<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 17

And so it was that they all came to be sitting on Merrick’s wall once again – Phantom Spormann, Animal Ronsdorf, ThinMan Niehus, Sparks Krach and Sugar Trietsch.

All the news was discussed. Berta Niehus and Lorenz Fuchs wanted to get married. Stash and the others were opposed to that. There was once again peace and quiet in the cave. With Anna Kusnevski something was on the way. Grandpa Thiel had found someone sneaking around in the garden and had gone half crazy with his cane and had beat the bugger from here to there. Alex Schulte had been locked up for two weeks and, when he came back out again, was missing much in the way of teeth and he had a broken nose.

Abbatz the stutterer had suffered a fatal mishap. He had an unfortunate encounter with a landmine right in the neighborhood. But now there was one less dangerous spot in the Red Mountains.

“And how is it with you, in all this lovely summery freshness?” Sugar wanted to know.

So Phantom gave a little treatise on goats and goat cheese and goat’s milk, and ThinMan said, “Bleat a little for us please,” etc etc, the same old stuff.

And so it was that Phantom felt right at home once again.

They adopted as a common order of business this upcoming wedding between Berta Niehus and Lorenz Fuchs.

Everybody agreed that they were meant for each other. Every time the train captain had a little free time he would take his friend for a walk in her wheelchair. He would lean over the back of this same wheelchair holding this sweet tender little lame lady. He would whisper things close to her ear, and Berta Niehus loved every minute of it. She laughed a lot and sometimes she would lay her hand lightly on Lorenz’s hand as it guided the chair. There would be earnest discussions.

Everybody in the neighborhood greeted them warmly. Ofttimes they would read things aloud. The porch in front of Lorenz Fuchs’ little house, more an arbor really, was their usual spot.

ThinMan had eavesdropped on them there once. “He read stories,” ThinMan reported, “nothing exciting. Clouds, thunder, storms. Wouldn’t be surprised if he wrote them himself, the little fox.” ThinMan liked Fuchs and had nothing against it, really, if he moved in with them.

Herta Ronsdorf had also heard a few things, during the nights in the bunker. She reported about Berta reading from a book about Lookbird, Lamebird and Cackle Eddy. “And I repeat,” Herta Ronsdorf repeated, “Lookbird, Lamebird and Cackle Eddy. And both of them giggled. I naturally pretended to be asleep, but I heard every word. I don’t know what to think,” Herta said. “Berta Niehus always used to be an intelligent woman. But now she’s a little bit snowed, a little bit.”

“Leave it, why don’t you,” said Anna Spormann.

It was, however, not as simple as all that. The cohabitation of these two, a little strange maybe, but in normal times nobody would have cared.

Berta Niehus was not, however, your basic nobody. People came from all over to meet at her place. In her railway car first class, under a rug in ThinMan’s bedroom, was the entrance to the underground tunnel. And Lorenz Fuchs was still a member of the Nazi Party.

It’s true, the train captain had been the one to get the car full of wine kegs out onto the holding track. That was aiding and abetting robbery, and he could get the death penalty for that. Still and all in all, if the chips were really down Fuchs would be able to talk himself out of that one. The goons would surely believe him, the Party member, before they would believe anybody else.

“And besides, who besides Berta Niehus wants to risk putting both feet right in the fire? How do we know Fuchs isn’t a spy, with the assignment of getting to the Organization through ThinMan’s Grandma?” Stash and the others, and especially Ewald Stumpe, thought it was all completely too dangerous. They told her she should be patient until the end of the war. Fuchs shouldn’t move in with her before that.

There was a loud altercation at her place. Stumpe was there and argued with her. ThinMan listened to the whole thing from his bedroom.

“You have to understand, it will only be a couple of weeks before the Ammies will be here.”

“So,” said Berta Niehus, “you don’t trust me anymore.”

“Nonsense,” Stumpe said, “but we all want to grow old here. One has to be willing to give up certain feelings.”

“How am I supposed to interpret that?”

“Well now...” Stumpe wandered around in circles.

Berta interpreted for him, “The question here is the security of everyone. This close to the end we’re not supposed to risk anything more.”

“And you have to admit that you’ve been, in recent times, a little, er um well....”

“Er um well what?” demanded Berta Niehus sharply.

“Well, you lovey-dovey around with that little fox and he’s still in the company of the Party.”

ThinMan’s Grandma’s voice grew shrill and loud. “He can’t drop out of it now, you know that perfectly well, Stumpe. Anyway it is my own private business and I have known Fuchs for decades. I know exactly what is at stake here. Yet I have as much of a right to happiness as anyone, yes even particularly in these times. Anyway a house needs to have a man in it,” etc etc.

“You’re right about happiness, but what’s that supposed to mean, anyway? Pie in the sky. We’re talking about something else.”

