People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
I rode to the crime scene in the early morning calm of Magdeburg's streets. It was not difficult to find. The area, surrounded by the flickering light of torches, oil storm lamps, and at least one up-time flashlight, was in one of the worst-looking parts of town, and in a city that has been subjected to sacking and burning, that says a lot. The flashlight—one of the very few still left with some battery power—was being used sparingly, but it gave me a good idea of my goal. That was very fortunate because this area was far from our usual security rounds haunts around the riverside navy yard. I dismounted and left the reins of my "horse pool" mount in the care of one of the Marine military policemen who formed the outer cordon of the scene.
Some members of the city watch leaned on their pikes nearby, observing us, talking and joking in low murmurs, apparently without a care in the world. Their common seventeenth-century finery looked—now, to me—too ornate, especially contrasted with the simple subdued style of the up-time uniforms, armbands and weapons of the MPs and navy masters-at-arms who were present. Their disrespectful attitude towards the dead also bothered me but showed clearly that whoever was inside the area was no longer their concern. That made it one less turf fight for me. The young military policeman, on the other hand, was having problems dealing with their carefree stance and his clenched jaw and stern face failed to hide his contempt. In situations like this one, relations between military personnel and civilians tend to fray rather quickly, which, apart from the late hour, explained the absence of curious bystanders.
I nodded to the MP and murmured my thanks, purposely ignoring the watchmen as I entered the cordoned-off area. I saw more MPs and masters-at-arms and sensed the air of contained fury that emanated from them. I braced myself for what was waiting. I could now see two bodies on the ground and, long before I got close enough to see them properly, I smelled the coppery odor of blood mixed with the pungent smell of feces and urine, the ultimate indignity of death. Finally, I came close enough to make out the full details. A woman in a modest civilian dress lay facedown across the body of a man; she looked vaguely familiar. I racked my brain trying to place her. The man was in the undress greens of an enlisted Marine, a private first class by the single red chevron on his sleeve, and a stranger to me. Both were barely in their twenties, just children really; a young couple out on an evening stroll, not unlike dozens of others, and who, now, would never grow old. The scene filled me with sadness at the unnecessary waste of young lives and anger at the unknown killers. The area around their bodies had been blocked off with staked cords. It had helped to keep it mostly undisturbed but it still didn't answer my first question of the night. What the hell were they doing out here, so far away from the yard?
The owner of the up-time flashlight joined me and stood quietly by my side as I pondered that and many other questions, taking in the scene. Brunhilde Spitzer is a few years younger than I am, a comrade and more, from our Committee of Correspondence days. Brunhilde was not really her given birth name either; once she had been a camp follower and prostitute before heeding the message of Gretchen Richter, changing her name and starting a new life. Like Gretchen, you don't stand in her way. Perhaps that explained why she adopted the name of one of the Valkyrie warriors of the old tales; I have never inquired. I knew firsthand the power of that message; it had also changed my life, although in my case I got to keep my old name. When Admiral Simpson asked me to join and later lead what would become the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, I, too, followed Gretchen Richter's message and, emboldened by the love of a good woman, accepted and embraced the opportunity for a fresh start away from the petty thievery of my old life.
"Special Agent Spitzer," I said finally.
"Director Schlosser, I am sorry that I had to call you all the way out here this early in the morning. But I want a second opinion. You did much better than me at the crime scene investigation classes and I could use your advice. The night watch commander told me that they are our people, so this is our mess, sir." She addressed me in a formal manner that still barely contained her anger. There were too many non-NCIS personnel within hearing range, so we could not speak candidly. It was for the best; our exact opinion of the city watch and their officers was not for outsiders. Besides, we needed to maintain the professionalism that Dan Frost had drilled into us, and set an example for the young MPs and MAAs present. So I simply nodded in understanding.
The crime scene belonged to us now; it was our first major murder case.
