Thank you for your interest in Unsettled Shores! Please find below the first three chapters of the second 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.
June 14, 1917
London smelled of misery. The city always carried a putrid tang with the constant smog that covered its rooftops, but today it also carried the weight of crumbled buildings and bloodstained cobblestones. Of yesterday’s unexpected air raid and a war which, after over three years of scuffle, felt like it would never end.
Josie Harrington peddled her bicycle through Piccadilly Circus, the wheels’ constant clickity-clack keeping pace to the rhythm of her labored breaths. It wasn’t that she couldn’t manage the ride; she had ridden this same route every day for over a year. From Holborn through Piccadilly to each required stop, ending in Chiswick then making the return route before blackout was imposed.
No, today she simply couldn’t stomach the Great War’s destruction anymore, her lungs and emotions depleted from dust-filled streets, air raid whistles, and being once again thrust into remembering her father’s last words:
“Soon, Joselyn. This is only goodbye for a short while. Until then, send me your dear words and sweet treats, a stitched glove or two if you can spare the yarn. I shall write you all my love and letters, sporting tales of your heroic Pop fending off the Jerries!” A hug, a laugh, then her playful shove towards the railway car. A vigorous wave as he stood between two other soldiers half his age, one strong arm thrown over each of their young shoulders.
The sound of London now buzzed in her ears from flower sellers’ begs, motorcar engines, and passing pedestrian shouts. Masons salvaging bricks from a crumbled office building. A shopkeep snapping dust from a rug as though there were any way to actually rid the fibers of filth. The city itself as loud as the drone of airplane propellers passing overhead on an otherwise unobtrusive Wednesday morning.
Yesterday when she heard them, she had slid her bicycle to a halt, one hand angled over her eyes as she stared into a clear blue sky, searching. The Germans had only ever used Zeppelins to bomb London prior; no one suspected what was to come when the Gotha planes swooped out of the sky in broad daylight, releasing their destruction over the city. It all happened so quickly, Josie hadn’t even moved. She stood there, staring into the sky while everyone ran for the underground platforms and residence cellars, streaking in both directions. Their voices sounded a bit like laughter to her crazed mind, and she imagined her father tugging her along towards Piccadilly, wanting open space to see the airplanes.
After it was all over, she realized how disappointed he would have been to read her letter saying how she survived another air raid and didn’t see a single plane, nary even a wingtip. She had never seen the Zeppelins either, except in plastered warning posters. She was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, never where the action happened to be, always in safety. Not until the following day would she pedal her bicycle once again, clickety-clack, and see what misery the Germans left behind them. Yesterday’s raid felled 162, eighteen of them children from a single school.
Her father had gone to war to experience excitement. Josie remained home and wished she hadn’t seen so much.
She turned her bicycle onto the road into Chiswick, leaving behind most of the filthy air as the city’s confines eventually turned more rustic. The fresh air motivated her to push her legs harder, standing up on the pedals as the cobblestones transitioned to dirt. Finally, she slid her bicycle to a stop outside the front steps of Olmsted Manor, a peach-stoned four-story Tudor converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. With its opulent sprawling gardens, visits to the manor made for a lovely distraction from the pressing reality of Josie’s other daily delivery stops. Even when she didn’t have a delivery for the home, she took delight sitting for a spell in its gardens. Often, she would join a recovering soldier for a welcome chat, both of them as eager for non-war related discussion as the other. As the days collected since her father had gone, she wondered if one afternoon she would arrive to find him sitting on one of those garden benches or, more likely, sprawled across a chaise lounge on the veranda, its sunshade flapping overhead, him basking in the moment like a nobleman on holiday.
The Olmsteds’ footman, Cartwright, opened the door, his position one of the few leftover from the pre-war days. Now what servants remained at the manor had dual purpose, serving the needs of their countrymen first and the needs of their household second. The Olmsteds had rearranged their personal quarters to accommodate the soldiers with their grown children also having taken roles to assist the war effort.
“Good afternoon, Miss Harrington,” the footman nodded, holding the door wide for her to pass. “Matron will be relieved to see you arrived safely. We worried after you did not appear yesterday.”
“Yes, thank you, Cartwright. I am quite well today.” Although she was not well in the slightest. She unpinned her hat and gave her flattened brunette curls a habitual fluff, knowing nothing would spruce them back up after her spin through so many dozen dust clouds on the London streets.
Cartwright led her through the entryway, past the open atrium where several patients were seated around circular playing tables. Each glanced over as she passed, with several offering a nod or a smile which she returned in kind. Others’ gazes merely traced the room’s corners, unfocused eyes lost in memory. Between throw rugs, Josie’s worn shoe soles landed hollowly against the marble tiles until the footman opened a door and directed her inside.
