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1634: The Galileo Affair: Chapter Thirty Seven

       Last updated: Thursday, March 25, 2004 00:10 EST



    Sharon had never been across to Murano, before. Within five minutes of arriving on the northern island, she hoped she never would again. Even by Venetian standards, Murano was run-down.

    To make things worse, it soon became apparent that Billy Trumble didn’t really know his way around the island. He’d set off confidently enough, once they’d disembarked. But after guiding them through part of the island’s maze of alleyways—as often as not, just spaces between artisan shops, kilns and dwellings—he more or less drifted to a halt. Then, took off his cap and started scratching his head.

    “Lost?” Sharon asked.

    “Not exactly, ma’am.” Billy pointed to his right with the cap. “I know it’s off that way—not even too far from here. The problem is that I don’t know how to get there.”

    Sharon immediately provided the logical solution. “Let’s ask somebody.”

    Billy and Ruy immediately bestowed upon her the inevitable frown.

    Sharon sniffed. “I guess some things remain constant, one universe to another. I’d still like to know the evolutionary logic of males being hard-wired never to ask for directions.”

    Billy smiled crookedly. “I don’t think it’s really that, ma’am. Just, you know, a guy thing.”

    Sharon snorted. “Yeah, that’s my father said when I asked him. He claims it’s too deeply-rooted in our culture to do about anything it. He might be right. Why else would it have taken that doofus Ulysses ten years to get home? If he’d just asked for directions...”

    Fortunately, the directions stumbled upon them. An urchin came around the corner, paying the usual urchin attention to his surroundings, and just barely kept from bumping into Sanchez. A bit apprehensive, the boy backed up a couple of steps.

    “Hey, I know this kid,” exclaimed Billy. He looked more closely, stooping a bit. “Name ends with an ‘o’.”

    Sharon rolled her eyes. “Billy, in Italy that’s not exactly a big help.”

    The urchin came to the rescue. To Sharon’s surprise, he understood English. “Benito,” he pronounced. He craned his neck up at Billy. “You are one of the American soldiers, yes? I remember you.”

    “Yeah, that’s me. We’re looking for the Marcolis. I can’t remember how to get there.”

    The urchin looked woebegone. “They left. All gone. Yesterday.”

    Sharon felt herself stiffen. “Gone? Where?”

    Benito shrugged. “I’m not sure. I think they went to Rome. I heard them talking about it, anyway.”

    Sharon and Ruy and Billy exchanged meaningful glances. Meaningless glances, it might be better to say. The kind of looks people give each other who are utterly bewildered.

    “Rome?” Billy almost choked. “Why the hell would they go to Rome? That’s—that’s—” He groped in the air. “That hundreds of miles away. It’d take them weeks, unless they could afford the best carriage.”

    Benito shrugged again. “I don’t know. I think maybe they’re going to see an old friend of theirs. A relative, maybe. Some old man who’s sick or maybe in some kind of trouble. It didn’t make much sense to me.”

    It was Sharon’s turn to choke a little. “Oh, Christ...” A feeling of dread was coming over her. The only old man in Rome she could think of who was in any kind of trouble was...

    “What was the old man’s name?” she demanded.

    “I told you, I can’t remember.” The urchin gave Billy a sly look. “Oh, wait. I remember now. The name ends with an ‘o’.”

    “Never mind that,” said Ruy quietly. “When you say ‘they all went,’ boy, who are you talking about? Exactly.”

    Benito frowned. “All of them. Everybody in the Committee.” He started counting off his fingers. “All the Marcolis—Massimo and his kids too. The girl, of course.” A fleeting grin passed across the urchin’s face that was at least a decade too leering to fit a boy whom Sharon estimated was not more than eight years old. “No way they’d leave Giovanna behind. Besides—he’s no fool, Antonio Marcoli, whatever people say—that way he could be sure Frank and his brothers would come too.”

    Sharon heard herself groan. Benito tugged at his fingers, remembering his count. “Oh. Yeah. Two more. Marius the handyman. He always goes anywhere Antonio does. And Michel. He went with them too.”

