Matt, Liz, and Julia, left the cafeteria in companionable silence. They were walking down the corridor when they were intercepted by a force of nature.

“Have you asked him why he didn’t reply to any of your letters?”

The girl, after a single baleful glare at Matt, was staring at Liz as she spoke. Her easily discernible anger had Matt blushing in embarrassment. He had no trouble identifying the bristling porcupine of a girl as Liz’s younger sister, and her question was making him feel extremely guilty.

“I didn’t receive any of Liz’s letters, Jo Ann,” he said.

Jo Ann turned her gaze onto Matt. She had to look up a long way, but she still managed to appear to be looking down her nose at him. “Really?

“Because,” Jo Ann continued to say, “Liz wrote you dozens of times, and you didn’t reply once.” Her gaze turned even more baleful. “She used to wait for the mailman all excited and hopeful, only for her to crash when there was no letter from you.”

There was a lot of scorn on Jo Ann’s face. Scorn that Matt felt he deserved, even if he had not received any of Liz’s letters. He could have, should have, written to her. “I didn’t even receive any of the letters my mom sent me,” he said.

“How many letters are we talking about here?” Julia demanded.

Matt shrugged. He did not know for sure. “From Mom? Probably at least one a month for nearly two years.”

Julia turned to Liz. “There’s something fishy going on here.”

“Definitely,” Jo Ann said. The way she was staring at Matt left him in no doubt as to who or what she felt was fishy. “Have you lodged a complaint with the post office yet?”

“Jo Ann!” Liz complained. “Please.”

Jo Ann turned her attention back to her sister. “Well, has he? He should have lodged a complaint days ago. I bet the first thing his mother asked him was why he didn’t answer her letters.”

“I’ll go now,” Matt said. He looked over to Liz. “Could you come with me?” he asked.

“The poor little boy needs someone to hold his hand,” Jo Ann said. To say she was being snarky would be grossly understating the case.

Matt turned to Jo Ann. “Or, maybe I think the post office will want to ask a few questions. Like, how were the letters addressed.”

“To Matt Tisdel, care of the USE Marine Corps,” Liz said.

Matt nodded. “And that might be the problem right there,” he said. “I was never in the Marines. I went straight from the recruiting office into the Navy, and then straight out to Lübeck.”

“But your mail should have followed you,” Julia said.

“Yes,” Matt agreed. “Which is why I do need to report the missing letters to the post office.” He looked hopefully at Liz.

“I’ve got a free hour before my next class,” Liz said.

 

At the post office, Grantville High School and State Technical College campus

 

The post office was more of a store than a place that dealt with mail. There were samples of packages—envelopes and cardboard boxes—displayed around the main room. There were also “collectables,” postcards, and other souvenirs that visitors could buy and post to envious friends and family. Matt’s eyes drifted over some of the books on display and their accompanying price tags. They latched onto one book—A Pictorial History of Grantville. It was not the photographs that caught his attention, although they were impressive. No, what caught his attention was the price. “Seven hundred and fifty bucks!” he said.

That earned him an elbow in the side. Liz had probably been hoping to catch him in the ribs. However, your typical elbow-in-the-ribs does not work too well when a five foot seven girl tries to apply it to a six foot eight male. Still, Matt could take a hint. Obviously, the teller was free. He applied himself to the reason they were there. “We’d like to report . . .” He stopped to think about it. He looked down at Liz. “What do we call it? Failure to deliver?”

“Or lost in transit,” Liz suggested. She turned her attention to the teller. “Over the last couple of years, I’ve sent letters to Matt, and he says he didn’t receive any of them.”

“I didn’t,” Matt protested. “I haven’t received any mail from home since I left after graduating.”

The teller, called Lisa if one was to believe the name on the metal badge pinned to her blouse, stared at Liz. “What did it say on the envelopes when they were returned to you?”

Liz stared at the girl. “But they weren’t returned to me,” she protested.

“That’s very unusual,” Lisa said. “Any mail that can’t be delivered should be returned to sender.” Her eyes lit up. “Did you forget to fill out the sender information?”

“No,” Liz said, “I did not forget to fill out the sender information.”

Lisa ran her fingers through her hair as she stared at Liz. “Then, if the letters could not be delivered, your letters should have been returned to you.”

“But they weren’t,” Liz said.

“But they should have been,” Lisa protested. “What was the address you were sending to?” she asked.

“Matt Tisdel, care of the USE Marines, Magdeburg.”

“Oh, military mail,” Lisa said. “Any military mail posted in Grantville would have been delivered to Camp Saale. We have no responsibility for mail once it has been passed on to the military postal service.”

“That’s nice,” Matt muttered. “So, what are we supposed to do?”

Lisa shrugged. “You’ll have to take it up with the postmaster at Camp Saale.”

“And how do we do that?’ Liz asked.

“Well,” Lisa said, “you could just fill out a form and post it to them.”

That earned a snort from both Matt and Liz. “Or?” Matt prompted.

“Or,” Lisa said. “You could fill out the necessary forms and head over to Camp Saale and speak directly to the postmaster.” She followed that last statement by running her eyes up and down Matt’s tall frame.

“Forms?” Liz asked. “You spoke of filling out a form and posting it just before.”

“I know,” Lisa said with a smile. “But I’ve always found that a bureaucracy prioritizes a problem based on how much paper it generates, and the military is just another bureaucracy. The thicker your pile of documentation, the more attentive they’ll be to your problem.

“Would you like some of the necessary forms?” she asked.

“Please,” Matt said. He glanced down at Liz. “How many do you think we need?”

“Between your mother and me?” Liz shrugged. “I don’t know.” She turned to Lisa. “Make it a round fifty, please.”

Lisa whistled. “That’ll make a fine wad of documents.” She had a smile on her face as she turned to the row of cabinets against the back wall and extracted a small pile of forms. She laid them down opposite Liz and Matt, and after dampening a finger on a sponge, quickly counted off fifty and offered them to Matt.

“There you are. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No, that’s everything, thank you,” Matt said as he accepted the pile of forms.

****

As they left the post office, Matt turned to Liz. “You and Jo Ann still living with your uncle and cousin?”

Liz looked up at Matt. Jo Ann was her younger sister, and they had moved in with their Uncle Ev when their father died back in ’33. “Yes.”

Matt nodded. “When do you finish class today?”

Liz stared at Matt. What was he driving at? “Five o’clock.”

“Right. Then I’ll meet you at the front entrance and walk you home.”

Liz glanced up at Matt. It was a long way up. She barely came to his shoulder. Speaking of which, those shoulders were very impressive. “You don’t have to walk me home.”

“Don’t you want to be seen with me?”

Liz glared at Matt. She knew what he was doing. “I know you must have done all sorts of unarmed combat training, but I can look after myself.

“I almost have my Blue Belt,” she added.

Matt grinned. “I have never had any form of unarmed combat training. Maybe I want you and your almost Blue Belt to protect me.”

