The Easy Mark
by Sarah B.


The two footpads sat in the filthy alley across from the tavern, and waited.

"Pickins sure is rotten tonight, Mudge." said one from his perch atop an old barrel.

A pause, the sound of a dirty head being scratched, then a reply from the ground below him. "Yew got that right, mate."

One of the sniffed. A shadow approached the tavern.

Mate slapped his partner's shoulder. "Whut about 'im, eh?"

Another pause, a shake of the head. "Nah. Too big. I don't fancy gettin' caught, alls I want is a few coppers."

Mate grunted his disappointment, and the shadow disappeared inside the wooden door.

More footsteps. Mate tapped Mudge's shoulder again eagerly, then stopped when he saw that it was three Naval officers, in a group.

"Damn." He said, deflated.

His partner looked up at him. "Well, yew must have some brains left. We wouldn't get ten paces robbin' the likes o' them."

"Yer." Mate sat back on the barrel and drummed his fingers impatiently on the rim. "Sure is slow tonight, Mudge."

No response.

"Weren't like this always, remember them old days? All them officers in port, and no war to take 'em off to sea. We lived like kings then."

Mudge shook his shaggy head. "I like this better. Them officers come back with prize money."

"Cor, and 'ow much o' that do we see, eh? They knows better than to go anywhere alone." Mate scratched his head again. "Yer, we was royalty then."

"We 'ad benefactors then." Mudge pointed out somewhat testily.

Mate frowned. "Whut's a benny-fackter?"

"Someone 'o 'elps you out when ye're in a spot. Like, they hires you when you need work."

"Owh! I gets ya now. Yeh, we had some o' those. Dunno whut 'appened to 'em."

Mudge shrugged. "Gone is all I know. 'ey!"

Another shadow, a well-dressed woman and her escort.

"'ere," Mate whispered, "Whut about them, then? He looks soft, and she'd fall over all swooning, wouldn't even be a fight."

"Hm. Maybe. I'm game for just about anything, just now."

"Yer." The drumming stopped. "Damn them beadles anyway. We could be at the dock right now, finding us another benny-fackter, 'stead of sittin' 'ere scratchin' for a few lousy pence."

No reply. Mudge was watching the street.

"Yeh..." Mate continued dreamily. "Get us another o' them Naval blokes 'oo needs some dirty work done, Christ those were the days! A few waylayings, a couple of paybacks for slights real or imagined, an' we'd live like the bloody king for a week. Yeh, our benny-fackter. Whut were 'is name?"

"Simpson."

"Yow, that's it. Wunder whutever 'appened to 'im."

Mudge tensed. "Shut up."

Mate turned toward the tavern. "Yew got one?"

"Maybe." Mudge went into a crouch, his eyes narrowing into scrutinizing slits. "'e's an officer, and 'e's alone."

Mate craned his neck, saw a fair-haired young man walking slowly toward the tavern. "I dunno, 'e looks a little too hale for my taste. I likes the ones'll give us the bob an' run. I don't likes the ones whut fights."

Mudge was still sizing the officer up, then said slowly, "Wait a bit - cor blimey, mate, we knows this one!"

"We do?"

"Yer, take another look, when he turns around. 'e was younger then, but tell me that ain't one o' them pups off our benefactor's ship."

Mate waited until the officer's face hit the lamplight, then said, "Jesus Christ, mudge, it is! I'd'a thought 'e'd be dead by now."

"He ain't, and that's our good fortune. It's whut we've been waitin' for all night."

"Whut, 'im? Whatchoo mean?"

"An easy mark, you sod, an easy mark! Don't you recollect 'ow that boy would carry on in the old days? 'ow he'd cringe every time our benefactor came 'round? Like 'e'd been beat and didn't fight back no more. Oh, 'e's an easy one."

Mate sat back on the barrel. "But supposin' 'e's changed since then? That's been years."

