THE ULTIMATE DOUBLECROSS
PEDRO ENDEAVORS to keep the cat close, even on a trip to the can. He doesn’t understand English, he can’t react appropriately, not even to a pleasantry. The phrases Sly’s taught him – good day to you, m’friend – when’s dinner? I’m plum starved – while somewhat multi-purpose, certainly don’t serve every situation. Beg pardon, where’s m’ blasted cat got himself to? and no time to chat. Got to find that cat! go only so far. Use them more than three or four times a day and you begin to be esteemed downright loony. Pardon, gents, got the runs! and outta my way! You know why! – sure-fire conversation stoppers – quickly became his cut-and-run strategy. The seamen joked, Here’s a pip! He’s either short his cat or he’s hot to crap!
. . . . . Pedro is installed in Meredith’s cabin. The captain has had Moreno’s sleep-swing slung in a corner, and has awarded the boy his own bed. Gato shares Goodwin’s cubby. Feo sleeps with Pedro, away from Goodwin, who is mean to him. Sly has begged the boy to take the poor thing under his wing, Gato occupied, not able to keep an eye on him. Feo occupies a corner of the boy’s bunk, and Sly even finds it in him to cuddle with him from time to time. Will wonders never cease!
. . . . . Pedro has a problem. The captain wants to chat. Sly advises him to proclaim a laryngitis, to lie in bed and moan, his face turned toward a wall; furthermore, to plead stopped up ears, he can’t hear. He’ll be questioned, certainly, but it will have to wait.
. . . . . Del Gado has not wavered in his certainty that the boy is a duke. How comes a Duke to speak an English of a vile strain? – the man apprehends that immediately. The far-sighted parents had wished their infant to acquire a tongue which would be useful once Phillip owned England, to prepare the boy for a role in an ever expanding empire. An Anglo priest sent south to receive instruction in how to foment insurrection, a north country yokel – the old religion had a chokehold there – had been seduced by a Duchess into taking on the education of her young son. She had not understood that the tutor spoke a dialect which would peg him a rube in London. The boy had English, yes, of a sort.
. . . . . Del Gado’s in a fix. His knowledge might have sufficed to crack a code, even a devilish one. He had indeed studied the art, but the log is a masterpiece of encryption, that was his first reaction. It soon dawns on him that he’s been outwitted. Moreno has held onto the original. He’d probably had a fake put by for months, suspecting he was watched.
. . . . . All is not lost. He still has the Duke. He puts on a show, to buy time. That day, and the next, and the one after that, he spends constructing grids, copying letters and combinations of letters, preparing templates, duplicating sections of code, every word after a punctuation mark, every third letter, the letters read vertically, horizontally, backward, numbers added and subtracted, a hundred manipulations, with much groaning and pounding of the tabletop, and exclamations, alternately, triumphant or discouraged: Drat the bastards! – sly, the scum-buckets! – I’m on the scent now, you jake-heads!
. . . . . Goodwin sits near, assigned to monitor his progress. “At first,” Gato lectures him, “I believed it a simple Polybius. I searched for patterns, no dice. Try, try again. Does the structure point to a transmigration, or a transference, or a variation thereof? Seemingly not. Is it an inverted, or a re-assigned numerical/alphabetical? Sadly, no. Is it an advanced piece of deviltry, the infamous Neo-__ __ __ __ian Shuffled Substitution? Or a bastard offspring of the same? Might a meaning be extracted by means of a grid? A staggered grid? A rotated grid? Is a clue found in heavy-handed characters? You see what I’m up against. Two long years I passed in Marshalsea, nothing to keep me from going mad but games such as this, worked under canny instruction, initially for fun, then a serious contention with my teacher, a genius at the entertainment. What a mark he might have made in the world, if he hadn’t, like me, succumbed to the temptation to eat well once in a while, through the agency of criminal misbehavior. God keep your gracious Queen, sir! I’ve abused her hospitality on multiple occasions.”
. . . . . The more he dithered, the closer they were to French coast. But he needed to speak privately with the boy. Goodwin left them briefly alone. He jumped on his opportunity. “I’m banging something together. It won’t fool them long. We’ve got to beat it. Do you have gold – anything – to bribe our way off this death-rattle-trap?”
. . . . . “Nothing,” replied Pedro, which was technically true.
. . . . . “What, your Mama didn’t arm you for your journey with a few coins? She didn’t stuff a gold ring in your pocket? Or a silver chain? Or an heirloom diamond? I don’t believe it! You’ve got to have something to sell!”
. . . . . “No sir,” Pedro insisted. “Nothing whatsoever.”
. . . . . “The belt! What’s in that belt?”
. . . . . “Impossible!” Pedro stammered, “W-w-whatever may be in the belt, it’s not mine to dispense!”
. . . . . “Not yours! Who the hell’s is it then?”
. . . . . Uh oh. Who else could it belong to? Certainly not to a cat. “It’s not mine at present, not currently in my possession, that’s what I mean. It’s entrusted to a friend.”
. . . . . “Who’s got it?”
. . . . . “I’ve promised not to say.”
. . . . . “Is it Cole?”