Liz snorted. “You’ve never learned how to fight?”

“I’ve never needed it. For some reason, no one has ever tried to pick a fight with me.”

Liz ran her eyes up and down Matt’s body. There was a lot of it, and it all looked in peak physical condition. It was little wonder no one had ever tried to pick a fight with him. “Do you work out?” she asked. She froze. Where had that come from?

Matt grinned. “I’m a hard-hat diver. I don’t need to ‘work out’. Every time I dive, it’s the same as doing resistance training for three to six hours.”

Liz whistled. “You’re looking good for it.” She followed that statement with a wince. She was sure she was blushing.

“Thank you, Fair Lady. So, walk you home?”

Liz was happy to escape the situation with her pride mostly intact. “Please.”

“My pleasure. See you at five?”

“At five,” Liz agreed. She stood there, watching Matt as he walked off. She noticed she was not the only female watching him. She did not mind, too much. They could look all they liked. It was her he was planning on walking home.

****

Liz looked left, then right as she stepped out the main door of the state technical college building. Her heart swelled as she spotted him. Not that someone Matt’s size was hard to miss. Then he looked her way, and their eyes locked. Liz stumbled, and would have fallen if she had not grabbed the handrail. She took a deep breath and set off towards Matt.

Matt pushed off from the wall he had been leaning against and walked towards Liz. He held out a hand. “Carry your bag.”

“I can carry my own bag,” Liz protested as she hugged the shoulder straps of her backpack.

“Sure, you can,” Matt said, his hand still out. “And, normally, I’d be only too happy to let you martyr yourself. However, I’m supposed to invite you around for supper, and there is no way you’re going to turn up carrying your bag when I could have carried it for you.”

“Martyr myself!” Liz was outraged. Then, her brain caught up with the rest of what Matt had said. “You’re inviting me around to supper with your family?”

“Mom thinks the pair of you need to get together to fill out those missing mail forms.”

“Oh.” It came out badly. Almost as if Liz was badly disappointed.

“But yes, I am asking you around for supper. Mom’s already cleared it with your uncle.”

Liz could not help herself. She glanced down at the sweater and jeans she was wearing. “I can’t meet your mother dressed like this,” she wailed.

“There’s nothing wrong with what you’re wearing.”

Liz glared at Matt. He was a guy. Nothing more needed to be said. In frustration, she let her backpack slip off her shoulders and threw it at him. Unfortunately, he caught it easily—as if it was light as a feather and not the nearly fifteen pounds it did weigh.

“Was it something I said?”

Liz continued to glare at him, fighting desperately not to match his grin with one of her own. She managed to hold out for a couple of minutes before holding out her hand. “Aren’t you supposed to be walking me home?”

Matt answered by taking her hand in his.

****

Supper had not been as bad as she had feared. Liz laid her knife and fork down on her plate to signify she was finished and looked around to check on the progress of the others. Matt was still eating, as was his stepfather. His mother and stepsister had finished eating. A few minutes later, Matt and Baxter Harris finished.

“Everyone had enough?” Baxter asked.

Although the question was aimed at everyone, Liz knew she, as the guest, was the prime target. “Yes, thank you,” she said.

Baxter nodded and got to his feet, followed immediately by Matt. The pair of them started to clear the table.

Liz started to push her chair back, but Matt’s mother—call me Marilyn—put out a restraining hand. Liz was a little taken aback until Trissie spoke.

“Marilyn’s giving Matt a chance to show that he’s properly housebroken.”

“Trissie!” Marilyn said. She turned to Liz and smiled. “While the men tidy up, why don’t we start on those forms for the post office?”

****

Liz held up the form. “What was the value of your item of mail?” She looked over to Marilyn. “It was a letter. How do you put a monetary value on a letter?”

“But did you put something else in with the letter?” Trissie asked. “Marilyn used to include some money with every letter she sent Matt.”

“What?” Matt appeared at the kitchen door. “Mom, you didn’t.”

“I thought you might need a little extra,” Marilyn said.

“You shouldn’t have, Mom. I earn more than enough.”

“Well, I didn’t know that, did I?” Marilyn snapped.

Mother and son glared at each other. Finally, Marilyn dropped her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap.”

Matt tossed the tea towel he was holding into the kitchen and walked up to his mother and wrapped his arms around her. “I should have written to you.” He lifted his eyes to Liz. “And I should have written to you, too.”

“Yes, you should have,” Marilyn muttered.

“You know,” Liz said. “I think that might be why your letters haven’t been getting through. Someone discovered that some of them contained money, and stole them.”

“That’s a heck of a risk,” Matt said. “All it would have taken is a single letter from me back to Mom and she’d know I hadn’t received her letters.”

“Yes, well,” Marilyn said. “If someone had read my first letter, they would have realized I didn’t expect to receive any letters from you.”

“Ouch!” Matt said.

Liz tried to force a smile when Matt looked at her. It was hard, because the idea of someone else reading what she had written in her letters to Matt was beyond embarrassing.

“Matt! This isn’t getting the dishes done,” Baxter called from the kitchen.

Matt sighed and let go of his mother. He dropped a kiss onto her forehead before returning to the kitchen.

Marilyn gave Liz a teary smile. “He’s a good boy.”

 

Next day, lunch time at the school cafeteria

 

Liz walked over to the table where a few of the other veterinary students had gathered. As she closed in on the table, she almost turned back and looked for somewhere else to sit. Unfortunately, Julia happened to look up just then and waved.

“Liz! Over here.”

Liz sighed. There was nothing for it but to join them. Normally, this would not be an issue. However, both Julia and Anna Kettenacker, a fifth-year senior, were scheduled to get married soon and they both had their wedding planner scrapbooks out. The topic this lunchtime was likely to be one subject, and Liz doubted it was going to be the scheduled trip to Magdeburg where the six of them were supposed to be attending the gala opening of the new Magdeburg zoo.

She walked over to a free seat and laid her tray on the table before sitting down. “I’m really looking forward to the trip to Magdeburg,” she said, hoping to get the table on topic.

“Yeah,” Julia agreed. Then she ruined it by adding, “I can’t wait to go through some of the fashion boutiques.”

“You won’t be able to afford them,” Anna said.

“True,” Julia agreed, “but I’ll be able to get some good ideas for my and the bridesmaids’ dresses.”

Liz knew she had to cut this discussion off before it could get started, otherwise the whole lunch period would degenerate into a discussion of wedding fashions. “Has Dr. Alexander dropped by yet?” she asked.

As hoped, all eyed turned onto Liz. “I’m guessing that’s a no?” She looked around and the faces, her brows raised asking for confirmation. “He said he’d stop by and hand out assignments for the gala.”

