“God damned piece of shit.” The words came from under the automated money changer in the First National Bank of Grantville. And Reva Pridmore suddenly knew it was going to be a bad day. The AMC, or Simon Legree as the bank employees called it, was the unnatural child of two coke machines and a personal computer. It ate down-time coins and spat out dollar amounts. It also spat out the estimated silver content of the coins in question and sorted them into neat stacks that depended on the type of coin, the amount of wear and clipping they had suffered. And, as it had today, it broke down a lot. Well, Reva had had enough. The tellers had a lot to do these days; weighing coins by hand would mean long lines. She turned on her heel and headed for the offices.
“Marlon, we’re not going to do it. Not again,” Reva said as she entered her husband’s office.
“Simon Legree is busted again. I’m not having my tellers spending the day weighing and measuring coins.”
“I surrender, I surrender.” Marlon held up both hands but ruined the effect by grinning at her. Apparently seeing her expression, his grin faded a bit. “Let me look, okay?”
Reva crossed her arms and waited, while Marlon fiddled with his computer. There was talk of consolidating the computers in the bank but on December 7th, 1631 it hadn’t happened yet. “Wow. I didn’t realize we had that much silver coinage on hand. Look, honey, why don’t you just put a sign in the window saying we aren’t buying down-time money today. We have plenty. We could sell down-time money for a week before we had to buy more.”
Now Reva smiled. “Fine. I’ll have Ditmar do up one in German.” Ditmar had a fine hand. Unfortunately his English wasn’t great; Reva’s German was worse.
“Ja, I will sign make. Is good.” Ditmar said. He was pretty sure he understood what was needed. He didn’t like weighing coins any more than any of the other clerks in the bank. He didn’t see any reason to include an explanation of why. What was more important was that the text be large and easily read. So he made the letters three inches tall.
Ditmar stood outside, examined the signs and gave a sharp nod of satisfaction. The signs were placed on the large window next to the glass door. Frau Pridmore’s sign was made in magic marker and the typical up-timer scrawl:
WE APOLIGISE BUT THE BANK
WILL temporarily NOT BE BUYING
DOWN-TIME COINS. You can still
exchange up-timer money for
Kein Ankauf von Silber.
Verkauf nur gegen up-time Dollar
zum aktuellen Kurs.
Ja, that would work. Neither the English version of the sign nor the German gave the reason that they weren’t buying down-time coins. But that really wasn’t anyone else’s business anyway. The German sign failed to specify that it was temporary, but so what. The English sign did and they would take the signs down when the machine was working again. What mattered was that both signs made clear that you could still get down-time coins at the First National Bank of Grantville; you just couldn’t get rid of them there.
Jekli Koriska, a merchant from Silesia, had sixty gulden, in HRE coins of various denominations, to deposit in his account in the Grantville Bank. They’d been sent to him by his partners back home, after they had sold a load of kitchen appliances that he had sent to Prague two months before. While not overly fond of the New United States, Jekli did like the bank. It was a really nice place to visit, with carpet on the floor and great big windows and central heat. It was a bitingly cold morning, in spite of the cloudless sky. He moved cautiously over the icy sidewalk. Then he looked up and saw the sign in the window of the bank. His first thought was annoyance. He would have to go to the Exchange. Then he remembered the stories about the up-timer techniques for turning copper into silver. He hadn’t believed them; they were altogether too much like the philosopher’s stone that alchemists and other charlatans were always searching for. After a moment, he thought about the stories in The Street about the balance of trade. He looked back at the sign and began to be a little worried.
Jekli stood in line waiting for a clerk of the Exchange to weigh his coins. That was the other reason that Jekli disliked the Exchange. It was an open market, lots of people buying and selling lots of things. But before you could trade, you had to document that you had something to trade. Be it stock, money or apple futures, you had to provide documentation that you owned it. So exchanging his coins would be a two step process, first having them appraised and getting a note, then going onto the floor and looking for a buyer.
He looked at the big board. Jekli neither knew nor cared how it worked. He just knew it was connected to the Exchange computer and that it kept a running total of the prices for anything that was traded on the floor. The rules of the Exchange required that each trade be recorded. The American dollar was trading at $148.50 to the guilder. Guilders were down a little from last week, but not too bad. Other down-time coins were also down a touch against the dollar. Turkish coffee was going for $23.00 a pound, chocolate for $32.00; puddled sheet steel $19.24 per pound. The puddled steel sheets were down a bit, which should decrease the cost of manufacture for knives. Swedish garcopper $105.67 per pound; Hamburg sheet-copper $121.76 a pound; Saalfeld copper sheets for $75.15 a pound. He wondered why the Saalfeld copper was so low. He didn’t even look at the grain or cloth prices.
