1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 15
Eddie saw no hint of reaction in Simpson’s perfect poker face, but reasoned that his CO’s observations must be similar to his own. Kirstenfels evidently knew a lot about his topic, but probably did not understand the ignition variable: that with calmer seas and a percussion cap instead of a fuse, the rifles would be fairly accurate out to their medium ranges. But he certainly did understand the broader strategic implications of putting guns like those on ships that could travel on the ocean. Even if these ships were not being built for high seas battles, they might be intended to sail and steam into engagements on calmer, bounded bodies of water.
“I am speaking, of course, of their potential usefulness in the Mediterranean,” finished Kirstenfels.
Which was both a correct and an incorrect guess, Eddie allowed. Eventually, that was where the new class of ships would probably be needed and hopefully, be decisive. But before then —
Simpson raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Kirstenfels, that is, to put it lightly, a most improbable surmise. What could possibly possess the USE to become embroiled in a Mediterranean conflict?”
Kirstenfels actually hazarded a small smile. “I could think of several possibilities. Ottoman expansion. Any serious threat to Venice, where the USE — and Grantville in particular — is heavily invested. An increase in the Spanish adventurism on or near the Italian peninsula, possibly including an attempt to eliminate Savoy’s small but troublesome fleet.”
He settled back in the chair that had been built — unsuccessfully, evidently — to prevent such relaxed postures. “However, the specific nature of the conflict is hardly the key datum in my surmise, Herr Admiral. I have been studying the ships you are building. They are high weather designs. That is more than you need if you were just going to punt around the Baltic.”
Simpson’s chin came out defensively. “Perhaps you’ve overlooked how rough the weather gets up here. In all seasons.”
Kirstenfels nodded politely, but didn’t look away. “Yes, but by that reasoning, then your choice of smaller craft becomes even more puzzling. The smaller hulls you’ve been procuring for portage on the larger ones are invariably very shallow-draft. They are lateen or yawl-rigged, have low bows, are narrow in the waist. Not for the Baltic.” Kirstenfels glanced out the lead-mullioned windows at the choppy grey swells beyond the bay. “Five months out of the year, these waters would swamp such boats on a regular basis. They are, however, perfectly suited for the Mediterranean: river and inlet scouting, touching on shallow coastlines, and regular ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore exchanges.”
A slow, ironic smile had been growing on Simpson’s face as the reporter laid out his case. Kirstenfels’ answering frown deepened as the admiral’s grin widened. “This amuses you, Admiral?”
Simpson seemed to stifle a chuckle. “Oh, no, no. Please continue. I like stories. Particularly fanciful ones.”
For a moment, Eddie glimpsed Kirstenfels without his mask of bourgeois suavity and well-groomed calmness. Intent and beady eyes stared and calculated, unaware that he had just been taken in by his own gambit, that the ships’ ultimate goal was the Mediterranean — just not yet. But all hungry newsman Kirstenfels knew was that his finger had slipped off whatever sensitive spot had first irked Simpson, that the story which he had been building was about to slip away from him. He was annoyed, anxious, resentful at the easy unvoiced mockery with which his hard-gained evidence was being dismissed, and his conjectures along with them.
Kirstenfels’ eyes lost that brief feral glaze. He tried a new tack. “Well, since you enjoy fanciful tales, let’s try this one. That the fleet you’re building is not bound for the Mediterranean at all, but for waters with somewhat similar characteristics and sailing requirements. Specifically, the Caribbean.”
Simpson seemed to allow himself to smile. “Ah, now there’s a new one. Tell me more.”
Kirstenfels didn’t get rattled this time. “I’d be happy to, Herr Admiral. Beyond the indisputable fact that the flotilla you are currently building would be supremely well-suited for operations in those waters, some of you Americans are likely to be relatively familiar with those waters. And you have a special interest in projecting your power into the New World, since the Caribbean has something the Mediterranean doesn’t.”
“Oh? Like what? Simpson seemed to be trying to hide a smile once again.
“Like Trinidad. Like Pitch Lake. Like easily-reached oil.”
