The blond nurse lightly knocked twice on the door to Kent Wheelock’s hospital room. After waiting thirty seconds, he pushed the door open, saying, “I talked to the doctor about giving you something for the pain…” Confused, the nurse stepped back into the hallway and verified the room number, before reentering the room and checking the bathroom. When he approached the bed, he found a pile of discarded bloodied gauze and other random medical supplies. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. Back at the nurse’s station, he jotted down a quick note about the missing patient as well as a reminder to make a complaint to the Mercury’s Elite Guard liaison stationed in the hospital. He then continued his rounds, nearing the surgery wing where he was forced to jump out of the way of the swinging doors as Doctor Conway angrily shoved through, cussing up a storm.
“…no right to interfere! I don’t care who he is. That man fucking dies it’s on General Whistler’s head. Don’t think I won’t inform the Kaiser!” Doctor Conway practically shouted over his shoulder at the pair of Regulars who stood just inside the swinging doors. For their part, the two Regulars ignored the surgeon’s outburst and maintained their posts.
“Nurse Tippet! Call Mr. Jones. Tell him what just happened,” Doctor Conway ordered.
“Uh. Sure. So. What happened?”
“Oh, get out of the way. I’ll do it myself!”
“I can—” Nurse Tippet swung around barely avoiding the doors a second time, when the General of Ocean Region pushed through.
“Doctor, stop,” the general ordered.
“Why? You kill him?”
Ignoring the jibe, General Nelson Whistler commanded, “finish the surgery.”
“I’m not one of your little toy soldiers. You don’t get to give me orders.”
The general stepped into the doctor’s personal bubble, arching his back and puffing himself up, Whistler said, “that man is a suspect in…” he paused to peer around Doctor Conway’s shoulders, “the murder of Kaiser Rudolpho Imler. Get in there. Finish. He will not die before telling us who he’s working with.”
Doctor Conway deflated, “what?”
“Whether announced or not, there’s a war going on. Right now,” General Whistler’s eyes bulged with each word, “a war. We’ve been attacked. Our leader assassinated and one of our towns destroyed. Step down off your medical pedestal. Get your ever-loving ass back into that surgery, and do your job. If he dies, we lose what may be our only lead. Do you comprehend me?”
Staggering backward into the beige hallway wall, Nurse Tippet’s jaw dropped. He attempted speech, but couldn’t get his tongue to cooperate. Neither the doctor nor the general seemed to notice as both men returned through the swinging doors. General Whistler didn’t mention Fintan. Does he know? He pushed his hands flat against the wall, closed his eyes for a brief second, and took a few deep breaths. Once he’d regained control of his thoughts, he followed the men through the swinging doors, calling, “General Whistler! I’ve got to tell you something.”
Outside of Rainboy’s, the Inquisitor sat down on a vacant forum bench facing the fine dining establishment he was scheduled to enter the next morning. By all accounts, nothing was extraordinary about the facility, save for it being Chief Justice Adonis’ choice of venues. Though it was far later than he’d intended, he could still see the silhouettes of diners and wait staff moving on the other side of the amber, blown glass windows. Staring at an eatery while spicy, sweet aromas wafted over from a nearby meat pie vendor, reminded him of his hunger. Without any qualms about the wait in line, the Inquisitor ordered a beer and a half dozen of the spiciest meat pies available, and then topped them with a sweet dill mustard sauce. He took his dinner back to the empty bench where he deigned to enjoy his food while observing the surrounding area. For the first time all day, he had a chance to relax and embrace the appearance of normalcy. Midway through his second meat pie, a tuxedo cat jumped onto the bench next to him. The Inquisitor glanced at the black cat’s white chest and matching boots, smiled at it, and then cautiously relocated the rest of his food to the other side of the bench.
“Not that I don’t trust you,” he explained, “but we just met. And, I don’t trust you.”
The tuxedo cat stared at him a moment, before replying, “mah raw ahwr.”
Taking that as an invitation, the Inquisitor slowly reached out one hand. Although its tail jerked angrily, the cat laid down facing the Inquisitor, who absently petted it while maintaining his surveillance and devouring the remaining meat pies.
“How much further is it?” Kent asked.
“Not much. I told you, sir. We should have taken a car,” Balin answered.
“And, I told you to quit calling me that.”
“He can’t,” Fulco squawked.
Kent ignored the bird, “it’s bad enough we’ve gotta walk there. Do you have to rub it in too?”
“No rubbing, sir. Just stating.”
“That’s a shame,” Kent mumbled.
“What’s that, sir?”
“Nothing,” Kent said. “Why’d you help me back there?”
“Seriously?” Balin asked, scrunching his face, “you’re the Bard. It’s my duty.”
Stopping suddenly, Kent threw his right hand up, “what is this shit? Duty? Why is it your duty? Who in Iphi’s name made it your duty? And, what the fuck does any of that have to do with me.”