The line was getting a bit long behind him as he waited. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one waiting to have coins weighed. He looked back at the cage and noticed that a second clerk had arrived and was talking with the first. Then the second clerk spoke. “Ladies and gentlemen, would those of you who are having coins assayed form a line to the right?” He indicated a second window. People on the floor were looking at the line and Jekli was starting to feel exposed as he moved to the right. So did most of the rest of the line.
“Were you at the bank?” The man behind him asked.
“Yes. What do you think is going on?”
“I don’t know.” Jekli hesitated looked back at the big board, then asked, “Do you know anything about that electric process for turning copper into silver?”
“What? I thought that was just an improved way of refining copper.”
“Oh,” Jekli said, relieved. “I had heard that it turned copper into silver.” He turned back around, not noticing the expression on the face of the man behind him. By the time it got to the back of the line, the rumor had it that electrolytic conversion would turn one ounce of copper into one ounce of silver or as close as makes no difference. It wasn’t the only rumor that started in that line.
By the time Jekli got his coins assayed a guilder was only bringing $140.00. By the time he found a buyer on the floor all he could get was $130.00. He almost didn’t take it but he needed the dollars to buy steel knives.
On the Exchange floor, people had noticed the length of the line. Rumors started circulating. After hearing a few, Abel Abrabanel, the young man who was acting as agent for the Abrabanels went to make a phone call. Badenburg didn’t have a telephone exchange yet. The message had to be written down and hand-carried to Uriel Abrabanel’s place of business. Then Herr Abrabanel would decide what to do, write another note and send it by runner to the telegraph and telephone office. Abel had to wait through all that to get an answer back. Meanwhile, on his own authority, he stopped buying down-time coins. If something was going on that would seriously drop the price of silver, he didn’t want the family to take any more of a loss than could be avoided. His report was supposed to be in code, but Abel was young, worried by the rumors, and in a hurry. He didn’t stop to encode it. Such messages were also supposed to be private. But people are people and the messenger boy who took the written message to Uriel Abrabanel was padding his income by providing the occasional tidbit to Reynfrid Drescher, a reporter for the Daily News.
Reyny to his friends—and Renfield behind his back—had the information before Uriel did. Uriel did encode his response, so Reyny didn’t get the orders from Uriel. Besides, truth be told, what Reynfrid Drescher knew about money and how it worked could be written on the flap of a matchbook with room to spare. Reyny was an entertainment reporter. But he wasn’t one to share a lead. He headed for the Exchange to see what was going on. He had a deadline to meet.
By the time he got there, the panic was at full speed and the Abrabanel agent wasn’t buying. He wasn’t selling either, Reyny noted. Reyny listened to the rumors. The one about turning copper into silver. The ones about balance of trade. Two about new silver strikes in different locations. But he was a good reporter. He learned about the bank not accepting silver coins and went to find out what was going on. At the bank, no one knew why the Exchange was going crazy. When he asked about why they weren’t buying silver coins he was told about Simon Legree’s breakdown. And that the machine would be working again in the morning if all went well.
He phoned in the outline of his story and headed back to the Exchange. He still wondered why the Abrabanels weren’t buying silver. By the time he got back to the Exchange, Uriel Abrabanel had arrived—not that he was doing anything. When Reyny asked him why, Uriel’s response was, “What should I do?”
“Buy silver coins! Didn’t your family promise to keep the American dollar stable?”
“We probably will buy once they hit bottom, but, as you can plainly see, silver coins are still falling. All we promised to do in regard to American dollars was to buy them at two hundred to the guilder. If you happen to have $200, I’ll be quite happy to sell you a guilder for it.”
Reyny looked over at the big board that showed the prices of various currencies and saw that he could buy a Dutch guilder for $87.50. “No, thanks.”
Uriel Abrabanel smiled. “How about $150? No?” He shrugged. “We’ve been expecting something like this.” Reyny didn’t know that Uriel’s “we” included Balthazar, Rebecca, Uriel and some of the members of the Finance Subcommittee but not Coleman Walker. Which would have been a nice embarrassing tidbit for his story and done Coleman’s reputation no good.
“We weren’t sure when it would happen and we weren’t expecting it to be this extreme. But the American dollar has been undervalued since the up-timers arrived. Look at the price of refined silver. $105 per troy ounce. It’s been dropping all morning along with the coins. Gold is down, too, because if you want to buy something or need to pay a debt here in Grantville, it’s dollars you need. What’s really happening is that the American dollar is rising, finding it’s place. Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work.” Reyny didn’t have a clue who Adam Smith was but he didn’t interrupt. He would look it up later. “Forty-five guilder’s will buy you a hundred pounds of Hamburg sheet-copper or a hundred and fifty pounds of American copper sheet bought in American dollars. The American copper sheet is purer copper of more consistent width. No amount of guilders, unless they are first converted to American dollars, will buy the dental work you can get in Grantville or a hand-cranked deli meat slicer, and who knows what American dollars will buy next week?”
