The Hole Story
In which Dodger travels the tunnel to the tune of a tale
Throughout his life, Dodger had been at the center of many an incredible event. He had traveled to every corner of the world. Had learned languages considered dead by many. Had touched the sands of every desert. Had loved and left more women than most men lay eyes on in a lifetime. And speaking of lives, he had taken so many, so willingly, in so many different ways, even on occasion enjoying his awful task more than any human should. He had seen things that no man was meant to see. Had done things no man was meant to do. Yes, Dodger had seen and done many a fantastic thing.
Yet as of late, the fantastic had become the ordinary. His past life had nothing on this new one. The things he now saw on a daily basis were but the fevered dreams of his yesteryear. Dog men, vampire ladies, even a dead driver and a deader partner. (That was, if Boon still considered Dodger his partner.)
But this … this was by far the most incredible thing to happen to him.
The instant he turned the dial, the world expanded around him, bit by bit, click by click, until even the shards of crystal scattered across the floor were enormous by comparison. The doc was, of course, correct about the effect being disorienting. Dodger had the sense of being both huge and small at the same time, a feeling that left him a little more than woozy. Duncan appeared to suffer some ill effects as well, for when Dodger signaled to cease turning the dial, the deputy swayed in place with his eyes closed and his cheeks ballooned with a long-held breath. Once they had their bearings, Dodger made a guess that they were just small enough to enter the tunnel. And a guess it was too, because the tunnel itself was now far across the huge room, rather than just a step away.
“Wow,” was all Duncan could manage.
“Yeah,” Dodger said.
And that was all he had to say about that.
It wasn’t that he was unimpressed, because he most certainly was overwhelmed to hell and back, yet a little voice inside him kept his enthusiasm down. A voice that said this was nothing compared to the days ahead. In other words, Dodger felt he hadn’t seen anything. Yet.
“You okay?” Dodger asked.
“Sure,” Duncan said. “Feels a bit like a hangover without the pleasure of the drunk.”
“We need to follow those tracks,” Dodger said, heading toward the tunnel. “If I’m right, this William fellow used a trolley to move the money out of here.”
Duncan fell into step beside Dodger. “Then you really think it was him?”
“Either he acted alone, or he let someone in that tunnel to help him along.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because if you didn’t see anyone come or go, that leaves us just the one option. Either he evaporated into thin air, or he escaped through this hole.”
“I appreciate your trust.”
“That I spoke the truth.”
“Ah, that. Well, it ain’t so much trust as it is simple observation. As much as it pains me to admit it, Biddlesworth is partly right. You are a drunk.”
That stopped Duncan in his tracks. “I told you I wasn’t drinking last-”
Dodger turned on his heel as he said over Duncan, “It’s a simple fact that you, Deputy Tyler Duncan, are a drunk. And you aren’t just a casual drinker. Not a sherry after supper or a port with the boys over a few cheap cigars. Not one of those Saturday revelers that slinks into church Sunday morning promising the Lord never again.” Dodger raised his hands to the sky. “Never again, hosanna, never again! No. You’re not even that annoying uncle that everyone knows has a nip every now and again, though no one says anything because, hey, isn’t he so much easier to deal with when he’s been at the bottle? No. That’s not you. Is it?”
Duncan stared hard at Dodger, his silence acknowledging the awful truth.
Dodger pressed on. “That’s because you’re a world-class drunk. A well-practiced drunk. A constant drunk. A pickled-up-to-your-eyeballs kind of drunk. A cut-open-a-vein-and-out-pours-pure-rotgut-instead-of-blood sort of drunk.”
“Stop it,” Duncan said in barely more than a whisper.
“You’re one of the great born-again drunks, all somber and quiet when sober but full of fire and brimstone when you’re up to your nose hairs in booze. Forget the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, the spirits you preach are firewater, scotch, and the holy hooch. Your only friend is at the bottom of the bottle, but every time you turn one up to look for him, you find he’s managed to slip away into the next full jug. And it’s a good thing too, because you were just getting thirsty. Again.”
“Please,” Duncan said. “Stop it.”
“Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying all of this because I dislike you. I know all of this because I’ve seen your kind before. And I can see that you aren’t just a full-on drunk, Duncan, you’re also a recovering alcoholic. Above all else, that is a very difficult thing to be. You bear the signs and symptoms of a man who is trying hard to lay off the liquor. The red-rimmed eyes. The dry mouth. The sleepless nights. That slight tremor in your hands.”
The deputy slipped his hands behind his back, almost unconsciously.
“I know an alcoholic when I see one, Duncan, and I’m looking at one right now. Because I know you’re an alcoholic, I am able to draw a simple conclusion that Mr. Biddlesworth seems to have overlooked. If you had been drinking last night, then you would have been very, very, very drunk. And this morning, you would be sleeping off said drunk instead of worrying about the town’s missing funds. Am I right?”
Duncan wouldn’t look at Dodger. “You’re right. About all of it.”
His tone set Dodger squirming with regret. “Again, I don’t mean to embarrass you. In fact, I commend you. I don’t know what drove you to crawl into the bottle, but it takes a hell of a man to try to crawl back out again. Good on you.”
“You’ve been in the bottle before?”
“No, but I’ve seen enough men face what you’re facing.”
“Then why trust the word of a drunk?”
“I trust your word about what happened last night because I can see the truth of it. The question is, will you trust me?”
This finally brought Duncan to face Dodger. He smiled, softly. “I do trust you.”
“Good, then. Let’s get your town’s money back.”
With the air between the men cleared a bit, Dodger returned his attention to the tunnel. He cranked up the Sunbox and held the box aloft. The tunnel was just wide enough to accommodate both men at once. The tracks were laid out very much like a mining-cart system, stretching off into the gloom of the tunnel’s belly. Off to one side of the tunnel was a small hill of the discarded shelves. All about this pile there lay a few bits of paper so small they were all but invisible to the regular-sized Dodger. Heck, even the smaller Dodger almost missed them. He bent double and grabbed up the few bills scattered about.
“Looks like you were right after all,” Duncan said.
“That it does,” Dodger said. “And from these just lying around here, I would venture that our friend was in a bit of a rush. Either that or just plain careless. Let’s hope it’s both, shall we?”
“How far down do you reckon it goes?”
Dodger held the Sunbox higher, but it did little to answer the question. “I have no idea. That shrink machine was set to twenty-four hours, so the man wasn’t expecting to travel very far.”
“And he was also pushing a heavy cart full of money. How far can you get in a day pushing a cart like that?”
“Keep in mind his cart is most likely powered by something other than just elbow grease.”
“Like your boss man’s contraptions?”
“Sure. If the man has connections to someone who can make a shrink gun, then he’ll be able to come up with some kind of powered cart. But even so, it still can’t be more than a few miles, at most.”
“Miles?” Duncan swallowed hard as he stared into the darkness.
Dodger wondered if, perhaps, the deputy had a touch of claustrophobia. “You having second thoughts?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Not uncomfortable with small spaces, are we?”
“Naw. Hating tight spaces is Jesse’s problem. Mine’s the walking for miles. As you can see, I’m not a young man anymore.”
“That makes two of us. But standing around here jibber-jabbing about it ain’t getting us there.”
Duncan held out his hand. “After you.”
The pair of them moved along, shoulder to shoulder, down the long, narrow path. The path went downward for a few hundred feet, then leveled off into an even keel. They walked in silence for almost half an hour, the time measurable by the need to wind the Sunbox. The farther along they walked, the more Dodger wondered how long the belts would last. Was their power indefinite? Or was there some sort of way to wind them up as well? There was no way to tell if they were even on, aside from the fact that the men had indeed shrunk. They emitted no noise and no light, and regardless of the professor’s insistence that the infinitium rays used the epidermis to project itself, Dodger couldn’t feel it doing a damned thing.
Dodger set a brisk pace as he became lost in thoughts and theories. Duncan’s heavy breaths signaled that his concentration lay in keeping up with the younger man. This thought of age got Dodger to wondering again, why was the deputy so much older than his sheriff? Normally it was the other way around, or at least there was a closer relationship of years. Yet, in this instance, Duncan had to be at least triple the age of Stanley. Dodger was curious, to be sure. Curious as well as regretful, for there was no way to ask without offending the man.
“My wife,” Duncan said, unprompted, from where he’d stopped somewhere in the darkness behind Dodger.
