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Chapter 2

Gretchen Richter's eyes were riveted on the sheet of paper in her hands, her brow creased by a truly magnificent frown. Her husband, Jeff Higgins, was leaning over the back of her chair in order to study the figures himself.


"How much?" Gretchen asked again.


Seated across from her in the large couch in the living room of the Dreeson house, David Bartley shrugged his shoulders. "That depends on a lot of variables. But if you sold all your stocks right now—which I don't recommend, since the market's really antsy with another war looming; well, if you had a lot of military industry stocks, I suppose it might be different—they're doing really well, not surprisingly—but you don't so—"


"David," Gretchen said, half-growling. "Keep it simple. If. You. Would. Please."


Bartley looked slightly nonplussed. "But . . . Look, Gretchen, I'm really not trying to be confusing. It's just that it really isn't all that simple. Like, where would you want to sell it? I wouldn't actually recommend the Grantville or Magdeburg stock exchanges for most of your stocks. They're the ones affected the worst by the war jitters. You'd probably do better in Amsterdam, or in some cases even Venice."


"David!" The "half" left the growl.


Jeff grunted. "Just assume we're morons, David. So, not knowing our asses from our elbows, we go right now to the exchange in downtown Grantville and sell everything—every single stock on this list—for whatever we can get."


Bartley looked at his watch. "Well, you couldn't get there in time today—"


"David!" Gretchen's tone left "growl" behind altogether, and began approaching "shriek of fury."


"Calm down, hon," said Jeff soothingly, his big hand caressing her shoulder. "You can't kill him without producing a political crisis. He's way too popular with the CoCs. All over the country, too, not just here."


Gretchen said nothing. She just glared at Bartley.


"Fine," Jeff continued. "So we sell it all tomorrow. How much would we get?"


David's eyes got that slightly-unfocussed look that Jeff had come to be familiar with this afternoon. The one that signified well-gee-it's-really-complicated-depending-on-this-that-and-the-other.


"Forget playing with currencies," Jeff added quickly. "Just figure we sell it for USE dollars. Whatever we can get. Soon as the stock exchange opens tomorrow morning."


Bartley looked down at the list of figures in his own hand, which was identical to the one Gretchen and Jeff were looking at. He pursed his lips, an expression that Jeff thought made him look like a young Ichabod Crane. If Bartley had been standing, the likeness would have been even better. David was tall and thin, his gangly frame still not having caught up to his height. He was nineteen years old, and the best-known if not perhaps the richest of the teenage millionaires produced by the Ring of Fire.


"Well . . . Figure you'd wind up with about two million dollars. Give or take."


Gretchen swallowed. "Two . . . million?"


"About. But like I said, if you waited and sold the stocks on the Amsterdam market—and Venetian market, for that matter—and took your time about it—I think you'd wind up getting closer to two and a half million. But the truth is I don't recommend you sell most of these stocks. It's a good portfolio, Gretchen." His slender shoulders became a bit more square. "We did right by you guys, if I say so myself."


"That seems clear enough," Jeff said dryly. He moved from behind Gretchen's chair and pulled up a chair for himself from a nearby side table. The chair was on the rickety side. Gretchen's grandmother Veronica, Henry Dreeson's widow, used that table for her records and correspondence. She was not a large woman and the chair did fine for her. Under Jeff's weight, it creaked alarmingly. Most of the fat that Higgins had carried as a teenager was gone now. But, if anything, the twenty-three-year old man who'd replaced that teenager was even bigger—and Jeff had been a big kid to start with.


He ignored the creaks. Whatever else, they could obviously afford to replace the chair now, even if it did collapse under him. And he needed to sit down. He was feeling a bit light-headed.


Two million dollars. Two and a half, if you wait.


The only numbers like that he'd ever dealt with, at least when it came to money, were associated with the role-playing games he and his friends had played in high school. So, trying to get a handle on them and turn the abstract into the concrete, he focused on the chair swaying beneath him.


Go ahead, sucker. Break. See if I care. You're kindling in the fireplace and I go out and buy something sturdier to replace you. Out of pocket change.


That thought steadied him some. He glanced at Gretchen, but saw that his wife was in a rare state of paralysis—an almost unheard of state, in her case. She was normally as uncertain as a calving glacier.


"Whether it's a smart move or not, we will need some cash pretty soon, David. I think you call it liquidity or something like that." Jeff nodded toward his sister-in-law, who was sitting next to David on the couch. The eighteen-year-old girl was studying the figures Bartley held in his hand as intently as a cat watching a mousehole. "Annalise needs to start college in the fall, and that scholarship she got won't be enough to cover the cost."


