1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 05


Tom Simpson leaped out into the cool alpine air, the cap-and-ball revolver ready in a two-handed grip. As he drew a bead on his first target, he saw exactly what he had expected to see.

Four armed men — medium-to-large in height and build — were positioned around the entry to the crotto. Because they were in a public street, they were not in combat ready postures or positions. Neither were their weapons: the tools of their grim trade were concealed in their cloaks, or by their bodies. And while Tom wasn’t a great shot, at these ranges — six to twelve feet — he didn’t need to be.

Tom started firing, double-tapping as he went. His first target was not the closest of the thugs, but definitely the most dangerous, already raising a double-barreled flintlock fowling piece that had a menacingly short profile. Tom’s first shot missed completely but the second .44 cal. bullet punched a red hole in the man’s chest. He went down without a sound.

Sidestepping to clear the doorway, the American shifted his aim to the big swordsman who was even now rushing forward, blade rasping out of its sheath and reflecting the failing sunlight. He fired two more shots from the H&K revolver, both of which went higher than he’d aimed. That was the adrenaline at work, making his motions jerkier than he’d intended them to be. Tom understood the reaction and had tried to be ready for it. But “being ready” simply wasn’t a substitute for the constant training that special forces and assault troops underwent. He was an artillery officer; not accustomed to fighting at close range with a pistol.

Luckily, the “miss” didn’t matter. The first shot struck the thug high on his forehead. The ball gashed open the flesh and ricocheted off the skull, throwing the man’s head back — and leaving his trachea exposed to take the second ball full on. He fell backward, out of the fight and mortally wounded.

Tom had only two rounds left. He felt a moment’s sharp desire for an automatic pistol with a large clip — and an even sharper desire for a twelve-pounder loaded with canister.

Doc, you better be out here when you’re supposed to be…

Tom made a split-second decision to fire his remaining two rounds at one assailant rather than trying to take down both men. He simply wasn’t a Wild West gunfighter — as demonstrated by the fact that only one of the four shots he’d fired so far had hit precisely where he’d aimed it.

He chose the smaller of the last two, whose double-barreled snaphaunce pistol was almost leveled at him. He fired twice again — and was dry.

The choice to double-tap his third target saved his life. This thug had been the furthest off, and Tom’s first shot went a little high and wide: it only grazed the assassin’s shoulder. But that had made the target flinch: he discharged both barrels a split-second too early. One round cut a seam in the back of Tom’s boot, the other bullet spanged and whined off the center of the flagstone he was straddling.

As it did, Tom’s second and final shot vented the bottom of his target’s left ribcage. The assassin doubled over and went back with a shuddering moan. But the last of the ambushers was racing in, saber poised to start swinging through a lethal arc. Despite Tom’s ex-football-player reflexes, amplified by military training and combat, there was no way he was going to be able to —

Three sharp reports split the air just to Tom’s left: James Nichols had finally entered the firefight. His first shot missed entirely and his second shot inflicted a minor flesh wound in the man’s side. The wound wasn’t fatal. Just a crease, really, that might have broken a rib but hadn’t done much more damage. But it stopped the man’s charge long enough for the doctor to steady down and fire a third, careful shot. That ball struck the man squarely in the chest and he went down as if he’d been struck by a mallet.

“Damn, getting rusty.” muttered the ex-Marine from just behind Tom’s shoulder. He grinned suddenly. “Being honest, my street gang training didn’t really emphasize marksmanship.”

Tom barked a little laugh. Like him, Nichols was no aficionado with a handgun. The doctor had been trained as a sniper when he was in the Marines — with a proper damn rifle, with a proper damn caliber and real by-God telescopic sights.

“Two out of three shots on time and on target — well, more-or-less — are plenty good enough for me, Doc. Let’s get moving.”

Tom’s wife Rita emerged from the Crotto Fiume, which was still silent. The muttering and then shouting of the startled clientele would start soon enough, no doubt. “Done making noise out here, honey?” Rita asked. Despite the levity of the words, her voice was shaky.

“I sure hope so,” Tom replied. He also hoped his own voice didn’t sound as shaky as his wife’s — but was pretty sure it did.

Rita shuddered as she started stepping over the bodies. “I’m never going to get used to situations like this.”

“And you shouldn’t,” put in Melissa Mailey, who emerged from the crotto, towing the shocked Cardinal. “Accepting bloodshed is a necessary part of being human; failing to notice it means you’re becoming less than human. No offense, James,” she added with a glance at her Vietnam-veteran life-partner.

“None taken,” James murmured as he snatched up the double-barreled fowling piece, searched for ammunition, and kept a swivel-necked watch on both ends of the street. That didn’t deter him from some gentle teasing: “Of course, darling wife, your own rhetorical peacenik robes are starting to fray at the edges.”

“They’ve been reduced to threads and lint by living in this century,” Melissa responded grimly. Changing the direction and tone of her voice, she urged the cardinal, “Step quickly, Your Eminence; we need to move rapidly now.” The small, pudgy man nodded unsteadily, looking rather pathetic in the nondescript friar’s garb.

Bringing up the rear — and scattering coins, apologies, and wildly implausible explanations in their wake — Arco Severi closed the door gently and turned toward them, smelling of old garlic and fresh sweat, some of which was beading his brow. “Merda,” he breathed, “what now?”

“Now,” said Tom, snapping up his pistol’s barrel assembly so that it closed upon the fresh cylinder he had loaded, “we run.”

The small cardinal’s voice quavered: “Won’t that attract attention?”

“Your Eminence,” Tom said through a patient smile while wondering if the Cardinal could run, “we’ve fired almost ten shots. We are leaving four attackers dead in the street, and one unconscious in the crotto. I think we’ve probably attracted about as much attention as we possibly could. Speed is our only friend, now.”

And setting his actions to match his words, Tom Simpson began running in the direction of the Mera River, trying to put aside the growing feeling that the pine-carpeted alpine peaks which soared up at every point of the compass — except due south — were closing in on, and even over, them.

They stayed close alongside those buildings whose shadows were already long enough to start creeping up the opposite facades. Two blocks shy of reaching the river, Tom turned left, leading them into a small lane that paralleled the main road — the Viale Maloggia — which wound out of town to the northeast. It followed alongside the Mera, which, although merely a shallow gorge at present, had been a white-frothed flume only one month earlier, due to the spring Schmelzwasser that had come rushing down out of the swollen mountain cataracts.

As the rest of the group caught up with him — Melissa wheezing almost as much as the cardinal — Tom looked downstream toward the town’s center: no reaction from there, yet. Good: with any luck, they might —

“Tom.” Melissa’s voice was very calm, low-pitched. Which meant disaster on the hoof.

“What is it?”

She pointed down. “That.”

Tom and the rest followed her finger: a dark, brown-red stain was collecting near his feet, dripping down from his traveling cloak. As a watch whistle shrilled back near the crotto, Rita stepped closer to her husband, her worried eyes scanning his body.

Tom shook his head. “But I’m not hit.”

Melissa nodded. “Of course you’re not. That’s not your blood: that’s your soup.”


Tom stared at the stain, remembering the flurry of action — and wide spray of soup — that had immediately preceded their exit from the crotto. We’re going to be tracked — tracked and killed — because I chose to have the soup?! Had the situation not been so desperate, he would have laughed. His life — and the lives of his wife, his friends, and charges — now hung in the balance because he had chosen to have a bowl of soup.