Welcome to chapter nine of “December, 1919″, a serialized novel written by Oliver Gray. New chapters will be published every week. Links to all published chapters can be found here.
He introduced himself as Reginald “but you can call me Reggie” Buckner. He announced on licorice tainted breath that he was here at the behest of the Internal Revenue Service, and would be performing a final inventory. He smelled like musk left to dry on old paper. He smiled like a card shark about to drop a royal flush on an unsuspecting table of players who were all in.
The brewery staff lined up like weary soldiers; Virginia, William, and myself as front line vanguards, scouting out the inspector’s tactical positions. His pacing was methodical and practiced, the deliberate, probably counted steps of a dangerously bureaucratic man who took his job very seriously and liked it very much.
“I know this may be uncomfortable, but if we can simply review what is in stock against your final purchase orders, we can have this done quickly.” Buckner said, flipping through sheets of paper attached to a clipboard. His pencil darted across the page, grating graphite engraving an epitaph on our legal tombstone. “First things firsts, let’s discuss raw ingredients.”
The hired laborers had piled the remaining bags of uncracked malt into a tidy pyramid directly in the middle of the brewery floor. Loose kernels spilled from small tears in the cloth, the sugary life blood of the brewery seeping out through a hundred tiny cuts. Buckner kicked a sack,covering his shiny black shoes in yellowish dust. “Malted barley first. The confirmation slip from your last delivery says you accepted forty five, one hundred pound bags of American two-row barley from Shipley Malting Company. I only count 32 bags. Where are the other 13?”
I spoke up. “We brewed a stock ale two weeks ago. It used nearly twice the malt of our normal recipes.”
“And who are you, boy? I’ll take my information from someone in charge, thank you.” He said, nose turned skyward, as dismissively as possible.
Virginia’s knuckles stretched white. “This is Jack Cooper, sir.” Her voice slashed through the tension in the room, a delicate but deadly axe. “And he owns this brewery.”
Buckner looked down at his papers, then back up at me, then back down at his papers. “This is Jack Cooper?” The condescension fell off his face while incredulity climbed up it. “I’m sorry. I just…I expected someone…older.”
Virginia snapped, defensive and bitter. “Jack’s plenty old enough.” A fire, hard to define as anger or angst, flashed across her eyes.
“No need to get upset, ma’am, I’m just trying to do my job. Anyway, Jack, you were saying about the missing malt?” His tone shifted back to hard and professional, but the subtle change in his body language betrayed embarrassment.
“The stock ale took extra; about 300 pounds worth. We lost a batch of English style barleywine to infection last month, too, which should account for the difference.”
Buckner scribbled something hastily on his paper. “And do you have anything to account for this loss?” He asked, locking his eyes to mine. Grey, cold, probing.
“Nothing on paper,” I said, ” but our logistics manager, William, can verify.” William fidgeted, cracked his knuckles, and looked straight at the floor.
Buckner ran his finger down the paper, stopping abruptly and tapping when he reached William’s name. “Ah, Mr. Johnson. Can you verify?”
William sputtered, his words tripping over his tongue like a drunk on a midnight stumble home. “Er, yes. We brewed with it all. It’s gone.” William could barely make eye contact, and his fidgeting grew more pronounced the longer he stood at attention.
“You seem nervous, Mr. Johnson. Are you not feeling well?” He asked. Virginia’s elbow nudged mine subtly, but noticeably.
“Will cut his hand badly yesterday; I think he’s still shaken about it.” I said, deflecting.
Buckner walked closer to William, and asked to see his hand. Will raised it up, chest high, turning his palm over to show the dark red stains of dried blood on the white linen mummied around his fingers. “What happened? That looks serious.” Buckner said, keep his distance from the bloody hand.
“I…I cut it on the grist mill. There was some sharp metal and I wasn’t pay attention…” Will trailed off.
“I told him he should be resting. He’s afraid of blood. Last year our cooper snapped a hoop on one of the barrels, and it nearly took is arm off. I thought Will was going to faint.” I said, ” Unfortunately, we were all frantic to prepare for your visit, and, like my dad always said, a brewery is a dangerous place to rush.” I nodded at William, and he seems to calm down. A little.
Satisfied, Buckner walked back to the pile of sacks, scribbling more notes. “If Jack can answer the rest of my questions, feel free to go home and rest, Mr. Johnson.” Will looked at me, and I nodded. He quickly made for the door, thanking our dutiful inspector before grabbing his hat and coat and vanishing into the snow globed afternoon.
“He’s an odd one.” Buckner said, looking at the doorway.
“Yea, but he worked for my father for years, and is great at keeping orders straight.” I said. “What’s next?”
The rest of the inspection played out smoothly, all the actors knowing their roles, remembering their lines. The hop leaves, all sticky with yellow powder, were placed into large wooden boxes, and hauled out by two of Buckner’s behatted lackeys. After explaining that our yeast was nearly older than the brewery itself, and that to destroy it would be to destroy a piece of Philadelphian history, Buckner decided to let me take a small bottled culture home, on the one condition that I deliver it to the University of Pennsylvania’s biology department within the week. His men made quick work of the sacks of malt, loading them onto the back of a wooden framed truck, to be hauled away as contraband to warehouses unknown.
I signed the papers. Buckner seemed pleased, and thanked me, on behalf of the US government, for my understanding and cooperation during this period of transition. With a tip of his hat, he said, “I’ve always liked your beer.” He turned and looked at the kettles. “It’ll be sad to see this place turned into a stinking fish den. But I have to do my job. No hard feelings, I hope.”
“None.” I said. “The law is the law.” Buckner seemed very pleased with the obedient nature of my last comment. He turned and left, head down, reviewing his papers one last time.
Virginia grinned at me. I threw a smile back.
Beneath our feet, tucked under some old planks and almost forgotten rusted grates, hid thirteen pristine sacks. Just shy of 650 pounds of American two-row barley.
To be continued…