A Marked Man
In which Dodger learns more of his newfound abilities
Lelanea tried to give chase, but Ched caught her by the arm.
“Give him shome shpashe,” Ched said. “He needsh a minute to collect himshelf.”
A groaning sounded from the couch. All eyes turned to Feng, who moaned again and rubbed at his eyes.
“Anyone get the number of that bus?” he asked.
He tried to sit up, but Lelanea rushed to his side and pressed him back onto the couch.
“Oh no you don’t,” she said. “You need to rest.”
A growl rolled across the cab, and for a moment, Dodger thought she was the source. That was, until Feng grabbed his belly and winced.
“Actually, I think I need to eat,” the Celestial said. “How many numbers did he hit me with?”
“I counted at least three,” Dodger said.
The cook’s belly growled again. “Feels like ten.” He waved Lelanea away. “Let me upright, girly. I’ll get stoved up if I stay on my back like this.”
Lelanea helped Feng into an upright position, while the man gathered his robe around his almost naked form with a sheepish grin.
“Nothing like waking up in just your undies,” he said. After he realized he couldn’t tie his robe closed with a ruined belt, he asked, “Who cut my sash?”
“Sorry about that,” Dodger said.
“Not at all. They’re a dime a dozen. I just wonder if you always resort to blades when defrocking your prey.” Without giving Dodger a chance to rebut, Feng nodded to Boon and said, “I see you have the ghost thing sorted out.”
“That’sh what I thought,” Ched said.
“There’s a bit of a snag with that,” Lelanea said as she fluffed a pillow and poked it behind Feng. “Uncle can’t see Boon.”
Feng raised an eyebrow. “You can, I assume.”
“Yes, as can those two, and I assume you as well. I’d ask why you all banded together to keep it a secret from me …”
“I asked them-” Boon started.
“Not now,” she said over him as she crossed her arms. “There isn’t time to go into this properly. We will talk about this later.”
“After we get you back to your corporeal form.”
“It wouldn’t be fair to the others for me to be tempted to smack them and not be able to dole the same punishment to you as well.”
Dodger thought he heard the driver chuckle.
“I wonder why Hieronymus can’t see you,” Feng said.
Boon shrugged. “I have no idea. I mean, they can see me. Why not the doc?”
“Of course they can see you. Ched is as good as dead. I’m sure he sees more than just your spirit these days.”
The driver grunted. “Ain’t dat tha truth. I wish I didn’t she shpiritsh. The dead are almosht ash annoying ash the living.”
“And I imagine Miss Lelanea’s reasons don’t need an explanation. Aside from her gifts, she was the closest to you in life. It is only natural she should see you.”
“I thought as much,” Boon said, smiling shyly at the lady.
Lelanea smiled in return.
Dodger wasn’t ready to go down that road again, so he quickly moved the conversation along. “And what about me?”
“What about you?” Feng asked. He winced as his belly rumbled once more. “My stomach is thanking me every time I swallow. Anything to eat on that trolley?”
Lelanea set to checking for something edible as Dodger repeated his question.
“Why can I see Boon?” he asked. “I’m not dead, nor did I know him in life.”
“That one’s easy,” Feng said.
“Here we go,” Lelanea said. She pulled forth a tray of bread and cheese from the bottom shelf of the trolley. “Uncle must’ve been ready for you.”
Feng rubbed his hands together. “Good ol’ Hieronymus. Always prepared.” He held his hands out and motioned for the tray. “Gimme, gimme.”
“What’s so easy about it?” Dodger asked. “Why can I, of all people, see Boon?”
Just as Lelanea was about to hand over the silver tray, Feng said, “Because you’re marked.”
The word must’ve meant something impressive, or terrible, or possibly both, to Miss Leleanea, because no sooner had the Celestial said it than she dropped the tray of food. It slipped right through Feng’s outstretched hands and clattered to the floor, scattering grain and dairy products all over the meeting-cab floor.
“Marked?” Lelanea asked. “He’s marked?”
“Yes,” Feng said. He eyed the fallen fare. “Ten-second rule applies to trains too. Right?”
Lelanea stared at Dodger for a moment, as if seeing him for the very first time, then backed away slowly while a look of utter horror crossed her beautiful face. “He is. I don’t understand how I missed it. I didn’t sense the mark on him before.”
