Short Story: Paying the Tab

I wrote this first draft of a short story over the course of one week, as a morale-boosting project.  You might think of it as fantastical historical fiction.

*    *    *

Andre sat with his back against the tavern’s wall, his legs draped down the length of the bench.  They didn’t go very far down the bench, since he only ever reached four feet three inches on a good day.  The portion of the bench that he did cover he clearly dominated with his muscular bulk, as might be expected of a healthy dwarf of his respectable age.  He and his drinking companion were a study in contrasts.

The tall, lanky and human Jerome sat across the table, facing him on the other bench.  Scattered down the length of the table was an array of mugs, all empty but for the last two that lay between them.  These foamed over with a richly malty brew that smelled of molasses and citrus.

“Ahh,” Andre sighed contentedly, his thickly bearded smile creasing and crinkling his face.  “This… this is what I was hoping for all those nights Jerome.  Nothing gets you through storms at sea like the dream of a warm hearth and a fine beer.”  He rumbled a chuckle to himself and picked up his drink for a long sip.

Jerome returned his friend’s wide smile.  He was more than a little drunk at this point, as he’d been doing his best to match his heavy friend drink for drink.  “And here I thought you were wishing for sheep more your size,” he grinned, then chortled as Andre choked on his beer in surprise.  His loud laughter brought the attention of the other residents of the tavern, most of whom simply went back to minding their own business.

Most, but not the bartender.  She came out from behind the bar and wound her way through the amiable crowd to the table that Andre and Jerome had taken over.  She had on a professional smile, one that wouldn’t fool you into thinking she was of good cheer.  “Ok boys,” she leaned over, setting her hands down on the table amidst the collection of mugs.  “You’ve had a lovely long ride, and I’ve taken your promises because you’ve given me good coin before.  But this time I mean it.  When are you going to pay your tab?”

Looking drunkenly serious, Jerome took a long pull from his mug, trying to hide his face behind it.  Andre just looked embarrassed.  He tried to save face.  “Well, you see, it’s just that we’re…” his words slowly drifted off under the stare of their barkeep.  “You, ah, make the best beer?”  Jerome sniggered at Andre’s stumbling, and whispered loudly to him “It’s supposed to be an apology.  Try harder.”  Jerome clearly had forgotten that the barkeep could hear him too.

The barkeep simply looked between the two of them, smile gone from her face, and agreed.  “Yes, try harder.  With money.”  Frowning, she continued “You are good for your promises, aren’t you?  Or are all those stories you tell just empty boasts?”

Jerome looked hurt.  “We’re good for them!  I’m an honorest— er, honest man!  If there’s anything we can’t pay off now, we’ll do some work for you to make up for it.  We’re good for it, I swear.”

The barkeep looked unimpressed.  She stood back up straight and crossed her arms beneath her breasts.  “Right.  Well then.  Let’s see what you’ve got and figure out what you owe.”  Jerome nodded emphatically and fumbled his coin pouch to the tabletop.  It didn’t jingle in the least.  Andre shook his head at Jerome’s look of surprise and reached for his own wallet, only to stare as he upended it and naught but one small coin fell out.  He looked up at Jerome.  “Well, shit.  I think we’re broke again.”

#

Andre and Jerome sat at a now empty table, glum expressions hanging on their faces.  It was late, perhaps an hour after the tavern had closed for the evening, and they hadn’t had any more beer since they had realized they were all out of money.  Jerome had been sure that the barkeep, whose name turned out to be Marguerite, would want them to help with clean up and washing as soon as she had confronted them, but instead she’d simply told them to sit and wait.  He was starting to get nervous.

Andre’s patience was as impressive as usual, even if he did grumble.  He’d continued to slowly sip his beer, nursing it carefully in the hopes that he might make it last longer, but even he had had to admit defeat a few hours earlier as the last few drops refused to leave the bottom of the mug.  He was looking wistfully at the casks up against the wall behind the bar.

Finally, having seen to the last of the clean up work, Marguerite made her way back to the table to which her indebted patrons had been consigned.  She settled herself down on a stool at the far end of the table and leaned forward on her elbows, crossing her arms on the table in front of her.

“So.”  The syllable hung in the air for several seconds.  “About that money you owe me.”

Jerome shifted uncomfortably, “Like I said, we’d be happy to work it off.”  He swallowed to wet his throat before nodding towards the kitchen through the door behind the bar, “Only, we can’t exactly work it off if you won’t let us.”

Marguerite smiled like she knew something the two of them didn’t.  Andre muttered across the table, “Careful boy, you’re sticking your foot in it I’m sure.”

