In which Dodger hears the good, the bad and the ugly
Instead of the barrel of a pistol, or any other weapon for that matter, Dodger looked down into the weathered face of an elderly man. A slim and short fellow, the man bore the uniform of a postal officer. He also looked about as tired as Dodger felt.
The old-timer recoiled from Hortense and said, “Don’t shoot.”
Dodger disengaged the hammer on his gun, but kept her at hand, just in case. “Who are you?”
The man gave Dodger a little salute. “I’m Gabriel Watkins, with the U.S. Post Office. I know this sounds a bit strange, but I was told to meet this train here around noon or so.” Watkins let out a nervous giggle. “I didn’t believe a train would actually be here, seein’ how there is no line for miles. But here you are. Imagine that.”
“Come on inside, Mr. Watkins,” the doc said.
The postal officer eyed the interior just beyond the door, and the crew behind Dodger, before he shook his head furiously. “No, sirree. That’s quite all right. I think I can conduct my business from out here just fine. Besides, I don’t like to leave Lady alone for too long. She gets nervous if she thinks I’m fooling around on her.”
Dodger leaned far enough out of the doorway to catch sight of a pacing nag just a few feet away. “Fine, then. What business do you have with us?”
“I come in the line of duty, sir.” The older man reached into his sack, rummaging around until he pulled forth a tube-shaped package. “I have a delivery for a Mr. Rodger Dodger, at the residence of one …” The man paused as he struggled to read the strange word on the package. “Slipnear?”
With a satisfied smile for getting as near as he could to what he thought was the name of the train, he held out the brown paper-wrapped tube. Dodger made a grab for the package, but the geezer was too fast. He yanked it back to himself, giving Dodger the old evil eye of suspicion.
Dodger held out his hand. “I’m Dodger.”
“You got any proof of that?” the man asked.
“We can vouch for him,” the doc said.
Watkins peered into the cab at the gathered crew again. “Well, I guess since you got so many folks on your side, I can take that as proof.” The man produced a pad of paper from his sack and poked a fountain pen under Dodger’s nose. “Sign here, here and here.”
Dodger took up the offered pen and signed.
This seemed so satisfy the postal sentinel. He put away his paperwork and passed the package off to Dodger. Touching his fingers to his cap, he nodded to Dodger and then to the crew. “You folks have yourselves a good day. Enjoy your delivery.” And with that, the man returned to his mare and galloped away.
Dodger rejoined the crew in the cab, shutting the door behind him.
“What a strange little man,” the doc said.
“Indeed,” Dodger said. He turned the tubular package over and over in his hands, wondering what it held.
“Well?” Boon asked. “You gonna stare at it all day or open it?”
“Should he?” Lelanea asked. “What if this is the trap?”
“Shoundsh about right,” Ched said. “Shome maniac paid a broken-down poshtal worker to ride up here on hish broken-down horsh jusht to deliver a tube of dynamite with a really long fushe that goesh all the way back to hish hidey hole. Makesh perfect shensh.”
Lelanea cut her eyes at the driver. “Must you always be so pedantic?”
“Depends on what?”
“Dependsh on what that word meansh.”
“You are so infuriating.”
“Just open it,” Boon said with all the excitement of a child.
“Don’t. We have no idea what that thing is.”
“Actually,” the doc said, “I think I know exactly what it is.”
“How can you possibly know?” Lelanea snapped.
“Because I have seen that kind of packaging before.” The professor held out his hands.
Dodger thought better of it, but handed the thing over to his employer all the same.
The doc pulled away the bindings and the paper, unwinding the tube with care. Beyond the brown paper wrappings lay a black wooden drum. The doc twisted the top of the drum, turning aside the lid as he peered into the tube. “Ah, just as I thought. Mr. Torque, I need you.”
The metal man whistled with discontent. “What is it now?”
“Get over here and open up.”
