1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 46
Sherrilyn’s voice was calm. “The carriages are moving.”
“Is Juliet back with her street-urchins?”
“Harry.” An English-accented mezzo piped up from below. “I’m right down here in the street.”
Thomas North smiled. What ears that woman had! There was no under-the-breath spousal grumbling in big George Sutherland’s house, that much was certain.…
Juliet added, “– and I am currently surrounded by eager palms that want to be filled.”
“No. With quatrines.”
“They take after their idol, Harry” —
— Who smiled. “Okay, give ’em what they want. We can’t lose track of Frank and Giovanna, now — whichever carriage they turn out to be in. This could still be our opportunity to grab them.”
Thomas suppressed a start of surprise. An opportunity to grab them? There were four carriages, one with the Barberini family crest stained with the brown-maroon of dried blood, all starting out from the front of Palazzo Rospigliosi. All had opaque leather blinds bound in place to cover the windows, and each had a cavalry escort. North failed to see how this was an opportunity to retake the hostages.
Thirty minutes ago, when the first of the carriages and cavalry began pulling up in front of the palazzo, Harry had started issuing preparatory orders for ambushing what he presumed would simply be a well-escorted prisoner transfer. But he had also had the foresight to suggest that Juliet should summon the young minions she had recruited over the past two days, in the event that there was more than one potential target to keep track of. The youngsters had responded swiftly; since many of them were related to lefferti — both alive and dead — they were glad and excited to do something that might injure the Spanish.
And it was now obvious that today, Spanish security was not merely going to be the product of strength, but guile: the carriages were arranged to move separately, rather than en convoy. Thankfully, Harry was a flexible tactician; he now revised his earlier orders with admirable dispatch. “Sherrilyn, take your team up to the roof; use the flue to relay reports down to me here. The rest of you” — his gaze took in the remaining members of the Wrecking Crew, except Thomas — “get down to the ground floor. And be ready to split up; we may have to follow more than one of those carriages.”
By the time Harry was done giving orders, his binoculars were already back up to his eyes. And Lefferts’ very next word told North that his own fears regarding the Spanish plans had been vindicated: “Shit.”
North was pretty sure of the answer, but asked anyway. “What’s happening?”
“Two of the carriages are heading northeast, toward the Quirinale. The other two are heading south; they’ll pass right under our window.”
“Probably making for the Corso. Harry, if these pairs split up” — which they will — “we’re not going to be able to chase all of them.”
“Damn it,” muttered Lefferts. “I just didn’t expect them to play ‘shell game’ with us.”
“Yes, a bit unsporting. And even if we could follow them all, there’s no way any of the groups doing so would be large enough to mount a successful ambush and retake the hostages.”
Harry thought for a moment and then leaned over toward the fireplace, shouting up the flue. “All right: here’s the new plan, Sherrilyn. You keep eyes on the targets as long as we can. I’ll watch from here, too, but will mostly be coordinating with our guys on the ground floor. Juliet’s kids should be able to keep up with the carriages easily enough to see where they all go. Rome’s widest streets are still none too wide, so they’re not going anywhere too quickly. When we’re no longer able to keep track of them from this vantage point, we’ll choose the most likely shell under which the Spanish have hidden the hostages and go after that one.”
“Carefully,” amended North.
“Not so carefully that we’re too late to strike, if the opportunity presents itself.”
Thomas nodded, but thought: if it’s not already too late.
“Well, spank me hard and call me Sally.” Sherrilyn saw her team, Felix Kasza and Donald Ohde, start slightly. She smiled. However profane the men of the Wrecking Crew thought themselves — and they had good reason for that self-image — they were always startled when a provocative new colloquialism came from Sherrilyn.
Donald recovered first. “What’s up?”