When Admiral Simpson had put his group of civilian agents together, our primary mission had been to provide for up-time and naval personnel security as bodyguards—in naval parlance, force protection. In the beginning, Committee of Correspondence members had provided that service to the navy, by orders of Joachim Thierbach, the local committee chairman and who was assisted by Gunther Achterhof, my mentor. Even then, it was under my direction; that position had first brought me to Simpson's attention. You could say that the good admiral had a personal interest in the subject, since French agents had tried to kill him shortly after his arrival in Magdeburg. In the maelstrom of the political scene of our newly formed nation, the United States of Europe, the navy could not afford to be associated too closely with one of the political factions. So the CoC was out and Simpson had approached me with a job offer. It had seemed simple enough: do the same thing for him that I had done for the committee, but now for pay. That was an offer that I could hardly refuse. Revolutionary fervor can go only so far in providing sustenance to the body or a roof over one's head, especially now that I had other responsibilities.
Our scope of responsibility continued to expand, in what I now knew to call mission creep. There was money to be made out of the business generated by the needs of a burgeoning navy and Marine Corps and the works of the shipyard, lots of it. Some parties were none too scrupulous in its acquisition. The local authorities were uncooperative at times and some were outright on the take. That was not news to me; I had similar experiences in my CoC days, but it caught Admiral Simpson by surprise, and he told me to take care of it. So, we found ourselves dealing with corruption, fraud, shoddy materials, and theft.
Naturally, a case could be made that putting me and mine in charge of those investigations had been akin to letting the fox guard the henhouse. After all, most of our agents had lived very interesting lives before joining, and not always on the right side of the law. I prefer to think that we possessed hard-won expertise on the subject matter that makes us very difficult to fool. Owing our loyalty to the navy that had given us a second chance; we could not be easily bought, either. It showed in the success of our efforts. I have to confess that there is some truth to the rumors that a visit from me or mine could ruin your whole day. The admiral had once commented that our idea of law enforcement would have given apoplexy to any up-time cop. I reminded him that he was no longer living there; besides, our growing notoriety meant that no one now dared to cut corners on materials or services bought by either the navy or the Corps.
Despite the best efforts of pastors, priests, and rabbis, the men and women who had suddenly found themselves as new citizens of the USE had not suddenly metamorphosed into angels, either. The naval services had gotten their fair share of bad apples. We were tasked with cleaning them out. By this time, recognizing that we were now far from the bodyguards that he had originally envisioned, and needing a permanent solution, Admiral Simpson had bowed to the inevitable and created NCIS with our original men at its core. I mean, recreated NCIS. His twentieth-century navy had a similar outfit, almost certainly for much the same reasons. Now officially the naval law enforcement organization, our mandate put us in charge of the entire navy- and Marine Corps-related criminal matters and, to prevent jurisdiction conflicts, also contained an imperial warrant from his majesty, Gustav Adolph II, that extended our reach through the whole USE and its territories.
The admiral had also taken steps to standardize and improve our training to keep us on par with the rest of the new technologically savvy naval service that he was busily building. He had hired the former chief of the Grantville Police, Dan Frost, to advise and orient us in the acquisition of those skills that the job now required. Chief Frost must have found it amusing to work with men that he would have once thrown into the slammer without a second thought. I know we did. He trained us and we then trained the military police and masters-at-arms, establishing the pecking order for naval law enforcement. It was during this period that "Brunhilde" joined us.
Of course, I was initially strongly opposed. Bodyguard work demanded big and muscled men. You either deter an attack with your sole presence or need to be able to fend it off on your principal's behalf. No women needed apply, I thought—sentiments that even my early exposure to Gretchen and her CoC ideals were unable to override. Once more, Simpson reminded me that we were no longer exclusively in that line of business, and then ordered me to hire her. She didn't remain our only female recruit for long. Since that time, I have very reluctantly come around to his point of view. Working for him and the navy, I was exposed to many women in nontraditional roles. Now, I know that they can be as capable, brave, dedicated, and, on several occasions with female miscreants, as malicious as any man. However, it was the internalization of Chief Frost's teachings that forced me to finally turn the corner on my beliefs. I learned that women could be invaluable on police investigative and undercover work, especially when the society in which they operated tended to make them invisible. That had also given me insight into how the up-timers see us. It was not a flattering portrait.
