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1634: The Galileo Affair: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Thursday, February 12, 2004 23:47 EST



    “I embarrassed you?” Giovanna asked, her tone an odd combination of cool challenge and nervous anxiety. She was now sitting next to him in the gondola taking them back to her father’s establishment—she’d not tried to work a boat herself, this night, not wearing those fancy clothes—and regarding him with narrowed eyes.

    “No, Giovanna,” he said. “I’m not embarrassed by you. It’s just... It’s just that, well, I’m told it’s not a big deal in Venice—prostitution, I mean, uh, courtesanship rather—but it is a big deal where we came from. And, uh, it’s a different kind of big deal depending on who’s talking about it.”

    He could sense he was babbling but saw no alternative but to babble further. Babble he did, thus, with all the fervor that a drunk with a hangover seizes upon the hair of the dog. “What I mean is that some Americans will denounce you for consorting with harlots and others—like my dad—will denounce you—well, my dad doesn’t really denounce anybody it’s a lot worse than that—for being a sexist pig and exploiting women.” Keep babbling, keep babbling, maybe there’s a bottom to this pit. “And, uh, we didn’t know the customs, and it took us by surprise. And we’re supposed to be part of a diplomatic mission.”

    Giovanna’s eyes weren’t narrow now. They were slits. It suddenly dawned on Frank...

    Giovanna put it into words. “You think I am a whore?” Her tone of voice was decidedly dangerous, and Frank could feel panic rising. He hunted frantically for reverse gear.

    “No, no!” he said, louder than he’d meant. “That’s not what I meant! I never thought so, please—not once!—it’s the filthy minds of those aristocrats, that’s what really caused the trouble!”

    Bingo. Even a babbler, now and then, babbles his way clear of disaster. Giovanna’s eyes were still slits, but her hostile gaze shifted from Frank to scan the surroundings. By great good luck—oh thank you whatever gods may be—the gondola was passing a stretch of Venice where the mansions of the Case vecchie were concentrated. The mansions, like the merchant nobility themselves, had the feel of tawdriness under the glitter.

    “They are pigs,” Giovanna hissed. “Just like them—to flaunt their whores by making them wear red shoes!”

    A light at the end of the tunnel. Frank could only hope it wasn’t a freight train coming. “Yes, yes—that’s pretty much what my dad was talking about.” In his own screwy way, but Frank saw no reason to dwell on that subject. “I had no idea it would cause any problem, honest! I just wanted to take you to a party where we might have some fun, and, and—”

    Go on, say it, said a little voice in the back of his mind; but he couldn’t, not yet. “I’m sorry,” he managed at last. “I thought you’d like to be taken somewhere fancy like that. I should have thought about what kind of mess it might drop you in.”

    Giovanna was visibly softening now. Very rapidly, in fact. She even put her hand on his. It was like she’d touched him with a live wire.

    “It is not your fault, Frank.”

    “I guess. I just screwed up tonight. It was me embarrassed you. I’m sorry.” He wondered if he should try puppy-dog eyes, and then thought better of it. The dating tactics that had worked in up-time America—okay, occasionally worked, Frank was really no Lothario—were completely out of place here. Hippie upbringing or not, Frank was no fool. The Marcolis might be revolutionaries, but they were still seventeenth-century revolutionaries. Their radicalism, he was quite sure, only went so far—and probably not that far at all on some subjects. One of which undoubtedly included what they would regard as matters of family honor. With a capital H. In red ink, with a border of daggers and skulls-and-crossbones. The fact that Antonio Marcoli had magnanimously waved the necessity of a chaperone didn’t mean that he would have casual up-time attitudes about sex. “Freedom” was one thing; “free love” another.

    And besides... Frank wasn’t really just interested in getting laid. Not that he wasn’t interested in that, of course. For an instant, he had to fight down a ferocious surge of hormones that threatened to addle his wits completely at the worst possible time. But sex was only part of it. He didn’t understand why, exactly—maybe he had a taste for the exotic—but something about Giovanna excited him far more than any American girl he’d ever had the hots for.

