1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 04

The friar who was in fact Cardinal Ginetti was probably not a man of action or courage, but he — like the rest of the cardinals Tom had met — was clever and subtle. Two sentences had been exchanged each way and they had already established each others’ identity, that asylum was being offered by Rita’s brother Mike Stearns — Prime Minister of the USE — and that it had been accepted. But for anyone not aware of the precise identity of the group around the table, the exchange would merely have sounded like a meeting that mixed old friends with new acquaintances. Either way, the contact part of this rendezvous went easily and quickly enough. These little cardinals are pretty smooth operators. Now, time to pay the bill and stroll back to the —

The door opened: a medium-sized man stepped in, closed it, a broad brimmed hat pulled low, covering the upper half of his face. His clothes were simple, but made for travel: they might be well-worn, but they were not worn out. There was no sign of a weapon on his belt or in the loose folds of his cloak, but his flowing attire would make it entirely possible to carry a large dagger completely undetected. The proprietor came rushing out: the Babelesque debate in the kitchen flooded briefly into the room before he shut the door. “Signor — mangi? Food?”

The newcomer nodded, murmured a request, and took a seat at one of the two remaining tables, the one closest to the group. He turned his hunched back toward the up-timers in an apparent effort to afford both parties some modicum of privacy.

It was, even to Tom’s untrained eye, all an act. Judging from the long, significant looks he got from both James and Melissa, he was not alone in his assessment. Well, we never planned on this, at least not so quickly after meeting the cardinal. Whoever this guy is, he must have been right on the ‘little friar’s’ tail. Which means Melissa was probably right: someone dropped the dime on our rendezvous with His Eminence. And with this new guy’s big ears only a few feet away, we don’t have any way to come up with a plan on the sly. He probably speaks the whole gamut of local languages: Italian, Lombard, Savoyard, German, Romansch, maybe Romlisch. And since he obviously knows that we’re the folks he’s looking for — James’ dark black skin was, to put it lightly, distinctive in Alpine Italy — this guy was probably chosen, in part, because he speaks English, as well. So how do we –?

But James was smiling. “ooD-ay oo-yay eak-spay ig-pay atin-lay?”

Damn, but Doc was smart

. “I an-cay.”

Arco, for the first time in Tom’s acquaintance of him, looked utterly flummoxed.

Melissa looked like she was swallowing lye with every word she uttered. “Oo-yay av-hay an an-play?”

James nodded. “Tom, ell-tay Arco out-abay oor-yay ick-say other-May.”

Wha—? Oh, I get it.

Tom rose, head hung a little. The crotto‘s newest patron shifted slightly, probably trying to use his ears to gauge what the movement behind him was and it if represented potential danger. Tom drew out the chair at the end of the table next to Arco, who had recovered enough to feign understanding of the pig-latin gibberish flying past him. “Arco –” said Tom with feeling.

Rita’s foot tapped against Tom’s ankle. Okay, I guess I was going over the top, already. Hell, my idea of method acting is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whom he almost resembled, physically. “Arco, did I tell you how sick my mother is?”

One micro-second of confusion flitted across the young Venetian’s face, which then became a study in heart-felt compassion. “Tom, I am so sorry. I had heard she was doing poorly, but I had no idea –”

Under which James muttered. “Ore-may of em-thay in the eet-stray.”

Melissa nodded tightly. “No oubt-day.”

Tom hung his head as the proprietor brought his newest patron a bowl of the same black-cherry-and-game soup. “She’s so sick,” Tom sighed mightily. “I should return home at once, but — leaving here is so hard. How can I possibly go?”

That line — consistent with the “sick-mother” act, but also a pertinent question about the tactics of exiting the crotto—earned a broad smile from Melissa.

“Om-tay oes-gay irst-fay. I’ll et-gay the oor-day. James ext-nay. We eer-clay the eet-stray and un-ray. Okay?”

Tom nodded at Melissa’s plan, but made the nod also look like he was simply harmonizing with Arco’s consoling pat on the back. “So, how do we start you on your way home, Tom?” Arco asked. But as he spoke, he leaned in James’ direction.

Who said: “Arco, I believe that fellow behind you just insulted Tom’s mother.”

Arco’s head snapped up straight, as though startled, but his eyes were bright with shrewd amusement. He turned, shocked, in the direction of the apparent patron behind them. “How dare you! Tom, do you know this suino? Do you hear what he said about your sick mother?”

Tom looked up from under ominous brows at the same moment the newcomer turned around, stunned: evidently, it had taken him a second to realize that the outburst behind was both aimed at, and about, him.

Arco’s outburst flowed on like an alpine cataract. “He calls your mother a — a puttana del diavolo! Merda! I will –”

The other patrons looked up, aghast. The fellow’s mouth leaked food forgotten in mid-chew and his eyes widened: partly in surprise, partly in fear.

Because Tom was up and moving. With reflexes so fast that they were incongruous in so large a man, he had jumped out of his seat and closed to combat range even as the startled faux-patron was rising from his chair. A denial was half out of his mouth, but his lowering brow suggested a dawning realization that he was being suckered.

Or rather, sucker-punched. Tom’s right fist came shooting straight out from his shoulder, landing with a sharp crack on his target’s somewhat pointy jaw. The much smaller man went straight back, unconscious as he hit the table, sending his own bowl of soup and beer flying up in a cascade of chunks, dark red broth, and foam. “Bastard!” shouted Tom, who, feigning sudden emotional distress, moved quickly for the door, his apparently solicitous companions rising to follow and comfort him.

As he reached the door, Tom snaked the Hockenjoss & Klott revolver out from under his cloak, cocked it, and nodded Melissa toward the door.

“Tom?” Rita whispered, not noticing that the dark red broth had splashed along the left-hand side of Tom’s cloak.

“Yes?”

“You’re a lousy actor, darling”

“I know,” Tom said as he nodded at Melissa Mailey to yank open the door. “Now, here we go.”