What once served as the manor’s luxurious ballroom was now lined with rows of wrought iron beds, each covered in starched white sheets between which lay wounded soldiers in varying states of medical duress. Five voluntary aids, including the matron in charge, fluttered about the room checking vitals, rewrapping bandages, and distributing medication. Some of the patients were able to sit up and read, one or two even smoked a cigarette, but the majority lay beneath their covers, either asleep, staring blankly at the ceiling, or muttering softly to themselves.
It was not a room Josie would have stepped foot in without the war’s assistance, nor one she liked to linger in for too long. Nevertheless, she visited whether Matron was there or not. Visited every room in the manor in fact. Just in case her father appeared in one of those beds. After all these months, she still searched for him, even knowing he wouldn’t be there. His British Expeditionary Force identification tags were threaded on a chain beneath her blouse, yet she still liked to imagine the joyous reunion that would never be.
Matron met Josie halfway across the room, the older woman’s hands clasped tightly against her white apron-clad bosom and concern etched in every wrinkled feature. She released a sigh before quickly crossing herself, her starched veil fluttering with her fevered movements. “Oh, thank goodness, my dear,” she cried. “We were all so very worried yesterday when you did not arrive. So terribly afraid you were caught in the thick of it. To see you here now…” She shook her clasped hands as though offering thankful prayers. “Why, I must say, I am so very relieved.”
“Yes, I’ve arrived no worse for wear.” Josie returned a reluctant smile. It was more difficult to lie to Matron than to Cartwright. Matron found it far easier to see through Josie’s emotions and tended to mollycoddle as a result. She wondered if her own mother hadn’t passed so soon in life if she would have been as perceptive.
Matron continued to examine her with silent interrogation, so Josie decided to complete her assignment and escape to the gardens while there was still opportunity.
“I have today’s delivery.” She reached into her shoulder bag, searching for the twine-tied stack of envelopes she knew were buried there. Normally the letters for Olmsted Manor were all that remained in her pack, making them easy to locate, but today she had bypassed all her other stops in favor of leaving the city as quickly as possible. She would deliver the others on the return, but that meant she now had to sort through her bag to locate the correct ones. “One moment. I know they’re here somewhere.”
“Hush, child. Not yet.”
“Oh, yes, forgive me,” she said as her hand landed on the correct bundle. She had nearly forgotten the most important part of their delivery process. “I suppose I was so flustered I forgot to say, Victores in—”
“I said hush!” Matron snatched Josie’s wrist, shaking the packet of letters back into the bag. “We have an audience.”
Josie followed Matron’s line of sight to a patient bedded two rows over near the window, his eyes watching them intently rather than the pleasant view of the garden. Clearly a young man still, probably no more than thirty, he was wrapped in bandages of one form or another practically from head to toe. Casting braced his right leg and swathes of white linen packaged his right hand, sitting limply at his side. His chest rose and fell in anxious breaths while his unbandaged hand lay splayed upon it, as though counting each breath to ensure another followed. The upper half of his head lay hidden behind a bandage so concealing, she couldn’t tell what color his hair might be or if he even had any. What parts of his face that weren’t bandaged were riddled in various states of bruising.
“Who is that soldier?” she asked Matron. Her wrist still lay in the older woman’s grip but was no longer attempting to shake her off.
Matron gently released her, smoothing her apron and meticulously adjusting her puffed armbands. “I’m not certain of his name. We haven’t heard a word from him since he arrived. I only know what was passed from his rescuers.” She lowered her voice, edging closer until her shoulder pressed Josie’s. “He’s one of the special extracts they said, caught on the wrong side of the French front line. Trapped in an air raid in Le Clé, had a church topple right on top of him. They managed to get him out, but the journey over—tended to by farmers then bouncing in that wagon and the rocking waves from Calais—about did him in. We think he’ll make it, the question is what shape he’ll be in if he does. He certainly won’t be able to return to the front. It’s a hard blow for some of these men to receive. They feel as though they’re not valid anymore. Yet, the things they have seen over there…”
Josie knew some of the things Matron spoke of, horrors the soldiers mentioned in the manor’s confidence. She thought of the letters from her father, tucked away in her stocking drawer. In between lines of black censorship, his words crippled her in bed, knees drawn up beneath the quilts as she imagined bullets pelting off the dirt like hailstones mere inches from her father’s helmet. Both his arms cocked upright, the rifle butt pressed tight against his shoulder while he took out one Jerry after another. She remembered watching his brigade march through the streets, that same rifle propped against his shoulder, the smile he tossed her as bright as the sunlight glinting off the weapon’s barrel. Although neither a rifle, a helmet, nor a world of good intentions had saved him in the end.
