Thank you for your interest in Broken Lines! Please find below the first two chapters of the first book in the War Across Waters duology. Traditional book formatting has been removed to compensate for variations in reading devices. Please note that this language is not for public distribution.
December 27, 1916 – Hoboken, New Jersey
By the time the taxi arrived at Hoboken Pier, Amara Müller had never been so thankful for a pair of simple woolen gloves. For without them, her fingernails would have surely been bitten to the quick.
Instead, she twisted her ashen-brunette plait between her fingers and tried not to dwell over her inevitable return to a war-torn homeland she barely recognized. Worse yet would be watching her only brother and closest cousin then march away to fight for the militant Deutsches Heer.
The two men currently occupied either end of the taxi’s rear seat and she wedged between them, their troubled expressions only contributing to her overall unease. Her brother, Peter Müller, held his black derby between clenched fingers, his sandy-blond hair a near-identical shade to their cousin, Siegfried Rohrbaugh’s rumpled locks. Siegfried tapped one finger against his knee in time with the thump-thump of the motorcar’s tires, and Amara could only wonder at his thoughts. There was a time, back as children in Bayern, when she would have understood his emotions with just a single look. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been quick enough to decipher that those emotions would eventually leave them at the end of a broken engagement and her with a dismantled heart.
The taxi eased to a stop behind a line of identical black motorcars, several closed carriages, and wagons piled high with steamer trunks ready for loading onto the waiting steamship. The driver opened their door and stood back, one hand on the motorcar’s polished handle while Peter exited, then turned back to offer her his hand. Accepting, Amara stepped from the vehicle, overwhelmed by a gust of frost-bitten ocean wind and the immediacy of a journey she never planned to take again in her life.
Double steamship funnels drove up into the bleak December sky, the vessel’s bow jutting out into space beyond the reach of the pier. It reminded her of Höllenfeuer, the ship that brought her to this very pier from Germany nearly five years ago. Only sixteen then, she had known nothing about life or war or hardship. She had believed she would join her brother in Iowa, marry Siegfried, have a slew of babies, and be happy always. How naïve she was then; how often she longed for the simplicity of those days again.
Especially now. Depending on the way Europe’s great war ended, she very well may never return to her American life. It was enough to make anyone catch their breath, even without winter’s bitter sting.
“What’s taking you all across the waters?” the driver asked. He returned to the sidewalk with Siegfried after assisting him from the taxi on the opposite side. “Doesn’t seem safe with those U-boats terrorizing all over the place.”
“Our grandfather’s ill,” Siegfried said gruffly. Folding his arms, he squinted up at the steamship. “Let us hope that rowboat gets us there before he’s too far gone.”
“Yes, let us hope,” Peter agreed, although Amara remained silent. Their last remaining grandfather passed on years before her birth, while both boys stood hardly more than toddlers. But they couldn’t very well tell the driver they were traveling to Germany, a country whose navy repeatedly sunk passenger ships containing American lives.
When the driver reached to unstrap their luggage from the taxi, Peter was there first, one hand splayed against the buckle. “Sir, I do apologize, but I’m rather cautious of my belongings being handled by strangers. Would you be so kind as to wait in the vehicle?”
The driver’s eyebrows raised. “I’m not about to steal your things. I handled everything just fine when we left the hotel, didn’t I?”
“You did, sir. A fine job.” Removing his billfold from his overcoat pocket, Peter slid the driver a one dollar bill with a throaty chuckle. “Please indulge a young traveler’s peculiarities.”
Amara could only stare. One whole dollar? For the driver to do nothing? Had Peter completely lost his senses?
The driver’s expression seemed to imply he thought so as well. But given the prospect of an easy dollar placed before him, he wasn’t about to argue. With a brief nod, he pocketed the cash and returned to the driver’s seat.
“Foolish,” Siegfried griped. Tapping a cigarette from his usual pack of smokes, he tucked it between his lips and reached for the lighter. “Utter foolishness, Peter. You’re wasting our money.”
“What’s this, Zeke?” Peter asked, using their cousin’s self-established “American” nickname. “We stop being business partners and you don’t trust me anymore?”
