In which Dodger gives a little to get a little.
Considering they were hoping for a cure, Thaddeus and his men took the news of the serum well. They admitted a certain level of disappointment, but were pleased to learn that they would avoid that most dreaded of fates among their pack; turning into a pool of steaming goop without warning.
They took the rest of the news just as well. Very well, in fact. Once Dodger explained the circumstances—that the men should remain hidden on the farm until the professor was ready to help them—they seemed only too grateful for the chance to spend some time in the house.
“It’s been years since I’ve slept under a real roof,” Bottle said. “I’m not sure I remember what it’s like.”
The professor loaned the fellows a few supplies, both sundry and foodstuff in nature, while Lelanea managed to outfit the lads with enough linens and toiletries to last them more than a few days. Dodger armed them with a pistol apiece, including plenty of ammo, then waved a hearty goodbye to the lads as the Sleipnir pulled away from the farm and headed into the heart of the desert.
The trip to Waxford was just a few hours at the Sleipnir’s top speed. But considering they had until nightfall before the place came to life, Ched recommended they conserve both fuel and water by taking the trip at a leisurely pace. This left them a runtime of around ten hours, give or take a few stops to jerk some more water.
Ten hours with little to do but talk. Which was just fine, because Dodger had a few things he needed to ask a certain someone. But before he would claim the prize of a story waiting for him, Dodger had another problem to take care of. Boon’s guns. They were too much for a man of his particular talents. Dodger felt like he was carrying around the equivalent of a pair of cannons instead of plain old pistols. Injured men were hard enough to interrogate, but turn those men into pulpy piles of rent flesh with a single shot of Boon’s gun and, well, it was neigh on impossible to talk to what was left after that.
“And just what do you recommend?” the professor asked.
“I don’t know,” Dodger said. He took off the belt and held the holster out to the professor. “Maybe just dial them back a bit?”
“Dial them back?” The professor drew Hortense from the holster. Or was that Florence?
“Yeah. I appreciate the help it gave your Boon, but in my hands three bullets at once is kind of like skinning a flea with a sling blade.”
“Then why not just carry a different pair?”
The obvious answer was of course Boon himself. Dodger found he enjoyed having the ghost around, whether he was willing to admit it to the spirit or not. But still, the actual power of the guns was a little bit much. “I guess I’ve kind of grown attached to them. I really hate to ask you to change them at all because sometimes, well, I have a feeling I’ll miss that extra firepower. I wished I could have it both ways. Does that make sense?”
The professor nodded and said again, “Dial it back.” He drew the second gun and stared at the pair, bright mischief playing behind his wild eyes. “Yes. I’ll see what I can do.”
Dodger laid the remaining gun and holster on the desk. “Take this too. I can’t wear it.”
“What about it?”
“Well, I just … it’s the buckle. No offense meant. But it’s not mine.”
The professor shot a quick glance the wide metallic buckle bearing the name of the last weapons’ wielder. “None taken. Can’t expect you to go about wearing another man’s name blazoned on your waist, can we? I’ll have it replaced before we reach Waxford. Anything else?”
“I reckon not. Thanks.”
The professor returned his attention to the guns in his hands, turning them back and forth as if seeing them for the first time. “Now, dial it back you say? Very interesting choice of words.”
Dodger left the professor to his work and headed to the engine car, where he found just the man he was looking for. He slipped into the car and slid the door closed behind him. Ched was seated in his place at the helm, while the dim shade of Boon rested in the shadows of one corner.
“You two mind some company?” Dodger asked.
“Shure,” Ched said. “Though thish old gal practically drivesh hershelf. There ain’t much to do up here. Jusht warnin’ ya.”
“Not looking for work. I’m looking for a good yarn.”
“Yarn?” Ched rubbed his chin as he spun around to face Dodger. “I shuppose I do owe you a tale or two.”
“And I owe you.” Dodger once again made himself comfortable on Ched’s trunk.
“Are you finally going to tell him?” Boon asked.
“I planned on it,” Ched said. “Unlessh you wanna tell it.”
“No, go ahead. Just don’t take all day.”
Ched propped his hands behind his head, stretched his legs out full length heaved a loud, exasperated sigh. “Well, you shee, it all shtarted when I wash twelve. I had thish aunt who-”
“Good Lord! Twelve? He’s not asking for your life story, Ched. Just tell him the facts. Stop dragging it out you old drama queen.”
The driver glanced to the roof of the cab. “Do you want me to tell thish or not?”
“Fine. But try not to bore us. Ten hours is a long trip when listening to your prattle.”
Ched relaxed and started again. “Ash I wash shayin’. I came from a pretty shtrict religious houshehold. Mosht kidsh have either one or the other to deal with, but I had both Chrishtian and Jewish rulesh to follow-”
“You’re Jewish?” Dodger asked.
