In which Dodger wishes he had paid more attention
Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer was a man of many talents. Some good, some bad, and some downright evil. If you listened to things from his perspective, his ill deeds were never his fault. They were just a laundry list of misunderstanding and misinterpretations and misapprehensions and the likes. Dodger supposed with all of these misses, the doc could run his own beauty pageant.
The first annual Miss-ery competition.
He repressed this thought, and the urge to giggle that came with it, as he tried to focus on whatever in the world the professor was explaining at the moment.
“Is that understood?” Professor Dittmeyer asked.
Dodger winced. Was what understood? He must’ve missed something important, which meant he would have to ask the man to repeat himself. “Maybe not clear enough. Could you go over it one more time?”
“Are you unwell?”
Looking to the ceiling of the man’s lab, Dodger said, through gritted teeth, “I’m fine.”
“You don’t seem fine. You seem … oh … what’s the word?”
Dodger reckoned if the professor were to accuse him of being tetchy, that would just about be too much.
The doc snapped his fingers and pointed to Dodger. “Distracted! That’s it.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Dodger said. “I didn’t mean to fade out on ya. I just, well, I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“No!” Dodger shouted. He drew a deep breath to calm himself. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Perhaps it’s because you’ve been screaming in your sleep every night for the last week?”
Oh, this was new. As well as humiliating. No wonder everyone thought he was having nightmares if he was announcing the fact that he was indeed having nightmares night after night after night.
“You’re kidding,” Dodger said.
“Why would I kid about something so serious?” the doc asked.
“I just wondered if you couldn’t be wrong. Maybe? Possibly?”
“Wrong?” The professor puffed his bearded cheeks out and flapped his lips in a slow exhale as he thought about the possibility that he was incorrect. “I suppose so. It might not have been you. But then again, it wouldn’t account for the screams coming from your sleeper car.”
Dodger slumped into the chair beside the doc’s workbench.
“Are you certain you’re well?” the professor asked. “Because it’s my professional opinion that you are not. You’re quite the opposite, in fact.”
“I’m fine,” Dodger said. “I just … I haven’t …” he paused and looked up into the bright and mischievous eyes of his employer. He would rather not admit to a weakness, but it seemed as though his weakness had spoken for him. In screams loud enough to wake a man three cars away. “Can I speak to you about something? In confidence?”
The professor’s mouth formed a small ‘O’ of surprise. He dropped into his chair and pulled it closer to Dodger’s. “Certainly, young man. You can tell me anything. I’m very good at keeping secrets. Once my old friend, Blevins McGuire, confided in me that he had stolen twenty pounds from the church collection plate, and I never told another living soul.” He furrowed his brow, lost in the confusion of his own words. “Until now, of course. Oh, dear. I hope Blevy doesn’t mind.”
“I don’t think he will. He’s dead anyway.”
“At least I think he’s dead. Last I heard, he got hold of the wrong end of a saber and-”
The professor snapped back to attention. “Yes! Of course. Go ahead. I’ll try to help any way I can.”
Dodger closed his eyes and breathed deep and steady. When he opened them again, the professor was still there, still awaiting his confession. But how much should he confess, and how much should he withhold? “When I was twelve, I went through a bit of a bad patch. Times were rough for my family as it was, but things got much worse when my father passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, well, my mother had to remarry, and I ended up with a new stepdad inside of a year.”
“I don’t blame her. Mom did what she had to do. Problem was, I couldn’t cope with all of the changes. I started, well, sir … that is to say … I started suffering from horrific nightmares, horrible dreams that tormented me. Yet I could never remember exactly what I dreamed. Just that it was terrible enough to wake me every night to the sounds of my own screams.”
“Ah, night terrors.”
“What was that?”
“Night terrors. A common affliction in the young.”
“You see?” Dodger leaned forward to prop his elbows on his knees. “Common in the young. I’m a full-grown man, sir. I can’t start with something so childish again.”
“Childish? No, no, no, no! I may have said they are common in children, but that in no way makes them childish. Night terrors are nothing to sneeze at, Mr. Dodger. They are a very troublesome demon indeed. While they are not as common in adults, they do occur.”
“Do they?” Dodger asked, relieved to hear he wasn’t losing his mind.
“Yes. Indeed. And they can drive even the strongest of men to absolute madness.”
