At the Fifth Hour
by Andrew Konicki
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
“Was thinking this place was a hovel for the homeless, but you look like you have some control around here.”
“That I do, good sir,” Crumb said as he walked past the old man to his place behind the desk, where he heaved himself onto the stool as if nothing had happened. As if this city and everyone in it were normal. “What brings you outdoors on a night like this? The rat-catchers are out, you know.”
“My business is none of yours. Not afraid of any rat-catchers, either.”
His accent was odd. Definitely not from Ketterwell. Even so, everyone knew the rat-catchers were nothing to mess with. “Well then.” A pause to catch his breath and put on his best smile, a horrible thing. “Welcome to the Tombstone Inn. Bed or—”
“Drink,” the man said.
“Very good.” Crumb shifted over to the direction of the side hall. “Kat, get out here! We’ve got a patron!”
She stumbled out from the darkness of the side hall, rubbing her eyes. “Timber not back yet? What time is it?”
“Just after third hour. Get to it.”
Kat sighed but led the old man into the bar. The geezer got right up on one of the rickety stools by the bar, eyeing the drunk in the corner.
Crumb returned to his own stool behind the desk. He looked at the clock, realized the time hadn’t changed since he last looked. He started to pick up the book, but a creeping chill wafted over him, and his eyes started to droop. Damn, where was Timber? He couldn’t sleep until Timber showed up to hold down the front desk. Crumb considered hiring more help, but knew he couldn’t afford it. He had to patch up that hole...He had to save up to hire that exorcist... Six hundred gold could fix both these problems and more.
Like a sharp pain, Crumb recalled his near run-in with the ’catcher and his heart rate kicked up anew. No one, not even the old man who even now said something that made Kat cackle in the bar, would dare come looking for lodgings while the rat-catchers stalked this section of town by the docks. The old man was suspicious, but Crumb was feeling too tired to follow that thread any further.
He took this opportunity to gather up his book and clock and slip into the side hall and into his dingy little room, which was larger than either Kat’s or Timber’s. He slipped the journal onto his bookcase and slipped under the covers of his thin mattress. He flicked the lantern on his bedside table, plunging the room into darkness.
When he awoke it was still dark, which meant there were still responsibilities to attend to. His clock told him it was almost the fifth hour, and the light of day would soon make its first attempts to penetrate the smog that perpetually shrouded the city. With the fifth hour, the rat-catchers would leave the streets.
Out in the lobby, Kat was still chatting up the old man, except they had moved their conversation out of the bar, with him leaning up on the desk and with her leaning over the other end. She saw Crumb wander out of the gloomy side hall, still blinking the haze out of his eyes.
“Morning, sleepy-head. While you were sleeping on the job, uh...” She motioned to the old man, and Crumb could tell by her slack gaze and slack jaw she was on her way out of the land of the sober. “Uh. This gentleman would like a room.” Crumb stepped behind the desk, dunking the clock on top of it and and scooting Kat over.
“Well,” he said, “unless you’ve cleaned Room 110...” He glanced at her. She smirked back, shook her head. Crumb sighed and turned back to the piercing gaze of the old man. “The only rooms I have are either dirty or possessed.”
“You mean haunted?”
“No, Room 114 is possessed.”
The old man sighed. “I’ll sleep on the floor, don’t matter to me.”
“Very well, sir. That’ll be fifteen silver.” To his surprise, the man obliged. No fuss. “Here’s your key. Please sign the guestbook and have a nice, er, morning.”
The Tombstone Inn’s latest guest shuffled down the back hall. Crumb glanced at the named signed in the guestbook. Sleepy, the name read.
Kat was peeking over his shoulder to read as well. “Oh, he’s good,” she said. “Knows people don’t use their real name around here.”
“That’s what worries me,” Crumb said.
Kat had no sooner returned to her station at the bar when a crash sounded from the back hall. Crumb started and dashed to the back hall. He could hear grunting and groaning from further down. Some deep part of Crumb’s frazzled mental state rippled with the bane of all good-willed hotel proprietors: the idea that your inn could be conceived of as a brothel.
“Hey. Hey!” he called as he ran down the hall. The door of 107 was open. The sound of wood splintering and boards creaking came from its dimly lit depths. Other guests were peeking their heads out from doorways up and down the hall. Crumb had no choice but to assert his authority as proprietor and show this assassin that wrecking his premises was grounds for a fine and dismissal from the premises.
It would seem fortune was in his favor. Now there was an excuse. He could feign ignorance and get the reward.
Yet as he sauntered over to Room 107, he saw the door was not just open but smashed open. Inside, the assassin and Sleepy were roughing it out. Sleepy had the younger man is a chokehold but, as Crumb rounded the corner, the assassin flipped the other man forward onto the ground and the two wrestled some more. The assassin’s face was a wonderful shade of red.