“Of course not.” Siegfried cupped his hand around the cigarette lighter’s flickering flame. “Although, I’ll trust you a lot more once we make it there alive.”
“We’ll make it there just fine, as long as we keep to the plan.”
The plan, as Peter had explained it, involved traveling into port at Copenhagen, then exiting Denmark via Germany’s northern border. Rumor had it that many of the Danes secretly sided with the German cause, making it easy to pass any border patrols without suspicion.
Amara trusted her brother. Despite her trepidation, she could only hope him to be right.
“Would you please head to the ship and check on our boarding procedures?” Peter asked Siegfried. He tossed him a couple coins. “Something for the docker. See if he can’t acquire us early boarding.”
“Ja, I’ll see what I can do.” With a nod, Siegfried palmed the coins and headed for the pier, waves of smoke drifting behind him.
Peter waited until he was halfway to the steamship before he placed a gentle grip to Amara’s forearm. “You’re not coming,” he said firmly.
“What do you mean? Of course I am.”
His expression grew serious, bushy brows knit close together. “Your friend, Maggie Frye, still lives in St. Louis, no?”
“Yes, of course.” She and Maggie met while cabinmates on the steamship, Höllenfeuer, and exchanged letters between Missouri and Iowa for nearly five years now. Unfortunately, the time had never been right for either of them to visit in person.
Casting another glance towards their cousin, now lost within the bustle of the crowded pier, Peter slid an envelope from his inner pocket and handed it to her. “Here’s a one-way rail fare to St. Louis. I already left instructions with the station master to have your trunk transferred to the correct line rather than the pier. You’ll switch trains in Chicago.”
“I want you to live with the Fryes until this war is over. There’s a chance I may not return and you need someone who can care for you. It isn’t safe where I’ll be.”
Perhaps it was being raised the only son in a family of five daughters which caused him to constantly hover over her safety. More likely it was her diminutive four-foot-ten-inch stature and their seven year age difference which made him worry like an overprotective father. Whatever the reason, for once she didn’t know whether to be angry or grateful for his smothering nature. The pounding of her heart indicated some emotion she couldn’t understand. She looked from the rail ticket in her hands to the waiting steamship then back to her brother and said nothing.
“You need to trust me, Amara,” Peter said. “Our people—the Germans—they won’t stop. They have their U-boats and their impressive weapons and they won’t be satisfied until they’ve taken everything. Even America won’t be spared.”
She took a step back, clutching the rail ticket between trembling fingers. “Why are you saying these things? You’re scaring me, Peter.”
His gloved palm scuffed his jawline. “I am sorry for that, but you should be scared. We all should. I’m heading to join a war and I don’t believe I’m even fighting for the right side. Don’t you think I’m scared too?”
“Then don’t go. You’re a feed merchant, not a soldier.” It had been the sale of Müller & Rohrbaugh’s which purchased them all second class passage back to Germany. That store had been Peter and Siegfried’s hard-fought struggle to make something of themselves in America’s great melting pot, and they succeeded, despite the odds. Now, all that remained of their youthful dreams were memories.
“Amara, you know I have to.” She didn’t need to ask him why again. It was all in the letter from Papa, received only weeks ago. You have avoided your military duty long enough. You must serve Germany for our family. Two sentences were all it took for Peter to book passage on the first available steamship. Family loyalty above all else.
“Sir?” called the taxi driver. His door stood partially ajar, one foot down on the sidewalk. “Are you certain you do not require assistance with your luggage? It is my job after all.”
“No, thank you. The lady, however, will require a ride to the rail station momentarily.” Peter flipped him another coin, then drew a fresh pack of cigarettes from his inner jacket pocket. Cigarettes? Amara wondered. Her brother didn’t smoke. Never had. Why would he need them now?
Then Peter tossed the pack to the driver. “I thank you for your patience, sir,” he said. With a nod of understanding, the driver tucked the cigarettes into his coat and again closed the door.
Oh, she thought. That’s why.
Peter turned back to her, continuing their conversation as though he never left it, while Amara reeled inwardly from a side of her brother she had never seen. “America will enter the war, Amara,” he said gently. “You can bet on it. And when she does, she won’t be on Germany’s side. The States will pledge allegiance to the Allies and everyone opposite will be the enemy. Including me. Including you.”