“Would you say that two fine gentlemen such as yourself would be best put to work in my kitchen?  Doing scutwork that I can hire anyone to do?”  Marguerite’s smile turned predatory, “That doesn’t sound like the skilled men-of-fortune you’ve made yourselves out to be.  No, I have something far more suited for your particular areas of expertise.”  Andre’s glum look turned sour.

“I don’t want you two washing my dishes or making my food.  But if you’ll just do me one favor, I’ll consider your debt settled.”  Marguerite’s smile grew.  “How about it?”

Andre and Jerome traded glances across the table.  Jerome’s anxiety was palpable, a smell in the air, but he nodded slightly.  Andre just seemed resigned.  “Well, Madam Marguerite, if this favor of yours doesn’t involve killing anybody I think you’ve got yourself a deal.”  The dwarf sighed, “I’ve no desire to be brought in for vagrancy and debt.”

“I would never think of calling the guards on two such fine and upstanding members of society as yourselves.  Unless you don’t pay off your debt of course.  As for killing, I see no reason why you’d have to kill anybody.  I just want that charlatan Leonarda put out of business.”  She cleared her throat, “Her pub across the street has been sucking away my customers, and she’s doing something shifty with her booze.  Her rum is sold too cheap, and she makes almost none of her own beer.  She’s terrible for me.”  She leaned back and slapped a hand down on the table.  “Take care of that problem and your money’s good with me,” she raised an eyebrow quizzically, “or you could just pay me for the week-long binge?”

#

Marguerite gave Andre and Jerome two days to work out their plans, but she barely let them out of her sight.  She continued to serve them food on their tab, but all but her cheapest beer was completely off limits.  As they slowly sweated out their drunken binge, Andre and Jerome set themselves on the task of figuring out how to run someone out of town without committing murder.

“Well, um,” Jerome’s vacant expression hid his thoughts as he pondered.  “How about destruction of property and a death threat?”

Andre shook his head.  “And why would that work?  Those things take time.  If we really want to run someone out of town, we should burn down their house and place of business.  Even if Leonarda doesn’t leave, she’ll be out of the picture for long enough that Marguerite should be able to edge her out if she tries to open back up.”

“No no, we can’t start fires Andre.  We’re not in the Dwarven Quarter of Amsterdam here.  If we start a fire, the whole town will burn down.  And everyone will turn up to put it out.  These colonial towns are like bundles of tinder.”  Jerome rested his chin on his fist, elbow planted firmly on the table.  “No, I still think threats would work best.  Maybe delivered after we break in in the middle of the night?”

Andre shrugged and stuck out his chin, considering.  “That would certainly give it a flair for the dramatic,” he stroked his beard slowly, “but do you really think it would suffice?”

Now it was Jerome’s turn to shrug.  “If it isn’t enough, we could always just bundle her up and carry her out of town.”

Andre frowned, forehead creased in sudden pensive thought.  “Doesn’t it worry you that we’re thinking up all of these very illegal ways to solve our problems and seriously considering them?  Isn’t that the least bit… worrisome?  A problem?”

“Well, yeah,” Jerome heaved a huge sigh.  “But I don’t really see what we can do about it.  I mean, either we do something fairly illegal and might not get caught, or we get brought in for debt and vagrancy.  And we both know what debtors prison leads to.  You don’t want to be sold to work off your debts do you?”

“No!  Certainly not.  I just,” Andre looked around the tavern’s mostly empty common room.  Early morning was not a popular time, as it turned out.  “I feel like maybe we should look into this more before we decide to do something drastic.  Just, you know, take a look around and catch the lay of the land.”

Jerome looked at him for a moment as though he had said something truly strange.  Then he shook his head as though to clear it.  “No, of course.  That’s a great idea.  We can just take a look around and make sure that we’re not missing something obvious.  And if something suggests itself to us, well, all the better.”

Andre nodded.  “My thoughts exactly.”

 ***

The two of them left word with Marguerite’s cook before wandering out into the street.  The sun had only been up for a short while, and the tropical day had not yet built the sweltering heat that it would over the next few hours.  A morning sea breeze washed in over the town from the harbor, rustling the palms.  The few ships tied up at the wharf all seemed quiet and the streets were just beginning to fill with people.  Further out in the harbor the few ships at their moorings slowly shifted on the tide.

Andre and Jerome blinked in the sunlight, letting their eyes slowly adjust from the tavern’s dim interior before wandering to the other side of the street.  The tavern across the street from Marguerite’s was called The Blue Clam, and seemed no more awake or open for business than Marguerite’s Sultry Feather had been.  It was a sturdy wood-framed construction, with a tiled roof and a wide awning that reached out over the street just in front of its door.  There was no sign, but the sections between the wooden timbers were painted with blue clamshells.  Andre and Jerome stepped up to the front, and then worked their way into the alley beside the building with a studied air of nonchalance.

