<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 8

From Merrick’s wall practically the entire factory works could be seen: the canister building and the keg division, the machine hall and the lathes, all the important places. And the Russian barracks too. Besides all that, the shuttle tracks were in view.

One only needed to turn around to be able to look into the Quarter. The houses, each one like the next, were grey and rundown, with holes blasted in them from shrapnel. Their windows were covered over with cardboard.

They sat with their backs to the factory grounds. They were watching Kleff’s cat. She was crouching in the gutter on the roof of their shed. She was intent on a flock of young sparrows in the plum tree.

“She won’t get a single one,” said Sparks, “what would you like to bet?”

“We’ll see,” said ThinMan. “Day before yesterday she dragged a thrush out of the attic.”

It was around midday. There was a vague uneasiness hanging in the air. Not that anyone had heard anything out of the ordinary. Nothing but the usual noises. It was more like a whiff of something, or like watching a truck head up the hill but not being able to hear the motor. Just a couple of minutes until the end of the shift, that was all.

But something more was going on. A flock of birds on a rooftop fluttered away, but without making a sound. Everybody noticed it. Animal said so out loud. “Hey, there’s something in the bushes behind us.” But nobody turned around. Instead, they continued to watch Kleff’s cat.

Hugo Beck was hurrying across the yard in front of the canister building.

ThinMan said, “Now’s her chance.”

Then there were voices. Hobnail boots in front of the keg division.

Raised cat hackles. “Watch out, she’s about to spring,” Animal said. They kept their eyes on the cat.

“It can’t be an accident,” Phantom said. “Nobody’s yelling.”

But an ambulance came wailing through the factory gates, and then it stopped. “It’s at the guard’s barracks,” Sugar said.

“A cat can jump more than 15 feet when she has to,” said Sparks. But Kleff’s cat didn’t jump.

“That bastard pig from Bavaria, something has happened to him. About time,” said Animal, “there she goes.” And the cat leaped into the plum tree. There was sparrow hubbub. Branches and leaves trembled and shook, and a cloud of sparrows fluttered heavenward. Then silence again.

“What did I tell you?” said Sparks. “She didn’t get a single one. Now she’ll just sit in the tree awhile, embarrassed.”

A car came down the street, turned in at the factory gate, and drove farther into the grounds. “Look at that,” Animal said. “The goons are already there too.”

They tried to spot Kleff’s cat in the tree, but couldn’t.

“Wonder what it was this time?” ThinMan wondered.

“In the barracks, where he usually sleeps, nobody’s seen him all morning,” said Sugar.

Phantom said, “Something is up for sure. A knife in the stomach, or a slit throat. Someone has been done in.”

It was already well past when the whistle should have blown for the next shift. The midday shift people were already standing there, waiting in front of the factory gate.

“As long as we keep watching, she’s not going to show herself,” Sparks said. “Like I told you, she’s embarrassed.”

And so they turned around. Over the heads of the women and men waiting in front of the gate they could see past to the lathe area, back near where the guards’ barracks were. Those barracks, however, were not quite in view.

A whole crowd of workers moved aside to let the ambulance pass. It moved, but not in a hurry. The gates opened. The ambulance just rolled through them and slowly drove down the street. “So, dead already,” Sugar said. Just then the siren started up, but only for a moment.

They jumped down from the wall and headed over to the tracks. On the way they ran into Phantom’s brother, who, like the others, was headed into the factory. Karlheinz asked, “What’s up?”

“I don’t know exactly,” Phantom said. “Probably the new one from Bavaria.”

Karlheinz grinned. “Well finally,” he said.

From the bushes at the railroad tracks they could now see the guards’ barracks. Just as they got there, Stash was being dragged over to those barracks. In front of the boss’ door a couple of policemen were talking to people headed in for their shift. They stopped them and asked questions, but nobody was agitated, no busy haste. It was all as if nothing had happened.

“It’s very unlikely that Stash could have killed him,” said ThinMan, “very unlikely indeed. Even if you started out with the premise that he was trying to make it with Lena, and Stash walked in just at that moment.”

In reality Stash had never done anything to cause suspicion. And now that he was a leader he had to be even more careful.

Animal remembered the last mishap of near-fatal consequence, which had befallen the last boss of the factory’s security guard. He was Coco Schneider, a traitor, who at the end of the 30’s had gone over to the brownshirts. And he knew enough to get everybody in trouble. He slipped under the wheels of the locomotive, in the evening between the late and the graveyard shifts. Nobody had seen it, not even the engineer Benno Wittmann, who was driving the train with no lights. But Ewald Stumpe had been in the vicinity.

So they told the story one more time about Coco Schneider and Ewald Stumpe, how once they had been friends. They were friends like Phantom’s and Sparks’ fathers, friends until Coco turned into a traitor and nobody knew why.

They knew the story only through anecdotes, and subtle implications, and snatches of sentences, the way adults talk, when they talk about former times. Especially now, when every day brought something new and nobody had the time to wax philosophical over days gone by, except sometimes when they had the chance to party a little.

It was in this context that Phantom’s father had once said, “When something like this happens, you’re in private, nobody’s around, just you and the tormentor, and the one party has less to lose than the other – sometimes the tables can suddenly be turned.”

In any case, Coco Schneider survived. Then Ewald Stumpe landed the unenviable job of having to watch out for his onetime friend. And that meant he had to act like he had switched sides. He dared not meet with his friends anymore, not even for a beer, except in secret, and at that only on very important occasions. So the Nazis promoted him to shop steward.