    Giovanna sniffed, putting her nose in the air. It was a very pretty nose. For the first time, ironically, it dawned on Frank that it was also what people usually called an “aristocratic nose.” A lot like Sophia Loren’s, in fact. Odd that he hadn’t noticed that before—since he’d certainly noticed the resemblance to Sophia Loren’s figure. Um. Well, maybe his dad was right. A little bit. Maybe Frank did suffer from a touch of callow adolescence. What his dad called “infantile boob fixation.”

    Giovanna sniffed again. The sound, this time, had the flavor of doom about it. A very aristocratic sound, as it happens. “You should not apologize, Frank! I will not have it!” Then, more softly—oh, very softly indeed—and with suddenly warm and open eyes: “I am not embarrassed to prick the pretensions of the parasites who grind the blood and flesh of the Italian nation under their filthy heels.”

    Frank almost choked. The tone was of a piece with the moonlight on the water of the lagoon, with the soft strains of distant music that reached them from a myriad of Carnevale parties. The words? Straight from Revolution 101. Or Introduction to Storming the Bastille. No, wait, that was the French revolution. What had the Italians called theirs? The Risorgimento, he thought. It was led by some guy in the future named...

    The only thing Frank could remember was that the name rhymed with Pavarotti. Of course, that was no help, since half the names in Italian rhymed with Pavarotti.

    Verdi? No, that was the opera guy.

    Whatever. It didn’t matter, because that had all happened in another universe. In the here and now, it looked like the name was going to be “Marcoli.” At least, that seemed to be the ambition of Giovanna’s father. Frank had a horrible feeling he had no choice but to get with messer Marcoli’s program completely, if he wanted to get anywhere with Giovanna.

    “Well,” he said, trying to be as gruff and manly about it as he could, “if it’s all right with you. I should have checked first, though. Wasn’t respectful to just drop you in all that with no warning.” Yeah, make out you planned it all along, that’s right. Dumbass. At times, Frank wondered if there was any way to get rid of that treacherous little voice in the back of his mind. Stand it against a wall and shoot it, maybe.

    But he couldn’t dwell on the political risks involved, not with Giovanna looking at him like that. She had a smile on her face again. A shy one, to his surprise—though not so shy that those glorious dimples weren’t showing.

    A moment of truth dawned on Frank. That moment of truth, he dimly understood, that eventually comes to young males who aren’t hopelessly self-absorbed—which, of course, excluded most of the beastly critters—that girls have minds of their own. And that they, too, have treacherous inner voices that they’d often like to send to the chopping block. They, too, plan and plot and scheme and—most of all—wonder what they look like to the young man they’re fascinated with.

    Hot damn! The little voice was back online, and finally saying something he wanted to hear. She’s actually interested in me! REALLY interested! No fooling!

    He gave himself a little mental shake. The plain truth of it was that he was now almost certain that she was The One. The last thing he could afford was to lapse into teenage folly. Be cool, Frank. Maintain!

    But she was talking again—and, Frank guessed, had made her own decision that The Right Thing To Do Now Was Stay Cool. “As to the diplomacy, Frank, I think you are fretting unnecessarily. Who cares what the stinking Case vecchie think? My father will have his own opinion.”

    Oh, swell. Antonio Marcoli’s reaction, when he heard about the evening, was exactly what Frank was worried about.

    That he would hear about it from Giovanna, Frank didn’t doubt for a moment. What separated Giovanna’s father from a comic opera figure was that the man was genuinely charismatic. Even Frank had felt the pull of Antonio Marcoli’s magnetically intense personality. And that charisma was something he exuded as a father, not simply as the leader of a political group. Giovanna and her brothers—the cousins, too—were closely attached to him and obviously trusted him and confided in him. It simply wouldn’t occur to Giovanna not to tell her father.