“Then why am I not coming with you? If it isn’t safe here—”
“It is. If you keep your head down. Show them you’re a tried-and-true, loyal to the last American. It shouldn’t be too difficult; you already love it here.”
It was true; most days she loved living here. Every Independence Day, she waved her flag alongside the parade with everyone else. She laughed beside the ladies at their church socials and celebrated Thanksgiving with a turkey supper in the town hall. The nation certainly had its troubles, and her personal life may not always reflect her once-hoped-for dreams, but America was by and large a land she would miss. Until today, she always thought Peter felt the same.
“Didn’t you love it too?” she asked. “At least a little? I know the past year hasn’t been ideal, but this country practically raised you.” It had been ten years since he made his way to this country as a determined eighteen-year-old and five years since she joined him at only sixteen. In a way, America had raised them both.
“I did,” Peter said quietly. Turning away, he unhooked the straps holding their traveling cases to the rear of the taxi. “I do. But you know it isn’t that simple anymore.” He kept his gaze averted, intent on the strap’s buckles. “How does the name Amy Miller sound? Close enough to the truth, yet far enough from it.”
She willed herself to fight back raw emotions. Only Peter had ever called her Amy and even then, he hadn’t done so in over a decade. Not since she was ten, watching her elder brother sail away on his fantastic American adventure.
Peter hefted his traveling case then Siegfried’s off the pile and set them on the sidewalk. He must have finally noticed her pained expression because he gave her a gentle smile. “Listen, I know how difficult this is, but the name will not matter much after you marry, which you must do and soon. You need to wed another American citizen, so when it comes to war here, no one will question your allegiance. No one will lock you up or send you away.”
“Our situation can surely not be so desperate,” she insisted, even as her heart knocked against her ribs with Peter’s words. True, she had thought of little else except marriage those first months in America and often desired it since. She always hoped she would find it one day, although frequently wondered if she would. Surely such a sacrament should not be rushed into out of fear. “Besides,” she argued, “Maggie will never stand for that. She’ll say she can protect me, that I don’t need an impromptu husband—”
“You can’t tell her the truth,” he replied in alarm, fingers halfway through re-securing her traveling case to the taxi. He yanked the strap tight like he might the girth on one of their father’s horses. “She already knows where you come from, and that can’t be helped, but you can choose the rest of your story. Say whatever you must so she allows you to stay, anything at all except for where Zeke and I have actually gone. Your life depends on it.”
Her life depended on this mission he ordered her to undertake? As though she were the soldier instead. But it wouldn’t be the first time she stayed silent for the sake of her life’s worth.
Far down the pier, Siegfried made his way back towards them, the cigarette pressed between his lips barely a stub. With a final draw, he flicked the end out into the lapping waves. This very well might be the last time she would ever see him and couldn’t decide if it was a sadness or a comfort.
Peter followed her line of vision and conveniently positioned his body to derail her thoughts. “I’ll never understand why you ended it when I see how you still love him. But I suspect I should be thankful now that you did. I’ll do my best to keep him safe.”
All those years before, when he and Siegfried first left her behind in Bayern, her heart grieved while watching their ship sail away like a ghost disappearing into the mist. Now sending them off to battle, likely not on the side of right; that was another ache entirely. “No, Peter,” she said. “Keep both of you safe. Ich habe dich lieb.”
“That’s the last of our language you should ever speak.” Kissing her cheek, he wrapped her petite form into his full embrace. “Don’t give them a reason. Don’t let them doubt which side of the line you stand on. Stay safe … Amy.” He helped her back into the taxi, winter’s chill sweeping in as he closed the door. For the briefest moment, they locked eyes through the glass, then the motorcar jolted forward and the window reflected only strangers. She twisted to kneel on the seat, clinging to the leather back in order to locate her brother, watching him watching her.
Siegfried caught up to Peter then and when Amara’s eyes met his through the rear window, she recognized something far worse than his usual hostility. As he lurched after the taxi, Peter snatched at his coat to restrain him, but in a rage, Zeke shoved him back directly into the path of oncoming traffic.