Crumb stood in shock, hardly noticing Kat as she staggered up beside him in the doorway. Crumb wanted to tell them to stop. One of the bedside tables was shattered, and the lantern had collapsed onto the floor, while it seemed a chair had at one point been smashed and was lying in pieces across the room. He could almost see his sorry funds diminishing with the cost of replacing those second-hand but still pricey pieces of furniture.
What was the old man doing?
The two were grappling over a knife. Sleepy finally got it out of the assassin’s hands and tossed it aside. Sleepy caught Crumb standing nearby and grunted, pushing the assassin in one mighty throw against the wall, the same portion of the wall where the hole was. The rotten wood creaked, and Sleepy grabbed a fistful of the other man’s shirt and slammed him over and over against the wall until it splintered and the assassin was flung out into the dark air beyond, leaving a man-sized hole in the wall in his wake.
From the lobby, the clock chimed the fifth hour.
The man’s scream was short-lived, and his fall ended in a damp squelch as he landed in the mud below.
Crumb, feeling sick, walked up to the old man. Sleepy was huffing and puffing, gazing down at the mangled body down below. “Is he dead?” Crumb asked.
“Better be,” Sleepy said. He had some cuts on his face and arms from the scuffle.
“Mind explaining this?”
“I’m an assassin of assassins. Been chasing this one for a couple of weeks. Followed him off the wharf and started checking places to stay along here. Saw his name on the guestbook and knew I had the right place.”
“Why wait all night to get him?” Kat asked.
Sleepy shrugged. “Had him right where I needed him. Also wanted a drink.”
“He could have gotten out of the hole,” Crumb said.
Sleepy raised an eyebrow.
“Uh. There was a small hole under the window.”
“Well, it’s bigger now,” he said. “And he won’t be falling out of any holes ever again.” Sleepy dug in his pockets and pulled out a purse that clinked as he handed it over to Crumb. “Take this,” he said. “About five hundred gold in there, for your trouble.” He motioned the gaping hole in the wall. “And for fixing that.”
Crumb, disbelieving, gaped at the bag of money in his hand. The old man continued talking, as if he was giving the proprietor a lecture. “Those rat-catchers of yours may try to rid the city of plague, but there’s another kind of plague to worry about, too.” He fixed Crumb with that cold gaze. “You may want to watch who you’re giving service to in the future. You might not get so lucky.”
“Um, sir?” Crumb finally found his voice and a moment to cut in.
“The assassin’s bounty was at six hundred gold. Who would I turn to to get the difference?”
“No chance. That bounty was mine to collect. Take what I gave you or give it back.”
Crumb was struck dumb by the audacity.
With that, Sleepy, the assassin of assassins, headed back towards the lobby. Crumb and Kat followed, and saw the old man push out the front door into the early morning light just as Timber made his way in. The tall, lanky man, hair disheveled, stared at the blood spattered on Sleepy’s skin and clothes, then the door was shut and the three were left standing in the lobby in silence. Four, if you counted the sleeping drunk in the bar.
Timber turned to Crumb, eyebrow raised. “What in the trench-deep hells was that?”
“That, dear, was the night shift.” Kat giggled at Timber’s quizzical look, but sobered as Crumb focused his glare on her.
“Kat, you’re going to clean 110 and 107.” He spun on his heel to face Timber. “As for you, you’re not going out at night anymore. Ever. You are going to go find someone to fix that hole in 107.”
“What’s the rush?”
“It’s bigger now.”
The two actually seemed embarrassed over their behavior. As soon as Timber went right back out the door, Crumb grabbed Kat’s arm and spoke so that only she could hear.
“I know you picked some gold off the old man, and while I normally would disagree and demand you hand it over, I’m feeling lenient this morning.” The girl nodded. “Good. Just know that we got lucky tonight, in more ways than one. If the rat-catchers start snooping around here, I won’t be afraid to let them know about your nighttime antics. Do your job and I’ll continue to give you the housing and education you deserve.”
As he let go she said, “Aw, you’re so sweet, Crumb! I knew there was a heart of gold buried in you somewhere.”
Crumb stabbed his finger in the direction of Room 107. Kat stuck her tongue out but complied.
* * *
Five hundred and thirty-one pieces of shiny metal. A fortune. All laid out in neat stacks across the front desk of the Tombstone Inn.
A guest came out of the back hall, cloaked up to meet the chilly Ketterwellian morning.
“How was your stay?” Crumb asked.
The guest, a rough-looking woman, leaned over the desk, getting close enough to Crumb he could smell her morning breath. Her frown consumed his field of vision. “If that wasn’t the most damn comfy bed I’ve slept on in some time, I’d be asking for a refund. There were some ghostly moans coming from the room next door all night and there was a commotion this morning down the hall.” She sneered, revealing a gap in her teeth. “I may be back again, should I ever return to this godforsaken city.”
She left, the door closing behind her so hard it slowly crept open again. “Thanks for staying at the Tombstone Inn,” Crumb murmured. He rubbed a gold coin in his fingers as the cold and the mist crept in through the door, followed closely by the sounds of Ketterwell waking up.
Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Konicki