At that, Berta Niehus got very quiet and said, “After the end of this war I shall be able to answer for my steps in front of any tribunal there might be. You can depend on that. And now, get out.”

Stumpe stood up. “Any tribunal there might be, as you have put it,” he said softly, emphasizing each word, “is happening right here and now, and you know it. I have thought it over very carefully and I know it.”And at that he left.

A few days after Phantom was back, after they had all played skat and were ready to head off and go hang out in the cave awhile, ThinMan’s Grandma said to him, “Please stay here a moment or two longer, while the rest of them go. I’d like to discuss something with Spormann under four eyes only.”

When they were alone, Berta Niehus began, “You haven’t been over in a long time. A few things have happened since you were here last.”

And she explained about Lorenz Fuchs and the whole story. Now of course the old woman knew already that Phantom had known about all this for a long time, and he wondered what she meant by this. “Surely you will have to admit that the others have been unjust with me in this matter. Fuchs is no Nazi and no spy, surely not in any sense that you understand the terms. You were the one who worked out the plans on the railway car with him. I’m asking you as the son of Heini Spormann, the one whom I respect the most.”

“Careful,” thought Phantom.

That Berta Niehus didn’t really want to hear his opinion on this, that was clear to him. Still, in contrast to many of the others, he certainly didn’t think she was going senile or anything. But what did she have in mind?

He shrugged his shoulders. He said, “I don’t have anything to say. The others were pretty clear about how they feel about it.”

“So,” she said, “and you think I should just submit to this decision, even if it’s completely silly, nay, inhumane?”

And this question, too, seemed ludicrous to him. As if Phantom’s opinion made any difference whatsoever. And so Phantom said, “You have to decide for yourself what to do.”

“That goes without saying,” she said. “And I also know that I have to submit to the others’ judgment on this. Otherwise it’s all over for me. They’ll completely isolate me. No one will tell me anything, no one will care in the least what I think. It’ll be like I’m invisible. People will look right through me, out on the streets. Yes, I know how it will be. I’ll wither away, abandoned by my friends. Not once will even the children pay any attention to me.” And the old woman attempted to cry.

“Fuchs is a respectable fellow,” she said, and she sobbed a little bit. “He doesn’t deserve this.” She dabbed at her eyes a little bit with her hankie.

“Go now,” she said, “I won’t burden you anymore with my story.” Phantom stood up and went to the door.

And Berta Niehus said, “That Fuchs is really something. He managed to detain an 80-liter keg of beer, out of a railway car just as before, from a shipment destined for the Wehrmacht’s larder. It’s for celebrating with.”

Phantom was already at the door. He stopped in his tracks. “Aha!” he thought. “So that’s it.”

He also thought, “Beer!” and he could almost taste it, this beverage that none of them had tasted since forever practically. He turned around. “Beer,” he said, “that doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Not for us,” she said, “but for the officers.”

Now Phantom could see the whole thing. Of course he would go and report to everybody that somewhere was stashed an 80-liter keg of beer, and that this beer wasn’t going to be available until Fuchs and Berta got married and moved in with each other.

He thought he also had it figured out, why the old woman had picked him to explain all this to. Had she, for instance, made even the slightest suggestion of such a thing to Stumpe, he would have ordered a search immediately, with possibly grave outcome. But through Phantom, the story would have its desired effect.

Certainly at first no one would change his or her opinion on the marriage between the two. But with time, every day a little more perhaps, perhaps more so with some than with others, there would come a readiness to rethink this marriage idea. Also, this would be the second time Fuchs had been an agent of plunder.

It’s true, even a spy might be able to do this. Yet still, one could rethink the whole thing one more time.

Phantom thought about it. If the beer story wasn’t true, if Berta Niehus, or, worse, Fuchs, had lied, it would be all over for him.

“I tell the story,” he thought, “the wedding feast gets celebrated, there’s no beer, and I sit there as the Town Fool, no more to be believed.”

Therefore he would have to see the beer first. So he said to the old woman, “I don’t believe you. Fuchs has lied to you.”

Berta Niehus chuckled. “Well,” she said, “I’ll talk to Fuchs. He can show us the keg.” Phantom nodded.

“I suspect that he has the beer in some temporary spot and won’t hide it where nobody can get to it until later,” she said. “But the opportunity is more or less pressing. Beer in a keg will last only two months, three at the most. The keg was filled a month ago.”

“Crazy like a fox,” thought Phantom. “She thought of everything.”

He could view the beer keg, after which it would immediately be hidden, so that it couldn’t simply be stolen.

“You should come to Fuchs’ arbor tomorrow at four,” she said.

That night as Fuchs was away working at the train station, Phantom and Animal sneaked over to his little house. They opened the door with a skeleton key and searched all the rooms, the cellar, and the little shed behind the porch. But they didn’t find anything.