Brunhilde had taken to this line of work with an ability that was frightening in its single-mindedness. I suspect that her prior occupation and her life experiences had prepared her well for it. Regardless of my feelings, and despite our preexisting relationship, she progressed quickly through the ranks through sheer competence. In Frost's seminar on crime scene investigation, she had come in a very close second in class standing. I was first. Like me, she had discovered within herself an unexpected ability to solve criminal riddles and I was proud of her. She had been the senior agent of the criminal division on watch when she sent for me tonight, getting me out of my lonely but warm bed.
I stooped to get a different view of the bodies. Apart from the senselessness of it all, death did not bother me. I had seen too much of it already, and even inflicted it on others.
The girl's face once more caught my attention with its familiarity. I felt Brunhilde beside me, opening her always-present notepad, and waited for the mystery of her identity to be solved. "Herr Director, the female is Seaman Apprentice Wilhelmina Bischel. She was . . . assigned to the health clinic."
I heard the sudden grief-stricken catch in her voice as it hit me like a punch in the belly. We both knew her as Willie, a friendly girl with a sunny disposition and constant smile that allowed her to deal with all sorts of difficult people, like an embarrassed and suffering NCIS Director, whose worried wife had forced him to seek care for a recurring ailment. I closed my eyes and muttered a short prayer for her soul. I felt ashamed for not recognizing her. The last time I had seen her, she had been full of life and happiness; her friends at the clinic had been teasing her mercilessly about her new beau. It had sounded serious and I had been happy for her.
"The male is Private First Class Wilhelm Hafner. He was a rifleman with Second Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion."
I nodded and assumed that he was the beau in question. I stood and walked around them before stooping again. This investigation had suddenly become very personal to me.
Chief Frost had started his seminar by giving us a lecture on all the technology that was no longer available to him and that now waited to be rediscovered again. It had been sobering. He had concluded by declaring that, despite these losses, the most important pieces of equipment had come through without any problem and were easily available to each of us: the brain, ears, and eyes of a trained investigator. The rest of the course had concentrated on helping us hone those innate abilities. Still, at moments like this, I would give my hoped-for first-born to have photographic equipment available. I had heard of some research in that direction, but I was not holding my breath. Maybe I could try to hire a sketch artist like they had done in Grantville. I have to look into that. I stood up again, deep in thought, and looked at Brunhilde. I knew that she had already formed an opinion, but appreciated the way she was letting me make up my own mind. "Who put the cord around them? It seems that someone was paying attention when we gave the class to the MPs and MAAs about preserving scenes."
Brunhilde usually has a well-developed sense of humor that I enjoy deeply but tonight she was all business. "Petty Officer Leiss and his partner, Private First Class Schuhmacher, were first on the scene, sir." She indicated the two individuals who held their horses in the shadows.
I walked towards them and Brunhilde followed. Leiss was in his late thirties, a riverboat man by the look of him. He was composed but wary. His partner, Schuhmacher, seemed younger than the deceased. Her face, even in the darkness, looked extremely pale although it also had a mixture of anger and grief. I pegged her for a farm girl with little experience with violent human death until tonight, and having chosen military law enforcement as her career, obviously made of sterner stuff than her appearance indicated. I gave her credit for that. Sadly as both a Marine and an MP, this would not be her last confrontation with the aftermath of violence. "Leiss, Special Agent Spitzer tells me that you and your partner were the first on the scene. I appreciate the care that you took with it. Can you tell me anything else?"
"Not much, Herr Director. Me and Schuhmacher were returning back to our rounds, after we made a stop at my home. My wife is expecting our third child and I like to check on her during my shift. It had been cleared with my tour commander. When we heard the whistles of the city watch, we responded with the intention of providing backup. But when we arrived, the watchmen immediately handed primary control of the scene to us and backed off. It surprised the hell out of me, sir. That is, until I saw his uniform and Schuhmacher identified the young woman as navy personnel. We cordoned off the area and sent out for backup and NCIS support."
"You did very well, Leiss. I'll see to it that you two are commended for your quick thinking. " I made a mental note to keep an eye on the man. We were always on the lookout for more qualified personnel to join our ranks. I looked at his partner. "Schuhmacher, I am presuming that you knew Seaman Bischel."