    Frank cringed, right there on the gondola seat. Another vivid image had just flashed through his mind. If earlier fantasies about Giovanna had caused certain organs to swell, this image caused them to shrivel right up. The Marcolis, lined up in order of seniority, each with a knife in his hand, waiting their turn to carve a large and painful piece out of Frank’s hide. Or—

    The organs in question raced for cover, gibbering with terror. Frank almost clutched himself. Fortunately, a further image brought surcease from pain: Antonio Marcoli, passing out pistols to his clan, so that the lot of them could riddle Frank’s poor mutilated body with bullet holes for good measure...

    To his astonishment, Giovanna burst into laughter. He gaped at her.

    “Oh, Frank! The expression your face—it’s priceless!” She covered her mouth with a hand, trying to stifle the laughter.

    “I don’t see what’s so funny,” he growled.

    “Why do you think—” She had to break off, overcome by giggles. By the time she recovered, Frank saw that the gondola was about to moor.

    I’m dead. The organs in question seemed to have vanished entirely, now. Not that it mattered, of course, since Frank Stone would never have any use for them. Not in the short span of life left to him.

    As the gondola drew up, Giovanna came lithely to her feet and extended a hand. “Come. My father will react differently than I think you expect.”

    Seeing no option—what the hell, at least he’d go down holding her hand—Frank started to follow her. Over her shoulder, Giovanna smiled and said: “But do not forget to pay the gondolier. That is something to really worry about.”

    With a start, Frank realized that he had completely forgotten the small matter of paying the gondolier. Hastily, he handed over some coins without even trying to figure out if they came to the right amount. From the look on the gondolier’s face, though, he’d overpaid him considerably.

    Frank didn’t stop to get change. He had other things on his mind; and, besides, at least the gondolier would mourn his passage.



    Once he stepped ashore, though, he felt himself relax a little. The gondolier had let them off at a pier rather than enter the narrow canals of the island. Murano was a small island just to the north of Venice’s main islands, where Venice’s glassblowing industry had been concentrated since the thirteenth century. But since Murano had a somewhat unsavory reputation, most gondoliers refused to enter it directly.

    That meant they had a bit of a walk to get to the Marcoli building. Blessedly.

    Even more blessedly, because Giovanna tucked her hand into his elbow. She was almost snuggling him. She’d never done that before.

    “If you don’t mind, I’d like to use your arm,” she said sweetly. “The footing is not good here. And it’s very dark.”

    The excuse was transparent. The footing was no worse than anywhere in Venice, and Frank had seen her earlier, practically dancing across it with light and sure feet. True, that had been in daylight, and it was now well after sundown. But there was a full moon out, and visibility really wasn’t that bad.

    Not that Frank was about to object, of course. He felt quite light-headed. In the moonlight, Giovanna seemed more beautiful than ever.

    “Oh, yeah. Sure. Of course. Be my pleasure.”

    So, they made their way. Slowly. Giovanna didn’t seem to be in any more of a hurry than Frank.

    Alas, it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before they were in among the alleys and courts inside the block that held the Marcoli building. It seemed like mere seconds. A dim and still-sentient corner of Frank’s mind—insofar as Frank could be said to have a “mind” left at all, between his fretting over Papa’s Fury, the Venetian moonlight on Giovanna, and she on his arm—was trying to shrill a little alarm at him. This neighborhood at night really did have the appearance of a rough one. A downright nasty one, in fact. Distant sounds of arguments in tenements high above the street, the wail of a cat on a roof somewhere, dark and lurking shadows in narrow alleys—

    One of those shadows moved, and Frank tasted the cold coppery flavor of fear. All other thoughts fled from his mind, as adrenalin worked its magic.

    Another movement.



    They were brought up short by two grimy customers stepping out from a doorway in front of them. Grimy customers with knives that were far and away the best-kept things about them. Shiny, bright, and obviously sharp knives.

    A low, deep growl came from somewhere behind. “Hand over the purse and strip off the good clothes.”