    The name “Michel” had an odd flavor, in Benito’s mouth. The way a kid determined to seem sophisticated will fumble at foreign words.

    “Michel?” Ruy’s face was suddenly blank; all the underlying amusement which had been there a moment before vanished. “Michel who? What is his last name? And don’t tell me you don’t remember, boy. Or what letter the name ends in. The name.”

    Sanchez could be genuinely intimidating, Sharon reflected. She’d tell him to stop bullying the kid, except... well, she was a bit too intimidated.

    So was the urchin. Whatever smart remark Benito might have been contemplating died on his lips, as she stared up at Ruy’s face. The mustachios didn’t look like a flamboyant affectation now. They looked like they fit that face perfectly. The face of a conquistadore, contemplating a field of battle.

    “Oh, I know it,” Benito protested. “It’s Ducos. Michel Ducos.” He pointed to the main islands to the south. “He’s a French compatriot. He tells Antonio what’s happening in the French embassy.”

    Ruy straightened. “Ducos.” The word came out like a snarl.

    “You know him?” Billy asked.

    “Yes, I know him,” Sanchez said softly. The Catalan looked at Sharon. “This is no longer a joke. Not of any kind.”

    Sharon had guessed that much just from the expression on Ruy’s face. “Who is he?” she asked.

    “D’Avaux’s agent. Spy, assassin, whatever the Comte requires.”

    “He’s a compatriot!” Benito protested.

    “He is nothing of the sort,” Sanchez pronounced. “If he spent time with your Marcolis, he was acting as a spy. No. More likely as a provocateur.” A thought seemed to come to him. “Tell me, young Benito. When the American reporter Buckley came here, did he speak with Ducos often?”

    “Oh, sure. He and Michel were good buddies. Once or twice they even came together.”

    Ruy nodded. “Yes, it makes sense. All of it, now.”

    “What’s happening, Ruy?” Sharon asked quietly.

    “Ducos is your murderer. I am almost certain of it. He would have been stirring up some sort of trouble. Ingratiated himself with Buckley as well as the Marcolis—and then used the mutual friendships to reinforce each other.” Sighing, he took off his plumed hat and ran fingers through stiff, gray hair. “It is an old trick. Only amateurs would be taken in by it, of course. Use one connection to provide the authenticity for another. Then, back again. Buckley and the Marcolis each vouch for Ducos, and it never occurs to any of them that the principal reason they do so is because the other vouched for him in the first place. Idiots.”

    He gave Billy Trumble a hard look. “Did you meet this Ducos, the times you came here?”

    Billy shook his head. “No.” He hesitated. “I do remember somebody mentioning the name ‘Michel’ once or twice, but... I didn’t think anything of it.”

    “No, of course not.” Ruy put the hat back on his head. “Ducos would have made certain not to appear at the Marcolis if anyone other than the Stone boys were there from your embassy. Too much risk someone might know who he really was—or start asking questions.”

    Sharon was trying to follow the logic and making hard going with it. “I still don’t understand, Ruy. The Marcolis and the Stone boys, okay. But why would Joe be taken in? He was a pretty damn good investigative reporter, you know. There’s no way he wouldn’t have found out Michel worked for the French embassy.”

    But, by the time she’d finished, she already knew the answer. “Oh. Of course. Ducos wouldn’t have even tried to deny it, would he?”

    Ruy smiled grimly. “No, Sharon. He would have boasted of it. And then provided Buckley with so much good information—what’s your American expression? the ‘inside dope,’ I believe—that Buckley would have been dazzled by the opportunity. You recall that article he wrote on d’Avaux’s machinations, the one that caused all the trouble? He got the information from Ducos. Never thinking once that a man who gives silver intends to get gold in return.”

    “Bait,” Billy muttered. “You’re right. Joe was a good enough guy, but he was... oh, I don’t know. Cocksure of himself.”

