1633 David Weber and Eric Flint

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Chapter 17

Halfway across Europe, another middle-aged face was creased by a scowl.

"Goddammit, Mike, there are laws."

Mike Stearns returned the glare of Grantville's former police chief with an expression which did not even strive for innocence. Just . . . mild-mannered.

"I'm aware of that, Dan. I'm also aware that I can't slide around you the way I used to do—now and then—by arguing it was out of your jurisdiction."

"Not hardly!" snapped Dan Frost. Frost was now head of the national police force of the entire United States—which, for all that its powers were constrained, had much greater authority than the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the U.S. of another universe. Mike Stearns had insisted on that, just as he had insisted on Dan's appointment to the post. With the crazy quilt of legal jurisdictions that still made up the newly formed United States, he wanted no chance of allowing some arrogant little German princeling to flaunt new laws on the grounds that his domain of a few hundred acres was "beyond national jurisdiction."

Still, the U.S. Police Force was hardly unrestrained by legal limits. The Constitution of the new U.S. had the same Bill of Rights as that of the old one. And—what was more to the point, in the current discussion—was based on the same fundamental legal principles.

One of which—very basic—was that if a man breaks the law he gets arrested and charged in a court. He does not get subjected to the secret and essentially private justice of the executive branch of government.

"Dammit, there are laws," repeated Frost. The police chief cast a sour glance at one of the other occupants of the greenhouse where this little impromptu meeting was being held. Harry Lefferts, that was, lounging casually against a nearby planter. The young soldier, formerly a coal miner, had a rather peculiar position in the hierarchy of the new U.S. Army. Officially, he was "Captain Lefferts." In practice, he amounted to Mike Stearns' personal little one-man combination of the old OSS—in its woolliest World War II days—and what militant trade unions like the UMWA sometimes euphemized as the "education committee."

"Especially with him around," gruffed Dan, jerking his thumb at Harry. "Or are you going to tell me you brought him to 'reason' with Freddie?"

Harry just smiled. Mike shook his head. "Dan, if I hadn't brought Harry, you'd be giving me a hard time for risking myself—not much of a risk, bracing Freddie—in my august capacity as Mister President. You can't have it both ways."

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the owner of the greenhouse spoke up. Until now, Tom Stone—"Stoner" to everyone—had kept silent. Clearly enough, the whole situation made him very uncomfortable to begin with. Mike had been tipped off about Freddie Congden's treason by Tom himself, who was the man's nearest neighbor. Given Stone's history and general attitudes, it was well-nigh miraculous—and something of an indication of his personal trust in Mike—that he had done so at all. The nickname "Stoner" was no accident, and Tom had the usual attitude toward "snitching" that any longtime hippie and enthusiast for what he liked to call "alternate reality" normally had. It was crime which ranked almost on a par with arson or armed robbery.

Still . . . he did trust Mike, and his marriage to a German woman the year before had given him a somewhat different perspective on things. His wife Magdalena's definition of "atrocity" was a lot more material than Stoner's. Just as her definition of a "bad trip" was a journey across her war-torn homeland.

"Let me ask you something, Dan," Stoner said abruptly. "Seeing as how you're making such a fuss over the official rules and regulations. How come, all those years, you never busted me? Back when you were the town's police chief." A nod of Stoner's head indicated the marijuana plants growing in the adjoining greenhouse. "Sure, now that stuff's nice and legal—even a prized crop, seeing as how we haven't got anything better in the way of an analgesic. Not in the kind of quantity I can produce, anyway. But it sure as hell wasn't legal in the old days."

He glanced proudly at the vigorously growing, healthy plants. A special strain, those were, that he'd carefully cultivated over the years, and which produced a variety of the drug that all the area's medical and dental practitioners had come to prize highly. "And—yeah, sure—in the old days I didn't grow the stuff in the open like this. But don't tell me you never had any idea what I was doing."

Dan Frost looked uncomfortable. Then, looked away, staring at a nearby patch of herbs. Mike had a hard time not laughing. Clearly enough, Dan was trying to figure out which plants in that batch might have been illegal substances before the Ring of Fire.

It was hard to know. Tom Stone was as good a greenhouse grower as he was an "informal pharmacist." Since he'd left Purdue as a pharmaceutical graduate student in the late 70s, he'd spent most of his time in Grantville running his own commune of sorts. There probably wasn't much of anything he couldn't grow, if he wanted to. Mike had noticed Dan giving the mushrooms in another adjoining greenhouse something of a stony look.

