Rise and Shine
The professor explained the item in question could be found, and purchased, in a small town a few hundred miles due west, in the heart of the wastelands. The Sleipnir—being much quicker than a mount or anything else for that matter—would take them as near said town as was safe, after which Ched and Dodger would depart and seek the appropriate component. After paying what was sure to be a hefty fee, the pair would bring the rare chemical back to the train where the professor would mix the final solution and viola! The men would (hopefully) keep from turning into puddles of soup.
“No,” Dodger said, stopping the professor’s speech. “Not with Ched. Not with anyone. I work alone or I don’t work at all.”
“Sir, I don’t need help to go shopping.”
“I understand your hesitancy for taking on a partner, but I assure you Ched will prove invaluable here.”
“I don’t need invaluable. I need focus. And I can’t focus when I have to worry about a straggler.”
“Shtraggler?” Ched asked. “Geesh, Sharge. That’sh kind of harsh. Ain’t it? We ain’t even on the road and I’m already shtraggling?”
Dodger wasn’t sure how long Ched had been standing there, or how much he had heard. The man’s scent should have given him away, but somehow Dodger had missed the miasma of pungent aromas. But now the driver was moving into the room, in that lazy slopping step he always seemed to employ, Dodger’s eyes watered with the smell. Again it wasn’t the rotten scent of death that got to him. It was the overwhelming musk of whiskey.
“The men are all awake now, shir,” Ched said to the Doc.
“Just where did they spend the night?”
“In the meeting car. They collapshed there like a right bunch of panty washtsh.”
“Collapsed?” The professor snorted. “You mean you drank them under the table. Poor fellows. Trying to out drink you is rather like trying to out drink the kitchen sink.”
The driver grinned rather than answer that, and the cloying smell of liquor made all sorts of drunken sense.
The professor rubbed his hands together. “Well then, plot a course for Waxford. We’ll leave as soon as everyone has had their meals.”
“Waxford?” the driver asked, unable to hide the excitement in his voice. He slipped his cap from his head and held it reverently to his chest as his sunken eyes took on a distant look of longing. “Boy howdy, it shure will be good to shee Looshy again. Well, shome partsh of her more than othersh.”
“Lucy? No, no, no, no.” The professor waggled his finger at Ched. “You listen to me, you putrid sack of uselessness. I’m not sending you there to cavort. I need you to purchase …” The professor paused as he shifted his glance to Dodger, then finished with, “You know what I need. And I need a few ounces of it right away. You won’t have time to see any part of Lucy.”
“Don’t you shir me!”
“It doesn’t matter either way,” Dodger said over the arguing pair. “Because I am going alone.”
Ched turned his hollow gaze on Dodger, that rictus grin so wide it threatened to split his face in twain. “Ish that show?”
“Dodger,” the professor said. “I explained that-”
“And I explained that I work alone or I don’t work at all,” Dodger said.
“By all meansh then,” Ched said. “Go it alone.”
“Ched!” the professor said with a gasp.
“No, no, shir. If sharge here thinksh he can handle Waxford by hishelf, then that’sh shomethin’ I wouldn’t mind sheeing.”
“Still … you could lend him a hand.”
“Don’t think he wantsh it.”
“It’s not that I don’t want it,” Dodger said. “I don’t need it. What is so special about this little town that has you all fired up anyways?”
“Nothing special,” the professor said, a little too quickly for Dodger’s tastes. “They just … they aren’t a very friendly lot. They don’t like strangers.”
“You speak as though you know them. That makes you acquaintances. Not strangers.”
“Then why not go after the thing yourself?”
The professor flicked his gaze to Ched a moment, then said, “Relationships aside, I’m not welcome there. They want my money, but they don’t want me within a hundred meters of their town. Otherwise I would, as you say, go after it myself.”
Now, this might have been the truth, and it surely had an inkling of honesty to it, but Dodger sensed there was something much more sinister at work here. “If you don’t mind me saying so, sir, I’m going to call a hefty and mighty bullshit on that one.”
“Bullshit?” the professor squeaked. The man’s jowls quivered as a rage came over him as quick as rattlesnake’s strike. “I promise you, Mr. Dodger, I never deal in shit, bull or otherwise. I am a man of my word and I always speak with honesty, nay candor should the situation accommodate. What you fail to appreciate is the simple fact that it isn’t unusual for my attendance to be formally rejected. Why do you think I built the Sleipnir to begin with? You think I like spending my golden years constantly on the move because no one wants me within a hundred miles of their very flammable homes?”
“Sir, that’s not what I meant.”
