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Dead Letter Office
by Jan L.


Archie Kennedy was on watch at dawn when Hornblower climbed up to the quarterdeck. "You're not due -- "

"Archie." Horatio's face was white; his eyes were enormous, with dark circles beneath. He looked like he hadn't slept in a week. "Archie, I have to show you something --"

"What's wrong?"

"I -- " He shook his head. "Look at this." He held out a piece of paper, expensive stuff, thick and heavy, with scorch marks at one edge. "It must be a joke of some kind -- it has to be -- but who -- "

Kennedy took it, and read it, and felt the blood drain from his own face. "It can't -- I --" He swallowed, and steadied his breathing. "How do you suppose he managed?"

"I don't know. But that is his handwriting, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, damn him. It's his."

By some unspoken agreement, neither of them spoke the name, as if doing so would summon its owner the way some incantations were said to summon demons.
"How---?"

"I don't know, Horatio. I don't know."

They stood in silence for awhile, watching the sun rising over the distant Spanish mainland burn away the morning mist. It was only yesterday that a Spanish flag of truce had brought the Indy in to port, and they had come home. Only yesterday.

"I found it in my bunk. Woke from a bad dream," Hornblower said, staring at the distant horizon. "Nobody'd been in, I'd swear it."

"What are you going to do?" Kennedy asked, curious. "Wait and see if anyone inquires about it?"

"No. No one on this ship put it there, Archie. Smell the damn thing."

He put it cautiously near his nose and detected a faint reek of sulphur. Revolted, he handed it back to Hornblower, who began to fold it, in half and in half and in half again, until it was a very small rectangle.

"What are you going to do?" Kennedy asked again.

"I don't know." He smiled suddenly, an almost angry show of teeth. "If I thought the bastard'd get it, I'd write back and tell him we're both fine, thank you very much, and you've made Acting Lieutenant. And you're stronger than he ever was, and -- "

"No." Kennedy held out his hand, waited until Hornblower gave him the paper. He unfolded it, looked at that crabbed, angry hand one last time. "No. Horatio, what was it you said, when you decided not to shoot him?"

"Hm?" Hornblower frowned. "That he wasn't worth it. Not worth the powder, I think I said. Stupid git, he had to know he couldn't get away with killing me then. Not in front of all those witnesses."

"You were right, Horatio." Kennedy tore the letter in half, crumpled the pieces, and opened the top of the candle lantern that was still burning near the binnacle. "You were right. He wasn't worth the powder."

He held the letter near the candle, met the worried brown eyes. When Horatio grinned, he held the paper to the flame and waited until it was burning fiercely. They walked the few steps to the poopdeck, and Kennedy held the thing over the edge of the rail as the fire consumed it and the ashes fell into the cleansing sea. In a few moments, it was gone.

Kennedy took a deep breath, caught Horatio's eye again, and smiled back in the new day's sunrise. "He isn't worth the paper, either."

fin