She refocused on the wounded soldier and pressed a hand to where her father’s identification tags lay beneath her blouse. She splayed her fingers perfectly positioned to match the stranger’s and felt her own breath move in then out. Her father would never come home. This man might not either. What family would he leave behind?
“Do you believe he’ll survive?” she asked.
“There’s a chance,” said Matron. “He’s healing relatively well considering what he’s been through, but the body is influenced by the mind. He doesn’t yet know the extent of his injuries. He still has his hand, but I’m afraid the fingers were too badly damaged. He’ll keep them, but they’ll never work as they should. As for his leg … well, that’s to be seen. He needs something to live for or he may not live at all.”
Josie hesitated as the soldier’s eyes once again tried to hold hers. His bandaged hand raised ever so slowly, then outward as though reaching for her, before returning to its lifeless position on the bed sheets. With a grimace, he finally turned his head away. Josie didn’t.
Matron released a low sigh. “That’s the most response we’ve seen since he arrived.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Nearly two weeks.”
Josie turned to her in surprise, breaking the young man’s spell. “Not a word in all that time? Not even a simple hand gesture?”
Matron shook her head. “Not a one. When he arrived, he was barely even conscious.”
Weaving around the rows of beds, past men blinded from mustard gas or with missing limbs, Josie lowered herself to sit on the end of the soldier’s mattress and settled her shoulder bag in her lap. “Good morning, sir. The summer sun is lovely, isn’t it?”
Tilting his chin, he examined her with that same focused stare, analyzing, as though trying to reach into her mind and extract information. They had trained her not to reveal anything, not to give any indication that she was more than a simple courier. She focused on keeping her expression a blank slate, although her eyes analyzed him as much as he studied her.
Who was this soldier? What made him such a “special extract” as Matron had called him? Caught on the wrong side of the front line, she said. How had he arrived there?
It wasn’t her place to ask those things. That was part of her training too. Deliver, but don’t ask. She had done it a hundred times. A thousand times. Why did he make it so difficult to obey this time? He hadn’t even said a word.
He attempted to clench his fingers into fists and winced as his right hand refused to cooperate within its wrappings. Instead, he lifted the damaged hand to his chest and folded his good hand over it. He looked from her to the bag on her lap, the one which held dozens of letters still requiring special delivery. There was no way he could know about those though.
His good hand lowered from his chest, reached across … and she lifted the bag out of reach. She set it on the floor behind her where he couldn’t see. His hand lingered in midair, fingers outstretched, waiting for something. Did he want her to take it? That would be quite improper. But what exactly was considered propriety in a time of war? He had lost his brigade, his hand, and perhaps more in one day. She had lost any sense of normalcy the day the prime minister declared conflict with Germany.
Still, she let the soldier’s hand linger there between them, didn’t take it, yet didn’t move away. Her own sat primly folded in her lap, right there atop her pressed wool skirt, grey and somber like the endless war and dust particles floating through the city streets. She had been taught not to trust anyone too easily. Wasn’t that what her father cautioned her in one of his final letters before the Somme? Anyone could betray another, any man, woman, or child. War had taken even a lighthearted man like Hunter Harrington and made him think twice about the world. That was why she took this job. To prove she wasn’t like everyone else. That she could be selfless. To help the families whose fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons might still have a chance to come home.
“I’m Joselyn,” she said softly. “Josie actually. Josie Harrington.”
Slowly his lips parted. “Peter Müller. From Iowa.”
She forced back the edge of a smile. His accent sounded American. The way he said his name was not. Her father always said America had been built on the dreams of immigrants. “Traitorous rebels too,” he would say with a laugh, “but you mark my words, sweet Joselyn, those same rebellious dreamers will return one day to save us all.”
Finally, perhaps one had.
Slowly, she unfolded her fingers, one by one. Allowed him to rest his palm atop hers. Their fingers didn’t fold over one another, just remained palm to palm, the back of her hand cooled by the bed’s white sheets. Her bag of letters lay on the floor, waiting for one more message. His message.
“Tell me your story, Peter,” she said. “Help me send you home.”
November 6, 1917 – Five Months Later
New York City
Amara Kisch sniffled back another round of tears, threatening to expand to full-on weeping if she didn’t rein in her fragility right now. There were only so many days an infertile married woman could measure lovely miniature garments before she must politely excuse herself from the shop floor for a pitiful cry. Not the unfortunate ugly weeping of drenched handkerchiefs and scrunched facial muscles until one wondered if her eyesight would forever be blurred by tears. That sort of emotion was reserved for under the bedcovers, chest pressed to her pillow while her husband was still at work or away on some fabricated errand.
Rather, this was a polite cry, palms pressed to her eyes to stem the flow before they could leave any hint of their existence. She could not allow her customers or the head seamstress to think her unable to complete tasks she had perfected as far back as childhood. She needed to retain some sense of normalcy in a life turned on end by a world war, prejudice, and now her own womanly emotions.