“A process for turning copper into silver, perhaps?”
“No. I have been assured that such a process is beyond even the up-timers. What they do have is a better way of refining copper and there is a tiny amount of silver in the copper we use. Which they are, or will soon be, extracting from the sludge of the new refineries. As I understand it, what they have now is a pilot plant. Which is still producing decent amounts of refined copper by our standards.”
“What the hell is going on over at the Exchange?” Coleman Walker asked as soon as the office door was closed.
“Insanity! There is some wild rumor that the bank won’t accept down-time coins anymore.” Horace Bolender was clearly no more pleased than Coleman was.
Phil Hart looked back and forth between them. “Ah . . . Horace, did you see the sign when you came in? The one in the window of the bank?”
“I saw two or three signs. I didn’t stop to read them. Why?”
“Well, Simon Legree is busted again and we’re flush with down-time currency at the moment.” Phil paused at Bolender’s blank look. “The automated money changer. It sorts the coins we get by weight and volume, which is a pain to do by hand. So we’re not buying down-time money until it gets fixed. It’s not a big deal; they have a machine pretty much just like it at the credit union.”
“Did the sign in the window mention that?” Bolender asked.
“I don’t know.” Phil admitted.
“Yesterday there was a run on the American dollar,” Reynfrid Drescher’s article began. It went on to describe what the series of events had been. He debunked some of the rumors and clarified others. He talked about the economic indicators like worker productivity and dropping transport costs. Then he ended with the following, “A lot of people got caught out yesterday. They got caught out because they thought silver was money and paper wasn’t. There have been signs ever since the Ring of Fire that this wasn’t the case. Signs and portents all over the place. If you’re going to avoid losing your shirt, you’re going to have to learn to read the signs. And not just the ones in the window of the Grantville Bank.”
Jekli Koriska sat eating breakfast and reading the paper. Reynfrid Drescher’s article was front page above the fold. Jekli sipped his tea and cursed under his breath. He had lost over a thousand American dollars yesterday, around eleven guilders at yesterday’s close and it could have been worse if he had waited. He was going to have to raise his prices. Which wasn’t going to thrill his partners. The kitchen knife sets he bought here in Grantville had been amazingly cheap. They would still be cheaper than a blacksmith could make them for, since they were stamped out of sheet steel produced by a process called wet puddling. And the handles were made in jigs using Black and Decker power tools from up-time. They were top quality knives made with real high—well, medium—carbon steel. And incredibly cheap to make. Just not as cheap now as they had been day before yesterday.
He’d called his supplier after he made his deposit at the bank. He’d asked if they would be lowering the price since the dollar had gone up so much. They had told him no, at least not for now. The iron used in these knives was already bought, so was the wood and the brass rivets. Nor were they going to go to their employees and ask them to take a pay cut because the dollar had gone up. “I’ve got a union to deal with,” he’d been told.
Having finished his breakfast he pulled out a pen and began to write.
The up-timers are waking up to the value of their products, if in a roundabout way. You may already know from the radio that the guilder and the thaler, in fact all silver and gold coinage have dropped against the American dollar. From the things I hear locally it seems unlikely that this is just a temporary fluctuation.
I know in the past I have been opposed to investing in a steel puddling plant but I am beginning to reconsider. Our business is still profitable but not nearly as profitable as it was before. What concerns me still is that after investing the money in a puddling plant that someone will build a Bessemer or introduce crucible steel production. As I have written before, they are working on both methods as well as electrical smelting. I wish things would stabilize so that we might make solid predictions. But for now, at least, we must ride the tiger. The notion of buying sheet steel here in Grantville and making our own stamping mill still won’t work. It’s cheaper to ship the knives, which is another reason to delay. The puddling plant would still need a stamping mill, annealing ovens, grinders for the final shaping and sharpening. I grant there would be significant savings on labor. What they pay common laborers here is an outrage. And with the increase in the dollar, it’s even more of an outrage now than it was yesterday.
Very well, then. I am still ambivalent about it but if you and the others still wish it, I will send you the plans for a puddling plant, stamping mills and the rest.
Meanwhile, send me money. The American dollar is a good investment in itself. I will deposit the funds in the bank here and we will be at least somewhat protected if—say rather, when—the dollar goes up again.