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Fröhliche Weihnachten

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"Forget it, I quit."

Wolfe muttered something unintelligible.

"I mean it. This time I quit for real."

Fritz didn't believe it. It was the same tone Archie always used when he said he was leaving. It had never lasted.

"One: it's Christmas, and you can't make a man work on Christmas. Two: if it's not to babysit you, there's no reason to keep me here in the States. Three: it's Christmas and you can't make a man work on Christmas. Four..."

"Bah!"

"You're half-way there. There's one more word that goes with that, and it's a type of candy, too."

"You can't quit. Fritz has started dinner."

"Bribery. Guilt. They won't work. I was at you to start on this Townley thing for weeks – for you to decide to work now? Humbug to you. I quit."

Fritz watched silently from the hall as Archie stormed out, grabbing coat and hat from the stand by the door, making sure to slam the door hard as he left. Shaking his head, Fritz turned back to the kitchen.

"Immer wieder das gleiche Spiel," he muttered. Ah, well, that was a good thing, wasn't it.

The knock on the door came suddenly and unexpectedly. Fritz frowned – he'd received all the deliveries for today and visitors generally came to the front door, regardless of the class of visitor. He opened it cautiously, holding a chef's knife at ready and praying he didn't have to use it.

His confusion deepened when he discovered who stood on the other side. Inspector Cramer – normally a front door visitor who would never subscribe to the not-quite-dead view that policemen were mere servants – looked uncomfortable as he scraped his feet clean on the doorstep. Mister Wolfe hadn't mentioned the Inspector would be coming. He usually gave Fritz some alert when he planned his covert operations. "I'm afraid..."

"I'm not here to see Wolfe." The Inspector's voice was unusually soft. "I'd rather not deal with him on this, if I don't have to."

"Mister Goodwin is out as well."

"Actually, I'm here to talk to you, Mister Brenner."

Fritz stepped back slightly with a blink of surprise. Both the man's deference and his use of the honorific were enough out of his normal character that it spoke volumes as to the seriousness of the matter. Normally, the inspector was a man of gruffness. This meek side was, in a way, more chilling than any threat.

Cramer took the move as an invitation, stepping from the snowy chill of the stoop into the fragrant warmth of Fritz's kitchen domain. He seemed unconcerned by the knife as though its presence in the hand of a chef demoted it (though, in Fritz's mind, perhaps promoted was a better term) from dangerous weapon to simple tool. Perhaps he felt all chefs answered the door with one in hand.

"How could I help the police? Surely that's more in Mister Wolfe's purview." Even as he said it, Fritz knew the truth. He was the problem. "Verdamnt."

Cramer looked at him, seeming almost relieved at not having to spell things out. "Exactly. We've had a few... reports about you, Mister Brenner."

"Reports? You mean some anonymous voice on the telephone tells you there is a funny little man speaking to the butcher and because he needs the pork shoulder for Schäufele, he is subversive? A spy, perhaps?"

"There is a war on, Mister Brenner. People do tend to get a little nervous."

"As Mister Goodwin would say, 'Nuts'." Fritz exchanged the chef's knife for a bread-knife, sawing two thick slices from a freshly baked loaf. He paused for a moment, then added two more. "Should I be more American, and instead of 'please' and 'thank you', simply tell people to 'get stuffed'?"

An odd smile twitched on Cramer's lips. "Given your profession, those probably aren't the best words." He looked pointedly at the oven where the turkey for the evening's dinner slowly roasted. His expression sobered. "But as I said, we've gotten some reports. And it is my duty to follow up on them, regardless of who is being reported."

"Die Welt ist voller Idioten" Fritz muttered. More loudly, he said, "Sit. Standing there and holding your hat you are disturbing my kitchen." He motioned to the small table Archie often used when he slipped in to gripe about Mister Wolfe or his duties had kept him away from dinner.

Cramer did as he was told, perhaps recognising that his authority extended only to the law outside of the kitchen. In here, there were different rules. And even he knew the dangers if Mister Wolfe were not fed properly. His eagerness to avoid the man would be moot in the face of a delayed or ruined dinner.

Fritz cracked a couple of eggs, expertly separating the whites from the yolks. He slowly added oil and vinegar to the yolks, beating briskly. He noted with amusement the look on Cramer's face – to him, mayonnaise was something from a jar, a dish made complicated by the fact its making was never seen. It seemed to Fritz that no one in America cooked anymore. They wanted their food like their cars, ready-made so that they only needed to put it on their plate to have dinner. Some didn't even like to go that far, eating every day in diners whose very description made Fritz's stomach turn.

Briefly, he considered the cold roast beef, but changed his mind in favour of the Fleischkäse. It was more suited to the topic of conversation, he decided. "And has it occurred to either you or my accusers that I am Swiss?" He sliced the meat thinly, layering it to allow for the best flavour, topping it with a thin slice of Emmanthaler. Good cheese was getting harder to find than good meat. Cucumber and tomato added both colour and texture. Nothing fancy, just good simple food.

