Welcome to chapter twelve 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.
Wherever I went, the German followed. If I went to the bakery, he was already there, marble rye in hand. Outside the newspaper, he’d loiter on a street corner, near the valets and drivers. Through the steam of coffee dissipating into the frozen air, I could pretty much always see him, a giant half obscured in mist.
He wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. He’d drop his hat down to cover part of his face, but rose above almost every bustling city crowd; an oak among saplings. I hadn’t called him. Definitely hadn’t paid him. And yet he persisted, on my tail until the moment I walked back through my front door at night.
I didn’t mind.
“It’s creepy.” she said, watching him with a side eye as we stood outside the office near the newly paved taxi line. Hot asphalt mingled with exhaust. The stench of modern progress. “How do you know you can trust him? What if he figures out what we’re doing?”
I laughed. “This guy knows what mom made me for lunch, what story I’m chasing, and my exact shirt size. He already knows about the malt, the kettles, that sack of dried hops; I’d guess everything, Ginnie.”
She huffed, not panicked but annoyed. “Well he better be able to keep a secret.” She leaned into my side, jabbing me with her elbow. She locked her eyes to mine. A deep, piercing stare to show she was serious, but all I could see was a sparkling array of emerald.
He had kept the secret, so far at least. I’d done my best to slip and sneak through side streets on our sojourns to the brewery, but this man was a professional. I’m sure he had no problems keeping up with me, even with his massive size. I’d seen him in streetlight shadows when I snuck out the cellar door after a session. Whatever his reason for following me, it had nothing to do with the clandestine brews we’d been boiling in the midnight deep.
We’d produced three barrels in two weeks. Our kettle limited production size; we hadn’t dared fire up the actual brass, not with the news of police already clashing with smugglers and brewers moving south from Canada. Virginia had pawned her gun after she’d realized that it takes a lot more gumption to use the thing than it does to own it. With the money she bought our kettle – an old but sturdy pot from a soup kitchen – and an angry little dagger – white buckhorn handle leading to five inches of potential cuts.
There was plenty of malt to mash for a while, but we had precious few hops to work with. The small garden behind the brewery would produce enough bines to keep us brewing, even if we couldn’t consistently guess the bittering we’d get from the fuggles that my father had dropped into the soil years ago. That didn’t matter now anyway. It’d be at least six months before they’re pop green cones all sticky with yellow dust, spicing the air with pungent citrus and pine.
I’d found some cans of pre-hopped syrup in a dry goods store just outside of Cherry Hill, across the Delaware. The nasty goop compared poorly to real, grain-mashed wort, but the yeast didn’t mind, and I figured beer-starved patrons wouldn’t either. Virginia scolded me for even considering a cheap path, especially when my father had done all he could to keep Philadelphia beer pure and traditional.
“Here, taste this,” she said, holding out a steel ladle. “It’s sour and thin; no one would want to drink this.”
She wasn’t wrong – I’d stretched too little syrup too far – the beer was horrible, if still technically beer. “Beggars can’t be choosers?” I said, raising my voice with my shoulders and tilting my head. She threw the ladle at me.
“I know it can’t be the same as it was, but if we’re going to do this, we should do it right,” she said, her tongue a paintbrush of devotion. “I want to be the best illegal beer in Philadelphia, no, the entire east coast!”
Her zeal made her even more beautiful, even more enticing and alluring like her passion fueled my own. “I agree,” I said, “but if we don’t have any hops, we don’t have any hops.”
“I wonder…” her voice trailed off as she looked up, pensive. “The IRS probably kept all those ingredients, right? And not just ours, but all of the ingredients from all the local breweries.” A grin stole her lips and wrenched them upward. “And I bet they put them all in one place, too.” She rose onto the toes of her boots, as if the climax of her idea was lifting her into the air. “We find that place, find a way in, and take what we need!”
I sighed. Saw it coming, but still faltered as the freight train of crazy came barreling down the tracks. “You’re out of your mind; you do know that right?” I asked her, making sure my mouth wasn’t hanging open.
“It’s not that crazy. All those ingredients…right there. Hops aren’t heavy. We could make off with pounds of them and be set for months. All we have to do is learn where they took it all.” She moved closer. The excitement manifest in a rapid heart beat and ragged breath.
“We’re brewers, Ginnie, not burglars. You think we can just break into a government building? Just jump up to the roof like John Carter of Mars?”
She paused for a moment. “Maybe we can’t.”
Relief prepared to sink in…
“But maybe someone else can.”
…and then disappeared, dashed against the rocks of illogic and insanity.
She paced in a circle around the bubbling kettle, performing her nightly deep-thinking ritual. She stopped, raised a hand high, then brought it back down as and even bigger smile took over her face.
“The German.” She said, triumphantly.
“What? No.” I said.
“Yea, it’s perfect. That’s what he does. Learns things. Gets into places. He’s everywhere,” she said as I sat on my stool, staring at the boiling wort, unsure of what to say. “It really is perfect, Jack. We ask the German to steal us some hops.”
“I could do zat,” said Schweinsteiger, almost silent, like a cat, stepping out from the darkened piping behind two kettles. “But you two will have to do something for me, first.”
To be continued…