The professor was in full fury, ignoring Dodger’s pleas. “It’s not like I programmed that damnable machine to destroy half of London or attack the Queen. Sure, Duisburg begged for my help when it came to setting up a town wide series of echo relays, but somehow it was my fault when that half crazed swarm of bats swooped in and infected the whole place with rabies.”
“Sir-” Dodger tried to interrupt. But it was no good.
“Did they seriously think I meant to summon a plague of locusts in Lithuania? Really? And it certainly wasn’t my intention to sink the H.M.S. Jarlesburg. How as I supposed to know my acidic compound would eat through eight feet of hardened wood and iron? And for that matter-”
“Shir!” Ched shouted over the professor’s rant.
The professor stopped, mid grumble, and stared hard at his driver.
“I don’t think he wash judging you,” Ched said.
“No,” Dodger said. “I don’t doubt you have the troubles you claim. I only meant I doubt that a good snubbing is the only reason Waxford presents a problem to you. That’s all.”
“Oh,” the professor said. He smoothed down his lapel, and shook his head. “Forgive me for raving. I’m quite exhausted. It’s been a very long night for me and I’m afraid my banishment from ninety countries is a bit of a touchy subject.”
“Ninety?” Dodger was impressed. He had been escorted to his share of borders, and requested never to return. But ninety was a remarkable number no matter how you sliced it.
“Yes. Last I counted. And I am trying very hard not to make your wonderful country ninety one, if you don’t mind. Now, the real question is where to hide our friends until we return.”
“We aren’t taking them with us?” Dodger asked.
The professor took on a horrified look. “Take them with us? No! We can’t. I thought I explained Waxford doesn’t-”
“Waxford doesn’t like strangers,” Dodger said over the Doc. “Yes you said that.”
“It’s not just strangers. It’s outsiders in general.”
“Thosh men get within a hundred milesh of the placshe,” Ched said. “And the folksh of Waxford will know it. They’ll closh up tighter than a walnut resishting a hungry shquirrel.”
“But more importantly they’ll never deal with me again,” the professor added. “I can’t risk that. Understand?”
Yes, Dodger understood now. The town of Waxford must have been a den of thieves. No wonder the professor was so guarded with its location and troublesome population. “Thaddeus and his men can’t come along. I understand.”
“Yes. But what to do with them?”
“They sheem capable enough to find their way,” Ched said.
“True. But I feel terrible just turning them out into the wild.”
“We don’t have to,” Dodger said. “Ched, when the men are done eating gather them at the house. I need to talk to them. I have an idea that I think will work out in everyone’s favor.”
“What idea?” Ched asked.
“Yes, what’s this big idea of yours?” the professor asked. He followed this with a wide yawn as he rubbed his eyes.
“The men can stay here,” Dodger said.
The professor scrunched his nose. “Here? I rather thought the idea was to get them off the train. At least until we are done with Waxford.”
“No. I mean here as in the farm. They can move into the house.”
“Ah.” The professor tapped his desk as he soaked in this information. “And what if the owners return to find their lovely dojo occupied by dog men? You don’t think that might upset anyone?”
“The owner won’t mind,” Dodger said. “You just have to trust me.”
“Trust you,” the professor echoed. “Yes. I suppose quid pro quo and all that.”
The three sat in short but uncomfortable silence; Dodger nodding in reassurance, the professor tapping his desk, and Ched staring at the pair with his arms crossed over his thin chest.
“All right then,” Ched said at length. “I’ll be the one to ashk. Why won’t the ownersh mind? You been shleeping with the deed holder?”
“Chester Hedediah McMullen,” the professor said. “You have all the tact of a donkey with a case of explosive diarrhea. You do know that, don’t you? Can’t you see he is trying to be discrete with his personal information? I got the idea of what he was subtly trying to say without actually coming right out and saying it. The only reason you didn’t is because you were born and raised in a barn. A barn I tell you!”
“It’s all right,” Dodger said between chuckles. “He wants me to say it. Fine, I’ll come out and say it. Arnold Carpenter owns the place. The lads can stay as long as they need to. Arnold won’t mind. Now, Ched, will you please go and get the fellows together so I can explain things to them?”
“I appreciate your generosity,” the professor said. “I’m sure those men will appreciate it even more.”
Instead of gathering the men, Ched stared at Dodger while tapping his lips with a withered finger. Slowly, the implications of the information dawned on the man, understanding passing over his gaunt face like a ripple over a still pond, until at last his eyes shot wide. He snapped his fingers and pointed to Dodger. “Hang on a shecond. Aren’t you shupposed to be Arnold-”
“Ched!” the professor shouted. “For Kwan Yin’s merciful sake, will you please shut up and go do as the man asked?”
“Yesh, shir,” Ched said, and did just that.