"Oh, no," Mudge rubbed his hands together with a wicked smile, "Look at 'im, goin' in alone with just a book for company, just like 'e used to do. An' him an officer now, and all that coin just for us."

"Yeh, and a big fancy sword!"

"He'll never use it. One cuff on his head, just like the old days, and he'll give us anything we want. I know this one, mate, and 'e's all ours. All we have to do is wait."

***********************************************************************

So they waited. Two hours they waited, then three. No other prospects showed any promise, so by the time the local clock struck half past eleven, it was decided: the fair-haired officer for certain.

Mudge had marked where the officer had come from, so it was a simple matter to find an alley along that route and lay in wait. The street was dark and deserted, and Mudge was almost gloating with anticipation. It was going to be a glorious robbery.

Finally, after much watching, Mate, who had been sitting with his back to the wall in abject boredom, heard his partner's whispered voice saying, "Get up!"

Which Mate did, reluctantly. "'e's comin'?"

"Not yet," Mudge replied, and Mate noticed he was looking the opposite way from the tavern, "but here comes another one, an' he's alone too. I say we get 'im for practice."

Mate peeked at the distant figure, lit fitfully by the streetlamps, "Cor, look at 'im. We'll have to be careful not to break 'im in two."

Mudge chuckled, a very ugly sound by the way, and said, "All right, careful now."

And they both retreated into the alleyway.

The footsteps that marked the officer's approach became louder and louder. Mudge, who was very good at what he did, bobbed his head in rhythm, his hands coming up higher, higher, higher -

Now!

Mudge lunged out of the alley, throwing his burly arms tight around the officer's upper body and dragging him into the darkness before he could cry out. As soon as he'd done so his partner gave the man one clean punch right across his jaw.

The officer struggled, although Mate was satisfied to see the blow had made him dizzy. In a voice that was thick with blood he cried out, "By God, you'll - "

Mate struck again, and Mudge threw their mark to the ground, inside the alley where there was no chance for escape. Drawing his pistol he said, "Shut up! Your purse."

The officer began to struggle to his feet, one hand on his sword. He could not see behind him, however, and Mate grabbed his collar and clobbered him on the back of the head. Stunned, the officer fell to his knees.

"You Naval men, always making things 'arder than they has to be," Mudge shook his head as Mate took the officer's sword and purse. Noticing that the young man's eyes were open and glaring he sneered, "Bet you think you're pretty high and mighty, eh? Well, not 'ere."

"Cor!" Mate exclaimed in dismay as he opened the purse. "This blighter's as broke as we are."

Mudge winced, but took the sword and unsheathed it, pointing it squarely at the officer's chest. "See whut else we can take as recompense, mate."

Mate obliged, while the officer sat glaring in the dirt, dabbing now and again at his bleeding lip. "You filth." he muttered.

"Well, I'm frightened at that," Mudge answered sarcastically as Mate handed him a small handful of trinkets. Mudge fingered them through, frowning at the engraved watch he held. "What the hell kind of name is 'Hornblower'?"

"A better name than yours," The officer replied hotly.

"Hah!" Mudge handed Mate the sword and as his partner kept its blade at Horatio's chest used both hands to pick through the stolen goods, dropping what he didn't want into the dirt.

He picked up one item, a lady's portrait on a broken chain, and sniffed. "This don't even look like silver."

"It's not."

Mudge dropped it, then noticed that the officer's eyes never left it, even when it landed in the dirt. Cocking his head at this he asked, "Why keep it then?"

The officer's eyes snapped up to glare at him even more intensely. "Go to the devil."

Mudge glanced at his partner, then with a smirk picked the chain back up and put it in his pocket. "I think I'll keep it, just to vex ya."

The officer's expression changed, much to his robbers' satisfaction.

"Well," Mudge sighed as he shoved the rest of the items into his pocket and gave Mate a nudge so he lowered the sword. A little. "Ye're a disappointment, but I'll keep the sword and I won't kill ya. On yer way now."