The space between buildings was nearly as dim again as the common room had been, and neither Andre nor Jerome could see very well at first.  But they could hear what sounded like a quiet conversation coming from the other end of the alley, and every so often they heard the scraping of wood on dirt.  As the dim light surrendered more of its details, they traded a glance with each other and slowly began to work their way down the alley, towards the conversation and sounds of work.  Jerome could see that the alley let onto another small path that ran across it, seeming to run along the backs of the various buildings on this street.  It was just wide enough, perhaps, for a cart or small wagon to pass, perfect for making deliveries.

Jerome moved closer with the ease of one at home in dangerous situations, stalking forward silently as he made sure of his footing one step at a time.  He reached the corner of the alley and paused, hoping to listen in surreptitiously.  The words were quiet and faint, but…

“—this shipment.  The money for the rum will be at the usual place, and you should keep an eye out for the Flighty Cockerel.  I understand she’ll be leaving harbor soon headed for Port-au-Prince.  With that size crew, she should—“

Andre followed even more slowly in his footsteps, trying to mimic his quieter partner.  Just as he drew alongside Jerome, he heard something shift in the alley behind him.

Andre glanced back, surprised to see a box that had been resting beside the building levering into the air.  It must have been a disguise fastened to what was now clearly the hatch of a trapdoor, and someone was coming up out of it.  Andre hissed urgently, tugging on Jerome’s sleeve.

Jerome had only just begun to make out what the conversation he was overhearing was about, something to do with targets for a slaving raid at sea, and he looked down at Andre in frustration.  Seeing the alarm on Andre’s face, his eyes followed Andre’s urgent finger.  He watched in consternation as several men began to clamber out of the now open trapdoor, leaving him and Andre pinned between the two groups, neither of which had noticed them yet.  There was nowhere to hide, and no good way to claim that they hadn’t been snooping.  And if Jerome was sure of anything, it was that people who came out of secret trapdoors weren’t interested in letting other people know about their secrets.

#

Jerome decided that there was no way out but to try to pretend they hadn’t been doing anything suspicious.  He stood up straighter, more relaxed, and sauntered out of the alley into the passage behind the buildings.  He turned right, away from the conversation he’d been trying to listen in on, and wandered onwards.  Andre stared after his friend, glanced back at the people coming out of the trapdoor, and stumped quickly after his friend who was rapidly outpacing him.  His attempt at a casual walk was ruined by his effort to catch up with his friend.  They hadn’t gotten more than a few steps before they were noticed.

“Hey, you two there,” the voice rang down the back alley from the people conferring by the emptied wagon.  Jerome stopped and turned around as though surprised.  His faked surprise became real as Andre ran into him and they went down in a tangled mess.  Andre’s heavy forehead pounded into Jerome’s solar plexus, and the taller human let out a desperate gasp as the air left his lungs.  Andre tried to push himself upright quickly while his friend gaped and writhed like a fish out of water, but he had only just gotten to his feet when the men he’d seen earlier arrived.  They rapidly surrounded Andre and Jerome, their hands drifting to belt knives or light clubs.

“Leonarda, I thought you’d said the way would be clear at this time.”  The man speaking was approaching from somewhere beyond the ring of men surrounding Andre, hidden from Andre’s low perspective by the solid looking toughs.  The dwarf shifted nervously, trying to keep his eyes on all of his opponents at once and failing.

“And there wouldn’t have been any problems if your men had bothered to check before coming out of the trapdoor, Raul,” came a woman’s voice in reply.  “Don’t go blaming me for you own crew’s laziness.”  The woman and other man pushed through the ring until they could see Andre and Jerome.  “Besides, this is solved easily enough.”  Jerome finally took in a huge breath of air and rolled to his hands and knees, clearly distracted by his ordeal.

“Take them in, put them on the ship.  Who’ll miss them?”  The woman, clearly Leonarda, smiled as she waved her hand at the two.  “One incompetent dwarf and one dirty human.  And if they try to tell any stories, well, nobody listens to slaves.  Or you can put them overboard when you get far enough out.”  She looked to Raul, who simply nodded his approval.  He waved his hand, and the men fell upon Andre and Jerome.  A well placed kick knocked the air out of Jerome once again, and he collapsed without ever having drawn his sword.  Andre caught another man’s wrist in his hand, stopping the club before it could hit his head, and lashed out with his other fist.  His blow caught the man in the crotch and left him gasping on the ground, but even as Andre turned to face his next foe someone else struck him from behind.  A fist, a club, then he was on the ground and two more kicks left him curled up in a ball on his side.

