1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 48
“Hablo español bien.”
The Spanish looked at each other again, clearly surprised.
Keeping to their language, John continued: “Besides, I doubt St. Isidore’s is closed to me.”
“And who are you?”
John produced his travel papers and a copy of his commission. “I am Lord John O’Neill, the third earl of Tyrone, Colonel of tercio O’Neill under Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Low Countries. Etcetera etcetera etcetera. But most important, I am an old friend and student of Padre Luca. Whom I wish to see.”
Again the Spanish looked at each other. One more time, John thought, and it wouldn’t even make for a good comedy routine, anymore. “Is he expecting you?” one of them finally asked.
“I don’t really know,” John lied with a smile. “A letter was sent, but delivery is a little uncertain these days.” He gestured at the skyline; the tattered silhouettes of burnt buildings, and their pervasive smell, were unmistakable.
The Spanish nodded. “Yes. This is true. If the conde will be pleased to wait for one moment, I shall sent word to Father Luke tha –”
John brushed past the man, putting on haughtiness like a heavy cloak. “I will announce myself. I have not traveled so far, through such filth, to wait like a boy on the doorstep.”
He could hear the rapid conference fading behind him, and then one set of footfalls growing louder. “Lord, Conde Tyrone — please. We have orders. We cannot allow you to pass us without –”
“Well, then, don’t allow me to pass you. Come along. Announce me as I arrive, if you must.” Clearly not what the Spaniard was going to suggest, but perhaps a course of action he could accept, rather than contradicting or denying a noble a second time.
True to form, the Spanish trooper strode briskly ahead. Behind, John heard the other one exclaim, after them, “Roberto, no! You cannot take him in –” And, soft and almost inaudible behind that exclamation, John heard the pop of a flimsy lock being broken. Which meant that Owen and the rest of the Wild Geese were now in the abandoned dormitory, having done so while the last guard’s back and attention were turned away.
O’Neill reached the stairs that led up to St. Isidore’s entrance and started up, suddenly feeling ten years younger, possibly because of the memories of the place, but more likely because he was breaking rules and taking chances.
Sherrilyn, her short hair tied back and hat pulled low, turned right off the Via di Condotti. She was not following the coach itself, but had insinuated herself into the clutter of reintegrating traffic the vehicle left in its wake, trying to ignore the growing pain in her knee. And as soon as she swung around the corner, and assessed the carriage’s status on the northbound stretch of the Via di Ripetta, she resisted the urge to dodge right back. That was too obvious, so she crouched down, as if searching for a dropped coin. Then she stood, making sure her back was now to the carriage, and limped back around the corner.
And almost ran into Thomas North in the process. Who looked down at her knee. “Have you injured yourself, Ms. Maddox?”
“Just an old sports injury. I’m fine. Here’s the situation: the coach has drawn up in front of the Villa Borghese. If anyone was riding in it, we’ve come too late to see.”
“And you are so pale because –?”
“Because the whole damned street is filled with Spanish troops, checking people. Checking everyone who stands still long enough to be checked, from the look of it.”
“And not from any pain in your knee?”
“Listen, shut about my knee. I’m fine.”
Felix Kasza licked his lips. “With all the Spanish in the next street over, I am thinking it is time to leave, then?”
North nodded. “I’d say so. As I recall the first briefing with Romulus, it was believed that Frank and Giovanna’s first prison was close to the Villa Borghese, wasn’t it, Ms. Maddox?”
“Yep,” she answered, “they were penned right under Borja’s very feet, some thought. Are you thinking they’ve been brought back there?”
Thomas North frowned as they started to amble casually away from the corner. “No. I don’t think so.”
“It just doesn’t feel right, not the sort of thing our opponent would do. Ask me ‘why’ again later; my brain may have caught up with my instincts, by then.”
“What gives, Harry?” The outdated up-time expression sounded comically awkward coming from Matija. “Those three fellows just walked right past the guards and into St. Isidore’s Church.”
Harry pocketed the small field glasses. “Not quite, Matija. The leader got stopped by the two guards at the gate, spoke with them a bit. Then he breezed past them.”
