From the front door of the bank, there emerged a paunchy middle-aged man in a well-made suit. All nerves and sweat, he pushed his way through the onlookers as he wrung his pudgy hands and chewed his lower lip.
“Sheriff Stanley,” the man said as he approached. “I was wondering where in the world you got off to. I thought I asked you not to leave the bank until this matter was settled.”
“Mr. Biddlesworth,” the sheriff said. “May I introduce Mr. Ched and Mr. Dodger? Gentleman, this is the owner of our little town’s bank. Mr. J.K. Biddlesworth. I’m sure you remember him from the last time you were here, Mr. Ched.”
Ched and Dodger touched the brims of their respective hats in greeting, but the banker grew ever more irritated with all the hellos.
“People?” the man snapped. “I don’t have time to meet people! I have problems! Real, pressing problems!”
The sheriff snatched the banker by the arm, pulling Biddlesworth close to him and leaning low to whisper into the heavier man’s ear. At each passing whisper, Biddlesworth’s eyes grew rounder and wider with surprise.
“Oh my!” the man shouted. “I remember you now. You’re from that marvelous professor and his marvelous train. Well then, that’s different. Please excuse my earlier manner. It’s been a trying day. Not that anything is wrong. No. Quite the contrary, now that you’ve arrived.”
“Don’t mention it,” Ched said.
And Dodger knew the driver meant just that.
“Sheriff,” Biddlesworth said. “If you would, please help them unload these precious life-saving lamps. I would like to speak with the professor. If that’s possible. Please.” As the banker continued to speak, he looked around Dodger and Ched, as if Dittmeyer were crouched behind them, hiding on purpose.
“The doc ain’t here,” Ched said.
Biddlesworth wrung his hands once more, a whine returning to his voice. “But I need to talk to him about the subject of payment.”
“We already arranged the shubject of payment.” Ched stepped between the unloaded cargo and the banker, crossing his arms across his bony chest. “You pay ush. End of shubject.”
“Mr. Ched, I appreciate that your employer trusts you to handle the details of his business, but I think for this particular transaction, I will need to speak to the man in charge.”
From his speech, Dodger got the sense that the banker wasn’t willing to pay the agreed-upon price.
No. That wasn’t it.
It wasn’t a lack of desire.
It was a lack of ability.
Dodger eyed the bank in the distance, the crowd outside, and considered the man’s words when he first joined them. “You can’t pay us, can you?”
The sheriff shot Dodger a curious glance. “How do you-”
“Who are you?” Biddlesworth asked over the sheriff.
“Dodger, sir,” Dodger said. “I’m Professor Dittmeyer’s new chief of security.”
“New? What happened to the old one?”
“He kicked the bucket,” Ched said.
“He passed away,” Dodger explained.
“Oh my,” the banker said. “Sorry to hear that. Well then, Mr. Dodger, I’m pleased to inform you that yes, we are very capable of paying your employer. We just think this mysterious professor of yours is charging us far too much for his silly little lamps. Far too much. I want to renegotiate the terms of our contract-”
“If the lampsh are sho shilly,” Ched said, “then maybe we should jusht pack ‘em up and leave?”
Biddlesworth gasped. “No! No need for that. We just wanted to make sure we are getting our money’s worth. I mean, how are we to know if they’ll even work?”
“The Dittmeyer name should be guarantee enough,” Ched said.
Dodger made a note to remember that line. And the pride with which Ched said it.
The banker wasn’t as impressed. “Yes, well, I’ve heard things about your professor that make me wonder.”
“Mr. Biddlesworth,” Sheriff Stanley warned.
The banker stopped and flashed an angry stare at the sheriff before returning his attention to Dodger. “As I was saying, I would like to speak with your boss directly-”
“Jesse,” the sheriff said again. “These men deserve an honest explanation.”
“I am giving them an honest-”
“The professor’s men dealt straight with us. We’re going to be straight with them. Now tell them the truth.”
Biddlesworth stared in silence a moment longer at his sheriff. After a long sigh, the banker finally explained, “All right, then. Yes. You’re correct. We can’t pay you what you’re asking.”
“I knew it,” Ched said.
“But not because you don’t want to,” Dodger said, making a final leap of logic. “You’ve been robbed. Recently, if I’m reading this situation right.”
The banker gasped again.
“That’s uncanny,” the sheriff said. “How do you know that?”
Ched smiled, wide and weird, as he nodded to Dodger. “He’sh not ash good looking ash Boon, but he’sh sharper than a butcher’sh besht blade on shlaughtering day.”
“You can say that again,” Sheriff Stanley said.
“It was just a guess,” Dodger said, trying not to turn red with embarrassment. He never could take a compliment, especially when it was in reference to his cunning. “Mr. Biddlesworth said there was a problem at the bank. Something that would require the town’s lawman to remain on watch until the issue was settled. Considering that crowd out front, I just reckoned your reluctance to pay us was associated to the bank somehow. Yes?”
