Prologue

 

DIETER hurried up the stairs and down the hall as fast as his legs would carry him, not thinking that of course his grandmother could hear every footstep he made. Slowing down, he stopped in front of the linen closet that was tucked beneath the stairs to the attic. Opening the door, Dieter ducked inside. He closed the door behind him and backed into the deep closet, careful not to knock anything over. He could barely see, as a thin line of light shone from under the door. Closing his eyes tight, he waited a few seconds before opening them again. Now he could see the outline of the shelves against the one wall that held all the linens, neatly sorted and stacked. Careful not to knock anything off, he inched farther into the closet, ducking under the tablecloths and quilts that hung from fat, fancy hangers, to where the ceiling started to meet the floor. Settling on the floor with a stifled giggle, Dieter knew he had found the best hiding spot yet, and he waited for Gramma to find him.

Listening for the sound of Gramma’s footsteps kept him entertained for a while, but when he didn’t hear anything, Dieter began to inch toward the door and bumped into a box that scooted across the dusty floor. Obviously Gramma hadn’t been in here in a long time, because she hated dust of any kind anywhere. Once, he’d heard Gramma say she was looking for dust bunnies under his bed. Dieter had immediately gotten onto his knees to peer under the mattress so he could see the bunnies. Gramma had laughed before running a broom covered with a cloth under the bed to clean. Pushing the door open a little, he suddenly heard feet on the stairs, and he closed the door again, moving to the back of the closet.

“Dieter Johan Krumpf, come out of that closet this instant before you get all my linens dusty.” She’d used all three of his names—Dieter knew he was in trouble now.

“Gramma,” he said, walking forward before pushing the door open and blinking into the light. “I was hiding and you were supposed to find me.”

“I was, was I? How about you help me with the dusting, and then we’ll have milk and cookies. Katherine just took some molasses cookies out of the oven.”

“I can dust in there,” Dieter said, pointing toward the closet. “It’s really bad, see?” Dieter turned around and heard his grandma hiss before she started to dust him.

“You’re filthy,” she said as she cleaned off his pants legs before swatting his butt lightly with the cloth. “There, that’s better. Now, go get the dust mop from downstairs, and you can use it to clean the floor.”

Dieter looked up at her stern face and didn’t move until she broke into a smile. “What is it? Scoot,” she said.

“There’s a box way in the back,” Dieter told her before hurrying back into the closet, ducking under the hanging things. Finding the box, he pushed it like a train across the floor. He would have made train-engine noises, but Gramma liked it quiet, and Dieter didn’t want her to be mad. “See?” Dieter said happily as he pushed the box near her feet. He expected her to say something, but she slowly bent down and opened the box before gasping and putting her hand over her mouth.

“I haven’t seen these in twenty years,” Dieter’s grandma said softly, and he straightened up, smiling proudly that he’d found what he imagined was buried treasure.

“What is it?” Dieter asked, peering into the box.

“They’re photo albums and pictures from when I was a girl.” Dieter watched as his grandma carefully pulled out two thick books with black pages, setting each one on the floor next to the box.

“Can we look at the pich-ers?” Dieter asked.

“Yes, but only after we get our work done,” she answered, placing the albums back in the box. Dieter lifted the box off the floor, following his grandma along the hallway and down the stairs. Setting the box on the coffee table in the living room, per her instructions, Dieter hurried to the broom closet to get the dust mop and finish his chores.

Back upstairs, he used the mop to clean the floors of all the closets, and he even pushed it under the bed the way Gramma did, before taking it back downstairs, displaying all the dust for inspection before Gramma took the mop outside to shake it. Dieter sat down at Gramma’s round kitchen table. “Auntie Kate, can I have cookies?”

“Of course you can, sweetheart,” she answered, handing him a small plate with three small, brown disks covered with white icing. He immediately took a bite and then another.

“Auntie Kate, are you my real aunt?” Dieter asked as she set a glass of milk in front of him.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she replied, and Dieter took a gulp of milk before swallowing everything.

“No, honey,” Gramma answered from behind him. “Katherine isn’t related to you by blood, but she loves you like you were her own. We both do.”

