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1634: The Galileo Affair: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Friday, February 27, 2004 23:56 EST



    Singing. Some damned idiot was singing, somewhere in the street below. He’d been at it for some time, too, long enough to wake Buckley up. Joe rolled over and grabbed his watch. No need for the backlight function, it was already full day.

    That helped wake him up as well. The fact that he’d gotten a suite of rooms with a nice, big, east-facing window that gave him a view of the Isola di Sant’Elena and its cathedral, and beyond that the Lido and the sea, was all very well. But the sun came up right in the window and the first thing it did in the morning was heat the room up to somewhere near boiling point. The bull’s-eye panes in the window didn’t help; they focused the sunlight onto the far wall in a strange and eye-watering pattern of rippled light.

    Just after midday, he saw from his watch. He could probably have figured that by the position of the sunlight on the wall. Joe lived in a permanent paranoia of his watch breaking. He’d had the good fortune to have a self-winding model, nothing fancy, but it was one of the few timepieces from the old universe that was still working. He’d only been half-joking with himself when he’d thought to mark the position of the sun on the wallpaper at every hour. A couple of times he’d had scares that his watch was about to wind down. He wound it anyway, for the reassurance of having the time right.

    He rolled out of bed, and stood swaying for a moment before rooting around for the chamberpot. He hadn’t gotten into bed before about four o’clock that morning. He’d stayed light on the sauce, but that didn’t mean he felt particularly human this morning. Afternoon, rather.

    This was a town that liked to party, and party good and hard at that. Would it be too much, he wondered, to do a tourist guide piece? Venice could certainly use the income, and there were plenty of people in Europe with money who might want to come down here for a week or two.

    He coughed, good and hard. Those tavernas could be damned smoky. The prevalence of tobacco in seventeenth-century Europe had come as a surprise to Joe, as it had to most of the up-timers. But where many up-timers had been relieved that their addiction could still be fueled, Joe had quit smoking as soon as the cigarettes ran out. Unlike some others, he’d not been able to bring himself to try what passed for pipe-tobacco in this day and age. The stuff was so wretched that just sitting in a tavern was as good as going through a whole pack in an evening.

    Buckley opened the window and spat out of it, watching the phlegm drop four floors to the canal. Then he sent the contents of the chamberpot after it, flinging it out so it didn’t land on the footpath that ran along the edge of the water. He wasn’t supposed to do that, but everybody did anyway.

    He was right at the other end of downtown Venice from the embassy, now, up under the roof of a mostly-empty tenement block. The rent wasn’t bad, as no Venetian really wanted to live this high up if he could afford to be lower down. Besides, after the plague tenants were thin on the ground. The landlord had been almost ecstatic to find a renter.

    For his own part, Joe liked it well enough. Someone who’d had the room before him—could have been any time in the last couple of centuries, from the rickety feel of the place—had liked to have plenty of light in the mornings, so they’d enlarged the windows. That kept the rent low, as well, because Joe was quite sure the rooms would be very cold in the winter. But he didn’t care; he liked the light himself and planned to be gone by mid-summer anyway.

    The only real downside to the place was that his guidebook stopped working hereabouts. The map in the back had been drawn in the twentieth century and according to the street plan he was living in what would be, from the nineteenth century onward, a park. Finding the embassy was tough, too—where that stood would be Venice’s railway station in three hundred years’ time.

    Buckley opened the package of laundry that he had picked up yesterday afternoon. That was an odd business. The modern clothes generally came back ruined, other than jeans, but the contemporary stuff usually got through fine. He guessed that was due to the local folks knowing how to deal with what they were used to, and not having a clue with care labels. That said, he’d never had a clue either. He’d gotten used to shapeless pullovers and faded colors in college.

    Another change for the better in the seventeenth century: he was dressed better now. Natural curiosity had led him to go find out how they did it before the invention of the laundromat. It turned out that they took the clothes apart to launder them, and then put them back together, an effort that made him appreciate all the more the pleasant sensation of pulling on clean clothes. Not that he did that as often as he used to. Wearing a shirt once and tossing it in the hamper was a luxury he couldn’t afford any more.

