1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 72:



Chapter 26



            “She says she wants us to lock everything down, for the moment, until she can find out what’s happening with Wentworth. Do nothing until she gives us the word.” The expression on Paul Maczka’s face was just as dubious as the tone of his voice. In some indefinable manner, so was the way he tossed the radio note onto the kitchen table.


            “What the hell for?” demand Donald Ohde, sitting at the far end. “Who cares which minister they throw in the Tower this week? Give it a few days, and you’ll see Wentworth out and Cork inside, staring at the walls.” Irritably, he slapped the table. “You ask me, I think the woman’s just losing her nerve.”


            Harry Lefferts wagged his fingers in a gesture of restraint. “Easy, Don, easy. I know Melissa Mailey, you don’t. High school kids don’t call her the Devil’s Bitch for nothing. She is one tough old broad.” A little reminiscent smile came to his face. “I always liked her myself, even if none of the other guys did. Even after she made me write I will not be a smartass in front of a way smarter teacher two hundred times on the blackboard. What the hell, I had been a smartass—and, more to the point here, she is smarter than me.”


            Ohde made a face. “Fine. I still say, so what? She can be the devil’s counselor as well as his bitch, what difference does it make? We’re commandos, for Christ’s sake, not monks in a cell. We don’t meditate patiently, we break things.”


            Like all of Harry’s unit, whatever seventeenth-century inhibitions against blasphemy Ohde had ever possessed, he’d long since cast aside.


            Harry repeated the finger-wagging gesture. “I think she’s got something in mind. And if I’m right…”


            Slowly, a huge grin spread across his face. Amazingly huge, given that there was really not a trace of humor in the expression at all. “Great Escape, indeed. Stalag 17,000. Von Ryan’s great big long freight train. Piss on ‘Express.’”


            Ohde stared at him. So did everyone else gathered around the table. Maczka looked around for a vacant chair; finding none, he leaned back against a wall.


            “Holy shit,” he said. “Are you serious?”


            “I told you. She is one tough broad—and don’t ever let that prim and proper manner of hers fool you any. Underneath it all, she’s got a temper like you wouldn’t believe, even if she’s the only person I ever knew who could chew you up one side and down the other in grammatically correct sentences and never use a single cuss word.”


            He glanced around the table. “Guys, we’re talking about a sixty-year-old woman who’s spent her whole life giving the finger to the establishment. And now that same establishment”—this time, he waved his whole hand, not just the fingers—“close enough, anyway, the Devil’s Bitch never saw much distinction between one establishment and another—just went and locked her up for over half a year.”


            The grin came back, though not as large and with some actual humor in it. “I don’t remember it myself, ‘cause I was just a little kid then. But she got herself tossed in jail during the big ‘78-79 coal miners strike for heckling the cops too much. Soon as they let her out she went home just long enough to make up a picket sign and then—I mean, she didn’t stop for a hamburger, nothing—she made a beeline right to the big police station in Fairmont and started up a one-woman picket line of her own. Sign read: You’re STILL assholes.


            Everybody laughed. “I thought you said she never used cuss words,” said Felix.


            “Well… she never did, dealing with kids. Not even a ‘damn.’ But I guess she figured it was okay if she was picking on somebody bigger’n her.”


            “Did they arrest her again?”


            “Naw. Truth is, the Fairmont cops weren’t really bad guys. I think most of them thought it was pretty funny themselves. And what would be the point, anyway? They’d have to let her out sooner or later, and—given Melissa—who knows what she’d have come up with next?”


            Smiling now, Ohde shook his head. “All right, I get the point. But do you really think she’s seriously considering springing anybody but them?”


            “Yup. I think she’s mad enough she wants to get even as well as get out.”


            “Why not?” said George Sutherland heavily. “We were already planning to get Cromwell out. What’s one more man?”


            “Be more than that,” his wife mused. “Wentworth’s wife and kids are in the Tower, too. I can’t imagine he’d leave without them.”


            Harry scratched his chin. “Good point.” He stood up and waved at Paul, summoning him to follow. “Let’s back up there and find out exactly how many people she’s got in mind. I only figured on two boats. We might need another one.”




            The answer came back immediately. Paul didn’t bother writing it down, with Harry at the receiver. He’d only written down the first one out of habit, anyway. At this close range, they were in direct verbal communication, not using Morse code.


