In which Dodger has to choose
The train came to rest a half a mile from the cave proper. There was little that could be done about cloaking their arrival in the noisy thing, so Dodger figured they might as well get as close as they could to save the work of walking. Besides, Rex was expecting Dodger, or else he wouldn’t have set up this little meeting. The dog had given Dodger six hours to find the kids, but didn’t say how long he expected Dodger to take. So what was the point of pretending they possessed the advantage of surprise?
What was all that back there? Boon asked as they walked along.
Not now, Dodger said.
“What’s the plan here?” Al asked.
“I don’t really know,” Dodger said. “It’s a shame we can’t have someone scout ahead.”
I want to know what that was about first, Boon insisted. Why did she say that about your eyes?
“Let it go,” Dodger grumbled under his breath.
“That young thing sure is pretty,” Al said.
“Not you too,” Dodger said with a sigh.
“What? I gots eyes, ain’t I? I can look. Got me a little touch too.” Al giggled to himself.
Perverted old goat, Boon said.
Go and scout, Dodger said in underspeak. He’s harmless.
Yes, well that’s more than I can say about you.
Dodger groaned. “Yes, sir, you can look all you like. But watch the touching.”
“She belong to someone?” Al asked.
“She belongs to herself, but her heart is spoken for.”
Very nicely put, Boon said.
“Who?” Al asked, then made a retching sound. “It ain’t that skinny feller is it?”
“No!” Dodger gagged a bit himself at the idea. “No, sir. Her beau is … away. Won’t be back for a while. But he will be back one day. Hopefully soon.”
“Then don’t that make her ripe for the pickin’? Seems like her man missing from her life is just the open window you need to slide in and take his place, even if just to give her a little comfort while he’s away.”
Harmless, you say? Boon asked.
“No, sir,” Dodger said. “Besides, that ship sailed.”
What is that supposed to mean? Boon shouted in Dodger’s mind.
“Come again, son?” Al asked.
“I mean to say,” Dodger said, “that there was a time when I thought I might have a chance with her, but fate proved otherwise. She isn’t interested in me in that manner. We are just friends.”
“She really that dedicated to this missing man of hers?”
“She sure is.” Dodger added once more, for Boon’s assurance, She sure is.
Thank you for that, Boon said. His presence faded away as he finally went to scout ahead.
“Well it ain’t my place to say, son,” Al said. “But maybe if you tried a little harder, then you could … Do you hear that?” Al stopped walking and held his thin hand to his ear, cupping the air for whatever it was he heard.
“What is it?” Dodger asked, straining to hear as well.
Al’s eyes widened. “The little one! That’s little Rodger cryin’!” Al took off running for the sound.
“Little Rodger?” Dodger asked the back of Al’s escaping form. “Great gravy, please don’t let that mean what I think it does.” With another sigh, Dodger set off after Al.
As they came closer to the mouth of the cave, Dodger was able to hear the child’s cries more clearly. The kid wailed and wailed and wailed, only pausing for the briefest of breaths. Al ducked behind a large boulder just at the entrance. Dodger fell in line behind him. Just beyond the mouth of the cave, Dodger could hear a woman’s voice complaining about the weather, the wait and everything in between. He peered over the rock to see Kitty strutting back and forth across the cavern.
“What’s the plan here?” Al asked.
“How deep does this cave go?” Dodger asked. They barely had to whisper, for the crying of the child and the complaints of the redhead covered their voices.
“Only a few hundred yards. Then it splits into two other sections.”
The children are in the smaller caves, Dodger, Boon said, joining them again.
“Sections?” Dodger asked.
“Yeah,” Al said. “Like rooms.”
This is a trap, Boon said. That redhead of yours is guarding the entrance to both, and she has about five of those bulldog men with her.
“Rex will have isolated the kids,” Dodger said. “One in each room.”
“You think?” Al asked.
“Yes. That sounds like something he would take advantage of.”
