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The USE assistant ambassador’s office, Venice

Early March 1635

Wells Turski looked at the middle-aged guy sitting on the chair opposite him and frowned. Estil was a good old friend. And a hell of a guy. But he had a serious flaw; he attracted trouble like moths to a flame. As was the case now.

“Estil,” he said, “if anyone could find a way to screw up a good deal it would, undoubtedly, be you.”

“I did not!” his friend protested.

An image and a memory flashed through Wells’ mind; an image of a crane getting a Volkswagen Bug off the high school roof. And the memory of the aftermath. “The Bug on the roof,” he just said.

“It was a prank. A long time ago. Nobody was hurt.”

No one but you, Wells thought. After that prank—Estil admitted that he had organized it, but refused to give up any other names, including yours truly—he was suspended, of course. And then, to everyone’s puzzlement, he refused to finish his senior year. He never gave any reason why; Wells suspected it was stubbornness, plain and simple. For Estil everything was black or white, no gray in between. In the end he paid the price. No graduation, no scholarship, no college, no career. Unless of course if you count bussing tables and bartending as a career.

He shook his head. “What about the Count of Leiningen-Westerburg?” he asked. “And his pregnant young wife?”

“How could I know it was her in my bed?” Estil looked at his friend with a pleading expression. “They just started coming to my room after the lights were out. I’m not at all sure who they all were or how many of them there were,” he added sheepishly.

“Estil Congden, the Don Juan of Magdeburg!” Wells declaimed with a crooked smile.

“Oh please, spare me the sarcasm.”

“Okay, Okay, I’m sorry,” Wells said. “Whatever happened, well, it’s in the past. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I need a place to hide for a while. To see what happens.”

Wells rubbed his chin. “I can cover room and board here at the embassy for a few days. You are a distressed citizen after all.” He then changed the subject. “I suppose you’re broke,” he said.

“I’ve got a bit of money to get by for a week or two,” Estil said, relaxing into the chair. “I have enough money in my savings account back in Magdeburg, but I left in a hurry and I didn’t get a letter of credit.”

“You bank with the Abrabanels?” Wells asked.

Estil nodded in the affirmative.

“That makes things simpler,” Wells said. “They are our bankers also. I will check with Gavriel Abrabanel first thing tomorrow. Don’t worry.” He thought for a moment. “I will also send a message to Lyndon. Let’s see if he’s heard anything.”

****

 

Wells’ office, a couple of days later

 

Wells sat in an armchair opposite Estil. Here goes nothing, he thought. “Estil, I have some good and some bad news from back home,” he said. “Which do you want first?”

Estil gave him a resigned smile. “Gimme the bad news first,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Wells asked, afraid of his friend’s reaction. He was more than certain that Estil, upon hearing the news, would jump and head for the door. It was Estil’s preferred way of dealing with unpleasant things . . . running away from them.

Estil just nodded, which did nothing to assuage Wells’ fears.

“There have been requests for the whereabouts of Estil Congden,” Wells carefully said. “Some of them were insistent and some of them were less than polite.”

Upon hearing it, Estil didn’t move from his chair. He just sat there calmly, too calmly for Well’s taste, and only raised his eyebrow in return.

Wells stared at him with his mouth open. Estil . . . calm . . . no drugs in the vicinity. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore, he thought as he tried to regain his composure.

“And the good news?” Estil finally asked.

“Well, according to your good friend Lyndon,” Wells made sure to emphasize the last three words, “Estil Congden is in Amsterdam ready to embark a ship for London.”

“What?” Estil almost jumped from his chair.

“You have to thank Lyndon for that,” Wells said. “He created some false leads about your whereabouts.” He saw the look of disbelief on his friend’s face. “Estil, despite what you think, you DO have friends willing to help you.”

“But Lyndon is not my friend,” Estil protested. “He barely knows me. He—”

“Because I asked him.”

“You asked him? Why?” Estil asked, his eyes wide.

Wells sighed. “Because I am your friend. And because, back then, you took the fall for all of us. I. Owe. You.” He looked the other man straight in the eyes. “And I always pay my debts, Estil. Always.”