"Ah, hell," muttered the police chief. "Yeah, sure, I knew what you were doing. But . . . I never got a whiff of you messing around with cocaine or heroin, and I knew you weren't selling any of your pot to the kids in town." He shifted his seat on the bench, still looking uncomfortable. "And . . . you looked to be raising those three kids of your own okay. I knew they were doing well in school. I checked. So. You know. What was I supposed to do? If I busted you, who was going to take care of the kids?"

He took a deep breath and scowled at nothing in particular. "Truth is, I always thought that damn 'War on Drugs' was friggin' stupid anyway. At least, the way it was being done. And I had other things to worry about. Small stuff, like a guy beating his wife half to death or drunk drivers or grand theft auto or a brawl every other night in the Club 250. So . . . Fuck it. I just looked the other way."

"Broke the rules, in other words," said Stone.

Frost's face tightened. "Dammit, it's not the same thing."

Mike was tempted to intervene, but decided to let Tom keep handling it. As much as anything else, because James Nichols had given him firm instructions to do anything possible to keep advancing Stoner's slowly developing sense of "civic responsibility." The ex-hippie and drop-out was proving to be one of the most valuable members of their new society, as far as the good doctor was concerned.

Besides, there was just something quietly hilarious about watching Tom Stone lecturing Dan Frost on the fine points of police ethics. Mike could see Harry Lefferts, standing far enough behind Dan Frost to be out of sight, grinning widely. Mike didn't have any doubt at all that Harry and his friend Darryl had been among Stoner's regular customers in the days before the Ring of Fire.

"Yeah, it is, Dan. If you think about it, what Mike's proposing to do is to not bust Freddie. So there's no issue here about Star Chambers and secret prisons and gulags and torture cells. He just wants to quietly let the situation continue . . . just . . . you know. What you might call under new management. I mean, what the hell. How can you accuse him of wanting to violate Freddie's 'rights' when he could have him pitched in jail forever or even—" Stoner scowled. "Dammit, why the hell we had to keep that stinking death penalty is a mystery to me, but we do have it even if it's never been used. And don't think once people found out what Freddie's been doing they wouldn't be hollering for the hangman."

Mike said nothing. Personally, although he'd never fully made up his mind, he tended to lean heavily against having a death penalty. But . . .

One battle at a time. Most of the "old Americans," even, were in favor of the death penalty. 17th-century Germans already tended to think he was crazy enough, without tossing that issue into the soup. To them, having a death penalty was as much of a given as dew in the morning.

"So the point is," Stoner continued, "you can't hardly accuse Mike of wanting to do anything to Freddie secretly that he couldn't do ten times worse right out in the open. And there's another advantage to his approach, you ask me, which is that . . ."

Stoner eyed the police chief aslant, clearly a bit wary of his next words. "Look, Dan, I hate to be the one to tell you this—you being a cop your whole life and all—but too much law can be even worse than not enough."

Suddenly, Dan Frost burst out laughing. "You're telling me? Christ, Stoner, sometime I oughta make you fill out one of those old forms I used to have to use."

The mood had lightened enough, Mike decided. It was time to "close the deal."

"Look, Dan, I know I'll be bending the rules. But, dammit, Stoner's right. Leave aside whether they'd hang the bastard or not. Frankly, I can't say I'd lose much sleep over that, anyway. On the best day of his life, Freddie Congden was a flaming asshole. You know it as well as I do. I never could figure out why Anita took as long as she did to pack up her bags and leave the guy."

" 'Fraid he'd kill her," grunted Dan. "Took me months to convince her I'd see to it he didn't. Which, ah—" He looked away. "I did."

Harry's grin was even wider than before. "Broke the rules again, huh? Hell, Dan, you should've kept your own hands clean and just quietly passed the word to me and Darryl. We'd've seen to it good old Freddie didn't lay a hand on Anita. Hard for a man to beat his wife when he can't catch her. Which I'll gua-ran-tee Freddie couldn't have done, not after Darryl and I reasoned with him. Amazing, the persuasive powers of a two-pound ball-peen hammer applied to a kneecap."

Dan scowled, but said nothing. Mike continued smoothly.

