1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 71:



            Once they arrived at the house, Julie quickly became the center of attention. For a wonder, given the group of men there, that wasn’t because she was young and pretty. Testosterone can work in mysterious ways.


            “Did you bring the rifle?” Felix asked. He said “the rifle” much the same way that a breathless child speaks of a wondrous magic item.


            “Sure,” said Julie. She jerked her head over her shoulders. “Got it hidden back at our place.”


            Harry thought for a moment that the guys were almost going to say “ooh” and “aah.” None of them except Harry and Gerd had been there when Julie carried out her now-legendary feats of marksmanship. But by now they knew about them—down to every last detail, in fact. They could be a little obsessive, that way.


            “Where’d you learn to shoot like that?” asked Matija.


            “My grandma, mostly. She was the best rifle shot in the area in her day, too.”


            Donald looked skeptical. “One small town produced two women who are great shots?”


            Hurriedly, before Julie could get her dander up, Harry intervened. “Hey, man, she’s just telling it just the way it is. Her grandmother was Anna Lou Ballew, although I only knew her as Mrs. McQuade. She was the national teenage rifle champion at Camp Perry twice—first time when she was fourteen—and she qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic team.” Harry gave Julie a sly smile. “They wouldn’t let her go, of course, men being men in those days and her being a girl and all. But she was sure as hell good enough. She was appointed West Virginia athlete of the year, too. I can’t remember which year.”


            “1940,” said July. “First woman ever got the honor. And the only one who’s ever done it in Marksmanship. She kept shooting on her company team until she retired, and she spent every summer traveling to Camp Perry for the nationals.”


            Julie paused, for a moment, her face scrunching up a little. “She’s probably still doing it, in fact, wherever she is. She was still alive and in good health last time I saw here—and so was Grandpa. They were living in Florida by then, though, so they got left behind when the Ring of Fire hit us.”


            By now, Julie’s initial ire had vanished. She even gave Harry an appreciative little nod. “Yup, that was my Grandma. Anyway, she’s the one who taught me. ‘Course—not wanting to sound like I’m a braggart like Harry here—there was some natural talent involved. Mine, I mean.”


            Harry took her by the arm. “Come on, Julie. Let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you the shooting gallery.”




            Julie peered out the window in the corner room upstairs that was closest to the Tower, looking across the Thames. “Can’t see a damn thing, in this light. What’s the range?”


            “Oh, hell, I was kidding. I didn’t actually mean you’d be shooting from here.”


            “What’s the range?” she asked again, very firmly.


            He started to say too far but decided that was risky. With Julie, you never knew. She might insist on trying it, just to prove she could make the shot.


            “Look, Julie, it doesn’t matter. You might be able to make the shot—except it won’t be ‘the shot,’ it’s likely to be a lot of them. You have heard the term ‘getaway,’ haven’t you? We’re not exactly going to be nestled in the palm of our own army here, with the emperor himself looking over your shoulder, the way he was at the Alte Veste. Once it’s done, we’ve gotta get out of here. Mucho pronto. And this house is hardly the best place to start from, taking it on the lam-wise.”


            She chewed her lip, for a moment. “Okay, that makes sense. Where do I set up, then? You have heard the term ‘gun rest,’ haven’t you? Across this big a river, you can’t make a good shot just standing up. Not me, not anybody.”


            “Relax, willya? Tomorrow we’ll look around. We’ll find something suitable.”


            Julie looked at Sherrilyn, who’d come up to the room with them. “Does this Great Commando Leader always plan his operations with such careful and deliberate precision?”


            “Oh, hell no, girl. Usually Harry just wings it.”


            “You’re ganging up on me,” Harry complained.


            “Sure we are,” said Sherrilyn. “We’re girls. You’re a guy.”


            Julie patted her arm. “Still, we oughta ease up. At least Harry’s a guy playing a guy. Now that I’ve seen the pervert ways of London, I figure that’s gotta count for something.”




            By the time they got back downstairs, Juliet and George Sutherland were back.


            “Something is wrong,” Juliet said. “Liz has three men staying with her.”