"You think I'm just going to walk away from you?" The officer stood, a little shakily but obviously still defiant. "Have you never dealt with a member of His Majesty's navy?"

Mudge and Mate looked at each other and laughed. "Cor, lots of times, mate! Even 'ad business dealin's with a few of 'em. They weren't no better than us, and in some ways they was a lot worse. You ain't so much just cause ye're one 'o' them."

Lord, those eyes! "Oh?"

"If you only knew, 'ornblower!" Mudge chortled as he shook his head. "Oh, if you only knew!"

And he pulled the broken necklace out of his pocket, and laughed.

Of course, he knew that would goad the officer into trying to fight him, and it did. But he'd already been hit three times, and was dizzy and disoriented; it was easy work to push him back a little, and then land another punch to lay him in the dirt.

"Christ, these officers!" Mudge held the necklace in his fist and watched as Hornblower lay groaning in the dirt. "Mate, finish him off, will you? I don't want no trouble here come tomorrow night."

Mate didn't move, so Mudge turned to repeat his request when he noticed a very peculiar look on his partner's face.

Then he noticed the sword point set firmly against his partner's back, and the angry-looking fair haired officer who was holding the sword in one hand, and Mate's collar in the other. Mudge very wisely froze.

The officer smiled coldly. "Now that I have your attention, *gentlemen*, first - drop the sword, if you please."

Mate didn't move.

The fair-haired officer gave his collar an angry rattle. "NOW."

The sword clattered into the dirt.

"Now you," The officer said in the same deadly voice, turning those blazing eyes to Mudge, "The pistol. Unless you want to see your comrade's entrails all over the street."

Mate's eyes bulged, and he looked at Mudge in frantic anger. "THIS was the easy mark?!"

Mudge hesitated, then gave the fair-haired officer a colder smile. "How about if I shoot your friend instead?"

Mate cried out, but it was too late. Mudge turned to see Hornblower lunging for him, and together they rolled into the street.

It should have been an easy win; after all, this officer was two inches away from being unconscious, and was bleeding on top of it. And for a few moments, Mudge felt himself winning as Hornblower's grip lessened, and the blows he dealt Mudge became weaker and more scattered. Yes, this was going to be -

Then all of a sudden two strong hands grabbed him from behind and spun him into the dirt, then slammed him across the jaw, all in the space of a second. Startled, Mudge looked up to see the fair-haired officer standing over him, face ruddy with fury and one hand holding a gleaming sword whose point was pressed firmly into Mudge's chest.

"Now then, sir," the officer panted, "Do I have your surrender?"

For a very brief moment Mudge considered it; then he thought of who he was fighting, and how this child's blood was up but at heart he was the sniveling little coward he'd always been, and decided he'd be damned if he'd give up so easy. "Surrender? To Simpson's little whipping boy?"

Yes, if brute force didn't intimidate, having something on your victim always did. Mudge expected to see those memories come back, and the frightened coward with them. And then it would be easy.

But instead the officer just tucked his chin down a little and leaned over. "Surrender to a lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy."

It hadn't worked! Worried now, Mudge glanced over to Mate for assistance, but saw that his partner had been knocked out and was lying in the alley, his hands tied with a dark blue kerchief.

His attention was drawn back by a sharp little jab from the sword. The officer was still glaring at him. "You removed some things from Mr. Hornblower's person. Relieve yourself of them at once."

"Uh - " Mudge dug into his pocket and withdrew the trinkets, including the broken necklace. As he placed them on the ground next to him he looked up at the angry god looming over him and said, "I'm right, though, ain't I? You used to be on Simpson's ship. I know you. I *know* you!"

Now that should have done it, if nothing else did. Mudge did know about this boy, knew things that would have sent most men running for the shadows, and the way he said his words, there was no chance that his meaning could have been lost.