“Mercury’s balls!” Balin exclaimed as the realization hit him, “you really don’t know anything about you, do you?” The perplexed Merc shook his head, more to himself, he said, “how can you be our new Bard?”
“I’ve been asking that same question!” Kent yelled.
For what seemed like ages, Balin stared at Kent, while waves of conflicting emotions passed between them. Finally, Balin bit down the hesitation and asked, “why don’t you know, sir?”
“Why?” Kent actually laughed, a full bellied, genuinely amused laugh. “My da—ad, uh, the guy that raised me, died before he could tell me he wasn’t my dad.”
“That’s not funny, sir,” Ensign Balin sighed.
Snorting, Kent replied, “no it’s not. Nothing’s been funny since the day I lost him. I was too young to be on my own. Didn’t have a choice, did I?” Shuddering at the memories, the one-eyed young bard weaved and Balin instinctively reached out a steadying hand. The two stood still for a moment, while Kent regained his balance. “Still don’t. Take me to your leader.”
“He’ll live, Captain,” the medical officer reported.
“Is he awake?” Captain Decker asked into the receiver.
“Not right now. I’ll page you when he is.”
“Good. In the meantime, I need you to check out our other guests. Once you’ve verified that they’re alright, we’ll be done for the evening. That is, unless anything unexpected comes up.”
“Aye, sir,” the doctor answered before hanging up. He loaded up a small bag with various implements, and then headed to the cargo hold, where he found the cabin girl desperately trying to calm two of the women.
“Shh. Shh. I know it’s confusing. Just please. Be quiet,” the girl begged a set of hysterical twins. “I’m only trying to help. Please.”
“We’re not going to be quiet until you tell us what’s going on,” the least hysterical of the twins demanded.
“I don’t know. I’m just a cabin girl. They told me to take care of you.”
“Cabin? We’re on a ship?” the more hysterical twin shouted.
“Barge, actually,” the doctor stated from the main hatch. “Please listen to Miranda. We’re in a bit of a pickle trying to get you to safety. As such, it is imperative that you remain calm and let us do our jobs.”
“Wh-who are you?” the twins asked.
“Doctor Winston Cooper,” he answered offering his hand to each twin, “at your service.” He placed his bag on the nearest cot, while asking the cabin girl, “the others?”
“Get the smelling salts out of my bag, Miranda,” he ordered. To the twins he asked, “what’s the last thing you remember?”
They looked at each other, eyes bouncing back and forth, before they turned to him and said in unison, “flat tire.”
“Two guys,” the least hysterical one began, and the other finished, “pulled over to help us.” The hair on their bodies raised, their eyes opened and darted everywhere.
“I hate to break it to you,” Doctor Cooper whispered, “they weren’t there to help. But, none of that matters now. You’re safe.”
“Safe? We don’t know you,” the twins retorted.
“Doc?” Miranda interrupted.
“The old lady’s waking up. She’s been hurt. Pretty bad.”
“Don’t you touch her!” the twins shouted as the scrambled from their cots to put themselves between the doctor and the lady.
“I know this is hard to believe, but you’re safe here,” Cooper coaxed.
“If we’re so safe, then let us go.”
“I can’t do that. I’m the doctor, not the captain.”
Without taking his eyes from the disheveled Dante, Willy Jessup helped up his cousin, Tiny. “Why you here, sir?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Dante responded.
“You could, but it ain’t weird for me,” Jessup answered. “This is my crew. That’s Domino,” he pointed to a young man with a series of dominoes tattooed on his neck. “Brothers Peter, Piper, and Pecker,” pointing to three fellows on the opposite side of the circle, their family resemblance was more than could ever be denied, “not that it matters to you, sir.” Jessup said nothing for a minute as he judged Dante and Musgrove. “So, what’s the job?”
“Not here,” Dante said.
Smiling, Jessup said, “I can’t think of a better place. And, if you could, you wouldn’t of come.”
“Do you trust them?”
“Better than I trust you.”
While Dante contemplated Jessup’s honesty, the goliath interjected, “we’ll take’em to the pit. It’s secure enough to talk. Stay here Tiny.”
“Steele says ‘the pit,’ so, follow me,” Jessup said, shrugging as he led them to the opposing team’s dugout. The bulk of the Hellions stayed in centerfield watching the quartet disappear down the dugout steps. Once they were out of earshot, Jessup asked again, “what’s the job?”
“A hit,” Dante said.
“Who?” Steele rumbled.
“Jessup, who’d we talk about at lunch?”
Without vocalizing the answer, Jessup’s eyes lit. He nodded in certainty, before saying, “you can trust Steele, sir. If you’re saying what I think, he can help.”
“Steele, what do you know about the Sons of Guru?”
Anger flashed over Steele’s face as he grunted, “worthless murdering snakes.”
“Glad to hear it,” Commander Randle Dante, Sr. leaned in and whispered, “we’re going to cut off their head.”