The gala opening of the new Magdeburg zoo was why they were going to Magdeburg in the second to last week of May. They were not going as guests—the tickets were well beyond their pockets—but rather as guides. There were nine of them going. The six women seated at the table, two male students, and Dr. Alexander. There were mixed feelings amongst the families of the women over the trip, but the presence of Dr. Alexander was seen by them as providing a calming adult influence while Andy Zanewicz and Markus Boner added an illusion of security.

“Here he comes now,” Liz’s baby sister said.

Liz twisted in her seat to watch their teacher approach. He did not look overly happy. That, plus the blood stains on his otherwise white lab coat had Liz worrying. “What’s up, Dr. Alexander?” she asked as he stopped by their table.

Bentley Alexander sighed mightily before pulling out a chair and collapsing onto it. “We have a small technical issue over the trip to Magdeburg.”

“What’s happened?” Sibylla Rabenwald asked.

Bentley held up a hand and splayed out his fingers. He touched the index finger of his right hand to the pinky of his left. “One. Andy can no longer make it.”

“Celia put her foot down,” Julia said.

Bentley nodded. “I’m afraid so.” He counted off the next finger. “Two. Markus can no longer make it.”

“What’s his excuse?” Ursula Trempling demanded. “Unlike Andy, he’s not married.”

“He’s not even seeing anyone,” Julia added.

Bentley looked up at the girls. “He had a little accident with Tiny.”

Liz whistled. Contrary to normal naming procedures, Tiny was a very small horse. Not a miniature, but getting close. And, as both his sire and dam were over fifteen hands, his small stature had been noticed almost immediately. However, Tiny made up for his lack of stature with attitude, and he was immensely popular with the students. “Is that where the blood on your coat came from? What did he do?”

Bentley glanced down at his lab coat. He appeared surprised to see the bloodstains. “Compound fracture of the humerus.”

“What?” the girls roared in unison.

“You haven’t euthanized Tiny,” Jo Ann said. “Please, say you haven’t.”

A grin flashed across Bentley’s face. “I’ll be sure to tell Markus where your sympathies lay.”

That elicited sighs of relief. “Tiny is okay, then?” Liz asked, just to confirm that the accident had happened to Markus and not Tiny.

“Calmly eating his head off,” Bentley said. “Though, the same can’t be said for Markus.”

“I’m sure it can’t,” Liz said. “How did he break his humerus?”

“He has, or at least he claims to have, absolutely no idea,” Bentley said.

“Okay,” Ursula said. “That’s the bad news. How about telling us the good news.”

Bentley shook his head, a smile showing on his face. “That was the good news.”

There was a communal “oh” of distress.

“What’s the bad news?” Julia asked. “Is the trip to Magdeburg off?”

“No. The trip to Magdeburg is not off. We have a commitment to provide knowledgeable guides for the zoo opening.”

“But,” Sibylla Rabenwald wailed, “my parents won’t let me go if there’s just you to escort us.”

“Which brings me to the bad news,” Bentley said. “Rudi can’t go . . .”

“Because the baby’s birth is imminent,” Liz said. “And there is no way he’s going to miss the birth of his firstborn.”

Bentley nodded. “Leaving the available pool of suitable people ready and able to go to Magdeburg over the third week of May rather depleted.”

“What about Shelby?” Anna asked. “He did a couple of years in the army before starting his veterinary studies.”

“Didn’t you hear Dr. Alexander, Anna?” Julia asked. “He said suitable.”

“I’m sure Shelby is capable of behaving with decorum suitable to the occasion . . .” Bentley paused to allow the girls to stop their giggling. It took a few stern looks to restore order. “As I was saying. I’m sure Shelby is capable of suitable decorum.” Bentley cast a critical gaze over the girls, daring them to interrupt. “However, . . .”

“You wouldn’t put money on it,” Jo Ann said.

Bentley sighed. “No. I wouldn’t put money on it. Which brings me to the really bad news.” He looked over to Sibylla. “I spoke with your parents . . .”

“No way!” Sibylla protested.

Liz chuckled. Sibylla was not protesting about Dr. Alexander speaking to Sibylla’s parents. She was protesting what she probably expected them to have said.

Bentley nodded. “Unless we can find suitable replacements for Andy and Markus, your father will insist on accompanying us.”

“And Mom will insist on coming to keep an eye on both of us,” Sibylla muttered.

There was a collective wince at the idea of Sibylla’s mother joining them in a supervisory role. Not that they were intending to kick up their heels, but to call her mother a killjoy was to do a gross disservice to fair-minded puritanical old fossils. Liz was not alone in not wanting her on the trip. “What do you call suitable?” she asked.

“We need at least one person of good moral standing who can scare off predatory males,” Bentley said.

“Speak of the devil.” Jo Ann said.

Liz swung round in her seat to see whoever it was that had caught Jo Ann’s attention. Recognition was almost instant. She shot to her feet and waved. “Matt! Over here!”

****

Matt had been over to Camp Saale to visit the military postmaster and had dropped by the school cafeteria in the hope of bumping into Liz to share what had happened. The moment he heard his name called out, he locked onto her location. He waved in response and headed towards her.

Matt had had eyes only for Liz, and it was not until he arrived at her table that he noticed the people she was sitting with. They were all looking at him with various degrees of measuring looks.

“He’s certainly big enough to scare off any predatory males,” Dr. Alexander said.

“And he’s a naval officer too,” Julia said. “That should be enough moral standing for Sibylla’s parents.”

Matt looked from Liz to her cousin and back. He raised an eyebrow. “Could someone please tell me what is going on?”

Liz grinned. “How would you like to go to Magdeburg with us around the nineteenth to twenty-third of May?”

Matt looked straight at Liz. It was an easy thing to do, because she was very easy on the eye. “Us?” he asked. “Who is us, and what’s happening in Magdeburg between the nineteenth and twenty-third?”

Dr. Alexander grabbed a chair from the next table and pushed it towards Matt. “Find somewhere to sit, and all will be explained.”

“It better,” Matt muttered as Liz shuffled over to open a space for him to sit.

“The veterinary studies group have been invited to contribute a group of students to act as guides at the gala opening of the Magdeburg zoo on the twenty-first. This mob.” Dr. Alexander waved a hand to encompass the six young women. “As well as Andy Zanewicz and Markus Boner, were selected to represent the school.”

“So where do I come in?” Matt asked. “I mean, I’m happy to go to Magdeburg with you all, but you could write what I know about animals on the back of a postage stamp. In crayon. With plenty of room to spare.”

That earned grins all around, but it was Anna who answered. “Andy’s been grounded by Celia, and Markus managed to break his arm. That means it’s just Dr. Alexander and six women.”

Matt managed not to say what immediately shot to mind. However, he did allow himself a sympathetic wince in Dr. Alexander’s direction before returning his attention to Anna. “That still doesn’t tell me why you want me along?”

“It’s because you are big and intimidating, and if you’re along, my dad won’t insist on going. Which means Mom also won’t insist on accompanying us.”