“Because I suspect this contains a message for us.” The doc slid yet another tube from the depths of the first one. Smaller than the outer container, the second tube was made of metal, and was covered in a plethora of thin scratches.
“What is it?” Dodger asked.
“It’s an ARC.”
“Looksh more like a shylinder,” Ched said.
“ARC stands for Audio Recording Cylinder,” the doc explained. “I’ve been toying with the idea of recording sound onto a transportable substance for years. A young friend of mine up north got wind of it, and he has all but begged me to explain how the process works. I’ve tried to put him off, but he keeps sending me message tubes, making little improvements along the way with each recording, requesting my input. I usually ignore him. You see, he prefers to record on tin, just like this ARC, while I suspect wax would work better in the grander scheme of things. But you can’t tell young Tom he’s wrong.”
“How did he know you would be here?” Dodger asked.
“Oh, no, this isn’t from him. I am certain of that. He never sends a message without an accompanying letter, you see. Just in case the cylinder is ruined in transit. It is my guess that our mutual acquaintance has also borrowed the notion, just as he has helped himself to my other ideas. Now, Torque, be a dear and open your side panel. We need to give this a listen.”
“I think not,” Mr. Torque said. “You aren’t coming anywhere near me with that thing.”
“Be quiet and open your side panel.”
The doc growled. “Either open your side panel, or I swear I will shove this up another orifice.”
“Shove it up your own orifice!”
“Swordfish,” Feng said.
Mr. Torque went relaxed and silent at the shutdown code.
“Sorry, Hieronymus,” Feng said. “I know you hate it, but time is of the essence.”
With a sigh, the doc pressed on Torque’s chest, releasing the manual input panel. “You know, sometimes I wonder why I even bothered with giving him a personality to begin with. All he ever does is argue. But I suppose that is part of his charm.”
“Charm ish one word for it,” Ched said.
“Do us all a favor, Chester, and spare us your other words for it. Thank you very much.” After the doc finished pressing a few keys, he said, “Torque, can you hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” Torque said in a flat monotone. The metal man’s eyes lit with each hollow word.
Dodger could understand why the doc preferred the so-called charm of the fully functional Mr. Torque. The lifeless voice and blinking eyes of the mechanical butler’s manual mode gave Dodger the willies. Mr. Torque may have been a royal pain in the rump, but this thing was a soulless hunk of metal. All clockwork and no life.
“Excellent,” the doc said. “Open your side panel and load this cylinder, if you please.”
With jerky movements, Torque took the tin cylinder from his master and placed it into a small opening in his right side. There came a few clicks and a soft whirring sound. “Shall I play back at the usual prescribed speed?”
“Yes. One hundred and twenty revolutions per minute, I believe. We can adjust as needed.”
“Of course, sir.” Torque obeyed, adjusting his settings with another few internal clicks.
From Torque’s mouthpiece, just under its wiry mustache, there came the soft strains of music. Music Dodger would’ve recognized anywhere.
“Is that a viola?” the doc asked.
“Violin,” Dodger corrected the man. He closed his eyes and drifted along on the strings of his favorite bit of music in all the world. “It’s from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This is the last of the concertos. The one he called L’inverno.”
“The sheashon of winter,” Ched said.
Everyone stared at the driver, eyes wide with wonder.
“What?” Ched asked. “You’re the only one allowed to be a shmarty pantsh? Show I know a little Italian. Big deal.”
“It is quite a big deal,” the doc said. “A very big deal indeed.”
The driver shrugged away the professor’s admiration.
“I trust you are familiar with the tune, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said.
“This isn’t just any old tune, sir,” Dodger said. “It’s the song my mother used to play for me. It was our song. Speaking of which, Torque, it should be a touch faster.”
Torque shifted the speed at Dodger’s commands until the melody sounded just right.
“Why would shomeone shend a shylinder to the Schleipnir with your shong on it?” Ched asked.
“That is a very good question,” the doc said.
“Coincidence,” Lelanea pronounced. “Lots of people like Vivaldi.”