    What to do with the day, he wondered? He got his little stove going and began to brew breakfast. He’d gotten hold of one of Grantville’s supply of primus stoves early on in his travels. He’d read a quote from Casanova’s memoirs—a local boy, that one—some years before the Ring of Fire, and been mightily impressed by the old seducer’s habit of carrying with him a bag packed with a stove and breakfast fixings wherever he went so he could “break his fast like a gentleman.”

    Living out of a suitcase in upper-floor garrets, Buckley appreciated it more for the ability to get hot coffee down him first thing in the morning without having to lay a fire he wasn’t going to need to keep warm.

    Still, as the coffee perked, he had a day to fill and no clear plan for what to do with it. And that idiot was still singing by the canal-side. He wished he’d spat on the caterwauling fool. Or worse. Something about love and the springtime, a folksong of some sort.

    That put Buckley in mind of Frank Stone, and he grinned. What a perfect illustration of teenage maleness that was! Off at all hours hanging out with the Marcolis, a family of complete loons, because he was besotted with Giovanna. Okay, sure, the girl herself was gorgeous, but still. And hauling his brothers along with him every time! The three of them were fixtures at the Casa Marcoli these days, helping to spread the word of the coming new world order to the largely indifferent population of Venice.


    Now that Joe actually thought about it, there was something a little odd about that picture. The two younger Stone boys weren’t even Frank’s brothers. They were really step-brothers. And Giovanna was the only Marcoli daughter, so what the hell were they getting out of it? Hanging out with an obvious crank while their brother tried to get into the pants of the crank’s daughter?

    Odd. What something else going on out there? Something more exciting than just sitting around and jabbering about politics?

    Joe decided he’d find out. If nothing else, he supposed, it would be a way to spend the day. Besides, it was probably time he took a look at the Committee of Correspondence in Venice, even if he was pretty sure it was mostly a joke. He checked his watch again. There was plenty of time to get there for the daily public meeting they tried to get a decent turnout for—and failed miserably, from what Joe had heard.

    And the idiot was still singing. He’d reached the end of the song and started again! The way it echoed up from the canal and the buildings opposite made it doubly, trebly annoying. Buckley found himself wishing for some traffic noise, a sound he hadn’t heard in nearly three years. Definitely, he decided, time to get out of the house. Even if he got nothing from the Venetian committee, he could mooch about Murano and play tourist.



    A boat over to Murano was easily had, and getting out from among the filthy canals of downtown Venice and into the seabreeze and the salt air of the lagoon did Buckley a world of good.

    Murano, even in mid-afternoon with the sunlight across it, looked like a seedy and disreputable pile. Sure, it had its nice neighborhoods, and the glassblowers had always been one of the better-off classes of Venetians. Not dirt-poor, anyway. But like almost everything in Venice, Murano was looking down-at-the-heels. The smoke from the kilns gave it a positively brooding air.

    He got off the boat at the right pier for the neighborhood he wanted. Looking around, his imagination immediately painted a set of tracks along the water’s edge with a big sign, saying: You are now entering The Wrong Side. All of the clues were there. Peeling stucco, even more than usual for Venice. Great patches of plaster missing, the brickwork grinning through from underneath like the teeth of bleached skulls. The laundry strung across the streets—alleyways, in any other town—was gray and patched. More rats than the neighborhoods that could afford catchers. And, above all, a hunched, wary surliness about the inhabitants, such of them as there were.

    He was almost immediately accosted by a grimy little kid. Urchin, to the life, he thought. Sighing, he dug in his pocket for a coin before realizing that the kid was holding out a piece of paper. He took it. It was as grimy as the kid was, the print slightly smeared.

    He looked back down at the kid. The look of pathetic gratitude and the thick sheaf of handbills still in his hand spoke volumes. Buckley looked around. So did the litter of discarded...

    He checked the paper in his hand again. Ha! Yes! Committee of Correspondence flyers scattered along the path and floating dejectedly in the water.

    “No one interested, kid?” Buckley returned his hand into his pocket for that coin. For some time now he’d been keeping a hefty handful of small change in his pocket for just this sort of occasion. Besides, the poor little brat looked like he could use a meal.

    “No, messer,” the kid said. “Messer Marcoli, he is a good man, he gives me soup and money to give out the papers, but no one wants them.” The tone was mournful and the big, brown, hang-dog eyes positively heartbreaking.

    “Something for you, then, kid,” Buckley said, handing over the coin.

