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Chapter 5


Franco was cooling his heels as usual in the mid-afternoon heat, savoring a bite of lunch—which was, in truth, his breakfast, the night before having been a busy one—when the money walked in. The guy was dressed down some, but it was clear that there was cash and to spare about him. A Spaniard, from the looks of the sword he'd got, and it was the sword that was the clue to the money. That and the knives that were just discreet enough not to attract attention, and just obvious enough to make sure any attention he got was polite. A lot of rich guys wore a sword just to let you know that they had the pull to make it worth your life to mess with them, but only the ones who really meant it carried knives as well. An older guy, some gray at the temples, dark longish hair and cavalier mustachios, neatly trimmed. The guy could afford a pretty decent barber. He carried himself like a well-trained swordsman, and that was another thing that took plenty of cash. Everything about him stank of money. You didn't even have to start making guesses about what he had hanging from his belt under that jacket to figure there was a useful amount of silver about his person.

So, some rich Spaniard, slumming on the wrong side of the Tiber. Franco looked around the taverna. It was Marco's place, and as usual was quiet around the middle of the day. It was kind of quiet in the evenings, too, which was why Franco generally took himself there just after he got out of his bed, because he was not generally at his best at that time. Still, if money walked into the place where he was breaking his fast, it was not for him to argue the matter. Nor, particularly, to wonder why the Spaniard was looking for entertainment at this hour, when most respectable folks had the business of the day to take care of before they thought about getting their ashes hauled. If Franco's luck was in—and assuming he could get either of the idle bitches awake to do business . . .

Still, time enough for that. There wasn't anyone else in the place who might steal a march on him, so he set about finishing his lunch while the Spaniard was getting himself a jug of wine. The guy was reasonably new in town, so he wouldn't be quite so likely as to give Franco the brush off straightaway. In his rare honest moments, Franco would be willing to admit that his girls were not exactly about to go off and make their fortune as high-class courtesans such as might be found in Venice. The pair of them were costing him a fortune in mercury salts, a fact that was widely known around Rome. So, until he could find something a little more valuable, Franco was reduced to hooking his girls up with out-of-towners and doing other odd little jobs on the side.

And that was another possibility to look out for, Franco decided, as he poured out the last of the wine he'd bought. A lot of rumor was flying about. One of Franco's more reliable sidelines was passing on information to people who might want to hear that there was a damned good reason there were a lot more Spaniards in town right now. They were pretty much all up to no good, one way or another, which meant that there was a certain amount of money floating about. Franco was currently not too proud to take that kind of money for pretty much anything.

He was just about ready to get up and go talk to the man when the real reason the Spaniard was drinking in a dive like Marco's turned up. A guy that Franco vaguely knew as a militia cavalry officer, a moneyed idiot who was occasionally seen looking for a whore but wasn't quite enough of an idiot not to know what he was in for if he approached Franco. The guy had a sergeant who, when he wasn't riding the horse his boss paid for, had an approach to most things that happened off the street and out of sight that was mediated by modest and regular payments, so it wasn't like there was a major problem there. They were mostly exactly the kind of town guards that Franco thought that a city should have, which was to say guys who liked getting about on horses and looking impressive for the girls and otherwise not bothering the citizens overmuch. The foot-constabulary were a lot more of a pain in the ass, since they knew pretty much who to lean on, and when and for how much. A sore trial in many respects. Still, Franco was in enough money right now that he was eating, so he didn't care to go looking for trouble. He got himself a little more wine while he waited for one or the other of them to leave so he could see about getting some cash about whichever remained behind. Fortunately, there was a fairly lazy, low-stakes dice game going on in one of the back corners. Franco could stand there and spectate with one eye on the money, so he didn't look too much like he was spying.

Why such a man as this militia officer would be consorting with the likes of this Spaniard, Franco had no idea. It was probably worth waiting to find out, though.

The two of them spoke for maybe half an hour or so. There was a lot of intensive gesturing. They stayed close together and the militia guy seemed to be concerned that he wasn't overheard. And was even a little nervous about being seen with the Spaniard. After a while he left, looking around him the whole time. The Spaniard leaned back in the chair he'd been occupying over on the other side of the room and stared right at Franco with a big grin on his face.

Franco knew when to take a cue, and so he sauntered over. "Looking for anything in particular, friend?" he asked, taking a seat uninvited.