Andre tried to gather enough breath to yell for help, but before he could get anything out a rag had been stuffed into his mouth.  He and Jerome were tied and gagged, and dragged back to the wagon.  They had a long rattling ride through the streets before he recognized the smell of the docks.  The wharf’s dead fish and rotting seaweed smell was powerful, even under the canvas which had been tossed on top of them as a cover.  And though they were carried aboard quite slowly, Andre only saw a few moments of daylight before he and Jerome were stuffed down belowdecks.

#

Andre and Jerome were thrown deep into the hold, left to lie among the loose shackles that would later hold slaves.  The slavers were lazy, leaving them tied up in their ropes and not bothering to bolt them in place.  Despite the hard shackle pressed into his face, Andre was glad for their neglect.  He’d happily accept the bruise that he knew would be there if it meant that he didn’t have to worry about trying to break out of chains.  He managed to roll over onto his back and look around, but there was nothing to see.  The hold was pitch black, and smelled of bile, shit, and seawater.  The smell made him gag, making the choking of the cloth stuffed into his mouth even worse, and he fought off waves of nausea as visions of breathing in his own vomit danced before his eyes.

Andre shifted, wiggling across the chains that lay on the decking.  The shackle that he had landed on first had been rough on its edges, enough so that he could now feel what had to be a bit of blood trickling down his face.  If only he could find it again, perhaps he could begin working on tearing up his bindings.

Jerome was finally more aware of his surroundings, and he could feel the empty sheath of his sword limply caught between his leg and the floor.  His belt knife was also gone.  The slavers had at least been thorough about removing his weapons.  But Jerome was fairly flexible, something he had worked on for many hours along with his fencing, and so he worked on relaxing his muscles and and gradually easing his wrists lower behind him and his legs up in front of him.  As Andre searched about by feel for a manacle rough enough to undo his bonds, Jerome slowly slipped his wrists down past his feet, blessing his long limbs for making it easier.  At the very end he still had to strain, and he could feel the muscles of his back complaining.  There was a long pulling pain from his left shoulder, gradually building as he stretched as far as he could go, and then it was gone.  Just an easing ache as he brought his wrists up in front of his face.

He still couldn’t see his hands, but he slowly worked the gag out of his mouth by feel.  The cloth was slimy with saliva and his mouth felt dry and disgusting, but as he undid the rope that had held the gag in place he already felt much better.  He was happy to be breathing through his mouth instead of his nose, and he could finally find his friend.

“Andre?  Where are you?”  He called quietly, hoping not to alert any of the crew who must still be on board.

“Mm mmfhm hfmm.”  Andre’s reply was muffled, but he wriggled on the chains with renewed vigor, catching Jerome’s attention with the clanking rattle.  Jerome wormed his way over to his companion, dragging himself across the chains until his hands bumped into Andre’s knee.

“Ok, Andre, I’m going to try to untie your gag.  Just hold still for a bit.”  Andre’s reply was a short “hmf,” and Jerome could feel Andre straightening out.  Working his way up by feel, Jerome finally found Andre’s head.  With his hands bound together in front of him he pulled out the cloth stuffed into Andre’s mouth before going to work on the rope.

“Hah.  Ack, thpbt—“ Andre coughed and spat while Jerome picked at the knot behind Andre’s head.  As the knot finally came undone, Andre breathed a sigh of relief.

“Ahh, thanks for that.”  He took a few deep breaths, “Just so you know, there’s at least one manacle around here with rough edges.  We might be able to use it on our bonds.”  Another few deep breaths, “If we can find it, that is.”

Jerome laughed very quietly.  “Right, just have to search for a manacle in a manacle stack.  Remind me not to bring you snooping with me in the future.”  He began rummaging through the manacles, finding chains and tracing them to their ends, running his fingers over all the edges of each cuff.

“Psshh.  If you hadn’t had me, the fellows coming up that trapdoor would have seen you listening in.”  Andre gave a dignified harumph.  “You would have been cooked either way.  It’s not my fault you decided to stop and turn around when you had a perfectly good lead on them already.”

“Ah, right, so it’s all my fault that we were caught.  Of course it was.”  Jerome shook his head, then snorted as he realized that Andre wouldn’t be able to see him.

They spent what must have been several hours searching through the manacles.  To take a break from searching, Jerome tried picking at the knots on his and Andre’s wrists and ankles, but they had been done too tightly for him to get any good purchase.  They went back to rummaging through the chains in the hold.  No one came to check in on them.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in the fetid dark, Jerome came across a shackle with rough edges.  He quietly called Andre over to him and began the long process of working on the bonds holding Andre’s wrists.

