“Counter Spring” by David S. Atkinson
Hilmer briefly misplaced the terror he felt, reflexively pondering how he could peddle overpriced meat rolls or some such thing to the mob while they tried to stone him. He groped his greasy beard, trimmed himself instead of by some extravagant barber, with his arthritic fingers. Foodstuffs weren’t his line, but a good deal of money could be made that way.
His fear woke instantly at a roar from the crowd he could not yet see. The dark wood doorframe groaned as he clutched it, and he started at the noise. He trembled as he peered up the stone ramp from his cellar watch shop onto the alley. They were still a long way off, but he could hear them getting closer. They would be to the alley soon. At least the first of them. He listened with his head in the doorway and his bulk shrinking behind inside.
Then Hilmer ducked deeper into the dim light of his store, the mass of his body rolling with him, to one of his merchandise cases. His merchandise! There was no time. He had to be quick.
The case was cheap, but solid. Dark wood beams, even darker than the doorframe, banded with studded black metal. Inside the top of the case, pocket watches ticked. Hilmer reached over the case, grabbing the heavy wooden lid crudely attached to the back and pulling it down over the top. Then he snapped shut a giant rusted padlock, sealing the lid. The ticking of the pocket watches in the case was still faintly audible.
He’d known it was only a matter of time. That they were going to find out and come for him. There was no way to keep it a secret. He’d just had to wait.
The very night it occurred, he noticed the theft. Even without his ledger, he always knew exactly what he sold each day. And to whom for what. Even before he double checked the ledger, Hilmer saw there were fewer watches in his inventory than he remembered selling. He was robbed.
It had to be Von Braur. Hilmer was sure. Von Braur spent hours in the shop, examining one watch after another, supposedly never quite satisfied with any. Time was all Von Braur ever spent. He was a destitute, always possessing the nicest things but owning not a cent. A window-shopper, Hilmer cringed. Still, Hilmer reminded himself carefully that Von Braur was still a customer. Money or no.
He glanced at the doorway, panting, making sure he still saw no one. Then he dashed to each of the other cases, as much as his thickness permitted him to dash, and locked their massive wooden lids down with their own heavy padlocks. With each case he secured, the ticking of pocket watches in the shop got softer, muted, and the shouts of the mob got louder.
If only another customer saw the theft, Hilmer despaired. They would have denounced Von Braur on the spot. Poured their disgust of thieves upon him, outrage at desecration of commerce.
But, they did not see. No customer could vouch that it was a theft. With only Hilmer’s word, the crowd would have no choice. The primary codec of the commercial code decreed it. A customer is always right. A customer and merchant were alone. The customer obtained merchandise, yet no money was paid. They had to assume that Hilmer gave the watch away. That Hilmer was generous, guilty of easy virtue. They’d stoned Shmidtz for less than that.
He ran to the door again, thrusting his balding head out of his hole and looking all around. His heart pounded in his throat as loud as the approaching throng, but they were still not close enough to be seen. Cocking his ear, he listened.
A chance look stopped his gaze on his moneybox. Hilmer’s eyes snapped wide and he ran. Snatching up the stiff leather box with the dulled brass banding, he hefted the clinking heavy thing into a square hole in the floor and slid a stone tile over it. Then he pushed his clerk desk, little more than an unvarnished oaken stool with a reading tray, on top.
His thought to feign it had not happened when he discovered the theft, cut his small loss rather than face the high price they would make him pay. Not denounce the crime to the authorities. But, he had sagged when he realized it was no use. Von Braur would be seen with the watch and they would know that he did not pay for it. Eventually, the Grand Auditors, keepers of the great accounts, would see the columns of Hilmer’s sales did not balance to his inventory and expenditures. No, the shameful secret would inevitably worm out.
Hilmer’s eyes darted around the dingy stone of his small shop, ensuring that all of importance was secured- all his merchandise locked down and his moneybox safely hidden. The mob could not be stopped, but if he could just hold out long enough for them to spend their fury his shop might be saved.
He shouldered the thick wooden door closed and slammed the bolts that ran from the top of the frame to the bottom. Then he lowered the wooden beam lengthwise across and set it into place in the black iron bracket bolted into the wall. It looked secure enough, but it could be battered. He wondered if it could possibly hold.