    Frank looked around. Surrounded. Two in front, two behind. A mugging. Just great. The perfect end to a disastrous evening.

    He sighed. No way to deal with this heroically, they wouldn’t stop at kicking his ass, not with those knives.

    Besides, he was Tom Stone’s son. Frank’s dad considered “macho” a synonym for “moron.” He was known to say that he hadn’t trusted the theory of evolution since he’d seen his first John Wayne movie. His first and only.

    So, as he reached into his pocket, Frank summoned up the spirit of his hippie father to guide him through this momentary unpleasantness.

    “Okay, guys, you got us. Everybody just relax. Take the money with no argument, but we keep the clothes, all right?”

    “Frank—” Giovanna’s hand was clutching his arm tightly.

    “No, it’s okay. It’s only money. Money can be replaced. And these guys look like they need it more than us, anyway.” That was true, at least. Scruffy wasn’t even close to being the word for the way these guys looked. You’d have to add scrawny, unshaven, mean and ugly to get anywhere close. If you looked upon it as aggressive panhandling, which was pretty much the way his father would, it was almost compassionate to give them some eating money.

    Not that Frank looked at it that way. He really didn’t see eye-to-eye with his father on this subject. Granted, Frank wasn’t any too fond of machismo himself. In fact, he’d been known to express pretty much the same skepticism concerning evolution as his dad, except that Frank’s preferred example was the average high school jock. Still, Frank was just naturally more combative than Tom Stone, even if he usually tried to figure out a way to get even instead of getting mad.

    On the other hand, as long as all that was involved was money... Well, the truth was that Frank didn’t care about money much more than his dad. So piss on it.

    But then the guy who seemed to be the head thug spoke again, and all of Frank’s reasoning fled in an instant. Genetics and upbringing can lead a boy to pacifism, but they can’t make him drink.

    “Not just the money,” the guy said. “The clothes too.” His eyes moved to Giovanna, roaming up and down like a visual tongue. “And we’ll want your whore for a while. Maybe we’ll give her back.”

    Frank discovered that an old hackneyed expression was actually true. A red mist appear in front of his eyes. The fury was so intense that he couldn’t make himself do anything. Like in a bad dream--

    And then Giovanna ended the moment. Her intake of breath was quick, and sharp. The scream that came back out was high, piercing, and incredibly loud.

    The sound broke Frank’s paralysis—at the same time that it held the thug in front of him momentarily frozen.

    There was no thought at all involved. Just the immediate lightning reaction of a nineteen-year-old in very good health who was also—false modesty aside—one hell of a good soccer player. Frank’s kick to the crotch didn’t double up the goon. It lifted him about a foot off the ground; and, when he landed, he was curled up like a spider caught in a flame.

    Unfortunately, muggers have good reflexes too. Vaguely, Frank realized that shutters and doors along the alley were beginning to bang open, letting light into the alleyway. But his attention was on the thug next to the one he’d kicked, who was already swinging his knife.

    Frank managed to avoid the first stab by just backing away. Giovanna’s hand yanking on his arm helped a lot too. Frantically, he grabbed Giovanna and pushed her into a doorway, which was the best he could do to get her out of danger. When he turned back, the same thug was coming in for another stab.

    Frank had no training at all in the martial arts. Luckily for him, some things are just automatic reflex—and blocking an awkward looping stab with a forearm is one of them. The thug’s snarling face was now less than a foot away from Frank’s own.

    Again, soccer substituted for kung-fu. False modesty aside, Frank had one hell of a head-butt. The goon staggered back, dazed, blood pouring down his face. Frank was pretty sure he’d broken his nose.

    He backed up again, protecting Giovanna in the doorway as best he could, his eyes ranging, looking for the two other muggers. Giovanna’s lungs were as impressive as her bust. Coming from just inches behind, her second scream almost blew out his eardrums.

    But it was all over. Those opening doorways were open, now, and people were spilling out of them. Among those people—right in the fore—were Marcolis. Marcoli males. Many Marcoli males.