The Spaniard shrugged and tilted his head to one side. "I just might be, at that," he said, his grasp of colloquial Roman quite good, "and I think you might be a fellow open to business propositions of one sort or another."

Franco gave his most engaging smile in return. "Well, now," he said, "it's early in the day, and not many could point you in the direction of a good time this early, but I think something might be arranged for the right sort of gentleman. Looking for anything in particular?"

"Well, probably not what you're thinking," the Spaniard said, topping up his wine from the jug on the table, and most hospitably offering Franco a refill of his own cup.

Franco tried to keep his expression friendly. He hadn't figured the guy for a boy-lover, certainly not from his looks. And come right to it, Franco wasn't entirely sure how one went about catering for the likes of that. Oh, he knew it went on, but had never actually seen it going on, so to speak. "Ah, just what exactly were you thinking of, my friend?" Maybe now was the time to find out.

"Well, I need a few guys to do a little troublemaking. There's money in it, for maybe a couple of hours' effort." The Spaniard raised an eyebrow, waiting for an answer.

Franco tried not to let his relief show. When the Spaniard had started asking for a few guys he'd thought he was about to get asked to set something up that would ruin his good name in the city for ever. "What kind of trouble, and how many guys do you need?" He was already mentally starting to draw up a list of fellows he could probably rely on to deliver at least a moderate beating, and a slightly longer list who would be good for standing around and looking threatening.

"Thirty, forty," the Spaniard said, rocking his hand from side to side. "And mostly it's standing around and shouting stuff outside one particular house. A popular protest, you could say."

"Popular protest?" Franco kept his face straight. This was political. Sure, he'd take the Spaniard's money, but he'd also make sure to have a prior engagement that would keep him somewhere other than where this "popular protest" was scheduled to happen. A lot of the time, if people got together and sounded off about whatever was riling them, none of the mucky-mucks cared that much. Every so often, though, someone would have a wild hair up his ass and then it was constables with billy clubs at the very least, and the likes of that militia guy ordering a saber-charge at worst. Sure, it was more than likely that there would be a bit of noise and everyone would go home, but—

"Yeah," the Spaniard said. "I've organized a few of these in the last few weeks. Just turn out where and when I say, shout a few things that some guys I'll send along will be there to pass around, get in the way and block the street for an hour or so, and that's all that's needed. It's been pretty trouble free so far. What it is, is the guy who's paying me wants a few other guys told that they're playing the wrong politics. And part of that is making 'em feel like the people of Rome don't exactly want them around. Everyone we've done this to has been an out-of-towner."

"We?" Franco said, curious and willing to at least find out how much the Spaniard was willing to spill.

"I've got a few other guys out looking for warm bodies, local guys. Truth be told, I wasn't expecting to be asking anyone myself, but after my old friend left I could see you were probably a fellow with connections of one sort or another, just getting by the best you could, and maybe you might know a thing or two about finding the kinds of guys we need. And, you know, there's a little consideration in it for you."

Franco grinned, suddenly taking a dislike to the Spaniard, although not to the money he'd mentioned. "Well, yes, a little consideration and I might just pass the word to some fellows I know."

With that money changed hands and the location of a taverna over by the Via Ripetto. Franco didn't like the fellow any better with his silver in his hands, but since it was only for talking to a few guys, it wasn't any great issue. And if he could talk a few of them into actually turning up, by no means an easy proposition if actual exertion was in the offing, so much the better.

But what really annoyed Franco about the Spaniard was the cheap joke about the cost of mercury salts he made when Franco suggested a little action for the afternoon. And Franco felt entirely justified. Anyone who could tumble to how shabby Franco's line of goods was when he was that new in town was clearly a smart-ass. And no one liked a smart-ass.

He especially didn't like the Spaniard when he saw the man later that same day, sitting earnestly discussing some proposition or other with Tomasso the Florentine, a man well known as one of the biggest assholes in Rome's underworld. Rumor had it that the guy had done three murders for pay, and had no qualms about a fourth. If he was getting that friendly with a moneyed Spaniard who was messing in political business, someone, somewhere, was going to get reamed.

Which made it all the stranger that, when everyone else was winding down after an evening's drinking, the Spaniard sat alone at a corner table, writing like he was some kind of damned clerk.


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