    Sharon went back to something Sanchez had said earlier. “Why do you think Ducos is the murderer, though? With this good a setup, I’d think he wouldn’t want to upset anything.”

    Ruy’s little frown made Sharon realize that he hadn’t understood the colloquial term “set-up.” The Catalan’s English had gotten so good that she tended to forget he didn’t necessarily know all the slang and idiom. She began to explain but Ruy stilled her with a raised hand.

    “I understand the gist of your question. The answer? Two-fold. First, Ducos would have had no interest in simply spying on the Committee. Why should he? This is Venice, not Paris. His interest in them would have been simply that of tools to accomplish some other purpose. By all accounts, this Marcoli fellow is given to rashness, yes?”

    The last question was aimed at Billy, accompanied by the kind of up-tilted eyebrow that translates as don’t bullshit me, buddy.

    Billy took a deep breath and let it out. “Oh, yeah. I liked the guy, mind you—almost impossible not to. But, yeah, he wasn’t exactly playing with a full deck. Well. That’s not quite right. Marcoli’s not actually nuts—and he’s certainly not stupid. It’s just...”

    Sharon sighed. “I get the picture. I have a cousin like that. Did, anyway, back when and where. She was bright as a tack, and you couldn’t really say she wasn’t sane.” A little chuckle emerged. “I played cards with her, now and then. Not often, because she drove me nuts. She always assumed every card coming up was either an ace or a face card. Just because that’s what she wanted.”

    “Yup. That fits Marcoli to a T.” Billy looked to the south. “I guess we’d better get back, ma’am. There’s only just a few more hours left of daylight. If Stoner’s kids have gone with him...”

    Sharon could imagine the hell to be paid herself, with no trouble. But she still wished she knew more. She was now pretty sure that Marcoli had decided to try some kind of rescue attempt for Galileo. But that was just a guess on her part. And any assumption that the Stone boys were part of whatever scheme Marcoli had cooked up—assuming there was really one at all—would be sheer speculation at this point.

    Nobody really knew anything. From an street urchin’s simple statement that the Stone boys had left with the Marcolis, there’s was only so far you could leap.

    Uncertainly, she looked in the direction Billy had indicated earlier was where the Marcoli house was to be found. Ruy put her thoughts into words.

    “Yes, I agree. Since we are here, we may as well see if there is any information to be found there. Marcoli or one of his confederates may have left something behind.” He tugged at his mustache, smiling a bit derisively. “Judging from their reputation, perhaps a broadside boasting of their not-yet-accomplishment.”

    The Catalan looked down at Benito. “Take us there,” he commanded.



    With Benito’s sure feet guiding the way, they arrived at the building where the Marcolis lived within just a few minutes. The building was old as well as big, one of those edifices which gets added on to decade after decade, century after century, in a city as ancient as Venice. Much of the front consisted of workhouses, to Sharon’s surprise, which were humming busily at their trades. Glassmaking, judging from what little she could see.

    “The Marcolis live in the back part,” Benito explained. “This way.”

    He led them down the side of the building, through a passageway almost two narrow to be called an alley. Then, made two quick turns to thread his way through a little labyrinth of outbuildings. They found themselves in front of a large door.

    The door was ajar. “That’s funny,” Benito said, frowning. “I know they closed it when they left. Locked it, too.” The boy looked a little guilty, then. Despite the seriousness of the moment, Sharon had to suppress a chuckle. She had no doubt the little scamp had tried to get himself in. Maybe not to steal, just... an opportunity too rare for a respectable street urchin to pass up.

    Ruy, though, didn’t seem to be suppressing any kind of humor. “The door has been forced.” He stepped up and pushed it open. “Dona—ah, Sharon. Please remain outside.” A moment later, moving quickly and silently, the Catalan was through the door.

    Sharon and Billy looked at each other.

    “Like hell,” said Sharon. “If there’s trouble, he’s not facing it alone.”

    Billy nodded and went in, Sharon on his heels.

    Once inside, they found themselves in something of a vestibule. A narrow staircase led up on the left. At the end of a short corridor, on the right, a door stood open. Sanchez himself was nowhere in sight.