    The eyes started to glisten, the lower lip started to tremble. “Aw, hell, here’s another. Take a break, on me.”

    “No, messer. Messer Marcoli wants to tell everyone about the new world coming, and I want people to come and hear him, so I stay.”

    “How old are you?” Buckley asked, beginning to see his story taking shape and glad he’d followed this whim. “And what’s your name?”

    “Eight years, I think, and my name is Benito.” Benito sniffed, and added a streak of snot to the grime on his already-filthy shirtsleeve.

    “Does your mama know you’re working for messer Marcoli? Your papa?”

    “Messer, I’m an orphan. Messer Marcoli, he feeds some of us and we help him with his papers, si?”

    “How many orphans? I mean, kids like you, helping messer Marcoli?”

    “Maybe ten, fifteen. It’s not always the same kids. The messer, he is good to us, yes?” Then, suddenly, suspicion was written all over the little face. “What you want to know about messer Marcoli for, anyhow?” The kid put the sheaf of flyers behind his back, and it was all Buckley could do to keep his face straight.

    “It ain’t just agents of the authorities who ask questions, kid,” he said. He could understand the concern, though. Venice’s secret police apparatus might not bother the likes of little Benito. The Council of Ten had bigger fish to fry. But the mercenary soldiers who served the city as its police force were, from the point of view of kids like him, nothing but a goon squad.

    “What are you, then?” The insecure little boy had vanished, replaced with a street-smart, hard-boiled little gangster.

    “I’m a reporter, Benito. I find out things and write them in a newspaper, like the papers you’ve got there only bigger, and we sell them. So people can read about things and know what’s going on.”

    “Can’t read,” Benito said, defiant. Another sniff, another stripe of snot. “Messer Massimo, he’s always at us to learn it.”

    “It’s a good thing, Benito. A very good thing.”

    Another sniff, this time contemptuous. “What’s the use of it, eh?”

    Hoo-boy. No sense in trying to explain the value of learning for its own sake, or tell him about the wonderful world of books. Cut to the chase, Buckley. “I get paid money because I can read and write.”

    Head on one side. “For your newspaper?”

    “Catch on fast, don’t you? Back in the USE, people pay a few pfennigs for every paper they buy. Those pfennigs mount up, and I get enough money to come all the way to Venice looking for new stories to put in the paper.” No sense trying to explain syndication, and freelance fees, and staff writers and stringers just yet.

    “Stories? You want to ask old Tomaso, when he’s sober. He got all kinds of stories about how he’s gonna get rich one day.” The kid snickered. “And about the real big fish he nearly caught one time. People buy him drinks to get him to tell that one.”

    Buckley smiled in spite of himself. “Not that kind of story, Benito. True stories, real stories. About people like you, if you’ll tell it to me.”

    “Me?” Benito’s eyes were wide. His mouth was open wider still.

    “Sure, kid. I mean, not now, you’re a busy man, got a lot to do and all. But maybe we could talk after the Committee meeting?”

    “You’re going to that?”

    “Sure I am. That’s the story I’m after today, Benito. How the Committee in Venice is getting on.”

    “Will I be in your story?” Benito asked, now clearly intrigued by the sight of his approaching fifteen minutes of fame.

    “Figure you’ll get a mention, sure.” Buckley made a mental note to focus on Benito and his friends. A thought occurred to him. “Say, that messer Massimo you mentioned, is he with the Committee?”

    Nod. “He’s messer Marcoli’s cousin.”

    “And he’s teaching you kids to read?”

    “Some of the guys are trying it, a bit. He gives them cakes if they stay for lessons.” Sniff. “Me, I never. Figured it was dumb, a guy like me learning to read. Don’t wanna be a priest or nothin’. Anyway,” he waved the sheaf of flyers, “I gotta job.”

    Buckley offered up a silent prayer of thanks to whatever the patron saint of journalists was. This one was going to be real, real easy to write. “Say, Benito, before I let you get back to work, you want to know how to do the thing with the flyers? I had to sell papers myself before they let me write in ‘em.”

    That was a little white lie. Joe had distributed flyers for a nightclub a couple of times for a few extra dollars. But it was better to give the kid the idea he was on a career path, here. Do wonders for his self-confidence, with any luck. “Here, gimme a few.”

