Down in the Dark
In which Dodger picks locks, secrets and battles.
One fine evening, many years ago, a man by the name of Joseph Bernard Waxford wandered into Fort Keller and collapsed. The man was dehydrated and delirious and, perhaps more importantly, loaded down with two sacks of familiar yellow nuggets. When revived and questioned about his curious cargo, he claimed to have found it all in a mine in the middle of the desert, bursting at the seams with gold. Well, being the adventurous types (which is just another word for greedy) the young men of the fort were, a number of them abandoned their duties at the Fort and took off for the heat of the south, hoping to find an untold wealth of treasure in the sand.
They did indeed find the beginnings of a mine—a small hole in the ground blasted away by unknown hands which led into a wide underground cavern—and set to work seeking the very same gold the mad man claimed was there for the taking. The small town of Waxford, named in Joseph’s honor, sprang up to care for those men who spent countless hours digging away in the belly of the earth. And countless hours upon countless hours were spent. Hours used up. Hours wasted. For when it came down to it, nary a single pebble of gold was ever unearthed from the cold, uncaring rock.
In a year the town folded, the folks faded and Waxford was no more.
“And that’s when Becky and her girls moved in,” Boon said, finished his narrative as the pair of men approached the mouth of the now abandoned mine.
“They swooped in and set up shop, as it were,” Dodger said.
“Yes. The story of Waxford’s folly was enough to deter thru traffic. That and the fact that it’s located between miles of sand and the rump end of nowhere.”
Dodger crouched over the heavy boards bound with iron chains covering the entrance to the mineshaft beneath. He pulled at one of six aged padlocks that held the whole works in place. “Bitch. She never said anything about a key. I guess we’re supposed to let ourselves in.”
“Blast them open?”
“No. I don’t want to announce our arrival to those below.” Rather then return to the Rose and risk an unnecessary encounter with the vampires, Dodger turned his mind and his penknife to the task of picking the locks.
“A lock pick are we?”
“Among other things. Like the bearer of silver bullets, apparently.” From the corner of his eye, Dodger saw the ghost wince.
“I’m sorry. I should have said earlier, but it completely slipped my mind.”
“That’s all right.” A soft click sounded his first success. Dodger turned to the next lock in line. “Tell me more about ‘em. Why silver?”
“Silver, for some reason or another, seems the best way to deal with the majority of the unusual trouble the doc attracts. You know the kind I mean? Yes. I discovered early on in my work for him that it’s best to go ahead and carry silver bullets at all times. Saves the trouble of loading it when you need it most. Because most of the time, you’re gonna need it.”
“That’s all kinds of handy, I suppose.” Another click. Another lock. “How long have you been with the doc?”
“A few years. Seems longer.”
“And you’ve been dead just a few weeks?”
“Yes. I died quite unexpectedly. There wasn’t time to train a replacement.”
Dodger gave a snort at the spirit’s words. “It’s been my experience that unless you are diagnosed with a proper disease, no one dies expectedly.”
“That as it may be, in my case it was doubly surprising. I went into town for some supplies. Alone. I normally took Ched with me on those little excursions, but I just needed some time to myself. It was stupid of me, I now know. The Rhino always draws attention, especially from thieves and thugs. They see the fancy carriage and assume you’re carrying great wads of cash. It’s best to travel in pairs.”
Dodger made a note of that as he swallowed hard and thought about the lumpy envelope he had left in his jacket pocket.
The spirit pressed on with his tale. “I also left the guns with Ched. I hated carrying them into town. They tended to make folks a touch nervous. Made them hard to do business with.”
“I can imagine.”
“That was my mistake, though, because I was jumped on my way back to the Rhino. Two thugs took me by surprise. I tried my best to fight them off, and when it was apparent they had the upper hand I acquiesced and offered them everything I had, but … they weren’t just after my money, Dodger. They weren’t satisfied with my goods. They wanted my life. I don’t know why. Just pure tee meanness I suppose, but they weren’t happy until they beat my brains into a bloody soup.”
Dodger stopped to look up to the long, sorrow filled face of the ghost. “You watched it all, didn’t you?”
The ghost nodded. “One moment I was under their hateful blows, the next I was standing over them, watching the whole thing.”
“It wasn’t just that. I never got a chance to say goodbye, you know? It was like I went away for supplies and just never came back. I feel like I abandoned them.”
Dodger didn’t know what to say to that. He returned his focus to the locks, and asked, “What was with the whispering in front of the vampire? Ched can hear your whispers, why not her?”
Thankfully the spirit got over himself. “It was a risk, I admit, but I sensed she couldn’t hear me. Perhaps it is something in how the vampire mind works.”
“Well, all I can say is I feel like an ass not knowing what’s going on half the time. Damn, this one is tricky.” Of course, it had been a number of years since Dodger picked a lock, and even then it was with professional tools. He jiggered it and wiggled it, probing the tumblers deep with his knife until the lock gave up the fight. “Tell me, did you ever learn what became of old man Waxford?”