It took another eternity of patiently rubbing the shackle against the taut line, but finally the strands parted and snapped.  Jerome got Andre to go to work on his own wrists and ankles, and Andre was nearly done when they heard footsteps approaching the hatch into the hold.  Desperate, Jerome began wrenching on the rope as Andre sped up the pace, and as the hatch began to creak open the last of Jerome’s bonds finally broke.  He crouched, moving towards the hatch as stealthily as he could in the dark, when light poured down into the hold from the slaver’s lantern.  Andre was staring up at the hatch, working as quickly as he could on his own last set of bonds, and so he saw as Jerome threw himself up the steep ladder-like stairs and slammed into the man who had opened the hatch.  There was a short yelp of surprise, and then a loud thud.  And then the hatch swung shut once again.

“Shit!”  Andre worked even more furiously.

Jerome had caught the slaver in the stomach with his shoulder, knocking him over into one of the low bulwarks of the ship and catching his head on a beam.  The slaver was out cold, with Jerome lying on top of him, but the light from the lantern seemed brighter than ever.  Jerome glanced over, his eyes widening in horror as he saw that the reservoir had cracked and was leaking oil across the deck.  There was a brief glimmer as the lit wick settled into the newly spread oil, and then a quickly spreading flame licked across the puddle.

Jerome levered himself mostly upright, wary of the low ceiling overhead, and pried up the hold’s hatch.  “Andre!”  The volume of his own yell took him by surprise.  “You’ve got to hurry!”  Faintly from below, Andre replied “Fuck, Jerome, I’m going as fast as I can!”

Jerome grabbed the slaver and dragged him a little further from the slowly expanding puddle of fire, to give himself more time to take anything he could.  There was a basket the slaver had dropped that looked like it had food, horrifying looking biscuits that must have been sitting in storage for ages.  There was a knife on his waist, and Jerome grabbed that without hesitation.  He looked over at the fire, now pushing itself slowly towards the hatch, and he made a split-second decision.  Crouching down by the opening, he tossed the knife down to the bottom of the stairs.  “Use the knife, Andre, I’ll try to buy us some time.  But hurry!”  He ran, half bent over, back towards what looked like the way above-decks.

Down in the hold below Andre cursed long and hard, muttering under his breath as he dragged himself as fast as he could towards the exit to the hold.  In the gently flickering light that was coming down from above he could just make out the glimmer of the knife’s blade.  It wasn’t until he had the knife in hand and was cutting through his ropes that he realized what the light must mean.  It had gotten stronger, too.  “Shit!  Why couldn’t he tell me that he started a fire on the ship?  Is he trying to kill the both of us?”  His ankles finally free, he thumped up the stairs as quickly as he could and stared at the lake of fire which now covered the lower deck.  He yelled out, “How am I supposed to get over this, you miserable goat?  You’re terrible at buying us time!”

#

Jerome dashed up from belowdecks, pounding up the stairs as he yelled at the top of his lungs.  “Fire!  Fire down below!”  Dark skies and a vast spread of stars welcomed him on the weather deck, and he looked about as the several sentries on duty ran towards him.  The panic on their faces was clear, even by the diffuse light coming from the few ship’s lanterns, and completely understandable.  Fire aboard a ship was truly dangerous, since they were made of inflammable materials like wood and cotton and liberally slathered with other inflammable materials like pitch and paint.  Jerome gave one last great yell of “Fire!” as the sentries ran closer; and as the last of them raced up to him he stepped up and clotheslined her, lifting her by the chin and slamming her down to the deck.  He reached down to the stunned slaver’s belt and pulled out her cudgel, rapping her with a sharp blow to the temple before he quickly glanced about the deck once again.  It seemed to have mostly emptied, the few slavers still on board having run down belowdecks to try to put out the fire.  Jerome trotted forward towards the bow and went down the stairs to the lower deck once again.

Andre turned away from the fire and headed in the other direction.  He wasn’t entirely clear on which way was which, but was sure that there should be more than one way back up to the upper decks.  Even if the route Jerome took was blocked by the fire, he should be able to find another way up.  He coughed and squinted as the fire’s oily smoke started to billow through the cramped space belowdecks.  Over the rush of the flames he could hear what sounded like yelling and pounding feet on the deck above.  He hoped that that meant that Jerome was buying them some more time.