“I don’t have a reluctance to pay you,” Biddlesworth said. “I just want to renegotiate the terms with your superior.” He glanced to the sheriff, who continued to frown at the banker. “What? That part is true. We can’t pay right away, but I was hoping we could work something out. I mean, two hundred apiece is a little bit much, don’t you agree?”
Dodger repressed his urge to gulp at the price. Two hundred dollars apiece? The cost of sunshine ran mighty steep in these hazy parts.
“Two hundred wash what you agreed to,” Ched said. “Two hundred. Four unitsh. That’sh eight hundred total. Take it or leave it.”
“I am sorry, gentlemen,” Sheriff Stanley said. “Our town needs those lamps worse than anything, but … well … the money’s all gone. We have nothing to give you.”
“Then that’sh that,” Ched said. He lifted the corner of one of the boxes, nodding for Dodger to grab the other end. “Come on, Sharge, we got work to get back to.”
Dodger ignored the impatient driver. “What happened here?”
“What happened ish theshe tightwadsh are trying to get shomething for nothing. I’ve sheen it before.”
“Mr. Ched,” the sheriff said. “I know we don’t know each other very well, but I was hoping you knew me better than that.”
Ched lowered his end of the box and said, “Of coursh, you’re right, Sheriff.” He paused for a moment, then added, “I don’t know you very well.” He returned to lifting his side of the cargo. “Chop-chop, Dodger. We ain’t got all day.”
“Please don’t take them back,” the banker begged. “Surely we can work something out?”
“Hang on, Ched,” Dodger said. “Just wait a cotton-pickin’ minute. Sheriff, what happened at the bank?”
“None of your business,” the banker said.
“Shut up, Jesse,” the sheriff said. “They have a right to know what happened, considering a large hunk of that change was theirs to begin with.”
“Fine, then,” Biddlesworth said. “Air our dirty laundry if you must.”
The sheriff shrugged. “You called it right the first time, Dodger. We were robbed. Took it all, too. That vault’s as clean as a whistle.”
“Are you organizing a posse?” Dodger asked as he eyed the restless crowd gathered at the front of the bank. “Do you need help tracking them down?”
“You see, that’s the strange part. It wasn’t that kind of robbery. The money was there at closing, but gone the next morning. It wasn’t so much a robbery as a vanishing.”
“The money is just gone,” the banker said. “Just gone. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
With the men’s explanation, Dodger got that far-off itch. That burning sensation that something was amiss. This was more than a robbery; it was a mystery, and Dodger couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into the middle of it.
“Show me,” Dodger said.
“Excuse me?” Biddlesworth asked.
“Show me what happened.”
“I don’t think that’s a good-”
“Follow me,” the sheriff said over the banker. “I’ll show you.”
“Sheriff Stanley, I insist you reconsider involving this stranger in our affairs.”
“This man might be able to help us. I’m bamboozled as it is, and a pair of fresh eyes can’t hurt.”
“Fresh eyes? More like prying eyes.”
“Anyone man enough to take on Washington Boon’s job is okay by me.”
“How can you say that? He’s practically a stranger.”
While the men devolved into a whispered argument, Ched pulled Dodger aside to ask, “Sharge, what do you think you’re doing?”
Dodger was dying to know what the sheriff and banker were having words about, but it was too difficult to talk with Ched and keep up with the other men’s conversation. Dodger found himself wishing Boon were around. That way he could know what the argument over there was about, because the argument over here was boring.
“What are you trying to pull?” Ched asked.
“I’m trying to get the professor his money,” Dodger explained.
“They jusht shaid they ain’t got it. Or were you not lishtening again?”
“No, they said it vanished. When have you ever known money to just disappear?”
“My ma alwaysh shaid the fashtesht way to make money vanish wash to pour it down my father’sh gullet.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yesh, and I alsho know they shay they don’t got our money. The doc’sh polishy ish shimple. No pay, no play. They can’t meet the contract, we vamoosh. Got it?”
Dodger had to admit, that was certainly a sound policy. “Give me five minutes.”
“Because I think there is more going on here than a simple robbery. Let me have a look-see at their bank, and if I’m not convinced I can help the sheriff solve this crime, then I’ll go right back to the line with you, lamps and all.”
“And if you think you can sholve it?”
“Then we’ll up the asking price of the lamps.” Dodger grinned. “After all, my assistance doesn’t come cheap.”
“You shly dog.” Ched grinned with him, and with the sight of it, Dodger really wished the man hadn’t. “Fine, then. You can have your five minutesh. Go and play detective or whatever. I’ll load the lampsh jusht in cashe.”
Dodger broke away from their huddle with that gnawing itch all but setting his mind on fire. Whoever robbed the bank had done so with such efficiency, such smoothness that the money seemed to vanish. Yet despite this amazing feat, the robbers made a simple and costly mistake.
They hadn’t figured on Rodger Dodger coming to town.