From there Stumpe was still able to frustrate some of Coco Schneider’s plans. But finally things got so tense that he had to behave himself very well indeed.

“It wasn’t Ewald Stumpe,” Sugar said, “there he is.” And they saw Stumpe and a few other people coming out of the boss’ office, Stash in the middle of them.

Stash was accusing Stumpe up and down, loud and angry, something from the usual list of complaints. The two of them carried on like this a couple of times each day for the general public. Stash was deploring the the dirty tricks being played on his people. Stumpe roared back, “You Russians are all foul potato sacks, all you ever want to do his stuff yourselves,” etc etc.

So Phantom simply ran for it, over the ramp to the guards’ barracks. There were still a few people standing around there.

“What do you want here, you porkhead?” Hugo Beck yelled at him. “Move! Back! Quick! I’ll persuade your feet for you.” Phantom moved back slowly. Hugo Beck was prodding him with his crutch. Phantom let himself stumble. He cried out as if in terrible pain. Hugo Beck was on top of him, hitting him, shaking him, yelling something. He dragged him by the collar back over the ramp, and then he whispered, “That swine from Bavaria is dead. Died all by himself. A stroke. We found him.” Then he started yelling again, “So up and out of here! And it’s too bad if we ever see your face around here again.”

He gave Phantom a push. Phantom stumbled a bit more and then ran back to the others.

“Dead, completely dead,” he said. “A stroke.” They sat in silence, astounded.

Then Sugar said, “Yeah, but our god and master still lives.”

They had to run from Sparks then, but in the direction of his house, because just then his mom was calling him.

People didn’t celebrate for very long, because the next day they came and picked up Dautzenberg. Two presses, used to make the tin liners for the kegs, had been damaged at some time between the night and the early shifts. They were in such bad shape that repairs would take months. The pistons and cylinders in the presses had been completely mangled. The pressing table and the control mechanisms had torn away, and were in pieces. Since they were the only hydraulic presses in the place, and replacement parts were of course no longer to be had, that meant only the old steam press was left. And that meant an 80% reduction in production levels from the keg division.

At noon, shortly before the end of the shift, twenty policemen and a few civilians came with all the rest of the workers into the factory. The police were carrying machine guns. They hauled Dautzenberg out of the office, and surrounded him.

Two hundred and fifty workers started pounding things on the kegs and tin canisters. Other people came over from the machine hall and the canister building, and they formed a human wall, wordless. You could hear the tin concert carrying on in the houses in the Quarter. The women were yelling at them.

The police had their guns aimed at the windows of the Quarter’s houses. They were afraid.

Dautzenberg, pale and erect, marched like a general past his troops. They pushed him into the wagon, which was already moving. They ran after it. Then they raced away, with howling sirens and squealing tires, out of the factory’s gates.

“They’re afraid, truly afraid,” Phantom’s mother said. “If only there were more of us.”

Three days later Dautzenberg was dead. Hanged in his cell.

That evening all the windows in the Quarter stood open. People stood at their windows, and nobody said anything.

Then they sang the Russian song Brothers to the Sun to Freedom. The guards walked around embarrassed, but they didn’t do anything. When the song was over, Phantom took up his harmonica and began to play Once I Had a Comrade. A few sang along softly. The sound carried in the stillness over the railroad tracks.

“A Social Democrat he was,” Anna Spormann said, “but smart. A good friend.”

Then the neighbors came over and it got too crowded for Phantom. He went over to Sparks’ house.

The others were already there, in the attic, with the pigeons. Sparks was on the roof marking the landing area with chalk. Only his legs could be seen. “They aren’t humans anymore, and certainly not animals,” he called from outside.

Sugar was holding Rocco, the 3-year-old stunt racing pigeon who was the best tumbler far and wide. She held him, and stroked him, and said, “All the time now he only talks about animals, how they’re better than humans.” Rocco cooed lightly, contented.

“Come on,” Sparks cried, “let’s climb onto Kleff’s roof. Rocco, come!” he called, and Rocco flew from Sugar’s hand out the window. They climbed out the same way, one after another. They used a rope to walk their way from the chimney over to the flat tarpapered roof of Kleff’s house next door. It had been that way ever since the old roof flew off in a bombing raid.

They sat down, with their backs to Siepmann’s gabled wall. Rocco flew onto Sparks’ stomach and hid his head inside Sparks’ shirt. A stiff wind came up. Clouds came their way, then drifted over and past them.

Slowly it grew dark. The roofs around them became lost in the shadows. Phantom played The Little Trumpeter.

“Not so loud!” Else Kleff called from below.

They smoked ThinMan’s pipe.

“A cat,” Sparks said, “that’s the worst thing for pigeons. Even if he doesn’t get him, he’s sure to unnerve him something fierce. You can’t fight the rules of nature.”

“Not true,” Animal said. “Our pigeon Beppo, prettier than a picture and smart and careful too, the cat didn’t get him. But one day he flew too hard against the line that was holding him, and it hurt his neck, and the cat was watching, and this time the cat could get him, and all the while I’m having to watch this from down below.”

“Oh please do be quiet! Those are your rules, not nature’s. How come he was wearing a line anyway?” Sparks asked scornfully. “That’s a stupid thing for a human to do to an animal. Leaves it helpless.”

Phantom interruped here quickly, because he knew how it usually came out when the two of them started arguing in that tone of voice over animals and humans. “If they took Dautzenberg out for a little heart-to-heart talk, then a few people around here are going to need to disappear,” he said. “So we need to have a few things ready in the cave. So let’s go.”