Message in a Bottle
The humor of the situation evaporated in an instant. Dodger asked, “What girl?”
“The one in the pants,” the dog man said.
Boon shouted in Dodger’s mind, Lelanea!
“Where is she?” Dodger asked.
The gnarled grin returned, but the man didn’t answer.
Dodger lowered the gun to the man’s hand clad crotch. “Where. Is. She.”
Which made all sorts of sense when Dodger took a moment to reflect upon it. In fact, he sort of felt like a fool for not seeing the broader picture until it was his nose was pressed right against the wet paint. Decker called it right when he said there was trouble brewing at the Gap. Trouble with a capital P.
While Dodger put the obvious pieces together, Bottle dropped on his haunches, as if cowering. No. Not cowering. He was preparing to run. Run with his ass bared and his giblets dangling in the wind.
Bottle looked back, over his shoulder, and said, “Before sundown. Unarmed or the woman is soup.” And with that, the man took off for the hills in a mad loping dash, on all fours, just like an animal.
Just like a dog.
Dodger kept his gun trained tight, but vacillated on taking a shot, wondering what profit there was to shooting the man in the nuts, beyond just the satisfaction of shooting him in the nuts.
They have Lelanea.
“I’m well aware of that,” Dodger said as he holstered Florence. Or was that Hortense?
We have to get her back before something regrettable happens.
“Yes. I know.”
I wished to hell I could follow him.
“No need. I know where he’s headed.”
You know of this place? Hermit’s Gap?
“Sure. It’s about twenty miles in that direction.” He paused to point at Bottle’s retreating form. “Every so often some smart assed, two-bit outlaw ends up at the Gap. It’s been the location of many an unfortunate man’s last stand.”
Then let us go there.
“We will. In due time.”
Due time? Dodger, they have Lelanea! We must go now! What are you waiting for!
The haranguing of the specter rattled Dodger’s unprotected brain. “Hang on now. You aren’t the one putting his neck in the noose here. They want me to come unarmed. Remember? I’d rather walk into a den of bears wrapped in a honeycomb vest then just jump in without a proper plan.”
Boon’s urgency cooled a bit, as did his whisper. I understand your hesitancy. I’m just anxious for her. I apologize.
“No need to be sorry. We’ll get her back. Don’t you worry about that.”
Of course we will.
As a pair of voices rose from the engine platform, and Dodger turned to watch the owners climb down, Ched all but dragging the professor by the lapels of his lab coat.
“Let go of me!” the professor shouted. “I said I was busy.”
“And I shaid we gotsh an intruder,” Ched said.
“Intruder?” The professor stopped when he laid eyes on Dodger. “That’s not an intruder! That’s our new head of security.” Jerking his jacket free from the skeletal grip, the professor laid into his hired help. “I swear, Chester. Your brain rots away a little more each passing day. Soon there will be nothing left but a whiskey bottle and those teeth of yours.” The professor turned his attention back to Dodger with a wide and welcoming grin. “Mr. Carpenter, welcome back! I see you decided to take up our little offer of employment. If you will head right this way we can draw up the paperwork and settle your salary and-”
“Sir?” Dodger asked.
The professor’s speech stalled mid-sputter. “What? What? What is it?”
“This might sound like an odd question, but … where’s your niece?”
“Oh, her. In her room, I suppose.”
Dodger lifted his eyebrows in question. “Are you sure?”
The professor looked up and down the full length of Dodger, as if measuring his worth with a glance. “Mr. Carpenter, I don’t claim to know how the locals bargain for employment, but I can assure you my niece’s hand is not part of the available terms.”
“I’m not talking about her hand. I’m talking about all of her. Physically.”
The older man’s eyes went wide. “Mr. Carpenter! Really! I must protest.”
Dodger sighed as he ran his hand over his face in frustration. “Is she in her room or not?”
“I don’t see why that is any of your-”
“Not exactly,” Ched said over the professor.
Both men turned to the driver.
“What do you mean not exactly?” the professor asked.
Ched shrugged, his shoulders almost reaching his ears in the deep motion of his contrite act. “She wanted to go to town, sho I shaid she-”
“You let her go into town!” the professor shouted “On her own! At this time of the month! Are you insane?” The man stopped his tirade to smooth down his jacket in an effort to collect himself. “Of course, you are insane. Just look at you. Only a crazy man would do what you do. Did. Still does.”
