Cast and Crew
In which Dodger gets just a taste of the bizarre.
“You may find sitting more comfortable, sir,” the metal man said. His words vibrated across the car with a lush metal twang, like the speaking tube but in a much richer alto. “More comfortable, that is, than standing about, gawking at me. Unless, of course, that is what sir prefers to do.” There sounded a light tick and whir of hidden gears as the metal man raised an arm and motioned with the duster to the chairs beyond the threshold of the car. When he blinked his eyes, there came a click. When he smirked—and by all that was holy, he did smirk!—there sounded a small squeak of some tiny cog in desperate need of oiling.
Dodger was fascinated, to say the least. “What are you?” he asked in a hushed whisper.
“I am Mr. Torque, sir,” the metal man said. “Which explains my who. As to my what, I am the personal assistant to Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer. And you are?”
Dumbstruck, Dodger just stared.
What could he say?
“Well then, sir,” Mr. Torque said. “If you have nothing to say on the matter, then do excuse me. I have duties to attend to that don’t include mopping up the drool of a lingering spectator. Sir.” The thing snatched Dodger’s hat from his hand, then pushed past him into the car proper. It moved with a surprising grace, almost coasting across the carpeted floor with each fluid step. After depositing the hat on the nearest rack, the clockwork man proceeded to ignore Dodger as it wiped down furniture with the towel and brushed fixtures with the duster.
Again that overwhelming need to escape from this place rose up in Dodger like a creek swelling to burst. The train was almost mind numbing in its trackless manifestation, but to know it housed a talking, walking clockwork man? Now Dodger was sure he had seen everything, and considering what he had seen up to this point in his life, that was saying quite a lot. If the good Lord saw fit to come on down right now and take Dodger to his final resting place, then he supposed he could officially say that he had indeed “done seen everything.”
“May I also suggest that sir seats himself?” Mr. Torque suggested as he worked. “It is considered bad manners to stand about when one has been invited to relax.”
Dodger flipped aside the tails of his long jacket and took a seat nearest the door, just in case that near-overwhelming feeling became too overwhelming to ignore. No sooner had he sat than, without warning, the door at the far end of the car opened wide. In burst a squat figure of a man, stocky in build and wild in appearance. He had the dress of a gentleman: a full suit including a vest and pocket watch. Over this he wore a spotted and dingy white—or rather whitish—knee-length overcoat, which he left unbuttoned so the thing flapped about him as he stormed into the room. A head of unkempt silver hair, shooting off in every direction available to it, suggested that this man considered proper grooming very low on his list of daily chores. His grizzled beard matched this motif, nearly consuming the man’s round face from chin to ears. A bulbous red nose poked out from the bush of whiskers, as did a pair of gleaming, bright eyes. Eyes that said there was much mischief going on in the mind behind the face.
This total assessment of the man was more than just a keen observation on Dodger’s part. It was a natural reaction for him to evaluate and make note of folks, a practice ingrained into him early in his career as a soldier, and though he hadn’t seen the inside of a uniform in many a year, this full measurement of folks was a habit he could never seem to shake.
The other fellow, however, seemed to take no notice of Dodger.
“Torque!” he shouted into the car. “Where are you? Come to me, you copper pansy!”
The metal man cringed at the insult. With a loud whistle of a sigh, he laid down his towel and duster, then went to meet the man in the doorway. “Yes, Professor?”
“I’m expecting a visitor at any moment.”
“Yes, sir. I gathered as much.”
“Go and fetch Ched. If he’s with Ludda, instruct her to remain in quarters until I send for her.” The man rubbed his hands together in the most disturbing of ways. “No need to overwhelm the poor boy.”
“Or you could just call Master Ched on the tubes, sir. It would be much quicker and save me the trouble of walking all the way-”
“Or I could just melt you down into a piss pot. Couldn’t I? Now do as I say! Chop chop!”
Mr. Torque turned away from his master to do as asked. As he passed by Dodger, he said in a soft voice, “He’s all yours.”
Dodger couldn’t tell if the metal man was speaking to him or to the character across the car.
“I swear,” the professor said. “I don’t know where I went wrong with that one.”