            “Ah…” Harry tried to find the right way to say it. This could get delicate.


            “Oh, leave off!” snapped Juliet. “You and your nasty mind. Sure, in times past there might have been the odd fellow coming and going, of an evening. What was that, George?” The last question had been addressed rather sharply at her husband.


            “Nothing, dearest. Just talking to myself. Thoughtless habit of mine, now and then.”


            What he’d actually murmured—Harry had heard it, quite clearly—was several odd fellows, and at any time of day or night. But he thought that remark was best left buried. Perhaps run a herd of horses back and forth across it too, to obliterate all traces, the way he’d heard the Mongols had made sure nobody could find the grave of Genghis Khan and dig him up.


            Fortunately, Juliet seemed inclined to let it go. “As I was saying, while it’s true that Liz was not exactly what you might call a proper lady, she’d never have had three strange men staying in her lodgings at once. And they look to be settled in, too.”


            “Especially one of them,” added George. That got him another sharp look from his wife, but this one he didn’t evade. “Dearest,” he said, spreading his hands, “it’s just a fact. You saw it as well as I did. Whoever those other two fellows were, she certainly wasn’t unhappy with the presence of that one.”


            “How do you know?” asked Harry.


            Juliet looked a bit embarrassed. George, however, was pretty much a stranger to that sentiment. “How do you think? Once we found out where she was living—which wasn’t hard, seeing as how it’s the same place she was living when we left some years back—we crept up and peered through the window. The bedroom window, to be specific. Juliet, when you speak to Liz again, you should caution her that cheap curtains don’t really provide much in the way of privacy. It would have helped if she and her unknown paramour had put out the lamps before they started—well, no need to get into the details.”


            Harry ran fingers through his hair. “All right, fine. So she’s glad the one guy is there, and who knows why the other two are. But I can’t see where any of this has anything to do with us. I mean, I didn’t mind the two of you going out to set your minds at rest regarding your old friend—or not—but that was just because I thought we had plenty of time to kill. Now that Julie’s here, we really oughta get rolling. You know. The Tower. The Great Escape. Stalag 17. Von Ryan’s Express. That is why we’re here, after all. Not to play Sherlock Holmes.”


            “Yes, of course,” said George. He laid a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “He is right, dearest.”


            Juliet looked very unhappy, but all she did was nod.




            Harry offered to walk Julie and Alex back to their quarters. Insisted, in fact, after Alex told him it really wouldn’t be necessary.


            “I want to get a good look at the Globe. I barely had a chance, earlier, since Julie was in such an allfire hurry to get away from the place.”


            “Since when did you give a damn about high culture?” Julie demanded. She pronounced it kult-cha.


            “Hey, I spent months with Giulio Mazarini. Rome, Paris, places like that. You wouldn’t believe how much culture I got exposed to.” He pronounced it the same way.


            “Oh, bullshit! You were just checking out the red light districts, don’t lie to me, Harry. And you’d be wasting your time at the Globe, for sure. Any whores hanging around there would most likely be guys pretending to be girls.” The expression that now came to her face was one of Dawning Comprehension. Like Juliet Sutherland, Julie Mackay would never get any plaudits from devotees of method acting. “Unless…”


            Neither was Harry, come down to it. His shrug exuded Shameful Confession.


            “Yeah, I been corrupted.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “It’s Sherrilyn’s fault. She’s been playing so hard to get lately that it’s twisting me inside.”


            “Harry, you’re a jackass,” said Sherrilyn.


            “Two women in one night,” said Harry smugly. “Maybe there’s hope for me yet.”


            Julie and Sherrilyn blew simultaneous raspberries.


            “It’s true,” Harry insisted stoutly. “A real man measures his macho by the number of times women dump on him. That’s why we only watch chick flicks under protest. Might screw up the readings on the wimp-o-meter.”


            Julie and Sherrilyn looked simultaneously cross-eyed, trying to follow the logic. “What the hell is a wimp-o-meter?” Julie demanded.


            “You wouldn’t understand. It’s a guy thing.”