1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 88:



Chapter 34



            By midnight, Elizabeth Lytle was anxious. Anthony and the others should have returned by now. Quite some time earlier, in fact. It didn’t take but twenty minutes to walk to the house where Juliet was staying. They’d been gone for over two hours.


            She put on her outer wear, and opened the door. Then, hesitated. Walking the streets of Southwark in the middle of the night was not safe for a woman. Not for a man, either, come down to it, unless he was armed and capable with weapons.


            For a moment, her lips twisted into a grimace. Of course, there was one sort of woman who did it as a matter of course, without normally being bothered. Attacked, at least. But in her whoring days, Liz had never worked the streets. She’d worked the theaters, with a far more select clientele—and one that invariably carried swords. She applied the term “whore” to herself simply because she was blunt by nature, but she’d actually been more in the way of a courtesan for gentlemen.


            Still, although she’d never done it, she knew the way it was done. So, after a moment, she took off the outerwear and spent a few minutes changing into more flamboyant costume. Fortunately, with the early spring chill, she’d still cause no notice if she wore the outerwear. But any footpad would spot the underlying garments and assume she was a streetwalker plying her trade. More to the point, he’d also assume that whatever money she was carrying from her night’s work wouldn’t be enough to warrant the risk. Whores could be dangerous in their own right; their pimps, even more so.


            She went out the door and hurried into the night. She was actually far more worried that she’d encounter a pimp; who, not recognizing her, would assume she was attempting to operate on her own, and would take it upon himself to explain to her—with a beating—that such was not the way her business was properly done.


            This late at night, though, the pimps would mostly be in the taverns. There really wasn’t much trouble with whores in Southwark, neither from footpads nor the whores themselves. The rules were far too well established and understood. The biggest problem was usually just a too-drunk customer, but most whores could handle that difficulty on their own. All of them carried knives, if the need arose.


            Liz had a knife herself, even those she’d never carried it the course of her own assignations, in times past. Perhaps ironically, though, she probably knew how to use it better than any but the coarsest streetwalkers. Anthony had taught her—and she was carrying it tonight.




            Luckily, she encountered no pimps, and only one would-be customer. He’d accepted her refusal readily enough, without pressing the matter. A youngster, somewhere from the country west of London. A village lad, probably, in London for whatever reason, who’d decided to sample the fares in famed and sinful Southwark—and was far more nervous than she was. He’d practically scampered off when she declined. The biggest problem Liz had faced was not bursting into laughter at the look of confusion on the face of the poor boy. Nowhere in the legends he’d heard about Southwark was there a place for a harlot who said no.


            Soon enough, she was near the house that Juliet and George occupied. Deliberately, she avoided the obvious approach using the street. Those same two men who had observed her earlier might still be there. Whether or not Anthony and his friends were right about her distinctive walk, and even wearing a bonnet, Liz didn’t want to risk it.


            So, reluctantly, she made her approach through the backways and alleys. Reluctantly, because she’d made the mistake of wearing one of her two good pair of shoes—and Southwark’s backways and alleys were even filthier than London’s. She’d have to spent at least an hour getting them clean. Two, more likely, judging from the stench.


            But, eventually, she made it to the house that was closest to the one she sought. Carefully peering around the corner of the house, she found herself staring right into the barrel of what she thought was a gun. A pistol of some sort, although it seemed much smaller than the wheel-lock Anthony had owned.


            “Not bad for an amateur,” said a soft male voice. “Didn’t trip even once, the last stretch. All right, Elizabeth Lytle, just step around quietly. No fuss, no ruckus. I’m not going to hurt you, I’m not going to rob you, and I’m not going to rape you. But if you give me any trouble, I will shoot you dead on the spot. Don’t think I won’t.”


            She didn’t doubt it for a moment. There was something very deadly in the casual and relaxed way the man said the words, whoever he was.


            She couldn’t see much of him, even after she came around the corner and he was standing in front of her. On the big side, though not especially massive. But something in his easy stance made it clear to her that he would be a formidable opponent in any sort of physical confrontation. Whatever vague thoughts she’d had about the little knife tucked into her garments vanished on the spot.


            His face wasn’t discernible, though, between the darkness and the hat he was wearing.


            “All right,” he said, still speaking softly. “Now let’s just go into the house.”


            She obeyed, moving ahead of him. She did summon up the courage to ask him: “How did you know my name?”


            “What other woman would be creeping about tonight? I didn’t get the name by torturing your handsome captain, if that’s what you’re worrying about. Just pure deductive logic. Sherlock Lefferts, that’s me.”


            The first thing she saw when she went through the door was Anthony. He and Richard and Patrick were sitting close together on three chairs toward the back of the main room. Sitting very, very still, with their hands placed visibly on their knees.


            She didn’t wonder at the stillness, once she looked around the room. It seemed packed full of men, all of whom were holding peculiar weapons. Guns of some sort, although none she’d ever seen before.


            There was a woman, too—not Juliet; someone Liz didn’t know—holding a gun of her own. She didn’t look any less dangerous than the men.