I only had a quick peek down each side, Boon said, but as far as I can tell, each child is in a contraption of some kind. They have timers on them. The timers are not functioning. Yet.
“He will have them set up in a trap too,” Dodger said. “My last run-in with him, he rigged three bombs, and I had to choose the right …” Dodger recognized the obvious as soon as he said it. “A test. This is another test.”
“A test?” Al asked. “What kind of test.”
“I’ll explain later.” Dodger pulled his gun, set the dial to a single shot, and nodded to Al. “Let’s go see how this plays out. You ready?”
Al readied his gun as well and nodded in return.
Go make sure the kids are unharmed, Dodger said to Boon.
Aye, sir, Boon said, and faded again.
Dodger held up three fingers, then two, then one. He stood and stepped away from the boulder, coming to rest right in the dead center of the cave’s opening. Al joined him, taking to Dodger’s left side.
Kitty had parked herself on a rock, looking bored out of her pretty redheaded skull. The bulldogs were playing cards, rather than guarding anyone or anything.
“Ugh!” Kitty groaned. “Can’t someone stop that thing?”
“Boss says let it keep doin’ it,” one of the bulldogs said without looking up from his cards.
“Stupid kids. I wasn’t hired to babysit a bunch of dead ducks.”
“I reckon you weren’t hired for your smarts, neither,” Dodger said.
The redhead jumped up and pulled her gun, training it on the men at the entrance.
The bulldog men leaped up too, scattering cards everywhere as they returned with haste to their posts—two at each entrance, and one backing Kitty. None of the dogs was armed, as far as Dodger could tell, though one dog on each side retrieved a small black box from his respective cave entrance.
“Well, well,” Kitty said loudly as she hopped down from her bolder and stepped closer to the pair. “Mr. Dodger. It sure is about time. And Mr. Jackson, pleasure to see you again.” She narrowed her eyes at the old man. “Ain’t you lookin’ well for someone who spent so much time under Grinder’s skillful hand?”
“What can I say?” Al asked in a shout over the boy’s cries. “I heal quicker than you young things.”
Kitty shrugged as if to say she really couldn’t care less. “I guess you’re here for the brats?”
“Where are they?” Dodger asked.
“One is down each tunnel,” Kitty said.
“I’ll take the left,” Al said. “You take the right.”
Dodger nodded, but he knew Kitty had no intention of letting either man pass.
Proving him right, she pulled her second gun and shoved the weapons at Dodger and Al. “Either of you move, and I’ll blow your brains out.”
“We’ve all got guns, sugar cakes,” Al said. “What’s stopping us from just killing you where you stand?”
“Ask him,” she said, eyeing Dodger. “He’s played this game before.”
“Dodger?” Al asked.
“You see the black boxes those dogs have?” Dodger asked.
Al squinted into the cave and nodded. “I reckon I do. What are they?”
“My guess is that they control either explosives or something attached to the kids.”
“Why can’t it be both?” Kitty asked with a pout, then broke into a wicked laugh.
“What do you want from us?” Al asked. “We solved the riddle. We figured out where the kids were.”
“That was just your first task,” Kitty said. “Rex has another little exam for his favorite student.”
“There is nothing that mutt can teach anyone,” Dodger said.
“Save how to keep fleas from biting your rump,” Al said.
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” Kitty said.
The girl is unconscious, but alive, Boon said, returning again. She is to the right, and rigged into what looks like an iron maiden.
“He knows so much,” Kitty continued. “So many exciting things.”
The boy child is sealed in an iron box to the left, Boon said. His cries are projected through a horn. He can’t have much air left at the rate he is crying.
Kitty licked her lips. “The world will be a much better place with him at the helm, that’s for sure.”
That settled that, then. Feng was right. The mutt wanted to rule the world.
“What next?” Dodger asked. “Another recorded message? Another riddle?”
“Another riddle, yes,” she said. “But I will deliver the message. One word, gentlemen. Choose.”