    Sharon decided he couldn’t have gone up the stairs that quickly. “That way,” she hissed, pointing to the door.

    Billy nodded again and hurried toward it, Sharon crowding him as closely as she could.

    So closely, in fact, that when Billy came to an abrupt halt as soon as he passed through the door, Sharon collided with him.

    “Goddamit,” she heard Billy mutter. Sharon was surprised at the anger in his voice. She hadn’t bumped into him that hard. But then, looking over the lieutenant’s shoulder, she realized that the curse had been directed elsewhere.

    Oh, damn.

    They had entered a very big room, lit only by windows along one wall. Despite the narrowness of the windows, the lighting was rather good this time of day, with the afternoon sun shining through. It was the sort of central kitchen-and-taverna that the USE embassy itself contained. Sanchez was standing near a small table toward the center of the room, staring at six men crowded around a much larger table at the back. The men were staring back at him. Most of them were seated. Judging from their postures, Ruy had caught them completely by surprise. They seemed to be doing something with documents spread out on the table.

    All of them, alas, were armed. Sharon thought so, at least. She couldn’t see any guns in evidence, but two of them were bearing swords and all of them had knives of one sort or another scabbarded to their waists.

    Ruy swiveled his head and looked at her. Then, his lips quirking, brought his gaze back to the strangers. “Why am I not surprised?” she heard him murmur. “I predict it will be a stormy courtship.”

    Suddenly—the Catalan could move very quickly when he wanted to—Sanchez plucked off his hat and sent it sailing toward a row of coat-pegs on the far wall. The hat landed atop one of the pegs and perched there neatly. Despite everything, Sharon almost burst into laughter. Only Ruy would make sure of that detail!

    “Lieutenant Trumble,” Sanchez said loudly, “I will rely upon you to keep Dona Sharon safe. These are Ducos’ men. I recognize three of them.”

    The word Ducos seemed to break the paralysis of the strangers. One of them shouted something which Sharon didn’t understand, although she thought it was French. An instant later, working together, all the men still seated had upended the big table and tossed it aside. And all of them were drawing out weapons.

    Three swords, damnation! One of the men seated had been armed with one also. Sharon hadn’t spotted it beneath the table. The others simply had daggers. Big, nasty, sharp-looking daggers.

    Sanchez planted a boot on the small table next to him and sent it flying against the same wall his hat was resting upon. For all the smooth ease of the motion, the table shattered when it hit the wall. One of the legs landed five feet away. There was now a clear fighting space in the center of the room. Ruy’s hands went to his waist. The rapier and main-gauche came out easily, hissing their steely way.

    For just that instant, as the Catalan’s back and shoulders swelled in the act of drawing his blades, Ruy Sanchez reminded Sharon of nothing so much as a cobra flaring its hood. She’d long understood that the man was deadly, beneath the veneer of wit and drollery. The veneer was gone now. Not a trace of it left. Ruy Sanchez was once again in a familiar place—and he was almost sixty years of age. He’d survived that place before. He intended to survive it again.

    His opponents sensed that feral confidence themselves. Their initial lunge toward the center of the room, fueled by the bravado brought by greater numbers, stumbled to a sudden halt. The rapier and main-gauche had been almost like lightning bolts, flashing in the rays of late-afternoon sun pouring through the windows.

    To their misfortune, they’d paused too late. The cobra struck. How a man as stocky and relatively short as Sanchez—he was perhaps an inch shorter than Sharon herself—could manage that sort of lunge was beyond her. Manage it he did, though—and it was a perfect fencer’s lunge. Poised, balanced, no awkwardness at all.

    The intended target screeched and tried to deflect the blade with his own sword. But Sanchez had not aimed for the easily protected chest and belly. The rapier flashed beneath the parry and sank into the man’s upper thigh, just below the hip joint. A quick vicious twist of the wrist and the blade was back out again.

