1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 16

Although several of the shells had been made from the odd material that the up-timers called “plastic,” most were down-time replicas in brass with crimped tops. Like the guns they were intended for, they were heavy and fabulously expensive, each fitted with a French-manufactured primer that had cost its weight in silver. Slightly more, actually. However, the first copies of this kind of shell — the up-timers dubbed it “buckshot” — did not function properly; the shot emerged with only a fraction of the force generated by the down-time reproduction cartridges. At which point, Dolor instructed the gunsmith to dissect one of the few, precious intact rounds of ammunition.

What they discovered both amazed and bemused them. They had presumed that, like all other up-time cartridges, wadding played little or no role. But in the shotgun shells, particularly the ones loaded with black powder, the wadding proved to be both comparatively extensive and subtly complex: without it, the individual projectiles did not exit the barrel in a reliable pattern or with optimal force.

The four Hockenjoss & Klott percussion cap revolvers — all from the original manufacturer — had been comparatively easy to procure. One had belonged to the young male hostage, Frank Stone, taken from him when he surrendered in Rome. Another other had been snatched from a dead Marine by one of the few assassins who escaped the failed attempt on Urban’s life in Molini. He had carried it back to Rombaldo along with his report, too naive or stupid to foresee that his faithful return would ultimately be rewarded with a garotte: one less trail that might lead back to the masterminds who had planned the attack. The last two had been acquired through careful and quiet negotiations with private owners, always conducted through intermediaries.

Dolor stood and moved back from the chest. “You know which weapons are yours. Clean them. Then practice loading and unloading until you may do so as swiftly as you did when we finished training south of Basel. Use the blanks we have for that purpose: do not handle the actual ammunition.”

“When will we use them?” breathed Martius eagerly.

“Soon enough,” Dolor replied and drifted back to the radio. Sitting, wondering if Javier de Requesens y Ercilla would send a reply, Dolor let his hand slip inside his dark charcoal-colored cloak and check that his private weapon — the one that only Rombaldo knew he had — was situated properly under his armpit. He ran his finger over the top of where the shrouded hammer rested against weapon’s frame, the smooth up-time metal always a wonder to touch.

Some might have considered the weapon a battle trophy — he had come by it in the process of defeating the Wrecking Crew — but Dolor took no pride in possessing it. He had taken it from the body of one of the Crew’s two female members: a heavy Englishwoman by the name of Juliet Sutherland. She had been shattered beneath his cavalry’s hooves and would have died a long painful death. He had approached her with the one percussion revolver he’d had at the time — Frank Stone’s — and, looking in the direction where Harry Lefferts was hidden with a sniper rifle, Pedro Dolor put a single bullet into the back of her bloody and partially crushed head.

He could have made it a second quicker, so that it could only have been read as a mercy killing, but that would have been leaving a tactical and mental advantage unused. He had wanted Lefferts to see what had become of his fine plan, what it had done to his followers. Lefferts, while skilled, was still an amateur then, and such a scene was likely to send him either into a killing rage that would have delivered him neatly into the hands of Dolor’s waiting troops, or would have broken his spirit, which would have been almost as useful in the long run. However, there was evidence that Harry’s reaction followed a third and far more dangerous course: he learned from it, and resolved to learn more, to become a true professional. Unfortunate, since Dolor was not in the habit of trying to improve his enemies. However, that was an occasional and inevitable consequence of the job, and at least if he ever faced Lefferts again, he had the advantage of knowing that the up-timer would be more careful and so, more formidable.

The pistol he had later recovered from her body was called a snub-nosed revolver; it had a perversely short barrel, upon which was engraved the legend “S&W .357 Magnum.” However, the short barrel, like the shrouded hammer, meant that the weapon was very unlikely to snag on clothes when drawn from a concealed holster and its cartridges made it unusually powerful for so small a gun. Consequently, the reason Dolor kept it for himself was probably the same one that had led Juliet Sutherland to choose it. Because her role in the Wrecking Crew usually involved interacting with people at close ranges, she did not frequently use a gun, but when she needed a weapon, its effect had to be shatteringly decisive.

Once again, ammunition had presented a special challenge. It was hard to find, even the down-time manufactured cartridges that were of distinctly diminished effectiveness. But even so, the quality of the reproductions turned out by the German gunsmiths was worth the two gold escudos he had paid for each shell. Fitted with a lead bullet scored by a cross-cut tip, even the black powder rounds were devastating when used against unarmored targets at point-blank range.

He turned. His associates were splitting up, each retreating to a separate corner or bed to commence cleaning their weapons, several of them lavishing more tender affection upon these tools of mayhem than he had ever seen them express toward any living creature. He had been right to deny them ready access to all but one of the weapons during the weeks of waiting; they were like children, unable to keep from fiddling and fussing over their new toys. The likelihood that one of their number would have cleaned a weapon too close to an open window or would have decided to carry one concealed, just once, out into the street, was too great to have risked over the past six weeks.

The telegraph began its muted chattering once again; Javier de Requesens y Ercilla was giving Borja his money’s worth and more than, self-importantly reporting minutiae that could not conceivably have any bearing upon the tactical and operational concerns of Rome’s newly arrived group of thugs-turned-assassins.

Dolor felt one urge to smile ruefully, another urge to smirk, but suppressed both. Instead, he looked out the window into the fading light, his eyes following the dusk-silhouetted steeples and roofs of Besançon. It was a pleasant enough view, actually: a second story vantage point with few obstructions despite being one of a tight cluster of buildings served by an equally tight tangle of narrow streets — alleys, really — that were nestled near and behind St. Peter’s church. The rent was surprisingly low because the building backed on the parish’s graveyard, with all but one of its window looking out over that dismal view. The other — not much more than a shuttered slit bored out of the wall to provide a cross-draft — gave unto an almost lightless alley.

But Dolor had been particularly pleased by the space, not only because it was both central and yet comparatively inaccessible, but because if he and his men had to flee, he had a ready warren of small streets into which they might disappear. Or, if the night was moonless or overcast, they could also use the main windows to hop down onto the roof of a first story extension and then slip over the low cemetery wall to flee through the tombstones, as invisible as ghosts.

Dolor heard Rombaldo — it was his tread — leave the main room and enter the one where the telegraph kept up its fitful rattle. “So, the self-satisfied dandy is once again playing at being an intelligencer, at earning his coin.”

Dolor nodded.

Rombaldo shifted uneasily, as he often did when Dolor did not take up a proffered entree to conversation. “Of course, we might have learned of the arrival of Borja’s new assassins a little earlier, if we had ever figured out where Javier the Fop was leaving and getting his drops.”

Pedro did not even sigh in disappointment at Rombaldo, who, try as he might, never quite got the hang of genuine intelligence work. “We did not need to know, before or now. Requesens sends everything of value to Rome and we have the codes. Obversely, shadowing Requesens to learn the locations of his drops would only have given him the chance to spot us, to learn that someone was already watching him.”

Rombaldo’s reply came after a pause and was pitched in a lower, stubborn tone. “Well, if we knew where he drops instructions to his sell-swords, we’d at least know about their plans ahead of time.”

Dolor turned and looked at Rombaldo. “We already will. Unless you think Javier will show enough initiative and impertinence to issue any such orders himself.” Rombaldo shook his head. “So whatever Borja’s group does, we will hear it first from Borja.”

Rombaldo nodded, met Dolor’s eyes for another moment, then looked away and walked back into the other room.

Leaving Dolor alone. As he preferred.