In which Dodger makes up his mind
The late afternoon sun played over the train in dappled drops of amber twinkles, reflecting a shimmering light against the tents strewn across the meadow. The crew of the Sleipnir sat together with the fine folks of Bigby’s Traveling Circus at over two dozen tables, eating and laughing and celebrating the union of Washington Boon and Lelanea Dittmeyer. Sure, not everyone knew the man was almost dead for a half a year and the woman was a werewolf, but that wasn’t important.
Everyone could see the couple were in love and that’s all that matter.
Roger Dodger sat on the steps of the meeting cab, keeping an eye on the celebration with a kind of faint detachment. He knew he was welcome to join them, and had for a bit. Yet he felt more comfortable sitting off to one side, just watching. Watching these extraordinary people going through such ordinary motions. Two weeks ago they were rip-snorting through a pack of mutated dogs. Now they were eating wedding cake and telling anecdotes like average folks.
Sarah and little Rodger sat on either side of the newlyweds, enjoying the hell out of being a bunch of normal kids for once. Every so often Boon would ruffle the boy’s hair or Lelanea would whisper something to the giggling girl. Dodger reckoned the couple had a readymade family on their hands, and that was all right too. Lelanea would make an incredible mother, and Boon was about as great a man as a dad could be. The kids were pretty lucky to have such a couple to raise them right. Al couldn’t have picked a better pair of folks to fill his enormous shoes. Husband and wife and daughter and son.
Good for them, Dodger thought. Good for them.
“They keep asking where you are,” Feng said from beside Dodger.
“I know,” Dodger said, not surprised the Celestial snuck up on him, again.
Feng placed the stool he was carrying beside Dodger and eased himself onto it. “They are going to be a dangerous couple of kids.”
“Yup. Love makes fools of us all, and they were already pretty foolish.”
“Not foolish. Just foolhardy. But sometimes we need to recklessness in our lives. Keeps us on our toes.”
Dodger nodded. Feng was right, of course, as he was always right. It was one of the many things about the man Dodger would miss.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do?” Feng said.
“Not yet,” Dodger said. He wasn’t surprised Feng knew what Dodger had worked so carefully to make sure no one aboard the line knew.
“Can’t fault you for that. It’s a big decision.”
“When do they want to know?”
“I hear ya.” Feng chuckled. “Seems like everything happens to quickly these days. You’ve got them where you want them, though. You take your time. Make ‘em squirm, Dodger. Make ‘em squirm.”
Dodger grinned. Make ‘em squirm he would, especially after they spent so many years making him run. He could hardly believe that the same Agency that tried to kill him now wanted him back.
Once the showdown was over, it didn’t take long to get Agent Carr caught up on what happened with the now deceased Commander Rex. The agent not only believed all of it, he took the information back to the powers that be and revealed a conspiracy plot that stretched deep into the heart of Washington. Lots of agents lost their jobs, while Rodger Dodger ended up redeemed in the eyes of the Agency. That’s right, after years of banishment, plain old Mr. Dodger was once again Agent Dodger.
In fact, he was potentially Director Dodger.
That was, if he wanted the job.
It was a big decision. One Dodger didn’t know what to do with. It was also an offer that no one else aboard the line knew about, save for the mind reading mystic. Dodger had been very careful to keep the offer from his fellow crewmates, at least until he had arrived at a decision. And therein lay the true problem; Dodger couldn’t make up his mind.
On the one hand, being the Agency’s Director was a position he would’ve killed for years ago. Hell it was a position he had killed for. Ever since he was a thirteen year old hoodlum learning the trade under Aloysius Jackson, Dodger wanted to rise in the ranks and eventually become the man in charge. It was a far more important and lucrative position than, say, the head of security for a small train.
Yet, as they say, money and power weren’t everything.
Friendship. Family. Love. These things were more important than anything else. It took Dodger a lifetime to understand the way of things, but sometimes a lifetime was all it took to change a man’s mind. Working for the doc provided far more benefits than any fancy title could ever give Dodger. The answer seemed so simple, and at the same time so damned complicated. There were a whole lot of other factors to consider.
One of which was Washington Boon.
