1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 10

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Returning from his evening constitutional, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla tossed his hat on the waiting hook, was delighted to see it alight as he meant (which happened about two out of every five times, but that was only an incentive to further practice!), and congratulated himself on the elegant simplicity of the drop points he had arranged. In the course of his walk, he always made sure to step in some mud (at least, he always hoped it was mud), which necessitated him to stop and use his walking stick to dislodge the worst of it from the sole of his shoe. He always did so by leaning against one of three shingled buildings. There, while ferociously jabbing at the sole of his shoe with the walking stick in his right hand, he sneaked a finger beneath the edge of one of the shingles. Thus he would detect — and if so, remove — a narrow reed of just enough girth to hold a coded message from the operatives that Borja had presumably seeded here shortly after learning that Urban had taken refuge in Besançon. Each day of the week meant a different shingle to check and of course, most of the time, there was nothing to be found. But this day, although he had not expected any reply to his message until the next morning, he found a message tube already waiting for him.

His own, earlier message had also been picked up, albeit at a different location: a tavern whose name advertised its illicit backroom services with suitably obvious subtlety: L’Anguille Vernie, or “The Varnished Eel.” Javier had, in his earlier days in Besançon, made this establishment a regular stop on his tours of the wharfside precincts. After a few predictable and tiresome intimations about the special menu available in the back rooms, the owner had mostly ignored him, accepting that he was simply another regular, although an odd one: why would a gentleman of means spend his time in a place frequented by wharf-hands and river-boat crews?

The answer was that Javier had learned long ago that places such as L’Anguille Vernie were precisely where men of middle station pursued whatever vices they found most irresistible. And, with little to accomplish in what was then a new town to him, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla had the luxury to unobtrusively and patiently observe the habits and peccadilloes of its clientele.

Usually, it only took a few trips to discern the men whose vices put them in potentially compromising situations. Usually, they were superficially upstanding persons who resorted to such shady environs to conduct discreet affairs. This was almost a sure sign of a jealous wife at home, one who would not accept the dalliances to which so many others consigned themselves. And therefore, a source of leverage. Better still if the man had married above his station and the wife possessed the majority of their property or funds. And best of all if she was homely, a hellion, or both: in short, best if her likely response to adultery was not to kick her husand to the curb and dispossess him of both means and good name, but rather, to hang on to him and her proud reputation and fragile self-respect with the tenacity of a bulldog.

Such men were remarkably easy to suborn if approached correctly. In order to maintain their mistresses without also alerting their wives to their indiscretions, they could hardly devote huge sums to their illicit enterprise. In families of great wealth, this was rarely much of a concern, but where resources were tight and pretensions were high, there tended to be necessarily close accountings of resources, leaving the reprobate husband with meager coin to pursue his amorous adventures.

Enter the well-funded and mild-mannered stranger, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla, who began by commiserating with the husband, then lending a small sum, then larger ones. In short order, the drinking companions became debtor and creditor.

In such circumstances, Javier rarely needed to reinforce the carrot of his generosity with the stick of implicit social ruin. The adulterous husbands perceived readily enough that, if they refused to do this foreign gentleman a few simple and mostly legal favors, then he might stop providing them with the funds to pursue their affairs. Worse yet, he might, in person or by factotum, show up on their doorstep, on a day of his choosing, and ask for repayment of just a small portion of what had been extended in good faith to the man of the house. Who would, in the wake of such a revelation, be unlikely to remain the man of that house very much longer.

So it had been at L’Anguille Vernie. The one surprise had been the identity of the man Javier suborned: the owner himself. Strangely, men who ran such discreet dens of licentiousness behind the facades of legitimate businesses were often married to forceful women who helped manage the illict activities, and thereby, kept an eye on their husbands. After all, if it fell to a husband to strike up and then oversee cooperative relationships with those ladies whose backroom activities made the establishment so profitable, there was every likelihood that he might be inveigled into receiving recompense in something other than the coin of the realm. Trade in kind, as some called it. Conversely, wives were, as a rule, invulnerable to the special charms and talents of such ladies and kept the business relationships truly business.

Except, in the case of Jules, proprietor of L’Anguille Vernie. He had taken a headlong suicidal plunge into a relationship with one of the ladies who less frequently served his back room clientele. His wife, probably lulled into a false sense of security by having overseen the less savory aspects of his business for almost twenty-five years, missed the subtle cues of affection — genuine affection — between the two. She would surely have detected a woman of salacious proclivities, but Jules’ inamorata was shy, almost retiring, possibly pushed into this means of securing coin as a bitter last resort.

And so Javier secured not only a willing and fully cooperative pipeline to a great deal of the town gossip and waterfront contraband, but a perfect overseer for the message drops he left for Borja’s operatives. After all, only amateurs and fools used the same location for both ingoing and outgoing messages; why double the traffic to a single site when trying to remain unnoticed? So, once he had Jules under his thumb, Javier no longer sullied himself by visiting L’Anguille Vernie himself, but sent runners — young lads, usually — to deliver tubes, packages, bottles: anything that could hide a coded message. Within hours, Jules would deposit the container in the overgrown window-box shaded by the sizable roof overhang at the rear of the tavern. It was a gathering place for drunks and vagrants, a melange of desperate and odorous humanity that the town watch never bothered, so long as they kept to their own private sewer of despair.

Turning up the wick on the lamp that had been lit when the innkeeper had left his meal ten minutes earlier, Javier at last studied the note he had found under the Monday shingle.

A minute later, he frowned and pushed his dinner aside, annoyed that it was getting cold and would get colder still before he was done. He carefully set up his radio, checked how much charge was left in its cumbersome batteries, and commenced tapping the emergency code to alert Rome to the fact that he needed to make an unscheduled transmission and that they should signal their readiness to receive it. He used this protocol very rarely, reasoning that it was all too easy to become the boy who cried wolf too readily. But this night, he was sure that Cardinal Borja would want the news that had come to him.