Beauty of a Beast
In which Dodger speaks out of turn
Dodger knew he wouldn’t get much sleep that night. He wanted to blame the lack of proper ingredients for the promised sleep aid, combined with the extra time spent helping out the newest crewmember, for his sleeplessness, but he knew it was more than just that. For the first time since he was a kid, Dodger was afraid to go to sleep. Afraid of the terrible memories that awaited him in the dark recesses of his unconscious mind. It wasn’t that he couldn’t sleep. No, sir. He was as tired as all get out, but he supposed the thought of waking again to the sounds of your own screams had a certain way of keeping you awake.
Instead of trying to sleep, he decided to keep watch on the train. After all, it was the best way to encourage the others to take up their security shifts. Leading by example and all that mess. Dodger started his shift in the engine cab, but twenty minutes of watching a stone-silent Ched stare out into the dark distance almost mesmerized Dodger into sleep. Leaving the engine car in favor of something more stimulating, Dodger went for a walk down the line. It dawned upon him then that, with all the trouble heaped on excitement heaped on trouble, he had yet to get a chance to properly take in the beauty of the Sleipnir.
Well then, now was as good a time as any.
“Boon?” Dodger asked as he slipped into the cargo car and slid the door closed behind him. “I know you’re here; I can feel you watching me.”
“Sorry,” the spirit said from the far end of the car. “I didn’t mean to seem as though I was spying on you.”
“I’m sure you weren’t.” Dodger spotted the ghost lingering around the last of the caged holds. “What are you doing hanging around here anyway?”
“Nothing special. Sometimes I just come here to think. I used to go to my room—I mean your room. But I can’t use that place anymore.”
“No, I reckon you can’t. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. It isn’t your fault I’m dead. It’s my fault. My stupid fault.”
Dodger moved closer to the ghost, making note of the long look on the specter’s face. “Boon? What’s troubling you?”
“Nothing in particular.”
“I thought you couldn’t lie.”
Dodger thought about this for a moment. “Then if it isn’t anything particular, what combination of things is bothering you?”
The ghost sighed. The sound was cold and hollow. A worrisome groan straight from the grave.
Let the ghost sulk. Dodger wasn’t in the mood to take on someone else’s worries anyway. “If you’ve got some time on your hands, would you mind telling me more about the train? I just realized I haven’t had a chance to really admire her.”
“I’ll tell you what I know,” Boon said. “But as I explained, a tour hosted by the doc would serve you better. I was never quite clever enough to grasp all of it.”
“I think you underestimate yourself. You were smart enough to draft the designs for your guns. I would never even have imagined such a thing.”
Boon’s mood brightened at this. “Is that what you really think?”
“Then I’m at your service. Ask away.”
Dodger rapped his knuckles on the coal bin. A hollow metal ring filled the cab’s still air. “For starters, why is it so quiet in here? Or, for that matter, why is it so quiet in the engine cab? I’ve run lines most of my life, and I’ve never been in a cab where you didn’t have to shout at the top of your lungs to be heard over the chuff and grind of her engine.”
“The professor said it played upon the principles of sound dampening. Apparently, the entire body of the train is lined with cotton batting and other sound-muffling agents, and the framework is shot through with a system of what he calls ‘resonation chambers.’ He showed them to me once, and they look remarkably like worm-eaten wood. But it’s my understanding that these chambers gather sounds and divert them, much in the manner of an exhaust system on a steam engine.”
“Lucky for you. It took me almost a year to wrap my head around the idea.”
“I mean I get the gist of it. Not that I understand it all.” Dodger rapped the coal bin again. “What about the fuel?”
“What about it?”
“It doesn’t take a genius to realize we haven’t stopped for coal at all in the two weeks I’ve been aboard. Water, yes, but not fuel. Based on my previous experience with the hungry nature of steam boilers, either there is a larger coal hopper hidden somewhere, or the fuel is as special as the rest of the train.”
Boon stared at Dodger with wide wonder. “You deduced that on your own?”
“No so much a deduction as a glaring fact. Easy enough when you think about it.”
“Easy? In all the years I worked for the doc, I never thought to ask about such things. It never even occurred to me. I left the specifics of the train to Ched and the doc. But you … you seem to know everything.”
“Not everything.” Dodger didn’t like where this was going. The last thing he wanted was to be mistaken for a clever man. Ignorance was bliss, and that went double for other folks thinking you were dumb. When folks thought you were dumb, they left you alone. “If I knew everything, I wouldn’t have to ask. I’m just curious; that’s all.”
“Right. Just curious.” Boon looked doubtful. “I’m afraid you’ll have to talk to the professor about the fuel. I don’t know anything about it. Sorry.”
“No worries.” Dodger moved into the next car with the spirit on his heels. He glanced around the dim meeting car, searching for something to take the ghost’s mind off the subject of Dodger’s unusual intellect.
“Mr. Dodger?” Lelanea asked from the far end of the cab.
At the sound of her words, the ghost dissipated from the room. This wasn’t unusual. Whenever the lovely Lelanea arrived, Boon did his best to flee the scene. This time, Dodger was glad Boon had vanished, because as soon as he laid eyes on the woman, he couldn’t help but let out a little whimper of desire.