Dieter sputtered as he was kissed on the cheek by Auntie Kate, but he didn’t wipe it off like he normally would. “Then how come she lives here?”

“That’s a story I’ll tell you when you’re old enough to understand.” That was Gramma’s standard answer whenever she didn’t want to explain something. “But Auntie Kate was the housekeeper and saw your Gramps when he was born and your mama when she was born.” Gramma had told Dieter once that Auntie Kate was eighty-two, which was really old, even older than Gramma.

“And she saw me when I was borned?”

“I sure did, sweetheart,” Auntie Kate said, giving him a hug, rocking him back and forth as she did. “I sure did.” Dieter put his arms around her, hugging Aunt Kate back before returning his attention to what was really important—the cookies.

Once the plate was empty and the dishes whisked away, Dieter and Gramma sat on the sofa in the living room with one of the photo albums on their laps. Auntie Kate sat in a nearby chair knitting a pair of mittens that Dieter knew were probably for him for Christmas. But he’d learned already not to ask if things were for him. Gramma said it was selfish. Dieter opened the album, looking at the photographs. “Where’s the colors?”

“Pictures were only in black and white then,” Gramma said, and Dieter looked at the first picture.

“Who’s that?” He reached to touch the picture. But Gramma gently stopped his hand.

“That’s my father, your great-grandfather.” Gramma pointed to the picture next to it. “And that’s your great-grandmother.” She turned the page, and Dieter saw pictures of them sitting together on a small sofa in front of a painting. “Is that her?” Dieter pointed to the painting hanging just behind them.

“Yes, it is,” Gramma said softly, and Dieter looked at her, wondering what was wrong. He’d only seen her cry once, and that was at his mama and daddy’s funeral. Before he could ask any more questions, she turned the page, and Dieter saw more pictures of people. Gramma explained who everyone was, and Dieter listened, committing what Gramma said to memory as best he could. “What happened to them?” he asked, turning back to the first page of the album.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” Gramma told him, and he looked into her eyes, about two seconds from asking again, but stopped himself and turned back to the photo album. She turned to the page where they’d left off and began telling stories about what it was like growing up, and Dieter wondered what it would be like to live in these pictures. After a while, Dieter lost interest in the pictures and slid off the sofa.

“Can I go outside?” he asked, looking out the living room windows.

“Yes, you may,” Gramma answered, “but stay where we can see you, and don’t go near the street.”

“I won’t,” Dieter promised as he pulled open the front hall closet door, pulling his coat off the hook before shrugging it on.

“Come here, sweetheart,” Auntie Kate said, and he walked to her. She made sure he was all zipped up before giving him a hug. “Have fun.”

Dieter ran through the house and out the back door. Rushing into the garage, he carefully worked his bike out from next to Gramma’s car. He had to be careful of the training wheels, but as soon as it was free, he hopped on and rode down the short driveway and onto the sidewalk in front of Gramma’s East Side Milwaukee home. Auntie Kate had given him the bike for Christmas. The tag had said it was from Santa, but Dieter knew better. He’d heard Gramma and Auntie Kate fighting over it when they thought he’d gone to bed.

“It’s too dangerous for him to have a bike in this neighborhood. What if he gets hurt?” his grandmother had said, as Dieter snuck down the stairs on his butt so he wouldn’t make noise.

“What are you gonna do, Gertrude? Wrap him in cotton and wool? He’s a little boy, and he needs to act like it,” Auntie Kate had said. “So he’s getting a bike for Christmas if I have to walk to the store to get it.” A door had shut hard, and Dieter had slid back up the stairs, and a month later, he found a bike under the Christmas tree. Regardless if the card said “Santa” on it, he knew his Auntie Kate had given him his most prized possession, and he loved her for it.

Dieter rode on the grass to turn around before pedaling as fast as he could back toward Gramma’s. “Hey, baby!” He heard from behind him, and Dieter pedaled faster, but he was stopped anyway. “Nice bike, little baby.”

“Leave me alone, Billy,” Dieter said indignantly as he tried once again to pedal away.

“I want to ride your bike!” Billy said, and he began to push Dieter toward the grass.