"And you know what else will happen, Dan. Every old maid in the country—most of 'em pot-bellied men—will set up a howl and a shriek for every book in sight to be put under lock and key. Before you know it, it'll be harder to get into a library than Fort Knox. Leaving aside the damage to real civil liberties, that'll cause ten times worse damage to our own technical development than any amount of spying could do. I mean, face it. Do you really want to see all books published in the old universe declared 'items of national security'?"

Mike glanced at the marijuana plants. "If you thought the 'War on Drugs' was stupid, how's about the 'War on Unauthorized Reading?' "

Dan grimaced. Then, held up his hand in a gesture of peace-making. "All right, all right. But—" He turned his head and studied the final member of the little group, who had kept silent throughout. The only one of them, as it happened, who had been born in the 17th century—and had the elegant and aristocratic apparel to prove it.

"But," he repeated, "I want you to stay out of it personally. Let Francisco handle it. Him, at least, I trust to be reasonably judicious. And if the word ever gets out, it'll look better anyway having a well-regarded banker being the one who did the, ah, 'negotiations.' At least he's not a union strong-arm boy or a former professional boxer."

"Sure, no sweat," said Mike. Francisco Nasi, formerly a high courtier in the Ottoman Empire, a shaker-and-mover among the widespread and influential Abrabanel family, and now perhaps Grantville's most highly esteemed banker, was a man of many parts. Mike had high hopes that the young Sephardic Jew would prove to be as good a head of his new intelligence and counter-intelligence service as he had been at everything else in his life. Especially with Uriel and Balthazar Abrabanel to serve as his advisers, since they were too old to serve as functioning spies any longer.

But he left all that unspoken. He saw no reason to start another long argument with Dan Frost. Seeing as how his new intelligence service was completely informal and had—mentally, Mike cleared his throat—ah, never actually been approved by Congress or anybody else except Mike himself.

Francisco let Harry handle the introductory negotiations. By the time he walked through the smashed-open door of Freddie Congden's shabby trailer, the introduction was pretty much over.

Freddie, his eyes looking a bit dazed and his hand covering a bleeding mouth, was looking sideways at the drawer of a nightstand next to the filthy couch on which he apparently slept most nights. Judging, at least, from the number of empty beer containers perched on the nightstand, he wasn't in the habit of reading himself to sleep—whatever other use he had for the books he owned.

"Do it," said Harry cheerfully, the butt of the heavy revolver he'd used to split Freddie's lip now curled back into his fist. "Go for it, you piece of shit. Betcha anything you want I can blow your spine into four separate pieces before you even get that drawer open. And what good would it do you, even if you could get it open? When was the last time you fired it, anyway? Much less cleaned it? Huh?"

Almost casually, his boot lashed out and drove Freddie down onto the couch. "Fuck you, asshole." Harry leaned over, pulled the drawer completely out of the nightstand, and slid it onto a nearby formica table. The trailer's dining table, that was, insofar as the term could be used to refer to a piece of furniture which was so completely covered with debris that even a cup couldn't have been set down on it. In the course of sliding the drawer onto the table, Harry sent a small landslide of rubbish tumbling to the floor.

He glanced, very briefly, into the drawer. "Where the hell did you get that piece of crap, anyway? Musta bought it from some guy standing by the road with a placard that said: 'Will sell Saturday Night Special for food.' "

He shook his head. "Jesus. You were a cheapskate about everything, weren't you? What I can't figure out is how you ever came to own any books in the first place."

Finally, Freddie spoke. "Jeez! Hey, Harry, I'm in the union."

"Freddie, you were the sorriest damn member the United Mine Workers ever had. And if you're smart, you won't remind me about it." Harry stepped forward a pace or two. "And answer my question. Where in the hell did you get all the books you've been selling? I didn't think you'd read anything since you dropped out of high school—not even a newspaper."

"I don't know what you're talk—" Harry's boot drove him back into the couch, leaving a muddy print on his chest. Freddie gasped for breath.

"You get one lie, Freddie," said Harry softly. "You just had it." He nodded toward Nasi. "You either do it the man's way—or you'll do it my way. Personally, I'd suggest you throw yourself on the mercy of the banker. That's sorta what you might call a 'strong recommendation' kind of suggestion."

