In which Dodger faces those tricky ladies.
The Rhino proved to have an unexpected side effect; it was fun to drive.
Being a slave to the tracks for so many years, Dodger enjoyed the sudden freedom of the Rhino. He loved wheeling her back and forth in wide swoops across the open expanse of sand. Dodger pedaled fast, pushing her harder to higher speeds, not minding the effort it took to really open her up. At one point he thought they might be going as fast as the professor suggested, a heart stopping one hundred miles per hour. It was much like the manner Ched bobtailed the engine car, but on a more personal scale. Dodger reckoned a man could get used to this sort of thing. He knew he could.
Boon—who flickered into existence the moment the sun faded—seemed to enjoy the trip as well, chattering about the times he and Ched enjoyed the speed and convenience of the Rhino. Not to mention the magnetic effect it seemed to have on the opposite sex. Women, Boon explained, loved the Rhino, drawn to its beauty and dangerous nature and wild speeds like a flock of moths to a lightening bolt.
By the time they reached visual distance of Waxford, Dodger was pouring with sweat from pedaling so hard for so long. He slowed to a crawl, letting the Rhino coast for the last few miles while he regained his composure. At Boon’s suggestion, they parked the Rhino a quarter mile from the town proper, though there wasn’t much town to speak of.
“You ready?” Boon asked as he prepared to climb out of the vehicle.
“Yes,” Dodger said. “I’m ready. You, however, are staying here.”
“I thought you wanted me with you?”
“I wanted you to help me find the place. Which we have. Now you can wait here and keep an ethereal eye on the Rhino.”
“The folks of Waxford are familiar with the Rhino. They will leave her alone. And I’m familiar with the folks of Waxford. So if I come along, they will leave you alone.”
Dodger eyed the landscape of sand surrounding them. “You can come with me if you tell me what’s wrong with this town.”
The spirit sat back again and considered the request. “Let me put it like this: If someone had come to you a few days ago and told you that in two nights time you would be speaking to a ghost, in the middle of the desert, in a vehicle you powered yourself to a town you know nothing about to fetch an item of which you have no idea the value or identity … would you have believed them?”
“No. Of course not.”
Boon opened his palms to the sky. There was Dodger’s answer.
“I’m prepared to believe more now than I was two days ago,” Dodger argued.
“I doubt that,” Boon said. “In fact, I dare say you are prepared to believe little of what you can touch and even less of what you can see.”
Dodger had to admit that was a fair assessment of his cynicism. From his experience, seeing didn’t always equate to believing, and just because you had a bird in the hand it didn’t make it any easier to deal with than the two hiding in the bush.
“Besides,” Boon continued, “the less you know about this the better off you are. You should know better than most that knowledge is deadly. Some secrets, my friend, threaten to deform the very soul. Just go in, mention the professor by name and they will gladly take his money and give you what you want.”
“Then at least tell me what I’m after.”
“That’s something you really don’t want to know.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I just am.”
And his sincerity convinced Dodger, so he pushed no more on the matter. “Just ask and ye shall receive? Easy as that?”
“Easy as that.”
“Fine then. You stay here and keep an eye on the moon for all I care. I’ll see you in a few. Or not see you. Or whatever.”
Dodger hoped down from the Rhino and set out for the town on foot.
Waxford was smaller than Blackpoint, with but four buildings composing the whole place; what he assumed was a tiny general store (with wide windows displaying sales of tack and feed) sat beside a barber shop (made obvious by its striped pole) with what looked to be a church on the far end (lack of décor left him unsure of the denomination) and a two story saloon (bearing the name ‘The Desert Rose’) parked proudly in the middle. That was it. Well, that and it was quiet. As in graveyard silent. Dodger was disappointed. He imagined the place a hive alive with illicit activities. But this was dull, dreary and boring. His grandmother could’ve lived in a town like this. She probably did for all he knew.
Dodger considered bringing the Sunbox along, but instead left it in the Rhino in favor of the comfort of dark. He preferred to travel by darkness, even when heading into unfamiliar territory. The dark of night, Dodger decided, was just about the only thing he looked forward to any more. Sunlight was too revealing, showing him things about himself and others he’d rather not see. Cloudy days held either the threat of rain or worse, the oppression of humidity. But a dark night with a clear sky was just right for anything. One could get up to so much mischief in the dark.