Simpson allowed the smile to resurface but it was faintly brittle, and Eddie knew what that meant: that surprised him. And now Kirstenfels has hit the nail right on its head. If I don’t do something, he’s going to see and figure out the meaning of the look on Simpson’s face and then the cat will truly be out of the bag —
Eddie grinned, covered his mouth hastily.
Kirstenfels looked over at him sharply. “I have said something amusing, Commander?”
Eddie put on a straight face, shook his head earnestly. “No, Mr. Kirstenfels. I’m just, well, surprised that you figured out our secret.”
“Yes, sir. About taking the flotilla to the Caribbean. It’s no good for us to deny it any longer, now that you’ve put all the facts together.”
Kirstenfels’ frown returned. And Eddie could see the wheels of presupposition turning behind his grey, uncharitable eyes: I know they will not tell me the truth, so my guess about the Caribbean must be false. But they want me to believe it in order to throw me off the real scent. Of course, I should check to see if this, too, is just a ruse —
Kirstenfels looked at Simpson whose face was once again wooden. “So, Admiral, since we are free to talk about the Caribbean, then — “
With a sharp look at Eddie, he cut off the reporter, “I cannot comment on any operations we might, or might not, have planned for the Caribbean.” The faintest hint of the histrionic had crept into his voice, at which Eddie nearly smiled: very well played, Admiral.
And Kirstenfels had obviously taken the bait. The instant he heard that slightly theatrical tone in Simpson’s prohibition on further conversation about the Caribbean, a tiny smile crinkled his lips. Eddie could almost see the thought bubble over the newsman’s head: So, the admiral play-acts at upset and worry. The two of them hope to mislead me into thinking my guess about the Caribbean was accurate. All in order to divert me from my first, best hypothesis: that they really are preparing for action in the Mediterranean. A smug expression flitted across Kirstenfels’ features and was gone all in the same instant, but Eddie knew the look of vindication and triumphant certainty when he saw it.
Simpson had folded his arms. “Is there anything else, Mr. Kirstenfels?”
The newsman rose, cap in his hands. “No, thank you, Admiral Simpson. Am I free to go?”
Simpson looked as though he had swallowed a gill of spoiled vinegar. “Unfortunately, you are, Mr. Kirstenfels. But any subsequent incidents will have consequences. You have been directly and personally warned not to pursue any further investigation into the ships we are building here or their potential uses. If you disregard that warning, I will hand you over to a judge to determine just how profound your disloyalty is in the eyes of the government of the USE. The Marines will see you out.”
“And I presume I am not allowed to ask any questions of your men that might be construed to be an inquiry into their ultimate destination in the Mediterranean?”
“Or the Caribbean,” Simpson added peevishly. If Eddie hadn’t known better, he would have truly believed that the admiral was now irritated at having to play-act at such lame and obvious conceits as prohibiting Caribbean inquiries.
“Or the Caribbean,” Kirstenfels agreed, almost facetiously from the doorway. “Good day, gentlemen.”
Simpson stared at the door for five silent seconds before turning toward Eddie and matching his smile. “Thanks for the quick thinking, Commander. He had me on the ropes for that first second, when he hit on the Caribbean.”
“My pleasure, Admiral. You’re quite the poker player. Masterful last bluff, by the way.”
The older man’s smile became slightly predatory. “Do you play poker, Commander?”
“Not with you, sir.”
“Ah. Well, in this case, that caution might indeed be more helpful than a gamesman’s daring. At any rate, I’m sure we’ll be hearing about our Mediterranean flotilla any day now.”
“Yes, but Kirstenfels’ report will be so premature that it will actually be meaningless.”
“Yes, sir. As you pointed out honestly enough, we have no reason to go down there. But you left out an important qualifying word: ‘Yet.’ “
Simpson’s rare light-hearted mood extinguished as sharply as a candle in a cold breeze. “Situations can change very dramatically and very quickly, Commander. We could find ourselves wishing for a Mediterranean fleet much sooner than our own timelines of ‘international eventualities’ suggest. But enough: we’ve lost a lot of time misdirecting that ambulance chaser. What’s the latest status update on the New World mission, Commander?”