Still clutching the flyer, Dodger got to his feet and cleared his throat to gain the other man’s attention. When this proved useless, Dodger asked, “Excuse me?”
The sound of his voice seemed to startle the older man, as he jumped in place with a loud shout. “Good Lord! Where did you come from?”
“I’ve been here the whole while.”
“Have you?” The professor stared hard at the seat from which Dodger had just risen, then back at Dodger. “Extraordinary. That’s quite a trick, sneaking up on me like that. You’re almost as crafty as Feng. Good show!” A light applause filled the car as the professor clapped in glee.
As much as Dodger wanted to take credit for this supposed feat, he suspected that the professor was the kind of man who remained so unaware of his surroundings that he could be ambushed by a ten-piece brass band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” Besides, there were other matters to attend to.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Dodger said, “what was that thing?”
“No,” the professor said.
“No I don’t mind you asking. Go ahead. Ask away.” The professor stood in silence, as if waiting for just that.
Dodger waited, to see if the man was serious. He appeared to be, so Dodger repeated his question. “What was that thing?”
“So it said, but what is it?”
“He’s my personal manservant. Well, he’s not a man, but I am, and he serves me, so the title still applies. At least I think it does.”
“But it talked.”
“Talked?” The man gave a short snort. “If you can call it that. I only wish Mr. Torque would just talk. In my sorrowful experience, the most he ever does is whine. The hunk of junk.”
Dodger couldn’t help but chuckle. “But he’s amazing. Where did he come from?”
“Well … I made the blasted thing.” The professor shrugged, as if the walking, talking mechanical man were nothing more than the product of an afternoon of mild tinkering. “Though, admittedly, most days I wish I hadn’t. I mean, sure, he can dust up a storm better the Devil himself, but at what cost? My sanity. That’s what!”
Hearing the creator reduce the fantastic machine to a handful of ordinary complaints sort of took the wonder out of it. Which, Dodger supposed, was just as well. He wasn’t here to marvel at a jumped-up automatic butler. He was here seeking employment.
Dodger took a few tentative steps toward the professor and held out the parchment. “Are you the man who posted this ad?”
The professor eyed the thing for a long moment before answering “Yes.” Then the man screwed up his face and shook his shaggy head. “Actually, the real answer is no.”
“I mean it wasn’t me, per se. It is my advertisement, but I didn’t post it. And that is what you asked. Wasn’t it? So I suppose the answer is no. I am not the man who posted that ad. I believe Ched made the rounds to a few towns in this area last week—yours might have been among them—so he would be responsible for the actual posting.”
Dodger sighed. This man was impossible to talk to. “But it is your ad?”
“Yes. Indeed. Are you interested in the position, Mister …?”
Holding out his empty hand, Dodger took the bait of the man’s name fishing. “I’m Arnold Carpenter.” Of course that wasn’t his real name, but he had been living under an assumed moniker for so long that it was all too easy to forget who he really was.
The man snatched up Dodger’s hand, giving it a short shake. “I am Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer. PhD, MD and DGE. Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Carpenter.”
“Nice to meet you too, Professor. Do you mind if I ask what DGE stands for?”
“Damn Good Egg!” The professor punctuated his proclamation with a delightful, girlish giggle, the sound of which coaxed a smile from Dodger. After they relinquished each other’s hands, the professor asked, “So then, Mr. Carpenter, you’re interested in the position of security? It’s an opportunity you aren’t likely to find anywhere else. The Slapnire is the world’s leading-”
“Schlipnear,” Dodger corrected the man, almost reflexively, and at once regretted his disloyal tongue. Early in life, Dodger discovered that most folks preferred the company of those with either average or lesser intelligence than theirs, and in his adulthood, he found this went double for potential employers. While Dodger never considered himself a genius, he often found that he comprehended things a bit more than he wished he did. Sometimes, too well for his own good.
Like father like son, he supposed.
At the slip of Dodger’s tongue, the professor stopped, mid-rant, and cocked his head to one side. “Excuse me?”
Too late to make excuses, Dodger reckoned he should just go with it. “I think the pronunciation you are looking for is Schlipnear, not Slapnire.”
“And what leads you to believe such a thing?”
