Taking a Moment
In which Dodger prepares to meet his fate
Dodger didn’t know what to think about the idea of being marked. It was intriguing and terrifying, as well as a little on the depressing side. Was his entire life just a passion play for some grand, uncontrollable purpose? Did he have any effect on his own actions, or had there always been a greater power pulling his strings? Dodger wasn’t sure, but he didn’t like the idea of someone else taking credit for his choices, his decisions, his life … whether that thing was good or bad. The whole notion left a foul taste in his mouth.
It also made attaining anything that resembled rest almost impossible.
Dodger tossed and turned on his bunk, the worry of the night’s events—as well as the oncoming day’s—keeping him just at the edge of sleep.
“Don’t over think it,” Feng said.
Dodger opened his eyes to find the Celestial leaning in the open doorway of his berth. “I appreciate your input, but I need to grab a few hours before we get to Celina.”
“While I agree that sleep is good for the body as well as the mind, I thought you would like to know that we’ve arrived.”
Dodger pulled the slats aside on his shuttered window. He winced at the sunlit outline of a small town. “That was fast. Feels like I just laid down.”
“A worried mind plays trick with time.”
“My mind isn’t the only one playing tricks. What time is it?”
“Just after noon.”
“I thought it was supposed to take us much longer to get to Celina.”
“I suspect Hieronymus had something to do with our speedy arrival. Turned some screw on his grand machine to give us the extra speed we needed. The Sleipnir is more powerful than even he is willing to admit at times.” Feng ran a hand across the door frame, almost reverent in his touch. “She is more than just a beast of burden. She has her own soul, this one does.”
“You talk about her like she’s alive.”
Feng gave a sly wink. “Who says she isn’t?”
“My last boss man said the same thing. There’s a rumor going ‘round that the Sleipnir runs on the blood of the professor’s enemies instead of coal.”
“Really? That’s a new one to me. What about you? Do you think our gal runs on the blood of our enemies?”
“While I don’t think she runs on blood, I doubt she runs on coal either.” Dodger stood from his bunk with a stretch before he sat again to pull on his boots.
“There is brunch in the meeting cab.”
“Brunch. It’s like breakfast and lunch together.”
Dodger wasn’t sure about this business of messing with a man’s meal times. “As tempting as that sounds, I think I’ll pass.”
“It will be all the rage in twenty years or so.”
“I have no doubt about that. But I don’t like to go into a fight on a full stomach.” Dodger nodded to Feng. “Can you give me one straight answer before I go?”
The Celestial grinned. “I will try.”
“Who are you?”
“I promise you I am exactly who you think. Just an old man trying to get by.”
“Then how about this, how did you manage to end up here?”
“Like the rest of you, I am here because I need to be.”
Dodger closed his eyes as he balled a fist and punched the mattress. “You can be so confoundedly frustrating!”
“I met our mutual employer when he was just a lad.”
Dodger glanced up to the aged cook.
Feng had a distant look, as if struggling to remember the details of his own life. Which Dodger supposed might be a bit difficult, considering how old the man was.
“I was already very old then,” Feng said. “I’d been on the run from Lei Gong for many, many a year. I was so tired. Hieronymus was a little bundle of energy. He was about eight or so. I remember his little knickerbockers. Such a chunky little kid.” Feng paused to give a soft laugh, lost in his reminiscence. “We use to meet in the park to play chess. I had to teach him how to play. He was very good, for an eight year old.”
Dodger tried to imagine the scene; the older Chinese teaching a young doc the complicated game of chess. It was a surprisingly easy thing to picture.
“I was ready to give up,” Feng said. “I resided myself to my fate and was just waiting for Lei Gong to come and find me. Then I met Hieronymus, and I saw something in him that I hadn’t seen in a long time. There was …” Feng paused as he glanced up to Dodger again. “Well, you know how unique he is. Even at eight I could see he needed protection. But with my woes, I couldn’t be his guardian. I couldn’t stay with him. I would end up drawing more troubles to him then a kid should even know about. I had to go. I tried to explain things to him, but you know Hieronymus. He always had this naïve idea he can fix things. He has to make them all better.”
Dodger smiled at that. “I’ve never met a man who wanted to repair the whole world.”
“And at eight he was even worse, because he really thought he could.”
“I’ll bet.” They shared a chuckle before Dodger asked, “So, tell me, what became of that old man and young boy that lead you both here?”
Feng smirked and with it Dodger knew the easy answers were gone again. “It’s a long story.”
“Then you can tell me when I get back.”
“You’re really going to do this?”
“I don’t see how I have a choice.”
“We always have a choice.”
“That’s not what you just got done telling me a few hours ago. I thought I was put on this earth to complete a specific purpose. What kind of choice does that leave me?”
Feng groaned. “Being marked isn’t the same as being controlled. What you choose to do still matters. You still matter. Even when it comes time to fulfill whatever task fate has set aside for you, it will be up to you to complete it. No one else can make that choice for you.”
Dodger slid his gun belt around his waist. The weight of the girls settling on his hips was comforting, but at the same time, troubling. “Tell me what to expect. What does this Rex look like?”
“From what I could tell, he is big, both broad and tall. An older man, bald as a babe, and very well dressed.”
“Anything else? Scars or the like?”
Feng snapped his finger as a thought came to him, then pointed at Dodger. “He had a dog with him.”