            “Don’t know yet, Harry. From what we can tell, everything’s up in the air. But we haven’t been able to find out much, beyond the obvious fact that a coup d’etat is in progress. The Warders aren’t talking to us, but Darryl says Vicky’s whole family is edgy. ‘Tenser’n cats at a dog convention,’ is the way he put it.”


            Harry frowned. “Who’s Vicky—and why’s her family figure into this?”


            “Oh. Forget to tell yet. Darryl got engaged. Vicky’s his fiancée. Most of her family—men, that is—are members of the Yeoman Warders.”


            “You’re shitting me!”


            “Still cussing, huh? If there’s a blackboard over there, write on it fifty times ‘I will not use bad language in front of my ex-schoolteacher.’ No, I’m not shitting you. Why is that a surprise, anyway? A lot of the men in the Tower are Warders.”


            “Not that! Darryl got engaged?


            “Sure did. Hey, we’re in the seventeenth century, Harry. Age of miracles. If Darryl were a statue, he’d probably be leaking tears of blood.”


            Blankly, Harry stared out the window. The Tower was quite visible in the bright winter sunlight. The weather had finally cleared up.


            “We’re talking about Darryl McCarthy, right? I mean, you didn’t get something criss-crossed and wind up with a different Darryl?”


            “Don’t be silly. How many other Darryls did I ever have write on a blackboard three hundred times ‘My name is Darryl McCarthy, not Redd Foxx’?” And then made him correct his spelling because he kept dropping the extra d’s and x’s.”


            Harry chuckled. “All right, good point. He was pissed as hell about it. Didn’t stop crabbing for two weeks afterward. Still. I had him figured for a lifelong righteous bachelor.”


            “Like you, I take it?”


            Even though she couldn’t see him, Harry twisted his face into something that was halfway between a grimace and a questioning expression.


            “Not actually sure any more, Ms. Mailey. The seventeenth century makes a man think about things a lot more carefully. God, I love this time and place.” A bit hurriedly, he added: “Not that I’m in any hurry to get married, y’all understand.”


            “You would love this time and place, you young rascal.”


            “Damn right I do. Back home I would’ve just been calculating how long I could stay in the mines before I started getting black lung and had to quit and go flip hamburgers for minimum wage. Get to look forward to retirement, sitting on a rocking chair on a beat-up old porch wheezing to my buddies about the good old days. Hell with that. This here’s like being in Las Vegas—the old, real one I’m talking about—except the bouncers’ve got swords and guns and the cops use red hot tongs instead of handcuffs. Just makes the odds more of a thrill.”


            “God help us.”


            “He might have to—if we’re supposed to spring Darryl’s whole pack of new in-laws too. I mean, jeez, Ms. Mailey, I was figuring on a couple of little riverboats, not a cruise ship.”


            “I don’t think it would be all of them. They’re Yeoman Warders, don’t forget. Just Vicky. In fact, I’m not even sure—hold on a minute, Harry. From the sounds outside, I think something’s happening.”


            Paul had drifted to the window, as he listened to the conversation—Melissa’s end of which he could hear clearly from the microphone.


            “Something sure is happening,” he said sharply. “Better come here and look at this, Harry.”


            Harry came over to the window. Unlike late twentieth century cities, which didn’t use wood for heating, London in the seventeenth century had very few trees. So he had an unimpeded view of the Tower across the Thames—and he’d picked this house to rent partly because it had a good view of the fortress’ main entrance on its western side.


            He pursed his lips, and then blew air through them slowly. “Oooookay. Paul, I gotta bad feeling all our plans just flew south for the winter.”


            An army was marching up to the Tower. The lead elements were already beginning to pass through the Middle Tower and nearing Byward Tower. A small army, true enough. But Harry was pretty sure the guard force at the Tower had just gotten massive reinforcements. It certainly wasn’t an attacking force—the gates of Byward Tower were swinging wide open to let them in.


            These were professional soldiers, too, it was obvious even at the distance. Probably several of the mercenary companies the English crown had hired on when Charles threw in with the League of Ostend. As an actual guard force, Harry doubted if they were as good as the Yeoman Warders. But so what? A jailbreak had just turned into the prospect of a siege—with a handful of besiegers.


            “Well, shit,” he said.