Cast and Crew
He was a little taller than Dodger, but slouched so much that they came to about an even height. He didn’t so much wear clothes as serve as a hanger of flesh on which they dangled. His baggy overalls were held up by the straps alone, and his too-large checkered shirt billowed freely underneath. The exposed bits of the man’s body were a collection of knobs and bumps, with his sallow skin pulled taut across his bony frame, showing every joint and juncture like an orthopedic map. His facial features were set in an odd rictus, clenched and stiff in the manner of a man who suffered lockjaw, giving him a perpetual sneer. Hollow cheeks and sunken eyes completed this horrific scene, making for more of a skull than a face. The man was the victim of either unfortunate malnourishment or deliberate starvation.
Yet this was nothing compared to the smell that accompanied him.
As this fellow approached the professor, he brought with him a miasma of unwashed socks, fresh cow manure and a strong blast of liquor. Rotgut whiskey, to be exact. The cheap and vile and easily attainable kind. There was a top note of something else in there as well. Something sickly sweet. Distantly familiar. The whole of the man’s odor wasn’t unbearable, but it wasn’t by any means intoxicating.
“Ya wanted ta she meh?” the living skeleton asked. His words were awkward, a collection of harsh consonants and guttural vowels as he struggled to speak through clenched teeth. Either that or it was the slur of a drunkard. It was very hard to tell.
“Ched!” the professor shouted. “Come here, lad. I want to introduce you to Mr. Carpenter.”
Ched turned his hollow gaze on Dodger, then dipped his head in greeting. “Nish ta meetcha.”
At the disconcerting sight of the too-thin man, Dodger all but forgot who Mr. Carpenter was, missing the cue to rejoin the greeting. Instead he stared at Ched, wondering what circumstances could have left a man so very, very wasted.
“Mr. Carpenter?” the professor asked. He snapped his fingers in Dodger’s direction. “Are you with us?”
“Yes,” Dodger said, shaking his bewilderment and shifting his eyes to the floor to keep from staring.
“This is Ched, our chief engineer. Driver, fireman, mechanic. He does it all. And we’re lucky to have him.”
Dodger hesitated a moment before offering his hand to the sickly man, unsure he wanted to press his healthy pink skin against this pale specter. But manners forced it of him, and so out went his right palm.
Ched grabbed it in a firm grip and gave it one short, curt shake before releasing it.
His touch was leathery and chilled, and Dodger hoped and prayed that he would never, ever, ever have to lay hands on the man again. For as long they both shall live. Amen. Hallelujah. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! Connecting with the man, palm to palm, was very much like shaking hands with a desiccated corpse.
And that’s when Dodger recognized the familiar smell amidst the haze of rotgut.
It was the lingering funk of death.
Death was a scent that Mother Nature herself had granted mortals the ability to recognize without a basis for comparison. It was also a scent that, once inhaled, never quite washed clean from the nostrils. Dodger had experienced the rancid reek of death many times over. The field of combat was a nasty playground for the Reaper and his carrion minions. A thousand corpses rotting in the Southern sunshine was a smell that tended to stick with a man. Whether he liked it or not.
Dodger’s mind connected a wild array of dots as he nodded in return at Ched and said, “Nice to meet you too, dead.”
Ched raised a thin eyebrow.
“I mean Ched!” Dodger shouted.
Where Ched but sneered before, he now bloomed into a full grimace, pulling his lips back across the width of his face until he was all tooth and jaw. A low rumble rolled up from the skeletal throat, the distinct sound of laughter, and with it, Dodger understood that all the scowling was the man’s attempt at a smile.
“Nothin’ like an honesht man,” Ched said, then turned back to the professor and added, “Hesh a keeper.”
“I thought as much myself,” the professor said with the distinct air of pride. “Mr. Carpenter here is applying for our vacant security position.”
With this news, Ched considered Dodger again, his yellow eyes scraping over Dodger in a slow assessment. When he was done, he shook his head and returned his attention to the professor as he announced, “Never fill Boon’s shoosh, but he’ll do in a pinsh, I shupposh.”
This observation brought a frown to the professor, and seemed to dampen the old man’s spirits. “No, no one will ever quite take Boon’s place. I know that. I’m not trying to replace him. But we do need help, Ched, especially now he’s …” The professor paused as he hung his head and then said in a soft, sad voice, “gone.”
Ched tapped the professor lightly on the shoulder with a withered hand. “Not yur fault, Doc. Shtop blaming yurshelf. Coulda happened to any one of ush. Boon wash jusht in the wrong plash at the wrong time.”
