TW04 The Zenda Vendetta NEW (4 page)

“Clearance confirmed,” said the computer. “How may I assist you, Colonel Forrester?”

“Request general background on the conspiracy to depose King Rudolf the Fifth of Ruritania in the year 1891,” said Forrester. “Proceed when ready.”

“Working,” said the computer. “Will you require visuals, Colonel?”

“I’ll specify them as the need arises,” Forrester said.

“The file on the requested data is incomplete,” said the computer. “Available data is unsubstantiated; repeat, unsubstantiated.”

“Wonderful,” said Finn, wryly.

“Shut up, Delaney. Proceed, computer.”

“Available data is derived from a single source,” said the computer, “that source being a novel—”


A novel!”
said Finn.

Forrester gave him an irate look.

“Repeat, a novel,” said the computer, “specifically, an historical romance titled
The Prisoner of
Zenda,
written by Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins, also known as Anthony Hope, a London solicitor (modern equivalent: attorney) and published in England in the year 1894. The work was reportedly based on the personal diaries of Rudolf Rassendyll, born August 21, 1862 in London, England; died of tuberculosis on April 14, 1892—”

“Visual on Rudolf Rassendyll,” safd Forrester.

The holographic image of a tall, well-built man dressed in formal evening clothes circa the late 19th century appeared standing in the staging area before them. The image of Rassendyll stood slightly in profile with his head held erect and his chin held high. He had a thick shock of dark red hair, bright blue eyes, and a sharp, regal-looking nose. The effect of the projection on the three commandos was instantaneous and pronounced.

“What the hell?” said Finn Delaney, leaning forward and staring at the hologram intently. “
That’s
me!”

“Maintain present projection and let me have a visual on King Rudolf the Fifth of Ruritania,” said Forrester.

A second holographic image appeared standing beside the first. King Rudolf was dressed in a resplendent white military tunic festooned with medals and gold braid, with large, fringed epaulets upon his shoulders and a bright red sash across his chest. He wore white riding breeches and highly polished black riding boots. One arm hung relaxed at his side while the other was bent at the elbow, the hand resting on the pommel of his dress sabre. In all save the clothing, King Rudolf was the identical twin of Rudolf Rassendyll—and of Finn Delaney.

Finn glanced wide-eyed from one projection to the other. He stood up slowly and approached them, examining them from all angles. With the sole exception of the fact that he stood slightly taller than both images, though not so much so that anyone would notice unless he was standing close beside them, there was no discernible difference among the three of them.

“God damn!” he said, taking several steps backward and shaking his head slowly. “I have a very nasty feeling that I’m just going to hate whatever’s coming next.”

“If you’ll resume your seat, Delaney, then we’ll get on with it,” snapped Forrester, a bit more sharply than was necessary. Lucas wondered what was bothering the old man. Forrester was normally imperturbable, yet now the tension was apparent in his stance and in his voice. There was a grim tightness to the set of his mouth, a stiffness to his posture, an abruptness to his movements. Forrester appeared to be under a great strain and that was a bad sign, a very bad sign, indeed.

“Both of these projections are part of the data fed to us by Temporal Intelligence earlier this afternoon,” he said. “They were derived from old photographs. For your general information, Mr.

Delaney, I ran a thorough check on your background when I saw these and to the best of my knowledge, neither of these men were ancestors of yours. Your resemblance to them is a remarkable coincidence. Proceed, computer.”

“Hawkins’s novel had as its theme a plot to seize the throne of Ruritania in the year 1891,” said the computer. “The plot was engineered by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau, half-brother to the king by a morganatic marriage—”

“Visual on Michael Elphberg,” said Forrester.

The two holograms winked out, to be replaced by the image of Michael Elphberg, a saturnine man of average height, gaunt, with deeply-set, hooded brown eyes, and raven-black hair. Despite his dazzling military uniform, Michael Elphberg had the look of a character out of a Dostoevsky novel, one of those dark and brooding young men, like Raskolnikov, driven by an anarchistic soul and deep frustration that the world had not seen fit to recognize his natural superiority.

“Cheerful-looking chap, isn’t he?” said Finn.

“What is a morganatic marriage?” said Lucas.