Breathing hard from the unaccustomed exertion, his eyes examined the two small shop windows. They were tiny and high up, the shop merely a cellar even though there was no story above. That’s why the rent was so cheap, Hilmer delighted before remembering himself. High and tiny as the windows were, the crowd could still force its way in. He stretched up and lowered the shutters on both. Then he barred them the same as he had barred the door. Trying to catch his labored breath, he looked around at it all.
The shop was even dimmer now, almost dark. Hilmer always relied on light from the alley to save on wax candles as much as possible and not much light came in through the cracks of the shutters. The noises of the mob were muffled as well, but getting louder as the mob got closer until it seemed just as loud as when the shutters were open.
He slumped down at his clerk desk. His shoulders hunched. The reading tray, with his ledger and inkstand on top, pressed into his belly. There was not quite enough room for his girth when he sat there, but it was a waste to purchase a larger one when this one sufficed. A little discomfort was nothing.
Outside, he heard glass break, but it wasn’t his windows. His windows didn’t have glass. Still, it started. Hilmer clutched his ledger tightly in his fleshy hands. It wasn’t fair. They were coming to punish the generous, the morally impure. But, that wasn’t him. Hilmer had never gifted anything. No matter the tears, nor the begging. He was not, Hilmer shuddered, generous.
And they all knew it! They’d known him all of his life. Always complaining how tight-fisted he was. How he schemed and cheated them. They knew, but ignored it because a customer spoke against him. That was the worst- that this would happen to him when it was so untrue and they all knew it. Any merchant so vile to be free with his wares should be driven out. Hilmer was sure of that. The community had to be outraged, wrath visited upon the wretched to cleanse the taint. But, that just wasn’t him.
A stone pitched off of his door, no doubt thrown by the approaching mob. Hilmer’s head snapped up and he stared, pulse pounding, but nothing else. Just an early foray by someone at the forefront.
Hilmer snapped open his ledger and flipped through the pages. He was without sin. It was all there. Every month back through all of the years. From the first day he sold watches from a box in the street, watches he’d grabbed from junk heaps and washed. All the way up until that moment. Each and every transaction.
He pointed, as if someone was in the shop to be convinced. Right there. The watches broken beyond repair he sold to the scrap metal dealers. Didn’t he carefully fill them with mud to increase the weight and pretend he just hadn’t bothered to clean them? They’d never been able to house so much mud on their own. He’d easily got twice the going rate out of that deal. Wasn’t that avarice? Wasn’t that greed? Anyone would think so. Hilmer gesticulated wildly. And that was just one instance. There were hundreds. All throughout his ledger.
He poured through the pages of the ledger again. There! He could just point to a line and evidence was found. The counterfeit he sold to Fritzmeine, a rival dealer. Hilmer shrewdly saw the watch was a cheap forgery carefully made to resemble an expensive Glocken. Fritzmeine offered just enough that Hilmer should sell easily without suspicion. Clearly, the idiot was fooled and thought Hilmer overlooked the treasure. Hilmer let Fritzmeine think he was taken in. Even managed to squeeze out a few more coins. Surely that wasn’t generous! No, was that not proof of sharp business acumen? No mercy. Driving for the best deal possible at any means necessary.
And another! On the same page! Hilmer pounded his fat fist down on his clerk desk. Did he not buy from his own mother for next to nothing knowing she was destitute and had to take whatever he offered? Was that not the height of mercenary? Heartless! Cold! Noble. No, he was above reproach! Surely there were none as upstanding as he. As grasping. The examples were in the thousands, one for each of the coins he’d hoarded over the years.
Did he not shortchange as a general rule? Did he not slip forgotten watches left behind on benches quietly into his pockets when the forgetful owner was not yet a foot away? Did he not insist any debt to him be paid immediately while he left his own creditors stewing until the doomsday? Avarice! Greed! Indeed, he was a saint!
A couple more stones rang out against the boarded up front of this store. Then a few more. Hilmer shook his fist at the unseen assailants. How dare they? They had nothing for which to reproach him. Nothing.
Then he dropped his fist quickly and shrank down humbly. He thought that he must not forget himself. No matter how untrue it all was, they were still customers. Customers must always be respected. That was the law. They were right, no matter how erroneous or misguided they were. But look! Hilmer peered back at his ledger. It was so clear, how could they ignore?
