In which Dodger meets our foe
Dodger reckoned that, as far as towns went, Celina was about as abandoned as a settlement could get without outright burning to the ground. The place showed no sign of the usual hustle and bustle of village life. It also bore all the signs of a rushed flight. Through the half-open doorways, Dodger spotted furniture and other house wares. He couldn’t imagine what would prompt a whole town to just pick up and move along, leaving such precious things behind. Or in this case, who would force them into it.
What it lacked in townsfolk, however, it made up for with snipers.
Dodger took his time as he moseyed through the ghost town, making note of this and that. Such as how many folks were on this roof, and who was crouched in that shadow. The bulldog men placed strategically around the town didn’t seem to care if Dodger spotted them, which was probably part of the grand plan; an obvious threat left an enemy impressed or concerned or both. Yet the professional in Dodger worried more about the threat he wasn’t seeing.
He found the boarding house with ease, as it was, in fact, smack in the dead center of the small town. The building behind the inn turned out to be a good-sized barn. Dodger paused at the entrance to draw a steadying breath before he let himself inside. He contemplated pulling his gun before he remembered he had come here unarmed. Just as Boon had done before him. Breath drawn instead of gun, Dodger slid the latch back on the barn door, and pushed it aside.
Dodger half expected to find the barn dressed up in the style of a mad scientist’s lair, complete with cowering minions and boiling vats and wild creatures. Everything that was the stuff of his favorite stories. Instead, he found a mundane barn and nothing more. Fresh hay adorned the floor and filled the lofts. The back of the barn was separated into three darkened stables, while the rest of the place was wide open and well lit. It had all the trappings of a serviceable shed for animals of all kind. Yes, sir, there was only one thing that kept Dodger from believing that it served its intended purpose.
It was missing that heady, unforgettable livestock smell.
This place may have been readied to serve as a barn, but Dodger would bet his eyeteeth that not a single animal had ever passed through its doors. In fact, the placed smelled more of resin than of musk. No, this building had been recently constructed, and for a purpose other than housing livestock.
“I see you take direction well,” a familiar voice said. “That is a mark in your favor. Not that anyone is counting. Or are they?”
Dodger shielded his eyes against the afternoon glare as he glanced up into the loft above the stables. He was surprised to find the outline of a large bald man looming at one of the windows, his back to Dodger as he peered out at the empty town below.
“Commander Rex, I presume?” Dodger asked.
“But of course,” the man said. “It is pleasant to finally meet you, Mr. Dodger.”
“Now there ain’t no need for formalities. Just call me Dodger. Heck, you can even call me Rodger if you feel so inclined. After all, you claim to know me so well.”
From his place at the window, his back still to Dodger, the man let out that skin-crawling laugh of his. “Yes, I probably know you as well as you know yourself. Speaking of which, you can drop the hayseed act with me, Mr. Dodger. I have no intention of underestimating you. I am well aware of your level of intellect.”
“If you say so.”
“And I ask that you do not underestimate me, sir. As you have seen, this building is under heavy surveillance. If you so much as make a move against me, you will find yourself dead in moments.”
“That’s an awful lot of precaution to take on account of little ol’ me.”
“It is necessary. You have been quite a thorn in my side.”
“A thorn in your side?” Dodger couldn’t hide a snort of surprise at that one. “With all the recent trouble you’ve given my employer, I would have to say that honor is yours.”
“The recent trouble, as you call it, is a direct result of your meddling. I have been testing you, my friend. I set up a few rounds of cat-and-mouse to see how well you played the game. And you play very well. Very well indeed.”
Dodger sneered, growing disgusted at the man’s conceit. “Those games, as you call it, got a lot of folks killed.”
“Most regrettable, true, but such deaths are unavoidable at times. Collateral damage and all of that, yes?”
Dodger had nothing to say to that.
“Regardless,” Rex said, still staring out of the window, “the results of these diversions have been illuminating. Yes, most enlightening. I am pleased to have learned over the last few weeks that you are no mouse, Mr. Dodger. And as you can see …” Rex paused as he turned on his heel and faced Dodger head on.
In his arms, the man held a small grinning dog. And yes, the dog was actually grinning. Not sneering. Not growling. The thing had an ear-to-ear smile plastered on its yippy little face.
“I am no cat,” the dog said.
Dodger knew for a stone-cold fact that had he walked into this moment a few weeks back, things would’ve gone a whole lot differently. If Dodger hadn’t dealt with the dog soldiers, if he hadn’t squared off with that Jackal and her brood, if he hadn’t heard Michael Walking Bear’s voice emanate from the snarling lips of a full-grown wolf, if he hadn’t seen the wild animal the beautiful Miss Lelanea could become, then Dodger might have lost his tiny mind at the knowledge of a Chihuahua that spoke perfect English with a slight Southern accent. At the very least, he’d have suspected some sort of tomfoolery.
As it was, Dodger accepted the facts for what they were immediately, and instead of losing his mind, he tried his best to fight back a guffaw. A fight he lost in mere seconds.
Dodger supposed it could’ve just been the stress of the moment that made him laugh so loudly at Rex’s appearance. It could’ve been the fact that he hadn’t had a good, natural night’s sleep in quite some time. Whatever the reason, Dodger cut loose with a belly laugh the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since his childhood. He bent double, holding his gut as he guffawed aloud at the thing that was Commander Rex.