“Well, if you named your eight-car line after the eight-legged horse of the Norse Gods, then you might want to pronounce it correctly.”
Narrowing his eyes at Dodger, the professor asked, “How do you know that?”
And there it was: the lilt in the voice that insinuated that a man of Dodger’s cast should not possess such higher knowledge. Dodger almost fibbed—he even had a good story ready—but something warned him this man wouldn’t take to being lied to. So he settled for a half truth. “I tend to read a bit, now and again.” The deeper truth was that Dodger was a voracious reader, with old-world myths being his favorite subject. It was sheer coincidence that the professor’s train had been branded with a mythical name with which he was familiar.
Or was it?
“Extraordinary,” the professor said in a low whisper.
That gleaming smiled returned, and with it, Dodger got the creeping sensation that he had just passed some kind of test. He wondered how many other tests he would be subjected to before this whole thing was said and done.
The professor rushed across the car, to the far side, where he pulled open a secretary resting against one wall. Unscrewing a fountain pen then unfolding a pad of paper, he poised himself to take notes. “Shall we start with your previous employment?”
It took Dodger a moment to realize they had fallen into an interview. It seemed this professor kept about as focused as a hot and hungry pig tethered between a full slop trough and a cool mud pit. It was hard to keep up, but Dodger did his best. “I worked as a farmhand for the last few years.”
“I did whatever I was told. Tilling the fields, sowing, harvesting, repairing equipment and the likes. Mostly heavy lifting and working in the sun.”
“Hard work, you mean. I don’t envy you.”
“Hard work keeps a man honest.”
“That it does.” The professor made note of this. “And now?”
“You worked as a farmhand. Past tense. And now?”
“Mrs. Bolton, the owner of the farm, you see … well … she passed away, and her son opted to sell the place rather then keep it going. My job disappeared when someone else bought the farm.”
“How unfortunate. You know, I’ve always admired farmers. Salt of the earth. Yes. Her very salt. And do you possess any experience with locomotives?”
“You could say that. I worked almost ten years on two different lines, one cargo and the other livestock. I did pretty much everything from fireman to driver to foreman. Even pulled some security on the side. We all did from time to time.”
Scratching arose from the pad. “The names of the lines?”
“I’d rather not say, sir.”
The professor turned to face Dodger, a look of concern flitting across his face.
Dodger’s throat went dry at the man’s anxiety. “I’d rather not say if that’s all right with you. If you need proof of my abilities, I can show you. But if you want verbal confirmation from others, then I’m afraid I can’t comply.”
“Why? Are you afraid others might speak ill of you?”
“I don’t rightly care what others say about me. My work is speaks louder than any talk. That should be enough.”
Dodger worried his candor would anger the man, but instead of arguing, the professor nodded and began writing again. “Perfectly fine by me. I don’t care for the rail conglomerates anyway. Bunch of liars and thieves, as far as I’m concerned. Snatching land in the name of progress, and lining their wallets at the expense of the American people.” The professor clutched the paper, nearly wadding up his notes as he continued his assessment of the corrupt rail system. “Imagine denying a decent man use of their rails as if they were they only ones in the world who can put down a layer of steel and wood and call them tracks. Tracks? Ha! They have no idea what tracks are. The Sleipnir is the only locomotive in the world that makes real tracks. Genuine tracks!”
Dodger had no idea what that last part was about, but he couldn’t agree more with the professor’s assessment of the rail barons. It had also been his experience that the various rail companies were more interested in making money than providing a service to their nation. Then again, it had been his experience that most folks felt that way.
“And by the by,” the professor added, as his grip on both his anger and his notepad relaxed, “I hope you don’t think I’m being nosy about your work history. I just like to keep precise records on my employees.”
“Employee?” It wasn’t that Dodger was opposed to being offered a job, he just didn’t remember agreeing to the work. “But, sir, I’m not your employee.”
With another gleaming grin, the professor said, “I rather think you will be. I dare say before the hour is out, good sir, you will be all too glad to work for me.”
Before Dodger could protest, the door to the front end of the car thumped open. In strode the lankiest, thinnest, most emaciated man on whom Dodger had ever laid eyes.
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