“You didn’t?” Ched asked. “Hell, I shaw it the shecond he shtepped onto the Schleipnir the firsht time.”
“You be quiet!”
“Don’t take it out on the village idiot,” Feng said. He bent double to scoop several pieces of bread and cheese from the floor, blowing on them lightly before stuffing them in his mouth. “You just weren’t expecting it, that’s all. I mean, look at the man. He looks as about as marked as you look a werewolf.”
“Feng!” Lelanea gasped, holding the back of her hand to her mouth in mortified shock.
“What? I’m just stating the obvious. You missed it because you weren’t looking for it.” The Celestial thought about this for a moment, then added, “Well, that and I suppose both of your hormones and pheromones were mucking up the signals a bit.”
Boon cocked his head at that suggestion, while Lelanea turned away in a huff.
Ched didn’t hide his chuckle this time.
“None of this makes a lick of sense,” Dodger said, choosing to ignore the Celestial’s insinuations. “I saw his spirit before I went to the Desert Rose. So whatever happened there to mark me has nothing to do with this.”
Around a mouthful of cheese, Feng said, “That’s because what happened to you at the Rose has nothing to do with you being marked.”
“I thought the vampire blood was-”
“You thought wrong.” Feng gnawed off another hunk of bread and swallowed it with a wince. “Lelanea, be a dear and get me a cup of something wet. Will you?”
Lelanea moved to the trolley to do as asked, giving Dodger a wide berth as she did.
Wasn’t that grand? In just a few hours, she’d gone from enjoying a moonlit stroll with him to avoiding his personal space. Dodger tried to ignore the circumventing as he stared at the Celestial. “Are you going to explain that one to me, or will this just be another great secret everyone is in on but me?”
“It’s very simple,” Feng said. “Being marked is not a product of your time spent in the arms of those lovely ladies. You were marked long before then, my friend.”
“That isn’t helping.” Dodger huffed in frustration. “Let’s start with something simpler. What in the heck does this whole marked thing mean?”
Feng contemplated this question as he chewed on a mouthful of cheese. He gave another dry swallow, then asked, “In all of your reading, have you ever come across the idea of someone being marked for death?”
Shakespeare leaped immediately to Dodger’s mind. The Bard had a habit of killing off a few characters just to move along a plot. Dodger didn’t like where this was going. “I guess so.”
“You, my gifted friend, suffer the opposite affliction.”
Which made about as much sense as anything else the Celestial had said all night. “Then I’m what? Marked for life?”
“In a way. It is better said that you are marked for a purpose. And you will remain on this earth until you fulfill that purpose.”
“Which means what to me, exactly?”
“A whole lot. For starters, there are the obvious side effects. Seeing spirits. Utilizing underspeak.”
“He underspeaks?” Lelanea asked as she passed the Celestial a cup of tea.
“He sure does. And took to it like a champ. Dodger, I’m sure there are a plethora of other abilities you possess that you always thought were random talents. Your unerring aim, for instance.”
“I don’t think that has-” Dodger started.
“You took right to the gun, didn’t you? From the first time you lifted a weapon, you have always hit your mark. Yes?”
Dodger nodded, unable to deny the accusation. Even as an untrained youth, he had no trouble hitting his targets, and that was just firing the family rifle at tin cans or the occasional coon. When it came time to turn that talent on humans, Dodger was well beyond caring where his unusual ability came from.
“It’s more than just a bent toward marksmanship,” Feng said. “A keen eye and a steady hand are both well-documented gifts of the marked. Some say they are abilities granted to help the bearer complete his issued task.”
“I’m nobody special,” Dodger insisted.
“Come now, Dodger. I thought you would’ve learned by now that everyone is special in his own way. I am sure you wonder who or what marked you, but that would be powers higher than we can possibly understand. Call it Fate. Call it Destiny. Call it Ishmael. As to when, I would say you’ve been a marked man your whole life. I dare say you were born with the task on you. Now as to the task itself, that is something you will have to find out on your own.”
Before Dodger could argue further, the far door all but burst open, spilling a very excited professor, sporting a pair of goggles atop his forehead, into the room. The man gasped for breath as if he had run the entire length of the train. He stared at the stunned group for a quiet moment before he slid the pair of goggles over his eyes. The moment the SPECS slipped into place, the doc’s face lit with unbridled joy.
