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At the Fifth Hour

by Andrew Konicki

part 1

The little bell in the desktop clock went off, announcing that it was midnight in Ketterwell. Curfew.

The cold came in waves of icy bitterness, and the mist prodded at the crack of the Tombstone Inn’s front door, where it hung slightly off-hinge. Crumb, proprietor of the inn, shivered at the draft, his bulk perched and drooping on a stool behind the front desk. The desk itself was made of fine wood, and stood out in the damp, crumbling lobby.

Crumb glanced up from his book at the clock. Midnight on the one day a week the rat-catchers were out on the streets rather than the drunks that normally inhabited them at this hour. But Crumb knew there would still be some potential guests out there, braving the streets and the wrath of the rat-catchers.

There always were. For who wouldn’t risk a little to get a bed to sleep in and a roof over their head? Crumb did not pity those who would dare withstand the awful, red-eyed visage of the catchers on their weekly plague inspection, but he cherished their patronage nonetheless.

He went back to reading the book, a slim volume left by one of the inn’s former guests. It appeared to be the journal of some sailor. The clock ticked, and from the low doorway that lead to the bar, Crumb heard the bar’s singular occupant snoring in drunken sleep.

Not ten minutes later, the door of the Tombstone Inn creaked open, and a slight young man wandered in. He was a traveler, that much was clear. Sodden, dirty clothes. A pack brimming with gear and supplies. A week’s worth of stubble on the face and eyes ringed by lack of sleep. The man pushed the door closed, pushed again when it wouldn’t stay shut the first time.

“Welcome to the Tombstone Inn,” Crumb rumbled from behind his massive desk. “Will it be a bed or a drink?”

The poor man seemed startled at his voice. He jumped and stammered as he made his way up to the desk. “A... a bed.”

Crumb sized up the man. He had probably recently come by sea, walking into the first inn he could before the rat-catchers seized him. Like many travelers, he probably also had a decent sum of money stashed up but would be unwilling to part with too much.

“Fifteen silver,” Crumb said.

Fifteen? What kind of—”

“Fifteen,” Crumb cut in. “It’s fifteen or you can haul your ass to any of the other dozen inns up the road.” When the man’s eyes darted around and began to turn back towards the door, Crumb cupped a hand around his ear, leaning forward and gazing at the wall as if he could pierce it with his gaze. “Hear that?”

The man froze in place and listened. Out past the immediate silence and intermittent groan of the inn settling, Crumb could just make out the squish of boots tromping through the mud and the huff-huff of a catcher’s heavy breathing, and it was coming closer, probably right past the inn, a whole squad of ’em, maybe. Just when the awful racket was at its loudest, Crumb murmured, “You can go out there and risk the ire of the rat-catchers, or you can stay in here, safe and sound.”

The man leaned over the desk, just heaved himself over it, eyes wide and sweat beading on his forehead and hissed, “Are the beds clean?”

“As clean as any but for the Governor’s own. In Ketterwell, at least.”

The man didn’t seem convinced, but he pulled fifteen coins out of his pack and dashed them across the desk with a clatter. Crumb scooped them up, leaned back, eyed the line of room keys hanging from the inner lip of the desk.

Room 107 had a terrible hole in the wall that let in the night cold. Room 110 had not yet received a cleaning from the housekeeper after a particularly raucous party had come through. Room 114 was most likely possessed and would need an exorcism. Crumb was a generous man and wanted to make sure his guests had the most comfort they could afford. Room 107 would have to do.

After signing the guestbook, the Tombstone Inn’s latest guest shuffled off down the back hall to his new accommodations. Crumb picked up his book and returned to the dreary, wet life of the sailor, who at the moment was lamenting the condition of his stomach at sea.

The clock chimed the first hour when someone else walked into the inn.

Sighing and putting down his book, Crumb said, “Welcome to the... Oh.” It was Kat, the Inn’s housekeeper and sometime bartender. “Thought they’d got you for good this time.”

“Not me, not this time.” Kat was remarkably similar to her namesake, though her name was made-up, like people tended to do here in Ketterwell. She was lithe, dressed in close-fitting clothes that limited the sound of her movements. Her short hair was slick and pushed back over her skull. She put up with her meager wages, and Crumb suspected her nightly escapades involved theft.

Kat peeked into the bar, noted it was empty save the sleeper. “Where’s Timber?” she asked.

The third and final employee of the Tombstone Inn was probably off carousing in the night. Hopefully indoors. “Beats me,” Crumb said.

She came over and slapped some papers down onto the desk.

The top pages were from the Ketterwell Quarterly. Kat knew he liked keeping up on news. Beneath them were charcoal drawings of people. Wanted posters. “Saw these up at the docks and thought you might be interested,” Kat said.

Crumb loomed over the pages, shuffled through them, stopped at one in particular. There was little denying it. The beard and hair were shorter, and the man’s facial features had been drawn too narrow, but this was the man who had checked in an hour ago.