“You don’t think they need you,” Feng said.
“I don’t think that,” Dodger said. “I know it.”
“Then you also know that’s complete bull.”
Dodger suspected the Celestial would say that and he was prepared to defend his carefully rationalized reasoning. “Listen, even if the man is the world’s lousiest shot, he’s supposed to be in my place. He always was. This is his job, and more importantly, these are his guns.” Dodger jostled the ladies he wore at his hips. A pair of guns Lelanea insisted Dodger wear as Boon’s best man. “I can hang around sure, but I will always be in the way. Boon can do the job just fine without the likes of me hanging around to pester him.”
Feng considered this little speech a moment. “Is that how you really feel?”
Dodger exhaled an exasperated breath as he ran his hands through his hair. “Ah, geesh, Feng. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just time for me to hang it up. I’m getting on a bit. I’ll be fifty soon. I know you’ve not seen fifty in many a moon, but I am just a regular man. Fifty is exhausting. Now, my job aboard the train has been fun, at times. And thrilling, at times. And dangerous, at times. Mostly it been hard on my poor body. I’m still sore from that last rigmarole, and that was almost two weeks ago.”
“That’s fine then. If you’re going to leave us then be honest about it. That whole line about us not needing you is malarkey. And you know it.”
“Yeah, I reckon I do.” Dodger knew he wouldn’t win that argument, and didn’t want to.
“Tell me the truth. One old fart to another. What do you want? I mean what do you really want?”
Dodger smiled softly. “Don’t you know?”
Feng shrugged. “Sure, but I wondered if you knew.”
They chuckled at that, together, just a couple of friends sharing an inside joke. Dodger and Feng sat in silence for a few moments, peering across the meadow at the crowd of folks. A round of laughter rose from the tables, and with it a twang of regret twisted Dodger’s belly.
“You’re going to leave,” Feng said. “Aren’t you?”
“I think I have too,” Dodger said. “The Agency is in shambles right now. If I don’t go and get things back on track, they might end up with someone like Crank in charge. Or worse, another Rex.”
Feng shuddered. “Perish the thought. I can understand why you feel like you have to go.”
“But,” Dodger said with a wide smile, “it doesn’t mean I have to stay.”
Feng cocked his head at Dodger. “Really?”
“Sure. I talked to my contact and I can fill the position temporarily. After I help them straighten stuff out, I can relinquish the title to a new Director of my choosing, train him and then act as a consult.”
“Sounds like you have it all worked out.”
“I suppose so.”
“Then why the long face?”
Glancing at the newlyweds, Dodger shrugged.
“Ah,” Feng said. “The hardest choices always involve a woman.”
Dodger looked to the ground rather than answer that one.
“You have feelings for her?” Feng said.
“Maybe,” Dodger said. “Just a touch.”
“It’s okay to fall for a beautiful woman. Even if she’s already taken. I fall in love with every woman I meet. It’s just human nature. I think I have enough human nature for three men sometimes.”
“The thing is I knew I could never have her. Not as long as she mourned her man. I thought, maybe, I could help her get past that. One day. You know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“There was a moment, just before you returned from your scrying that moonlit night. A moment I thought we might …”
“And now she’s married to that dead man she mourned so long.”
“Ouch. Rough stuff, my friend.”
“Though,” Feng said as he scratched his beard and lowered his voice, “there’s plenty of other dead fish in the sea. Some with fangs, I hear.”
This brought a genuine smile to Dodger.
“That’s what I thought,” Feng said, and nudged Dodger a few times.
Dodger took the implications with good humor and smirked as he thought of Rebecca and the other Forsaken. If there were ever a woman in the world that could take Dodger’s mind off of the beautiful and now married Leleanea, it was the chief resident of the Desert Rose. Of course, the only way he’d see Rebecca in person again was if he stayed aboard the line. Dodger made a mental tic in the Sliepnir column, counting this fact as an attractive benefit. He was, if nothing else, a practical man.
“I still don’t understand what happened with Boon and Rex,” Dodger said.
“Like I explained to everyone else,” Feng said, “Rex was shattered. What else do you need to know?”