Andre was surprised when he heard the first set of feet pounding down the stairs that he could barely make out some distance ahead of him.  He crouched down to one side, making sure that he wouldn’t be outlined by the light of the fire, and watched as slavers began pouring down the stairs to the lower deck.  If any of the slavers had been paying closer attention, they might have heard Andre grumble, “Of course he would buy us time by sending more people belowdecks before I’ve even gotten out.”  But they weren’t paying close attention to anything but the fire, and so the first of the slavers was caught completely by surprise when a short and stocky shadow stepped out from behind a support beam.  He didn’t even have time to draw his weapon before Andre slashed open his thigh to the bone.

The first man fell screaming as Andre settled into a sturdy stance.  The second slaver fumbled at her waist, bent over in the cramped quarters and trying to draw a rapier from her belt.  Andre took advantage of her confusion to step closer and lay into her forearm.  As she stumbled back with a cry of pain, Andre reached out and grabbed the hilt of the rapier.  He drew it and swapped it for the knife he held in his right hand.  He was pretty sure that it was Jerome’s, and he wasn’t going to let Jerome forget that he had rescued his friend’s precious sword in the middle of a fight.  The third slaver was more coordinated and stepped back, drawing his cutlass while Andre pulled out the rapier.  There were a few other slavers standing behind him, and despite the cramped quarters they slowly tried to edge up around their friend.  Andre settled into a stance like he’d seen Jerome use, but he knew that he’d just make a mess of things if he tried to do anything fancy.  He’d never had training with this sort of sword, and though he knew that he was supposed to put the sharp end in someone else, he wasn’t really sure just how to do it.

Jerome came down the steps to find a slowly spreading crowd of slavers, five in all, filling the passage between him and the fire.  And on the other side of them was Andre, with Jerome’s sword, clearly trying to imitate Jerome’s fighting stance.  Jerome stepped up to the slaver closest to him and slammed the club into the back of her head, knocking her to the ground with the force of the blow.  Only her closest companion noticed, turning towards him with a knife in her hands and a cry of alarm.  Andre lunged towards the now startled swordsman and felt the tip sink home even as Jerome was forced back by the other slaver’s furious slashes.  But Andre must not have hit anything important, because the swordsman just yelled and lashed out with his cutlass, batting aside the rapier.  The two who had been moving forward on Andre’s right, to the left of the man with the cutlass, rushed towards Andre and tackled him to the ground, the rapier falling to the deck.

Pinned beneath the two larger slavers with his right arm caught against his chest, Andre let go of the knife in his left hand and reached up.  His fingers grasped at the hair of one of the slavers and pulled his head down sharply, slamming his own head up and breaking the slaver’s nose with his forehead.  The second slaver scrabbled for the dropped knife, and grabbed hold of it even as Andre used his greater strength to lever the stunned slaver with a broken nose off of his chest.

Jerome took a step back, out of reach of the slaver’s belt knife, and then flung the club he had stolen at her face and charged her at the same time.  She reflexively brought up her hands to stop the club, and Jerome got only a slight cut on his upper arm as he shoved her into the man with the cutlass and snatched up his fallen rapier from where it had skittered across the deck.  He whipped the tip of his sword up to the two dazed and entangled slavers and pierced them with several quick jabs before turning towards the messy struggle that had engulfed Andre.

Andre was wrestling with the last uninjured slaver, holding the slaver’s forearm out away from the both of them as though they were in some bizarre dance, keeping the knife as far from his body as possible.  His vision was swimming from exertion, and he was light-headed from the fumes of the fire which was still spreading across the deck towards them.  The slaver grimaced in pain as Andre’s grip closed tighter on his forearm, and he started hammering Andre with repeated blows from his knees.  Andre winced, twitched, tried to twist his body away so that the strikes couldn’t land solidly, but he knew that he was in trouble.  He let go of his grip on the slaver’s upper arm with his right hand, tucking his chin and clenching his teeth in anticipation of the first punch.  He brought back his own hand, and as the slaver slammed his fist into the side of Andre’s head he reached up and clawed at the slaver’s eyes, forcing him away.

Keeping his grip on the slaver’s knife arm, he slid his hand down the slaver’s face until it reached his throat.  Then he squeezed.  The slaver struggled, trying to pull Andre’s hand away with his own free hand, but Andre just tightened his grip, his muscular hands finally making up for his lack of reach.  Jerome watched, captivated by the sight as Andre choked the slaver into unconsciousness, before quickly turning and making sure that none of the other slavers would be quick to regain their feet and return to the fight.  They all appeared to be unconscious, or groaning and nursing their wounds.

The floor was now slick with blood from the first of Andre’s victims, and the dwarf was dripping with it as he stood.  “Right,” he rasped at Jerome, “thanks for buying us time.  Now let’s get out of here.”  Jerome gave Andre a weak, sheepish smile, then turned and led the way back on deck.