He lifted his hand and spun the forefinger in a little circle. "Not to mention this gaggle of kids we've got to support. Except for Baldy, anyway. He likes his apprenticeship at KSI, and he's even making enough to support himself."


"That's not a problem. What I recommend is that you sell your shares of Kelly Aviation. They're selling like hotcakes right now on account of the war coming, but I don't personally think that's going to last so you may as well get out while the getting's good."


Feeling under some sort of vague compulsion to demonstrate his masculine mastery of financial matters in front of the womenfolk, Jeff took off his glasses and started cleaning them with a handkerchief. "You sure? I heard those are pretty good planes they make."


"Technically, yes. Bob Kelly knows his stuff when it comes to designing aircraft. The problem's on the other end. He's got the business sense of a jackrabbit and while Kay makes up for it some, she's also, well . . ." He looked uncomfortable. For all his financial acumen, Bartley wasn't a cut-throat by temperament. He was quite a nice guy, actually, and not given to bad-mouthing others.


"Well," he repeated.


Jeff was less reticent. He'd run into Bob Kelly's wife on several occasions. All of them had been unpleasant. "Yeah. If pissing people off was an Olympic event, she'd take the gold every time."


David nodded. "I figure you could get three hundred thousand dollars from those stocks. You could set aside twenty-five percent of that as a fund for Annalise, which ought to be plenty even as expensive as Quedlinburg's gotten to be."


Annalise spoke up, her tone a mix of defensiveness and belligerence. "It's the only really good college for women yet. In the USE, anyway. I wouldn't mind going to Prague but Gramma'd pitch a fit."


Jeff put his glasses back on. "That'd leave us with about two hundred and twenty-five thousand. Gretchen wants to move to Magdeburg as soon as possible, now that Ronnie's leaving town, and we'd need to get a house big enough for all the kids. We'd figured on renting, but . . ." He started doing the needed calculations.


Not surprisingly, David did the figuring faster than he did. "You could buy the kind of house you need for . . . I figure about seventy-five thousand dollars. But then you'd own it free and clear and still have a hundred and fifty thousand to live on. Even with all your kids, that's way more than enough."


Gretchen frowned. "Seventy-five thousand? That seems much too high. We're not going to be looking for a home in the best districts, you know."


"Yeah, sure. You pretty much have to stay in one of the working class areas where the CoCs are strong and can provide you with some protection. You've got a lot of enemies. But for the same reason, you'll need a really solid place. My own advice would be to buy a whole apartment building. Plenty of room for the kids—Ronnie, too, if she wants to move in with you—"


Jeff chuckled. "Not likely. She says she's had enough of babysitting our kids and we can damn well do it on our own from now on. I think she's planning to move in with the Simpsons. She and Mary get along real well, and with the admiral likely to be gone most of the time, Mary'd probably like the company."


Gretchen looked like she was on the verge of choking. "An apartment building? We don't have that many kids. Baldy will be staying here and so will Martha, who wants to finish school. That leaves us with only half a dozen who'll be coming to Magdeburg. And I can assure you that I have no intention of becoming a landlady!"


David made a face. Again, the youngster's nature made it hard for him to state the truth bluntly.


Jeff, on the other hand, had no such compunctions left. Being married to Gretchen for four years had pretty well rubbed off whatever delicate sensibilities he'd ever possessed. "Hon, we've got a lot of enemies. Well, you do, anyway. Most of them don't have much against me except they've got to get past me to put you in the ground."


Gretchen looked at him, a bit crossly. "So?"


"So figure it out for yourself. If we buy an apartment building—depending on the size, of course, but let's figure twelve units which is pretty standard in the quarters we'd be looking in—then we can set aside half the space for CoC people."


"What do you mean, 'CoC' people—oh."


He grinned. "Yeah. Oh. As in 'CoC people handpicked by Gunther Achterhof.' Good luck, any of the people got it in for you getting through that crowd."


"Oh," she repeated.


David nodded. "That's about what I was figuring."


She shook her head, more by way of confusion than anything else, and looked back down at the sheet. "I still don't really understand how it happened. And without us even knowing about it!"


Bartley looked a bit defensive. "Hey, we told your grandmother what was happening."


Jeff barked a jeering laugh. "Oh, right! And I'm sure you used simple and straight-forward language that made lots of sense to Ronnie."


"Well . . ."


Gretchen shook her head again. The gesture, this time, was to clear away the confusion. "Explain it to us again. In simple and straight-forward language, this time."


"Well . . . Okay. This is simplifying a lot, you understand?"


"I can live with that," said Gretchen. "Whereas you may not, if you do otherwise."


Now, Bartley looked alarmed as well as defensive. "Hey, Gretchen! There's no call for that."