Nearly three months she had lasted this time, all the way from the return to school demands in August. Middle and upper-crust mothers had swarmed Daisy Mahlandt’s seamstress shop with all manner of little ones, from mewling infants to adolescent boys pushing their mothers away and complaining about why they needed to continue school at all. They wanted to be away at the war front, fighting off the terrible Huns. Their older brothers, cousins, or fathers were off in the fray; why couldn’t they join up too? Seventeen was a truly terrible age to be when mere months separated you from legal enlistment.
Europe’s great war had already stolen so much from her. Per their father, Jürgen Müller’s insistence, her brother, Peter, left to join the German army without a return word to his safety in nine long months. Despite his directive for her to stay safe, horrific discrimination against her birthplace had battered her sails like a thunderstorm, with false accusations forcing her to leave her newfound life and true identity behind in St. Louis. The one bright light in so much darkness was her marriage.
Although their friendship began rather rocky, she fell in love with Emil despite his many flaws. When he offered to run away with her, to forget the world and live each moment as though they might “jump into a European trench tomorrow,” she agreed. She had spent every day since trying to forget the circumstances behind their escape, when they witnessed a mob hang an innocent man for simply being German-born like them. Or how Emil’s morality squad partner threatened to turn her in as a spy when Emil accidentally revealed her true heritage one night over a few drinks. Even so, she had forgiven him then and forgave him now and every day, because where would she be without him? No doubt strung up on that street lamp right alongside her countryman.
But there were still some things the war would never change, that she could never forget, no matter how many times she whispered to herself, What if?
That was why she was blotting tears before they dripped on her black Singer sewing machine. Not because she feared someone would drag her away for being an enemy spy. Not because she worried they would discover that her alias Amy Miller was really Amara Kisch with an entire family in the Deutsches Heer and a carefully fabricated life. But because of all the children leaving the shop hand-in-hand with their mothers, heading back to the family she feared she would never have.
She had thought the war would cause many to temper their pocketbooks. Ladies everywhere now pieced together items for the soldiers’ care packages as part of their patriotism—dozens of knitted hats and socks and gloves. She had assumed that surely they would then request less stitching for themselves. Yet, the opposite seemed to be so. Amara would greet each mother and child with her signature smile, her demeanor all politeness as she measured, pinned, and cut off hems to the correct length. All the while, it crushed her heart a little more each time.
It wasn’t as though she hadn’t had time to come to terms with what simply was. She had known for over five years now that her womb wasn’t built for labor pains, and it certainly wasn’t that she hadn’t dealt with children in her infertile state. While living in Iowa, she had sewn plenty of children’s garments for Mrs. Wilson’s seamstress shop while Peter worked his self-made feed store with their cousin, Siegfried.
Or rather Zeke, she thought in disgust. He had stripped his given name the second he stepped foot off the ship from Germany. It was at his insistence that Amara received the detrimental health examination whose infertility result destroyed their engagement and revealed the type of man he truly was. Because of that examination, she spent the next five years believing her worth lay in little more than his bruises and insults. Not until Emil did she believe that even her brokenness could be beautiful.
“Amy?” Daisy called. She pulled back the floor-to-ceiling curtain leading to the front of the seamstress shop, irritated lines creasing the edges of her lips.
Hurriedly, Amara swiped both palms across her eyes then patted her cheeks to restore their natural color. She forced a smile and rose from the sewing machine’s chair. “Yes, Mrs. Mahlandt?”
“Did you find that blue muslin? The way you hurried out, I expected you knew right where you’d lain it. But here you sit and no muslin.” Daisy eyed her up and down. “It’s the last item Mrs. Gibbons needs to be measured for her daughter.” But she won’t pay the deposit until she sees the fabric is to her liking, Amara finished silently. Of course, Daisy would never say that within earshot of the customer.
“Of course. I have it right here.” Blinking, Amara snatched the blue bolt off the shelf beside her sewing machine table and tucked it beneath her arm, marching past Daisy as though she wasn’t a mere four-foot-ten to the seamstress’s five-foot-seven.
Hours later, Amara walked home alone from the seamstress shop, wishing Emil wasn’t required to remain at work until long into the evening. A strong gust blew wayward autumn leaves from a tree as Amara passed under it, the swaying branches littering the sidewalk with orange and gold. With autumn settled in, the days had finally cooled, a welcome change. Since their arrival, it seemed like everything in New York City was only one temperature, horribly hot. The abundance of brick and stone skyscrapers packed its citizens in like a roaring oven. So many people stacked one beside the next, always shouting, never quiet, and the glances of blue sky far above were often blocked by factory soot. She had thought St. Louis to be rather stifling at times; however, it had been nothing compared to this. This was no place to be a newlywed. This was no place to plant roots and start a home.
