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1634: The Galileo Affair: Chapter Thirty Four

       Last updated: Friday, March 12, 2004 23:49 EST



    Sanchez arrived the next morning. After he was ushered into the salon in the embassy where Sharon had decided she would meet him alone, she took some time to study him. Sanchez underwent the scrutiny patiently. He simply stood before her where she sat on a chaise, saying nothing. Patience? she wondered. Or was it simply fatalism?

    Abruptly, she spoke. “Did you have anything to do with it, Ruy?”

    Sanchez began to stiffen. Suddenly angry, Sharon slapped her hands on her thighs. “Stop it, Ruy! This is me. I don’t care about your damned hidalgo honor and your solemn vows and your so-called oaths.” It was all she could do not to grit her teeth. “I’ve never seen where any of that precious crap—and that’s what it is, crap—has kept any of you from butchering anyone you felt like. Or committing every other crime in the book.”

    She lifted her head. “So tell it to me, this time. Just straight up. Did you kill Joe Buckley? And if you didn’t, do you have any idea who did?”

    Sanchez blew through his mustaches. Then, his broad shoulders moved in a chuckle. “Such a difficult woman! In this, as in everything.”

    He shook his head. “No, Dona Sharon, I did not do it. Nor did Bedmar. The cardinal would have used only me for such a deed. I cannot vow that it was not done by the regular Spanish embassy, the one representing Madrid directly. We have, in truth, little to do with them. But... I do not think so.”

    She believed him. She wasn’t sure why, exactly, but she did. It came as a great relief.

    Greater than she’d expected, in fact. She found herself starting to wonder about that, but Sanchez continued to speak.

    “Your second question, of course, is much more difficult to answer. Do I have any idea who killed him? Oh, certainly—many ideas. But that is all they are, simply ideas. Do you wish me to expound upon them?”

    She shook her head. “Not at the moment, no. Later, yes. In fact, that’s the reason I asked you here. Well, one of them. I want to ask you to help me try to find out who murdered Joe. You’re the only person I know in Venice who’d have any idea where to even start.”

    Sanchez cut right past that. “Yes, certainly. And the other reason? Or reasons?”

    She studied him again for a moment. Then, looked away and studied the Venetian sky beyond a window. “Me. You and me.” Impatiently, she flicked her hand. “I’m not saying this well. What I mean is, that I think we need to define our relationship. Finally.”

    She smiled at the sky. “I really do not want to be fending you off while you and I play Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson—your Sherlock to my Watson, I’m quite sure. I wouldn’t mind so much—well, I would, but at least it wouldn’t be hard—if you did your groping with your hands instead of your brains. But, you don’t.”

    Which was true. In all the many occasions they’d spent time together, Ruy had not laid a finger on her except for an occasional polite offer of a hand to help her out of a gondola or to cross a difficult patch of ground. He had been courtesy incarnate—while never ceasing his endless flirtation. At times when she’d not been immersed in her quiet melancholy, she’d found it quite amusing. Even, yes, quite flattering. Even, yes, sometimes—not often—quite attractive.

    The first time she’d met the man she’d thought of him as Feelthy Sanchez. That image had faded away, as the weeks went by in his company. Ruy Sanchez had the sex drive of a goat, true enough, even at his advanced age. But there was nothing filthy about it. Lust, yes; leering, no. Just the honest if not particularly couth drive of a man with more than his share of testosterone.

    And... so what? The same had been true of Hans Richter, after all, even if the outer shell had been as different as could be imagined. Hans, a sweet and shy young German boy; Ruy, a self-confident and swaggering old Catalan hidalgo. But Hans, too, had flooded her with that same raw desire. And if you wanted testosterone—Sharon issued a soft, sad little laugh—all you had to do was get in a motor vehicle with Hans at the wheel. Or—a stab a pain, here—fly with him in his beloved airplane. He’d sometimes driven Colonel Woods a little nuts. Sharon could remember one occasion when Jesse had ranted at him: why don’t you try—just once, Hans!—thinking with your brain instead of your balls?