“Thank you, Ched. I appreciate that.”
The professor reached up to cover Ched’s bony hand with his own, leaving it there as the pair shared comfort of some private pain. In their moment of silence, Dodger got the distinct impression he was missing a whole lot of something, but what it could be, he had no earthly idea.
Quick as a bolt from the sky, the professor flipped moods, dropping the frown in favor of another grin and perking up considerably. “Yes, well, let us not dwell upon the past when we have the future among us. Ched, can you prime the engine for a little demonstration?”
“Yesh, shir. How far we gonna run her?”
“Only a few miles out and back. That should do.”
“Alwaysh doesh.” The gaunt man tipped his head again at Dodger. “Nish ta meetcha again, Carpenter. She ya in a few.”
Dodger gave the departing man a nervous wave.
“Oh, and Ched?” the professor asked, just as the driver reached the door. “Will you let the others know that we will be giving a demonstration? Don’t want to alarm anyone.”
“And tell Feng we will be having a guest for lunch?”
“Like he doshn’t know already?” Ched asked. His low laughter echoed from the stairwell as he exited the car.
“Well then,” the professor said, “Shall we continue your interview while Ched makes ready?”
“Was that man all right?” Dodger asked.
“Who? Ched? Absolutely. Well, he’s as well as can be expected.”
“Are you sure? He looked a bit on the skinny side.”
“Nonsense! He’s as healthy as a horse.”
“Yeah, but what kind of horse? I’ve used my fair share of flowery figures of speech, but I never thought I would live to see the day when a feller’s stomach really touched his backbone.”
“Ah, yes. That. I assure you, despite his emaciated physique, his health is quite satisfactory. Why, I dare say he will outlast all of us. If he’s cautious.”
Dodger rubbed his neck as he thought about this. “The poor fellow sure looks like he’s knocking on death’s door.”
“Trust me when I say he is as far from death’s door as one can be.” Under his breath, the professor mumbled something that sounded an awful lot like, “Through one side and out the other, in his case.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing, nothing.” Returning to the pad, the professor resumed his interview. “Now, tell me about your weaponry experience.”
Dodger tried to push the image of the skeletal man from his mind as he outlined the various classes of guns and ammunitions he had dealt with in his time with the U.S. Army. Of course he didn’t tell the professor it was a soldier’s life that led him into the arms of so many arms. That piece of knowledge was what he considered his ‘need to know’ business. And in the last five years, he had yet to meet someone who needed to know his business.
After a few minutes of nodding and taking notes, the professor finally looked up from his pad and said, “My, my, my. That is quite a collection. I don’t know whether to be impressed or frightened. Tell me, does every farmhand in this brave new western front fall into the use of so many different guns, or was this Mrs. Bolton unique in her entertaining the artillery of an army?”
Dodger figured he had said too much, but he couldn’t help it! First there was the fantastic train, then his run-in with the mechanical man, and then that living skeleton came and went with his stink of booze and death. This place was a veritable madhouse! It was enough to loosen any man’s tongue. But still, Dodger didn’t like the professor’s insinuation.
“What are you getting at?” Dodger asked.
“Why, nothing, Mr. Carpenter. Nothing at all. Nothing more than what you have already told me.” The professor folded his hands over his desk as he returned to that mile-wide grin of his. “Why? Is there something you’re not telling me? Something you would like to, in fact, get at?”
The pair fell into silence, Dodger eyeing the odd professor, and the professor smiling much too knowingly for Dodger’s tastes.
A keen whistle cut the stillness, breaking the tension between them.
At the signal, the professor got to his feet. “I believe Ched is ready for us. Shall we join him?”
Dodger nodded, but inside he was screaming heck no! He had zero intention of sticking around any longer. Once his feet returned to the natural dirt, he planned on walking away and never looking back.
“This way then,” the professor said as he made his way to the door. “I’m sure you have some reservations about the operation of the Sleipnir, so I have arranged a demonstration of her functions. First I will take a few moments to explain her unusual construct, and then we can join Ched in the cab for a little run.”
“Run?” Dodger asked. “But there aren’t any tracks. How is she going to run?”
“Ah, my good man. That’s just what I intend to show you.”
As easy as falling off a log, Dodger was sucked back into the insanity of the crazy professor. Every intention he had of cutting and running (and never returning) melted away with the possibility of answering that single, nagging question that brought him aboard.
How could a train run if she had no tracks?
The answer turned out to be just as peculiar as those who took refuge aboard her.