“I’m not intimidating,” Matt protested. To be fair, Matt was not consciously intimidating. It was just that he was a former competitive swimmer who was currently engaged in physically intensive activities. It was not his fault some people considered his six foot eight well-muscled frame intimidating.

“I’m sure you could be if you tried,” Jo Ann said. “Try folding your arms and scowling.”

Matt scowled at Jo Ann, unconsciously folding his arms across his chest in a power pose as he did so.

“That’s perfect,” Ursula said. “Now all you need is a gun.”

“Why do I need a gun?” Matt asked. He was not quite at the point of demanding an answer, but he had little experience of guns.

“So you can be intimidating, Silly,” Jo Ann said.

Matt looked to Dr. Alexander for rational support. Instead he got a nodding head.

“A gun would be useful,” Dr. Alexander said. “Do you have one?”

Matt sighed. “I know where I can probably borrow one.”

“Good. Good,” Dr. Alexander said. “You do that. Make sure it’s something big enough to be noticed. Not a poky little .32 or anything smaller.” He got to his feet. “Well, if that’s all sorted, I’ll let Sibylla’s parents know I have found someone suitable . . .” He stopped and stared at Matt.

“There’s no need to tell Sibylla’s parents how old Matt is,” Liz said. “Just tell them that Lieutenant Commander Tisdel has agreed to join our party.”

“And that Mr. Saluzzo has invited Lieutenant Commander Tisdel to give the commencement address to this year’s graduating class,” Julia added.

“Really hammer away with the Lieutenant Commander Tisdel bit, Dr. Alexander,” Sibylla suggested.

Dr. Alexander grinned. “I will.” He glanced from Liz to Matt. “I assume Liz will keep you informed of what’s happening.”

“I will,” Liz confirmed.

“Right then. I’ll be off.” Dr. Alexander extended a hand to shake Matt’s. “It’s been nice meeting you, Lieutenant Commander Tisdel, and I look forward to getting to know you better while we’re away.” He saluted his students and walked off.

Matt turned his attention from the slowly disappearing Dr. Alexander to examine the table. There were six trays on it. The one in front of Liz appeared untouched. “Are you going to eat that?” he asked.

Liz dropped a hand protectively around her food. “Yes!”

Matt smiled at her and got to his feet. “Save my place. I’ll be right back.”

****

Liz walked out of the school cafeteria arm in arm with Matt. She glanced up at him and shook her head.

“What’s the matter?” Matt asked.

“Where do you put it all?” she demanded. “Someone who eats like you do should be as fat as a walrus.”

Matt smiled. “It only seemed a lot compared to the minuscule portions you girls were eating. I was actually quite restrained on how much I ate.”

That earned a snort. “Probably because you were paying for it.” Food at the cafeteria was only subsidized for students and staff. Everyone else had to pay full commercial rates.

“Anyway,” Liz continued. “Why did you stop by? Did you visit the postmaster at Camp Saale? What did he have to say?” she asked.

“She,” Matt corrected. “The postmistress graciously accepted the paperwork you and Mom prepared, thanked me for bringing the issue to her attention, and showed me the door. I was in her office for less than five minutes. It took me longer to walk from the train station to her office.”

All through Matt’s diatribe Liz had been shooting him quick glances. From what she could see, Matt was not happy with how he had been treated. “Did you tell her you were Lieutenant Commander Tisdel, head of the USE Navy dive team?”

“Hey! I’m looking for sympathy here.”

Liz grinned. “I can do sympathetic.” She grabbed his shirt with both hands and looked up at him. “You poor thing. My heart bleeds for you.”

That earned her a snort. “It does,” she said, “it really does.”

Matt planted a hand on each of Liz’s shoulders. “If you don’t cut the sarcasm, I’m going to be forced to pick you up and shake you.”

“You think you can do that?” Liz asked. Actually, it came out as more of a dare. She was playing with fire, but she was enjoying it too much to stop.

She waited, her eyes locked with Matt’s. “Well?” she demanded.

“Maybe if you were to drop the backpack.”

Liz laughed. “I notice you aren’t offering to carry it for me today.’

“Well, of course not,” Matt said. “You have your martyr complex to support, and more importantly, we aren’t going round to see Mom.”

Liz stepped back from under Matt’s hands and adjusted the shoulder straps of her backpack. “I don’t have a martyr complex!” It came out a little shrilly, meaning her denial totally deserved the reaction it got.

“Of course you don’t.”

There were several ways Liz could react to that. She chose to laugh. That brought a smile to Matt’s face and he lifted his left arm, inviting her to snuggle closer. She wrapped her right arm around his waist and draped his left over her shoulder while she leaned into him a little. Feeling all safe and secure, she looked up. “So, what are you going to do about your missing mail now?”

“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “Hopefully, the military mail service will be able to find out what happened to it.” He sighed. “But I’m not going to be holding my breath. How about talking about something more interesting, like this trip to Magdeburg?”

Liz was only too happy to do so. They spent the rest of the hour or so before her next class in happy conversation.

 

Monday, May 19, 1636

 

Train trips, especially long ones, can be extremely boring. They do, however, offer the opportunity for a woman to innocently snuggle up against her man and sleep, secure in the knowledge that he would protect her.

This, however, was not necessarily that comfortable for the guy in question. Especially not when on a sixteen-hour train trip. Fortunately for Matt, Liz lacked a cat’s ability to sleep in one position all day. Instead, she had moved from sleeping with her head against his shoulder to sleeping with her head in his lap—using a sweater for a pillow.

Not that Matt was complaining. It had been restful. Almost like sleeping with a cat. In fact, his thumb was idly rubbing a spot just below her ear very much in the way someone might unconsciously caress a sleeping cat.

Matt felt a change in Liz and immediately removed his hand. It was only at that point he realized what he’d been doing. He looked up to check the passengers seated opposite. Dr. Alexander had his head buried in a book while Sibylla was slumped into the corner of her seat with her head resting against the wall of the carriage.

Liz slowly came awake. She hauled herself back up to a sitting position and looked out the window. “Are we there yet?’ she asked.

“Just passed by Schönebeck,” Dr. Alexander said. “We should be in Magdeburg in about an hour.” He glanced over Liz’s shoulder. “Now that sleeping beauty is awake, could everyone pay attention, please?” He waited until four heads appeared over the back of Matt and Liz’s seat.

“Right, when we get to Magdeburg I want you to stick together.” He looked at Julia, Anna, and Jo Ann pointedly. “No one goes off on her own. Understood?”

There were a mixture of yeses and yeps accompanying the nodding heads. “Good!” Dr. Alexander said. “When the train arrives at Magdeburg station I want everyone to grab their luggage and wait on the platform while I round up a porter.” He turned his attention to Matt. “I’ll be leaving you in charge.”

Matt looked from Dr. Alexander to the girls and back. “I’ll do my best.”

Dr. Alexander grinned. “Yeah, I know. Herding cats would be easier. Just do your best. Try and look intimidating to scare off any pickpockets, et cetera.”