    She looked back at Sanchez and discovered an odd expression on his face. It took her a moment to place it. Then, when she did, she couldn’t help but laugh a second time. Softly, again, but not sadly.

    They’d been speaking in English, as Ruy always preferred. He said that was to improve his command of the language. Sharon knew that for a little lie. Sanchez, an old seducer, would take any advantage he could get. Better to fumble a bit with the intended seducee’s language—perhaps she’d find the accent charming—than to place oneself in the dreaded position of an instructor.

    It was the word relationship that had confused him, she realized. How delightful. She’d have to remember that. Confusing Ruy Sanchez was an accomplishment. Not like climbing Everest, maybe, but perhaps up there with climbing the Matterhorn.

    He understood the word itself, of course. But Europeans of this day and age—the Spanish, for a certainty—simply did not think of people in terms of their “relationship.” The word was at once too broad and too individual. They thought in terms of specific relationships. Class, status, age, whatever. Behind that American concept lay centuries of technical and industrial advance and the social looseness that came with it. A world where custom and tradition had lost its firm grip needed that individual substitute. In the world of Ruy Sanchez, it fit about as well as a square peg in a round hole.

    A glimmer of understanding came to her, then. Just a glimmer.

    “What do you want from me, Ruy?” Sharon looked down at herself. Once again, she slapped her thighs. “Besides this, I mean? Or is there anything else?”

    Even covered by the rich material of her gown, the sound was distinctly meaty. Not surprising—the thighs strained at the fabric just as the breasts did. No one would ever mistake Sharon Nichols for a Vogue model. Still, it was the sound of firm flesh, not flab.

    She looked back up at Sanchez, challenging him with her dark eyes. “What do you want? Or is it impossible for you to even think that straightforwardly? Do you always need to fit yourself—and me—into categories? Like ‘conquest?’”

    She looked over at a settee nearby. “I swear, I’m almost—not quite—ready to march over there and spread my legs just so you can get it out of your system.” She brought her gaze back to him. “We’ve got a term for that, by the way. Americans, I mean. It’s called a ‘mercy fuck.’ But it’s usually something bestowed on boys.”

    To her surprise, he did not bridle at all under the implied insult. True, he stroked his mustachios; but, with Ruy Sanchez, that was a given. As well ask a rooster not to crow at dawn; or a tomcat not to prowl at night.

    When he took the fingers away, there was a smile there. A sad one, she thought.

    “Do not ask, Dona Sharon. The answer is... impossible.” His square shoulders seemed to get squarer still. “I shall no longer attempt my—ah—courtesies. Although—” His eyes flicked to the settee. “—should you reconsider at any point...”

    The humor, Sharon realized, was simply a cover for sadness. Why?

    The realization came to her almost like the proverbial thunderclap. It was all she could do not to clap her hand over her mouth in shock and surprise.

    He wants to PROPOSE? He’s old enough to be my father! That was quite literally true—Ruy Sanchez and James Nichols were almost exactly the same age. An old goat is one thing, but...

    Another realization came to her, then. Not like a bolt from the blue, but welling up from underneath. There had always been something about Ruy Sanchez that had struck an odd chord with her. She’d called it “twinkly,” she remembered. For the first time, she understood what it was.

    Ruy Sanchez reminded Sharon of her father. The two men were so different in so many ways that she’d never thought of it before. But now...

    She rose and went to stand by the window. Yes. Two men born and raised in a society’s underbelly who had clawed their way out of it. Yet, beneath the smoothly polished exterior, always retained something of that primal origin. Including the sheer testosterone ferocity that served some men in such places as their shield and sword.

    That was not often in evidence, with her father, but it was there. Always there, somewhere, beneath the doctor’s surface. Sharon remembered, once—she’d been twelve at the time and her mother was still alive—coming out of a movie theater with her parents in a rough part of Chicago. Two young men had moved toward them. Their purpose? Impossible to know, but there had been that sense of aggressiveness about their movements.