Estil’s chin was on his chest as he shook his head slowly. “That was a long time ago,” he finally said.

“Not long enough for me,” Wells replied. He closed his eyes. Damned sentimental fool, he silently chastised himself. After a moment, he let out a long breath.

“Estil,” he finally said, “I made some discreet inquiries about your count. You are safe here. Trust me on that.”

“The last time someone told me that, she ended up pregnant and me on the run.”

“Really, Estil,” Wells said in a calm manner. “Look, your count is an aspiring politician.”

Estil looked at him for a long moment, started to speak, closed his mouth and tilted his head at him. “And how exactly does that help me?” he finally asked.

“If the information I have is correct, the count will get a cabinet post under the new administration. After that,” Wells shrugged, “it will be counterproductive for his career to continue this vendetta with you. He can’t afford to be the laughing stock of Magdeburg.”

“But if he becomes Secretary, I won’t be able to return to Grantville,” Estil pointed out.

“Why not?” Wells asked. “He is looking for Estil Congden, not a guy named Bubba Brown. By the way, using Bubba as a name . . .  that was a stroke of genius.”

“Wells Turski, you are an idiot.” Estil hissed. “I can change my name but not my face. I will be recognized the moment I set my foot in town. And the count has people in Grantville searching for me.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Wells admitted. He saw that Estil was just about to reply so he held up his hand. “Then you have no other option, Estil,” he said. “Use your Bubba alias here and disappear for a while, a couple of months. I will monitor the situation in Magdeburg and keep you posted. After that . . . we will see.”

After a couple of long moments Estil mumbled grudgingly, mostly to himself, “Yeah, that might work.”

“In that case, Gavriel will need more time to move your money from Magdeburg,” Wells cautioned. “Money trails need to be established to Amsterdam and then open a new account under Bubba Brown—”

“Can that be done?” Estil wanted to know.

“Yes, but it’ll take some time.”

“How much time?”

Wells shrugged. “Gavriel said at least a month to make things fool-proof. Maybe two, to be sure.”

“Two months? Damn, I’ll run out of money by then,” Estil said, defeated.

“You need to find a job,” Wells responded. “Do you know any Latin?”

“No.”

“Of course not, what was I thinking. Anything mechanical?” he asked hopefully. “I could get you a job with Basil Lascar and Conrad Ursinus at the Arsenale.”

“No.”

“Damn.” Wells looked at Estil, paused for a moment and then grinned. “Well, we’ve had some inquiries about giving waltz lessons and organizing parties. You could  . . .   “

Estil turned pale and sat bolt upright. “Hell no! No way! Absolutely NOT!” he snarled.

“Calm down, Estil. It was only a suggestion.”

“And a sure way to get me killed,” Estil snorted. “No thank you. Been there, done that, and I have the scars to prove it!”

“Well, Estil, what particular skills do you have?” Wells asked, exasperated. “There aren’t any Bugs in Venice that need to be moved.” Yes, he knew it was a snotty thing to say; he really could have skipped the last line.

“What skills do I have?” Estil paused. “Well, I’m a bartender,” he said. “I’m also the finest up-time English blank verse poet as you’ll ever meet in this day and age.” He laughed disparagingly. “So, no, Mister Assistant Ambassador to Venice, I do not have any marketable skills.”

Wells fell silent for a minute, giving Estil a thoughtful look. “This might be a problem,” he admitted sadly. “Look, let me ask around and see what happens. Until then you can stay here at the embassy.”

“Well, that’s better than nothing.”

****

 

The next morning

 

“And here, Signore Bubba, we can see the Fontego dei Tedeschi, the German Warehouse. It is . . .”

TPYKgrndcnlAs his gondola silently glided through the wide Grand Canal, the Canalazzo, Estil let his companion babble, paying only scant attention. Antonio Montesera, Wells’ personal assistant, was a highly competent secretary. And very well informed. In another life, and time, Estil was sure that he would make an excellent tour guide. But not this time.

The last thing on Estil’s mind was sightseeing. He contemplated the beauty of his surroundings with nothing more than a customary glance. No, he wasn’t immune to the grandeur of the magnificent palazzi and the grandiose churches that dominated both sides of Venice’s main thoroughfare, far from it. He was just engrossed in his thoughts.