. . . . . Cole had hovered over the boy since they’d boarded, and after the onset of an illness, had insisted on pumping an invalid full of hot broth and on dosing him with a medicinal which he carried always. When Pedro felt well enough to walk, Cole had chaperoned, concerned he not wear himself out. He had unlimited access to the boy, while Del Gado was required to keep pounding away at a code.
. . . . . A common seaman does not intrude on the quarterdeck at will. How does Cole come and go? Sly and Gato had arranged it, albeit unwittingly. Sly had ordered Pedro to play sick. Gato immediately abetted the strategy, insisting, it’s the influenza! We had influenza on the Santa Clara. The boy must sleep. No one troubles him! No one! He glared at Jack Cole, who’d just entered the cabin, armed with another bowl of soup.
. . . . . “Influenza!” whooped Cole, not to be detered. “I got the sure-fire cure in my trunk, a concoct of my wife, who makes a study of restoratives. I’ve dosed pounding heads and clouded lungs too, to, mostly, advantageous outcomes. Look here, am I afflicted, no matter what misery erupts in the fo’csle? Never! I’ve got a strong constitution, sure, but I swear my unfailing health is the result of my wife’s potion.
. . . . . Influenza! The curse of the age, after the lethal embrace of the plague, and the disfiguring smallpox. “Go to!” screeched Meredith. He knew Cole’s wife, a true mending hand. Her manner alone inspired the will to live. She was unflinchingly cheerful, not expecting her patient to die on her, that was part of her sorcery. A professional healer, if he’s wise, proclaims the worst at the start of treatment. If the patient recovers, he gets the credit. If not, he’d been called too late. The county went to the woman. The services of a degreed doctor were pricey, not always available, and, frankly, to be avoided. In those days, one survived an illness in spite of the best efforts of a trained physician, not because of them.
. . . . . A ship carried no doctor, per se. What was needed was a saw-bones to deal with shattered limbs and gangrene, and to sew up gashes. The captain despised doctors. He was of the mind that years at lessons in general, and medical education most especially, counted for little compared to common sense. He and Sly would have found themselves in perfect agreement, if they’d had the chance to scrape acquaintance. The old ways, root of this and bark of that, were the best.
. . . . . Cole had permission to attend the invalid as often as he deemed necessary. Pedro, inadvertently, he wasn’t that clever, reinforced Gato’s suspicions. “The belt is held by someone who swears to get me safe off this wreck,” he’d cried, annoyed by insistent interrogations. “A friend! A real friend!”
. . . . . “I’m the only friend you’ve got here.” Gato had responded. “If you imagine otherwise, you’re five kinds of fool.”
. . . . . “You’re not!” insisted Pedro. The cat, who’d been on a potty run, had returned. Pedro sulked, annoyed with himself for an inadvisable outburst. Sly was used to these episodes. The sullen mood would pass all the sooner if he ignored it.
. . . . . “I have a confession,” the child finally admitted.
. . . . . “Do tell,” replied the cat, cooly. This was the way to handle a fliberty-gibbert.
. . . . . “I believe I’ve given Señor Del Gado the idea that Mister Cole has your belt.” Gato, when he’d gone to retrieve it from the pile of sail, had not been successful. The boy, damn him, stumbled across it, and has handed it off, Christ Almighty! – to Cole!
. . . . . Pedro had been forbidden to speak when the cat was not present. He expected to be berated. The reaction, when it came, was not what he’d feared. “Splendid!” the cat shrieked, his tail quivering. A whiplash motion would have indicated displeasure. The tail straight up, with the merest vibration, signaled excitement and approval. “I see a way forward!” he cried. “Cole wants to be your friend. Confide in him. You need help bad. You have a secret. Gato knows it, and will use it against you first chance. There is no buried treasure. There’s a notebook in code, but that’s another ball of wax entirely, nothing to do with you whatsoever. Gato’s using it, to trick Meredith into approaching French coast, hoping he and you can pull free.
. . . . . You are, in fact, the missing Duke. His diamond was one of yours and, if he’s not expert on stones, you can assure him it’s of the very first quality. You have many more, you’re not ready to say where. Put it to Cole – get me to shore, the gems are yours. You don’t share with your captain, nor with Gato, nor with anyone. If you split with Jack Daw, that’s your business. Cole may cross you also, we have to be prepared for it. But he’ll get your tootsies to terra firma. We’ll take it from there.
. . . . . When we’re close in, Cole will finnagle a boat. We’re all to go, Gato too. Gato may have the goodies, and it will be a tricky business getting them away from him here. So, we’re in the boat, on our way. Gato’s thinking through the possibilities as he rows. You, you’ve got them. You wouldn’t have entrusted them to Cole, you’re not that dumb. But, you may not. John Cole, healing practitioner, was always trying to give you back rubs, the creep. You couldn’t risk him bumping into a pocket of small, hard objects.
. . . . . “Fiends of Hell Triumphant! Had you shoved them under your bedding? That’s what he would have done. That tonic Cole’s been ladling down your throat, it’s laced with rum. You were too dazed to think straight. He’d rushed you out of bed, half awake, clapping a hand over your mouth and carting you away. The boodle’s left behind. You don’t care. Screw the gems, your grandfather has plenty more. That’s his view also, he has no choice. He still has a duke under his control.