“Computer,” said Forrester, “define—”

“That won’t be necessary, Colonel,” Andre said. “It’s a term which has its origins in the time from which I came. It pertains to a marriage between a titled male and an untitled female. In this case, it would mean that the old king had married twice, once to a titled female—Rudolf’s mother—and again to an untitled female, who would have been Michael’s mother. In a morganatic union, neither the mother nor the offspring would have any rights to rank or property.”

“Why would Michael be a duke, then?” said Lucas.

“His father must have granted him a dukedom,” Andre said. “However, that still wouldn’t change the fact that he had no right to succession.”

“Which would explain why he wanted to seize the throne,” said Finn.

“Thank you, Corporal,” Forrester said. “Proceed, computer.”

“At the time of the plot,” said the computer, “there were two strong political factions in Ruritania, the Red faction and the Black faction. The Red faction supported Rudolf’s rightful claim to the throne of Ruritania. The Black faction was in favor of Michael Elphberg ascending to the throne. The groups were so identified owing to the dark red color of Rudolf Elphberg’s hair and the black color of Michael Elphberg’shair.”

“Question,” said Lucas. “If Michael had no legal right to succession, what were the reasons for there being public sentiment in favor of his becoming king?”

“Repeat,” said the computer, “this is unsubstantiated data. Rudolf Elphberg was not a popular figure in Ruritania. He was weak-willed and self-indulgent and he spent a great deal of time abroad, never bothering to curry favor with the Ruritanian people. Michael Elphberg took a great deal of interest in the government of Ruritania and maintained a high public visibility, keeping residences in the capitol city of Strelsau and in the province of Zenda, where he entertained influential citizens lavishly. He was also popular with the Ruritanian army and despite his having no legal right to succession, there was a large segment of the population that would have preferred to see Michael on the throne.”

“And Michael was not averse to this idea,” said Finn.

“Prince Rudolf was engaged to be married to the Princess Flavia,” continued the computer.

“Visual, please,” said Forrester and, a second later, the hologram of Michael was replaced by an image of a red-haired woman in her late teens or early twenties with bright blue eyes and a pleasingly heart-shaped face. She had a doll-like prettiness which she wore indifferently and her facial expression suggested shyness or a natural reserve.

“Flavia was Rudolf’s third cousin,” continued the computer, “and the marriage was politically motivated to unite the two strongest families in Ruritania under one house. The popularity of Princess Flavia and Prince Rudolf’s apparent indifference to her contributed to public sentiment against him.

“Michael had Rudolf drugged so that he would miss his coronation, the intent being to make it appear that Rudolf was unable to be crowned because he had been intoxicated. The plan was facilitated by the fact that Prince Rudolf had appeared in public in a state of intoxication on numerous occasions. The ensuing scandal would have been to Michael’s advantage, but no scandal occurred due to the fact that two of Prince Rudolf’s followers, an officer in the Ruritanian army named Colonel Sapt and a nobleman named von Tarlenheim, intervened by engineering a plot of their own. They enlisted the aid of Rudolf Rassendyll, who had come to Ruritania to see the coronation. Rassendyll was distantly related to Rudolf Elphberg and was his physical double. Sapt and von Tarlenheim convinced him to attend the coronation in Rudolf Elphberg’s place. Their plan was to have Rassendyll impersonate the king until the drugs wore off and they could make the substitution, at which point Rassendyll would have been quietly smuggled out of the country.”

“Visuals on Sapt and von Tarlenheim,” said Forrester, “are unavailable. We only have what the TIA provided us with and they haven’t had very much time to put all this together. You will, however, get physical descriptions, based on what Hawkins wrote, during your mission programming. Proceed, computer.”

“With the aid of Sapt and von Tarlenheim, Rassendyll successfully impersonated the king during the coronation. They were unable to complete their plan because Michael discovered the deception and imprisoned his half-brother in Zenda Castle, causing a stalemate between the two parties. If Michael killed the real king, he could have made Rassendyll’s impersonation permanent, with no way of exposing him as a fraud without exposing his own crime. If the marriage to Princess Flavia took place as planned, Flavia would have wedded an imposter. Sapt and von Tarlenheim could not accuse Michael of having kidnapped the real king, since doing so would have revealed the fraud that they had perpetrated. In order for Michael to prevail, he had to find a way to dispose of Rassendyll before he could dispose of his half-brother. In order for Sapt and von Tarlenheim to prevail, they had to find a way to rescue the king from Zenda Castle. The castle was a strong medieval fortification. If any attempt were made to storm it in force, Michael would have had enough time to kill the king and dispose of his body. Sapt and von Tarlenheim could not then accuse him of murder without proof. There was also the difficulty of the fact that Michael was popular with the army, who would have required strong justification for assaulting the home of the king’s own brother.”