“Talking about being intimidating,” Anna said, “you were supposed to bring a gun.”

“Yes, Matt,” Jo Ann said. “Where’s your gun? You can’t very well do intimidating without a gun.”

Matt crossed his arms and scowled at Liz’s little sister.

“That’s good,” Jo Ann said, “but if you had a gun as well . . .”

Matt rolled his eyes before pointing to the overhead luggage.

“It’s not going to do much good up there,” Anna said. “You need to put it on.”

With a heavy sigh Matt got to his feet, pulled a canvas gun case from his backpack, and laid it on the table.

“Oooh! A Ruger,” Anna said. ” Come on. Open it. I want to see if it’ll be intimidating enough.”

Matt unzipped the case and opened it, allowing everyone to look at it. “Is that intimidating enough?” he asked as he exposed a massive revolver with attached telescopic sight.

“It’s got a scope? Why do you need a scope?” Anna asked.

“It came with the scope,” Matt said, “and I thought it made it look more intimidating.”

“It’s overkill,” Anna muttered.

“What is it,” Julia asked. “A .44 magnum?”

“No,” Anna said. “It’s a .454 Casull.”

“That’s not a revolver,” Dr. Alexander exclaimed. “That’s a hand cannon.” He looked up at Matt. “Where did you get it?”

“George Watson left most of his guns behind when he moved to Lübeck. He said if there was anything I liked, I was welcome to it.”

“And you like a hand cannon?”

Matt shrugged. “You said to get something big enough to be noticed.”

Dr. Alexander grinned. “It’ll certainly do that. Have you fired it?”

Matt shook his head.

“Does he even know how to fire it?” Jo Ann asked.

“Of course I know how to fire it,” Matt said. “You stick it into the target’s gut and squeeze the trigger until it’s empty.”

Dr. Alexander smiled. “That would certainly do it, if you still wanted to fire the thing after the first shot.”

Matt turned his attention from Jo Ann to Dr. Alexander. “What do you mean?”

“That,” Dr. Alexander said, pointing at the Ruger Super Redhawk revolver, “is probably the most powerful production handgun ever made.”

Matt looked from the revolver to Dr. Alexander. “I thought that was the .44 Magnum.” In fact, he was sure of it. Dirty Harry wouldn’t lie.

Dr. Alexander shook his head. “It was, once upon a time. However, the ,454 Casull has up to twice the muzzle energy of a .44 Magnum. I got to fire one once.” He grinned. “Literally once. One shot was more than enough to tell me it’s way too much gun for me.”

Matt looked dubiously at the revolver in question.

Dr. Alexander leaned across the table and clapped Matt on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. You’ll probably never have to fire it. Anyone seeing you with that thing strapped to your side is going to give you a wide berth.

“Now, to continue. We will follow the porter to our hotel.” He glanced over the girls. “You all have your room assignments?” There was a field of nodding heads. “Good. Once we settle into our rooms, no one leaves unless they are accompanied by me or Matt. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Dr. Alexander,” the girls chorused.

“Now, Matt. Before we launch into what we have planned, is there anything you need to do while you are in Magdeburg?”

Matt nodded. “I need to pick up a full-dress-uniform to wear when I give the commencement address.”

“Was that your mother’s idea?” Liz asked.

“Nah,” Matt said, shaking his head. “Although, I’m sure she totally agrees with the Joint Armed Services Press Division that I need to appear in full dress uniform for such an auspicious occasion.”

Dr. Alexander perked up. “When will it be ready?” he asked. “In time for the gala?”

Matt shrugged. “I don’t know. They sent up my measurements last week. They’ll need to do final fittings, so if you want me to turn up at the gala in full dress, I’d need to drop by the naval base early tomorrow morning.”

“You do that, then, Matt,” Dr. Alexander said.

“I’ll go with Matt,” Liz said.

Jo Ann sniffed. “Why am I not surprised?”

Dr. Alexander sent Jo Ann a quelling look before passing his gaze over the rest of the group. “Does anyone else have something they want to do tomorrow morning?”

“Sleep in,” Ursula suggested.

Dr. Alexander joined the chuckles that earned.

“What about some window shopping?” Julia suggested. This received positive reviews from Anna and the other girls.

“You expect me to tag along while you lot shop?” Dr. Alexander asked.

His answer came in a collection of nodding smiling heads. Matt reached out a hand and patted Dr. Alexander gently on the shoulder. “I’d be happy to join you, but I have to see about my uniform.”

“Maybe you don’t need to attend the gala in uniform,” Dr. Alexander said.

“It won’t be that bad,” Julia said. “There are only a few shops I want to check out.”

Matt shot Dr. Alexander a look full of sympathy as he zipped up the pistol case and put the revolver back into his backpack.

 

Meanwhile, Magdeburg

 

Peter Beust was sweating. It was not the late spring weather that was responsible—it was not that warm. It was the man pacing the floor in front of him. Well, no, that was not quite true. Johann Alemann was merely a contributing cause. The real reason Peter was sweating could be laid at the feet of the man breathing over his shoulder.

Heinrich Beckendoff would have been intimidating even if he had not worked out regularly at Karickhoff’s Gym. He stood eight inches taller than Peter’s own five feet, five inches, and he outweighed Peter by at least a hundred pounds, none of it fat. The dedicated pumping of iron just filled out the body-hugging white sleeveless muscle shirt—with the Karickhoff’s Gym logo displayed on it—in a suitably spectacular fashion. A black muscle shirt would have been more intimidating, but it did not show off his muscles half as well as the white. Heinrich was, it must be said, a bit of a narcissist.

Another bead of sweat ran down Peter’s forehead and into his eye. He wanted to brush it away, but he was too terrified to move as he watched Johann.

“I am an honest man. I provide for my family. I look after my aged mother. I give generously to the church.” Johann stopped in front of Peter. “I pay my debts on time and in full.”

Peter winced at the spray of spit that hit his face.

“I.” Johann thumped his chest to reinforce who he was talking about, just in case Peter might have had doubts. “I,” he repeated, “perform a useful purpose lending money to people who run short between paydays. I don’t even charge much for this service.” He glanced at Heinrich. “Isn’t that right?”

“A modest six percent,” Heinrich confirmed.

“I don’t ask much.” He stared hard at Peter. “Just that people. Repay. Their. Debts. On. Time.

“How is it,” Johann said as he recommenced pacing, “that you have failed to pay me what you owe?”

Peter swallowed several times as he struggled to get enough moisture in his mouth for him to say anything.

“Well?” Johann demanded. “Has the cat got your tongue?”

Peter tried to answer.

Johann shook his head. “Heinrich, get Peter here a mug of small beer.”

Peter heard the footfalls of Heinrich’s leather-soled shoes move away from just behind him and then return. A mug was presented to him. Peter grabbed at it, spilling some of it on his trousers as he took possession of the mug. He took control of the mug and raised it to his mouth.