Suddenly, Hilmer froze. His eyes locked. It was not the stones smacking into his store, though there were stones. Hilmer did not hear them. The watch he sold to Drusden…it was actually worth what the skinflint paid. No overcharging at all. Hilmer’s spiky eyebrows furrowed. The haggling had been fierce. They’d argued for hours. But…did he give in too easily? Could he have gotten just a little bit more? Hilmer was certain at the time, but he wasn’t as convinced anymore.
The ticking of the watches was no longer audible in the shop. The yelling outside was too loud. The rocks were more frequent. Harder, too, smashing against the outside of the store. Hilmer was unaware, though. He nervously flipped the pages of his ledger, searching. Uncomfortable. What else had he missed?
His gaze stopped on a transaction with Spezzler. He smiled as he remembered shortchanging the old duffer. But, then the smile fell. Did he shortchange Spezzler enough? Spezzler had not noticed and Hilmer was as bold as he thought he could get away with, but had he been too cautious? Maybe a few more coins would have gone unseen as well. He would have been all the richer.
Panicked, he raced through the ledger. He found deals that were good, but not as good as they could have been. Not just one or two, more. The more he looked, the more he found. What horrible things would he find if he kept looking?
How could things have gotten to this state? Hilmer had always watched himself so carefully. Made sure he guided his life by the bottom line and not any frivolous motive. He’d striven and walked righteously. So, why was the core rotten?
The smashing on the front of the store wasn’t just stones anymore. Fists and maybe other things, hundreds of them, battered and bashed the walls and shutters. Shouts rang out, some clear and some not. Some threatened. Some demanded. A few just roared. The heavy wooden door shook and flexed inward under the blows, but did not give. Not yet, anyway.
All this time, he hid the flaw from himself. He was loose with his purse strings. Downright charitable. There was no other explanation. An honest merchant would not have let go a cent that was ripe for taking. Hilmer might as well have given the money away. Bile rose in his throat. He felt filthy, disease-ridden, although he’d often saved expense by sparing hygiene without having any qualms. He wiped at his hands, feeling an oil that he could not remove. His body twitched, unable to stomach touching itself.
He leapt to his feet right up out of his clerk desk, his movement ignoring the uncoordinated limitations of his frame. The desk topped from the motion, smashing on the hard stone floor. The inkwell clattered and a dark pool oozed outward from it, soaking the ledger and obscuring the entries.
He ran to the door and furiously threw the bolts back. His body snapped trying to fling the door open, smacking his head on the stone wall, forgetting the bar in his haste. Then he ripped that free as well.
Hilmer ran out to meet the mob and they, in turn, surged forward to meet him. Perhaps not expecting Hilmer to emerge, the crowd moved aside and he ran out past them into their midst like a customer merely coming out of the shop. Then they noticed him and fell back in apparent surprise. Those who burst inside when the door flung open carefully peeked back out, as if trying to see what was going on. The rest, who pressed forward so eagerly a moment before, waited.
Hilmer stopped, his bulk tensed like he would charge randomly at any moment. His clenched lips trembled with rage and his eyes darted wildly. He spun to face the crowd one way. Then he spun again to face another.
The crowd stared, as if stunned. The entire alley was jammed with still more cramming to get in. Their features indistinct, they were wrapped in the green cloaks Hilmer knew they wore each Sunday to services, the weekly reading of accounts by the Grand Auditors. Most carried clubs or baskets of stones, or at least a few stones clutched in their hands. Even the few windows that looked out onto the alley crowded with figures. No one moved, though. The mob seemed to have lost its purpose and force at the shock of Hilmer.
“What are you waiting for?” Hilmer bellowed at them, spittle flying from his lips, enraged by their lack of motion. “Are you not righteous men?”
One hand, far into the crowd, weakly but obediently tossed the stone it was holding. The mob watched it glance heavily off of Hilmer’s head. He stumbled, but didn’t fall. A small patch of blood started collecting on an empty spot in his ragged hair.
“Do it!” He yelled at them, recovering his balance and shaking his arms frantically. “Do it!”
Then, recovering from its shock, the crowd obliged him.