How had Wells managed to land this job interview for me so soon? Estil wondered. Who cares? Beggars can’t be choosers. The only thing Wells told him was that a young Venetian patrician, Gian Francesco Loredano his name, wanted someone who could prepare coffee the “American” way. Apparently, he had been in Grantville and Magdeburg a couple of times and acquired a taste for espresso. Nothing more than that.

He turned towards Antonio. “Who is this Loredano guy?” he asked.

Antonio’s chattering came to a stop. He rubbed his chin and remained silent for a moment. “Signore Giovan Francesco Loredano,” he finally said. “Gian Francesco for his friends. Son of gentiluomo Lorenzo Loredano and Leonora Boldù. Orphaned at an early age; his uncle, Senator Antonio Boldù, acted as his guardian. He-“

“Is he married?”

Antonio shook his head. “Not at the moment, signore,” he said.

Estil exhaled and silently thanked God for small favors. The last thing I want is a repeat of Magdeburg.

“But not for long,” Antonio continued. “Signore Loredano is the last of his family branch. There is pressure on him to get married. He is a patrician, he is well connected and an acclaimed poet-“

“A poet?” Estil perked up at that.

Antonio laughed. “With Antonio Colluraffi and Cesare Cremonini as his teachers, what else could he be? I even have a copy of his Scherzi Geniali. I could lend it to you.” He stopped. “Oh, I am sorry it’s in Italian. However . . . “

Estil let Antonio continue to jabber about the book. The revelation that Loredano was a poet brought back his own “attempt” a lifetime ago—in another place and time, literally—to become a professional poet. That had ended miserably. Like most of his other dreams. Maybe this was a sign, a sign of good things to come . . .  or was it fate laughing at him one more time?

Having been lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t realized at first that the gondola had left the Canalazzo and, passing through some smaller waterways, had reached their destination, Campo di San Marina.

Signore Bubba, we are here,” Antonio’s prodding broke his reverie.

As the gondolier tied up the craft to one of the painted, private family stazi, Estil took a good look at the palace. He was far from impressed. After seeing the magnificent splendor of the palazzi on the Canalazzo, Ca’ Loredan, as the palace was called, seemed to be rather plain; a modest four-story old building. He shrugged. As long as he was paid . . .

Signore Bubba.”

Estil stood, smoothed his battered leather jacket with trembling hands—damned nerves—fixed his baseball cap, and followed Antonio off the boat and onto the quayside.

Antonio knocked on the arched wooden door and a golden-liveried servant opened it. He bowed a little and, with his glove-encased hand, pointed toward the marble staircase. “This way, per favore, you are expected.”

From the top of the gently curving stairs, he led them through the empty foyer of the Piano Nobile and into a room to the end of the hallway. At the threshold, he bowed once more. “Signori Bubba and Montesera,” he announced.

Estil stepped over the threshold; the morning sun pouring in from the side windows blinding him until his eyes adjusted. As his vision cleared to reveal a lavishly decorated room, he realized that he was in the private office of someone important. A young man rose from a leather winged-back chair, partly obscured by a large wooden desk filled with papers, pens, and other writing materials, and walked towards them. Giving only a cursory nod to Antonio, he turned his attention to Estil.

Signore Bubba, it’s nice to meet you.”

“You speak English?” Estil blurted out. Then, remembering who was talking to, he continued “I am sorry, Signore Loredano, I just—”

He saw Gian Francesco frowning. “I thought that Signore Wells had informed you. Apparently not,” he said after seeing Estil’s expression. He turned to Antonio. “You can leave now,” he said somewhat dismissively.

Signore!” Antonio protested.

Gian Francesco waved his hand to Estil toward one of the seats in front of his desk. Then, without speaking, he reached for a fountain pen. He wrote something on a paper, folded it, put some wax on it and pressed his ring. “Here,” he said to Antonio. “Take this to His Excellency.” He held out the paper. “I will make arrangements for Signore Bubba’s return.”

After throwing a hurried glance towards Estil, Antonio took the billet, bowed, and exited the room.