Another man might have accompanied those words with some sort of threatening physical gesture. The fact that Harry said the words without moving a muscle beyond those needed to speak made the implied threat . . . frightening. Francisco Nasi was a little taken aback. He realized that he still had a tendency to think of Harry the way the up-timers did: as the often-reckless and always pugnacious youngster he'd always been, but one who, nevertheless, was basically quite decent. Decent, Harry Lefferts still was—Francisco was quite sure of that. But he too had been subtly transformed in the two years since the Ring of Fire. This was no "kid," any longer. This was a very, very dangerous man.

Freddie, obviously, had no doubt about it at all. He looked away, blood still oozing from the gash on his lip. "What the hell," he mumbled. "Was just books, fer Chrissake, and I needed the money. Only fair, dammit, all the money I wasted on that rotten kid."

Francisco had already started searching the trailer. Behind him, he heard Harry's cold answer. "Call your kid George 'rotten' again, fuckhead, and you'll spit teeth. I remember the little guy, y'know. He always seemed beaten down, scared to death by everything. With a father like you, that ain't hard to understand."

Nasi opened one of the interior doors of the trailer and entered the small room beyond. After taking two steps, he came to a halt. The room was . . . impressive.

The room was clean, for a start—certainly by the standards of the rest of the trailer. Francisco suspected that was because the son George had kept it clean when he lived there, and Freddie had never entered it since except to steal his own son's possessions for the sake of treason.

"That poor boy," he murmured.

The room was practically a library in its own right. Outside of a narrow bed, every wall except one was covered with shelving. Cheap shelving, naturally—Freddie wouldn't have allowed anything else. But the books resting on those shelves weren't particularly cheap. No fancy first editions, of course, and only a few of them were hardcovers. But every shelf was packed with paperbacks of all kinds, ranging from children's books George must have gotten as a little boy all the way through dog-eared copies of a history of the American civil war by someone named Foote and a thick volume on the principles of astronomy.

Nasi's eyes moved to the one wall which was bare of shelves. From the ceiling, suspended by a string over the bed, hung a plastic model of some sort of spacecraft. Francisco wasn't positive, but he thought it was a replica of what the up-timers called an "Apollo." He'd seen pictures of them. Behind it, covering most of the wall, was a very large stellar map showing the galaxy. In a corner inset, the Solar System was displayed.

For a moment, Nasi felt a pang of sorrow. He could imagine the life of young George Congden, with a sullen brute of a father and a terrified mouse of a mother. Trying to carve out for himself, in the one little room which belonged to him, a world of his own imagination. Quietly but stubbornly fighting his father for every dime he could get, to buy another precious book or a map of another universe.

Another universe. "Good luck to you, George, wherever you are," Francisco murmured. "At least you won't have your father to worry about any more."

By then, Harry had come over and peeked in. "Jesus," he said.

Francisco glanced at him, shaking his head. "Why did they leave it all behind them?" he wondered. "I'm sure the boy must have been heartbroken."

Harry's head-shake was one of anger, not puzzlement. "I didn't see her leave, myself, but I heard about it. All Anita had—the only thing she owned except maybe a suitcase or two of clothes for her and the boy—was a beat-up old Fiesta. There'd have been no way to fit this stuff into it." His jaws tightened, making him looking scarier than ever. "But I'll tell you this for sure, Francisco. However heartbroken George might have been at leaving his books behind, he'd have done that in a minute to get away from his father. Any kid this side of an insane asylum would. Freddie Congden is a real piece of work."

Harry turned on his heel and walked back into the main compartment of the trailer. In seconds, he was standing in front of Freddie again, with Francisco a step or two behind him. Freddie himself was still on the couch, dabbing at his lip with a grimy rag of some kind.

"Okay, Freddie, here's how it's gonna work. If we wanted to, we could have you arrested. I'm not sure we could get an actual charge of treason to stick, since I think—I'm no lawyer, y'know, so I'm guessing a little—that 'treason' has a lot of fancy curlicues and quibbles that your case might not exactly match. But it doesn't matter. I'm not a lawyer, but Mike Stearns has the best one in town as his attorney general. 'Trafficking with the enemy,' whatever—we'd make enough charges stick to put you away forever. If you were lucky, that is. Keep in mind the jury'd be mostly German, and those folks'd have no trouble at all voting for the noose. Don't doubt it for a minute."

