1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 33
Harry Lefferts contemplated the largely abandoned shore town to the north, passing quickly now that the galliot’s crew had stepped the sail and laid hands to their oars.
Stepping closer, Sherrilyn offered, “Penny — or pfennig — for your thoughts?”
Harry nodded at the gray, crumbling buildings and the few fishing boats moored at a single, listing pier, dark with age. “You know what that is?”
“Uh — a hard-luck fishing town?”
“That, oh-former-teacher-of-mine, is Anzio.”
For a second, the name didn’t register with Sherrilyn. Then she turned and gawked. “You mean, as in the big World War Two battle? That little shit-hole? That’s Anzio?”
“Yup,” said Harry.
“Robert Mitchum,” said Thomas North quietly, from his position farther down the port-side gunwale, almost at the taffrail.
“Huh?” said Sherrilyn.
Harry smiled broadly. “Yeah! That’s right! Mitchum starred in the movie. How’d you know that?”
North sent a long sideways look at Lefferts —
— Who remembered. “Right. You’re the movie-nut.” He turned to Sherrilyn. “If it has a war, or a gun, in it, and it came back in time with us, Sir Thomas North has seen it.”
Sherrilyn poked him in the ribs and muttered, “Harry, you want to maybe muzzle yourself on the Ring of Fire references?”
Lefferts smiled. He shrugged off her concern but noticed North look away sharply. “What, you’re worried, too?”
North nodded slowly. “Granted we haven’t heard any English spoken on this boat. But that means very little, and this is a very small boat.”
“God, I’m surrounded by nervous biddies and worriers.” Harry smiled.
North shrugged. “Worrying is the very heart of an intelligence officer’s job, Harry. Although you will remember that I advised against taking me along in this capacity. Several times.”
Harry’s smile widened. “Yeah, well, I ignored you.”
North was looking over the side again. “Then, in my capacity as your intelligence officer, I strongly urge you to be a little more careful with your references. Or at least the volume with which you utter them.”
“Fair enough,” said Lefferts. He looked forward over the straining backs of the rowers — most from Rimini, like the ship — at the hazy outline of their destination. A tower, maybe two, a fair number of medium-sized ships at anchor. A lazy little port, far away from Spanish held Ostia and the Rome-wending Tiber River. Lefferts turned toward the rest of the Crew, who, just behind him, were lounging (and in some cases, napping) amongst their duffles and bags. “Okay, everyone, look lively and have your gear at hand. We’re coming up on Nettuno.”
North found disembarking at Nettuno to be a leisurely affair. The customs inspection was mostly an excuse for an inspector to come aboard with two surprisingly congenial guards and exchange news, gossip, and gripes about The Current State of Affairs. In the time it took for the galliot — the Piccolo Doge — to have its cargo cleared, several small fishing ketches had come and gone. The passengers — the Crew and North — excited a little more interest, but certainly no suspicion. The customs officer was charmed by Juliet’s mastery of both proper Italian and more salty idiom; he didn’t even bother to approach the others in the group after she explained that they were all traveling together.
Nonetheless, North breathed a sigh of relief when the inspection party guided the Doge to her designated mooring and left. Lefferts came over and clapped a hand on the Englishman’s spare shoulder. “What? Nervous again, Limey? I thought you were a steely-eyed commando type.”
“I remain so by remaining alert, Harry.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll wait to get to Rome before I commence any heavy-duty worrying.”
“You might want to reconsider that decision. Did you notice those two guards?”
“Yeah. What about ’em?”
North lowered his voice. “They were papal troops.” Harry frowned, considered.
Sherrilyn merely shrugged. “Last I checked, that means they’re on our side.”
“What do you mean?”
North nimbly hopped over the side and came to a sure-footed landing on the modest stone pier. “I mean, what do we really know about the loyalty of papal troops right now?”
“We know it’s to Urban,” replied Sherrilyn as she grabbed her bags and emulated North’s debarkation.
“That’s what we saw in Rimini,” agreed North. “But here, closer to Rome, and with Nettuno pinned between it and Osuna’s Spanish tercios in Naples, I’m not so sure their loyalties will be the same. Or at least, not as fervent.”
“Yeah, but these guys didn’t look or sound too fervent about being friends with the Spanish, either.”
“No, Ms. Maddox, they didn’t. They’re probably getting leaned on by the Spanish.”
“But not constantly. There’s not a Spaniard in sight, here.”
“Which is why we avoided Ostia and the Tiber. Those wharves are going to be swarming with Borja’s forces.”
Sherrilyn shrugged. “Right. That’s where the trouble is, so we came here instead. What’s to worry about?”
“Ms. Maddox, at the best of times, Italy is a hotbed of contending factions. Which in turn spawn a lively network of black marketeers, con artists, turncoats, and informers. They don’t have to like Spain to be trouble for us. They only have to like Spanish reales.”
Harry, who had been watching the exchange like a silent referee, nodded decisively. “Okay, Colonel North, I see your point — and it’s a good one. We’ll assume that we’re under observation at all times. Now, while Juliet finds us a cart and some mounts, why don’t you stay here with the equipm — uh, luggage. Although you seem to speak pretty fair Italian, yourself.”
“Enough to get in trouble, get a drink, or get –” North stopped and shot a quick glance at Sherrilyn, annoyed at the possibility that he might be blushing.
Harry was smiling broadly, now. “I want to hear the end of that list, North!” And with that, he swaggered off into the narrow streets of Nettuno. Young boys stared admiringly after him; it was that effect that had spawned the lefferti trend in the first place. No small number of young women stared after Harry as well, albeit with long, steady gazes that were quite different from the lively displays of boyish emulation.
The strange parade that was the Wrecking Crew disappeared around a corner, Juliet already asking for directions in a shrill Florentine accent.
Three days later, Thomas North found himself in a hazy, oppressive stable. The smell of rotted dung and old hay was so dense and pungent that he imagined he could actually see the stink — a humid miasma of ordure — hanging in the air.
A gust of cool relief washed over him as one of the large doors opened slightly. In slipped Matija and a powerfully built man of medium height, aquiline nose, and lightless black eyes. The man took a second step forward; Matija sealed the door quietly behind them.
Lefferts was already on his feet, hand extended. The smaller man took it slowly, carefully, as if unaccustomed to the greeting. “You’re Romulus?” Harry asked.
“It depends. Who are you?”
“I am Vulcan. Live long and prosper.”
Near the opposite end of the Crew’s rough, sprawling arc, Sherrilyn groaned in what sounded very much like agony.
“What is wrong?” asked Donald Ohde.
“Have you ever seen Star Trek?”
“No. Just war movies. I haven’t seen many of your old television shows.”
“Lucky you.” Sherrilyn turned back to Harry. “Really? Did you have to?”
Lefferts shrugged. “Hey, in this world, everyone would naturally guess that a guy code-named Romulus would meet someone called Remus, right? Except us. So that’s a good code, I figure.”
Thomas, who had occasionally watched the crew of the fictitious Enterprise go boldly where no men had gone before, had to admit that Harry was right: it was a smart code, here.
Romulus had watched the entire exchange with little comprehension and less humor. “You have not been followed here?”
“Not that we can tell.”
“You took precautions?”
“Yeah. A couple of times, we left one person as a lag-behind watcher. And we have binoculars.”