    He read one over, and then demonstrated the technique for Benito. Smile, accost, smile, patter, smile and hand over the flyer. There was a rhythm to it, even.

    “See?” he said to Benito, after he’d unloaded a dozen or so. “You have to smile and have a little chat with them. They’re more likely to take something from you. Lots of confidence, lots of good cheer. They’re more likely to buy something from you, too. Go on, kid, give it a try.”

    A couple of diffident tries and then Benito got the hang of it, getting maybe half the people he approached to take a flyer. Some still tossed the things aside when they’d read them.

    “Thank you, messer...” A frown. “I don’t know your name.”

    “Buckley. Joe Buckley.”

    “Thank you, messer Buckley. See you at the Committee!”

    Buckley grinned. Before he left Benito, he got directions from the kid, but took his time about going there. He had a couple of hours to kill and the Murano glassworks were, if not fascinating, then at least relatively interesting. Until it dawned on him that the bizarre and brightly colored glassware on sale was exactly the kind of thing his mother had liked to annoy his dad by buying. Joe spent a long time after he realized that, staring into the lagoon, homesick as all hell.




    Evening was drawing near when he entered the neighborhood where the Marcolis—he had trouble thinking of them as the Venetian “Committee of Correspondence,” accustomed as he was to the political machine that operated in Magdeburg—held their meetings in a taverna. As he turned down the street where it was, he noticed something brownish nailed to a wall. He looked closer. It was a severed human ear, just starting to turn maggotty. Choking his lunch back down, Joe walked on hurriedly, sticking to the middle of the street and trying not to make eye contact. Talk about your rough neighborhoods!

    He knew he was in the right place as soon as he turned a corner and saw some young guys kicking a soccer ball up and down, although with what level of skill he didn’t know. That would be the influence of the Stone boys, he thought. Stone had been a “soccer dad,” back up-time. The Venetian precursor of the sport wasn’t anything Joe wanted to see up close, though. He was sure it would be best described as a gang fight with a ball in there somewhere.

    There was a signboard, a rather nicely lettered one, proclaiming a meeting of the Committee of Correspondence somewhere around to the rear of the big building. Buckley wound his way to the back and went in. Inside, once through a short corridor, was a standard type of Venetian taverna. It was more in the way of a big room attached to the kitchens which was primarily used by family and residents rather than being a public establishment as such, although they had it set up at the moment to serve drink at a temporary counter under the windows along the western wall. Despite being open, the one row of windows didn’t really allow that much air into the place. Between the poor circulation and the direct sunlight coming through the windows, the place was on the hot and stuffy side.

    And this was still March. Buckley didn’t want to think how hot the place would get in midsummer. He got himself a jug of wine and sat down to wait for the show to start.

    “Hi, Mr. Buckley, doing a story on us?” It was Ron Stone, coming over from somewhere in back.

    “Hi, Ron, yeah, I thought I might.”

    Ron grinned. “Do we get copy approval?”

    Buckley grinned back. “What, you’re here five minutes and you’re head flack already?”

    Ron laughed aloud. “Sort of assistant to the head flack, which is Massimo over there.” He pointed to a slightly rounded-looking fellow having an animated discussion with a shock-headed older guy. “That’s messer Marcoli he’s talking to,” Ron went on. “You want an interview, just ask. We can use all the publicity we can get, I figure.”

    “Happy to oblige. A lot of my readers are Committee types, or at least sympathetic. They’ll want to know what’s going on. Say, what’s the deal with Massimo teaching little kids to read?”

    “Yeah, he’s a nice guy about that sort of thing. He covers it all up with a lot of guff about advancing national consciousness, raising the awareness of the Italian masses and all, but I think he’s basically in it for the goodness. Get a square meal into the little scamps and hope some of the three Rs takes root.”

    “He having a lot of success?”

    “Some. A lot of the kids, the boys especially, think they’ll turn into fags if they can read.”

    “I noticed.” Buckley gave Ron a wry grin. “I met one of your Baker Street Irregulars on the way here. Name of Benito. Nice kid, under the dirt. I might have given him a clinching argument about learning to read. Told him I made money writing.”

    “I can’t say I know all their names. But I’ll mention him to Massimo, see if we can’t follow up on that for you.”

