The Guardian
by Ruth Christian

"Styles!" the voice whispered urgently.

Styles slowed at the sound, and started to walk on as if he had not
heard, but a hand grabbed his shirt from behind and stopped him.

"Styles, you heard me call." The owner of that voice was so close he
imagined he could feel the hot breath on his ear, and by the
roughness with which he had been handled, the other was none too
happy at this moment.

"I didn't hear ya." Styles placated. "Had I known it was you I'd a
stopped ­ can't be too careful now a days."

The hand shoved him and retreated back into the darkness of the
alley; he followed reluctantly and cautiously.

"I trust you spent your time well while imprisoned?" The other asked,
the voice burgeoning with derision.

Styles was caught unawares and tried to catch a glimpse of the
other's expression in the darkness to guess the meaning behind it. "I
was innocent ­ framed I was."

He received a short, harsh laugh in reply.

"I warned you that I could not intercede on your behalf were you
caught."

"You could ha' given me a bit warnin' they was on to me." Styles
retorted petulantly, like a child caught in mischief.

"No, that was a lesson you had to learn the hard way and nothing I
said would have prevented you from persisting with your . . .
endeavors. Just be grateful that I was able to get you released,
after a proper learning period, of course."

Another bit of surprising information. "Why'd ya bother?" he asked,
trying to hide the sudden anxiety. He knew this meeting would come to
no good end, not for him, anyway.

"Because, I have need of you now, Styles." The other said, and
Styles felt an alarming foreboding, but he was too smart not to
comply.

"Why would you need me now? I ain't on no ship." Styles just wanted
to get away; to get this over with. He heard familiar voices and
started to look around, but the other's hand darted out quickly to
pull him deeper into the shadows. He tried in vain to pull away and
nearly squealed in terror when a hand pressed firmly over his mouth.

"Be quiet!" The voice ordered, and a moment later two officers walked
by ­ Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Bush. He nearly yelled out to them.
Sensing his intentions, the other pinched a nerve in his arm that was
excruciatingly painful, as a warning. Slowly, the hand was removed
and the arm was released. Styles' arm hung limply and he tried to
rub some feeling back into it. He jumped back when the other stepped
closer.

"You should be afraid, Styles; after all, you let me down last time,
and Kennedy was shot. I was /very/ disappointed in you."

That made Styles defensive and bold enough to reply, "I tried to stop
that Dego from shootin' . . . I couldn't be everywhere at once. I'm
sorry Mr. Kennedy's dead; he was a good officer. We all liked him."

It was obvious that Styles was truly sorry about Kennedy's death. The
other grudgingly gave Styles a bit of more respect and was nearly
tempted to relieve of him of some guilt. No, he would find out when
the time was right, and a man like Styles would not be able to keep
that information to himself. The Admiral would not be pleased if that
leaked out.

"Tonight," the voice continued with determination, "Admiral Pellew
will inform Hornblower that he is to report to his flagship on the
morrow. He will be given command of the /Hotspur/ and will be ordered
to scout the French coast. You must get a berth aboard that ship."

"And just how am I supposed to do that? There's hundreds of men
needin work in this port." Styles guffawed and then remembered that
provoking this person was the last thing a smart man would do.

The voice turned steely and deepened dangerously, "I don't care how
you manage it, Styles. You lie or stow away . . . whatever it takes,
you make certain you are on that ship when it makes weigh. Use your
connections with Hornblower; he has a soft spot for a few of you."
Although the last words had been said harshly, there was a hint of
admiration in them.

Styles backed away and reluctantly asked the question he knew he
must, "What am I to do when I get on board? I won't do no spying for
ya, not on Mr. Hornblower."

The other examined him more closely and then responded, "You are to
guard Hornblower; someone in the Admiralty wants him protected. It
seems he has quite a knack for putting himself into precarious
situations. You won't be able to stop him, but you will accompany him
and shield him as best you can. I need not remind you the necessity
of keeping silent on this matter, do I?"

"That is all I'm to do ­ guard Mr. Hornblower?" Styles asked with
undisguised surprise.

"Have you so quickly forgotten our Mr. Hornblower's fondness for
trouble, Styles? This will not be so easy to accomplish; you are
being asked to give your life for him should the need arise." The
other reminded him sternly.

Styles thought on that for a moment, and then in a moment of rare
insight, asked, "What are you not tellin' me?"

The other laughed. "Well, well, how quickly we learn." The voice then
turned serious, "I cannot tell you more than that Styles; even I am
not privy to all the intelligence known by the Admiralty. It is safer
that way, in case one of us is caught."

"Your usual payment." The other said and tossed him a small satchel
of coins.

Styles hefted the bag and bounced it in his hand to test the weight.
He smiled in heady anticipation of the rum and women this would
purchase tonight. He felt no guilt in failing to mention that he
would watch Mr. Hornblower's back without the incentive.

"Spending it already are we?" The other asked knowingly and stepped
out of the shadows. "I care not what vices you indulge in, Styles,
just remember to be on board the /Hotspur/ tomorrow morning. You do
not want to disappoint me, again."

Styles looked into those black eyes and shivered involuntarily. She
was deceptively fragile in appearance ­ small and very womanly with
an angelic face. That was what killed most men; she didn't look like
an assassin, and they never saw death coming.

She cautiously peered up and down the street, and then turned back to
him. "I will be watching tomorrow ­ take heed." And with the last
warning, she melted into the night.

Styles leaned back against the wall and took a deep steadying breath.
Even with the bone chilling cold, it still felt warmer since she had
gone. He was embarrassed that he feared a mere woman so. But he knew
well how lethal she was; he had witnessed her torture and kill a man
once - expertly and without remorse.

How could he enjoy himself tonight knowing he had to be at the ship
first thing in the morning? Well, just a bit of debauchery wouldn't
prevent him from making it on time. Surely Mr. Hornblower would give
him a berth. With that encouraging thought in mind, Styles set a
course for the nearest brothel.