For Want of a Nail

I give to you now a life in two tellings.

Werner Oberst was a frustrated young man in 1924. He had been tinkering with engines his entire life, but he came from a family tradition of pharmacists. As a shining new party was rising to power in the government, Werner himself was truly coming into adulthood.


1930 and Werner Oberst was stagnating. He had watched as his immediate superior, Elmer Bader, submitted one lackluster plan after another. Curled up like secret cats in his desk, his own vellum scrolls itched his palms with avarice. Finally, after another failure, Werner could no longer take it. Grabbing up the rolls from his desk and tucking something the size of an ashtray in his pocket, Werner caught the door before it could swing shut after another contestant.

Klaus Nagel was under only the 19th reichleiter, and after that the chancellor himself. Werner’s hands trembled with passion and he blurted: “Herr Nagel —I would speak with you.”

Nagel looked merely incensed at the intrusion, but Werner knew he had precious little time in which to make his point.

“You have been employing a fool,” he said breathlessly, “a visionless luddite who has been keeping you from success.”

Nagel burst into laughter.

“So what is this I see before me now?” he chortled, “Archimedes in short pants?” Some of his humor abated. “Those are serious accusations to be leveling against your superior, young Oberst.”

Werner, in a frenzy, laid down his plans, papering the desk before him. His knowledge rushed outin a babbling stream of technical jargon. Nagel gaped, fascinated, as Werner spoke of his improvements on the hover model Bader had been toiling with forever. Here and here and here—but Nagel held up his hand.

“Plans are all very well and good,” he said, “but unless what you say is implementable, I cannot allow you to further occupy my time.”

That was when Oberst fetched his trump card from his pocket. Kobold mkII hovered a generous four feet from the office floor, no matter how the field beneath it was disturbed. Werner watched Nagel watch the small model as it purred around the office, and felt the first hot rush of satisfaction.

Nagel threw an arm around his shoulder.

“Of course,” he said conversationally, “we must give a fitting reprimand to Bader for smothering such talent.”

Oberst did not laugh, but modestly looked at the floor.


Werner Oberst emigrated to New York in 1926, when the so-called “Jazz Age” was in full swing. With him were two uncles and a female cousin who quickly disappeared into the dance halls, never to surface again. Werner and his uncles found an already-thriving German community in Schenectady, where the two uncles managed to borrow and beg a modest enough sum to open a single-room drug store. Werner swept up and helped clerk for his uncles. Their eyesight was failing, but Werner hoped to put off his ascendency to management as long as possible. Engineering beckoned, and Werner began apprenticeship at the firm of Baum and Binbauer. He began hoping again that he might find success in his dream. Then one night after returning from the firm he met his younger uncle’s wife Magda at the door. She was a second-generation emigre, marceled hair thrown into disarray as she clutched her nephew’s lapels.

“Werner, your uncle Hans—something happened,” she gasped.

In this method, Werner was informed he would now be full partner in his uncle’s store.


1936. Project Riese had been moving along at a respectable clip. Oberst did not begrudge them their success. It only lit a fire of friendly competition beneath the bellies of his own Project Sigfried workers.

Spain’s own Wunderwaffe equivalent was nonexistant, pressing Werner’s department into overtime to produce enough to back Franco’s rebels. Werner welcomed the challenge. Everything had fallen into place so easily for him it made him wary. He welcomed any chance at failure, let it show God that he was not so proud to think himself invincible.

But it appeared he was.

Even after Riese’s Klimpst committed dishonorable suicide for failing to deliver a functioning shield mechanism, Werner was able to pick up the slack. Horst Biehl, until then a minor engineer on the team, had been tinkering with quantum probability and had found a way to implement it on a much more workable scale. The layman’s explanation was that the bullets that hit the tank they used for demonstration were flung to a universe where there had been no tank to hit. Werner made sure so give Horst full credit for the discovery and took him out for a beer afterward. He made no attempts to court treachery. His team was the most amicable, the most united research team in the entire reich. Werner made it so because he knew what became of frustrated underlings.