From the weather deck, they could see that smoke had begun to pour up out of the aft companionway, lit faintly from below.  It took the two of them a few minutes to wrestle the gangplank into place, and then they were off, fleeing the scene.  They only stopped when they had reached a well shadowed alleyway several blocks distant.  There they settled down for a moment, resting to catch their breath.

“So,” Andre spoke between gasps, trying to keep the world from spinning, “what are we supposed to do now?  We still haven’t even finished our job.”

Jerome leaned against the wall of the building, doing his best to clean his rescued blade.  “Well, smuggling and reporting targets to pirates and slavers should be enough to put that Leonarda in prison for ages, if she isn’t just executed outright.”  He squatted down on his heels.

Andre snorted.  “Yeah, sure.  And all we have to do is walk up to the Watch and tell them all about this conversation that we overheard, since we’re such fine and respectable citizens ourselves.  I’m sure that would work fine.”  His panting had slowed, and now he was checking himself for any cuts he might have missed.

“Well, then we could have Marguerite report her.”  Jerome continued doggedly.

“She’s just as suspicious but for different reasons Jerome,” Andre grumbled, “of course she’d report her competitor.”  He ran his hands down over his chest, peeking beneath his shirt to see if it had covered any further wounds.  He was relieved to find no cuts, but just as clearly exasperated.  “By my mother’s milk, I am just covered in blood.

“Wait,” Andre said as he looked up at Jerome, “that’s perfect.”  His smile was a flash of white hidden by a beard densely matted with blood and grime.  “We show up and terrify her into leaving.  She must think we’re goners,” he nodded to himself, feeling the plan coming together in his mind, “so the last thing she’d expect would be to find us in her tavern, waiting for her.  We could probably run her out of town in an instant.”

Jerome looked at Andre and yelled in delight, “That’s perfect!”  He clamped his mouth shut and looked around anxiously.  Much quieter this time, “I mean, that’s perfect.  A brilliant idea.”  Now he too was lost in thoughts of the plan.  “We just have to show up by surprise, and make her panic.  Burning her friends’ ship is a nice touch.  Adds some verisimilitude.”  The two of them beamed at each other across the dark alley.

#

The door to the Blue Clam was wide open, and the sounds of revelry poured out of it, filling the street.  The noise more than drowned out the smaller crowd which had gathered at Marguerite’s across the way.  Andre and Jerome stalked in through the doorway, cold stares killing the merriment around them as people slowly looked to see who had entered.  Leonarda stood behind the bar, against the wall to the left of the door.  The roof and walls’ soot-darkened plaster and exposed wooden beams drank up most of the common room’s light, and there was a definite odor of stale beer with a faint hint of piss, but the room had fallen quiet; the entry of Jerome and a blood-soaked Andre had left the room nearly silent.

Jerome stared at Leonarda, his eyes boring into hers as she turned from a customer to look at the newcomers.  He idly rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, now properly back in its sheath.  “You have a lot of explaining to do, Leonarda.”  His voice came out calm and cold.  Andre plodded forward, pressing through the crowd as a bull would push through tall grass.  He smeared those who did not make way for him with still sticky-wet blood.  There was a moment where he thought that the whole thing would be ruined as he clambered up a quickly vacated stool to the top of the bar, but no one spoke and then he stood not more than one foot from Leonarda.  He was a blood soaked specter.

Andre’s voice was a hard rasp, roughened by smoke, “Next time you try to kill someone, Leonarda, do it right.”  The nearest barflies shifted away slowly, trying not to attract his attention.  “Your friends found that out the hard way.  Now they’re dead and their ship is burning.”  He pulled up the stool he had climbed and tore it apart with a quick twist of his powerful forearms, holding one stout leg and tossing the rest down beside Leonarda in a splintered mess.  “Would you like your turn?”

Leonarda stared at Andre with wide eyes.  Jerome thumbed his rapier just the tiniest bit out of its sheath to speed his draw and took hold of the hilt with his right hand.  The quiet hiss of metal on leather broke the spell which had settled over Leonarda.  She turned and fled, running for a door on the back wall of the tavern and plowing through the few people who still crowded her path.  Andre stomped down the length of the bar, moving after her with slow deliberation while Jerome elbowed his way through the drinkers between him and the door at the far corner of the room.  Jerome made good time and reached the door as Andre reached the end of the bar, with Leonarda several seconds ahead of them.  Andre held out the stool leg ahead of him and leapt down from the bar, following the opening that Leonarda had left in the crowd, but Jerome had already dashed through the door into the kitchen beyond.  His sword came out with a snap as he left the common room’s crowd, and he saw Leonarda dash out a back door that must let out on the wider alley behind the tavern.  His long legs covered the kitchen in just three strides and he came out the back door with a powerful kick to clear the slowly swinging door.  He dashed out into the darkness.