The trouble was, she didn’t know where home should be anymore or even what it should look like. Was it Oberammergau where she was raised, Iowa where she grew to womanhood, or St. Louis where she fell in love? Would she ever be able to return to any of those places? Or was this New York City with its noisy clatter and suffocating atmosphere to be her forever home now? Thank goodness she had Emil. Without him, she feared she would be completely lost.
She must remind herself that, all things considered, life was still good. She had plenty of food and clothes and a husband who loved her. She and Emil rented a small apartment, which although simplistic, was theirs to call their own until such time as they chose. They had both retained their good health and mental capabilities which was more than she could say for so many in this city, confined to living in tenements or facing the dangers of factory life. Her life was truly blessed. She had nearly all she could ask for in a marriage.
Except for one thing.
She found her feet directing her towards the nearby children’s home exactly as they did every week. There were larger ones elsewhere in the city, but she preferred this one. Small and compact and rather insignificant from the outside, it reminded her a lot of herself. Petite and overlooked, never taken seriously due to her short stature and youthful features.
She never went inside, not even on the days she left a box of handsewn items on the front stoop. She merely watched from across the street, offering a quick prayer for what she hoped could be someday.
Worthless woman, you don’t deserve such joy.
Her entire body jerked out of reflex as Zeke’s words stomped through her mind. Insults she heard every day until he joined Peter in the German army. Degradations that usually accompanied his rough fingers around her upper arms or a shove against the kitchen table.
Peter never knew a single word spoken between them. He never saw a single bruise, so well hidden were Zeke’s punishments. To this day, he still had no idea.
“You honestly believe I would prefer someone else’s child when I can have one of my own?” Zeke had spat that April afternoon back in 1912.Mere days after she arrived in America prepared to marry him, he had thrown her to the sidewalk in anger, unwilling to accept that she could never bear him children. “A secondhand son is like a secondhand coat, Amara. No one loves it; they tolerate it until they find a better one. Unfortunately for you, I’m not willing to.”
She laid light fingers to her ribs, remembering the fury in his eyes as he left her to bear her burden alone. How no one stopped to help. Only sixteen years old then, she had felt as though her life was gone.
Worthless woman, who will want you now?
Emil, she thought. Emil wanted her, brokenness and all. Emil would wait.
A little girl, perhaps five or six years old, appeared at the upstairs window to the children’s home. Her tiny palms pressed flat against the glass, the crinkled curtain framing her blonde curls like a chapel veil. Curls that nearly matched Emil’s platinum-blond locks. Amara raised a hand, waving to the child as a warm smile crossed her lips. The girl grinned back, her fingers waving back enthusiastically, each golden curl bouncing with the movement.
She could be ours, Amara thought suddenly. What would stop her, she wondered, from walking in and adopting that little girl right now? That child surely needed a family as desperately as Amara wanted one. She could be ours.
“Evening edition!” shouted a newsboy from the street corner. “London suffers her third consecutive night of German bombings!”
Amara’s enthusiasm vanished like a puff of smoke. As long as the war raged in Europe, they could never have that dream. It was simply too dangerous to bring a child into the middle of their mess. Right now, they had found a place of stillness in this new city, but that didn’t mean their good fortune would last forever. She had seen a man hanged in this country because he bore the wrong surname. She would not expose her child to the possibility of that same fate. When the war was over and peace reigned again, when their future stood on more solid footing, then they could walk into that orphanage and make their dreams come true. Until then, she would hold onto the threads of her heart and pray they didn’t unravel completely.
November 6, 1917 –
New York City
Emil Kisch worried about his wife. He worried about a great many things these days, but Amara most of all. How often she went to the children’s home. How she knitted those orphans socks and hats as often as she knitted them for the soldiers overseas. He wished she would stop. He had politely asked her to stop. He could demand it, but he never would. If she needed that to help her through, he would let her. Even if he did think it ridiculous.
Wasn’t it better to focus on what was right in front of them? Control the things that could be controlled, rather than grieving over a dream that sat frozen until the war ended? Truth be told, he was still bitter about losing his own dream to the war. All summer he read newspaper articles about the Yankees and missed his own Benton Park Brewmasters baseball team back home in St. Louis. He should have been playing ball this summer, preparing to try out for the majors, not tending drinks to the elite in Park Avenue’s Forsythe Hotel. He ran a clean cloth around the rim of a lowball glass before filling it with amber fluid and handing it off to a waiting patron. Pouring whiskey rather than drinking it was a far cry from who he was before this war began.