1932. Werner had been married to Magda for five years. She had given him no children, and Werner was satisfied with that. He wanted no legacy, though he was not ashamed of his work. After his second uncle had died, Werner had sent for more family to populate the pharmacy. But emigration had pinched off from the motherland, and Werner was forced to make do with local boys. All second-generation Americans, all itching with ambition. Werner could not blame them. He had been the same way once, until fate had settled him into this hollow.

Still, let it never be said that the Oberst men begrudged a little work.

Werner woke at five-thirty, drank the thick coffee his wife made for him, and opened his shop. He stocked medicines and morphine, and was quick with a multilingual joke for his customers. Only occasionally did he take his plans down from their secret place in the rafters and look on them with longing.


1939. The Americans had finally deigned enter the war when Germany hit their Eastern seaport with their new Kugelwaffe, devastating the great city of New York. It was a moral victory as well as a tactical one. The new Babylon of the West had been a shelter for many fleeing the regime’s rule. Now the ground forces were demoralized at the loss of such a beloved city.

Werner celebrated the news in a parka, clasping his flute of champagne in one mittened hand. Down at base Thule they took turns at the radio, giving a blow-by-blow commentary to the others working on the transport module. Werner oversaw, glowing with pride as his workers competently slotted machined tubes into ports. Five days after the devastation of New York and all its filth, Werner gave the order.

The air in the portal they had built seemed to grow taut, and then gained the iridescence of a soap bubble. Werner gave the next order.

His team began tossing intimate objects through. After a delay of one and .67 hours(down to the second) Werner began hearing radio reports from all the way back in Germany. He smiled as the spoke with increasing awe of the objects appearing in his laboratory, from nuts and bolts to larger spanners, from small dead mice to live dogs and finally Helmut Pharnsworth(who had drawn the lucky straw.)

The surprised explosion of laughter and applause as Helmut hit the floor in Silesia, whole and hale as ever, made a small tear come to Werner’s eye.


1942. Werner walked with a slight limp to work. He was developing gout, his doctor told him. And an ulcer. And his hair was whitening in far excess of anyone else at his age.

Werner simply nodded and got back to work.

What else could one do? Lay down their hammer and chisel and say ‘I simply don’t wish to work’? Even after they had tossed a brick through his shop window, Werner had needed to work a full day. Customers needed medicine, though they were fewer in these days. Magda still got up with him, still made coffee, but now she reported to a bomb factory, to rivet shells from dawn to dusk. Werner was excused from military service for all his myriad health concerns.

Though it had pleased him at first, Werner regretted that they had not anglicized his name. Now people tripped him on the sidewalk, called him ‘captain kraut’ and asked him where he hid his uniform. At first, when people had asked him whether he was jewish, Werner had learned to look wistful and say “I wish I had the pleasure,” now he simply nodded and got out of their way.

It was ironic, really. When he had first arrived, they treated jews no better than they treated him now. But suddenly everyone was a patriot, everyone trying to protect their country from the threat of a pharmacist with an ulcer.


In the waning months of 1945, the first führer had been deposed. Now, three years later, Werner received notification of his suicide. He kept his face carefully neutral, because of the source of the news.

“A tragic loss,” he said crisply, “he brought much to the reich, but was ultimately obsolete.”

Erich Godel’s pink face took on a wet sheen. Evidently this was the right answer. The new führer enclosed him in a damp handshake. Werner didn’t know what it was, but the man was always slightly moist and straining at the seams, like a sausage. He was also oddly emotional, and sobbed with the change of the wind.

But temperament was not indicative of skill. This was the man who had personally deposed Goebbels with piano wire. Dangerous, if not respectable. And he had loosened the reigns to Werner’s department, which had been chafing since the failed Gdansk maneuver.

“Werner, you are a fellow Rhinelander like myself,” Godel said, taking a seat with much effort. “I wish only for your success, as compatriot and as a scientist. Tell me what you need.”

Werner allowed himself a small pause. “I wish to have full access to Riese’s paperwork, your grace.”

And a wet smile oozed across Erich’s face.


1951. The last toast had died down. Werner was merry with drink and compliment. The final speaker(Greenburg, his name was, nice boy) held up a gold pocket watch.

“For Werner,” he enunciated, “for many long years of service. May he give many more.”

Werner’s eyes shone as he accepted it. He blew his nose as he received a gamut of back-pats and squeezed shoulders from the retreating men. The banquet hall slowly emptied of pharmacy workers, owners, and neighborhood men. Teddy, his nephew by marriage, lagged behind.