“No. Leave me alone.” Then he was falling and Dieter found himself on the grass, and Billy was on his bike riding away. Dieter jumped up and began to chase him, but he was too slow, and his bike got farther away.

“That’s enough, Billy!” Dieter heard someone call from up ahead, and Billy stopped. Dieter saw someone approach his bike and saw Billy jump off his bike and run away. As Dieter got closer, he saw Tyler standing next to his bike, smiling at him. “Are you okay?” Tyler asked, and Dieter nodded, smiling as he touched his bike. Tyler turned it around for him and helped Dieter get back on. “You have fun, okay?”

Dieter nodded again. “Thank you, Tyler.”

“You’re welcome,” Tyler told him, and Dieter waved before riding away, back toward Gramma’s. Tyler was one of the big kids in the neighborhood. Dieter didn’t know how old he was, but Tyler stayed sometimes with Mrs. O’Connor, a friend of his grandmother’s, and Tyler was always nice to him. Dieter continued riding up and down the sidewalk, waving to Tyler whenever he passed, and Tyler waved back as he cut stuff away from the bushes in front of Mrs. O’Connor’s house, making them round instead of pointy.

Once he got tired, Dieter rode his bike back down the driveway to the garage, carefully putting his bike away, taking care not to scratch Gramma’s car. After closing the garage door, he hurried inside and took off his coat. “Don’t forget to hang that up,” Auntie Kate reminded him.

“I will,” Dieter said, walking to the closet and hanging his coat on the hook that was at his level. Closing the door, he walked into the living room. Gramma still sat on the sofa with the photo album on her lap. Dieter scooted up next to her, looking where she was at the picture of her mama and papa. “Do you miss them?” His grandmother nodded. “Like I miss my mama and papa?” Dieter said as he leaned against her side, closing his eyes to try to hold back the tears that came sometimes.

Gramma set the album on the coffee table, and Dieter found himself gathered into her arms and held tight. “I know you miss them,” she soothed him. “I miss them too.”

Dieter lifted his head off her shoulder, looking at the book. “Was your mama pretty?”

“Yes, she was. Very pretty,” Gramma told him.

“So are you, Gramma,” Dieter said, hugging her again. “Where is the painting now?”

“It’s gone. It’s been gone for a long time.”

Just like his mama and papa.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

DIETER parked his gram’s old green Toyota in the only parking space he could find. Getting out of the car and dropping a few quarters in the meter, Dieter hurried down the sidewalk. Thankfully, the meters were free after six, so he only had to pay for a little more than an hour. Approaching the wine store, Dieter pushed open the front door, entering near pandemonium. There were customers everywhere. Dieter saw Sean helping customers, and he hurried to the office, dropping his jacket on the futon before returning to the sales floor. “Young man,” an older lady said as she approached him. “I need a case of this,” she said, pointing to the wine they’d been featuring, “but everyone’s so busy.”

“No problem. Let me check in the back to make sure we have an unopened case, and I’ll be right back.” Dieter walked to the stock area, locating the last full case of the Cabernet she’d requested. Placing it on a cart, he wheeled it up to the register area, setting it out of the way before returning to the customer. “I have your case by the register for you,” Dieter told her, and she began handing him loose bottles, which he carried to a table behind the register. Dieter continued to help her until she was ready to check out. He thanked her before moving on to help another customer find a special Chardonnay that wasn’t too oaky.

After a good hour or so, the flow of customers diminished, and Dieter was able to catch his breath. “You didn’t have to come in,” Sean said from behind him. “I understand that you’ve got a lot to do.”

The work and being busy had pushed his grief aside for a while, but now it threatened to come forward again. “I needed to get out of the house and do things that are normal.”

Sean nodded slowly. “I’m sorry about your grandmother. She was a special lady,” Sean told him seriously.

“I wanted to thank you and Sam for coming to the funeral. It meant a lot. She outlived most of her friends, but it was still sad to see so few people there.” His grandmother’s funeral had no more than a few dozen attendees. It had been small and solemn, especially for Dieter. Leaning quietly against the counter, Dieter felt the sadness and loneliness of the last week begin to catch up with him.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do?”

Dieter shivered slightly. “About some things. Gram left me everything, including the house. I haven’t decided if I’m going to sell it or not yet, but the place needs to be cleaned out, and there are things I’m not sure what to do with.”