Simply put, he had been a wreck back then. Horribly arrogant, life was focused on good times and the consequences of war weren’t worth mulling over. He would imbibe worse than a fish tossed back in after a hook and never think twice about it. Until he met Amara, that was. She made him reconsider every questionable decision. Even after he betrayed her to his morality squad partner, Jonathan Earhart, she still forgave him and, beyond reason, even married him.
Their New York life wasn’t the one he had imagined for them—neither was their hasty escape from an unruly mob nor spontaneous country wedding—but what they had found satisfied him. They had a roof over their heads and jobs to pay the bills. They had found a peaceful church and welcoming neighbors to attend with. On Thursday nights, Amara attended the ladies’ knitting group while he joined the men on the apartment roof for cigars and a few rounds of cards. The air clouded with factory soot and remained hot between the cement and mortar but in those moments, he could forget the war existed or that they held any personal tie to it.
Until someone called him Emmett or Mr. Miller and he remembered that his life wasn’t quite his own. Not until the war ended.
It always came back to the war.
Two fingers tapped twice on the varnished bar top, drawing his attention to Alfred Hastings, a regular occupant of the Forsythe whenever he and his fellow businessmen needed a “change of pace.” Lately, their paces had found them in the lounge several nights per week. Emil wiped another glass clean and set it on the bar top, tossing the drying cloth over his shoulder.
“Another of the same, Mr. Hastings?” He reached for a bottle of gin from the second shelf behind him.
Alfred gave his usual smooth smile. “Ah, my man, you know me too well. Where else can one find such superior service in this city?”
Tipping the last of the bottle into the lowball, Emil thumbed for the door. “I hear the Astoria treats their guests like the president-elect. It might be better suited to your—” He gave a half-smile. “Well, better suited to your fancy suit.”
Alfred gave a mighty guffaw, far too boisterous for the poor joke Emil had presented. But he knew what his patrons enjoyed and once Mr. Hastings downed a few rounds of gin, he could be entertained by nearly anything. “Quite true!” he chortled. “Suit my fancy suit, it does! However, it doesn’t have you, my man. You deserve an award for your service.” He jostled his glass in Emil’s direction. “Find another bottle. I’ll return for seconds.”
Fourths, actually. Emil watched Mr. Hastings and his hundred-dollar suit stride away through the smoky lounge, his laughter still echoing off the walnut-paneled walls. With a final chuckle, the man lowered himself onto one of several velvet-covered armchairs beside three other gentlemen with equal caliber attire. Emil didn’t recognize them, but he had served Mr. Hastings long enough to hazard a guess as to the reason for their meeting.
Business was the name of the game at the Forsythe and based on the group’s tight-lipped expressions, a deal was likely not far off. Being around these Wall Street types, Emil sometimes missed his time at Langdon’s Saloon back home. Although the establishment had gotten him into more trouble than not, its clientele was far livelier. Here there was no gossip of extramarital affairs, no punches thrown in the back alleyway, and certainly not a factory-worker to be found. A rather bland atmosphere for a former morality squad officer, even if it was framed in gilded mirrors and glittering chandeliers. Emil was sure some of these men engaged in scandal elsewhere, but it certainly wasn’t spoken of. Not unless one of those topics helped them get ahead in oil, railroad, or the market. And unless it directly affected their shipping practices, mention of war was akin to a bunch of boys playing battle with sharpened sticks. At least most of them, like Alfred Hastings, had a fair sense of humor and a heavy tipping hand to accompany their ignorance.
“What’s got you so serious, brother? Bad case of indigestion?”
Emil started at the familiar feminine voice, certain he was imposing his personal memories onto whatever rude patron had decided to grace the lounge with her presence. He took in the young woman’s meticulous makeup and bubbly blonde curls pinned into a stylish chignon above her olive suit. Then he performed a double-take as he recognized his sister’s bright if not slightly mischievous smile and hadn’t a rational clue why she would be here. She was smiling, so the visit couldn’t mean bad news, could it?
“Winnie?” He glanced around the lounge, desperately hoping no one would return to the bar and request a drink from his alias, Emmett Miller. That was all he needed, for his sister to question him in a highly public place and ruin his cover. He lowered his voice. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
Setting her valise on the cross-patterned carpet, she swung up onto the nearest barstool and casually leaned one elbow on the bar top. “Ulrich Klassen. You may have moved across the city, but I knew you’d leave word just in case. I begged his address from Reuben.”
After their flight from St. Louis, Ulrich had been Emil and Amara’s only contact in New York. The middle-aged man shared a cabin with Emil’s best mate, Reuben Radford, on the trip over to the States. Known for his unsavory side, Ulrich hadn’t been anyone’s first choice of confidant, and given their current situation, Emil hadn’t trusted him enough to remain living too nearby. He had, however, left the Forsythe’s address in case his family needed to contact him quickly. Or in case the authorities came calling. If he or Amara disappeared without warning, at least someone would know their last known location.