TPYKvncnblEstil observed all this with interest. Being a bartender for far too long made him more attuned to the fine interpersonal intricacies involved. Behind the fancy clothing, the perfectly trimmed Van Dyke beard, and the friendly demeanor, there was something more about Gian Francesco Loredano. The young patrician was polite and respectful but he wasn’t awed by the mystical up-timers. Estil was sure that the previous scene was made to make clear who was in control, who was the boss. Even the fact that Gian Francesco chose to sit in his chair behind his desk reinforced that.

“His Excellency spoke very highly of you,” Gian Francesco started the interview. “He told me that you are the best . . .    how is the word . . .    yes . . .  barista. The best maker of coffee a la Americana he had ever known.”

What the Hell!! What kind of bullshit did Wells tell this guy? Estil wondered. Yes, he could make espresso and cappuccino. He had done it a couple of times. No biggie. You just use the espresso machine and, if needed, you add milk foam. But he made mediocre coffee at best. Heck, even Wells made better coffee than he. Why then . . .  Because it was the only way to get you a job interview, you idiot, he silently admonished himself.

Signore, I can do a number of coffees.”

“Even espresso?” Gian Francesco asked hopefully.

“Yes, even espresso,” Estil replied back. “I can make you a better cup of coffee than you ever dreamed of and that’s before I add the whiskey for an Irish coffee.”

“Whiskey? Irish Coffee?”

Estil could see the young patrician was confused. Maybe I overdid it a bit, he thought. “It’s one of the many coffees I can prepare,” he clarified.

Gian Francesco’s face cleared. “Excellent,” he said. “I am hosting a few friends this evening. Perhaps you should prepare some of your excellent coffee, Maestro Bubba.”

Estil gulped. This was not a request, it was a command. Even the honorific maestro. But then, what did he expect? So Mister Loredano wants a demonstration, he thought. He looked at Gian Francesco and nodded. “As long as I have the proper equipment and supplies,” he said.

“Splendid. I have both supplies and equipment,” Gian Francesco said as he rose from his chair. “Please, maestro, follow me,” he ordered as he walked towards the door.

****

Estil saw Gian Francesco stopping outside a small door just below the main staircase. “Signore?” he asked, a little bit confused. Obviously this was not the entrance for the kitchen.

Gian Francesco smiled. “Maestro, per favore,” he said and showed the door.

Estil hesitated for a while. Still staring at his host he slowly opened the door  . . .  and the first thing he noticed, or rather smelled, was the stench; a foul combination of mold, charcoal, and burned coffee. Distasteful but then again nothing out of ordinary; in his opinion all of the kitchens in Europe smelled similar.

He took a moment to adjust to the smell and then stepped inside. The traces of mold in the ceiling, the stale air, even that small window that provided both some natural light and a source of ventilation, everything pointed to a former storage space that had been turned, hastily, into a kitchenette. Something similar to a Franklin stove, if he guessed correctly, took up much of the cramped room. There was some firewood placed alongside the stove. On the other side he could see some bags, one of them half-open. A table, filled with kitchenware, commanded the middle of the room.

So this is my soon-to-be workplace, Estil mused. He turned and looked at his potential employer. “Signore, you said you had supplies and equipment. Where are they?” he asked.

“Coffee beans. Supplies,” Gian Francesco pointed at the bags. “A roaster, a grinder, and moka pots. Equipment,” he added pointing at the table.

Estil looked at the table more closely. On it there was a large skillet, something resembling a bulky pepper mill, and the aforementioned pots. He shook his head. “Signore Loredano, obviously we have a failure of communication here,” he said. “Equipment means an espresso machine.” He grabbed one of the moka pots.

“This is NOT an espresso machine.”

“Well, it does make espresso.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Estil protested. “I repeat. This is NOT an espresso machine.”

“Yes, it does.”

The young patrician was adamant, so Estil tried to reason with him. “Signore, do you know what an espresso machine looks like? The one with the handle and stuff.”

“Of course I know, Maestro Bubba,” Gian Francesco emphasized the last two words. “Do you have any idea how much an up-time espresso machine costs?”