“You know you don’t need to make these decisions now,” Sean cautioned, and Dieter nodded his head blankly.

“I know, but the entire place reminds me of her, and it needs so much work. I’d like to fix it up, but I don’t have the money to do some of the repairs that are needed.” Dieter had started making a list, and he’d been a bit overwhelmed by what he’d come up with. “Some of them I can do, but some are going to be really expensive. The attic is full of stuff, and some of it looks really old, but I’m not sure what to do with it.”

“What about school? You still have a year left, right?”

“Yeah. I have the money for tuition,” Dieter told Sean. “Gram put all the money my parents left when they died in a fund for me. All those years, she never used a cent of it for herself.” Dieter reached across the counter and grabbed a napkin, using it to wipe his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he added, embarrassed at his display.

“Like I said, your grandmother was quite a lady. You know, when she was in the store once, she told me that her greatest wish was to see you graduate from college. I thought she’d make it, too. She was a force to be reckoned with right up until the end.”

Dieter sniffed and wiped his eyes again before stuffing the napkin in his pocket. “She told me that too. Before she died, she made me promise I would finish regardless of what happened to her.” She’d had a stroke, and at the end she could barely talk, but she’d made her wishes abundantly clear to Dieter. “At least she went quickly and didn’t linger. She always said that was what she wanted.” The door to the store opened, and Dieter excused himself before going to greet the customer. He needed something to think about other than Gram’s death.

Even keeping himself plenty busy for most of the evening, Dieter still found his mind turning to his loss. Gram had been the only family he’d had left, and now she was gone. Auntie Kate had passed away a few years ago, and Dieter still felt her loss as well. Those two women had raised and cared for him for as long as he could remember. He had vague memories of his mother and father, but as far as Dieter was concerned, Gram and Auntie Kate were his parents.

“Dieter.” He jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve been filling that same location for ten minutes,” Sean told him without heat. “It’s slowed down now. Why don’t you finish up, and we can talk if you’d like.”

Dieter emptied the last bottles from the case into the display before breaking down the box and carrying it to the recycling area. “Giuli’s okay out front for a while,” Sean said as Dieter walked back by the office. “Come in and sit down.” Dieter sat on the futon, and Sean took the desk chair. “I know things can be a bit overwhelming right now, and if I can help, I will. You said there were things in the attic.”

“Tons. The thing is that some of it’s really old, and I don’t know what to do with any of it.”

“Well, that’s easy. Give Tyler a call and he’ll take a look. If there are things you want to sell, he’ll give you a fair price,” Sean advised, and Dieter wondered why he hadn’t thought of that before. “Doesn’t he live just down the street from you?”

“Yeah. He lives in the house that used to be his grandmother’s. I should have thought of that. I’ve known him since I was a kid.”

“You would have. You’re tired and overwhelmed. I want you to go home and get a good night’s sleep,” Sean admonished lightly. “You’ll think better when you’re not so wiped out.”

Dieter agreed but didn’t get up yet. “I was wondering if Bobby and Kenny were coming home from school this summer.”

“Kenny’s staying at school to take some summer classes, and Bobby’s spending part of the summer on an artist’s retreat. Regardless, you have a job here if you want it, and I’m planning a number of special events this summer, so we’ll be busy.”

“Thanks, Sean.”

“You’re welcome. Now go on home and get some rest,” Sean told him with a concerned smile, and Dieter got up, taking his jacket. He hadn’t slept well since before Gram’s stroke, and he was definitely feeling it.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Dieter said before leaving the office. After hugging Katie, Sean’s longtime salesperson and second in command, good-bye, Dieter walked to his car and drove home. He called it home, but to him, the house would always be Gram’s. Parking his car, Dieter got out and closed the door, peering up at the dark house he’d lived in for as long as he could remember.

“Dieter!” He looked around and saw Tyler coming down the sidewalk. “I wanted to see how you were doing,” Tyler told him as he approached.

“Okay, I guess,” he responded with a sigh. “I was going to call you tomorrow. There’s a bunch of stuff in the attic, and I don’t know what to do with it. Sean said you might be able to look it over and give me an idea what some of it is.”