“I need to know what in the world that means. How was he shattered? Why didn’t that happen to Boon too?”
“Let me see if I can clarify.” Feng tapped his chin a moment. “Imagine you have a handful of sand, okay?”
“Pour that sand into an empty bottle and cork it. The sand fills the bottle and can’t get out. Right?”
“But if you try to put that sand into a bottle that’s already filled with sand. What would happen?”
“The sand would run off. It wouldn’t stay put.”
“Right. Think of Boon and Rex like a handful of sand. When they passed through the TAP, Boon stopped Rex from completing his crazy suicide plan. This single act repaired the TAP, sparking it into activity. The first thing the TAP tried to do was send both Rex and Boon back to their respective time lines. Like sand into empty bottles. Are you with me?”
“I think so.”
“Since they were both spirits and had no corporeal form, the TAP automatically shunted them back into their physical bodies. Boon’s spirit was sent back to his body and Rex, well, since he didn’t technically have a proper body, the TAP didn’t know what to do with him.”
Dodger sort of got it then. “He didn’t have an empty vessel for his sand to return into.”
“Correct. The TAP did what it could to accommodate this confusion. It fractured his spirit into tiny portions and sent it back across his own timeline, and placed those little pieces of his broken spirit back into whatever incarnation of Rex it could find.”
“So Rex returned to his own timeline in bits and pieces. The TAP shoved portions his older spirit into his younger selves over his entire timeline?”
“Which is why he had the vision of you burying those things in the desert years before you did so.”
“Right. He probably spent his whole life plagued by visions he couldn’t explain. It also explains why he knew so much about Hieronymus’s inventions. He had seen them in action years before they were even created. He remembered them before he had seen them. And the older he got, the worse it became because he was meeting up with his own schism. In some way, his insanity was his own fault while at the same time it wasn’t.”
“I almost feel sorry for him.”
“I most certainly feel sorry for him. Poor, crazy fool.”
The fell quiet again. Dodger did feel a bit sorry for Rex, but not too sorry. After all the man nearly blew Dodger’s friends and family off the face of the earth.
His family. There it was again. No matter how Dodger spun his relationship to the folks aboard the Sliepnir, it would always boil down to a familial connection. Not friends. Not coworkers. Family, through and through.
“Here comes trouble,” Feng said, breaking Dodger’s quiet thoughts.
Dodger raised his eyes to an approaching professor.
“There you are, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said. “I wondered where you had gotten off too.”
“Here I am,” Dodger said. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“I wanted to let you know that I will be running an experiment early in the morning on Laura’s plane. That’s our Henry, if you remember.”
“Quite a fascinating story with that young lady. Fascinating.”
“I’m sure it is, sir.”
“Anywho, I think I can get her back to her timeline using the same technique that got her here. I will require your assistance, of course.”
“Of course, doc. Whatever you need.”
The doc rubbed his hands together as he eyed Feng and Dodger. “What have you two been up to over here? You look like a couple of mourning widows.”
Feng nodded to Dodger. “Go ahead. You can’t avoid it much longer.”
Dodger gave a soft sigh before he explained the Agency’s offer to the doc.
“Oh dear,” the doc said with a frown.
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said. “You can understand my reluctance to accept the offer.”
“The only thing I understand is that we have a little legal problem on our hands.”
Furrowing his brow, Dodger stood from the steps and asked, “What do you mean a little legal problem?”
“You can’t quit.”
“I don’t really want to quit, sir. But I am faced with a difficult decision.”
“There’s no decision!” the doc shouted. “You can’t just quit!”
Dodger hushed the doc to a lower voice, worried his outcry would draw undue attention from the happy wedding party. Too late. A few heads turned, peering at the direction of the rising argument.
“Doc, listen,” Dodger said in a low voice. “I spent a long time on these folks’ blacklist. To find myself in good graces with my old bosses is a huge win for me. Not only that, they want to put me in charge of the whole shebang. Do you know how important that is to me?”
“I appreciate the fact that they are impressed with your work history,” the doc said. “But this won’t stand in a court of law. I am willing to take this all the way to the highest court in the nation. The nerve of some people. I employed you when they didn’t want you. And now they want you? They can’t do this to me! This won’t stand! Do you hear me! This won’t stand!”