Andre trotted through the kitchen a little behind his friend, terrifying the cooks even further.  Jerome had plunged off into the darkness of the alley to hunt down Leonarda, but Andre turned right as he came out the back door, following along the wall to turn back into the alley that he and Jerome had hid in at the beginning of their very long day.  He had a feeling that he knew where Leonarda would have run.  He wandered down the alley, taking his time, whistling for Jerome as he went.  He reached the box that had hidden the trapdoor and lifted it, letting it stand open.  There was a faint flicker of light coming from down below.

Andre went down the steps slowly, letting his feet find their own way down while he kept his eyes on where the stairs opened out into the basement.  He could hear Jerome’s answering whistle coming back towards him.  Andre set foot on the floor of the cellar, looking around cautiously.  There were racks of barrels all along three of the walls, with a gap in the middle of the wall facing him that held a set of shelves.  Leonarda was scrabbling through the contents of the shelves, and she turned with a look of desperation on her face as she heard Andre enter.  A large and old pistol quavered in her hand, the muzzle wandering about drunkenly as she held it out towards Andre in her shaking grip.

“No further, dwarf.”  She swallowed nervously.  “I’ll shoot you where you stand and your friend will never know where to find you.”  Keeping her eyes on Andre, her other hand rummaged blindly across the shelves, scraping coins into a pouch at her waist and knocking things to the dirt floor.  “You just get out of my way and this’ll all go well for you.”

Andre looked at her steadily.  “There’s little chance of that.  Your aim is terrible, and my friend is already on his way.”  He hefted the stool leg he still carried.  “Besides.  I’ll wager I could get you with this before you could hit me with a bullet from that gun.”  He shifted his grip slightly, holding the leg roughly at the balance, as one might hold a javelin.  As if to underscore his point, footsteps could be heard coming down the stairs.

Leonarda cursed and thrust the pistol towards Andre, her eyes squinting as she tugged the trigger.  The wheellock spun and sparked as Andre curled back his arm for a throw.  There was a loud crack as the gun went off, and then Andre’s makeshift javelin was sailing through the air.  Andre charged forward across the floor, covering the twenty or so feet in a rush.  Leonarda was struck by the stool leg and shouted, dropping her discharged pistol as Andre closed with her and slammed his fist into her belly.  Jerome came down the rest of the stairs in a hurry, only to see Andre standing over a crumpled Leonarda.  He heard Andre as he muttered, “I told you your aim was terrible.”  Andre pulled several pouches off her person, the thongs holding them snapping at his tugs.

Jerome walked up to his friend, sword still out and pointed at the curled up barkeep.  “You alright Andre?  What shall we do with her?”

Andre nodded.  “I’m well, friend.  As for her, I say we let her walk out with naught but the clothes on her back.”  He grunted.  “And next time we cross paths miss, don’t expect such mercy.”  Leonarda coughed and nodded weakly, pulling herself to her hands and knees.  She slowly got to her feet at the insistent prodding of Jerome’s sword.  He walked her to the stairs at sword point.  “You’re lucky my friend is so soft, miss.”  Jerome’s voice had cooled again.  “If I hear about you anywhere near here, you’re through.  Now get lost.”  And with a jab that must have drawn blood, he urged her up the stairs.

For a while they simply stood like that, Andre by the shelves and Jerome at the foot of the stairs, each listening to her depart.  Then Jerome turned back to his friend.  The dwarf was grinning, holding up some of what he’d found on the shelves: thick gold pieces, along with the occasional piece of jewelry.  Jerome smiled back, “So, friend, what do we do now?”

“Well,” Andre coughed and cleared his throat, his smile wide, “I think I’m in need of a drink.”

Creative Commons License
Paying the Tab by Henry White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Advertisements

6 responses to “Short Story: Paying the Tab

  1. Pingback: Historical Context Matters: Now With More Context | Fistful of Wits

  2. Pingback: Coming Soon: Another Huge Background Post | Fistful of Wits

  3. Pingback: Historical Context Matters: Strange Bedfellows | Fistful of Wits

  4. Pingback: Short Story: Rum Luck | Fistful of Wits

  5. Pingback: Short Story: A Simple Misunderstanding | Fistful of Wits

  6. Pingback: Short Story: Jerome’s Tropical Vacation | Fistful of Wits

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s