“Yesh. On my mother’sh shide. You got a problem with that?”
“No. You, just, well, you don’t look Jewish.”
“You mean I’m too tall for one of the choshen people?”
“Sure, let’s go with that.”
“I’m not shuprished you think sho. I get that a lot. I admit I’m only half Jewish. My father wash of Irish stock. A tall, lean handshome man. I take after him, in cashe you were wonderin’. My mother, however, wash a little Yiddish woman from the old country. Dad met her on vacashion there, married her there, then brought her out to America to shtart a new life. Did pretty good too. He wash a cobbler, you shee. Made enough money to move a lot of both shidesh of the familiesh to America. The mishtake came when Aunt Penny moved in with ush. Aunt Penny had a particular talent that my mother deshpished. She made wine, you know for Shunday Massh and shtuff.”
“Sounds like a good talent to have,” Dodger said.
“Ash far ash I’m consherned, it wash the besht. But mother hated her for it. Forbade me from even shpeaking to Penny.”
“I didn’t think Jews had any hang-ups about alcohol?”
“They don’t,” added Boon.
“It washn’t the Jew in her that hated boosh,” Ched said. “It wash the wife in her. My dad wash a raging alcoholic. And, ash it turned out, show wash I.”
Dodger made the connection. “You started drinking at twelve.”
Ched shrugged. “And jusht didn’t shtop. I couldn’t help it. It wash show delishush. Aw, sharge, the thingsh that woman could do with a little water and some fruit, it wash pure magic.” The driver ran his withered tongue across his dry lips, smacking them as best he could in their state of stiffness.
“Get on with it,” Boon demanded.
“I’m gettin’ there.” Ched redirected his attention to Dodger and continued. “Ash I wash shayin’, that wash my introduction to the devil of the drink, and my downfall ash well. I’ve fought that particular demon my whole life, and then shome. Losht job after job becaush I couldn’t shtay off the shauce. I’ve worked for jusht about every line out there. And got the pink shlipsh to prove it too.”
Dodger knew well enough what the driver spoke of. Railways would put up with a fair amount of tomfoolery and odd behavior from their crew, as long as the work got done. But the one thing that would get you fired from a line lickety-split was drinking on the job. No matter how much of a functioning alcoholic you were—and Ched certainly appeared to be the most functioning alcoholic Dodger had ever seen—the Railways forbade drinking on the job. Operation several tons of machinery while under the influence was not something an employer appreciated. If nothing else, it was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
“Then the doc came along with hish fabuloush train,” Ched said.
“And hired you when no one else would,” Dodger finished for the driver.
Ched lifted his boney shoulders in a shrug again, the motion as natural to the man as breathing. (Or rather as natural as breathing was for Dodger.) “Shaid he didn’t care if I wash pickled in the shtuff, ash long ash I could keep him on the move.”
“Which is kind of ironic when one thinks about it,” Boon said.
“Because …” Dodger said, then paused, unwilling to finish the crazy idea.
“Becaush …” Ched said, encouraging Dodger. “Go on. You’re shmart enough to put it together.”
“It’s ironic because you are pickled in it now. Aren’t you? The whiskey is the only thing keeping you from … what? Rotting?”
Ched stretched his already strained mouth into a jack lantern grin while he nodded.
Now, Dodger might have been smart enough to put it together, but that didn’t mean he was gullible enough to believe it. “I still don’t understand what happened to you. You claim to be dead, or not dead, or not alive or whatever. But that’s impossible.”
“Careful,” Boon warned. “The professor doesn’t allow the use of that word on his train.”
“Beshidesh,” Ched said. “You do realize you are holdin’ half this dishcusshion with a corpsh, and the other half with a ghosht?”
“Point taken,” Dodger said. He waved his hand at the not-dead man. “Then tell me, how does a twelve year old alcoholic turn into this?”
“Like I shaid before, I wash shtupid. I had jusht shigned on with a shweet job. I had my own engine. My own cab, not one I had to share with other driversh. My own. I had a bossh who didn’t care how much I drank. Hell, he offered to pay me in whishkey if I liked. I had it all. And what did I do? I drank it away.”
“I thought you were allowed to drink all you wanted?”
“I could, and that firsht night I wanted show badly to shelebrate my new leash on life, but I didn’t have anything to shelebrate with. I wash on my way to the kitchen car, to beg Feng for a shpare a drop of cooking sherry, when I passhed through the lab. And what to my wandering eye did appear? A liquor cabinet. Filled to the brim. Top shelf shtuff too.”
Dodger couldn’t help but gasp. He had an idea of where this was going.
“Yesh,” Ched said. “Like the fool I wash, I broke into it and drank it all. Technically, I should’ve died from alcohol poishoning.”
“But didn’t,” Boon said.