Dodger paused in his buckling and narrowed his eyes at Feng. “A dog?”
“Yes. One of those little bug-eyed mutts. Maybe this big?” Feng held his hands not more than a foot apart, then narrowed them even closer before he nodded.
“Like a Chihuahua?”
“That’s the breed. You know, I believe that is the kind Hieronymus had a while back. Yippy little thing. Jo-Jo, that was what the doc called it. It was a sweet thing, but it sure hated Lelanea. She tried to make friends with it, but all it would do was growl at her.”
“I can’t imagine why.” Dodger tightened the gun belt into place. “I also can’t help but wonder what makes the man keep a dog.”
“You know Hieronymus. He has a soft spot for all living things.”
“I meant Rex. I thought with as much trouble as dogs have given him, he would avoid the things.”
“Maybe the animal is proof of some success in his endeavors.”
“Let’s hope not. For the dog’s sake, as well as our own.” Dodger pulled on his jacket and grabbed his hat. “So, big and bald, with a little dog. That’s all you have for me?”
Feng shrugged. “Scrying isn’t an exact science. You’re lucky I got that much.”
“Lucky? No. Luck has nothing to do with it. I’m marked, remember?” Dodger pushed past Feng into the hallway.
With a grunt, the Celestial fell in line behind him. “Are you going to continue to dwell on that?”
“I don’t plan on it.”
“No, sir. I don’t plan on dwelling on it. I plan on doing something about it.”
“Excellent. Now you’re getting the idea.”
Dodger found the others in the meeting cab, in a nervous clutch around the table, awaiting Dodger’s arrival. Or, more likely, his departure. The table sat filled with all manner of tasty comestibles, and all of it had gone cold. The doc and Lelanea had helped themselves to the smallest of portions, and each one picked that bit apart rather than eat it. Even Ched swished about the contents of his bottle instead of taking a much-needed swig.
“I see the gang’s all here,” Dodger said. His humor fell flat on the back of the crew’s worry. As Dodger took his usual seat, he peeked out of the window toward the hazy image of the town almost half a mile away. “That Celina, then?”
“Yesh,” Ched said. “I wanted to get in closher, but Feng shaysh we need to keep Boon ash far ash we can from that man.”
“Makes sense. No need to give Rex what he wants without a fight.”
“I thought he wanted you,” Lelanea said.
“To be fair,” Dodger said as he poured himself a cup of coffee, “we don’t know what he wants. Not really. But I am sure he will tell me.”
“Are you certain you want to do this?” Boon asked from a darkened corner of the cab.
There came a hushed echo as Lelanea whispered Boon’s words to her uncle.
“I have to,” Dodger said.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Boon asked.
“No way, José,” Feng said. “Until I know exactly what is going on with your corporeal form, you are to stay on this train. No more traipsing about.”
“You heard the mystic,” Dodger said. “I have to do this by myself.”
“No, you don’t, Sharge,” Ched said.
Dodger was taken aback by the driver’s words. The last thing he expected was an offer of help from the cowardly not-dead man. “Really?”
Ched stuck out a lanky finger at the metal servant across the table. “That bucket of rusht aught ta go in your shtead. Him we can shtand to loshe.”
Mr. Torque gasped. “I take great offense to that.” The metal man spun about to address Dodger. “I would offer to help, Mr. Dodger, but I cannot leave the confines of the train for more than a half-hour at a time. Short on battery life, you see.”
“Short on courage too,” Ched muttered.
“I don’t see you offering to put your rotting rump on the line!”
“Will you two stop bickering?” the doc asked. “Mr. Dodger has enough on his plate without you adding the bitter batter of your petty grievances.” The doc reached across the table and placed a familiar metal button beside Dodger’s empty plate. “Here, take this with you.”
Dodger pinned the SNIFER onto his shirt. “Good idea, sir.”
“I redesigned the output to emit a wider band. Which means we should be able to track you no matter where you go.”
“You mean I can track him,” Mr. Torque added.
“He knows what I mean.”
“Thanks,” Dodger said. He downed the single cup of warm coffee before he got to his feet again. “No time like the present, eh? I suppose I should mosey on out to town and see what I can see.”
“You should eat something first,” Feng said, motioning to the table filled with chow. “After all, a soldier marches on his stomach.”
“Cup of joe is enough for this old soldier.”
Dodger doffed his hat, touching the brim in salute to his crew before he made his way to the door. Just as he reached for the handle, there arose a sharp knock from the other side. Dodger looked over his shoulder at the surprised faces of his friends.
The surprised faces of his family.
Try as he might, he couldn’t deny that this rag-tag bunch of misfits was about the closest thing he’d had to a family in a long, long time. Feng, the wise old uncle Dodger needed for advice. Boon and Lelanea, the kissing cousins he envied. Ched, the drunken brother about whom Dodger would always worry. And yes, the doc was almost as good to Dodger as his own father had been.
“Who could that be?” the doc asked.
“No tellin’,” Ched said.
“Don’t forget,” Feng said. “We are expected.”
They stood and joined him at the door, huddling behind him in a tight bunch.
The knock came again.
“Be careful,” Lelanea said. “They might be armed.”
Dodger nodded his understanding, slipped Hortense from her holster, readied the weapon, then pulled wide the door.