“Not our odds of grabbing the hostages,” Sherrilyn answered. She pointed, keeping her eyes planted on the binoculars. “One coach is going northeast along the Via Recta, but it looks like it’s preparing to turn left. Probably to head north along the Strada Felice. Another carriage has gone west. I can’t see it just now, but — yeah, there it is, turning right to get on the Corso, heading north.”
From down below, Harry’s annoyed shout hooted out of the flue at her right elbow. “Sherrilyn, you seein’ all this?”
“Yeah, I’m seeing what you’re seeing and more.”
“What’s happened to the two that just passed beneath us?”
Sherrilyn pivoted on her heels, scanned with the binoculars, and caught sight of the boxy carriages swaying into and out of view beyond the buildings to the southwest. “They’re still going southwest along the Via Recta — no, wait; one has just veered into a small westbound street.”
“What’s over there?”
“Nothing. They’re probably taking a shortcut to get to the Strada papale.”
“And the other?”
“Looks like they’re following along to the end of the Via Recta. Again, nothing much in that direction, unless they’re looking to get to the Via dell’Aracoeli. And — wait a minute.”
Sherrilyn strained her eyes; were those two mounted men, far behind the last carriage, also following it? They just seemed like ordinary travelers from the look of it, but —
No. She caught the glint of a light steel gorget when the one closer to her vantage point turned to look behind and his collar gapped, revealing the neck armor beneath. Now that she knew what to look for, she could see the telltale signs of a plainclothes tail. The overstuffed saddle bags that probably concealed weapons, the buff gloves, the way they sat their horses: they were military.
And they were now looking with increased interest at two of Juliet’s child-recruits. Looking at them very attentively as they followed along behind the coach, playacting the part of a lord and lady. The two horsemen urged their mounts into a slightly faster walk, peering at the two nine-year-olds more closely. And mouth suddenly hanging open, Sherrilyn realized why:
My god, those horsemen are not merely security; they’re the watchers for anyone who tries to follow the carriage surreptitiously. They’re watching for us.
“So, we’re busted? Totally?” Harry rubbed his chin meditatively.
Sherrilyn nodded. “This shell-game they staged: it was a set-up. To see who, if anyone, would follow.”
“Pretty crafty,” admitted Harry.
“More than that.”
Harry turned to look at North. “What do you mean?”
“I mean this tactic of theirs was damned near oracular in its presumptions. Here we are in Rome, conducting reconnaissance preparatory to a hostage rescue. First they give us exactly what we want to see: the hostages, about to move into the open. But then they throw us what you Americans call a ‘curve ball’: our objective, although right under our noses, is now moving in one of four possible directions. Thereby baiting us to make a weak attempt to get the hostages now, either by hitting all the coaches, or by striking blind at one or two. At the very least, they figure we might reveal ourselves by following a little too eagerly, a little too closely. All staged so they can either strike us preemptively, or at least get a look at our methods and some of our personnel.”
Harry frowned. “Are you saying we’ve been ratted out?”
“Eh? Oh, you mean an informer from our side?” North shook his head. “No, I very much doubt that.”
North felt Sherrilyn’s eyes studying him closely as she asked, “Why do you doubt it?”
North had to think that through: his tactical instincts had raced ahead of his deductions. “Any informer who knows enough to betray us would have solid information regarding our numbers and our general appearance. Whoever is behind this shell game ploy would have used that information to craft a more precise plan to lure us into killing range.
“I suspect he anticipates that someone will try to rescue Frank and Giovanna, and that they will logically be sent by the USE. But beyond that, I doubt he has anything more than guesswork, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wrecking Crew is high on his list of probable rescuers.”
“Then he’d have numbers and identities, right there.”
“Maybe. But from what I heard during my own travels, Harry, intelligence on the Wrecking Crew is pretty sketchy other than that you are its very visible and distinctive leader. How many members the Crew has, and how consistently you all operate together, is unclear. For instance, people in London are convinced that Julie Sims is a part of the Wrecking Crew, thanks to that sharp shooting during the Tower of London escape.”