“What’s going on here?” Lelanea said, joining the discussion turned argument.
“What’s all the hubbub?” Boon said, trailing behind her.
Before Dodger could explain, the doc leapt into a description of Dodger’s affairs.
“They think they can just snatch up my best security man?” the doc said once he was done explaining the offer. The doc paused and held up a hand to Boon. “No offense meant, son.”
“None taken,” Boon said. “He’ll always be better at the job than me.”
“Now don’t think like that-” Dodger started.
“He can’t leave,” Lelanea said with a snort.
“I don’t want to leave,” Dodger said. “But I have to think about-”
“Good,” Lelanea said. “That’s settled then. You can’t leave anyways.”
“What’sh shakin?” Ched said as he sauntered up to the crowded discussion.
“Dodger said he is thinking about quitting,” Boon said.
“I didn’t say that,” Dodger said.
“You can’t quit,” Ched said. “Don’t you know nothin’, sharge?”
Dodger groaned. “Look, I don’t want to go. Really. But there is a lot more at stake here than just my feelings. Or yours. I know it sounds harsh, but-”
“You misunderstand me, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said. “I didn’t say we don’t want you to leave … and please believe me when I say we don’t want you to leave. We want you to stay. All of us do.”
“I don’t want to leave. You have to believe that.”
“Good. Because I didn’t say we don’t want you to go. I specifically said you can’t leave. You are contractually obligated to protect me.”
“Contractually obligated…” Dodger started, then lost his train of thought when he remembered signing his work contracts that first day. What felt like a lifetime ago. Contracts he never bothered to read because at the time he didn’t care if he lived or died.
“Now,” the doc said, “I am unopposed to lending you out for a bit. But I refuse to terminate your contract. I need you here, Mr. Dodger. I need to you to stay with me.” He furrowed his brow. “I mean, you want to stay with us, don’t you?”
“You need me,” Dodger said, as if trying to make the idea stick. Part of him knew that was the truth all along, but to hear it aloud meant the world to him.
“We all need you to stay, Dodger,” Boon said. “I can’t do this job without my partner. Right?”
“All of us need you,” Lelanea said. She smiled that beautiful—and not to mention married—smile, and Dodger died a little bit inside.
“You can’t leave ush, sharge,” Ched said. “Who will keep theshe lovebirdsh from drivin’ me inshane?”
Dodger looked around the faces of the crew, the folks that call that wonderful train known as the Sleipnir home. His home too. His home. His family. “Just how long am I contractually obligated to work for you folks?”
A mischievous grin peeked out of the doc’s bushy beard. “Indefinitely, of course.”
Dodger grinned in return. “Indefinitely. Of course.”
Feng patted Dodger on the back. “There’s your answer, Mohammad. Mountain and all.”
“I suppose so,” Dodger whispered.
“You’ll stay then?” the doc said.
“I don’t see how I can leave. I mean, I am contractually obligated, indefinitely.”
“Thank goodness that’s settled,” the doc said. “Let’s get back to the party. I want to try that cake Feng baked. Something called lemon chiffon. I hear it is amazing.”
“It’s all right,” Feng said. “It’ll be much easier to make when someone finally comes up with the non-stick pan.”
“Non-stick pan you say?” the doc said, and began to rub his chin.
“Oh no you don’t,” Feng said. “That invention belongs to someone else.”
“I could invent it a bit.”
“Just a little.”
“No. That’s a slippery slope my friend.”
“Of course it would be slippery. Else it wouldn’t be non-stick.”
The crew returned to the party, leaving Dodger alone once more. Yet he wasn’t alone. Not really. He watched the antics of his surrogate family with a lighter heart, knowing that they needed him to remain aboard as much as he needed to stay. Later, he would talk to the doc about a temporary return to Washington to sort out the mess Rex made. But for now he would enjoy his position aboard the line. A position he couldn’t quit, even if he wanted to. And he didn’t want to quit.
End Volume Twelve
(Author's note: Thanks for reading folks! I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I did. See y'all down the line. Ash, Hash, or Cash... NO FREE RIDES!)