In the Merciful Sands Hospital, after the flash flood, hotel porter Bluefang Rockstepper awakens in a medical bed. One leg’s in a cast. His ribs are bandaged. Medics sutured a wound on his head. Shaved the brown fur away in a T-shaped patch. It’s dark in the hospital room, shadows only faintly illuminated by the blue and green glow of monitors and instrumentation.
“Ah, you’re awake,” purrs a voice from the darkness to his left. “Good. That’s better. I almost thought I’d have to kill you in your sleep. Where’s the fun in that?”
Razorback Cliffwalker strides into the lobby of the hospital. His long coat is no more, but he has found a shorter, less flashy jacket with which to cover his large frame. He makes his way to the front desk, seeking out the least occupied receptionist. “Good morning,” he rumbles in his archaic Demarese dialect, “I am looking for the porter from the Azure Sky Hotel that was brought in after the flood. He was very helpful during my stay there, and I wanted to check on him.”
“What’s his name?” the Demarian clerk inquires as she taps on her PDA.
The Cliffwalker grimaces, his ears flattening a bit. “I know, I should have asked him his name,” he says with a sheepish smile, a glint of his fangs peeking out, “You know how it is when you stay somewhere, so many people work there…. He would have been brought in four days ago with severe injuries.”
He glances up for any signage denoting a recovery ward while the clerk is looking down.
“It’s not quite visiting hours in any event,” the receptionist notes. “But, you understand, we can’t just let total strangers into the hospital without knowing who they’re visiting.” She holds up a small holographic sticker badge. “Need to have one of these to get through the doors, with all the proper data and clearances.”
Razorback nods contemplatively, his brow furrowed. “I understand,” he says, “People are vulnerable and must be kept safe.” He pauses for a moment. “My name is Razorback,” he says, “Could I possibly speak with the the resident of the emergency room who was on duty that day?”
“That would be Dr. Spotscatter,” the receptionist says. She taps on her PDA. “He’s not due back for another two hours. I think he might be napping. Long night. Two full moons. Always crazy.”
“Indeed,” the big Demarian says with a faint chuckle, “I will wait then, thank you.” He moves off, finding a seat amidst the families awaiting news of sick or injured loved ones. It is a hunter’s patience that allows him to sit quietly by himself, doing nothing but observe his surroundings.
Up in his hospital room, Rockstepper glowers at the figure in the shadows. “You made a mistake coming here.”
“Did I?” the other Demarian inquires. He pushes himself up from the chair and steps into the pale glow of the heart monitor. “Shame, really. Here you are on the road to recovery.” He tilts his head, smiling a little, revealing rows of sharp fangs as his whiskers flex. He waggles a finger at the injured Demarian. “You aren’t yelling for help. Interesting.”
Completely unaware of the situation in the recovery room, Razorback is trying his best not to disturb the family next to him, waiting for a grandparent in surgery.
“You were looking for me?” A frazzled, weary-looking Demarian with mousy gray fur and teal scrubs stops near Razorback’s seat in the waiting area. “I’m Dr. Spotscatter.”
The dark-furred Demarian rises quickly with a toothy smile and a slight bow. “Razorback,” he replies, “I was at the Azure Sky Hotel during the flood. I wanted to inquire after the injured porter brought over from there. He was quite helpful and I am travelling away soon.”
“Oh,” the doctor replies, rubbing his snout and pondering. “Yes. Of course. Mr. Blackfield.” Too late, his eyes widen as he realizes his violation of protocol, but he just sighs and shakes it off. “Anyway. He’s alive. Lucky that roof didn’t crush him.”
“Mr. Blackfield, of course,” Razorback says with a nod, “And yes. Terrifying, that whole ordeal. At any rate, I had wanted to leave him with a token of my gratitude before leaving, but you know as well as I, one cannot always trust the other staff members for such a thing.” He glances over at the reception desk, his ears leaning towards the doctor, “I know visiting hours are over, but I had hoped you could do me a favor and permit my entrance to see him. I would consider it a great favor.”
“Well, actually,” the doctor checks his PDA. “They resume in five minutes. If you submit your information to reception for a badge, I’ll take you up a little early. I have to make my rounds, anyway. You can tag along.”
“Very well,” Razorback says with a nod. He gives the receptionist his name and the address of the hotel as requested, and waits for the doctor to lead on. At least that will only lead anyone investigating to a legally dead man and an empty room.