“I’m not so sure,” Boon said. “Lots of folks like a rousing round of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, but you don’t hear that playing, do you?”
Over their arguing, Torque said, “Good morning, crew.”
Everyone went quiet as they turned as one toward the mechanical man.
“It is good to finally address you,” Torque said with a light Southern lilt
Only it wasn’t Torque. Dodger knew without being told that it was the man he had come to see. The voice belonged to none other than Commander Rex.
“I realize this kind of message can come across as a bit cold, so I have spruced it up with a bit of music. I hope you like it. I enjoy a helping of Vivaldi now and again. It has recently come to my understanding that you do as well, Mr. Dodger.”
Dodger glanced to Lelanea, who stared back in sheepish silence.
“First of all,” the man continued, “I would like to commend Feng for reaching out to me. I was hoping you would seek my location, and you did not disappoint. Thank you for being so predictable and for making this all the easier for us.”
“Son of a …” Feng whispered.
“Mr. Dodger,” Rex said over Feng’s expletive. “I realize you must be anxious to get this little tête-à-tête over with, so let’s not waste any more time. To your delight, you will find the town of Celina abandoned. Not a soul around for miles and miles. But that is the way you like it, yes? To be all alone in the middle of nowhere? No friends or family. No innocent bystanders to make you feel guilty should things take a violent turn. And things always take a violent turn when you’re involved, do they not, Mr. Dodger?”
The chuckle that rolled out of Torque’s mouthpiece set Dodger’s skin to crawling.
“There is a boarding house in the middle of town,” Rex said once his laughter wound down. “I will be waiting for you in the building out back. You will come alone and unarmed, or you will not come at all. Any attempts at the contrary will be met with hostility the likes of which you have never seen. Do hurry, Mr. Dodger. Other appointments await me.”
The volume of the music swelled until the whole thing cut out cold, leaving a cloud of eerie silence to fill the cab.
“Arrogant bastard,” Lelanea said.
“Ludda!” the doc gasped.
“Well, he is.” She crossed her arms and set her jaw, unapologetic for her words.
“Yes,” Feng said. “He also seems to know an awful lot about us for a man we’ve never met.”
“I admit that is strange,” the doc said. “I can’t imagine how he learned so much about us. Or Dodger, for that matter. And in such a short amount of time. Why, I wonder-”
“He don’t know a damned thing about me,” Dodger snarled.
The doc started, taken aback by Dodger’s brusque tone. “Of course. My apologies.”
“Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to sound so sharp, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if I will let that man think he knows the first thing about me. I’ve told y’all more about me than I have told anyone in a good while.” Dodger rubbed at the back of his neck as he admitted, “More than I thought anyone ever would, and I sorta want to keep it that way.”
The professor’s face softened to an understanding smile. “Certainly. You know that road goes both ways, Mr. Dodger.”
“I sure do, sir.” Dodger loosened his gun belt and let the girls slide off of his hips before he passed the whole works to Lelanea.
She took it with some hesitation. “You can’t be serious? You can’t go in there unarmed. He will kill you for sure.”
“Something tells me that if he wanted me dead, I would already be dead. This Rex says he just wants to talk, so we’ll talk. I’ll go have a word with him and be back before you know it.” Dodger touched his fingers to his hat once again, nodding his farewell to the group. “Best not keep our host waiting.”
“If you aren’t back by noon,” Lelanea said, “then I will come looking for you. I can track you far better than Uncle’s gadget.”
“Thanks.” Dodger grinned at his family. “Keep those flapjacks hot for me.”
His family smiled back.
Dodger let the door close softly behind him before he dropped the smile. There was no humor in the task ahead of him. No joy to take in this fateful meeting. Even the prospect of returning Boon’s spirit to his body left Dodger more worried than pleased. With a steady crunch of dirt under his boots, he put the Sleipnir behind him and kept his face toward the abandoned town of Celina.
And the trouble that awaited him there.