“Peter!” she cried as a motorcar swerved, narrowly avoiding collision with a merchant wagon. Peter dove away, landing hard upon the sidewalk, his derby blowing idle amidst the onlookers.
Zeke sprinted down the walk after Amara, his arms pumping as he yelled incomprehensible words. Her ears could still hear them though, the sound of his irate insults more familiar to her than any other. Memory gripped her like the April afternoon they dissolved their engagement, the feel of pavement slamming against her side when he threw her down like so much refuse. Only two days after her arrival in the States and to this day, Peter never knew how quickly America left her scarred.
“Miss?” asked the taxi driver worriedly, not understanding what had caused her to cry out. “Shall I stop?”
She spun forward in her seat, breathing heavily, unshed tears blinding her vision. She palmed them away, the tender muscles in her left arm pulling from fresh bruises inflicted by Zeke only days ago.
As much as she missed her family, returning to Germany wouldn’t bring her a future. Following her brother towards conflict wouldn’t ensure either of their protection. It only held painful reminders of a misled love.
“No,” she said, in little more than a whisper. “Keep driving.”
December 31, 1916 – Four Days Later – St. Louis, Missouri
“Halt! Police! I told you to halt, you filthy creep!—Holy mother of Moses!”
Emil Kisch’s polished loafers slipped on an ice patch in the city sidewalk, nearly sending him headlong into the congested city street. He grabbed a nearby lamp post to steady himself as Jonathan Earhart, his friend and fellow morality squad partner, leapt over the ice and raced past him. Nine o’clock on a Sunday morning and they were already chasing down criminals and causing bundled-up churchgoers to gasp with their foul language.
“Morality squad detective” had not been Emil’s first choice of employment. After all, arresting others for wanton dancing and public intoxication made him more of a hypocrite than anything else, since those were two of his favorite pastimes on any given Friday night. But Earhart smooth-talked him into it, or rather, harassed him repeatedly, until Emil finally agreed that it would be easier to maintain their outrageous lifestyle as part of the squad rather than avoiding them.
In some peculiar connection of people—Earhart’s father’s friend was acquainted with someone’s brother, who knew the chief of the Forest Park mounted patrol, who used to work alongside morality squad captain, Hess Alberts—Earhart secured a position and in turn finagled one for his friend. Despite Emil barely being nineteen at the time, his facial features and slicked-over platinum-blond locks carried maturity five years his senior, so when he told the captain he was already the required age, Alberts never once questioned the claim.
Besides, another thirteen days from now, he would be twenty-one and meet the age requirement fair and square.
Ducking between a couple stepping onto the streetcar, he ignored the man’s objections and put on extra speed, struggling to catch his breath through the crisp morning air. Half a block ahead, he caught sight of Howard Beal’s windswept hair as the saloon owner shoved a scraggly newsboy aside and turned the corner.
With his six-foot-two-inch height, Emil was quick to catch up to his squad partner. “Cripes,” he muttered to Earhart. “We’ve been chasing this fool for five blocks. Where does he think he’s going to run? He owns the saloon; why don’t we just go back and wait there?”
“Because we’ve got a ball game to play in—” Earhart extracted his pocket watch, nearly bowling that same newsboy over as they rounded the corner. He raced on without apology. “—less than four hours. So, let’s finish the job, toss this crook in jail, and go about our own personal celebration.”
An unexpected—and rather irksome—nag poked Emil’s conscience then, due to their celebration of uncensored imbibing being in part exactly what they were chasing this man for. Up ahead the saloon owner tripped on a crack, allowing the detectives to nearly close the distance. “You know this will ruin Mr. Beal’s business,” he told Earhart. “He’ll have to close up shop for at least two years, more if our full inspection draws anything of consequence.”
Earhart barely glanced over his shoulder, but Emil caught his eye roll anyway. “Good grief, Emil. If our lead was accurate, Beal’s got about twelve different ordinance violations on his name, least of all selling alcohol outside of legal hours on a Sunday. He’ll deserve whatever he gets, and we’ll make out like heroes.” He grinned. “The ladies always love a hero.”
