1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 09
Always Earnest Eddie. “Protocol be damned, Commander, we just wanted to see her again.”
“‘See her,’ sir?”
Really? You still don’t get the ribbing? “See her, Commander. Perceive her form. Appreciate her beauty. Feast upon her feminine pulchritude with our own, envious eyes. You get the picture?” And he grinned.
Before Eddie could get the surprised look off his face, George Chehab rasped, “How could you not know what we meant, son? She’s a class-A knockout, that Danish Ann Margaret of yours.”
“Uh, Mr. Chehab, her name is actually Anne Cathrine.”
“Trust me son, she is a young Ann Margret. But more curvaceous.”
“Now George,” warned Vince Marcantonio, “let’s not get too blatant in our admiration of the young lady.”
Chehab smiled and shrugged. “Okay, but damn, I confess to disappointment that she didn’t come down with you, Commander: severe, genuine, personal disappointment. She’s as charming as she is beautiful, and we’d have liked to show her more of Grantville last year.”
Eddie nodded. “Yes, sir. A return visit tops our list of things to do. When time permits.”
And the room became quiet again, the jocularity chased out by the shadow of things to come. Serious things. Time to get back to and conclude the matters at hand, Piazza admitted. “Well, Commander, we are very glad to have seen you and presented you with your long overdue medal — and gift. I take it you will be returning to your duties immediately?”
“Not even time to sneak a quick visit to Copenhagen?”
Eddie shook his head. “No, sir. Much as I’d like to. What with being a new husband and all.”
“Amen to that,” breathed Warner Barnes sympathetically, who knew because Piazza had briefed them months ago, that Anne Cathrine was “inexplicably” not with her husband in Lübeck. Of course, there was a simple, if unpleasant explanation for her absence: she had been purposely kept away from Lübeck at the behest of a group of Swedish officers. Anne Cathrine, they correctly asserted, was inquisitive, clever, enthusiastic, and probably could have deduced military secrets from fragments of conversations overheard in Eddie’s quarters. Of course, the great majority of the command staff also held that she’d have been even more likely to die rather than give up those secrets. But there had been concerns among some ultranationalist Swedes that a new bride — and a Danish one, at that — should not be in close proximity to secret projects and documents. Nonsense of course, and driven by their distrust of Copenhagen’s loyalty to Stockholm in the forcibly reforged Union of Kalmar. But those officers wielded enough political power that some concessions had to be made, and this one was consented to because it imposed politically-inconsequential costs upon only two persons: a love-lorn and sex-starved new husband named Eddie Cantrell and his pining bride.
“That’s hard, lonely duty you’ve pulled up north, Commander,” nodded Piazza.
Eddie either misunderstood or was trying to change the topic. “Well, I do like learning how to sail and command a ship, but much of the Baltic is iced over and all of it is cold and stormy as hell in February and March. Every time a training tour is up, I’m grateful to be back in HQ for another few weeks. Suddenly, sorting through an endless stack of papers doesn’t seem so bad, when you’re doing it in a nice, warm office.”
“Well, I’m sure a lot more papers have accumulated in your absence. You certainly have done quite a job of depositing a hefty new pile here with us.” Piazza gestured to the leather folios upon the table.
Eddie glanced at the “folders” and nodded, taking the President’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure to see you again, sir.”
“And you, Commander. Safe travels. And by the way, how are construction schedules holding up in the shipyards, Commander?”
“They’re passable, Mr. President,” an answer which Eddie punctuated by one moment of extended eye contact, a moment that was, again, probably lost on everyone except Nasi. Sagging a little, Eddie leaned on the table for support. “But everything will come together eventually.” And with that, his finger grazed across the exposed corner of the bottom-most folio.
Which was all code for: construction is on schedule and the new technologies have reached production phase, details of which are in this folder I just touched. And the delivery of that message, and the coded details scattered as harmless phrases throughout the papers in that folio, were the only reasons that the young commander had actually been sent down to Grantville.
The new prosthetic had been a great cover-story — flawless, actually — but the coded reports on Simpson’s classified projects, and his actual completion and readiness dates, could not be entrusted to airwaves or routine couriers. Even secure couriers were problematic because there was always the chance that their role was already known and that they would be waylaid at a most inopportune moment.
No, the best means of sending secret data — for which the codes were the second, not the first line of defense — was to send them in plain sight, so to speak. And that meant using a routine contact, such as Admiral Simpson’s staff expert on technology initiatives and fellow up-timer, to convey a single secure communiqué as part of a perfectly plausible trip that had been planned upon months ahead of time. And it meant that there were only three people who had known the identity of the courier in advance: Simpson, Piazza, and the courier himself — Eddie Cantrell.