    The man groaned and stumbled back, collapsing. He dropped his sword, both hands clutching at his leg. The blood was already spurting out as if through a hose.

    Sharon felt numb. She was a nurse and, at that, better versed than most in human anatomy. The man’s femoral artery had been sliced right through. He’d bleed to death in a few minutes; lose consciousness much sooner than that. She was pretty sure Ruy had hit the femoral triangle straight on—Scarpa’s triangle, as it was sometimes called. He’d probably severed the great femoral nerve at the same time.

    The blow was deadly; as deadly, to an expert, as more obvious cuts to the throat or heart. And, seeing the grim look of satisfaction on Ruy’s face, she had no doubt at all that the Catalan had known exactly what he was doing.

    Sanchez smiled mirthlessly. “My name is Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz,” he growled at the five still-standing French agents. “Prepare to die.”

    This time, Sharon couldn’t stop the laugh from bursting out. A semi-hysterical laugh, to be sure. But still—

    Where in the hell had Ruy Sanchez gotten his hands on a copy of The Princess Bride?

    “Jesus,” she heard Billy mutter. “He’s not kidding.”



    The eruption of violence had paralyzed Billy Trumble for a moment. Soldier or not, Marine officer or not, he was actually a complete stranger to this kind of sudden mayhem. But while Billy had caught the same reference—he’d seen the movie—he understood something immediately which Sharon didn’t.

    Sanchez hadn’t read the book. He’d probably never even heard of it. The character of Inigo Montoya was just an author’s comic twist on an ancient and very real model.

    Meet Ruy Sanchez. The original.

    And he ain’t being funny at all.

    “Oh, Jesus,” he repeated, clawing at the flap of his holster. One of the French thugs screamed something, threw his knife at Sanchez and then stooped to retrieve the fallen sword. The Catalan took a quick step to the left and swept the main-gauche across, batting the thrown knife harmlessly into a far corner. Billy knew that he’d taken that little step, despite the risk, to make sure he didn’t deflect the knife toward Sharon.

    Goddam knight of the round table, too! Sixty years he’s spent stewing in that crazy macho stuff.

    He had the flap open finally. Thank God. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a sudden burst of swordplay. Just a quick clash of blades before Sanchez and his opponents backed away. This was no idiot Gene Kelly or Errol Flynn movie where swordsmen pranced and danced all over the place smiling gaily and matching sword strokes for minutes on end. This was a deadly serious business where one good stroke or cut left a man dead or dying in a split-second. It was like watching angry rattlesnakes in a cage.

    The pistol was coming out. Billy reached over with his left hand to work the slide and jack a round into the chamber. It was an old .45-caliber automatic, the Colt army model, with a heavy slide. He fumbled at it. He felt light-headed, the way he never did in a baseball game no matter how tight the situation. I’m not used to this! some part of him wailed silently.

    The slide banged down. The weapon discharged and recoiled out of his hand.

    It shouldn’t have happened, but a worn sear—or one a gunsmith had stoned to a knife-edge—could slip. I should’ve checked the goddam thing when I had time!

    The bullet ricocheted harmlessly from the floor and off into a corner. The pistol itself skidded across the floor. Right toward the Frenchmen.

    How Sanchez knew what had happened Billy would never understand. The Catalan must have had eyes in the back of his head. He stamped a boot, lunged once—twice—skipped aside... caught the sliding pistol with the toe of a boot and send it neatly sliding back across the floor.

    Okay, it wasn’t done perfectly—the pistol was heading toward the far corner instead of the one where Billy and Sharon were standing. Still. Any sarcastic thoughts Billy had ever had about Ruy Sanchez and his flamboyant ways died a sudden death. Jesus, that crazy old man is good.

    But the horror wasn’t over. Sharon pushed past him and practically tackled the pistol.

    “Sharon—it’s armed!” Billy shrieked. The hammer was back, anyway, and the recoil might’ve been enough to cycle the weapon completely, jacking another round into the chamber. If so, that thing was as deadly as a rattlesnake itself. Some part of Billy’s mind made a solemn vow—piss on the Admiral and his goddam rules—that he’d never use anything but a revolver in the future.