“No,” Ched agreed. “In that lot, among the bottlesh of brandy and shcotch, there wash an unmarked jug. I reckoned it wash hooch, like the resht of it. Homemade, from the lack of a label. And homemade hooch, I musht shay, ish the besht hooch of all.” The driver sighed through his gritted teeth, the resulting sound a low whistle of yearning mingled with frustration. “Washn’t jusht hooch I got into. Turned out it to be a jug full of number thirteen.”
Boon explained, “Compound thirteen is so powerful the professor rarely employs it. The results can be unpredictable, though it brought me back from the brink of death many a time. A single drop can do the most amazing of things.”
“And you drank a whole jug of it?” Dodger asked.
Ched nodded. “Yup. A full gallon.”
“Tell me about it. Next thing I know, I wake to the doc shcreaming in my ear. He wash show shrill I though it wash my mother come back from the grave to cussh me out. But no, he wash jusht shore at me for drinking hish compound. Shomthing about the expensh of it. That and he didn’t know what to do with my corpsh. But I had a few thingsh to shay on that matter, which came ash a bit of a shurprish to him.”
“It was a surprise to all of us,” Boon said. “One minute you’re dead to the world, quite literally, and the next you were instructing us how to hold a proper Irish-Jewish wake. It was disconcerting to say the least.”
“It’sh not like you lishtened,” Ched said, then snorted as he crossed his arms again. “Worsht wake ever.”
“It’s not like you were really dead.”
“How wash I shupposed to know I hit on shome magic combinashion?”
“Let me see if I understand this,” Dodger said. “You drank this compound thirteen, as well as a cabinet full of liquor. And the resulting mixture killed you then reanimated your corpse?”
Ched tilted his head as he considered the explanation. “That’sh about the shize of it. The doc callsh me hish unintenshional experiment. Saysh I took a rishk no man wash meant to take. Me? I call it a pain in the ash. I used to like the drink. But now? Now I’d give my right arm just for a shingle bite of shteak.”
“You don’t eat?” Dodger asked, then corrected his question at once. “You can’t eat?”
“Let’s just say its best he doesn’t,” Boon said.
“Eating ishn’t the isshue,” Ched said. “Lack of isshue ish the isshue.”
Dodger stuck his tongue out at that. Just a little. “I think I get your drift.”
“Eating is forbidden for our skeletal friend,” Boon said. “But drinking is a must. The very drink that killed him now keeps him.”
“The whiskey preserves you,” Dodger said, with just a touch of undisguised awe in his voice.
“To a degree,” Ched said. “I have the occashional shlipsh now and again where my brain goesh a little shoft around the edgesh. But for the mosht part I’m all here. And the Shleipnir ish shtill my baby.” He patted the instrument panel beside of him.
“That seems like an unfair trade. She was your baby either way.”
“What can I shay? Shometimesh you’re the windshcreen. Shometimesh you’re the bug. And shometimesh …” Ched paused to scratch his boney chin and give a strained chuckle before he said, “Shometimesh you’re the shtupid idiot who shticksh hish head out the window and opensh hish mouth ash wide ash posshible until all he hash ish a mouthful of bugsh. Which bringsh ush to you, I shuppossh.”
“What about me?”
“How about it? You a bug or windshcreen kind of man?”
“A little of both, I suppose.”
“Ain’t we all? You gonna give ush a little thrill? Tell ush all about the shtimulating life of the amashing Rodger Dodger?”
Dodger knew this was coming, but it still made him uncomfortable. “Sure. Go ahead and ask your questions.”
Ched regarded Dodger for a little while in silence, working up to what was sure to be a doozey of a question. What would it be? Who was the real Rodger Dodger? What did he do to get the scar on his chest? Why was he living under an assumed name?
“You don’t have to do this,” Boon said.
“I want to,” Dodger said. “Ched shared. You shared last night. It’s my turn.”
“I didn’t think you were the sharing kind?”
“Normally I’m not. But I think it’s only fair to give a little if you wanna get.” Dodger didn’t mention that something about being aboard the Sleipnir brought out a need for total disclosure. Maybe it was a yen for a little male bonding, something he never really got a chance to experience in his past life. Maybe it was just the burden of carrying around so much for so many years. Or maybe Ched just had one of those faces you wanted to tell everything too. No … probably the later more than the former. Ched had a face you wanted to make noises at, but those noises were more along the lines of shouting in horror.
As if he sensed a deeper meaning to Dodger’s words, Boon whispered, I understand. I truly do.
“Don’t worry,” Ched said. “I won’t shnoop too deep. I find mosht folksh pershonal bushinessh a bit tedioush. Baggage I ain’t willing to share the weight of, if you get my drift. And I’m shure you’re no exception.”
“Thanks,” Dodger said.
“Not a compliment, but take it ash you will. I reckon I only want to know one thing about you.” Ched put his hands on his knees and leaned forward, very dramatically, to look Dodger right in the eye as he asked, “Where on thish schweet earth did you learn to handle a pishtol like that?”
