1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 30

Breslau (Wroclaw)

Capital of Lower Silesia

“So, have you cracked the code yet?” Gretchen asked.

Major Eric Krenz looked sulky. “Well… no. But it’s just a matter of time.”

Gretchen shook her head. “I doubt that. You’ve had weeks already.” She rose from the big table she used in lieu of a desk and picked up the sheaf of papers lying there. It wasn’t a thick sheaf–not more than a dozen pages.

“Follow me,” she said. “I will show you the proper way to decode secret messages sent and received by a spy.”

It didn’t take them long to get to their destination. Down one corridor in the city’s town hall, down one flight of stairs, then a short distance to a door.

The door was guarded by two soldiers, one on either side.

“Unlock the door,” Gretchen commanded.

One of the soldiers set about the task. That was going to take a while, given the number of locks, padlocks, bolts and bars. If Gretchen didn’t know better, she’d assume some sort of slavering monster was being held there.

“About time!” said Ulrik. “I told you long ago we should just beat it out of him.”

Gretchen didn’t bother to respond to that. Once the door was finally open, she strode through.

If Jozef Wojtowicz had been sleeping, he wasn’t by now. But he’d almost certainly been awake already, this late in the morning. He was fully dressed and sitting in the small room’s armchair with a book in his hands.

Gretchen held up the sheaf of papers and said: “I need you to tell me what these say, Jozef. If any of the messages involve military operations, you can keep those to yourself. But I want to know everything else.”

Jozef studied her for a moment. “That provision’s meaningless. If I decipher some of the messages for you, that will give you what you need to decipher the rest.”

“Good point. I will let you burn any messages you don’t decode.”

“How am I to know you don’t have copies?”

She swiveled her head to look at Krenz. “Do we have copies?”


“We do. Get them and bring them here–and don’t dawdle. The radio room’s just up the stairs. Now, Eric.”

Off he went.

Gretchen turned back to Wojtowicz. “He won’t have time to make more copies. You can judge that for yourself.”

Jozef was starting to look like a cornered mouse. His mustache was actually twitching a little. “But… how do I know…”

“Because I give you my word,” Gretchen said. She handed him the sheaf of messages. The lettering on them was just the dots and dashes of Morse code.


“What do they say?”

Jozef took the papers as if they were so many hornets’ nests. He started to read through them, although he hadn’t started translating yet. That wouldn’t be quick. First he had to translate the Morse into actual letters and then he’d have to translate the code itself.

Gretchen pulled out the chair at the small desk–just a side table, really–that was part of the room’s spare furniture and sat down.

She waited.

“I see you found my radio,” Jozef said.

“Of course we found it. Did you think we wouldn’t search your quarters once we discovered you were a spy? You didn’t have it hidden that well, anyway.”

“I didn’t keep written messages. And this isn’t my handwriting.”

“Of course you didn’t. You’re not stupid.” She nodded toward the papers in his hand. “We moved the radio here and we’ve had one of our operators on duty around the clock. Any messages that came in, we copied what they said. Copied the Morse, rather. We still haven’t cracked the code.”

Josef smiled. “It’s a good code, I always thought. Nice to see that confirmed.”

Krenz came back through the door, with a thicker sheaf of papers in his hand. His expression was sulkier than ever.

“Here are the copies,” he said, thrusting them at Gretchen. “All of them. Ah, Lady Protector.”

She took the papers and immediately handed them to Wojtowicz.

Or tried to, rather. He was paying no attention to her now. He was staring at the next-to-last message, his eyes wide.

Then, quickly, Jozef read the last message. By now, Gretchen thought his face was getting pale.

Wojtowicz lowered the messages until he had his hand resting on his lap. He looked out the window for a few seconds.

“Where’s Lukacz?” he asked abruptly.

“I don’t know.” Gretchen looked up at Krenz. “Do you, Eric?”

He shook his head. She looked back at Jozef.

“Do you want me to have him brought here?”

“Yes. Please.”

She looked back up at Krenz. “Find him. If he’s not in the town hall–look in the Ratskeller first–he’ll be in one of the nearby taverns.”

Off he went.