“Excuse me?” Al said. He stuck a finger in his ear and twisted it about. “I’m a bit hard of hearing in this ear. Can you say that again?”
“You heard me right the first time, old man. Chose. Left or right. Girl or boy. One life or the other.”
“You have got to be joking,” Dodger said.
She can’t be serious, Boon said.
“We aren’t choosing,” Dodger said. He cocked his gun. “You’re gonna give us both of them, now.”
With a nod, Kitty holstered her guns, then raised her hands to either sides of her and snapped.
The bulldogs with the control boxes jolted upright to attention. “Yes, ma’am! We’re ready, ma’am!”
“Go on,” Kitty said. “Tempt me to do it. I would love nothing more than to shut that whining brat up for good. The girl or the boy. Your call.” She grinned an evil smirk. “Your fault too.”
“I said we aren’t-” Dodger started.
“The girl,” Al said over him.
“What?” Dodger asked.
That boy will suffocate if we don’t get him out of the box, Boon said.
“The girl,” Al repeated.
“You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to choose.”
Al ignored Dodger and said, “The girl. Please.”
“Are you certain?” Kitty asked.
“Al?” Dodger asked.
Al glanced to Dodger and of all the incongruent things to do, the old man winked. “I’m certain.” Al returned his attention to Kitty as he holstered his own weapon. “The girl. We want to rescue the girl.”
“Done,” Kitty said. She snapped her right hand, signaling the bulldog on the left side of Dodger to activate his box.
The crying came to an abrupt stop.
No! Boon cried, and his spirit left the area.
Dodger closed his eyes and breathed hard, trying to push back the urge to run after Boon. Something deeper was at work here. Al wouldn’t just sacrifice the life of one child over another, would he? Dodger opened his eyes again and glanced to Al. Not a single tear stood in the old man’s eyes. He looked more excited than upset, like he had won a prize rather than condemning the kid to an assuredly terrible demise.
“Well?” Kitty said. “Go get her.”
“You won’t interfere?” Al asked.
Kitty held up her hands. “My work here is done, honey. Sit with the kids, make you chose, kill the loser. Those were my instructions.”
Al didn’t wait any longer. He pushed past the redhead and ran down the right hand tunnel. “Sarah! I’m coming for ya, hon!”
“Show’s over!” Kitty called to the bulldog men. “Haul out!”
The men started shuffling about, gathering their things, preparing to leave.
Holstering Hortense, Dodger meant to follow Al, only to have Kitty grab him by the wrist and hold him back.
“You won’t win,” she said with a purr. “Rex can’t be stopped. He’s far too clever and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. I mean whatever it takes. Are you willing to do whatever it takes?”
“Is that so?” Dodger asked. “Because I reckon I know someone even cleverer than your Canus Rex.”
Kitty started at the nickname.
Dodger could tell she was struggling not to giggle at it. “Now, admittedly, my friend isn’t willing to do what is necessary if it means someone finding themselves in harm’s way. But, you see, that is why he hired me. I have no qualms about doin’ what needs to be done.”
Kitty drew closer to Dodger, glancing down the length of his body and back up again as she groaned in approval. “You can still join the winning side. I’ll make all kinds of room for you, honey.”
Dodger pulled his wrist from her grip. “I am on the winning side. The losers just don’t know it yet.”
“I’m offering you a once in a lifetime chance-”
“I know what you’re offering.” Dodger raked his gaze over her bumps and curves, until he locked eyes with her again. “But I reckon I’ve had better.” It wasn’t a lie. A man couldn’t travel the breadth of the world without sampling a bit of her sweetest bounty. He just failed to add that, save for his unconscious experience at the Desert Rose, it had been a number of years since that better sample.
Or any at all.
“Go on, then,” she said. “You know where to find me if you change your mind.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I reckon I’ll find you on the losing side.”
He left her boiling mad as he jogged down the tunnel.
ANSWER ME A QUESTION
In which Dodger must solve yet another riddle