    Sharon hit the floor on her belly and scooped up the pistol. Billy held his breath...

    Thank God, again. Apparently she knew enough about firearms to realize that the pistol was armed. She had the butt in both hands and was coming up to her knees. Billy started to step toward her, reaching out his hand.

    But Sharon didn’t even glance at him. “Ruy, look out!” she screamed, leveling the gun.

    Billy twisted his head. Another one of Ducos’ agents was down. Somehow Sanchez had slashed the man’s throat. Damn near cut his head off, in fact. He was obviously deader than a mackerel.

    Sanchez had picked up a wound himself along the way. Billy could see a red stain spreading across the doublet on the left side above the waist. It couldn’t be too bad a one, he guessed, since the Catalan was still in fine fighting form. The wound didn’t seem to be bleeding that much. Nothing like that horrible gushing spray of blood that had happened after Sanchez stabbed the first man in the leg.

    The wound on Sanchez wasn’t why Sharon had screamed, though. Billy felt himself grow more light-headed still. He wondered if he had any blood at all left in his brain.

    One of Ducos’ agents had a pistol. Where the hell that had come from, Billy had no idea. The Frenchman had backed up a few steps so he could get a clear shot at Sanchez. Unfortunately—even if Sharon was a good enough shot in the first place—Sanchez was between her and his opponents.

    The pistol was some kind of smallish wheel-lock, not the big cavalry variety. An assassin’s weapon, and probably no more accurate than—

    Billy felt his head clear instantly, as well-trained reflexes took over. There was a small table just next to the door, not more than a step away. Atop sat a bowl of fruit. Those small Italian apples that Billy didn’t like because they were too sour.

    Right now, he could care less about their taste. They were also very hard—and, if not quite a big as a baseball, close enough.

    The apple came into his hand as easily and comfortably as the pistol had not. A quick pitcher’s stride—Billy had never dawdled on the mound—and the apple went flying.

    Billy could hit the plate, three times out of four, from the sixty-foot range of a pitcher’s mound. At considerably less than half the range, the apple hit the man right between the eyes.

    His coach had clocked his fastball once at ninety-seven miles per hour. Billy was pretty sure he’d just broken that.

    The apple splattered. It was just soft enough that the man didn’t die. But he was hurled against the wall, the pistol flying out of his hand.

    The pistol hit the same wall Billy was near. Wheel-locks were even touchier than old automatic pistols once they were cocked. The weapon discharged. The bullet hit the bowl of fruit and sent the apples flying everywhere.

    I... do... not... fucking... believe... this... shit.



    Frantically, Sharon tried to get a bead on someone. But it was impossible. The way Ruy was dancing back and forth, she’d be as likely to shoot him as one of his opponents. Even at this range, Sharon had no confidence at all in her marksmanship. She’d only gone to the firing range at Grantville—then, later, at Wismar—when her father or Hans had absolutely insisted. She didn’t like guns and felt no affinity for the things whatsoever. Especially a great big heavy monster like this one, whatever the hell it was.

    There was another of those sudden, terrifying clashes between Ruy and his opponents. Like watching men turn into sharks for an instant. It was all too quick for Sharon to follow clearly. When it was over, though, another of Ducos’ agents was stumbling back against the far wall, his sword spilling to the floor. Blood spurted through the hands clutching his throat. That was pure reflex, though. As soon as the man smashed against the wall his eyes rolled up and he slumped lifelessly. Ruy must have severed the spine as well as the throat with that stab.

    There were only two French agents left standing, now. But to her horror, Sharon saw that Ruy had been injured again himself. She hadn’t seen it happen, but one of Ducos’ men must have stabbed Ruy in the leg. Not the fatal kind of strike Ruy had landed at the beginning of the fracas, no; just a cut to the meat of the thigh. As wounds went, from a purely medical perspective, nothing much to worry about. Sharon was a lot more concerned about the wound that had now spread blood across the left side of the Catalan’s doublet.