“It shouldn’t take long. Opalinski doesn’t actually drink very much but he spends most of his time these days in the taverns, talking to soldiers who do. I’d suspect him of being another spy, except…” She shrugged.

A wan smile came to Jozef’s face. He was still looking out the window. “Lukasz has about as much natural inclination to spy as a… Hard to find an analogy. Lamp-post? Pile of bricks?”

“He’s a hussar.”

“Yes. That’s the analogy I was looking for.”

“I’m not sure that’s an analogy.”

“Neither am I.” He was still looking out the window. There was not much to see out there, since this window didn’t look out over the square. Just a lot of tightly-packed rooftops.

Something had him upset, Gretchen realized. Really upset.


It took longer than she’d expected, but eventually Eric returned with Opalinski in tow.

The big hussar didn’t look for anywhere to sit, since the only space still vacant was the bed. Hussars don’t sit on other men’s beds. It just wasn’t done.

“Why did you call me here, Jozef?” he asked.

Wojtowicz held up the sheets of paper. “They’ve been keeping records of the radio messages that came in.”

“Of course. Did you really think they wouldn’t, once they found your radio?”

Jozef shook his head. “No, I expected it. What I didn’t expect…”

He sorted through the papers and withdrew the last two messages. “My uncle is dead, Lukasz. That’s what this one says.”

He then held up the last one. “And this one says–it’s just a few words–Suspect poison. Return immediately to PoznaÅ„.

He lowered the paper. “I’m sure the last two were sent by one of the radio operators on his own volition. CzesÅ‚aw Kaczka, probably. He’s a good man. Very loyal.”

Lukasz’s face also seemed to be pale, although it was hard to tell since it was naturally pale. Slowly, he went to the bed and sat down on it.

“The Grand Hetman is dead? Dead?” He shook his head. The gesture was not so much one of denial as disbelief.

“He always seemed indestructible to me.”

Jozef’s face tightened. “No one is indestructible, Lukasz. Especially not against poison.”

He looked over at Gretchen. “I would like to talk with Lukacz alone. Please.”

Gretchen didn’t say anything. She just got up and left the room, with Krenz trailing behind.


Once outside, Eric lapsed into blasphemy. “Jesus,” he said, almost whispering. “Koniecpolski’s dead?”

Gretchen drew him by the arm further down the hall, out of the hearing of the two guards.

“He isn’t just ‘dead,’ Eric,” said Gretchen. “He was apparently murdered. There’s a difference. Big difference.”

He stared at her.

She suppressed her impatience. Eric was a smart man, but his mind just didn’t run down certain channels.

“Eric, think. The only thing that really held the loyalty of the two men in that room”–she nodded toward the door they’d come out of–“was their attachment to Grand Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski. If he’d simply died of natural causes, they’d probably retain their loyalty to the king, if not the Sejm.” She smiled thinly. “Both of them, especially Lukasz, are still medieval in some ways.”

Eric had finally caught up with her. “But with the Grand Hetman murdered… by whom, though? I can’t see why the king–“

“It wouldn’t have been Wladislaw,” Gretchen said firmly. “He would have no reason to–quite the opposite. As long as Koniecpolski was the Grand Hetman, Wladislaw had no fear of being overthrown. Which is the reason I think Koniecpolski was actually killed.”

Krenz frowned. “Someone is planning to overthrow Wladislaw?”

“Not necessarily. By all accounts, the king of Poland can be manipulated rather easily. Just wave some new whores under his nose. But the great magnates of the Commonwealth chafe under any sort of regulation or oversight. With Koniecpolski gone, their leash is gone as well–or it’s a lot longer, anyway. Whatever schemes they might have can now be advanced boldly.”

“What schemes?”

Gretchen shrugged. “How should I know? I’m not a master spy.”

Now it was she who nodded at the door. “But one of Europe’s great master spies is sitting in that room. And those arrogant bastards just cut his leash too.”

“Oh.” Eric’s mouth dropped open a little. His mind just didn’t run down certain channels.

The door opened and Lukasz stuck his head out. “Gretchen, could we talk to you?”

“Certainly.” She headed for the door.

Behind her, Eric’s mouth closed. He wasn’t stupid. “Ah,” he said.