“Hmm,” he said. He pushed the page across to her. “I’m pretty certain I just checked this man in. Room 107.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Afraid not.”

“What are the chances?”

“Slim. Possibly non-existent.”

“There’s a hole in the wall of 107.”

“That there is.”

“You see that reward? Six hundred gold.”

“What’s he wanted for?” Crumb could read, but Kat was learning as part of her wages, and he wanted to test her as often as he could. Another reason she got the Quarterly was to better keep up on events as she learned. If anyone were to ask Crumb, illiteracy was the true plague of Ketterwell. But since Kat heralded from a prestigious orphanage in a city equally plagued with abandoned children, he kept this potentially harsh opinion to himself.

She held the paper close to her face, sounding out the words. “As... sass... i... nation?”

Crumb nodded. “Of someone important, it would seem.”

“We’re servicing an assassin?” She grinned her feral grin. “Let me at him.”

“Absolutely not. There’s a hole he could escape from if he catches a whiff that we’re onto him. Probably doesn’t think word of his deeds have made it this far over the ocean, but still.”

“I don’t understand you, Crumb. There’s a window he could jump out, too.”

“The windows are barred. Besides, wouldn’t you rather jump through soft wood, rather than glass?”

“If he really wanted to, he could simply rush past us. I could maybe land a hit before he left, but you’ve been out of the game too long, Crumb. There’s no chance for you.”

Crumb sighed, shaking his head. “I’m not letting him go. Luck’s on our side, just need to make sure misfortune doesn’t mess things up.”

“He sign the guestbook?”

Crumb glanced down at the signature. “He did, but can’t make the name out. Most certainly not his real name, in any case.”

She screwed her face up, crumpled up the paper and tossed it on the floor. She headed for the side hall. “I’ll be in my room.”

“Clean 110 by morning,” he called to her back.

She waved her hand nonchalantly at her side, middle finger extended.

* * *

Crumb was no stranger to the hazy, not-quite-straight line that divided right and wrong. He had done numerous dubious acts in his lifetime. He’d lied and cheated and robbed. He’d blackmailed, and only once did he hire someone to kill. One time one of his guests died in their sleep, and Crumb had disposed of the corpse in the ocean without alerting the scarce Ketterwellian constables. A true villain, he was.

But Ketterwell was full of scum. It was heaped with those who would question the law. Crumb had done enough good in his life to balance out the bad. Harboring a known assassin? That was something else. On the one hand, he imagined what six hundred gold could be used for and could almost see the envy of his peers as he expanded his hostelry empire. On the other, he imagined the severed ties his turning in the assassin would generate among the city’s underground, not to mention the wrath of the Assassin’s Guild, who this man may very well have been a member of.

But had he not washed up on these gilded shores, seeking fortune? Had he not taken the name ‘Crumb’ and stood upon this very lane and said that upon this ground he would build his fortune?

Eight years later, that ground was a bit suppler in texture and mixed with all manner of horrible nonsense. Crumb stood in the alley behind the inn and gazed up at the dim light emanating from Room 107. The Tombstone Inn sat on a steep slope: its back end was supported by stilts, and the whole thing looked like a drunkard slumped in a ditch with his pants around his ankles.

Crumb had braved the dangerous and eerily silent night to get another perspective on things. Under the room’s narrow barred window, a hole just big enough for a person to squeeze through poked through the wall. A little push and the damp wood could be broken, and the assassin could shimmy down the stilts and escape. Things would be so much easier if, in that single moment, he had given the man Room 114 and let the possessed room deal with him.

“Damn,” he muttered and bit at one of his nails in thought.

Crumb was starting to think that letting the whole thing blow over in apparent ignorance was the safest bet. Better a life of hard work and ignorance than of wealth and fear.

As Crumb ambled back into the inn, lantern light bobbing in the mist down the road caught his eye, accompanied by the steady thump of heavy boots hitting the mud and the wheezing of amplified breathing. A large, humanoid shape could just barely be seen in the lighting, the lantern itself suspended from a pole that stuck out from the rat-catcher’s back.

Crumb froze just as the figure stopped, spun, huffing like a dog ready to attack. When the rat-catcher turned, Crumb got a glimpse of its eyes, chips of red-tinged glass reflecting the lantern light. He suppressed a scream that came out as a whimper and pressed himself up against the boards of the inn, inching along the front wall, under the drooping sign, and slipped in the front door.

Eight years, and the rat-catchers still gave him the willies.

An old man was waiting for him in the lobby when he entered. He was one of those old men who seemed not to realize they were supposed to be bent and aged, so strongly did he carry himself. He still had a full head of hair, and muscles bulged against his coat. He had been turning to leave when he caught sight of Crumb, sweating and gasping and sloughing mud onto the doormat. The man hooked a thumb at the bar where the sound of the patron’s snoring could still be heard.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Konicki

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