    Their purpose would never be known because her father had gone through an instantaneous transformation. Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde—or was it the other way around? Sharon could never remember. One instant, a courteous and sophisticated professional man in early middle age; the next—

    Sharon could remember being far more frightened by her father than the two young men, even though none of his—anger? pose? who could tell?—was aimed at her. You got some kinda problem, motherfuckers? James Nichols was not a big man. But, in that moment, his entire upper body had seemed to swell, his face jutting forward, the muscles in his neck like stretched cables. If he’d had hackles, they would have been raised. The beast below, filling the man.

    The two young men had lost whatever purpose they’d had, immediately. They hadn’t run away. Not quite. But Sharon was sure they’d set a new Olympic record for the fifty-yard walk, if there was such an event.

    She looked back at Sanchez. He was still just studying her, silently, through hooded eyes.

    Yes. Oh, yes. But there is that one great difference, isn’t there?

    Sharon’s eyes went back to the window, moving across the seascape of Venice below. For all the surface glitter of the city and its undoubted beauty, it was ultimately tawdry. Even foul, in this time and place. It was a world with many wonders, to be sure. But it was still the world which had destroyed Hans Richter. A world she loathed, hated and despised, when all was said and done.

    Yes, that difference. James Nichols had come into a world which, however uncaring it might often be about its underbelly—and a big, foul underbelly it was, too—allowed individuals from it to claw their way out. Even sanctioned it; even praised the act of clawing. James Nichols was known to publicly joke about his “close encounter with that downstate institute of learning I don’t think I’ll get into the details about”—and the joke invariably elicited laughs from the men who heard it. Men of a different background and a different color, but it mattered not at all. Always, beneath the laughter, there was that genuine respect. Even admiration.

    There would be no such respect and admiration for Ruy Sanchez. Not in this world. The trajectory of his life mattered not at all. The origin was enough. He was tolerated for his skills, and accepted because he had the good grace to cover his origins with the requisite lies. But there would always be certain limits, certain boundaries—and, always, the silence of a man who really couldn’t even understand the source of his own bitterness.

    How odd it seemed to Sharon—shocking, even—that he should extend those limits to her. Would see her as a suitable object of his lust—his world would accept a seducer, and enjoyed its salacious gossip about nobility—but... nothing further. Such a gulf there was between them. The difference in age was the least of it.

    The gulf itself drove the decision. In this, too, Sharon Nichols would use anger as her tool.

    She turned to face him, squarely, her hands pressed to her thighs. “Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz—or whatever your real name is, and how about telling me some time? I’d actually like to know—and... that’s a run-on sentence. Sorry. Weakness of mine.”

    She took a deep breath. “There is only one human being in this universe who will ever decide whether you belong in my bed. In whatever capacity. One-night stand—never mind; I’ll explain that some other time, I’m sure you can figure out—ha! you!—the gist of it, anyway—or lawfully-wedded husband. That person is me. Understand that in the marrow of your bones, or get out of my sight and don’t come back. Comprende?”

    Sharon was discovering that there was a real pleasure to be derived from startling Ruy Sanchez. It was fascinating. She’d never been at all interested in climbing mountains, but now she could understand at least some of the thrill involved.

    The Matterhorn, all of it, beneath her feet. Ruy Sanchez, all of him, completely taken aback.


    “What is so hard to understand?” She gestured angrily at the window. “You think I give a damn what those people think? You’ll see hell freeze over first, Ruy Sanchez. Freeze up like an Alaskan glacier. Siberia, with the Devil buried ten miles down.”

    Sanchez chuckled. “I was actually not concerned about them, Dona—”

    “And cut the stupid Donna business! My name’s Sharon, not Donna. Plain and simple Sharon. Been that since I was a toddler. Except for that jerk Falasha Jones when I was ten who thought it was funny to call me ‘Cherie’ until I pounded the crap out of her.”