“I am waiting,” Johann said.

Peter dropped the hands holding the now half-empty mug to his lap. “I don’t have enough to repay you.” That earned him such a peculiar look from Herr Alemann that he hastened to add, “but I will have it all by next payday.”

“How is it possible that you couldn’t pay?” Johann demanded. “I never make a payday loan that cannot be repaid from a borrower’s next paycheck.” He leaned in so his face was right in Peter’s. “Did you lie to my agent?” he demanded.

“No!” Peter all but shouted. He knew better than to lie to Herr Alemann’s representative. “I told him I had a sure thing on the fights. The favorite was supposed to throw the fight. Jacob agreed to lend me a little extra.”

Johann shook his head slowly before looking towards Heinrich. “Find Jacob. I wish to have words with him.

“Now, you.”

Peter looked up to see Johann was staring right at him again.

“We have to do something about you,” Johann said. “We can’t have people thinking they can default on a loan now, can we?” he asked.

Peter swallowed. “No, Herr Alemann.”

Johann nodded to Heinrich and, the next thing Peter knew, Heinrich had done something extremely painful to his left hand. He looked down at it. Surely his little finger was not supposed to stick out like that.

“You have until the end of the week to pay me everything you owe me, or Heinrich will be forced to hurt you.” Johann pushed his face to within inches of Peter’s. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Peter managed to mutter.

“Good.” Johann clapped Peter on the shoulder. “Please show Herr Beust out, Heinrich.”

A couple of minutes later, Peter found himself outside Johann Alemann’s office. He had his left hand clamped tightly to his chest. It was no longer painful, unless it was bumped. He had to get the finger put back where it belonged. Fortunately, as a civilian employee of the USE Navy, he was entitled to medical treatment at the base outpatients clinic, which was, conveniently, open twenty-four seven, and but a short walk away. He turned in the direction of the naval base and started walking.

 

Tuesday, May 20, Magdeburg Navy Yard

 

Liz was smiling brightly as she led Matt out of the tailor shop. The owner of the shop was a master tailor who had secured the contract for naval uniforms by being prepared to employ naval dependents in his shop. Technically, the women were not supposed to do anything more than operate the sewing machines, but that was something usually observed in spirit rather than fact.

“It’s not funny,” Matt muttered.

Liz skipped alongside Matt. “I think it was.”

Matt reached out and grabbed Liz. He turned her round to face him. “You think it was funny to have women climbing all over me? Sticking pins into me?”

Liz grinned. “I’m sure they didn’t mean to stick pins into you.”

Matt growled, making Liz laugh. He glared down at her.

Liz responded by staring back. It was certainly no chore. Matt was a good-looking guy, and not all of it could be laid at the foot of his physique. Not that she was knocking it. He really filled out his muscle shirt with, well, muscles. “Come on,” she said, “surely the struggles Anna Persicke had are worth a smile.”

“It’s not nice to make fun of someone’s height.”

“Matt. She has to be at least two feet shorter than you and she was trying to line up the button-holes on your suit coat.”

“Oh, look. There’s the base post office,” Matt said, pointing to a building just down the road. “Why don’t we wander over and advise them to redirect any mail to my MPO box?” he suggested as he started off at a slightly accelerated pace.

“You’re just trying to change the topic,” Liz called to his back. She watched him for a few seconds to see if he would stop, but he did not. So, she hurried after him.

****

Matt pulled his ID from a pocket and approached one of the postal clerks. “Hello,” he said. “I am Lieutenant Commander Matt Tisdel, and I’ve learned that some people have been sending me mail care of the Marine Corps. I’d just like to take this opportunity to arrange for any future mail to be directed to the correct MPO box number.”

The female clerk looked up. She did a double take and looked higher. Then she smiled. “I’ll just get the right form for you to fill out.”

“You do that,” Liz said. There was some heat in her words, because she had not liked the way the young woman was staring at Matt.

The young woman must have heard, because she almost fell backwards into her chair before hurrying over to a filing cabinet and extracting some papers. “Here you are, Commander Tisdel. If you’ll just fill out this form,” she said as she slid it across the counter to Matt.

“Tisdel?” a clerk at another window called out. “I sent some CARE parcels for a Matt Tisdel over to the Marine postmaster just this morning.”

“You did?” Matt was confused. Who would be sending him CARE parcels right now?

The clerk nodded. “You could go over now and pick them up,” she suggested.

“Thank you,” Matt said. “I think I will, just as soon as I fill out this form.”

 

Marine Postmaster’s office

 

Peter Beust placed the first of the CARE parcels delivered to him that morning on his work table and compared the addressee name, Hans Webber, with the Marine Corps roster. There were thirty-one Webers or Webbers. Of which there were five named Hans, four named Johann, two Johans, two Johan, one Johanness, and one Johanns. The remaining sixteen had a variety of Christian names that should not easily be identified as derivative of Hans. Fortunately, only one of the thirty-one possibilities came from Kastellaun in the Upper Rhine.

Peter wrote Johanns Webber’s MPO box number, or Military Post Office box number, on the parcel. He also added a note telling Johanns to advise the people writing to him to use his MPO box number, and placed the parcel on the outgoing bench. Then he picked up the next CARE parcel.

His eyes lit up when he saw the name of the addressee. The last time a parcel for Herr Matt Tisdel arrived at this time of year it had contained a thousand dollars. However, first things first. Peter dutifully checked the roster. He smiled. There was still no Matt Tisdel listed. For that matter, there were no Tisdels at all. Nor were there any phonetically similar names.

With a smile on his face, Peter tried to untie the string used to secure the parcel. His excited efforts just seemed to make things worse, so he took to the string with his belt knife. Then he opened the parcel and gazed upon the contents with pleasure. There were the usual things a mother might send their son: spare socks and a woolen hat; cake and cookies; a box of sugar lumps and a can of Gribbleflotz Desiccated Essence of Coffea, and finally, there were two envelopes. He ignored the thin one, going straight for the thicker one. He flicked it open and pulled out the bundle of Johnnies it contained and started counting them.

A thousand dollars. He was saved. He held enough money in his hands to repay Herr Alemann and still have something left over. He stuffed the envelope of money into his jacket’s inner pocket and started distributing the rest of the parcel’s contents around his person. With everything put away and the used package screwed up and dropped into the wastepaper bin, he bent down and picked up the next parcel awaiting redirection.

He placed the CARE parcel on his table and froze.

His brow furrowed as he stared at the parcel. He spun it around to check the sendee. It had been sent by Marilyn Harris, just like the parcel he had just processed. It too, was addressed to Matt Tisdel, care of the Marine Corps. Something, probably a sudden attack of fear-induced paranoia, had him grabbing the last Care parcel. He dropped that onto the table after seeing who it was intended for. His instincts were screaming TRAP!

Peter hastily pushed the two CARE parcels to one end of his work table and dived for the rubbish tin. He rescued the crushed CARE parcel packaging of the first parcel for Matt Tisdel and tried to straighten it out. He had to get it all back together before someone came looking for it.