    However, what was dangerous in a hospital was not the same thing as what was dangerous in a fight. Ruy was limping, now, pretty badly. And he’d lost a lot of blood, and—Sanchez or no Sanchez—he was a man in his late fifties. He couldn’t possibly last much longer.

    The two surviving Frenchmen sensed it. They started moving in for the kill. Slowly and carefully, to be sure.

    Sharon glanced to her left. Billy was scrabbling on the floor for apples. No help there.

    She took a very deep breath. She’d never smoked, was a big woman—and had a pair of lungs to match the rest of her chest.


    Sanchez instantly flung himself aside, coming to rest on his rump plastered against the wall right below his hat. He gave Sharon a grin that, for all the strain in his face, seemed genuinely cheerful.

    “A request from my intended is like a command from God,” he pronounced.

    Sharon snorted. Took another breath and drew a bead. The two agents were staring at her now.

    She decided marksmanship was pointless. She really had no idea what she was doing. On the other hand, she understood why they called these damn things “automatics.”



    “It was frickin’ amazing,” Billy would tell his friend Conrad later. “Truly awesome. She emptied the whole clip. Musta set some kinda time record, too. Sounded like it was on full auto.”

    A shake of the head, another quaff of beer. “A Colt .45 M-1911A1, to boot. Sure, it’s an old warhorse—none of the fancy few modern ones we’ve got for plebes like you and me, Conrad old buddy—but it’s still got enough firepower to shred a bull.”

    Another shake of the head, another quaff. “Point blank range. Couldna been more than twenty feet. Frickin’ amazing. She never hit the one guy at all and only managed to hit the other once. I grant you, in the chest, perfect center mass shot. Killed him deader’n a doornail. But. Still.”



    Billy wondered if he’d ever hear again. It felt like at least one of his eardrums had burst. Paralyzed, for sure. He’d never actually heard what a .45 sounded like fired in a closed room—thick walls, too—and wearing no ear protectors. It didn’t help at all that he’d been positioned alongside the firearm instead of behind the shooter.

    The one Frenchman still left standing seemed even more dazed than Billy was. Slowly, the man spread his arms wide and stared down at his body. He seemed a little amazed to see no blood.

    Billy was downright astonished. How could she possibly have missed—at that range?

    Sharon lurched to her feet and tried to do with the pistol itself what she’d failed to do with its ammunition. Hollering something that was probably obscene as all hell—Billy couldn’t make out a word of it—she hurled the pistol at the Frenchman.

    Alas. She was no more accurate than before. Ducos’ agent didn’t even have to duck. He just watched the pistol sail by at least two feet from his head.

    When he brought his head back, though, there was a smile on his face. A damn cold one. Sharon was disarmed and while Sanchez was struggling to get back on his feet the old man was obviously having a hard time of it now. Leaving aside the wound to the body, his left leg was just about literally soaked in blood.

    On the other hand, Billy had finally gotten his apple.

    “Hey, shithead,” he said. The Frenchman looked his way. Billy beaned him.

    A little high. Out of the strike zone. The apple had struck the man on the slope of his forehead instead of right between the eyes. Most of the impact had been deflected with the apple.

    Still, that had been one hell of a fastball. Somewhere between ninety-five and a hundred miles an hour, at a guess. The apple itself was now just a fruit stain across the far wall. Ducos’ agent was reeling, barely able to stand. And he’d dropped his sword.

    Billy started to reach down for another apple but changed his mind. “I never liked that damn designated hitter rule anyway,” he muttered.

    He stalked over and picked up the leg of the table Sanchez had shattered. Then, proceeded to start beating the Frenchman into a pulp.



    Sharon stopped him, unfortunately, before he could really get into a good rhythm.

    “Hey, don’t kill him! We want him to talk.” He could just barely make out the words through the ringing in his ears.

    Billy took a deep breath. She was probably right.

    “Okay. But. Still. This is why pitchers never bat too well, y’know. Nobody lets us get enough practice.”

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