. . . . . “Guess what? Me, I’ve got them! Did you wonder why I had you grab Moreno’s ink pot off his desk? They’re sunk in ink. Who’d think to probe an ink well? You go to work on Gato. Beg him to preserve them for you. He’ll put them in his heel, it’s the quick fix. He’ll sleep in them, ready to go. While he slumbers, I’ll coax the ______s free, substituting – I don’t know, buttons maybe. I can snake anything out of anywhere, I’ve not always been the up-and-up you know me for. As long as he senses a clack in his heel, they’re safe. More than likely he’ll let go of you without a squeal, you’re more trouble than you’re worth.
. . . . . “You tip off Cole: Gato’s got the doo-dads, as Cole’s suspected all along. Picture this: Cole picks up a rattle from the heel. Fine. He knows where they sit, that’s all that matters. He knows about the heel. Don’t ask how, I’ll tell you another time. You and I swim for it while two clowns bicker. They let you go. They don’t give rat snot about you.”
. . . . . “Daw’s the patsy. He’s the one begged permission to gather what might be got in the way of fresh fruits off an island. The boat’s not winched up for the night, only tied to the side; he wants to repeat the run next day, there’s acres of berries, none but the birdies to choke them down. When the tide’s right, Daw distracts the watch. The dope will be punished for aiding an escape, but he’s a puppet, manipulated by the evil brother-in-law. The whipping won’t be lethal. He’ll bleed, but he’ll survive. He’ll have his cut back in Falmouth. I mean to leave an emerald in the heel. Don’t squawk. These are my gems. I decide how they’re dispensed.”
. . . . . A gig awaits. In the deep dark four figures sit soundlessly, letting it trend with the tide until it’s out of hail. Then they pull with long strokes. They reach a cove. They steer for a spot where waters nibble politely at a crescent of sand protected by a breakwater. Shallow waves are rolling in, the frogs are har-umping in their marshes, a solitary owl on a distant point gives out his melancholy to-wit, a three-quarter moon lights the way. Almost to shore, a disagreement breaks out, first a quarrel, then a physical altercation, over a boot. Pedro’s got to spark the ruckus. The men will avoid an all-out confrontation until they trudge ashore.
. . . . . What sets them off? A youngster thanks Cole profusely for his assistance. He pulls silver buttons off his vest, all he has to offer, unfortunately. the cache is left behind. Cole’s furious. He’s been scammed. He’s caught the rattle from the boot. If Gato thinks he can get away with this, he’d wrong. Dead wrong.
. . . . . While Gato and Cole wrestle, Pedro drops into the water. The combatants are oblivious to his departure. Sly clings to Pedro’s back, belt wound around his neck. His papers are safe, inserted in a corked bottle. The shore is nigh. Pedro kicks for all he’s worth. In a bit it’s shallow enough to wade ashore. He’s bone-weary, but serene. He’s free! The cat, he’s a basket case.
. . . . . In the course of a violent confrontation the boat flips. Gato, to his credit, hoists his cat onto the keel of the capsized craft and does his best to calm him. Cole doesn’t swim, not well anyway. Are you surprised? Some sailors refuse to learn to swim. If a ship goes down at sea, being able to swim only prolongs suffering. Why don’t the morons right the thing? Easy enough to do, my husband tells me.
. . . . . First of all, they’re screaming at each other. Creep! Crud! Cut me out, do you?.They could refloat the boat, but Gato won’t consign his pal to the chop for the time it takes. He refuses an offer to collaborate on an effort to repair the upset. The tide is coaxing them to shore. John Cole may drown before they reach it. He’ll try to scare the bejesus out of the dirtbag in the meantime, asserting anxiously that this is a dangerous stretch, afflicted by eddies, he’s familiar with the area, living not far. Wear Cole down, that’s the plan. Then, overpower him, finish him off, and walk away solo.
. . . . . One or the other, maybe both, will eventually discover that the heel houses not a wealth of gemstones, but buttons, and a note, Pedro’s idea, two words, Thanks, moron! It’s writ large, an easy read, even in moonlight. Survivors, soon as they’re able, will be panting on Pedro’s beam-ends.
. . . . . Cole’s the one to walk away, in Gato’s boots. Cole lands a lucky blow. Gato’s out cold. When he comes to, Feo and his pal will hot-foot it north to Falmouth. The squirt is God-knows-where by now. He’s had hours of head start. The odds for a good outcome are better elsewhere.
. . . . . Cole’s on his way home. If Gato can get there first, he will sit and wait for the skunk to show. The folks who fished him out of Marshalsea, something might be wrung out there. He has the notebook to peddle, though the value of it is iffy at this point. Still, he has a number of options. As for Dainty Maeve, if The Doll is riding high and handsome, a position to protect, she’ll pay, ya, through the nose.
. . . . . One last thing: Gato and his pal haven’t lost anything by losing the boots. Sly hadn’t left an emerald in the heel after all, after he’d promised to fund a comfortable retirement. I’m not sure what the thinking was there. When it comes to me, I’ll let you know.
- Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.