“Jusht for the record,” Ched said. “I didn’t shimply let her. I warned her not to go, but she wash very pershishtant. You know how she getsh when she wantsh shomethin’.”
“Yes. Yes I do.” The professor patted his ample stomach in contemplation. “I know it’s not your fault. I wished I could keep a better leash on her but-”
Ched snickered at some word the professor spoke.
“Stop that,” the professor snapped. “You know what I mean.”
“Sir?” Dodger asked again. He pointed to Bottle, now a naked dot on the horizon and shrinking all the while. “You see that fellow running off?”
The professor squinted, then gave a sort of half nod, half shake of the head. “I suppose so.”
“Well, turns out he’s part of the Pack. And he had a message for us.”
“Pack? What pack? Message? What are you talking about? What kind of security man are you? My niece is missing and you stand around here blathering about …” The professor slowed as he connected the dots Dodger laid out for him. A sudden look of terror stole over the man. He gripped Dodger’s arm. “Holy Krishna! They have her?”
“Yes, sir. I believe they do.”
“We have to get her back before something regrettable happens.”
Why did everyone keep saying that like Dodger didn’t already know? “Yes, sir. I believe we should.”
“How? What do you recommend, Mr. Carpenter?”
Dodger looked to his feet, dreading with all his might what he had to do next. Before he set off after his boss man’s niece, it was high time he cleared up a few things. “First off, you can stop calling me that. I’m sure you figured out from Clemet’s exchange that my name isn’t Carpenter.”
“You’re correct. I concluded as much. And I appreciate your honesty. Even if it’s a bit late. I don’t suppose you would like to explain your reasons for the deceit?”
“Not as such, sir, no. My reasons for working under a flag are my own. If that’s going to be a problem you just say so, and we can cut this whole game short right now.” Dodger finally lifted his eyes, steeling himself for possible anger, fury, maybe even an excusal from the job before he had a chance to start.
But Dittmeyer didn’t appear angry, or furious, or like he planned on letting anyone go anytime soon. In fact, the professor smiled with a level of understanding Dodger rarely saw on folks.
“Sergeant Rodger Dodger, I presume?” the professor asked.
“It was Major Dodger,” Dodger corrected the man. “But now, its just Dodger. Which is something else I can’t explain. Least not right away.”
“I see.” The professor proffered his hand. “Well met, Mr. Dodger.”
Dodger clasped the professor’s palm and gave a firm shake. “Then I still have the job?”
The professor surprised him by yanking Dodger down, until they were just about face to face. There, Dittmeyer whispered fiercely, “You will find that everyone has their share of secrets, Mr. Dodger. Some we share today and some tomorrow. But there may be quite a few things about our little family you will never learn the whole truth of. Ever. There are mysteries about my crew I would die to keep secret rather than expose to just any stranger who crosses our path. Can you say you are willing to do the same? For your secrets, as well as our own?”
It wasn’t so much as the words the man spoke that moved Dodger as it was the sincerity in his voice. Dittmeyer loved his crew, like a family, that much was obvious. But a stranger family Dodger had never seen. It was a family created by incidents and accidents. A family united by circumstance rather then just blood. A family in which Dodger felt welcome, despite his unusual history—or maybe even for it. And a family where he supposed he could finally belong.
Dodger strengthened his grip on the professor’s hand, keeping a lock on the older man’s bright eyes as he said, “I plan on taking most of my ghosts to the grave. What does it matter if I add a few more skeletons to that coffin, boss man?”
Dittmeyer grinned extra wide at that. “In that case, yes, you have the job.”
“‘Bout time, too,” Ched added. “Welcome aboard, Sharge.”
Dodger nodded his thanks to the driver, who tipped his fingers to his hat in return.
After another firm shake, the professor released Dodger. “Boss man. Yes. Yes, I quite like that. Well then, shall we go and fetch my troublesome niece?”
“Aye, boss man,” Dodger said.
The professor proceeded to give orders to his staff, most of which were obvious enough. As Dodger scrambled to get his gear aboard and help Ched prime the train to move out, he wondered who had more secrets to share, as well as die for.
Or an entire train full of crew?