Dodger cringed. So much for not losing his mind.
The professor tapped his chin as he pondered his own lecture. “I once knew a man in Brussels who suffered from night terrors so foul he forwent sleep altogether. Thirty-five days he remained awake. Thirty-five long, dreadful days. It led to his death in the end.”
“I suppose it makes sense that lack of sleep can kill a man.”
“Not necessarily, but falling asleep while working with my automatic wheat thrasher will do the job very neatly.” The doc wrinkled his nose, then added, “Well, not neatly, per se. It was quite the mess, from what I hear. They had to pick bits of him out of the barley and peel parts of him off of the-”
“Sir? What am I going to do? I don’t have time for this right now. I need sleep. Steady, solid sleep.”
“Well, how did you get rid of them when you were twelve?”
Dodger looked long and hard at the man. The answer—the real answer and not some prepared lie—was on the tip of his tongue. And it would’ve been so easy to come clean. It was odd, this feeling of total comfort the professor instilled in Dodger. The urge to just come out and say what he needed to say without fear of reproach or judgment.
How did twelve-year-old Rodger get rid of his nightmares?
Easy. He got rid of the source.
But Dodger didn’t say that. Not yet. Maybe later. Maybe never.
Instead, he shrugged and said, “I guess I grew out of them. I don’t remember.”
“That happens,” the doc said. He leaned back in his seat and scratched at his beard until an idea came upon him. “I’m going to mix up a sleep aid for you.”
“Will you? That would be great!”
“I know a concoction that should put you far enough under that not even the worst visions of Hell could tear you free. One pill, with water, every night for the next seven days. Then we will withhold a day to see if the nightmares have subsided. Sound good?”
“Sort of. You say I’ll sleep straight through the night no matter what?”
“Yes. Isn’t that what you want?”
“What if there’s a problem? What if I need to wake up and handle a situation-”
“Mr. Dodger. I appreciate your worry for the Sleipnir and her crew, but let me reassure you that if any trouble should arise, Ched and Lelanea are more than capable of handling most things.”
“But what if they-”
The professor continued over his protesting, “But if it makes you feel more at ease, I can ready a quick-rise formula that will counteract the sleep aid.” He leaned forward as he added in a low voice, “I’m afraid it will have to be in hypodermic form. Is that acceptable?”
Dodger couldn’t help but grin. “Yes, sir. That will do just fine.”
The doc clapped his hands together with a loud smack, and rubbed them excitedly. “Excellent! I shall get started on it right away. By the time you return from your delivery route, I should have the cure to your sleeplessness well in hand.”
The delivery. What was it again? Fiddlesticks! He wasn’t paying the man a lick of attention the whole lecture. “And what are we delivering again?”
The doc narrowed his eyes at Dodger. “You are out of sorts, aren’t you?”
“No worry. I certainly don’t mind starting again.”
“Of course he won’t mind starting again,” Mr. Torque said from the now-open door.
Damn, Dodger thought. He was indeed out of sorts. He hadn’t even heard the mechanical man approaching, much less the opening of the door. Normally, his ears would perk up at the click and whir of the clockworks hidden deep inside the copper man.
“That’s because he loves the sound of his own voice,” Mr. Torque said.
“Kettle, thou art black!” the professor shouted.
“Me?” Mr. Torque asked. “Well of course I love the sound of my voice. Everyone does. That’s because my vocal patterns have a melodious rhythm that can charm the very birds from the trees and the fishes from the sea and-”
“And the bull from the patty,” Dodger whispered.
The professor’s eyes went wide as he covered his mouth and giggled.
The metal man went on as if no one had spoken. “The simple fact is that everyone enjoys my dulcet tones. What people do not enjoy is the sound of a dozen pneumonia-stricken ducks attempting to mate in a rubber vat filled with wet oatmeal. And in case you didn’t pick up on the innuendo, sir, that was your voice I just described.”
“Why you …” The professor grumbled a bit, but then let the whole argument subside rather than drawing out a useless exchange.
Dodger chuckled to himself, but couldn’t blame the doc for letting it slide. Arguing with the metal man made about as much sense as trying to put a dress on a pig. It didn’t improve anything and only ended up making the pig angry. Not to mention, you got an awful lot of mud on you in the process.