Yes, Emil admitted, certainly ill-timed alcohol distribution was not the least of Howard Beal’s worries. In fact, their search warrant wasn’t even related to the Sunday liquor laws. Rather, their lead ratted Beal out on charges of unregulated opium sales, the saloon owner no doubt attempting to skirt cumbersome taxation. The detectives had planned their confrontation with Beal for Sunday morning under the assumption that the establishment would be closed, allowing for a calm arrest and no clientele around to cause a scene.
However, despite their best intentions, they arrived to a barroom chock full of laborers, their faces streaked with soot and sweat stains visible underneath rolled-up shirt sleeves. Probably having just finished the night shift at the factories or early morning unloading down at the Mississippi riverfront. From behind the bar, Howard Beal set down a full ale in front of a customer, foam dripping down the glass, and folded his arms, unmoving while he watched them enter. Although the detectives wore civilian clothing, their starched winter overcoats and black-polished shoes still stood out like two bruised and bleeding thumbs.
“He can tell something’s off about us,” Emil whispered. He doubted anyone could hear his comment over the clinking of glasses on wood tabletops and raucous laughter, but he wouldn’t take any chances. He pulled his gaze away from Mr. Beal, swinging it back to his partner. “We should come back later.”
“You’re a real drag sometimes, you know that?” Earhart gave a firm shake of his head and nudged Emil into the room so the door swung closed behind them. “Now, you know as well as I that we haven’t nabbed anyone in two weeks. The captain will start to suspect we aren’t doing our jobs.”
Emil stood his ground, refusing to venture any farther into the room. “You know as well as I that’s because we were too busy crashing parties every night over Christmas to do so.”
“Hey,” Earhart smirked, “when you’re offered an invitation to free hors d’oeuvres, champagne, and a few dolled up socialites, who in their right—or any—mind is going to refuse?”
“It wasn’t free, Jonathan, and ask anyone, but showing up at the athletic club pretending to be a French bronze-medal-winning war refugee isn’t considered an invitation.”
“Come down off your high horse, Emil. You enjoyed yourself as much as I did, so please leave the condescension to your brother.” Earhart raised his hand with a grin at Mr. Beal who now openly grimaced at them from behind the bar. “If we do it quietly, we can take him in without anyone noticing.”
“Hogwash. You know we don’t do quiet. It’s loud and rowdy or nothing.” Honestly, making a scene and not getting arrested for it was one of Emil’s favorite parts about being on the squad. In this particular instance though, he could only picture that scene involving an entire bar of angry men beating them bloody. Sure, he carried a police-issued pistol; however, he would rather not make today the first time he used it. And yet, he had just been compared to his pretentious, rule-abiding, obnoxious-as-the-day-is-long brother, Friedrich, and Earhart knew there was no more surefire way to make Emil see red.
“Well, then, mate—” Earhart’s lips twitched with a disreputable grin.“—let’s make a morning of it, shall we?”
He approached the nearest table occupied by a group of cardsharps and pressed a hand to either of two occupied chair backs. The players’ eyes simultaneously rolled up in the middle of placing bets and from the size of the cash pile, the stakes were high. The man to Earhart’s left stabbed his cigarette into an ashtray, taking a long glance down Earhart’s sophisticated wardrobe then at Emil. He turned back to his cards with a grunt. “This table’s closed.”
“Been playing a while?” Emil asked. “That’s a pretty rich pot for only nine a.m.”
Across the table, another man with grime-streaked hands rearranged his cards, his own cigarette dangling from between his fingers as smoke rose to the ceiling. “We’ve been up since two this morning working on the riverboats. This is how we unwind.”
“Do you unwind here often?” Earhart asked.
The man acknowledged them through hooded lids. “Often enough.” He laid his cards on the table. Two pair, kings high.
“Not bad, mate,” Emil noted.
“Won’t trump this though, that’s for sure.” The next player slapped his cards on the table and with a crooked grin, picked up a lowball glass of something near the color of filthy river sludge. “Full House. Read ‘em and weep, men.” The third player immediately folded without comment.