Once Razorback has his badge, the doctor leads him through the security doors to the main corridor of the emergency department. As the receptionist noted, it was obviously a busy night – all beds are full of patients of many species and backgrounds. Some appear to have minor injuries, while others are bandaged beyond recognition. Some are sprawled alone on their beds in a medicated stupor. Others talk amiably with visitors.
Eventually, they come to the lift. While they wait for the doors to open, Dr. Spotscatter asks: “What did Mr. Blackfield do for you, exactly? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I had been staying at the hotel for a few weeks,” Razorback says with a faint shrug, “I had to depend on Mr. Blackfield for directions and restaurant recommendations many times. I cannot tell you how many years it has been since I loved in Alhira.”
“Well, I’m sure he’ll appreciate the visit,” Dr. Spotscatter says as they emerge from the lift and walk down the fifth floor hall toward Mr. Blackfield’s private room. “You’re the first to come see him, actually. No family to speak of.” He opens the door and steps inside ahead of Razorback. “Very sad, rea…” His voice trails off as he takes in the scene: A naked brown-furred Demarian, sprawled on the bed, blood spilling from furrows on his chest. His head is turned awkwardly, neck broken.
The window is open, curtains fluttering in the morning light.
The doctor rushes to the victim, checking his vitals. “I don’t know who this person is,” Spotscatter says. He looks toward Razorback. “But he’s dead and Mr. Blackfield is gone.”
Razorback’s eyes narrow and his ears fold back into his man. He is across the room at the window even as the doctor delivers his diagnosis. His nostrils scent the air at the window and he looks out, seeking evidence of the porter’s passage.
“How long since the nurse last checked on him?” he asks hurriedly.
The doctor checks the chart information on his PDA. “Two hours ago.” He clacks his fangs together as he thumbs the comm button: “Code blue in room 525. Alert security for a cordon.” He looks toward Razorback. “You should leave, sir. Crime scene.”
Razorback doesn’t respond to the doctor immediately, almost as if he’s forgotten him. His senses stretch out, painting a picture in his mind. “Of course, doctor,” he says finally, “You are quite right. I thank you for all your help.” With that, he makes his exit. Through the window.
It is not for no reason his clan was called Cliffwalker after all.
“You’re wel…” the doctor starts, then turns as he sees Razorback disappearing out the window. “That’s against the…” He grunts as the Demarian vanishes from view and then finishes lamely: “rules.”
It may be against the rules, but Razorback’s claws are still hauling him skyward, following the decaying scent, presumably towards the roof.
Once he gets to the roof, Razorback will see “Mr. Blackfield” – now clad in someone else’s clothes – loping toward the opposite side.
“You look much better than when last we met,” Razorback calls out to the fleeing porter, his voice booming across the roof. His ears cant forward and his tail flicks gently back and forth predatorily.
The other Demarian stops, turning to look back at the newcomer. He shouts: “I don’t know you! I’d hate to kill you! But I will!” He rests a hand on the roof barrier wall.
“It has been done,” Razorback replies with a deep chuckle. He moves slowly across the rooftop towards the escapee. “But as I am at least partially responsible for your recent survival, I bear at least partial responsibility for anyone you kill from that poin forward. Would you care to explain the corpse downstairs?”
“He came to kill me,” the Demarian known as Blackfield answers. “I needed his clothes. Seemed practical.” He shrugs. “The less you know, the better for you. I’ve stayed too long as it is.”
“Well,” the Cliffwalker says with a toothful smile, “I gave the hospital my name, thinking nothing would come of it. Now that the police will be looking for me in their search for you, a circumstance I would prefer not exist, I think you owe me some explanation.” His smile remains, though his ears fold back. “You may attempt to do me harm if you will, but mightier than you have tried and failed,” he says.
Blackfield shakes his snout. “No time. Not here. Not now. My advice: get away from here before the authorities arrive. They answer to him. He wants me dead!”
The Cliffwalker nods in agreement. “Very well,” he says simply, “Follow me, then.” He moves past the “porter” and with a few quick steps, dashes towards the edge of the roof and vaults across the space separating the hospital and the next building across the alley.
Blackfield observes this act with no small amount of awe. But then he calls across the alley: “Leg’s not quite healed!” Then the hospital’s roof access door hisses open. Two Demarian police officers emerge, looking right and then left for their quarry, guns clutched in their paws.
The Cliffwalker lands in a roll, coming up to his feet as the porter calls out. His ears spin towards the sound of the access door and he looks over at Blackfield. He waves the other Demarian towards him, reaching a paw out over the roof in case he shorts the jump.