But it was lost. It had to be. Because the youth didn't cower, and he didn't run; instead, he leaned forward again, his blue eyes glittering hard in the lamplight, and growled, "You know *nothing* of me. Get up."

For a moment Mudge didn't move; he was still considering his options. His partner was down, and this officer was furious at him, or something, and that was always bad. But on the other hand, in a few moments that anger might fade and then he could make a run for it. Yes, just let the boy relax just a little...

Then Hornblower groaned, and Mudge's chance was lost. The other officer heard that groan, and it triggered some reflex in him that made him reach forward, grab Mudge by the neck of his grubby shirt and scream, "Get UP damn you!" With that exclamation Mudge found himself hauled to his feet, just in time to see the beadle running toward them.

Oh, damn, he thought, and knew his career was - at least temporarily - over. Damn damn damn.

*********************************************************************

"Horatio?"As soon as the beadle showed up, Archie shoved the wretched specimen away from him and ran to Horatio's aid, getting down on one knee to help his friend to a sitting position. "Are you all right?"

"Damn!" Horatio cursed as he sat up and dabbed at his mouth. "Those bastards! Damn!"

Relieved, Archie gave his friend a sympathetic thump on the back and said, "Don't worry, they've been paid back with interest, I think. Can you stand?"

"To find my way out of here? Certainly!" With Archie's help, Horatio made his way to a standing position, and saw the beadle. Glancing to his right, then his left, Horatio took in the scene and asked, "Both of them, Archie? The captain will be most impressed."

"He had better be," Archie answered lightly, and bending down scooped Horatio's belongings up into his hand. "Here, Mr. Hornblower, I believe these are yours."

"Thank you," Horatio replied as he sifted the dirt out of what Archie had given him. He picked the necklace out of the pile and examined it closely, muttering again, "Thank you, Archie."

"Well!" The beadle said gruffly as he secured Mudge's hands behind him, and turned jaded eyes to the alleyway. "Seems you young gents have had the rum go of it tonight. These two jumped you, eh?"

"Yes, sir," Horatio nodded as he wiped off his pants. "I will make whatever statement you may desire, to hold these two gen - these two men accountable for their actions."

The beadle shook his head. "You fancy Naval types. Just come round in the mornin', I'll lock these two up till then."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Horatio nodded, and watched as the beadle yanked the other robber to his feet, where he swayed groggily. In a moment the beadle was marching both of them down the street.

Archie walked over to where Horatio's sword still lay, and picked it up. "Well, that's over. Perhaps now you can tell me what the devil you were doing alone down here in the middle of the night."

"Coming to find you, actually," Horatio replied with a nod of thanks as he reclaimed his sword, "The company was very dull on ship, and I thought to surprise you."

"Instead you were the one surprised!" Archie answered with a smile and a shake of his head. "Well, enough of this. To the sick berth, Mr. Hornblower, to stuff your errant brains back into your errant head."

"Ugh!" Horatio exclaimed as the two young men turned around on the cobblestone street, and began to find their way home in the dark. "I can only imagine what Dr. Sebastian will say when he sees this. Surely it can wait till morning - ?"

"Oh, you'd rather get a lecture *after* that knob on your head is the size of a grapefruit? Of course, he'll go much easier on you then!"

Their steps sounded in the silence for a few moments.

"You know, Archie, I was almost unconscious but I could have sworn I heard that one fellow say something about Simpson. Was I completely mad?"

Step. Step. Step. "I wouldn't be surprised if he knew the likes of those two."

"But - no consequence?"

"None."

More silence. Then:

"Well - of course in the morning you will have your story to tell," Horatio commented, "And then I shall have to hear for endless weeks how Archie Kennedy rescued his shipmate from thieves!"

Archie laughed companionably and promised, "Until you can't stand it another minute, I assure you!"

"Mr. Kennedy, you are a hateful human being."

"Mr. Hornblower, I cannot help myself. You are far too much of an easy mark."

The end!