The woman came to attention. Grief stricken or not, she was still a Marine. "Yes, sir. We both were billeted at Frau Muir's guesthouse. She lives on the same floor, two doors from me, but we seldom talked. Different shifts, you know. I knew that she was seeing Hafner; heck, the whole house knew it. She was head over heels in love. The scuttlebutt was that they were planning to marry as soon as he made corporal, sir."
I nodded. Her information dovetailed well with the little that I knew about Bischel. Still, she had been in contact longer with the deceased. I decided to follow my instincts. "Stand at ease, Marine. Did she ever mention anything to you about having enemies or problems with other men?"
She frowned. "Herr Director, the only thing that I can recall is that one of the girls once mentioned to me in passing that one of her cousins was not happy about her joining the navy or seeing Hafner. She and Hafner were from different religious backgrounds, but I thought that it sounded more like jealousy."
I considered her information for a moment. There was something there. Call it a hunch; according to Chief Frost, it was the other invaluable weapon in the experienced investigator's arsenal. "Thank you. Leiss, I would appreciate it if the two of you could stick around for a while."
"Aye, aye, sir," he said.
I returned to the bodies, a silent Brunhilde in tow. My attention was momentarily diverted by the arrival of more naval personnel from the yard. When I had been summoned to the scene, I had also sent out for others whose assistance could be useful in the investigation.
I turned back to Brunhilde and whispered, "Okay, Brunei, this is what I am thinking. This was not a robbery attempt gone wrong."
She looked down at the bodies. "No, it was not, Gunther. She still has her money belt, although I don't see any of their daggers. My gut feeling is telling me to look into that cousin."
My gut was telling me the same thing. "Agreed. By the footprints, I believe that there were multiple attackers, so he had accomplices. It looks like a well thought-out ambush."
Brunhilde looked carefully at the footprints by the light of her flashlight. "At least six, and the kids fought back. I don't believe that all this blood belongs to them."
It was a small consolation in the whole sordid affair that they had not gone meekly into the good night. I just wished that their efforts had been more successful or help closer.
I turned to greet the new arrivals. Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman David Dorrman, an up-timer, was the navy's most senior medical tech. He was accompanied by two litter teams. All of them now stood thunderstruck; they had no problem identifying Seaman Bischel. She had been both popular and well-loved in their ranks. The senior chief let loose a long streak of swearing, half of which was neither English nor German. I let him get it out of his system; I needed him with a clear head.
Finally, he turned toward me. "Director Schlosser, do you know who did this?"
I looked him straight in the eyes. "We have some ideas, but we would like you to examine the bodies and provide us with as much information as you can."
"Here, Director? I can't properly examine them with this little light." He put on his gloves.
"Sorry, but time is of the essence. My gut feeling is that the attackers didn't go too far."
He nodded and turned to his team. "Okay, folks. I need some help here. Help me get Willie on the litter." Carefully, almost with reverence, they picked up Bischel's body and placed her atop the waiting stretcher. Her face looked placid but tear-streaked; her eyes were open. At his command, his corpsmen opened several ponchos and, without being told, turned around as they held them open around her. I was sure that if she could, Bischel would have been grateful for the high regard that they held for her modesty. I wished that I could do the same, but my duty required that I examine the evidence first-hand.
I watched as Dorrman used large scissors to cut away her upper garments, revealing one stab wound on her left side. Brunhilde pointed at the multiple stab wounds on her forearms. We exchanged a knowing look. Her death now seemed accidental, although she had been in the thick of the fight. Dorrman closed her eyes, covered her with a blanket and looked up at me with tears in his eyes. "She didn't die immediately, Director. I'm not a coroner or a physician but I suspect a pneumothorax. Even if I had gotten here in time, I doubt that I would have been able to do too much for her."
I nodded. By the position of the bodies, I surmised that she had had just enough time to drag herself to where her lover had fallen. Brunhilde wiped a single tear away with her hand, her face impassive. There would be time to mourn them later. We watched as Dorrman moved to Hafner's body and, with his corpsmen's assistance, moved him to the second waiting stretcher. In seconds, his upper body had been bared. Unlike Bischel, he had multiple knife wounds on his chest, abdomen and arms, making it likely that he would have bled to death even if you didn't take into account the fatal stab wound under his sternum. Dorrman looked up at me without comment. There was no need; the scenario was now clear in my mind. I exchanged a look with Brunhilde and saw agreement in her eyes.