    And they were looking even meaner and angrier than they had in Frank’s nightmare reverie. Oh, lots meaner and lots angrier.

    The muggers hesitated, and that was their undoing. None of them got more than a few steps before they were brought down.

    Shortly thereafter, Giovanna hugging him tightly—boy, did that feel great—Frank was able to observe an interesting tableau.

    Antonio Marcoli was at the center of it, standing in front of four would-be muggers held by what seemed like eight pair of none-too-gentle hands apiece. Well. In the case of the one Frank had kicked, “held up” was probably a more accurate description than “held.” The guy was still curled into a ball. Even with Antonio’s cousin holding him by the hair, his head wasn’t more than waist-high.

    You couldn’t actually say that Marcoli was swaggering or strutting. But that was only because “swaggering” and “strutting” were words that had a slightly comical connotation to them, and there was nothing at all comical—oh, no, no, no, no, no—about Antonio Marcoli’s body language.

    Frank found himself titling the tableau like a picture. Street-life, with lynch-mob. A moment of murmured reassurance that his daughter was unharmed, and then Marcoli had taken charge. By then, all the Marcolis had plenty of neighbors and friends to lend them a hand. Not that they probably needed it. Truth to tell, the Marcolis looked right at home in a dark alley. Natural denizens.

    And messer Marcoli suddenly wasn’t the screwball radical he’d been in daylight, either. The guy looked about as comic opera as a rattlesnake. He had a thin smile on his face, which contained no humor at all.

    Marcoli bestowed the razor smile on the man Frank had kicked. “I guess we won’t need to cut his balls off.” He swiveled his head and bestowed the smile on Frank himself. For an instant, there actually seemed to be some warmth in it.

    But the instant passed. Marcoli’s head swiveled back to regard the captured muggers. “I warned you,” he said softly. “And now—you assault even my own daughter.”

    Frank could only see the faces of two of the muggers. Well, three—but it was obvious now that he had broken that man’s nose. His face was still covered with blood.

    They looked very scared already. The moment Marcoli said the last sentence, Frank discovered that another hackneyed old expression was true. Men actually could turn as white as a sheet.

    They must not have recognized Giovanna, Frank realized, wearing that borrowed finery. Apparently, they really had thought she was—

    “They called me a whore, papa!” Giovanna hissed. “Hissed” as in locomotive. Very healthy lungs.

    Marcoli nodded judiciously. “Yes, outrageous. But we must not allow personal animosity to enter the business. This is a matter of revolutionary justice, not family vengeance.”

    That didn’t seem to cheer up the muggers any. Frank suddenly had a very bad feeling about the situation.

    “Uh, messer Marcoli,” he said, half-protesting. “If it had just been the money, you know, I would have given it to them. I mean, it’s only money.”

    Again, that judicious nod. “Yes, I understand. Very generous, your spirit—and it is true that money is not something we should worship. But that is not the point.”

    He gestured, his hand sweeping the surroundings. “See where these carrion lurk? They prey on their own kind. Too cowardly to rob the nobility. We will put a stop to that, by making this more dangerous still. I gave them one warning, and they paid no heed. Let us see if they will pay attention this time.”

    He didn’t pause at all, so far as Frank could see. “Beat them to a pulp. Slit their noses. Then cut off one ear each. We will nail them up in prominent places.”

    The Marcolis and their confederates set to it immediately, and with a will. The one Frank had kicked and the one he’d head-butted got no bonus points for their existing injuries either.

    But Frank didn’t watch it, after the shock of the first few seconds of violence held him immobile. He blew out his breath and turned away. Giovanna was still hugging him and now he finally returned the embrace. With a will.

    Frank didn’t really know what to think. He’d heard of stuff like this happening in Magdeburg. That raw boom town had nothing much in the way of a police force, outside of the few areas where Swedish or U.S. soldiers patrolled, and the crime rate had initially rocketed. Until the Committees of Correspondence had established their own rough-and-ready street law. “Rough-and-ready” was the right expression, too. Frank knew that some criminals had wound up in the Elbe river.