    “Thanks,” Buckley said, and then he saw Ducos. He stood up and called out “Michel!”

    Ducos looked around, face blank, and then he saw Buckley and smiled back. “Joe!” He came over. “You know, Monsieur Buckley, you nearly got me into terrible trouble at the embassy, publishing what you did.”

    “Eh? What’s that?” Marcoli rose and came over, a suspicious note in his voice. “How in trouble, Michel? And who is this?”

    “Monsieur Marcoli, permit me to name Monsieur Buckley to you, American journalist. Monsieur Buckley, if Monsieur Stone has not already had the honor, this is Monsieur Marcoli, who is the leader of this Committee of Correspondence.”

    “You know each other?” said Marcoli, and then, “Jesu! That Buckley? Are you?”

    Buckley nodded and Marcoli favored him with an enthusiastic embrace and a flurry of protestations of how honored he was to have Buckley there.

    “But what is this talk of trouble?” Marcoli asked at length.

    “Monsieur Ducos was kind enough to give me some information for my story about d’Avaux,” Buckley said.

    Marcoli beamed. “Michel? That was you? You kept that quiet!” And he was off again, this time embracing and congratulating Ducos. Phrases like blow against the oppressor, and struck the serpent with the sword of truth drifted out like flecks of foam from a torrent.

    And with that, they were all friends. Marcoli promised Joe a full interview, perhaps the very next day but not today, since they had a private business meeting right after the public meeting.

    Buckley saw Gerry Stone with oil up to his elbows emerging from the back room, where apparently he was chief of maintenance on the Committee’s printing press. Frank wandered in too, but hardly seemed to notice Joe’s presence beyond a murmured: “Oh, hi, Mr. Buckley.”

    Come to that, the lad hardly seemed to notice his own presence, when Marcoli’s daughter was in his line of sight. Which was... almost always. Buckley snickered to himself. Teenagers. It was pretty clear that Giovanna herself was very happy with the situation.

    Not that anything was “going on,” Joe was certain. Frank Stone and Giovanna Marcoli moved around each other like a double star. Constant glances back and forth did for the force of gravity—pretty damn ferocious force, judging by the frequency of the doe-eyed looks they gave each other—but Buckley noted that they almost always maintained a certain distance. The double handful of Marcoli sons and cousins were watching the couple all the time, from what Joe could tell. Not with any hostility, no—in fact, it was obvious they all approved of Frank. But there’d be no hanky-panky here, either, fervent revolutionists or not. Lurking somewhere under the approval was the hint that of their sister might cry—or ought to, even if she didn’t—one Frank Stone might bleed.

    But that was the only positive note. The meeting started as advertised. A few of the urchins drifted in—Benito among them, Buckley noted. But other than them and the members of Marcoli’s extended family, Ducos, the Stones and Buckley himself, the meeting had the traditional audience for such events: three old men and a dog. One of the old men remained fast asleep throughout Marcoli’s hour-long speech. So did the dog.

    There wasn’t even anyone Buckley could peg as the Obvious Cop, who might at least have explained the execrable turnout. Which was a shame, in a way, because while Antonio Marcoli was not rowing with both his oars in the water, he was a damn fine speaker. Buckley got most of it down, and figured he could let the guy revise and extend it later to fill in what he’d missed.

    And that was it. A chorus of goodbyes and goodnights, and almost the entire inner corps—messers Marcoli and Massimo, Giovanna, three of the boys, Ducos and the Stones—departed. They were going to deal with “routine administrative business,” according to Ron Stone.

    Fair enough, Buckley thought. He stayed in the main room of the taverna for one last drink before quitting for the evening and returning to his rooms to sit down and write up his notes.

    He was halfway down his glass of wine when he realized something didn’t make sense. Routine administrative business?

    That didn’t require three USE visitors or their visiting rep from the Paris Committee. My journo-sense is tingling, Buckley thought.



    One advantage of narrow alleys and no street lighting was that it was comparatively easy to sneak around the back unseen and crouch under a shuttered window.

    He listened to what was being discussed. Something about Galileo, was all he caught at first. Then, as his ears adjusted after maybe a minute, he silently reached for tablet and pen.

    Dynamite. That patron saint is getting candles for a year. And if I can’t find out which saint it is, the way my luck’s running tonight, I might as well give up.

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