“Well—” Estil stopped. Actually, he didn’t. But, for God’s sake, it was only an espresso machine!

“I tried to find one, maestro, I really tried,” Gian Francesco said sadly. “All the riches of Croesus, which I don’t have, could not buy me a working espresso machine.” He pointed at the moka pots. “This is the best I can do. I was told that it uses the same technique as the espresso machine.”

Estil bit his lip and shook his head. “No it isn’t, and no it doesn’t. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“Make. Espresso. Signore. Bubba,” Loredano’s voice sent chills to Estil’s spine. “His Excellency, even you a short time ago, you both assured me that you can make the espresso.” He stared at Estil for a few long moments. “Can you or not?” he finally asked.

Estil gulped. He understood that his answer would, most likely, decide his chances of finding any meaningful job in Venice, ever. There was only one answer really. “Yes, I can make espresso,” he said.

“That is to be seen, Signore Bubba,” Gian Francesco said looking at his pocket watch. “You have enough time to prove your worth, signore,” he said and then pointed at the open door. “Erminio will help you.” Without even waiting for an answer he exited the room.

Estil noticed the scrawny young man who stood at the door. The young man, a boy really—he couldn’t be more than sixteen, seventeen years old, Estil guessed—seemed to be frightened and tried desperately to avoid the older man’s scrutiny.

“Well, pal?”

The boy jumped as if he was struck by lightning. “Vengo a preparare il caffè per sua eccellenza,” he blurted out, still staring at him.

“Whoa, whoa, pal!” Estil held up one hand. “Slow down! I don’t understand Italian. Non capisco italiano!”

Signore?” the boy asked perplexed.

Oh, boy.

Estil knew then. It was . . . no, he was a karmic joke. God . . . Fate . . . the Universe. Each one and all laughing at him; it couldn’t be explained otherwise. Of all times and places, now—at this time of great need—they gave him an assistant who couldn’t pronounce two words of English or even German.

This mess isn’t really my fault, he reasoned. I asked for proper equipment and what did they give me? Pots and skillets. I asked for help and what did I get? A useless assistant . . . No, really, it isn’t my fault. He looked at the door. Just a few steps away.

And throw away his second chance? Betray the trust of so many people, first among them his buddy Wells? No, he couldn’t do this to them . . . to . . . himself. He looked around the stench-plagued room and shook his head. That was it. His last stand, his Alamo. Do or Die! Give me liberty or give me death! Alea iacta est!

Estil took a deep breath, feeling the adrenaline pouring through his veins. He felt elated . . .   he felt alive. He had missed that feeling.

It was time for Plan B.

He looked at the boy and smiled, a genuine smile to put at rest the child’s fears. “Erminio, right?” he asked.

S . . . Si, signore,” the boy replied.

Io,” Estil pointed to himself. “Io, Signore Bubba,” he said. “Me, Bubba. You, Erminio.”

Si, signore,” the boy said.

Estil smiled. So far, so good. He pointed a finger towards the bags, then the table and, finally, the stove. He prayed that Erminio understood.

Si, signore,” Erminio nodded and then walked towards the stove to start a fire.

****

 

Ca’ Loredan – The same afternoon

 

As the bells of the Santa Marina began tolling for the evening Angelus, Gian Francesco stood at the entrance of the sumptuous library room. He looked inside and smiled.

A group of men, no more than a dozen really, were all over the place engaging in lively conversation. Some of them were sitting in the overstuffed chairs laid out arbitrarily around the marble fireplace, a few were clustered around one of the tables unrolling large scrolls of parchment, while a couple perused the leather-bound books on the bookshelves on the far side of the room.

He did a quick count. They were all in attendance, by itself a small miracle. All of them, not excluding himself, were very busy men. More often than not someone was unable to attend the weekly meetings of their fellowship, the Accademia degli Incogniti—the Academy of the Unknowns. It didn’t matter. Aspiring poets, authors, and playwrights they may be; they were, foremost, loyal sons of Venice. State affairs would always have precedence over philosophical pursuits.

It’s time, he thought. He made a nod to his manservant who exited the room. As the burnished mahogany door of room closed behind him he cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he called.

