1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 39:



Chapter 12


The English Channel



            “Well, that’s a pisser,” said Harry Lefferts, lowering his eyeglass.


            Standing next to him at the small ship’s rail, Donald Ohde scowled at the vessel in the distance. “Doesn’t anybody have any imagination? They tried this once before, and it didn’t work.”


            “The Channel is notorious for pirates,” Harry pointed out mildly. “I really don’t think we got spotted making our way through France.”


            Paul Maczka was standing at the same rail, to Harry’s left. “No ambush, you’re saying.”


            “Can’t see it, Paul. I mean, why would the French bother with a complicated ambush? They had to do it with Becky’s ship, because she was a diplomat and they couldn’t let their hand show. Us? We were just thugs sitting in a tavern in Dieppe, dickering to buy a boat. The guy who sold it to us probably figured we wanted it to turn pirates ourselves. Send in a platoon of infantry, that’s all.”


            Both Paul and Donald were scowling now. Harry smiled. “Yeah, well, so that platoon gets shot up. They send in a whole company. We’re still fried, guys, before we even set foot on our new boat.”


            He looked back at the ship pursuing them. “No, this is just garden-variety piracy. We still got to deal with it, though.”


            Donald shrugged. “Easy enough.”


            Harry shook his head. “Not so easy as all that. Oh, sure, ole Jeff could just send them packing with a few grenades. But he didn’t care if there were any witnesses left. We can’t afford that.”


            He’d said “ole Jeff” with that certain note of approbation that one righteous hillbilly refers to another member of the clan. A few years back, he’d have done no such thing, of course. Harry had never been one of those high school jocks who harassed geeks, but that was simply because such behavior was beneath his dignity. Does a lion harass mice? Still, his attitude toward geeks like Jeff Higgins hadn’t been any different, really.


            However, that was then, and this was now. Jeff still wasn’t a hillbilly, properly speaking, and never would be, but Harry was quite willing to extend him honorary membership. He’d landed one of the best-looking girls around and blown close to a dozen Croat cavalrymen into pieces, hadn’t he? What more could you ask for?


            “No…” Harry mused. “We can’t do it Jeff’s way.”


            He glanced to the northeast, checking to see that they weren’t too close yet to entering the Strait of Dover. Then, turned his head and looked at the helmsman. That was Matija Grabnar. Like many of the commandos in Lefferts’ unit, his ethnic background was a mix; in his case, German, Slovene and Lithuanian. For whatever reason, Harry seemed to attract hybrids. He claimed it was because his charismatic personality and proven leadership qualities just naturally drew the cream of the crop from every nation.


            Mike Stearns had once commented that it might even be true—if you defined “cream of the crop” the way Harry did, and nobody else would except Ba’alzebub.


            “Hey, Matt! Get us out into the middle of the channel, will you? I don’t want any witnesses.”


            Felix Kasza, who’d been sprawled comfortably on the deck, lounging against the mainmast, rose to his feet. Then, ambling over, he said: “We do it like Guns of Navarone, eh?”


            “Yeah, what I figured.” Harry gave the three men around him a sly little grin. “Good thing I over-ruled you male chauvinist pigs and let the girls come along, ain’t it? This’ll work a lot easier with Sherrilyn and Juliet to dangle like bait.”


            “I heard that, Lefferts!” One of the two women in the unit, both of them sitting on the deck next to the opposite rail, lifted her head. “Talk about male chauvinist pigs. You got your nerve. What’re we? The designated rapees?”


            Harry shrugged. “Well, yeah—except it’ll never get that far.”


            “Sure won’t,” she half-snarled. It wasn’t a particularly cold day, for this time of year, but it was January, in the English channel. So, sitting on the deck, Sherrilyn Maddox and Juliet Sutherland had covered themselves with a couple of wool blankets. Sherrilyn flipped part of the blankets aside and rummaged somewhere beneath for a moment. Her hand emerged holding a very lethal-looking 10 mm. automatic.


            “They’ll have to fuck my dead body—but I guarantee you, Harry, if you aren’t dead by then already, I’ll make sure of it. You and your stupid movies!”


            All of Harry’s male commandos, including Harry, were addicted to action movies. The down-timers, though not Harry himself, were also addicted to action novels. It was their commonly held and firm belief that, when it came to fiction, there was no God but Matt Helm and Donald Hamilton was his prophet. Admittedly, the Sacketts and Louis L’Amour came a close second.


            The woman sitting next to Sherrilyn was the female half of the only married couple in the unit. She took the pipe out of her mouth, did her—very feeble—best to look prim and proper, and said: “My husband will have to agree. He’s crazy jealous, you know. His wife being gang-raped by dozens of pirates is likely to set him off.”


            Her husband, as it happened, emerged from the hold just in time to hear that. Frowning, he lifted his head and peered over the rail. “Didn’t realize they were getting that close,” he said. “Guns of Navarone?”


            “Yeah, that’s the plan.”


            George Sutherland planted his hands on either side of the hatch and heaved himself onto the deck. As big and heavy as he was, that took quite a heave, but he had the muscle for it. It wasn’t actually true that he was particularly jealous. An easygoing and phlegmatic personality combined with nineteen-inch biceps made him one of the most placid husbands Harry had ever met.


            George and his wife were both English, which was the reason Harry had selected them for this expedition. Better still, they’d both been active in London’s theater before a byproduct of a brawl George had gotten into forced them to flee to the continent. The byproduct in question had been the broken neck owned by the brother of one of Southwark’s more notorious criminal gang leaders. Unfortunately, between his drunkenness and the chaos of the melee, George had gotten confused. He’d thought the neck he was breaking belonged to the gang leader himself, which he’d figured would settle the business well enough.


            Once they arrived in London, Harry planned to set up their base of operations in the sprawling slums on the south bank of the Thames across from the Tower, where the theater district was located. That might get a tad awkward, of course, if they happened to accidentally stumble across the same gang leader in their comings and goings. But Harry wasn’t particularly concerned about that problem. There was an easy solution to it, after all.


            Juliet claimed to have become an actress, once she got to the continent where women were allowed to play roles on stage, although she allowed that her parts had been minor. That most likely meant she’d started off as a young woman in London as a whore working the theater district, before she got hooked up with George, who’d been a stagehand. But Harry had never pried into the matter. None of his concern; first of all; and, secondly, having a husband the size of George would have made even a Nosy Parker shy away from the business.


            “You’d better stay below, George,” said Harry. “Big as you are, you’re likely to make them nervous. Give Gerd a hand with the fireworks.”


            Sutherland sucked his yellow crooked teeth, pondering the problem. “Grenades?”


            “I’d rather save the grenades, if y’all don’t mind.” The last phrase was said in English, drawled with a heavy Appalachian accent, tacked onto the Amideutsch that was their standard lingo.


            George smiled, and began lowering himself back into the hold. “Tightwad. But we’ll manage.”