Now that was a loaded question if there ever was one. Dodger could tell as much or as little as he wanted, Ched would never know the difference. Or would he? Maybe that’s why the driver chose to ask it in such a fashion. Soft brain indeed. Dodger hadn’t seen a sharper mind in years.
“I always had a knack for gunplay,” Dodger said.
Ched crossed his arms, and waited for more.
Dodger decided to give him what he wanted. In a manner of speaking. “Atop that I was trained by the best when I went to work for Uncle Sam’s rails.”
“You drove for the Fedsh?” Ched asked. “I hear that’sh good work. Eashy work. Good pay too.”
“It was, for the most part. I did cargo and livestock hauls mostly. Every once in a while I pulled duty on a passenger train.” When the target was aboard, Dodger’s real inner voice finished for him. “Then the war came on and I was transferred to the frontlines. My skill with a gun was in high demand I suppose.”
“But it’s not just gunplay,” Boon said. “You fight like a well trained warrior. Too well trained. Much more so than a normal soldier. I sensed a level of foreign influence in your moves.”
Dodger was taken aback. “You’re a good judge of fighting styles. Yes, I know a little of this and a little of that. It was all part of the work I did for the government. I was trained in marksmanship and several other forms of combat.”
“What kind of formsh?” Ched asked.
“Enough to know how to hold up my end of a fight. When I’m not blindsided by some abnormally strong bulldog of a man that is. And I can usually take quite the beating before I hit the mat.”
“You’re just one talented man, aren’t you?” Boon asked.
Was that a tinge of jealousy in the ghost’s voice? “I didn’t have a choice. I needed to be the best of everything in my line of work. Being second best will get you killed real fast in the field.”
“And you’re telling me you needed thosh kind of shkillsh to drive?” Ched asked.
Dodger had almost forgotten that part. He laughed a bit before he said, “No. Even when we ran into trouble on the tracks, you didn’t need quite that level of expertise. No, I must admit driving was just a small part of my job. My real job.”
Ched seemed unimpressed. “So, what wash your real job?”
Dodger fell quiet, reverting to his usual brooding silence. How much was he ready to expose to these strangers? And in interest of being completely honest with himself, they were just strangers. Weren’t they? He had barely known them a day and he already told them more than even Betty knew. And he wanted to tell her everything. Was he prepared to tell them everything? Better still, were they prepared to hear it?
Ched looked at him expectedly.
Dodger could feel the spirit all but staring at him as well.
“You know,” Dodger said. “Normally this would be the part where I would say something like ‘I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.’ Yet, in this very unusual situation, I don’t think that threat will matter much. Between a dead man and a not-dead man, who would I kill? And how?”
For few seconds no one said a thing. The ghost was silent, the driver narrowed his eyes at Dodger, and Dodger could do nothing but wait. Then Ched gave a grunt, which wound itself out into a low growling laugh. Boon joined this with his hushed chuckle and Dodger was pleased as the tension of the moment snap, rebound, and relax.
“Maybe he’sh keen for ush to guessh?” Ched asked after a healthy bit of laughing.
“Were you a Marshal?” Boon asked.
“Not exactly,” Dodger said. “But I worked closely with them on occasion.”
“After my time. I was out of the game by the time they formed.”
“Go on then,” Ched said. “Shave your shecretsh. We’ll hear them shoon enough.”
“That a threat or a promise?” Dodger asked.
“It’sh the truth. Theresh shomething about being aboard the Shleipnir that makesh folksh wanna shing like a freakin’ shongbird.”
“Tis true,” Boon said. “I thought my secrets were my own until I spilled them within just a week of being aboard.”
“I never had any shecretsh,” Ched said. “I don’t really care what folksh know about me.”
“You mean it’s hard to have secrets when your life was so boring.”
“Might’ve been boring, but at leasht it washn’t whiney.”
“Whiney! Why I never whined a day I was alive!”
“Naw, you jusht waited till you wash dead. Now itsh a nonshtop blubber fesht.” Ched balled his fists and rubbed at his sallow eyes, mimicking a crying child. “Boohoo. Woe ish me. The thingsh I shoulda shaid. The thingsh I shoulda did. All the losht time. The losht time!”
“You stinking sack of pus. How dare you deride my condition. At least I didn’t die by my own stupidity!”
“We both know that’sh a matter for debate.”
Dodger sat back and listened as the discussion devolved into a cussing match. Sharing secrets was all well and good, but Dodger’s history was a far cry from the ghostly gunman or a drunkard not-dead driver. Rodger Dodger’s past was very different from everyone aboard. And very troublesome. Which was, perhaps, half why he wanted to share them, and half why he wanted to keep them to himself.
DIALING IT DOWN
In which Dodger gets what he asked for.