Ghost of a Chance
In which Dodger is begged a boon by the last person he expects to meet.
With a wince, Dodger stripped off his button-down, leaving the thin undershirt behind. His wrist wasn’t broken, which was good, but it was going to take some time to heal. A bad sprain was oftentimes worse than a clean break. He was fairly sure he might have dislocated and reset it all in the single recoil action of the massive weapon.
Dodger eyed the strange nine shooters hanging from the back of the wardrobe. A better set of guns he had never owned, and never would again. They didn’t belong to him, that much he knew, yet he found himself troubled at the prospect of relinquishing the pair of pistols. When he first found they were still dangling from his hips, he thought about stomping right back to the train and tossing them down in the dirt.
When he thought twice about it, that’s when he reckoned it was just what the professor was playing at. What the man had planned all along. Surely he saw Dodger absconding with the so-called priceless pair of revolvers, so he must have planned on luring Dodger back with the task of returning them. Luring Dodger back for another chance to sweet-talk him into taking the job.
Well, no sir. Not today.
If that crazy professor and his insane crew wanted the damned things, they could come and fetch them. There was only the one place to rent a room in town, above the saloon, and Dodger, or rather Arnold Carpenter, wasn’t a hard man to find. Still, they could take their time as far as he was concerned. He wouldn’t mind being left alone with the things for a little while longer. Just so he could check them out in private. Assess them all up close and personal-like.
He pulled the shades and made his bed with every intention of taking his well-deserved nap before his shift started at the bar that evening, but the guns had a different idea. Like a pair of silver sirens, they sang his name, begging to be fondled and admired in the shadows of his low-lit room. Drawing the empty one with his good hand, Dodger turned the pistol back and forth in the lamplight. The weapons were a marvel, a real feat of engineering. Whoever cast these beauties in steel was the very definition of a true artist.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Dodger jumped into action, whipping about to aim the empty gun in the direction from which the voice sounded. Seated on a wooden stool in the corner was an older man with his feet propped on Dodger’s cot—dusty boots and all. His hat tilted low, hiding his face.
“How did you get in here?” Dodger asked.
“I’ve been here the whole time,” the man said.
“No. I didn’t see you when I came in. How did you get in here?”
“That’s a mighty interesting first question. You know, most folks would want to know who I was or what I wanted. But you’re concerned with securing your perimeter first. The Doc was right. You are good choice for the job.” The man pushed his hat up his forehead and flashed Dodger a gentle, honest smile. “Much better than some others who have worked it in the past.”
That answered one question; the man was with that crazy professor. A tall drink of water, all bulk and muscle, the fellow was so broad across the shoulders it would wear a tailor out just to take his measure. Long blond hair hung in tresses across his broad shoulders, and a matching beard and mustache combo tapered down onto his barrel-shaped chest. His arms were thick as tree trunks. His legs as wide as cannons. In short, he was one big hombre.
“As for how I got here,” the man continued, “I told you the truth. I’ve been here the whole while.”
“I’m afraid it is not in my capacity to lie, sir. Not anymore. Not that I ever lied a lot before all of this, but now… now I don’t really have a choice.”
“Does everyone working for that man speak in riddles?”
The stranger laughed, low and soft. “Sorry. You sort of pick up the habit after a bit.” He swung his legs about and stood, confirming his impressive height as he towered a full foot over Dodger. Maybe more. “And you can lower that gun, by the way. I’m fairly sure it isn’t loaded.”
“You so sure of that?” Dodger asked, cocking the pistol.
The blond giant shrugged. “It won’t do you any good either way, Mr. Carpenter. Or is it Dodger? I don’t think you clarified that one.”
Dodger never enjoyed someone else having the upper hand, especially when it came to identities. “Who are you?”
“Washington Jeremiah Boon, at your service.” The stranger gave a slight bow.
“Washington Boon?” Dodger searched his memory, his enemies, his allies. Though the name was familiar, it didn’t ring any personal bells. The only Boon he had heard of lately was … but this couldn’t be the same one. “I don’t know any Boon.”
“Oh, I dare say you’ve heard of me.” His eyes flicked to the wardrobe, to the pistol hanging there, to the holster, to the single name across the belt.
Dodger picked up the hint and didn’t like it one bit. “Then you are that Boon?”
“The one and same.”
“You can’t be.”
“And why not?”
“Because …” Dodger let the rest of his words drop into silence, unable to bring himself to say what was on his mind. Which was, Because your crew claims you’re dead.