Emil glanced down the bar top and finding its seats unoccupied, leaned in with a whisper, “First off, due to … you know, what happened back in St. Louis … folks here call me Emmett Miller, so please don’t make a scene if someone does.”
“A scene?” She fluttered her lashes innocently. “Honestly, when do I ever make a scene?”
He frowned. “I’m serious, Win. This is important.”
“Oh, all right, I was only kidding with you.”
“Well, your timing is poor. Where are Mum and Pop?” he asked, searching the lounge. At almost seventeen, his sister had never been much farther from their parents’ home than school, the grocer’s, and the Benton Park ball field.
She gave her curls a slight pat and threw a discreet glance over her shoulder. “They elected not to join me.”
She sniffed. “That nit? I preferred to travel alone than listen to our brother’s condescension the entire trip. Although he has been slightly more bearable to live with since you left.”
“You’re traveling unescorted? Is that wise?” Being an immature girl in such a large city so far from home must be a real treat. A treat that, due to her childish ignorance, would likely land her in trouble. Several lounge patrons were already openly staring, including Mr. Hastings, likely wondering which one of them she was connected to. Women hardly ever visited the lounge and when they did, they certainly weren’t bright-eyed teenage blondes.
“Don’t you think this is asking for trouble,” she said instead, “working in a saloon? With your history? I’m surprised your wife agreed to it.”
“Begrudgingly. Amy had the same thoughts you do, but I’m not like that anymore. I can say when I’ve had enough.”
Winnie traced a nail over the bar’s woodgrain and shrugged. “Very well. Seems like tempting fate to me.”
“The only employment assistance I had in this miserable city was Ulrich. With his contacts, it was either this, a factory, or something far dodgier. At least alcohol is familiar. It’s easy to blend in.” He gestured to the carved paneling and decadent paintings on up to the coffered ceiling flickering with chandelier light. “And wouldn’t you agree this type of saloon is better than most?”
Two taps on the counter turned both their heads. Three paces down, Willard Thompson, another regular patron, held his empty glass aloft and shook it lightly. “Another bourbon?”
“Of course, sir. I believe you were drinking the Oltrio, ten year?” With the man’s nod, Emil selected the correct bottle and refilled his glass.
Mr. Thompson took a sip and sighed. “My thanks and do keep them coming. If you see me empty, bring another.” He gave a side nod to a group of men seated near the fireplace. “There’s business to do, and I’m afraid it may be a very long evening.”
“Of course, Mr. Thompson. I’ll keep a close watch.”
Once he was seated back with his business partners, Emil returned to his conversation with Winnie. “You still haven’t said why exactly you’re here. Surely you didn’t come just for a visit, especially not alone. Is something wrong back home? … Oh no…” He felt a pain start somewhere at the base of his neck, creeping across his shoulders. “Did Earhart turn in his testimony? Did they come for our parents? Is that why they ‘elected’ not to come here with you? What of Fred?”
Winnie held up both hands then slowly lowered them to the bar top. “Whoa. Calm down. It was nothing like that. Mama and Papa are perfectly well. Last I heard, your rotten former squad partner was reprimanded for his poor behavior during the riot and forced to switch roles with Officer Lewis. He’s now on front desk duty. Far as we suspect, it seems he’s given up his endeavor to ruin you.” She pegged him with a warning glare. “Course, I wouldn’t suggest returning until the war ends either.”
For months, Emil had felt a terrible nagging at leaving his family behind. As soon as Winnie began talking, though, all he felt was relief. When they left St. Louis, his former squad partner seemed dead set on reporting them to the authorities. He had even threatened them at gunpoint. They could only hope that a guilty conscience had changed Earhart’s mind. However, Emil would take his sister’s advice for once. He and Amara couldn’t return to St. Louis yet, but at least it sounded like they weren’t being tracked anymore. Tonight, they could breathe a little easier.
He grinned. “You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear that, Win. Then why are you here? I assume it’s not only to see my charming face?”
She gave a light chuckle. “No. It was Uncle Sam, actually. You know, he’s a terrible relation sometimes. When you see him on those posters, wagging that finger at you, he strikes me as a bit eccentric. The uncle you’re always helping rearrange the furniture again because he’s plumb crazy. Then you realize, he’s still family and you have to keep him from destroying himself.”
“What in Pete’s name are you talking about?”
“Remember how we partook in that unfortunate incident back in June?”
“Yes, although I wouldn’t say we partook in so much as ran from.” How could he ever forget the man swinging from a street lamp simply because he was German-born? Or how he physically restrained his sister from charging into a mob of hundreds in an attempt to save him? She would have been killed and he would have lost another sibling. It had nearly destroyed their family after their brother, Charles, died on Titanic. Their parents would never have recovered if their youngest child and only daughter was strung up like some offensive criminal.