All the noise stopped and everyone looked at him.

“Thank you for coming here tonight. Before we begin with our meeting I have a couple of important announcements to make.”

He had their full attention now. He could see their anticipation, their eagerness.

“Come on, tell us. Don’t be such a cruel bastard,” Giovanni Francesco Busenello called.

Gian Francesco smiled. His namesake was well known for his impatience. “I bring you good news,” he said. “The Grimani brothers have agreed to sell me their old family theatre in Cannaregio, the Santa Maria Maddalena. I signed the contract this morning.”

A spontaneous applause erupted from the audience in the room.

“Not only that,” Gian Francesco spoke as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “Maestro Longhena agreed to handle the renovation of the theatre.” He paused for a moment. “Gentlemen, in a couple of months, our Accademia will have its own place to meet; we will have our own theatre to produce our plays.”

This time the applause, the yells and the noise were greater.

“And the other announcement?”

Gian Francesco smiled and, without answering, looked towards the door. He saw that his manservant had returned and made a hand gesture.

“Oh no! Not that!” Ferrante Pallavicino groaned. “Truly, Gian Francesco I would rather drink water from the sewers.”

“It’s not that bad,” Gian Francesco answered, somewhat defensively.

“Gian Francesco, it really is,” Guido Casoni, another of the attendees, answered back. “Your intentions are noble but this . . . this,” he tried to find the word; “this espresso you serve is really an abomination to your fine hospitality.”

“I’d rather take Juliet’s poison than drinking another cup of this foul liquid,” someone else added.

“O Romeo, Romeo,” Pallavicino mimicked a female voice. “Deny thy host and refuse his coffee; and shall no longer be one of the glorious Incogniti!”

Everybody laughed, Gian Francesco among them. He nodded at Pallavicino, acknowledging his attempt to defuse the situation. Yet, as he looked around, he saw that all of the attendees agreed with Guido’s assessment. Not that he faulted them; his coffee was really way below mediocre. And he really didn’t know why. He tried to replicate exactly the steps he saw during his visits in Grantville and Magdeburg. Obviously, he did something wrong but he didn’t have the faintest clue of what that was. Maybe Maestro Bubba was right, he thought. Maybe I need to buy an espresso machine.

“All right,” he sighed and raised his hand to cancel his order.

“Wait!”

He looked at the person who spoke. Cesare Bartoli was a childhood friend.

“Our host is a true, generous friend,” Cesare looked at Gian Francesco. “Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt,” he said smiling.

Gian Francesco smiled. Cesare always came to his defense.

“I don’t think he can produce anything more horrendous than his last attempt,” Cesare said with a straight face.

Gian Francesco groaned. “Et tu, Brute?” he asked.

Dum spiro spero,” someone shouted and everybody laughed.

Gian Francesco was fast on the uptake. “So true, my friend Giacomo,” he replied back. “As long as I breathe, I hope.” He paused a moment and looked at his friends. “I hope to make the best espresso in Venice.”

As if on cue, two menservants holding trays with cups of coffee entered the room and started circulating amongst the guests.

Gian Francesco took a cup in his hands. The look was definitely different. He brought it near his nose and smelled the coffee. Instead of that smell of burned wood, a sweet flavor invaded his nostrils; a flavor he associated with the coffee shops of Grantville and Magdeburg. Could it be? He didn’t dare hope, not after so many disappointments. He noticed that his hands started to tremble a little. Oh Lord. He lowered the cup and took a small sip  . . . He stared at the cup in disbelief. It couldn’t be. He took another sip. He held the coffee a little longer in his mouth just enough to make sure that this wasn’t a dream.

And only then he took a moment to look around at his guests, as one by one they tasted the cups. He saw the grimaces of disbelief; some of them sipped some more, savoring the taste. He saw Cesare, looking at him with a smile on his face, and smiled back.

Still holding the cup with the hot coffee in his hands, he made a gesture to one of the menservants. “Bring Maestro Bubba here,” he ordered.

****

 

Estil took a sip from his coffee cup. He grimaced. Still not his best. But then he was just a bartender, not a damned barista whatever Wells told Loredano.