A knock at the door had him freezing in place. “Yes?” he called.

The door opened and a very tall man—he could tell the man was very tall by the fact he had to duck a little to pass into the room—and a young woman entered. The man flashed a military ID at him.

“The name’s Matt Tisdel. We’ve just come from the base post office, and they say they sent over some parcels addressed to me care of the Marine Corps.”

Peter’s heart picked up its already frantic pace. Herr Tisdel was even bigger than Heinrich Beckendoff, and he did an even better job of filling out his muscle shirt. However, that was only part of the reason for Peter’s terror. Herr Tisdel was wearing a shirt with the shield and spear of Mars emblazoned on it. Anyone wearing that symbol on the grounds of the naval base at Magdeburg was either a highly trained killer or he was a suicidal fool. Of the two choices, Peter plugged for the former, a decision the sight of a massive revolver he carried in a holster strapped to his right leg seconded.

All of this had run through Peter’s mind in the time it took him to look up at the intruders. His reaction was a little slower. He dropped to the floor and thrust a hand into the bag he had resting against a table leg. When he stood, he held a revolver in his hand. “You,” he said to the female. “Shut the door.”

****

“Do as he says, Liz,” Matt said.

Instead of doing what she was told, Liz stayed where she was. She studied the gun. It was, she thought, a Colt-style cap and ball revolver. That was supported by the presence of a loading lever. All of this was, of course, almost totally irrelevant information. Except for the fact that it suggested the revolver was a single action revolver, and as the hammer had not been cocked . . .

The man was concentrating his attention on Matt who, being as big as he was and having a massive revolver strapped to his side, was probably seen as the major threat. This left Liz with time to study the gunman. He was smaller than she was—something not entirely unusual down-time. He was also slighter. Liz might be a teenage student, but she spent a lot of her time around horses, and looking after horses necessitated a lot of lifting of bales of hay and sacks of horse droppings. All of this, combined with her martial arts training, gave Liz the confidence to act. Without attracting the gunman’s attention, she moved closer. She would have gotten right up to him if Matt had not called out.

With Matt’s cry of her name ringing in her ears, Liz reached out for the hand holding the gun. A quick twist, while digging in her fingernails, had the revolver dropping free of the gunman’s hand as she flowed into the next stage of the takedown she had most recently practiced just last week. As she spun under the gunman’s arm, she dropped to the ground, flipping the man in a forward somersault. He landed heavily, allowing Liz to change her grip into a standard restraint hold unopposed.

Clap! Clap! Clap!

Liz spun round, keeping her grip on the gunman. There were two men standing at the door. Both wore uniforms. The one who was clapping was a sergeant in the USE Army Military Police. Liz was at a loss to place the other man.

The sergeant flicked out his ID card and flashed it in Liz and Matt’s general direction. “Sergeant Malcolm McPherson.” Having introduced himself, he pointed to the man Liz was restraining. “Would that be Herr Peter Beust you have there?” Malcolm asked.

“I have no idea,” Liz said. “He didn’t introduce himself before he pulled a gun on us.”

“Tut tut. That was most inconsiderate of him,” Malcolm said as he entered the room, pulling a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “Allow me to take charge of the miscreant.”

Liz grinned at the choice of words. The man was speaking in English, with a strong Scots accent. She let Malcolm take charge of the man and stepped back, out of his way. Any thoughts of saying anything were driven out of her mind when Matt grabbed her and crushed her against his chest.

“You could have been killed,” he muttered into her hair.

Liz could feel that Matt was shaking, and realized that he had really been scared for her. She threaded her arms up around his neck and pulled his head down to hers and kissed him. “I had it all under control,” she said. “He was holding a Colt-pattern cap and ball revolver. They are single action. As long as the hammer wasn’t cocked, it couldn’t fire.”

“What about when it dropped?” Matt demanded. “It could have gone off when it hit the ground, and the bullet could have gone anywhere. Including into you.”

“Matt. Only a complete fool would carry a Colt with the hammer over a live cap.”

“Then our friend here is a complete fool,” Malcolm said.

Liz spun around in Matt’s arms and stared at him. “What do you mean?”

In answer, Malcolm showed Liz the capped chambers as he slowly rotated the cylinder. The revolver might have been a special edition seven- or eight-shot variant, so it was not until Liz counted ten consecutive capped nipples that she was prepared to to accept that she had not missed an uncapped nipple and that the man had carried his revolver with the hammer over a live cap. It struck her then that the revolver could so easily have fired when it hit the ground, and she started shaking.

“Who are you?” the man accompanying Malcolm demanded.

Liz leaned back into Matt’s body and tilted her head back until she could see his eyes. She smiled at him before looking at the man. She gestured to Matt. “This is Lieutenant Commander Matt Tisdel. I’m Liz Manning. I’m with him.”

“What?” the man demanded. “What are you doing here? You could have ruined everything.”

“Ruined everything?” Liz asked.

Malcolm gestured towards his companion. “Allow me to introduce Conrad Göbel of the investigations branch of the Imperial Postal Service.”

Conrad flicked out his own ID card and flashed it in Liz and Matt’s general direction before putting it away. “Why are you here?”

“I’ve recently discovered that mail from home was being incorrectly addressed to me care of the Marine Corps,” Matt said. “I haven’t been receiving any of that mail, so I filed a complaint.”

“Yes. Yes,” Conrad said. “We know all about that. But why are you here, in this office?”

“I’m supposed to be attending the gala opening of the Magdeburg Zoo on Wednesday.” Matt pulled a pained look. “In full uniform,” he added. “So, I had to report to the Navy’s tailor to be fitted for a uniform, and while I was on base I thought I would stop off at the post office to advise them that mail addressed to me care of the Marine Corps should be sent to my MPO box.”

Liz took over telling the story. “While we were at the post office, one of the clerks told us that three parcels addressed to Matt had been sent over to the Marine post office just that morning. So, we decided to wander over and pick them up.”

“Three?” Conrad demanded.

“Freeze! NCIS. Put the gun down. Slowly.”

The last was directed towards Malcolm, who was still holding Peter’s revolver. He carefully placed it on the floor before turning to face the latest arrivals.

“Conrad. What are you doing here?” the second new arrival demanded of Malcolm’s partner.

“You know this man?” the NCIS agent demanded of his companion.

Michael Lohmann nodded. “He is Conrad Göbel, an investigator for the Imperial Postal Service.”

“And, Michael,” Conrad said, “I would like to know what you are doing here.” He shot a glance towards Malcom before returning his attention to Hans. “Perchance, you are following a CARE parcel addressed to a Matt Tisdel, care of the Marine Corps?”

Michael’s eyebrows shot up. “How did you . . .. Oh! You are here for the same reason?”