Who had now reached the door. He turned, saluted, received their returns, and with one boyish smile — like a parting endearment from his rapidly disappearing former self — he was gone.
Anton Roedel finished his scribbling. “Mr. President, shall I read back the –?”
There was a knock at the door. Anton speared it with a glance sharp enough to gut a fish. “Sir, are we expecting another — ?”
Nasi interrupted smoothly, with a friendly smile. “That will be all, Mr. Roedel. Please drop off the evening’s secure communiqués at the encryption office, will you?”
Roedel’s eyes went back to the door briefly. “Yes, but — “
“We need those messages to go out as soon as possible, Mr. Roedel. So please, waste no time delivering them to the encryptionist on duty.”
Roedel glanced at Piazza who nodded faintly at the secretary and added a placating smile. “On your way, now, Anton.”
Who evidently was still miffed at being sent out when, clearly, there was yet another unexpected visitor waiting beyond the door. Chin slightly higher than usual, Anton Roedel gathered his papers and notes, squared them off, put them carefully in his own leather folio, and exited like a spurned ex-girlfriend.
It was Nasi who, three seconds after the door closed behind Roedel, called out “Come in.”
The person who entered through the door Eddie had exited was small, slightly stooped, and dressed indifferently, a hint of seediness in the worn seams of his coat and his britches. He looked around the room’s lower periphery, not raising his eyes to meet any of those looking at him. Pressed to categorize him, Piazza would have guessed him to be a vagrant who had somehow, impossibly, strayed off the street, past the guards, and into the highest offices of the State of Thuringia-Franconia.
Nasi nodded at the man, who exited far more swiftly and eagerly than he had entered.
Warner frowned, looked at Nasi and then around the table. “What, no message? Was the guy — lost?”
Nasi shook his head. “No, he was not lost. He was the message.”
Chehab leaned forward. “The messenger coming through that door could have been one of three persons. Each one meant something different, so their face was their message, you might say.”
“And this one means — what?”
Nasi looked at Piazza. “It means that a pair of mechanics who were reported in town four days ago have just now departed.”
Warner blinked. “Mechanics?”
Chehab shrugged, looked away. “Fixers. Freelance wiseguys.”
Warner blinked harder. “What? You mean hit men, assassins?”
Nasi smoothed the front of his shirt. “Not necessarily.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means it depends who hired them and what for.” Piazza looked over at Warner with what he hoped was a small, reassuring smile. Warner Barnes was a relatively new and infrequent member of the group and wasn’t familiar with how, or what kind of, things were done in this ‘sleepy subcommittee’ — which also functioned, unadvertised, as the State of Thuringia-Franconia’s intelligence directorate.
Warner still hadn’t read between the lines. “And we just stood by while these two murderers were walking our streets?”
Piazza shrugged. “What would you have had me do? We don’t have any outstanding warrants on them.”
Nasi added, “They do not even stand accused of any crime.”
Warner sputtered. “Then how do we know they’re assassins, mechanics, or whatever?”
“Via the good offices of our preeminent international banker, Balthazar Abrabanel. His discreet connections with the Jewish ‘gray market’ frequently provide him with information about persons like these. They are often called upon to aid in, er, ‘collections’. “
Piazza leaned in. “And we have confirming reports of their identities and reputations from the Committees of Correspondence. These two aren’t political activists, but are well-known to the, um, action arms of the Committees.”
“And Abrabanel and the Committees — they actually hire thugs like these?”
“Not often. And never these two in particular.”
“Why not these two?”
Nasi shrugged. “Well, as has already been implied, this pair has a reputation for preferring to resolve matters…too kinetically.”
Warner goggled. “So they’re rougher than the average brute and we let them walk around our town, unwatched? All because some of our shadier contacts know who they are? Listen, Ed — “
Piazza shook his head. “Warner, they’re not a concern of ours”
Warner gaped, tried another approach. “Okay, if you say so, but maybe we should put a tail on them while we make a quick inquiry into their whereabouts while they were here, make sure they didn’t use their visit to harm any of our — “
Piazza looked at Nasi, who in turn looked at Warner, and interrupted him sharply. “Mr. Barnes. Allow me to be quite clear about this: those two men are gone. And being gone, they are to be left alone. Entirely alone. That is this committee’s official policy on the matter. Is that understood?”
Warner blinked in surprise, probably more at the tone than the instructions, Piazza suspected. “Okay, yes, Don Francisco. Although I just wish I understood why –“
Piazza stood, making sure that his chair made a loud scraping noise as he did, which momentarily silenced Barnes. The President rubbed tired eyes and then stared straight at Warner before he could resume his objections. “It’s been a long day, everyone. Let’s go home.”