    “Um. Yes. Somehow I do not find that difficult to believe. But what I was trying to say—ah, Sharon—is that it was your own people who concerned me. I would not give offense.”

    It took her a moment to understand what he was talking about. That just made her angrier. “To hell with that. If Mike Stearns doesn’t like—whatever I do—I will explain to him that the difference between ‘prime minister’ and ‘prime rib’ doesn’t mean squat to a nurse. As for my father...”

    She couldn’t help but wince a little. “Oh, sure, he’d have a fit if I decided—which I probably won’t, Ruy, I’ll give you fair warning—but so what? Won’t be the first time. He had a fit about Hans, too, at first. Had an even worse fit over Leroy Hancock, although I’ll admit my dad turned out to be right about that one. What a sleaze bucket he turned out to be.”

    She tried, for a moment, to picture Ruy Sanchez with her father in a room somewhere. Discussing it like gentlemen. The image caused a burst of laughter. “Do me one favor, though. In the event—not likely—that you wind up meeting James Nichols, do try to maintain, will you? I don’t even want to think about a room filled waist high with testosterone, between you and my dad putting on the act.”

    Sanchez suddenly bowed. It was a purely formal gesture.

    “Very well, then. I shall respect your wishes, Do—ah, Sharon. Yes. I wish to formally request—what is that American expression?—’your hand in marriage,’ I believe.”

    When he rose, he looked very dignified. Ruy did “dignified” extremely well, too. Sharon had noticed that before. It was one of the things she liked about the man.

    One of many, in truth, now that she thought about it. Granted, there were other things she found quite unlikable. However, that had also been true of Hans Richter. The span of centuries could be bridged, but it could not be waved away.

    And, so what? Sharon had made no attempt to change Hans, after all, beyond a few habits. She’d always thought it was stupid anyway to accept a man only to immediately try to turn him into something he wasn’t. On a practical level, why bother? Find someone else, dummy, if it bothers you that much. On a deeper level, because something about the idea offended Sharon Nichols’ concept of basic human dignity.

    That concept also included honesty, she reminded herself. “Ruy, understand that the answer will probably be ‘no.’ There are many—ah—problems—”

    “I understand.” He gave the mustachios a little flick of the finger. Not a stroke, just a gesture to highlight their color. The mustachios were thick and rich, to be sure. They were also more gray than black. “My age.”

    Sharon shook her head. “That’s the least of it. Well, maybe not the least, but—”

    She broke off, startled. It actually wasn’t that important to her, she suddenly understood. Not trivial, certainly, but not vital either. Why should it be, really, other than the certainty—if she made that decision—that she would be a widow at an early age. “Old goat,” Ruy Sanchez might be, but he was a very, very vigorous goat. The many decades of his life were apparent in the lines of his face. Few of them showed in that stocky, broad-shouldered body, so obviously still muscular even under the rich costume of a hidalgo.

    For just an instant, and for the first time since she’d met him, Sharon had an image of Ruy in her bed. Naked, as she herself; coupling. The image vanished almost as soon as it came. But, as she considered the residue, she realized that it was not... unpleasing. Certainly not repellent. In some ways, quite the opposite. She’d more than once, laughing, accused Hans Richter of being a goat, after all. To which he’d replied with a grin and an eager nod. The simple fact was—Sharon had to be honest with herself—she reacted with animal heat to that kind of rambunctious male, provided it was a man she cared for. Hans had kept her well-exercised in bed, and she didn’t doubt for a moment that Ruy would do the same. Nor—don’t lie to yourself, girl—that she’d enjoy it immensely.

    And, again, Sharon was startled. She’d just crossed a boundary here, she knew. Or made a transition, it might be better to say. Since the morning of October 7, 1633, when she’d seen the column of smoke rising from the Baltic and known that Hans was dead, this was the first time she’d even thought of sex, as anything other than an abstraction.