Conrad nodded. He gestured towards Malcolm. “I am accompanied by Sergeant McPherson. He is on loan from Camp Saale, near Grantville, where the missing items of mail originated.”

Malcolm waved a greeting. “Pleased to meet you.”

“And I,” Michael said, “am accompanied by Special Agent Leiss of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.”

“Special Agent Hans Leiss at your service,” Hans said as he holstered his revolver.

“So,” Liz called out, “who else is going to turn up?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Hans asked.

“Well,” Liz said, “you are here to see what happened to a CARE parcel addressed to Matt, as are those two.” She gestured to Malcolm and Conrad. “That makes two. The base post office said they sent over three parcels addressed to Matt.”

Michael turned to Conrad. “Seriously? You sent a parcel as well?”

Conrad nodded. “How was I supposed to know that you would foul up my plan?”

Michael straightened up. “Foul up your plan?” he demanded. “Your interference has probably ruined my investigation.”

“Your investigation?” Conrad demanded.

The two post office investigators glared at each other in silence. Meanwhile, their accompanying law enforcement officers wandered over to the work table to examine the CARE parcels that sat on it.

The silence was broken when two Marines with brassards on their arms with the letters “MP” on it burst into the room with guns drawn. Behind them was a third man. He wore a uniform Liz was starting to associate with the postal service.

“Freeze! Military Police.”

Malcolm and Hans started laughing.

“What’s so funny?” Sergeant Ulrich Schonter demanded.

“Niclas, call off your dogs,” Michael said.

Ulrich turned to the third member of their party. “You know these people, Herr Meidt?” he asked.

Niclas Meidt of the Magdeburg naval base post office nodded. “He,” he said pointing to Michael, “is Herr Michael Lohmann. He works for the Military Postal Service.”

“And I am Special Agent Hans Leiss, NCIS,” Hans said. “I am assisting Herr Lohmann as he investigates some missing mail.”

Ulrich looked Hans up and down. “Sorry, Sir, I didn’t recognize you.” He turned to Malcom and Conrad and raised an eyebrow in question.

“Sergeant McPherson of the USE Army Military Police on temporary attachment to the Imperial Postal Service,” Malcom said. He gestured to his partner. “And this is Herr Göbel, of the Imperial Postal Service. We also are investigating some missing mail.”

“Stand down,” Ulrich ordered his partner as he holstered his revolver. He turned to the third member of their party. “What happens now?” he asked.

Niclas looked over at Peter, lying on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back. “I assume that is Herr Beust in handcuffs?”

Malcolm nodded. “And that,” he said pointing to Matt and Liz, “is Herr Lieutenant Commander Matt Tisdel and Frau Liz Manning.”

Liz waved. “Hi!”

“What is he doing here?” Niclas demanded, pointing at Matt. “He could have panicked the suspect.”

Malcolm grinned. “They did. Fortunately.”

“Fortunately?” Niclas shot Matt and Liz a condemning look.

“Yep,” Malcolm confirmed. “It seems Herr Beust became suspicious when he discovered there were three CARE parcels for Herr Commander Tisdel, all claiming to have been sent by his mother. I believe he was in the process of putting everything back into the first parcel he’d opened when they appeared.”

Niclas swung his head between Matt and Malcolm. “They did? Well, thank you,” he said in the approximate direction of Matt before turning his attention to the parcels on the work table. “Maybe we can examine the evidence?”

With that, the law enforcement officers and accompanying postal service investigators crowded around Herr Beust’s work table. They became so engrossed in checking the evidence that they failed to notice the arrival of three uniformed individuals.

The two officers of the Magdeburg Polizei and an accompanying naval master-at-arms looked through the door, discovering Herr Beust lying on the floor with his hands handcuffed behind his back. They made eye contact with Matt and Liz. One of them held a finger in front of his lips in the universal sign for silence while they drew their revolvers.

“Freeze! Police!” The two policemen roared in unison, their revolvers pointing over the heads of the men gathered around the table.

The crowd around the table jerked straight.

“Put your hands up where I can see them,” Patrolman Wilhelm Hauch shouted. As hands appeared above heads, Wilhelm continued with his instructions. “Now, turn around. Slowly,” he added as Sergeant Ulrich Schonter (of the Marine Military Police) started to turn faster than he liked.

“Wilhelm,” Ulrich muttered when he saw Wilhelm’s face. He lowered his arms.

Wilhelm smiled as he and his partner holstered their revolvers. “Ulrich. I didn’t recognize you from your rear. Have you lost weight?”

Ulrich’s reply to that was non-verbal, involving a one-finger salute. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. “You have no jurisdiction on military property.”

“Actually, we do,” Patrolman Philip Becker said. “Joint patrol.” He gestured towards the naval NCO who was accompanying them as he smiled at his dumbfounded audience.

Wilhelm was beaming as he patted a hand on Philip’s shoulder. “Patrolman Becker likes reading rules and regulations,” he explained. “We’re investigating a missing person. Now, with your permission, we would like to ask your prisoner what he knows about the whereabouts of Jacob Pfeil.”

“He’s my prisoner,” Malcolm said.

“What do you mean, your prisoner,” Ulrich demanded. “You have no jurisdiction here. He’s my prisoner. He’s broken the law on naval property.”

“He’s my prisoner,” Special Agent Leiss announced. “NCIS have precedence over the military police.”

Neither Malcolm nor Sergeant Ulrich Schonter were prepared to let Leiss walk all over them. Instead they responded with why they had rights to Herr Beust.

Liz could feel Matt shaking. It felt different this time. She tipped her head back until she could look up at him. Yes. Definitely. He was not shaking from reaction to a near-death experience. He was shaking with mirth. She mouthed a silent “no,” because she did not think the law enforcement officers would appreciate being laughed at. He looked down into her eyes, then gestured with his head towards the door.

Liz shook her head. They were going to have to wait this out. Not that she minded, not with Matt’s arms still wrapped around her.

 

Friday, May 30, 1636, Graduation Day, Grantville High School

 

“The school is like the good shepherd, doing its best to care for and nurture his flock, and with that thought, I’d like to introduce one of our lost sheep who has returned to the fold.” Victor Saluzzo, the high school principal, gestured to Matt. “I present to you Lieutenant Commander Matt Tisdel of the Class of ’34.”

Matt was terrified as he stood up and walked towards the rostrum. It wasn’t the most terrified he’d ever been. That prize went to the few seconds of absolute terror he had experienced in Herr Beust’s office when Liz had fought the man for his gun, but it felt a really close second.

He placed his notes on the rostrum, took a sip of water from the glass Mr. Saluzzo offered him, and looked out at the sea of faces, most of whom he didn’t recognize. A waving hand attracted his attention, and he locked onto a group of familiar faces. There was of course his mother, who’d been waving. Then there was his new stepfather and stepsister. But most importantly, there was Liz, standing there with his family. With renewed confidence he cleared his throat and launched into his speech, aiming it at Liz as if she was the only person in the crowd.

****

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