“I know you thought I was foolish that night,” she continued.
She held up a hand. “Now let’s not argue. I know I wasn’t prepared to take on such a large task, but we still stood by while injustice happened. Well, I can’t stand idle anymore. So, I enlisted.”
“You joined the army?” Now the olive suit and the perfectly pinned hair made sense. He didn’t even know women were allowed to join. More importantly, his sister shouldn’t be allowed to join. “Have you completely lost your mind? You could be killed.”
“I won’t be doing anything too dangerous. They reserve those jobs for the men. I signed on to entertain the troops.”
“Entertain? How exactly do you plan to entertain them?”
She gave him one gigantic eye roll. “Oh, do sweep your mind out of the gutter. You were clearly in that morality squad too long. It’s going to be perfectly classy, nothing coarse. We ladies are simply there to serve meals, play games, distribute books, maybe perform a song or two. In short, keep the soldiers’ spirits up. I’m not certain exactly which tasks I’ll be assigned. I suppose I’ll find out when I get there.”
“Mum and Pop were accepting of this decision? How did you even join up anyway? You have to be eighteen, don’t you?”
At least she had the decency to blush. “A little white lie on my application. Besides, I’ll be eighteen in a little over a year, and I’m already as capable as any woman of age.”
“That is a matter of opinion. And don’t think you’re getting out of answering my first question. Our parents don’t approve of this, do they?” He raised both eyebrows. “Or do they not even know?”
“Of course, they know, but I had already signed the papers when I told them I was leaving. They couldn’t exactly argue once the decision had been made.” She looked down at her gloved fingers. “Between us though, Papa shouted and Mama started crying. I never wanted to make Mama cry.”
Emil placed one gentle hand over hers, giving her fingers a small squeeze before releasing them. “They’re afraid. With Charles already gone and me so far away, they don’t want to lose you too. This is a war, you know. It isn’t like your usual flight of fancy, acting out by trimming your hair short or sneaking off to some suffragette rally. People are dying over there, Win.”
Her eyes shot back up to his, their vivid blue icy. “People are dying over here too. If not on street lamps, then slowly dying in their hearts. The Schneiders’ uncle was sent to an internment camp three weeks ago, and Papa’s shop has suffered even more for it. If I go overseas and serve, it’ll not only help the war effort but also prove our patriotism. It will help all the German-Americans.”
Emil had to admit she had a point. Although he and Fred had both registered for the draft, neither were currently serving, and Emil’s quick departure probably made it seem to many as though he was avoiding the possibility of conscription altogether. If at least one of the Kisch children actively participated, it would certainly prove advantageous to their father’s struggling business. He didn’t have to like the way Winnie went about it though.
Before he could speak, however, Winnie extracted an envelope from her inner jacket pocket and set it on the bar top between them. She turned it so her brother could see the address. “This is the other reason I needed to see you before I left for France.”
“For Amy?” he asked in surprise. His wife’s name was scrawled upon the envelope followed by the words Care of Maggie Frye, St. Louis, Missouri. There was no postmark, no other markings of any kind. “Where did this come from?”
“Peter?” Emil scanned the lounge, but the nearest patron sat well away. Everyone was too involved in their conversations and drinks to pay much attention. “Peter’s supposed to be in France,” he whispered. Even if an injury had sent Peter away from the front, he still fought for the Germans. The Deutsches Heer certainly wouldn’t send him into enemy territory for medical care, which meant he must have been taken prisoner or worse, turned enemy spy.
Emil opened the letter, reading its contents. Shocked, he looked back at Winnie. “Have you read this?” The seal was already broken so someone had.
She nodded. “We all have. Maggie thought we shouldn’t worry you about it. It was our parents who insisted I bring it straight away.”
“Yes. Papa thought it only fair that you knew.”
He stared at the letter a moment longer until the swirling script began to blur under the yellow bar lights. Then he returned it to the envelope and tucked it in his jacket pocket. “We need to get this to Amy.”
“You have work to finish here though, don’t you?”
Emil muttered a curse under his breath. Even though they were slow on a Tuesday evening, he still had three hours to go. “Would you be willing to wait? You can stay at our apartment tonight.”
“Certainly.” She stood, retrieving her valise from the floor, and searched the room for an empty armchair. Mr. Hastings gave her a welcoming smile from across the room, and she smirked in Emil’s direction. “Perhaps I’ll find myself a beau here and there’ll be no need to bring one back from overseas.” Frowning, he pointed at the door. “There’s a library down the hall.”
COPYRIGHT © KELSEY GIETL 2021
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