Two could get up to even more.
With the thought of mischief on the brain, and a wary eye, Dodger strolled into the center of Waxford. The Desert Rose was the only place lit by torches, which was good since that was his destination anyways. At first the place seemed abandoned, despite the lit torches. Far too quiet for a town that lived by night. Then sounds finally reached him, confirming the residents were indeed night owls. The soft strains of someone at the piano drifted from under the swinging doors of the tavern, accompanied by occasional laughter and scraps of conversation. Make that feminine laughter and conversation. The sign suggested a tavern, but Dodger had a good idea what this place really was. He smiled, to himself, as he stepped onto the wooden staircase that led to what he was fairly sure was a desert bordello.
The moment his foot hit the first step, his dusty boot clapping against the hollow wood with a much louder thump than he expected, all sounds from inside ceased.
Then the torches blinked out.
The torches flared bright for an instant, and next the light was gone, leaving Dodger standing at the foot of the staircase in nothing but the moonlight. There he waited, made blind by the sudden flare and then absence of light, his hands resting on the guns and his heart thumping loudly in his ears. His mind raced to make sense of the timing of the torches. They must’ve heard him mounting the stairs, and weren’t expecting visitors. Yes. He must’ve spooked them. This meant he had lost the element of surprise, if he ever had it at all.
“Hello?” he called out. “I’m sorry if I’ve startled you. I’ve come about-”
“What do you want?” a woman asked.
He hadn’t seen her walk onto the porch, but all at once there she was, a svelte shadow in the silver light, standing a few steps above him. Dodger pulled his jacket over the guns, not wanting to spook her further.
“Tell me what you want,” she said. Her southern accent placed her far from home.
Dodger tipped his hat to this kindred spirit as his own homebred laze of speech kicked in. “Evening ma’am. I hate to interrupt your little get-together, I’m here on an errand of utmost import.”
The shadow regarded him in the darkness before she repeated, “What do you want?”
Dodger always did like a woman who got to the point. “I was sent by Professor Dittmeyer. I’m supposed to ask for Miss Rebecca? She has something he needs and I have payment for whatever it is here.” Dodger patted his shirt pocket and the fat envelope tucked inside.
“You’re here on Hieronymus’s behalf,” she said. The way she drew out the Doc’s name gave Dodger the impression that she wasn’t sure which annoyed her more; the stranger’s presence or his association with the professor.
“Yes ma’am, I am.” Dodger flipped aside the flaps of his jacket, flashing Boon’s guns as a kind of identification. If they were on a first name basis with the Doc, then surely they were familiar with the unusual guns. “I only just started working for him a few-”
“Where did you get those?” The shadow raised a hand and pointed to the gun belt slung low on his waist. At least, he hoped it was just a hand.
“Florence and Hortense here?” Dodger placed his hands on the gun butts to emphasis his relationship to the weapons. The little ladies were his now. At least for the time being. “They came with the job.”
The shadow huffed. “Where is Washington Boon?”
Dodger understood then. Her confusion. His intrusion. The residents of Waxford hadn’t heard the bad turn that had befallen the knightly Boon. “I’m afraid he is no longer with us.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Washington Boon is dead, ma’am.”
The shadow gasped. “You’re lying.”
“No, ma’am. I wished it weren’t true. But I’m afraid-”
“You lie!” the shadow screamed and made a rush for him.
Dodger tried to evade her, and would have too, but in the distraction of discourse someone snuck up behind him. (Lord have mercy! Was he that out of touch with his training?) This new person grabbed him up about his chest, pinning his arms to his sides with his hands still resting on the guns. He struggled against this force, bucking as hard as a wild mustang, but his captor held tight. The shadow raced down the length of the staircase and was on Dodger in seconds. He looked up just in time to see her face very close to his, her eyes glinting with rage, her mouth open wide, and her moist fangs glistening in the moonlight.
Fangs? Well, yes, that they were.
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