Gerd smiled. “And one of them ran after him like a little bub, trying to make him stop.”
“Hmmm. I don’t think it was quite that clear cut. Looks like the two Spanish guards wanted to stop him, didn’t have the authority to do so, and now one of them is ‘escorting’ him in.”
“Leaving only one guard at the gate,” Matija pointed out.
“Yeah, but there are others near the entrance to the church, and a few more stalking around inside the buildings attached to it.” Harry considered his surroundings: his team was in a side street, one block north of the Piazza Barberini, across from the Capuchin monastery. Beyond that dour building there was a scattering of marginally inhabited cottages, and then St. Isidore’s, all of which had their backs to the extensive fields that radiated southward from the Villa Ludovisi.
Donald Ohde made a clucking sound with his tongue. “Okay, Harry, what are you thinking?”
“Well, a couple of things. First, I’d like to find out who that guy was, dropping by for a visit just now. This location is off the beaten path for the high and mighty, up here at the green margins of the Pincio. Clearly, he had rank, but just as clearly, the guards didn’t know him. That’s an odd combination, out here.”
“You thinking he’s somehow connected with the mastermind who ran the shell-game with the carriages?”
“Could be. Don’t know why else they’d get high-ranking but unfamiliar visitors out here just before dusk.”
“Okay, but if he’s got that kind of rank, why’d he come on foot?”
“Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that. And the gear of those three guys didn’t look right, either. I mean, it could be Spanish, but it’s not like what we’ve seen down here. Their leader seemed to carry a heavier sword than the Spanish use, these days.”
“Yeah, and his pal with the very red hair and very pale skin didn’t look like any Spaniard I’ve ever seen. None of them did, in fact.”
“Which makes it all the more interesting. And possibly, very significant. After all, just because the Spanish have a criminal mastermind working for them now doesn’t mean they hired from in-house. Their evil genius could be foreign talent.”
“True enough,” drawled Ohde. “After all, look at us.”
“You look; my eyeballs have already had their quota of ugly for today.”
“Yeah, we love you, too, Harry.”
“I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘abjectly adore.’ But enough sweet talk; I’m thinking that we couldn’t have asked for a better tactical situation.”
“How do you mean?”
“One guard is off the gate. If we move fast, we can get in.”
“What?” Ohde sounded surprised. “Get in? How?”
“Gerd is going to walk past the church, eyeball it a little, just enough to get the last guard’s attention. That’s when the rest of us slip between the cottages north of the monastery and angle around behind the back of St. Isidore’s. From there, we slip into the rear of the annex and take a look around.”
Donald Ohde was frowning. “I guess the real question I should be asking is, ‘why?'”
“To see if there’s any sign that this where they’re keeping Frank and Giovanna.”
“Here? With this low security?”
“Yeah, low security — which invites us to assume that the Spanish couldn’t be hiding them here, right? Our opposition might use that kind of ruse: make the real prison look weak — so weak that we would dismiss it as a possible site. So we’re going to check it out. If it’s a dry hole, we withdraw and rendezvous with Sherrilyn’s group when they’re done chasing after the carriage heading up toward the villa Borghese. And maybe, when we’re inside the church, we might see something that tells us whether Mr. Non-Spanish Boss-man is just a random visitor, or someone who was involved in setting up the trap they laid for us today.”
“And if he is?”
“Then we’re in a perfect position to follow him when he leaves the church. And we’ll take that opportunity to show him the hospitality of a small room without windows until we get some answers from him.”
Big George Sutherland shrugged and pointed out, “Harry, that Boss-Man also walked like a seasoned soldier, and had the gear to go with the gait. It might not be so easy to compel him, and his bodyguards, to accept your invitation.”
Lefferts smiled up at George. “Yeah, it’s harder to grab eggs when you can’t break ’em. But we’re no slouches ourselves. And with any luck, the whole Crew will be together by the time Boss-man decides to head off into the sunset.”
“Which might be soon,” observed Matija, looking up at the rapidly dimming western skyline.
“Good point. So let’s move. Gerd, I think it’s about time for you to take a stroll past the church…”