“He can’t carry an 80-liter keg,” Animal said, “not that little fox. It must be somewhere else.”

The next day at 4 o’clock Phantom arrived at the little porch. He knocked, and, upon hearing Berta Niehus’ “come in!” he went in.

Fuchs was sitting at the table. ThinMan’s Grandma was sitting in her wheelchair. And in front of her was a keg, a beer keg. Phantom saw that immediately.

He rolled it. It was heavy and it sloshed around inside. He sniffed at the spigot. It smelled like beer. “Beer,” said Berta Niehus, “the best-brewed beer, in the Pilsener style. Listen to how it foams.” She pressed against the keg. “Fuchs wishes this to be used at our, how shall we put it, wedding feast, isn’t that true, Fuchs?”

Fuchs nodded. “It is intended for this occasion,” he said.

“There could be something other than beer in there,” Phantom said, “like water, or horse piss.”

Fuchs said, “I pledge my word, it is beer. I would like to open the keg right now, but then the beer would be sour by the time appointed for the celebration, and that is what it is intended for.”

Berta Niehus stroked the keg. “Yes,” she said, “Fuchs is firm about it. It’s intended for our party. I too would love to drink a little glass of it right now.”

Phantom went the narrow way back, the one you could see all the way from Fuchs’ arbor to the train tracks. He did not look around once.

Animal was lying hidden behind the shed. ThinMan lay in the garden plots under a hedge of bushes. Sparks was hiding in the hedge lining the path to the other side of the Dreizehnbogen. Sugar was lying under a bush at the tracks, with binoculars.

Phantom climbed to the top of the overpass, well in sight, then down the tracks until he couldn’t be seen from the arbor anymore. Then he ducked down off the tracks and crawled under the bushes to where Sugar was.

They waited and waited. Nothing happened. It grew dark.

Later they all met in Bohr’s shed. Animal was the last one to get there. He said, “They loaded the keg onto a wagon and threw blankets and trash on top of it. Then they headed through the gardens. I followed them as best I could. I had to be careful. And then they vanished into the darkness.”

“Who?” asked Phantom. “Lorenz Fuchs and Hugo Beck, and his leg,” Animal said. The two were cousins.

In the night, as everyone else was sitting in the bunkers, Phantom quietly opened the door to Hugo Beck’s porch. ThinMan went in.

A shot rang out. They threw themselves down. Phantom rolled over to the wall, had his 765 in hand, and waited.

Nothing happened. ThinMan flicked on his flashlight. The beam fell upon garden chairs, dried bouquets, shoes full of dirt, spats, gewgaws in the corners, flypaper on the wall. There was nobody in the room except ThinMan and Phantom.

Then they saw the automatic shooting rig. ThinMan had tripped the string that had been stretched across the room. The only casualty was a pattern for a seat cover.

The next morning Phantom went over to the guards’ post. “Where are you going?” asked the guard.

“Uncle Hugo,” Phantom said, “I have to pick up something from him.”

Hugo Beck sat in his office behind a writing table, the wooden leg stretched out in front of him.

Phantom said, “Did you know that Lorenz Fuchs has a keg of beer?”

“Beer doesn’t exist anymore,” said Hugo Beck, and he continued writing.

“I’ve seen it,” said Phantom. “But he’ll only give it out when they move in together, he and Berta Niehus.”

“Well that beer is going to sour,” said Hugo Beck, “or else the Americans are going to have to be awfully hasty.”

Phantom rolled himself and Beck some cigarettes. They smoked. Beck wrote further. Then he remarked offhandedly, “Someone broke in onto my porch last night. Was lucky, too, the little scoundrel. I have in there a pit, with a trap door on it. You fall 6 feet down onto boards full of ten-penny nails, points up. Whoever falls in there turns into a sieve.”

“No kidding,” said Phantom, “did he take anything?”

Hugo Beck threw his pencil down on the table. He looked Phantom sternly in the eye. “There’s nothing in my house to steal, mark you my words,” he said, “not from your UNCLE HUGO.”

“Well then, they’re already almost there,” Sugar said, “if they have Hugo Beck on their side.”

Phantom went around in the evenings telling the beer story, although of course neglecting to mention Beck.

Anna Spormann, who in earlier times used to enjoy an evening’s beer, watered noticeably at the mouth. “Beer,” she said. “To think that there’s still beer.”

“After the end of the war we’ll have beer again,” Karlheinz said, “but not before. These and other such pleasures one will simply have to forego.”

Anna Spormann said, “In other times that might not be so hard. I’m only talking about beer, you understand. Your other pleasures – at your age you have absolutely nothing to do with them, in any case, you understand me, especially not you,” she said to Phantom, who was grinning.

“But it is true,” she said, “Berta has it hard, there alone with all those children.”