I moved to the second group that I had summoned that night.
I had requested a squad of scout-snipers and was pleased but not completely surprised to see Gunnery Sergeant Hans Hoffman, the head of the scout-sniper school, at its head. If I hadn't been looking for them, I would have missed them completely in the darkness with their camouflage battle dress uniforms and that unnatural stillness that was the mark of the trained sniper. I had requested their assistance because most scout-snipers had prior backgrounds as game wardens and were adept at following trails and tracking wounded prey. Their eyes were on the two blanket-covered bodies and their faces seemed carved in granite.
"Gunny, we think that their killers were wounded in the attack and may not have gotten too far. Do you think that your men can attempt to pick up their trail?"
He looked once more at the bodies and then back at me. "We will try, Herr Director . . . we will try really hard," he said, before starting to issue his orders. The squad split into two-man teams and spread around the site in a circular search pattern, starting from the cordoned-off area. I knew that they were going to have to earn their pay tonight.
The area around the bodies and outside the corded area was muddled with footprints. I blamed our good friends from the city watch. Our agents, MPs and MAAs are trained to walk the same patches and not add confusion to crime scenes. The watchmen didn't have the benefits of future forensics knowledge and most didn't care to learn. We'd offered them training but they had been unwilling to accept lessons from people that they still considered thieves, thugs and prostitutes.
It was fifteen long minutes before one of the teams found a trail. Hafner and Bischel's bodies had been carried to the waiting ambulance and were now on the way back to the infirmary at the yard. Dorrman and all the male corpsmen had stayed behind and were now checking their personal weapons. Although navy, Fleet Marine Force corpsmen tend to reflect the same aggressive outlook of their usual companions.
The lucky team's bird call signaled their success. Immediately, Hoffman and the rest converged on them, examined the signs, and proceeded to follow the trail. I held everyone else back to give them space to maneuver until they were ahead of us by at least five hundred meters, then we followed. There was no thought of involving the city watch; for what we needed to do, they were practically worthless. We needed live perpetrators, not more dead bodies. Besides, it was a matter of naval honor.
We moved as silently as possible with frequent stops and starts for over half an hour before one of the scouts appeared at my side. Brunhilde, surprised, had to strangle a cry. I followed the scout back to where Hoffman waited. Our quarry seemed to be holed up in a dilapidated shack on the outskirts of Magdeburg.
"Herr Director, the trail ends there and we think that they are all inside. How do you want to do this?" he murmured in my ear. I looked at the house and then at the horizon, where the faint light of dawn had started to appear. If we delayed too long, darkness and the element of surprise would disappear. I decided that the rules of hot pursuit applied here and returned, trailed by Hoffman, to where the main group waited. I quickly sketched my plan on the ground and explained it to everyone, my voice pitched low.
The second wagon had brought weapons and Marine-issue breastplates and helmets. The scout-snipers quickly suited up. They were trained in ship-boarding maneuvers and that made them suitable to act as an improvised up-time-style special weapons and tactics team. Maybe it was overkill for a group of killers that had not shown too much enterprise in covering their tracks, but I was not in the mood to play fair. I donned a spare breastplate and helmet, intending to be part of the takedown, until I saw Brunhilde doing the same. I was momentarily flabbergasted but held my tongue. She looked directly into my eyes, and I was able to easily read her determination. I could have ordered her to stay behind, and my instincts screamed at me to do so, but I could not do it. She has earned her place here. So, I shrugged my shoulders instead and made sure that my NCIS gold badge was pinned firmly to the front of my breastplate. Brunhilde did the same. At my signal, everyone moved into place. The military police and masters-at-arms, reinforced by Dorrman and his corpsmen, surrounded the house at a distance. I had Leiss and Schuhmacher keep a discreet eye on Dorrman; he was still extremely pissed off and I didn't want it to interfere with the matter at hand. I wanted the bastards alive.