“Do you want to sell, or are you looking for an appraisal?” Tyler asked.

“I want to fix up the house,” he said, looking at the front, where some of the paint had worn off.

“I understand,” Tyler told him. “I’m booked with appointments for the next two weeks, but I can look in my book in the morning and let you know when I can come by.”

“Oh,” Dieter said. He knew he should be patient, but if he got some of the money together, he might be able to get some of the projects done during the summer while he wasn’t in class.

Tyler must have read the disappointment on his face. “Come on, then. Mark is still working, so I have an hour. Let’s go take a look.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve known you since you came to live with your grandma. I’ll help you any way I can.” Dieter’s fatigue seemed to slip away as he led Tyler up the walk. “You know, I can still remember you riding your bike with the training wheels up and down the sidewalk.”

“Thanks, I think,” Dieter replied as he unlocked the door, and he heard Tyler laugh.

“Come on, let’s go look for treasure,” Tyler told him as he turned on the lights. Dieter led the way up the stairs and then opened the attic door. Gram had always kept the door locked, and it had been the devil for Dieter to find the key.

Dust motes floated in the air as Dieter turned on the light, leading Tyler up the steep, narrow stairway. At the top of the stairs, he got out of the way and let Tyler look. “Jesus, you weren’t kidding. It looks like there’s eight lifetimes of stuff up here,” Tyler told him as he began moving through a narrow winding aisle created by breaks between all the stuff. “Where did this come from? Your grandmother never seemed like the type to collect things like this,” Tyler inquired as Dieter watched him peer around a trunk.

“Gram said Gramps kept dragging things home. She made him put anything she didn’t like up here. Until she died, I doubt anyone had been up here in years.” Dieter walked to where Tyler was kneeling next to a trunk. “Did you find something?”

“I think so, yes,” Tyler answered without looking up.

“That’s just an old trunk,” Dieter said, already moving away.

“No, it’s not,” Tyler explained as he pulled the trunk into the aisle. “Would you give me a hand?” Dieter helped him lift it. “It seems really heavy. Do you think we can get this down the stairs? I’d like to take a better look at it, and I can barely breathe up here.”

Dieter took one side and Tyler took the other. Carefully, they carried the heavy wooden box down the narrow stairs, setting it on the landing. Dieter turned off the light and shut the attic door. “Do you really think this is anything?”

Tyler nodded, smiling broadly. “You see the interlaced iron work on the top? That’s all handmade, and look at the lock.” Tyler pointed to the front of the trunk and lifted the iron cover.

“There’s no hole,” Dieter said, confused.

“That’s because the lock isn’t on the front. That’s a trick.” Tyler opened a small hidden iron flap on the top. “It’s lucky you have the key,” Tyler commented as he untied the thong that held the key on and inserted it into the hole. “There’s nothing delicate about opening this,” Tyler said as he strained to turn the key. At first, Dieter didn’t think it would work, but the key turned almost all the way around, and then Tyler lifted the lid on the box.

“It’s empty,” Dieter commented, really disappointed. He’d hoped there would be something interesting inside.

“Yes, but that doesn’t really matter,” Tyler explained. “It’s the trunk that’s important. See the lock?” he said as he lifted the lid. “That is the lock, the whole underside of the lid. It’s all hand done and between four and five hundred years old.”

Dieter’s eyes bugged out of his head. “It’s how old?”

“This is a real treasure chest. It’s continental, probably Spanish, I’d say, based on the decoration, and it could very well have been used to haul gold from the Americas back to Spain. This is an amazing find and probably worth six to eight thousand dollars. And I saw other things up there that could be interesting as well.”

Dieter felt his mouth hang open. At first he thought he’d heard Tyler wrong, but he saw Tyler’s smile. “I’m not kidding. I have to tell you that if you want me to buy the piece, I can’t give you that because that’s what I could sell it for, but if you want to sell it, let me know. But don’t make a decision right away. Think it over.”

Dieter could barely speak and simply nodded as Tyler helped him move the chest into one of the bedrooms. He led Tyler down the stairs and into the living room, feeling less worried than he had since Gram got sick. “Thank you, Tyler.”