"Relax, David. She's joking." Jeff glanced at his wife. "I . . . think. Do your best."


The young financier cleared his throat. "The gist of it is that, way back when, my grandmother gave you guys some stock in the sewing machine company by way of a belated wedding gift. On account of Jeff's father and my mother were first cousins which makes me and Jeff second cousins." He rattled off the precise family relationships with the ease of any person raised in a small town. "You remember?"


Jeff and Gretchen nodded simultaneously.


"Well, after that I guess you forgot about it."


"We were . . . ah, busy," said Gretchen.


"Holed up in Amsterdam under Spanish siege, to be precise," added Jeff. "So, yeah. Sewing machine company stocks were not something we thought about much. At all."


"Sure. But as you may have heard, Higgins Sewing Machine Company did really well. And when it went public, you wound up owning five thousand shares—which was two and half percent of the stock."


"The sewing machine company did that well?"


David tugged at his ear. "It did really well, yeah. But it wasn't just the sewing machine company. Since you weren't around we talked to Ronnie and your grandmother told us to handle it however we wanted to." He looked defensive again. "She didn't seem interested when we tried to explain the ins and outs of it."


Jeff wasn't surprised. Depending on who did the explaining—Bartley was actually better at this than most of his partners—Gretchen's grandmother would have probably had as much luck with a short lecture on quantum mechanics. It wasn't that she was dim-witted. She wasn't at all; in fact, in her own way she had a very shrewd grasp of practical finance. But Veronica's idea of practical finance focused on tangibles like property and hard cash. The sort of stock speculations and manipulations that David specialized in wouldn't have meant much to her.


David went on. "So Sarah and I diversified your holdings. You've still got the five thousand shares in HSMC, but we invested all the earnings in other stuff. By now, you own sizeable amounts of stock in OPM—"


That was Bartley's own finance company: Other People's Money.


"—as well as several of the Stone chemical and pharmaceutical companies, Casein Buttons, Kelly Aviation, a little chunk of the Roth jewelry operations, a pretty hefty chunk of the new petroleum operations near Hamburg and an even bigger chunk of the port expansion projects—Hamburg's going to turn into a real boom town—and some railroad stocks. There are some other odds and ends, but that's the heart. Sarah and I didn't want to take too many risks with your money, so we invested most of it in stuff that was safe but reasonably profitable."


It was Jeff's turn to shake his head. "If these are the kinds of returns you get on 'safe' investments, I'd hate to see what you get on something risky that pays off."


Bartley shrugged. "You've got to remember that 'safe' is a relative term. The Ring of Fire triggered off one of the great economic booms in history. At least, that's what Melissa says. Almost any intelligent investment will pay off well, if you know what you're doing."


Jeff didn't think it was really that straight-forward. David Bartley was like most people with a genius streak at something. Doing that something seemed a lot easier to him than it did to most anyone else.


Be that as it may, the end result seemed clear enough. Much to his surprise—and Gretchen's even more so—they'd wound up very well off. So, what had seemed like the sure prospect of several years of hard near-poverty while they finished raising Gretchen's little horde of adopted children had vanished.


He could live with that. Quite easily.


* * *


An hour later, after David got up to leave, Jeff escorted him to the front door. "When will we see you again?" he asked.


"I don't know about Gretchen. But you'll be seeing me tomorrow, since your leave's up. We'll be on the same train."


"Huh?"


Bartley got a sly look on his face. "Didn't you notice that I was wearing my uniform?"


Jeff had noticed, in fact, but hadn't thought much of it. David was a member of the State of Thuringia-Franconia's National Guard. In Jeff's experience—although he'd allow this might just be the sneer of a real soldier—weekend warriors wore their uniforms every chance they got. He himself was lounging around in jeans and a sweatshirt. He had no intention of donning his own uniform until he was ready to leave the next morning.


"Yeah. So what?"


"So I'm reporting to the army base in Magdeburg along with you. Mike Stearns asked me to come. He sent me a personal letter, even. Well, I doubt if he actually wrote it. But he signed it, sure enough."


Jeff chuckled again. "Leave it to Mike. He wants you to run his quartermaster operations, doesn't he?"


"Not exactly. He says he wants me as a 'logistics consultant.'"


Jeff grinned. "You may be a financial wizard, but you're a babe in the woods when it comes to the army. Mike's just saying that 'cause he doesn't want to piss off a lot of old-timers. But he'll have you running the show soon enough, in fact if not in name. You watch."


He said it all quite cheerfully. And why not? Logistics was always an officer's biggest headache. But with David Bartley running the supply operations . . . Jeff figured anybody who could parlay not much of anything into stocks worth over two million dollars could probably also manage to keep food and spare socks and ammunition coming.


 


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