“Is the package ready?” the doc asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Torque said.
“Yes, what?” the doc growled.
The metal man gave a whistle of a sigh. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Is the Rhino prepped?”
“Yes.” Mr. Torque waited a moment before he added the required, “Sir.”
“Then go and relieve Ched of watch at the helm. You are to remain there until he returns. Do you understand?”
Dodger almost did a double-take at the words.
“Watch?” Mr. Torque snapped. “You mean I’m to pull security?”
“Do you understand?” the professor repeated.
“You expect me, with all of my talents and grace and good breeding, to lower myself to the position of watchdog?”
“I asked you a question.”
“And I asked you a question. I know between the two of us I am more likely to have the correct answer, but I’ll humor you and let you give yours first this time.”
“That’s it!” The doc took a swift kick at the mechanical nuisance just as Mr. Torque backed out of the way. “Get back here, you!”
“Help!” the clockwork man shouted as he scurried behind Dodger’s chair. “See the violence? See how he treats me? You’re a witness!”
The doc growled. “Get out of here and go relieve Ched, you metal maniac! Before I disassemble you and sell your parts to a plumber for scrap.”
A sharp hiss escaped Mr. Torque, the metal man’s version of a gasp. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Yes, I would. I know a few folks who would pay handsomely just for the chance to relieve their aching bladders all over your smug face. I’d be the first!”
With that, the metal man hustled from the room. Dodger couldn’t help but laugh at the exchange.
“That hunk of metal is going to cross a line one of these days,” the doc said. He smoothed down his disheveled hair and jacket. “And when he does …”
“And when he does?” Dodger asked.
“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Won’t we?”
Dodger doubted such a bridge existed. “You sent him to pull security for Ched?”
“Because I need Ched to go into town with you for this delivery. And before you put up a fight on it, I have to insist this time. Ched was our contact for the original sale, and while I know you prefer to handle things alone-”
“Hang on,” Dodger said over him. “I want Ched to come along.”
The professor started. “You do?”
“Yes, sir. I might be a tad slow, but I learned my lesson fast on that one. You say he comes along, then Ched comes along. End of story. I reckon if you think I can handle it alone, you’ll send me in alone.”
“What I wondered was, well, why send Mr. Torque to cover the watch?”
The doc nudged a piece of paper toward him. “Isn’t that what your roster requires? Someone at the helm at all times? Someone, as you put it, to keep an open and wary eye for any sign of trouble?”
“You’ve been keeping up with my roster?” This thought brought a genuine smile to Dodger. Finally! Someone showed interest in the thing, and it ended up being the only man not scheduled for a watch.
“Of course. Wasn’t I supposed to?” The professor snatched up the timetable and ran a chubby finger down the graph. “I see you neglected to include me on the schedule, but I assumed that was just an oversight. I’m sure to be on the next one.” He furrowed his brow and pleaded with his eyes as he said, “You won’t forget me next time. Will you?”
Dodger almost laughed aloud. “Sir, I didn’t forget you this time. You’re not on the schedule for a reason.”
“Oh. I was afraid of that.” The professor glanced down and patted his round belly with a sad little sigh. “I know I’m well on in my years, and I’m not exactly in ship shape. I mean I’m round, and that’s a shape. I think it’s a better shape for people to be—round that is, as opposed to shaped like a ship. I don’t know why folks want to be shaped like a ship anyway. Strong at the bow and firm at the stern, I suppose. That sort of thing. But still, I think it’s an odd expression-”
“Sir,” Dodger interjected. “It’s not that. You aren’t on the schedule because you’re my boss man. The man in charge shouldn’t have to pull security duties.”
The professor clasped his hands over his stomach, using it as an armrest as he argued his point. “That’s as may be. I’m also part of the crew. Just because I’m in charge doesn’t mean I can’t pitch in to help every now and again. When I have time, of course.”
“Of course, sir. Of course.”
“Excellent!” The professor stood from his seat and made for the door, a quick move for a man his size, shaped like a ship or otherwise. “Let’s get you on your way, then. I have a sleeping compound to create, and you have a delivery to make. It’s to be a full day all around.”
“Yes, sir. I do believe it will be full.”
Dodger wondered what in the world his day held for him.
For he still had no idea what he was delivering or to whom.