            Thankfully, Juliet and George were in the room also. George looked placid; Juliet seemed distressed.


            “Sorry, love,” said Anthony. “I’d hoped you wouldn’t come. I’m afraid they caught us as soon as we got here. It was as neat an ambush as I’ve ever seen.”


            “Wouldn’t call it an ‘ambush,’ exactly,” said the man who captured Liz and had just come in behind her. She heard him close the door. “I imagine you’re good soldiers, Captain Leebrick, but you’ve got a lot to learn about our line of work.”


            Anthony cleared his throat. “Which is what, exactly, if I might ask? And I’d be curious—just idly, so to speak—as to how you learned my name. You’ve asked us no questions at all since you caught us, and we certainly didn’t volunteer anything.”


            The man who’d captured Liz moved around her into the center of the room, so she could finally get a look at him. He’d already removed his outerwear.


            Quite a handsome fellow, actually. And once she saw the grin that spread across his face, she didn’t think he’d ever lack for female company. Unless he was very shy, which seemed about as likely as the Thames running backward.


            “We call it commando work,” he said. “As for the other, it’s like I told your sweetheart. Sherlock Lefferts, they call me.”


            “Oh, bullshit,” said the woman Liz didn’t recognize. There was something quite odd about her accent. Liz was familiar with most of the accents and dialects of English in the islands, but she didn’t recognize this one at all. She realized now that she’d detected the same accent in the voice of the Sherlock fellow, but it had been far more subdued. Much the same way as the accents of Anthony and Richard, if not Patrick. They’d traveled enough that they more or less automatically adapted their speech to whichever native inhabitants they found themselves among.


            “Harry, stop bragging,” she continued, sounding exasperated. “You got as much resemblance to Sherlock Holmes as I do to Mata Hari.” She gave Liz a look that was even more exasperated. Not quite unfriendly, but close. “The only reason any of you are still alive is because you’re friends of Juliet and George—well, you are, anyway. Juliet says she doesn’t know these three characters from Adam. Harry figured how who the captain was just by using plain horse sense. We’ve known for weeks that you had three men in your house. Three men who never left it. Why? Once we got curious, Juliet asked around. Nobody knew your name, but plenty of people knew that Elizabeth Lytle had become the kept woman of an officer. A captain, not that that rank means anything in this day and age.”


            She turned to one of the men standing next to a side table. “Hand me that stupid thing, Don.”


            She held up what he passed her, and Liz saw that it was the reward poster that had been passed around all over the city. “Good thing for you the crown of England apparently is too broke to afford anyone who can draw,” the woman said sarcastically. “Like idiots, we took this for good coin. I say, ‘like idiots,’ because we’d already figured out who those three men had to be—until we saw this stupid thing, and figured we had to be wrong. But after they tried to creep up on us tonight, the lightbulb went off.”


            Liz had no idea what a “lightbulb” was, but the gist of the remark was clear enough. “They might have been simple criminals,” she protested. Pointlessly, of course, now that Anthony himself had already confirmed his identity.


            The woman tossed the poster on the floor. “Oh, sure. Three footpads who decided it was a really bright idea to break into a house full of men. Lady, even though we’ve made sure none of them ever got a glimpse of our up-time weaponry, we saw to it within the first week we got here that no ambitious cutpurse would bother us. The local hoods are scared to death of us. They must figure we’re a new gang of criminals set up shop. Biggest thing we’ve been worried about lately is that one of Southwark’s self-proclaimed ‘crime lords’ would hear about us and decide to lower the boom. At which point, of course, the boom turns into splinters and Ye Great Crime Boss gets turned into mincemeat, but we don’t want the publicity.”


            “Oh, Lord in Heaven,” muttered Patrick. He glanced about at the peculiar-looking guns. “You’re Americans, aren’t you? Come here to break into the Tower and get your people out.”


            “Bingo,” said the Harry fellow. “Sherlock, meet Nero Wolfe. Except there’s actually only two Americans in the room, properly speaking.” He pointed at the woman who’d been talking. “Sherrilyn over there, and me. The rest are a bunch of down-time thugs and hoodlums I picked up along the way, being as my life’s work is the rehabilitation of the criminally-inclined.”


            Every face in the room suddenly displayed a grin, even Juliet’s. Liz didn’t find the sight at all reassuring, however. They looked more like a pack of wolves than ever.


            The Harry fellow studied Anthony and his two companions for a few seconds. Then said: “All right, now that identities are established and everything’s out in the open, let’s get down to business. Captain Leebrick, the way I see it, you’ve only got two choices. If you choose the first option, I’d appreciate it if you’d move into the kitchen so’s I can slit your throat over the washbasin. Be a lot less cleaning up to do.”


            “I believe I can safely state that I shall not choose that option,” said Anthony. “I shan’t even bother inquiring as to the opinions of my two mates. Seeing as how, come down to it, they’re my subordinates.”


            “Didn’t think you would. The alternative, then, should be obvious to you.”


            “Indeed it is.” He was sitting between Welch and Towson, and gave them each a quick glance. “Our former employer having proven to be an unreliable fellow, we are in need of a new one. Rather desperately, in fact, especially one who has the wherewithal to get us over to the continent.”