Freddie left off dabbing his lip, his face growing pale. "Hey, what the hell! We're just talking about kids' books—and they were my own property to begin with!"

Harry smiled thinly, put his left hand around his throat, and mimicked a man strangling to death. Then, after lowering the hand:

"Save your breath, Freddie—especially since you haven't got all that many breaths left to spare. I can just see you trying that argument on the jury. Buncha primitive Krauts, y'know—most of 'em holding a lot of silly grudges on account of how the people you've been selling your books to have been murdering and raping and looting and butchering and burning out their families for the past fifteen years or so."

Freddie's face was very pale, now. "Yeah, that's the way it is, Congden," said Harry coldly. "If you want to try your luck, go ahead. But I suggest you consider my alternative."

Freddie's swallowed. "What alternative?"

"From now on, you work for us. You'll keep living here, just like you have been. And you keep selling your kid's books and stuff. Except you'll tell your customers you're starting to run a little low on your stock, so from now on you'll have to sell them copies of the books." Harry glanced at the littered dining room table. "You'll have to clean that off, since you'll be spending most your time from now on sitting at that table, hand-copying the books we tell you to copy—with certain adjustments in the text."

He hooked a thumb at Nasi. "Francisco here will tell you what adjustments he wants. I think the real spy types would call him a 'control officer.' But you and me are coal miners—even if you were the sorriest bastard ever went down in a mine—so you can just think of him as your boss. From now on, Freddie, you'll do whatever Francisco tells you to do. Understand?"

Freddie's eyes flicked at Francisco, then back. His lips twisted a bit. "Get somebody else. I ain't taking orders from no kike. Anybod—"

This time, Harry's boot drove into his belly. Freddie lurched forward on the couch, clutching his stomach, his mouth gasping for breath.

An instant later, the gasp turned into a gag. Harry had the barrel of his revolver pressed against the back of Freddie's throat. Freddie was literally cross-eyed, staring at the gunbarrel in his mouth. The eyes grew round as well as crossed when he saw—and heard—Harry cock the hammer.

"This is a .357, did I mention that?" Harry's tone of voice was light-hearted. "And I do want to thank you, Freddie, since you're gonna make it possible for me to win an old argument with Darryl, whenever I see him next. Him and me had an argument about it, way back when. Darryl claims if you blow a man's head off with your gun shoved all the way down his throat—handgun, that is, major caliber, magnum round—you'll blow your own hand apart along with it. 'Hydrostatic shock,' somethin' like that—Darryl always did fancy himself with big words."

Harry grinned. Watching, Francisco thought it was the coldest and most savage grin he'd ever seen in his life.

"Me," continued Harry, "I think Darryl's full of shit. I bet I can blow your brains right out of the back of your head without getting worse than maybe a split thumb. 'Course, I admit, Darryl's bound to claim the experiment was no good—on account of you got no brains to begin with—but I can't say I really give a damn. I'd like to do it anyway, just 'cause I despise your sorry ass."

For a moment, Nasi thought Freddie might faint. Then, seeing the man's eyes rolling wildly at him, Nasi patted Lefferts on the shoulder.

"I think he's seen the light of day, Harry."

Harry withdrew the gunbarrel, tilted it away, and lowered the hammer. Then, made a face at it and stepped over to the dining table. He plucked a rag of some kind from the debris—a towel, perhaps; it was hard to tell—and started hurriedly wiping off the barrel. "Damn," Harry muttered. "Your saliva's worse than acid. My favorite piece, too."

Harry lifted his eyes from the task and gave Freddie a look of sheer menace. "You will take orders from your boss, shithead—that's Mister Nasi, to you—or you won't have to worry about a German jury. I'll just kill you myself. Save the taxpayers some money."

"Okay," croaked Freddie.

When they returned to Stoner's place, where Mike had waited for them, Harry made an announcement. "I think I've got the knack for this Double-O-Seven stuff. All I gotta do now is learn that fancy game. Whazzit called? Shummin-de-fur, or something. Y'know, what they play in Monaco."

Nasi seemed to choke a little. Mike shook his head firmly.

"Not a chance, Harry. You'd have to give up your boilermakers and learn to drink dry martinis. Shaken, not stirred."

Harry scowled. "Well, forget it then. I guess I'll just have to learn to be a country-boy roughneck instead."

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