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 --"
"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
"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
"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."