“You want to go home now, uncle?” he asked in passable German.

Werner waved a hand at him. “The night is young,” he responded in English, “why not go out dancing?”

The look on the young man’s face told Werner he was not far off the mark, but out of filial loyalty he held out his uncle’s coat. The young man bundled him into a cab and off to his brownstone.

Werner leaned on him heavily as they fell in the front door. Teddy settled his uncle into a chair and went into the kitchen to start coffee brewing. Magda had long since succumbed to tuburculosis, working in a factory had only hastened her end.

Werner held the pocket watch in both hands, running a thumb over the surface engraving of a bald eagle.

“Tell me, Teddy,” he called to the kitchen, “this is a high honor, is it not?”

“One of the highest, unc.”

“The highest,” Werner mumbled to himself, turning the watch over in his hands. He called again: “I suppose this means, then, that there is nobody better?”

“None better than you, unc.” The boy was rattling around the cupboards for the cup measure. It was still on the draining board, but Werner did not tell his nephew that. Rather, he slipped away to his room, leaving the watch on the arm of his easy chair. When the gunshot came a minute later Teddy dropped the spoon full of grounds, peppering the floor with black grains, and ran to his uncle’s aid. The door to his room was locked. When the police battered it open, Werner was facedown on his desk.

Teddy stood in the doorway, gripping his elbow with one hand.

“I don’t understand,” he said, “I don’t understand. He was just given a major award.”

The officer with the pencil grunted and scribbled something. “He leave a note?”

“Well, no. Not unless you count those.” Teddy pointed to the plans beneath his uncle’s head, blurred and faded with age.


“Warsaw has fallen?” Werner asked dully.

“Warsaw has fallen, but at great cost,” Theodor said cautiously.

Werner ran his fingers through prematurely graying hair. He did not need to be told directly what his underling was tactfully witholding. Warsaw had been a victory, but not a triumph.

“Gdansk still stands?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Gdansk still stands, Herr Oberst.”

“And Skutnik has bested me?”

There was a moment’s pregnant pause, then: “on this occasion, Skutnik has bested you, sir.”

When had the tide turned? When had the magic stopped working? Werner had gotten old overnight. Skutnik had appeared by miracle to best him at every turn. Maybe the errant reports of the Wojsko Polskie employing psychics had not been mere bunk.

“What has the führer said, Theodor?”

That pause again—dammit!

“Nothing, Herr Oberst.”

Werner laid his head in his hands. Nothing was worse than a reprimand. Nothing meant no future. Nothing meant Werner was not worth comment.

“I did my best,” he said suddenly.


Werner had taken a medal from its case on the desk and was running his thumb over the reichsadler on its surface.

“I did try. And I had so much success.”

“You did, Herr Oberst.” The young man was evidently relieved at this change of topic. “You had much success.”

“But that does not matter now, does it?” Werner spoke to his hands. “There is always someone better, isn’t there? Always someone better.”

Theodor grasped for words. “I will make you some tea, Herr Oberst,” he said numbly.

While he was filling the kettle, he heard the crack of a machine pistol. Theodor dropped the kettle and immediately ran to the wireless. He summoned Schultz of the SS, giving a report of the inventor’s final moments.

“…he appeared to be in some distress and shut himself up in his room.”

“That is understandable. He has been on suicide watch for some time.” The commander’s voice was resigned. “Coward. Shooting himself before passing his last plans onto us. Can you force the door?”

“It is not locked, your honor.” Theodor stepped into the room. “He is seated at his desk, the pistol is in his hand. It is definitely suicide.”

“Has he left a confession?”

“There is a paper beneath his head. Let me see.” Theodor wiped away the blood already drying on the surface. “It is a pharmacy paper.”

“Was he abusing drugs? Perhaps we can exploit this.”

“No, Herr Schultz. It is from 1924.”

“Useless then.”



Filed under fiction

2 responses to “For Want of a Nail

  1. Love it! Great job, Rachel. Time space continuum conundrum. I want to recommend you connect with artist Jamie Noble. At my suggestion, he is running Van Allsburg type stories for his fantasy pictures. You should collaborate with him.

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