One of the officers calls to Blackfield: “Stop!” Both aim their guns. The wounded fugitive doesn’t spend much time contemplating his choices. He limp-sprints, hurling himself across the gap. Shots fire. His hands reach for the wall of the building where Razorback landed. But they’re not making it. One of the bullets zips past Razorback’s face.
Razorback’s whiskers twitch as the bullet flashes by. Seeing that he might not make the catch, he looks down, and finds a post sticking out from the wall of the building beneath him and with a grimace, he waits another fraction of a second, he drops over the side, grabbing out for both the pole and the other fugitive, hoping to swing him through the window beneath the pole.
Blackfield is caught by surprise – and an equally unexpected grip – as Razorback plunges and then directs him through the window into what appears to be an artist’s flat. A Demarian painter is illustrating a canvas with an image of the drifting crystalline Centauran posing nearby.
The darker Demarian grunts with effort as he kicks off the wall so that he can swing through the window and join Blackfield. He grimaces as he gets to his feet, helping his “companion” if necessary. “My apologies,” he says, “I do hope you are insured.” He immediately rushes for the door. “Coming?” he asks Blackfield.
“You’re a lunatic,” Blackfield replies. But he follows just the same.
“Not for some time,” Razorback says, snort of amusement escaping him as he rushes to get out of the building.
Meanwhile, back on the rooftop, the Demarian police stand near the barrier wall, looking down at the window where Razorback and Blackfield disappeared.
“We lost him,” one of the cops says into his commlink. “He had help. They’re on foot in a building opposite the hospital.”
A woman’s voice replies: “We’ll dispatch units to the exits. And you’d better get busy making sure they don’t double back.”
“What?” the cop asks.
“Jump,” she replies.
The other cop blinks: “She wants us to jump?” Both of them look a little too used to sitting behind desks or at the wheel of a patrol hovercar.
“Jump,” she repeats.
The Cliffwalker does his best to get to the ground floor before anyone can get to the building’s service bay. With luck, there might even be a hovertruck parked there.
The Centauran portrait target emanates waves of dismay as two pudgy blurs drop past the artist’s window, accompanied by dopplered screams.
Razorback and Blackfield reach street level and exit the building before more police can arrive, but they *are* coming at a trot from the hospital. Several hover vehicles are parked nearby.
“I do not suppose you know how to hotwire a vehicle, quickly?” Razorback asks, pointing to a hovercar with a commercial logo on the side. His eyes scan other escape routes if he gets a negative answer.
Blackfield eyes the logo on the side of the van. It reads: “STEELCLAW CATERING.” He chuckles. “Don’t need to hotwire if you know the company access code.” He checks the lock, finds the vehicle is conveniently open, then slides into the driver’s seat.
“Good,” Razorback says, squeezing into the passenger side, “I don’t like killing people when I don’t know why.”
The other Demarian taps in the code, bringing the van’s propulsion system online. He eases away from the curb while the cops wave their arms and shout for him to stop. They don’t seem interested in opening fire with pedestrians and other vehicular traffic in the area. “What did you mean about being responsible for my survival? Who the sands are you?” The van whirs down the street away from the hospital. He doesn’t ask where they’re going. He just seems to assume: the desert. That’s the path he appears to be taking via the roads.
Going into the desert seems a good idea to Razorback, less likelihood of collateral damage. “I am the one who pulled you out from under the hotel,” he says, “My name is Razorback, clan Cliffwalker. And you?”
“Bluefang Rockstepper,” the former hotel porter answers as they drive toward the edge of the city. “And I think you’re going to regret saving me now that you’re all mixed up in this.”
“This will likely not rank among my five greatest regrets of my life,” the former noble replies with a chuckle, “But why do you not let me know just what I have become mixed up in.”
Rockstepper is silent for a few moments while he drives. He looks over at Razorback, then back to the road. He shrugs. “I’m an assassin. I was hired to kill Consortium Council President Jeremiah Busby. My client didn’t like it when I backed out of the gig at the last second. Now he’s trying to clean up loose ends.” His fangs clack together. Whiskers twitch. “Sorry.”
Razorback takes this in for a moment. “Well, I do not consider assassination a particularly honoroble act,” he says, “But why the Consortium President?”
“Never my job to ask why,” the driver says. “And honor doesn’t put food in my stomach. But something felt…wrong…about the situation. Like a setup. Most jobs, I’m in, out, no one’s the wiser and at least one’s the deader. But this, when those Ungstiri diplomats came calling, I just got a *wrong* feeling about everything. So I fled. Used one of my fresher identities. Took a gig at the hotel. Thought I could lay low.” He grumbles. “Look how *that* worked out.”