“Sounds like one hell of a mess,” said Finn. “They couldn’t exactly tell the army that Michael was holding the king prisoner when the king was installed in the palace. It’s a lousy scenario for an adjustment.”

“It’s much worse than you think,” said Forrester. “Early this morning, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Carnehan—code name: Mongoose—was found murdered in his apartment in New York. Burned into his forehead with a laser were the words, ‘Paris 5.’ Temporal Intelligence contacted me as soon as they realized that it was a reference to the terrorists you and agent Mongoose went up against in the 17th-century Paris adjustment. Apparently, the Timekeepers have embarked upon a vendetta and the TIA believes that we—or at least you three—will be their next targets.” Mention of the Timekeepers and of Mongoose’s murder had an electric effect upon the soldiers.

“Good Christ,” said Lucas. “How did it happen? I thought the Timekeepers were finished.”

“So did I,” said Forrester. “However, Temporal Intelligence is now reluctantly admitting that they didn’t get them all. I’m told that the leadership of the Timekeepers was composed of a small number of individuals acting as a secret cell within that organization. One of them was Adrian Taylor, whom the three of you brought down on that Paris mission. The TIA knows of at least three others, all of whom managed to escape their dragnet.”

“How in hell did they manage to kill Mongoose?” Finn said. “Not even we knew what he really looked like.”

“Chances are we’ll probably never know,” said Lucas.

“As a matter of fact, we
do
know,” said Forrester. “The TIA has a visual record of the assassination.”


What?”
said Finn.

Forrester’s mouth turned down slightly at the corners. “It seems that Mongoose had holographic equipment installed in concealed locations inside his apartment, ostensibly for surveillance purposes. The TIA has seen fit to deny me access to the complete recording, for reasons which will momentarily become obvious, I think, but they did send me this still projection from the graph.” There was a long pause and Lucas noticed that Forrester’s hands were white-knuckled on the podium. “Computer, visual on Sophia Falco,” he said.

The holographic image of a breathtakingly beautiful young woman appeared standing in the staging area. She had ash-blond hair, blue-grey eyes, and a lush body that was clearly kept in peak physical condition. She was completely nude. There was a catlike sleekness to her, and even though she stood in a relaxed posture, her muscular development was evident and quite impressive. There was a pristine loveliness to her face that would have been icy were it not for the searing heat generated by her gaze.

Though it was only a hologram, the image exuded a bestial vitality. She had a charged sexuality so potent that it hit both Finn and Lucas like a blast of hot desert wind. She was holding a laser in her hand and smiling in a bemused fashion. Finn Delaney gave a low whistle.

“Oh,” said Andre, dryly. “I see.
Those
kind of surveillance purposes.”

“Yes,” said Forrester, “the killing took place in the bedroom.”

“I can’t believe it,” Lucas said. “Mongoose would never be taken like that.”

“He’s right,” said Finn. “Mongoose was too good an agent to succumb to a sexual lure. Besides, he was as paranoid as they come. He’d probably test the food his own mother cooked for him. There’s got to be more to it.”

“There is,” said Forrester, tensely. “This is a woman I once knew as Elaine Cantrell. We served together in the Airborne Pathfinders a long time ago. She obviously takes more trouble to look youthful than do I and she’s changed her appearance somewhat since we knew each other, but I still recognized her. If you’ll look closely at her left hand, you will see that she’s wearing an unusual-looking ring.” He paused for a long moment. “I gave her that ring. It belonged to my father.” The three commandos exchanged astonished glances. In all the years that they had known the old man, they had never heard him mention having any women in his life. And hard as it was to picture their crusty old commander in a romantic liaison, it was impossible to imagine him being involved with
that
woman.

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