“A decade or so later he finally confessed that the gold belonged to a rival miner in Black Hills territory, up north. Seems he killed the poor fool, hid his body in the mines and made a run for it. When he spotted the Fort, he rounded and approached from the south so folks wouldn’t suspect his little lie. He didn’t think so many idiots would go looking for the made up mine, much less name a whole town after him.”
“Don’t tell me,” Dodger said as slipped another free and moved onto the next lock in line. “He spilled his guts to some innkeeper because his conscious bothered him after so many years of spending the poor fool’s money.”
“Sort of. He told the whole story to Becky when they took him in as a client.”
“He became one of the retched lonely, huh? I guess there are some thing money just can’t buy.” Dodger shuddered at the thought of Becky taking on a client. He dropped the fifth lock to the sand and started on the last. “That doesn’t bother you? The idea that they just help themselves to men like that?”
“It really is a give and take relationship. From what I understand, men get as much as they give.”
Dodger paused, mid-pick, to glance up at the specter. “And how much did you give? Or should I ask how much did you get?”
It was a mean spirited question, one designed with a specific effect in mind.
An effect Washing Boon was quick to exhibit.
The specter huffed and puffed and grew all manner of flustered at the idea he had engaged in trade with the brothel behind them. “Well I never intended … that is to say … I think perhaps … well … it isn’t that they aren’t lovely girls …” He hemmed and hawed, declared and denoted, and all the while became more and more incomprehensible in his embarrassment.
Dodger couldn’t help but laugh at the poor ghost. “Don’t worry, Wash. I wouldn’t think less of you if you did, nor more of you if you refrained. I suppose, once you got to know them, a little time with such talented ladies might become a hard thing to resist.”
“You have no idea,” Boon said.
Dodger supposed he had to thank merciful Kwan Yin for that. With a soft click, the last lock opened and Dodger pulled it away. He lifted the hatch and peered down into a long, dark shaft. A foul scent wafted from the hole, curling around Dodger in musky wisps of rot and death. Giving the Sunbox a few cranks, he lowered the light into the mouth of the mine to reveal a worn and quite unreliable looking ladder.
“I guess it’s our only way down,” Dodger said.
“Well, the best of two ways down,” Boon said.
“Shall we proceed?”
“Allow me to go first, just in case they are laying in wait.”
Dodger couldn’t argue with that logic, and so he watched as the spirit descended the ladder, then grabbed up the Sunbox and followed, pulling the hatch closed behind him.
The ladder ended after nine or so feet—Dodger guessed this from the relation to his own height—with the shaft bottoming out into a round cavern perhaps a dozen or so feet in diameter. Paths branched off from either side, two nondescript tunnels that lead off into utter blackness. Dodger was just able to stand erect. Boon, on the other hand, had to stoop or else the top of his ghostly head disappeared into the rocky roof with a soft crackle of static discharge.
“This is most annoying,” Boon said.
Dodger hissed and held a finger to his lips. Not yet, partner. Let’s secure the area first.
Good idea, Boon whispered in his mind.
Dodger didn’t know if Boon heard his very thoughts, or if his plan was just that apparent. He drew Florence and set her hammer as he kept the Sunbox held high, watching the flickering shadows for any sign of attack. None came. Yet.
Where to first?
Dodger motioned to the left passage. Eldest hand always goes first.
You stay here. I’ll see what I can see. Boon disappeared into the darkened shaft.
Dodger stood in the small halo of light the Sunbox provided, breathing shallow and listening for any little movement, any little sound. He heard nothing. Saw nothing. Felt nothing. The ghost stayed gone for what seemed a very long time. One hundred heartbeats, maybe longer. Dodger was just about to trace Boon’s exit, when the specter exited from the opposite shaft across the grotto. Where only minutes before his presence was strong, his appearance almost solid, the ghost now flickered and waned. His voice reached out to Dodger as if coming from miles away, his usual whisper nothing more than a weak sigh.
The shafts converge into another small cavern a ways from here. I was unable to see in the darkness—I don’t understand any more than you do so do not ask—but I was able to touch the beasts’ minds with some effort. I counted ten of them scattered all along the way. The strongest minded one, the Jackal I assume, is at the back. They appear to be asleep, but I don’t know how long that will last once you start firing.
“We should make our stand here,” Dodger whispered as quietly as he could. “I hate to ask this but can you draw them to me? I can protect this spot better than running up and down some dark tunnel.”
I understand, and yes, I think I can bring them to you. I shall give you a count of fifteen and flush them out.
Boon slipped into the left hand passage again, and Dodger began his countdown.
Using the crank as a hook, Dodger affixed the Sunbox to a step of the ladder behind him.
He drew both weapons and set the dials to one. No need to waste ammo when one silver bullet was enough.
Dodger set the hammers on both weapons, raised his arms and aimed them toward the dark tunnels.