    Only six months? She probed, to find the guilt, and was surprised to find... well, some. But not really very much.

    You slut. Then she shook her head. It had just been a thought, after all. It wasn’t as if she had any plans to act on it. Not soon, certainly.

    “No, Ruy, that’s not the most of it. Let’s start with the fact—awkward little detail, here—that you are the agent of a foreign power with which my country is at war. Eh?”

    Sanchez smiled. “That is indeed... ah, awkward, as you say. Still—” He waved his hand theatrically. “Here my age comes to advantage! Wars come and go, alliances change—overnight, often enough. We are a wicked, wicked race, much given to depravity and duplicity.” He pressed his right hand on his chest and gave her a look of utmost sincerity and ardor. “All except in matters of the heart.”

    Sharon burst into laughter. John Barrymore couldn’t have done that better! Sir Laurence Olivier would have knelt at the feet of his master. Lesser actors would have fled in despair. Many, committed suicide.

    She shook her head weakly. “You do make me laugh, God knows you do. All right, Ruy, we’ll let that sit on the side for the time being. Do keep in mind, though, that my own loyalties are rock solid. Don’t doubt that for a moment.”

    He examined her with none of his earlier drollery. “Yes, I know that, Sharon,” he said quietly. “I have understood that from the beginning. Well, very soon, at least. But—I am serious now, for the moment—my age does have certain advantages. That your loyalties are rock-solid, I do not doubt. The fact remains—how to say it?—that ‘rock-solid’ simply describes the substance of the thing. It says nothing about the form.”

    Her puzzlement must have shown. Ruy stroked his moustache, as if to concentrate his thoughts. “Let me put it this way. The same end can often be achieved by an alternate means. So it may be—I have my loyalties also, you understand—that both loyalties can find a different place to meet than on a field of battle.”

    He placed his hand over his heart again. The gesture, this time, was solemn rather than theatrical. “More I cannot say, at the moment, because of those same loyalties.”

    “Oh.” Sharon looked away. She thought...

    Maybe. Could this be another glimpse of that possibility that both Francisco Nasi in his briefings and Father Mazzare in his—usually frustrated—musings had talked about? A distance between Spain itself and its supposed province in the Netherlands? The King here—but the Prince there? If so...

    She lapsed into a bit of theatricality herself. “Well. In that case, it might almost be considered my duty to receive your courtship, wouldn’t it? Very depraved and duplicitous of me, of course.”

    Ruy smiled. “To be sure. A new Mata Hari.”

    Sharon wondered where he’d heard about Mata Hari. Not for long, though. If there was any principality in Europe which hadn’t stolen or finagled or just bought in the open market copies of Grantville’s prized history books, she didn’t know where it was. Maybe a clan chief somewhere in the west of Ireland.

    She grimaced. “That woman got shot. Or hanged, I can’t remember which.”

    “Please!” Ruy drew himself erect, exuding outrage and indignation. Again, Barrymore couldn’t have done it better. “That was done by the French!” He scowled. Olivier would have swooned at the sight of that tight-set jaw, the quivering mustachios, the frown like Jove’s. “The French. Just like them. Shoot a woman! Yes, it was a firing squad. The ungallant bastards. No Spaniard—well, perhaps the Spaniards—but certainly no Catalan—”

    “Oh, give it a rest!” Sharon shook her head, laughing. “You’d shoot a woman in a heartbeat, Ruy, if you thought it was your duty.”

    “Well. Duty, yes. Simply because it was ordered, no.”

    There was a finality to that last sentence that Sharon didn’t find herself doubting at all. Whatever else he was, she’d understood for some time now, Sanchez was not dishonorable. If anything, she suspected, he would hold himself to a tighter standard than most men would.

    I can live with that, she decided abruptly. “All right, Ruy. Still, the answer will probably—almost certainly, to be honest—wind up being a ‘no.’ But... if you’re willing to risk the most-likely waste of your time and effort...”

    Barrymore and Olivier, both, would have collapsed then. Struck down by the sudden realization of their hopeless amateurism.