“Washington!” he shouted, then laughed aloud.
“You can see me?” Boon asked.
“I thought I would never see you again,” the professor said, patting his hands together in excitement as he stepped toward the spirit.
“You can see me?” Boon echoed, as if he didn’t believe the proof before his own ethereal eyes.
“Hieronymus!” Lelanea squealed as she hugged the doc to her. “This is marvelous. I’m so pleased for you.”
“As am I,” Boon said. “I thought I’d never get to talk with you again.”
“Wait now,” the doc said. “His mouth is moving. Is he speaking?”
Boon looked to Dodger. “He can’t hear me?”
Dodger caught on to the situation right away. “Yes, sir, he is speaking. The goggles must let you see him, but not hear him.”
“And to think I almost forgot about these silly old things.” The doc tapped the side of his SPECS.
The goggles boasted a few more buttons than the normal SPECS, as well as a dial across the bridge of the nose. Each eyepiece was crafted from what looked like a topaz, deep in color, thick and so convex that they protruded a good inch or more from their insets.
“They are based off of my SPECS design,” the doc said. “I call them the Spectral and Poltergeist Image-Capturing Spectacles. I was working on the SPICS for a grieving widow who thought her husband was haunting her. But we abandoned the project when all of the spiritual trouble turned out to be a raccoon hiding in her attic. I never suspected they would actually work. Then again, I never had the chance to try them out.”
“Tell him I’m glad he can see me,” Boon said. “And that I am sorry he can’t hear my tacky voice.”
Ched related the strange message for the spirit.
The doc gave a soft giggle before he turned to Dodger and explained, “I always told him he had a certain grind to his voice that made his listeners feel as though they were chewing on tacks. It was the endless questions, you see? He never stopped asking questions.”
“I’ve heard as much,” Dodger said.
“Ched,” the doc said. “Please tell him I’m sorry as well.”
“What for?” Boon asked.
“He can hear you,” Dodger said.
“Ah,” the doc said. “That’s convenient, I suppose.” He drew a deep breath and started again. “I’m sorry, Washington Boon. I am sorry for dragging you into this line of work, and I am sorry you died because of me. I am sorry we never got a chance to-”
“That’s not true,” Boon said while the doc continued his apologies. “Tell him I went into that town on my own because I had business there. He didn’t send me.”
Ched repeated the spirit’s words over the continuing speech, to which the doc fell quiet and held up a hand, silencing the driver.
“I will have my say,” the doc said. “Boon suffered that awful fate in Celina because of his association with me. Not a single soul here can deny it.”
Not one did.
“For that,” the doc continued, “I am sorry. He may have endangered himself by traveling alone and unarmed, but I will not let him shoulder the burden of what transpired by himself. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Boon said with a dramatic nod for the doc’s benefit. “And thanks for that.”
“He shaid yesh and thanksh ya,” Ched said. The driver then muttered, almost under his breath but just loud enough to hear, “And he alsho shaysh you should up my whishkey allowansh. Shays it’sh a shame to keep shuch a thirshty man on a shingle bottle a week.”
The doc narrowed his eyes at the driver. “I think it might be best if you don’t act as a mouthpiece for our Boon. I can see it will be difficult to wrest the truth from you.”
“I thought dead men told no tales,” Feng said.
“Feng, my old friend,” the doc said, pushing the SPICS onto his forehead as he joined Feng on the couch. “I didn’t realize you were awake.” The doc grabbed up the man’s wrist and removed a pocket watch from his own vest, obviously checking the Celestial’s pulse. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I could eat a horse.”
“Excellent. Then, in my professional opinion, I am pleased to say you are on the mend.” He returned the watch into his vest pocket with a grin. “I suppose what they say is true. All is well that ends well.”
“I wished that it were at an end, Hieronymus. I’m afraid there is much left at hand before we see any sort of rest. We still have to get our Mr. Dodger to his date with destiny.”
The doc wrinkled his nose. “I’d forgotten about that bit.”
“Yes, there are miles to go before we sleep, folks. Miles to go before we sleep.”
As the Celestial repeated what sounded like a pleasant bit of poetry, Dodger began to ponder that single question that burned ever brighter in his mind.
What task was Rodger Dodger marked to complete before he could finally lie down and sleep?