All the source of his worry and trouble turned out to be no more than a little dog.
The man who held the dog said nothing. He just stared blankly at Dodger while Rex continued to speak from the crook of the man’s arms.
“Go right ahead,” the dog said. “Have yourself a good laugh, Mr. Dodger. Oh yes, get it all out of your system. Laugh now while you still can, because before this is over, you will laugh out of the other side of your face.”
“Why?” Dodger asked between giggles. “Will there be another little dog on the other side of my face to laugh at too?”
A light growl rose from the commander as his lips curled into a snarl.
Which only made Dodger laugh louder.
Over the ongoing laughter, Rex said, “As you have probably guessed, your precious Pack are the cause of current condition. They left me in that infernal POW machine to die. Only they didn’t kill me. No. Instead of death, I experienced rebirth. A blessing in the most unusual of disguises.”
At the dog’s words, Dodger’s curiosity eclipsed his mirth.
“Misfortune will not stop me,” Rex said. “Nothing will stop me. Where you see weakness, I see strength. Where you find humor, I found opportunity. And such opportunity it was. My brilliant mind was placed into the oddest of bodies. Not the body I intended, of course, but a body I decided to take full advantage of. My size and lack of strength are barriers, of course, but I have found other advantages to this form. For example, there are those who have trouble turning away from this.” Rex relaxed his snout into a pitiful frown. His eyes went wide as his ears drooped low. He capped off the whole routine with a soft whimper before he returned to his previous scowl. “Who would deny such a pitiful face? Certainly not Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer. Nor his sappy crew of miscreants. By the way, when you see the professor again, tell him his little Jo-Jo misses cuddle wuddle time, and if he has a chance can he send me that recipe for sausage balls? I have tried to recreate them, but there is something that ancient cook of his does that I can’t seem to duplicate.”
Dodger sucked a quick breath through his teeth. Damn it all! “No wonder you know so much about the crew.”
“Yes, they were quite easy prey. No challenge at all. It was as though they couldn’t wait to share their secrets with me. As if unburdening their troubled souls to a little dog would make all their woes go away. You, on the other hand, have been quite the conundrum. I have had to call in several favors and pull a number of strings to find out anything about you at all. But it was well worth it, because what I learned was fascinating, to say the least.”
“And just what do you think you learned?”
“That you took your first life at twelve, without remorse or mercy. That you were recruited from a house of refuge in order to put your unusual talents to use for the powers that be. That you excelled so much at your profession that the mere mention of your name in certain circles still leaves men quaking in fear. That you even took on the mantle of a railway worker to hide your true nature and make it easier to travel incognito. After all, who would suspect that the man at the helm is none other than a highly trained, professional government assassin? Shall I go on?”
Dodger held his ire in check, choosing to bite his tongue rather than ask how in the hell this little pissant mutt knew so much about him.
“I must confess,” Rex said, “the more I learned about you, Mr. Dodger, the more enthralled I became. The stories of your work are legendary. The death you wrought with such subtle precision, such artistic beauty, why, I find myself in awe.”
“I killed folks for pay,” Dodger said. “There was no beauty in it.”
Rex shrugged, an awkwardly human move for the dog. “Either way, imagine my great disappointment to learn that you walked away from it all over a little crisis of faith.”
Dodger’s jaw ached from clenching his teeth so tightly. Rex knew far too much. But even that wasn’t as troubling as the question of where the man had gotten such information. Or how. “Well, someone’s been a bit chatty. Tell me, did they scratch your little belly when they were filling you full of so much bullshit?”
“And you tell me, was Patricia Baker worth your entire career?”
Dodger’s mouth fell open at that name. A name he hadn’t heard in almost ten years.
“Patricia Baker,” Rex repeated. “She should’ve been a simple mark for a man of your unique talents. One bullet. One shot. Easy money for a job well done. But you couldn’t bring yourself to take care of her, could you?”
“She wasn’t like the others,” Dodger said.
“She was a problem that needed dealing with.”
“She was with child.”
“She was a whore!” The shouted word bounced around the empty barn in a wild echo, leaving Dodger to flinch in its growling wake.
The manservant holding Rex never reacted once during the entire conversation.
In the face of the man’s tranquility, Dodger understood that the mutt had baited him into an argument. This wasn’t about Dodger’s past; it was about drawing Dodger out so Rex could learn more about him. Dodger closed his eyes, trying to center himself and calm the fire in his mind.
“You had a duty to your country,” Rex said. “They trained you. Educated you. Made you the man you are today. And how did you thank them? You were given a job to complete by your betters, and you said no because the mark was pregnant.”
Dodger shook his head. “My job wasn’t to clean up after some senator who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. She may have been an embarrassment to the office, but she didn’t deserve to die because of it.”
“Let me see if I understand this. Out of all the people you killed, the hundreds of lives you took, who among them deserved to die? Which ones, specifically, earned the end you brought upon them?”
Dodger went quiet. Merciful Quan Yin knew Dodger spent far too many hours asking himself that same question. There was no way Dodger planned on sharing his answers with the likes of Rex.
No. Rex had learned enough about Dodger for one lifetime.