    Sanchez had taken off his plumed hat when he’d first entered the room, and placed it on the back of an armchair. Now, he snatched the hat up, swept it across in a flourish, and gave a bow that no courtier in Madrid could possibly have bettered.

    “Dona Sharon! A minute wasted in your company is time better spent than a millennium in paradise! I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, swear it is true!”



    When she stopped laughing—she had to sit down, for a moment there—Sharon rose and slung her purse over her shoulder. It was very big purse—more like a traveling bag, since she always carried an emergency medical kit in it—which a smaller and less broad-shouldered woman would have found fatiguing to carry for very long. For Sharon, it was almost an inseparable part of her. She even took it to the opera.

    She ushered Sanchez out the door. “Come on, Ruy. The main reason I asked you to come here—I, Sharon Nichols, swear it is true—is to ask for your help in finding Joe Buckley’s murderer. Remember?”

    She cocked an eyebrow at him.

    “Certainly! And notice that I did not give it a moment’s thought. So sure may you always be of me.”

    As they moved down the corridor, she couldn’t keep the laughter from bubbling up. “Like I said—Don Quixote on steroids.”

    “Indeed. Whatever ‘steroids’ are. If they are something like ‘testosterone,’ it is certainly true. And...”

    His voice trailed off for a moment. When he looked at her, sideways, the brown eyes were soft, a bit sad, and...

    “You are indeed my Dulcinea, Sharon Nichols. Believe it true.”

    Jesus H. Christ. The guy is actually in love with me.

    That he’d read Cervantes, didn’t surprise her. That he’d embraced the book...

    Didn’t surprise her either.

    The answer is still probably NO, she told herself firmly. Tomorrow, next year, whenever.

    But she couldn’t deny the warmth the knowledge brought to her heart. Nor that it was the first real warmth that had come into it since a column of smoke rose over the sea. She wondered if she were being unfaithful to Hans? Just the warmth, alone?

    No, she decided. Hans Richter had been many things, including rash and reckless and often unthoughtful. Petty and spiteful, never once.



    In the foyer below, they encountered Benjamin Luzzatto and Ernst Mauer. Billy Trumble was standing guard at the entrance, along with two other Marines.

    “Oh, good, you’re both here. Hold down the fort for the day, would you? I won’t be back until sometime this evening.” Sharon gave Billy a somewhat imperious look. “Lieutenant Trumble, would you be so good as to accompany us?”

    “Uh, sure, ma’am. Whatever you say. The Father left you in charge until Mr. Stone gets back.” Billy’s eyes flicked back and forth from Sharon to Sanchez. The youngster was obviously both surprised and more than a little dismayed. “Ah, going out on a date?”

    “Today? Of course not!” No duchess could have said it more frostily. The very idea! Then, seeing Billy suitably abashed, Sharon relented.

    “No, not a date. Although—” Struck by an impulse, Sharon took Ruy’s hand in hers. “I may as well take the occasion to let everyone know that Señor Sanchez has just formally proposed to me.”

    That brought a delightful round of eyes-wide-as-saucers. It was all Sharon could do not to giggle.

    “Of course, I told him there was no question of my accepting his offer, though I was deeply honored. Not for the moment, certainly. But I would think about it. Perhaps, in the future...”

    She let that trail away. “However, today we are about another matter—which is why I’d appreciate your assistance, Lieutenant. I’ve asked Señor Sanchez to help us find and apprehend the murderer of Joe Buckley, and he has agreed to do so.”

    She’d relinquished Ruy’s hand by then. The hand went straight to the mustachios, stroking them fiercely.

    “The villain may as well cut his throat and be done with it,” Sanchez growled.

    There was always that about Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, in the end, whatever else might be said of him. He could make a statement like that—and not one person who heard it so much as cracked a smile.

    Billy just about snapped to attention. He swept open the door to the embassy. “After you, Mr. Sanchez.”

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