At least it isn’t burned, he conceded. Estil didn’t really know much about coffee but he knew this: over-roasted, almost burned, coffee beans will never produce a good coffee . . . of any kind. And, for some mysterious reason, Loredano—or rather Erminio, to be correct—over-roasted his. Why was that? Estil didn’t know and, frankly, he didn’t care. He made Erminio repeat the whole coffee-making process twice just to be sure. And after that Estil had just enough time to prepare his own.

Was his so-called espresso enough to pass the test? What he was certain of was that even his mediocre coffee would feel like nectar to Loredano’s suffering palate.

Would he be offered the job? Maybe, but not guaranteed. One of the two things Estil had learned from his “Magdeburg adventure” was that noblemen were strange, unpredictable creatures. The other was that he had to stop his laissez-faire attitude regarding his bedtime companions.

Strangely enough, Estil didn’t care about the job. He had done the best he could and, for the first time in a long time, he was pleased with the results. He hadn’t run, he’d stood and fought the good fight. “Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be . . .” He caught himself mumbling as he sipped some more from his cup.

Signore Bubba?”

He looked at Erminio—who had stopped cleaning the various utensils and stared at him in wonderment—and smiled. Erminio. Good lad. Young but not that arrogant. Eager to learn. Eager to follow orders. Maybe we can make a bartender out of him after all.

The noise of someone clearing his throat behind him brought Estil back from his musings. He turned and saw a middle-aged servant dressed in the Loredano livery looking at him.

Signore Bubba, seguitemi prego,” the servant said, making a signal for Estil to follow him.

Estil smiled and nodded in understanding. He shrugged into his leather jacket and stepped outside the room.

A few moments later, after hurrying up the interior staircase two steps at a time, he was standing in front of a mahogany door at the top floor of the building.

The servant opened the door and stepped inside. “Signore Bubba,” he announced.

All the noise stopped, and everyone looked at him.

Maestro Bubba,” he heard Gian Francesco calling for him. He saw him sitting right across the room in the company of another unfamiliar young man.

So this is it. The moment of truth, Estil mused and walked toward them, ignoring the rest of the people in the room.

Maestro Bubba, you did it,” he heard Gian Francesco. “I had my misgivings but you exceeded my expectations.”

A great deal of Estil’s anxiety evaporated and a sense of almost reverent awe washed over him. Deep inside, he knew that, this time, everything would be all right.

“I am glad to hear that, Signore Loredano,” he said.

Maestro Bubba, allow me to introduce to you a good friend of mine. This is Cesare Bartoli, the secretary of our little brotherhood.”

Estil took a hard look at the other younger guy, taking in his clothes and his person. This Bartoli guy was dressed in an up-timer-inspired set of clothes cut from fine cloth, but it was his demeanor which impressed him. This was a man who stood on his own two feet. This was a man he could work with, a true kindred spirit. He smiled and extended his hand for a handshake.

“Hello,” he said, “My name is Brown. Bubba Brown. You can call me Bubba.”

Maestro Bubba,” the younger man replied back in German, shaking his hand with enthusiasm. “It is a privilege to meet you.”

Gian Francesco cleared his throat and looked at Cesare.

Cesare nodded. “Maestro Bubba,” he addressed Estil, “in recognition of your epic achievements . . .” and then said something in Italian that Estil could not understand.

Estil saw Gian Francesco turning a little bit red and the other men broke into a spontaneous laughter. “I don’t understand,” he said to Cesare.

“It was a joke on me, Maestro Bubba,” Gian Francesco said. “It seems that you passed the test with . . . how you say it . . . yes, with flying colors.”

He looked at each person in the room who silently nodded in agreement. Last he turned his gaze towards Estil.

TPYKcf“It seems, Maestro Bubba,” he said “that we, the Incogniti, would like to taste more of your fine coffee. Maybe you will grace us with your presence, and your coffee, of course, to our next meetings.”

Applause erupted from all the people in the room.

For Estil, this was one of the strangest job offering he ever had. He felt his eyes watering  . . .  damn allergies, he thought.

Signore Loredano, Signore Bartoli,” he finally said. “I think this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

****