    He’d even approved of it himself, when he’d heard about it. But somehow “street justice” was harder to take in person than at a distance. He found himself wishing—for the first time in his scapegrace life, ha!—that Dan Frost were here. Grantville’s one-time police chief had been a pain in the ass often enough, sure. But nobody had ever worried about being beaten in a cell, much less the ley de fuega, when Dan Frost took them into custody. There was a lot to be said for professional law enforcement, when you got right down to it, at least when it was done fair and square.

    By then, though, Frank discovered that he was nuzzling Giovanna’s hair. Which was every bit as luxuriant and healthy as her lungs and... well, everything else. So he found it easy enough to forget about the rest.

    At least, until he realized that Antonio Marcoli had left off supervising the mayhem and was standing at his elbow.

    Frank froze. Okay, so he wasn’t doing anything with Giovanna you could really call “feeling her up,” but...

    On the other hand, she was practically feeling him up—boy, those little hands felt great—and he suddenly remembered that The One’s papa standing at his elbow was the very same guy who’d just calmly given orders on the subject of broken bones, slit noses, sliced-off ears... judicious decisions that castration wasn’t probably necessary even though it was a charming idea and maybe another time...

    I’m dead.

    But all Marcoli did was slap him on the shoulder. Then, pried him loose from Giovanna and pulled him close for a very Italian embrace of his own. And then, back at arm’s length, one hand on each of Frank’s shoulders.

    “Splendid man!” Marcoli pronounced. “You are a credit to our cause—and to your own nation, of course.”

    Back into the embrace. Back out again, at arm’s length, hands on shoulders. Frank couldn’t help being reminded of any number of mob movies he’d seen. It was kind of eery. The father of his girlfriend—well, he had hopes, anyway; and things were sure looking good—was a cross between John Brown and the Godfather.


    “Frank,” said Marcoli, “your generosity speaks well of you personally. But—trust me!—fine feelings are wasted on such as them. Criminals in the end are but lackeys for the exploiters. Because of their poor origins, we allow them one warning. More would be a waste of our time and effort—both things of which the revolution is in short supply.”

    He was dead serious, too. There wasn’t a dishonest bone or a poseur’s fingernail anywhere on Antonio Marcoli’s body. Goofy or not, Frank realized, this man was no parlor pink. Words he used like exploiters and lackeys and The Revolution—you could practically hear the capital letters—came trippingly from his tongue. He might be an impractical man given to harebrained schemes, but a faker he wasn’t.

    Oh, well. For Giovanna...

    Frank did make a note to himself that, if there was ever a next time—not that he wanted there to be—he’d try to pick a Love Of His Life with a different kind of father. Maybe a bookkeeper whose idea of adventure was reading a novel. A Jane Austen freak. No westerns or thrillers. Short. Scrawny. A ninety-seven pound weakling. Near-sighted—no, practically blind...

    “Come, Frank,” said Marcoli, putting one arm around Frank and the other around his daughter. He guided them back down the alley toward his door, away from the final grizzly moments of the street justice he’d dispensed. “You must stay the night with us. You should not carry that away as your memory of Venetian hospitality, eh? We can send a note to the embassy by a gondolier, so they won’t worry.”

    Frank hoped like hell Marcoli meant the mugging, and not what had been done to the muggers. The guy might seem like a rather endearing, barmy coot when it came to his enthusiastic plans. But when it came to action, he had all the old Venetian charm of a mob capo.

    On the other hand... there was the prospect of spending the rest of the evening with Giovanna. Not the night, of course. The one thing Frank Stone was not about to contemplate—in Antonio Marcoli’s own house!—was trying to sneak into his daughter’s bedroom.

    “See?” Antonio demanded. “It is too cold to return, this late at night. Already you are shivering.”

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