Lelanea was a vision of beauty in white.
Normally she dressed in the manner of a male, all breeches and boots, but the woman making her way down the cab toward Dodger wore a lacy white dressing gown. On any other woman in the world, the gown would’ve seemed a plain, simple affair—a full-length, high-collar, to-the-wrist asexual gown of a nondescript nature. But on Lelanea, the gown was as suggestive as a sheer negligee. On her, it was sexier than the naughtiest nightie any single female at the Desert Rose sported. Something about the way she carried it off left her even more desirable than if she had been naked. It showed nothing, yet promised everything.
Just like the woman who wore it.
“Miss Lelanea,” Dodger said as he met her mid-cab. He swallowed to keep the drool from running free. “What keeps you up so late?”
“Once again, I find myself searching for you,” she said.
Dodger couldn’t help but smirk.
“And you can wipe that smile off your face,” she added, though Dodger took note that she, too, was trying hard not to grin. “I only wanted to give you this.” Lelanea held out a small bottle. She waggled it at him until he accepted it.
Dodger took it from her, turning the brown glass vial about in his hands. The top was held closed by a rubber stopper with a bulb at the end. “What is it?”
“Your sleep aid. Uncle mentioned that we were going to Hollis because he had a sudden pressing need for melatonin. It wasn’t until I was almost in bed when I remembered I had some of my own. It didn’t take long for me to finish what he started. I’m sorry I didn’t remember it until just now.”
“You made this for me?”
“Of course.” She reached up to brush a stray hair from his eyes. “I hate to think you’re suffering unnecessarily.”
“Then it’s all right as long as my suffering is of necessity?”
Lelanea flashed him an angry frown. “You know what I mean.”
“I do.” Dodger popped the rubber cork from the bottle, pulling out a dropper. Ah, now the bulb made much more sense. “Liquid?”
“I know Uncle told you the dosage would be a pill, but I thought sublingual drops would work faster.”
“I appreciate expediency. How do I …?”
“Here, let me.” Lelanea took the bottle from him and drew a dropperful of the viscous liquid inside. “Open your mouth and lift your tongue.”
Dodger did as asked, and Lelanea moved in close to administer a few drops under his tongue. Using the cover of her ministrations, Dodger snuck a peek down her loosened collar and shuddered at the bloom of red lace that lay bunched at the swell of her bosom. He didn’t need the sleep aid anymore. He reckoned the idea of her wearing nothing but those red undies was enough to send him to some very pleasant dreams. Once his mouth was closed, and the dosage was done, he couldn’t help but groan in appreciation of both medicine and nurse.
“What was that for?” she asked as she backed away from him.
“Nothing,” he lied. “I think this lack of sleep has made me giddy.”
“Then go to bed. Now. Before you say something stupid.”
“Yes, ma’am. Care to join me?”
“Like that.” She poked him in the chest with the bottle at each word as she commanded, “Go. To. Bed. Now. Alone.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Dodger clutched the bottle in his fist as he stepped past her. Before he reached the door, he turned to look at her again, a sudden idea taking him. “Miss Lelanea?”
“Thanks for what you did today. With Duncan.”
“You’re welcome, but I didn’t really do anything. I just gave him a shoulder to cry on.”
“You offered him more than just a shoulder. Anyone with eyes could see you shared his grief.”
Lelanea dropped her gaze to the floor and chewed her lip.
“That must’ve been very difficult to do,” Dodger said. “I just wanted to thank you for it.”
“You’re welcome,” she said.
Dodger stared at her for a few moments in silence. She was a fine woman, a sexy brunette with a body that could make a dead man stand to attention and an intellect that drove him even madder with desire for her. (He’d always had a thing for smart women. Perhaps, like so many men, he really just wanted to marry his mother.)
Lelanea Dittmeyer was the kind of lady Dodger had sought his whole life.
But she was also a woman wrapped in a wreath of mourning. A young lady so steeped in sorrow it all but dripped off of her in great swells of sadness. Even if he could work up the courage to pursue her, she could never be his, because she belonged to someone else. She was a weeping widow—with or without a wedding.
“You loved him,” Dodger said. “Didn’t you?”
“Excuse me?” Lelanea asked.
Dodger knew he would regret it in the morning, but he couldn’t help it. His mouth seemed to take on a will of its own. “I guess it might be the lack of sleep that’s loosened my tongue. You know I never would ask you such a thing otherwise. But … well … now that the subject has been broached, we might as well go all the way. No need to half-ass it. We’re adults, so let’s talk like adults. Did you love him? Washington Boon, I mean.”
“I told you he was just a good-”
“He wasn’t just a good friend. He was more than that to you. Wasn’t he?”
She pursed her lips into thin white lines of frustration. Dodger winced, bracing himself for the oncoming tirade of insults and obscenities. But instead of launching a verbal assault, she sighed and sat on one of the meeting car’s many couches. There, she pulled her knees to her, withdrawing inside her long gown like a little girl trying to hide from the world.
Dodger thought he heard the sounds of weeping, or at the very least, the choked strains of someone fighting tears.
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