“You’re welcome,” Tyler answered, looking at one of Gram’s photo albums on the table.

“Those were Gram’s. I was looking at them last night,” Dieter explained, picking up the one album to close the cover.

“Do you mind if I look at that?” Tyler asked, and Dieter handed him the album, moving to peer over Tyler’s shoulder.

“That’s Gram’s parents,” Dieter said, pointing, “and that’s Gram. That was taken in their house before the war.” Tyler looked at him and then back at the photograph. “The painting behind them on the wall is Gram’s mother.”

Tyler stared at the photograph for a while longer before closing the album. “I’d like to ask a favor. I’d like Mark to see this. I promise I’ll get it back to you tomorrow. Okay?”

“Is something wrong?”

“No. There are just some pictures that I know Mark would love to see. I’ll bring it back.”

“Okay, and I’ll think about the chest and let you know when I see you,” Dieter said as he walked Tyler to the door. After saying good night one more time, he closed and locked the door before walking back into the living room. Dieter sat down in one of the large chairs, the quiet of the house becoming almost oppressive. Over the past week, there were times when he’d wanted nothing more than to sell the house and move someplace that wasn’t so full of memories. Everywhere he looked he saw Gram. Her chair was right across the room from where he sat. He hadn’t had the heart to sit in it. Gram had taken care of him, and in a way she still was. He knew he couldn’t bear to sell the house, but he also knew he had to make it his or he’d never be able to move on. Reaching to the coffee table, Dieter picked up the photo album that Tyler hadn’t borrowed and began to thumb through it. He smiled at the pictures of Gram and Gramps. He didn’t really remember him, but he could see how happy he’d made Gram. There were even a few pictures of Auntie Kate. The one he liked best was a picture of her holding his mother. Even then she looked old.

Placing the album back on the coffee table, Dieter decided it was time for bed. He’d try to rest. The wine store didn’t open till noon, and he could sleep in before going to work. Dieter turned out the lights before walking up the stairs and down the hall to his bedroom, the one that had been his since he’d come to live with Gram. He passed Auntie Kate’s room, still made up as though she lived there. He passed Gram’s, too, its door closed because he couldn’t think about going in there without her, at least not yet.

Dieter went into his room, closing the door behind him. This was the one place in the house where he didn’t feel like Gram was going to walk into the room at any minute. Turning on the light, Dieter stripped off his clothes and put on his bathrobe, the one Gram had gotten him last Christmas, before padding to the bathroom to clean up.

Showered and clean, Dieter went back to his room and climbed under the covers, hoping that sleep would come. But all he did was lie there, staring at the ceiling. Gram was gone, Auntie Kate was gone, and so were his parents. Dieter was the last of his family, and he felt very much alone. Rolling onto his side, he closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep.

 

 

DIETER woke the way he always did on a Sunday morning, listening for Gram’s footsteps, but of course he heard nothing. Sighing softly, he closed his eyes once again and fell back to sleep, waking again with the sun shining through the window. Sean had been right—Dieter felt better after a good sleep. Pushing back the covers, he got dressed and checked the clock before cleaning up and preparing to go to work.

By the time he made it downstairs, it was too late for breakfast, not that he really wanted any. There were certain things he’d always miss, and Gram’s breakfast was one of them. Retrieving his jacket from where he’d thrown it over the back of one of the chairs, Dieter left the house, locking the door before strolling down the walk to his car. He felt as though a cloud had parted and everything was going to be okay. Getting into the car, Dieter started the engine and eased out of his parking space and onto the quiet street.

Dieter found a parking spot not far from Sommelier Wines. The store had a small parking lot, but Dieter tried to leave those spaces for customers, especially on weekends when the store was busiest. Walking to the front door, Dieter saw Sean inside working, and he rapped lightly on the door.

“You’re looking better,” Sean told him as he held the door open. “You must have gotten some sleep.”

“I did, and I talked to Tyler about the stuff in Gram’s attic. He came over last night and looked around. You won’t believe this, but he says that there’re some great things up there, and he already found a real treasure chest. It’s from the sixteen hundreds or something. You should come see it. The thing’s really cool.”

&ld