1636 The Devil’s Opera – Snippet 14

Chapter 7

          Hans led the way farther into the rough quarter of Old Magdeburg. Simon was familiar with every street in the quarter. He ran them all at different times. But Hans soon led him into streets that Simon didn’t like to travel at night. They passed by people slumped in doorways. Others staggered down the street, taking swigs from coarse pottery bottles. Simon edged closer to Hans.

          After one more turn into another dark street, Hans stopped in front of a door. “This is The Chain. Have you heard of it?”

Simon nodded, stomach sinking. The Chain was perhaps the worst tavern in the city. Fights were a frequent occurrence, and more than one dead body had been removed from the premises. It was said that the city watchmen, even the new Polizei, would only enter the place in groups of three or four. Simon had never been inside.

“Ah, it’s a rough place, right enough. But you’ll be safe with me.” Hans pushed the door open and waved Simon in. Steps led down into a basement. At the bottom, Simon stepped into the bar room, afraid but hiding it from his new friend.

The room was dimly lit from a smoldering fire in a fireplace on the opposite side and a few guttering tallow candles on sconces around walls. The air was smoky from the fire and candles and foul from the smell of too many unwashed bodies in a small space.

Simon coughed from the reek, then stumbled as he was pushed from behind. Hans stepped up beside him and scanned the room. “Barnabas!” he shouted. A man across the room waved his hand. Hans faced him and held up two fingers, to which Barnabas responded with an upraised thumb. Hans clapped his hand on Simon’s shoulder again. “Come on, lad. Barnabas has got seats for us, let us get some drink.” Hans pushed his way through the seated crowd. Simon followed on his heels, as there was no way he could have made his own way through that mass of rough-spun covered backs.

Hans came to a thick board laid across a couple of barrels with a lamp at one end. “Hello, Veit, you old scoundrel.”

“Hans, you lump of walking swine’s flesh. I have not seen you in must be, oh, eight days now. What made you drag your stinking carcass in tonight?

Simon stepped away when the tavern keeper so freely insulted Hans. He wasn’t sure how the big man would respond, but when Hans laughed he relaxed.

“Oh, I need a purgative, so I figured I’d come by and drink some of your swill. That ought to have me puking by midnight.” Both men laughed at that.

“So what’s your poison tonight?” Veit asked after they settled down.

“Genever. The good stuff,” Hans added as the tavern keeper turned back to the high table behind him. A moment later a blue ceramic bottle was set before Hans, stopper and neck wrapped in wax. Veit held his hand out. Simon watched as Hans pulled some coins out of his pocket, and counted them into the tavern keeper’s palm. They both knew the cost of the bottle of spirits, because Veit was counting right along with Hans.

Hans counted out the final coin and reached for the bottle, only to find Veit’s hand on it holding it down. “What’s wrong?”

“Take back that Halle pfennig,” Veit said.

Hans cursed. “You gave it to me, so you ought to take it back.”

“I’m not saying I did or didn’t,” Veit replied. “But if you were in here drunk enough to take it, then you deserve it. Now give me dollars or honest silver or do your drinking somewhere else.”

Simon was glad he couldn’t understand what Hans muttered under his breath as he took back a blackish coin from the tavern keeper and gave him a different one in exchange. Veit removed his hand and Hans picked up his bottle. Then he looked over at Simon. “Thought I had forgotten you, eh? Veit, this is . . . what is your name, boy?”

“Simon, sir.”

“Sir!” Hans and Veit roared with laughter. “I’m no sir, boy. I’m just Hans, and that is good enough for me.”

“Taking up with boys now, Hans?”

Simon stepped back as Hans’ face went hard and cold all in a moment. He didn’t want to be in the way if things got rough here. He’d already seen Hans in action once tonight.

Veit’s laughter choked in his throat as Hans’ hand flashed across the counter to grasp his jacket and lift him up on his toes. “You’ll not say that again, Veit,” Hans hissed through tight lips.

Veit’s eyes were wide and his face was pale behind his scraggly beard. Simon knew his own eyes were just as wide and just as white around the edges.

“Sorry, Hans. I meant nothing by it. Bad joke.

The tableau stretched on for a long moment, then Hans relaxed his fist and let the cloth slide through his fingers. Veit settled back onto his feet.

“We will let it go at that,” Hans said in a hard voice, “but you watch your mouth, Veit. A man can get hurt by saying the wrong thing.” After a moment, he turned to Simon and said in a normal tone, “Now, boy, what do you want to drink? I’m buying.”

Simon hesitated, then stammered, “Sm-small beer.”

Hans frowned, but Veit held up his hand. “I keep some here for some of the doxies that come round in the mornings. He can have some of that, and I won’t charge for it.” The tavern keeper found a small mug on the back table and filled it from a small keg sitting on the end of the table. “Here you are, lad.”

Simon took the mug from the counter and looked up at Hans.

“Right. This way.”

Again Simon followed close behind the bulk of the larger man through the press of bodies that seemed in the dim light to be clad in shades of gray. Hans pushed his way through without seeming to give a thought to those he was jostling. Simon heard mutters as he went by the men following in Hans’ wake, but no one’s voice was loud enough to catch Hans’ attention. After what he had just seen at the counter, Simon was not surprised. People here apparently knew Hans — knew enough to keep on his good side, anyway.