“Don’t bother, Higgins.” The first man to Earhart’s left held up a hand before the final player could reveal his own. One card slapped the table at a time, five to nine, all diamonds. The man reached both hands towards the pot while the others around the table groaned.
“Wait,” Earhart cut in again. “This round isn’t over yet. I have a hand none of you can beat.”
“Told ya, this table’s closed,” the poker winner snapped back even as the grimy-fingered man said, “How do you figure that, newcomer? You ain’t even dealt in.”
Earhart leaned in conspiratorially. “Ah, yes, but I can place a bet you’ll never match. I guarantee it.”
Stacking his coins, the winner snorted. “Unless you’ve got gemstones in that coat, I guarantee we can match it.” He narrowed his eyes with double meaning. “One way or another.”
“For pity’s sake, can we drag this out any more?” Emil interrupted. He shouldered his way between Earhart and the man with the winning hand and tossed his police badge in the center of the table. It landed with a clunk, the engraved St. Louis City P.D. nice and shiny from polishing it that morning for this express purpose. Five sets of eyes bulged as they stared down at it.
Emil shrugged. “Sorry, I didn’t bring enough cash. Will this do? You could probably melt it down, ask a blacksmith to smelt it into a couple of nails.”
Three words from Earhart: “Game’s over, men,” and the entire group leapt from their seats.
Two players abandoned their winnings and immediately dashed for the door while the other three attempted to scoop up their claim and shove it into their pockets. Emil merely reached across the table to retrieve his badge, calmly returning it to his jacket pocket. “Oi!” he called as other patrons caught wind of the raid and raced for the door. “Why you all blimey running? The fun just got started!”
The poker winner pushed up on the table edge, sending the cards and remaining change flying before he, Higgins, and the unnamed man abandoned their remaining cash and split the scene. All around the saloon, patrons scampered by in various states of sobriety, choosing any means of escape, including for some deranged reason up the second-floor staircase. Emil ignored them all and sidled up to Howard Beal, pegging him with a nasty grimace from behind the bar.
“Good morning, Mr. Beal. I believe you’re familiar with section 6550 of Missouri’s state statutes, aren’t you? ‘No license shall be granted to any person to keep a dramshop in any building used for the purpose of prostitution, ill-fame, or a gambling house.’” He propped himself on the edge of a barstool directly across from the saloon owner and laid his badge face up between them. “‘If,’” he continued, “‘after a dramshop license is granted, the building in which the dramshop is located shall be used for the above-mentioned purposes, or any of them, then the license granted shall be revoked by the excise commissioner.’”
“Furthermore,” Earhart interjected, claiming the next stool over. “‘It shall be the duty of the police authorities to prevent any person carrying on the business of dramshop keeper without having a license for that purpose.’”
Emil flicked a finger against his badge, spinning it on the bar top, then slapped his palm down, stopping its path. “Unfortunately for you, Mr. Beal, you haven’t requested, nor would you have been granted, a license to include gambling at this establishment.”
In a single obnoxious curse, Harold Beal hurtled the bar and profoundly misjudged the distance, rolling off the other side and directly into Earhart. His barstool toppled, landing the two men in a mess of flying appendages. Beal shoved him off and was out the front door, leaving both detectives to give chase.
Which brought them to the here and now, sliding across ice patches on a crowded street as Mr. Beal continued to draw away from them.
“Not on my watch, you swine!” Earhart shouted. He shoved a hand into his jacket, withdrawing his pistol.
“What the devil are you doing?” Emil grabbed his partner’s wrist, dislodging the firearm into his opposite hand, then stashed it into his overcoat where Earhart couldn’t reach. “You were not seriously going to shoot him, were you?”
“Only in the leg. Calm down, Kisch. I wouldn’t murder the guy.” Earhart shoved him away and continued running, leaving Emil to nearly fall again in his haste to keep up.
“He runs a shady saloon, Jonathan, not an assassin league; I don’t think he needs to be shot at all.”
“Then, by all means, you sprint on up there and tackle him to the ground.”
“Not necessary.” Bending over, Emil tugged off his shoe and with a final burst of speed, wound up and chucked it forward. With an audible crack, Beal hit the pavement.
COPYRIGHT © KELSEY GIETL 2020
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