After the big display they put on about the man being dead, here he was, alive the whole while. Dodger couldn’t imagine what was going on. What kind of sick and twisted joy did they get out of making Dodger feel guilty for taking the job of a beloved and belated crew member? Games and doubletalk and riddles. Working for the professor must’ve been tantamount to living in a funhouse, only not as much fun.
Dodger wasn’t in the mood for fun, or for taking on a man twice his size. He went to the wardrobe, shoved the weapon into the holster, and held the pair out to the man. “I suppose you came for these. That was awful fast. I didn’t even see you follow me.”
Boon stared at the weapons for a moment, then shook his head. “You mistake me, sir. I didn’t come for the guns. I came with them, so to speak.”
“Look, I don’t have time for riddles. Or games. Just take ‘em and get the hell out of here.”
“I assure you, this isn’t a game. This is a matter of life and death. The Sleipnir needs you, Mr. Dodger.”
“For the last time, my name is Carpenter. And why would they need me if they have you?”
“Because they don’t have me. Not in that capacity. Not anymore.”
Now that made a little more sense. The man must’ve screwed up his work in so foul a manner that his fellow crewmembers would rather think of him as dead than speak of him at all. Dodger opened the door and held the guns out in the doorway. “That’s a really sad story. And I am sorry you lost your job, or whatever happened to it, but I’m not interested in filling your sizable shoes.”
“Please, you have to listen to me.”
“I don’t have to do anything! Now take your guns and go, before I grow tired enough of this to use ‘em.”
“I’m not here for the weapons.”
“Well you’re gonna take ‘em.” Dodger stormed across the room and pushed the holster toward Boon, but the man refused to grab it. When Dodger let go, the belt slithered to the floor between them, taking the weapons with it.
Boon never laid an eye on them. He just stood staring at Dodger. “As I said, I am not here for the guns. I’m here for you.”
“Why does everything out of your mouth sound so goddamned cryptic?”
“Everything okay up here?” Decker asked.
Dodger whipped around to find the saloon owner standing in the open doorway. Once again, he had forgotten to lock his door, and Decker took it upon himself to enter without knocking.
“Yeah,” Dodger said. “Fine. Just dealing with an unwanted visitor.” He motioned to Boon behind him. “Thanks for keeping him out like I asked.”
“Visitor? I didn’t see anyone come up.” Decker leaned into the room and peered about.
A whisper arose in Dodger’s mind.
He can’t see or hear me.
It was the voice, Dodger’s inner voice. Or at least he thought it was his inner voice. Now that he had a basis for comparison, his inner voice sounded an awful lot like Washington Boon. He turned in place, but the man had vanished.
“Apparently, neither can I,” Dodger said.
“Who you talking to?” Decker asked.
Dodger pointed to the spot where Boon used to be. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know.”
“He was here a moment ago. Where’d he go?”
“You couldn’t miss him.”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“Tall man. Blond. Moustache?”
Decker shook his head with a look of bewilderment. “Nope. Sorry Arnie.”
“Then who was … where did he …” Dodger slumped onto the stool.
“You okay? You don’t look so good.”
“I don’t understand what is going on here. Am I crazy? Maybe there was something on that train. Did that man slip me some kind of drug?” Dodger nodded at his own idea. “Sure. He must have slipped me some kind of hallucinogen. I bet that whole shootout wasn’t even real. I’ll bet those guns aren’t real either.”
Decker shrugged as he glanced at the guns. “They look real enough to me.”
“I think I’m just tired.” Dodger rubbed his eyes and yawned. “That must be it. I’m just real tired. Sorry for causing a fuss, Dex. I’ll try to keep my daydreaming down to a dull roar.”
“No problem. You know we don’t get any real business ‘til sundown anyway.” Decker closed the door behind him, leaving Dodger alone once again with his overactive imagination.
Dodger locked the door to keep Decker from walking in on him again, then returned to his bed. There Dodger sat, hung his head and closed his eyes. “What is wrong with me?”
“Nothing, as far as I can tell.”
When Dodger opened his eyes, two pairs of boots greeted him from the floor: his own and a second, much larger pair parked next to his. Which meant the blond man was seated on the bed. Dodger hadn’t even felt him sit down, much less come back into the room.
“I’ve lost it,” Dodger said. “That’s it. I’ve finally lost my mind.”
“No. Though it might feel like it, I promise you are as sharp as you ever were. Perhaps even more so.”
Dodger raised his eyes to the man. “What do you want with me?”
“We don’t want you, we need you.”
“The Sleipnir. She needs a man of your peculiar talents. We need a man of your gifts.”
We. So he still considered himself a part of their crew. “You should know your crew speaks of you as if you’re dead.”
“That’s because I am.”
“You are what?”
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