            “For Christ’s sake, Harry!” Sherrilyn exploded. “Are you out of your mind?”


            For the first time since Liz had met him, the Harry fellow didn’t seem even slightly amused. “No, Sherrilyn, I’m not,” he said forcefully. “And don’t push it, or I’ll actually go so far as to pull rank on you. Much as I hate the idea in general. What the hell else do you want to do? Those are the only two options we’ve got, under the circumstances.”


            He jerked a thumb at Liz. “And if we kill them, we’ve got to kill Lytle too.”


            A little noise came from Juliet. Something halfway between a growl and a snarl.


            The Harry fellow didn’t even look at her. “Right. And then we’ve got what I will delicately call ‘dissension in the ranks,’ which is the last goddam thing we need. Screw it, Sherrilyn. We can always use a few more men handy with weapons, right?”


            “We don’t know a fucking thing about them! They could turn us in tomorrow!”


            Harry stared at her. After a moment, she looked aside. “Well…’


            “Yeah, ‘well.’” He took two steps, leaned over with easy grace, and plucked the reward poster off the floor. “Yeah, well. Turn us in to the same jolly fellows who had this printed up and passed all over London. Hoping, I guess, that the picture’s so crappy they wouldn’t be recognized.”


            “Ah, not possible,” said Anthony, clearing his throat. “The portraits are a travesty, true enough. But any reward for American assassins would certainly be large enough that Richard Boyle’s purse would have be tapped—and I’m afraid the good earl spent some time in our company. So did Sir Paul, for that matter, and he’s the other moneybags of the group.”


            “We’ve be utter fools to even think of it, anyway,” added Towson. “They’d have our own throats slit before we could start counting the money. What else could they do? We know enough to be a major embarrassment—at the very least—once they finally bring charges against Wentworth.”


            “Charges which they’d have to press before Parliament,” Anthony picked up smoothly, “and if Parliament discovers we’ve surfaced—and there’d be no way to hide the fact—they’d demand our testimony.”


            The Sherrilyn woman’s face was pinched, but she wasn’t putting up any argument. Her expression was that of someone forced to eat something she didn’t like, but knowing she had no way to refuse.


            After a moment, she gave something in the way of an appealing look to one of the men who hadn’t spoken yet. He was a tall, spare fellow standing in one of the corners of the room. There was something saturnine about his face; not sluggish, but certainly skeptical.


            “Don’t look at me, Sherrilyn,” he said. “I think it’s a splendid idea, myself.”


            Et tu, Felix?” the woman muttered.


            He smiled, the expression making him seem much less gloomy. Then, moved into the center of the room and took the poster from Harry and held it up in front of her.


            “What more do you want, Sherrilyn? You, especially, being an American and thus obsessed with forms and documents and paperwork.”


            “And just what is the point of that wisecrack?” she demanded.


            “I’d think it was obvious. First thing any proper bureaucratic American wants when someone applies for a job is a resumé. And here it is—complete with the best character references you could ask for. Three officers, feared enough by the Earl of Cork that he wants them dead.”


            “Doesn’t say that,” she protested.


            Felix waited.


            “Well, not exactly,” she added. Then, after glancing again at the poster held up in front of her: “All right, all right, fine. Sure, and any moron knows the truth. It’s easier to bring in somebody dead than alive, anyway.”


            She gave the three officers a sour look, and then transferred it to Liz herself. “I withdraw my objections. But I still don’t like the idea.”


            “Right,” said Harry, clapping his hands. “Captain Leebrick, we’ll discuss your pay later. Don’t worry, we’re not misers. And you certainly don’t have to worry about getting out of England. For the moment, though, I’d like your opinion. You have been inside the Tower of London, I hope?”


            “Oh, yes, many times. So have Richard and Patrick.”


            “Once had the assignment of transferring old ordnance into the keep, in fact,” added Richard. “Spent a week and a half in the Tower. Went all over the place.”


            “I knew this was a great idea. Juliet, would you be so kind as to haul out the diagram we’ve been fumbling with? We can move the kitchen table out here and finally get that damn thing up to snuff.”


            Juliet headed for one of the rooms. Two of the men moved toward the kitchen. Harry bestowed that quite amazing grin on everyone in general and no one in particular.


            “I’ll think I’ll retire the Sherlock monicker,” he announced. “Fu Manchu Lefferts, that’s me. You know, the guy that was Sherlock’s enemy.”


            Sherrilyn squinted, painfully. “God save us. Harry, Sherlock Holmes’ arch-enemy was Professor Moriarty.”


            “Oh. Well, can’t have that. I ain’t got a tweed jacket with elbow patches.”


            “How about Harry the Merciless?” suggested Felix.


            “Got a nice little ring to it, doesn’t it?” mused Harry.


            “God save us,” repeated Sherrilyn. “God save us all.”


            Liz thought it was probably a good sentiment. But whether it was or not, the glance Sherrilyn gave her now was more of an appealing one than a hostile one. Us all, clearly enough, was a term that had just been expanded to include four more people.