Dodger stopped, turned about and held up the lantern to illuminate Duncan’s distressed face. “Excuse me?”
“You wondered what drove me into the bottle.” The deputy took a long and labored breath. “My wife. Of forty years.”
“Ah.” Dodger supposed the man was hiding his need for a rest with meaningless conversation. “When did she leave you?”
“A little over a year ago.”
“Not exactly.” The deputy gulped hard as he leaned against one wall, letting it support his weight. “She passed away.”
Dodger wasn’t expecting that. “I’m very sorry.”
“Not as sorry as I am.” Duncan’s voice took on a hard edge. “I was supposed to protect her. I was too caught up in my job. Sunnyvale was supposed to be our retirement. Easy living in a small town. What a joke.”
“You don’t have to tell me all of this,” Dodger said.
“No, I want to. Besides, stay here long enough and someone is bound to tell you all about it.”
“I don’t see why they would.”
“Because I’m the town drunk, for Christ’s sake!” His voice echoed down the length of the tunnel, proclaiming over and over that his lecture was for the Lord’s sake. “I’m the favored topic of gossip around here.”
“You’ll be pleased to know I tend to ignore gossip. But I’m all ears if someone needs to get something off his chest.”
The deputy held his tongue for a bit, and Dodger wondered if he had offended the man. He was just about to apologize when Duncan spoke again.
“A couple of kids rode into town one day, aiming to hold up the bank. Things got out of hand pretty quickly. There was gunfire, and she … Mabel caught a stray bullet. She was dead before she hit the ground. I never got to say goodbye.”
Dodger kept his mouth shut, and let the man speak.
“I hit the bottle pretty hard after that,” Duncan said. “I couldn’t do my job anymore, but the town felt too sorry for me to just outright fire me. They let me stay on as deputy, because they knew I was too damned old to do anything else.”
Which explained just about everything Dodger had wondered only moments before. “That’s a pretty rough tale.”
“Don’t you mean shameful?”
“There ain’t no shame in grief. Shame comes from not feeling anything at all.”
“You think so?”
Dodger nodded. “I don’t want to seem callous, but are you rested up enough? Daylight is burning. I’d rather not come out of this tunnel into the dark of night, if you get my meaning.”
“Yeah.” Duncan straightened and drew another deep breath, ready to plunge farther down the tunnel once more. “Thanks for listening to me. Sorry if I seemed a bit brash by unloading on you like that. I guess you were right. I guess I did need to get it off my chest.”
“No problem.” Dodger took off into the darkness with the deputy tight on his heels.
“And just so you know, that road runs both ways.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“You look like a man who has suffered from a lack of sleep yourself.”
The tunnel stretched on and on, an unremarkable hole in the ground that seemed as endless as it was gloomy. Dodger wound the Sunbox five times, marking almost two hours since their descent into the tunnel. Duncan kept at Dodger for his life story, at which Dodger gave his usual short but sweet answers: born and raised in the South, worked a few years for the government, knew a thing or two about the rails, never been married, never even tried to get hitched and didn’t want to discuss it. This last bit only made the deputy more curious, as it always did with folks. It seemed the less you talked about something, the more folks wanted to hear about it.
The belts did as the professor said they would, so there was no need to worry about them. Instead Dodger focused his concern on where in the world this tunnel would empty out. They had been walking for hours, but at their size, there was no way to judge exactly how far they had come. A thousand feet? A few miles? More?
“I hope we find the end soon,” the deputy said during another short break. “Or else my poor legs are just gonna give out on me.”
“I hope we haven’t bitten off more than we can chew,” Dodger said.
A growl rumbled from the deputy. He held his belly and said, “Don’t talk about biting. I missed breakfast, and at this rate, it looks like we ain’t-”
“We won’t get lunch,” Dodger finished for the man as the realization came over him. He gave a short snort of a laugh. “That son of a bitch. How could he have known?”
“Never mind, it’s not important.”
Which was, in itself, as boldfaced a lie as Dodger had ever told. It was a damned lie, as his father used to say, because the fact that Dodger wasn’t going to eat lunch was important. Very important. And it settled one thing in Dodger’s busy mind.
Once this was done, he and the mysterious Feng were going to have a long talk.