The scout-sniper squad split in two; half went towards the back where they would attempt a rear entry. Brunhilde and I joined the group led by Hoffman with our handguns drawn. I made sure that Brunhilde was behind me, where they would have to go through me to get to her. We tiptoed toward the front entrance, using cover as much as possible, until we got to the door. The house seemed eerily quiet. I waited until Hoffman gave me the agreed "all ready" sign. I counted to three and then, with all the force in my lungs, shouted clearly for all to hear.
"IMPERIAL AGENTS. OPEN UP."
Legalities served, Hoffman and the rear entry team leader used almost simultaneous shotgun blasts to force open both doors. I followed my group into the house but by the time I entered it was all over except for the paperwork. Our suspects were being tied up even as they were waking up. If the thought of putting up a fight had crossed their minds, it had quickly died in the presence of the many armored and expressionless scout-snipers. They surrendered peacefully while still claiming their innocence. Well, not all of them. One was found dead on his bed. The notorious cousin and the rest of his accomplices were worse for wear, too. Our young couple had sold their lives dearly. We found their naval issue daggers on top of one of the tables.
Even without a confession, the circumstantial evidence against them looked strong. In a clear voice that dripped with contempt, Brunhilde read them their rights as we frog marched the cousin out of the shack. Although I once considered such things to be quaint up-time customs, both the admiral and Chief Frost had convinced me that we needed to set a higher standard than was commonplace—standards that hopefully one day would set the example for a whole nation—even the Magdeburg city watch. Besides, we were naval law enforcement professionals now, and we wouldn't take a second place to anyone.
Disappointed that no one had tried to escape custody, Dorrman had to be satisfied with providing our captives with medical care. I wanted to ensure that they would stay healthy long enough to make their almost-certain appointment with the executioner. However, first they were bound to have a long interview session with me. The results would be presented to the city prosecutor and magistrates. Confession was good for the soul.
I was so looking forward to that.
The slow cadence of a muffled drum set the pace of the funeral procession, the sound echoing along the packed streets of Magdeburg where its citizens stood respectfully. I had unconsciously fallen into step as we followed the two caissons that, side by side, were taking the flag-draped coffins of Corporal Hafner and Petty Officer Bischel—both promoted posthumously—to their final resting place. The pallbearers taking them there were a mixture of Marine and navy personnel extracted from the ranks of corpsmen, sniper-scouts, MPs, MAAs, and members of Hafner's platoon under the direction of Senior Chief Dorrman and Gunnery Sergeant Hoffman. Bravo Company, in dress blues and with fixed bayonets provided the escort.
Brunhilde and I walked behind the kids' grieving families. Admiral Simpson and the Marine commandant were at the head of the NCIS delegation, practically all of our agents who were off duty. Our gold badges had a thin black band across them, providing a shiny contrast against our subdued mourning clothes and set us apart from the rest. Behind us, military dependants, civilian clerks, shipyard workers and their families, off duty navy and Marine ranks and any others that could lay claim to membership in our close-knit service family, followed. Still, the funeral was considered an unofficial activity and I was glad that Brunhilde's hand was firmly grasped in mine. She was here today as my wife and not as a fellow agent—another working couple in this strange naval community of ours, just like the two youngsters in the coffins would never be. I thought that, on a day like today, we needed each other's support in our mutual grief for two lovers who could have easily been us.
But I was also grimly satisfied; their killers would have their own appointments with death, in the form of the hangman's noose, in a week. They had confessed to setting the ambush with the purpose of roughing up Hafner on her cousin's instigation. Of course, they failed to take into account the mettle of the individuals who volunteered to join the naval service and the situation had escalated beyond their control. Now, they'd had their day in court, and the case was closed.
On a more personal and happier note, this morning Brunhilde had given me the news that we had hoped to hear for so long. On a day of mourning over young lives lost, it was nice to know that another young life was just beginning, although the determined mother insisted on remaining on the job. Reluctantly—very reluctantly, I might add—I agreed. Me and mine would stand guard over them to protect and serve as we do with the rest of the naval community.
After all, we are the Naval Criminal Investigative Service—that's both our mission and our great honor.