"I know that," Cramer said. "But like I said, I still gotta check things out, even if the G-Men have cleared you because of him." He made a nod in the direction of Wolfe's office. "But it ain't just about you speaking German or being polite – people put that together with you, Goodwin, Wolfe and Horstmann all living here without a woman even to do the cleaning, and they think there's something queer in that. Throw in that Wolfe gets favours – meaning you get your hamhocks when rations mean everyone else doesn't... you're a smart man, Brenner. You know how it goes."

"Yes." Fritz slid one of the sandwiches in front of Cramer, accompanied by a cup of strong coffee. It, too, was getting scarcer but he could not imagine withholding from a guest. "I know how it goes." He pulled a chair to the other side of the table for himself.

"Now, the way I see it, you gotta be either a saint or a kook to put up with that," Cramer nodded again towards Wolfe's office, "Goodwin included."

"The way I see it, this household functions far better than many of those where women abound to do the cooking, the cleaning and tending the flowers." Fritz watched the inspector take a large bite out of his sandwich. That was another puzzling thing about Americans – they preferred quantity to quality almost every time. Not that Fritz disbelieved in large meals, but not at the expense of taste. Americans would eat sawdust, provided it came in giant portions, had been packaged in something bright and endorsed by celebrity. Fritz smiled, humourlessly. "And if you are speaking of Mister Wolfe's temper, then you have never spent time as sous-chef. Mister Wolfe would not threaten to kill me over the preparation of a roux."

"Ha. I had no idea cooking was so dangerous."

"Anything can be dangerous when people take it too seriously," Fritz told him. "Even patriotism."

"Now that's the sort of statement that can get you into trouble, Swiss or not," Cramer said. "People do take their patriotism seriously in this country. I'm a patriot. I'd be over there fighting right now, if they didn't think I was too old and I wasn't already a cop."

"Yes, and so would Archie," Fritz said, quietly. He appreciated the young man's zeal. But he already worried too much over friends and family left behind years ago, not to mention other acquaintances already gone. He thanked God every time Archie complained about his status; he was selfishly grateful that the FBI and OSS recognised the value of Wolfe to the American government and the value of Archie to Mister Wolfe. "But would you shoot your neighbour because you heard him say Scheiße, when he hits his thumb with a hammer? Or beat him because he drives his car instead of walking, thus taking away fuel from the war effort? Or his suit has too much fabric or..."

"No." Cramer cut him off. "There are some nuts out there who would, but I wouldn't call them patriots." He took another bite of his sandwich. "They're just... nuts."

"They would not argue that. They would say you were not patriotic enough. You said you wanted to join the army? To fight? Fight what?"

"Nuts, Brenner. Even you can't be that stupid. We knew about those goddamn Nazis even before the war began. Hell..."

"Yes. Die Nationalsozialisten." Neutral-Swiss or no, he couldn't keep the venom out of his voice. "They believe they are German patriots, bringing das Vaterland back to its former glory. They, too, send policemen to the door when someone whispers on the phone about the funny man at the butcher who uses foreign words."

"This ain't like that. This..." Cramer stopped suddenly, perhaps realising why he came in the first place. Not – Fritz believed – to harass him, but to prevent that from happening. Some policemen might think that if a man was accused he was probably guilty. Cramer was not one of them.

"Is a matter of degree," Fritz finished for him. "Even the most harmless thing in moderation can be dangerous when one thinks one has achieved perfection. It is an admirable thing to pursue, not such a good thing to believe you've found it."

"If I wanted a conversation with Wolfe, I would've come to the other door. I expect him to wrap my head in knots. I wouldn't go talking like this in public if I were you."

"I am not completely stupid, Mister Cramer."

"No," Cramer glanced again towards the hallway. "Around here, you couldn't be." He finished the sandwich and stood up, picking up his coffee to finish that as well. He collected his hat from where he'd hung it on the back of the chair. "But what do I know, I'm not a genius, just a working-stiff with a report to file, on Christmas, no less." He headed towards the door, pausing to turn back, a sly smile hinting. "Fröhliche Weihnachten, Herr Brenner." He left, the door closing behind him.

Fritz picked up the empty plate and cup, taking them to the sink to wash them. Upstairs, an argument broke out over the orchids. The front door slammed as Archie came home, moments later the clatter of his typewriter emerged from the office. Fritz smiled to himself. He was a lucky man, and Cramer had just reminded him how much. "Fröhliche Weihnachten, Herr Cramer," he said to the man long gone, "und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr." Perhaps the new year would finally bring peace. For now, he'd take what he had. Mister Wolfe and Archie, so much like father and son, his good friend Theodore, and knowing he didn't need to be frightened finding a policeman at the door. Finished with the dishes, he picked up the baster and turned his attention to the turkey. Good friends, good food, what more did anyone need? Nothing, he decided. Especially not at Christmas.