A Raw Deal
A Raw Deal
In which Dodger is made an offer he’d rather refuse
“No smart comeback this time?” Rex asked.
Dodger maintained his silence, rather than giving Rex any more ammo. Verbal or otherwise.
“I see,” Rex said.
“No,” Dodger said. “You don’t. But I reckon it is awfully hard to see anything when you spend so much time so low to the ground.”
“Enough witty banter. We are wasting precious time. I am expected elsewhere, so let’s wrap this up, shall we?”
“What about you?” Dodger asked the man behind the dog. “What do you get out of serving him?”
Rex glanced up at his manservant, then back to Dodger. “If you are addressing Mr. Grinder, then you’re wasting your time. He is programmed to respond only to my commands.”
“Programmed,” Dodger echoed. “You mean he’s-”
“A machine, yes. Much in the manner of Mr. Torque, only better. Stronger. More human.”
Dodger stared at the automaton. Sure the thing looked like a person, but Dodger had learned a long time ago that looks weren’t everything. “If you think that thing is more human than Torque, then you’ve forgotten what being human is all about.”
The mutt yawned, wide and slow. “Jokes about my humanity because I’m in this form? Yes, how very droll of you. Grinder? Will you please-”
“Hey now,” Dodger said over the request as he held his hands out. “I am unarmed, just like you asked.”
“Please. Don’t insult me. If I wanted you dead I would’ve killed you back at Hermit’s Gap. I have a little surprise for you. All the way from my compound in California. I’m sure you’ll like it. Grinder, the gift for our new friend.”
The manservant gave a quick nod and lowered the dog to the floor. He then stepped back toward the window, lifted something and brought it to the edge of the loft. There he dropped it, allowing it to fall the single story to land before Dodger with a resounding clap. Dodger stared at what turned out to be a white box, about a good two feet or so across, for a curious moment before he looked back into the loft. Mr. Grinder had returned to his position of servitude, holding Rex out enough for the dog to look down its short snout at Dodger
“I do hope you like them,” Rex said, reading the puzzlement on Dodger’s face. “I put a lot of consideration into each and every one.”
As Dodger considered the dog’s words, a light hum arose from the box at his feet. He glanced down again to find a cloud of flies buzzing around the thing. A thin stream of red wept from one corner, staining the hay beneath.
“Go ahead,” Rex said. “Open it. I can’t wait to see what you think.”
A flash of warning welled up in Dodger, screaming at him to just move along and let this one pass him on by. Don’t open it. Don’t look inside. If you value your sanity, Rodger Dodger, just don’t. “I think I’ll pass, if you don’t mind.” His refusal was followed by a soft click. Dodger raised his eyes to find Mr. Grinder aiming a pistol at him.
“But I do mind,” Rex said. “It’s bad form to turn down a gift, sir. Open it.”
Dodger didn’t like being told what to do, but he liked having his head full of holes even less. With what he hoped was a sarcastic grin, Dodger lifted the lid from the wooden box and tossed it aside. “And to think I didn’t get you a thing …” he started, but his words faded when he caught sight of what awaited him inside the box. His stomach roiled at the boxful of blood and fur and death.
In the container lay a dozen or so severed tails from a variety of dogs.
“What is this?” Dodger said. He turned away, almost gagging in disgust.
Rex laughed aloud at the sound of Dodger’s revulsion—the already creepy laugh doubly disconcerting when Dodger considered that it issued forth from the mouth of a dog.
“Wrong question,” Rex said. “The real question you must ask yourself is this: Did the professor’s science adequately hold those dog soldiers together long enough to produce the bounty of furry trophies you see before you, or am I the kind of man who would seek out a dozen dogs of matching breeds, then cut off their tails and deliver them to you in person, just to make a point?”
When Dodger first heard the tales of Rex from poor Clemet and the others, he reckoned the commander was a maniac. But this … this wasn’t just your run of the mill insanity. This was a cruel kind of madness. The same kind of irreverent psychosis Dodger recognized in himself so many years ago. Which is why he walked away from being Rodger Dodger to begin with.
He raised his face again to Rex, doing little to hide his ire. “You’re sick.”
“Am I?” Rex asked. “Or am I just willing to do whatever it takes, make whatever sacrifice I deem necessary in order to accomplish my goals? Unlike you.”
“What do you want?”
Rex grinned even wider, if that was possible for a Chihuahua to do, and said, “Everything, Mr. Dodger. I want everything. And I will have it, because you will deliver it to me in two week’s time. Do we understand each other?”
Dodger understood, all right. The little mutt wanted the train, the crew, maybe even Dodger’s life before this was through. Yet Dodger had no intention of giving him a damned thing. “And if I don’t deliver? What then?”
“Then I will require a bucket for my next gift. Despite the extra care your precious professor has given your new found friends, I am willing to bet that they won’t be able to manage to hold their form when slain.”
“I promise you, good sir, I never bluff.”
“You don’t have the Pack. You don’t have anything. You’re just panicking.”
The dog gave a sigh. “Fine. I didn’t want to do this. Seems like such a waste, but you insist on proof.” Rex lifted his voice and shouted, “Bring him forward!”
From the darkness of the stables there appeared something Dodger wasn’t expecting to see on this fine morning. A beautiful young woman sauntered into the sunlight. Dodger couldn’t help but admire Rex’s taste in minions; the young lady looked to be about in her mid twenties, with wide hips, a narrow waist, and a healthy bust. A pair of gleaming pistols rested on each hip, while a breath stealing silver eyed corset cinched her cleavage almost to her chin. All of this was accentuated by an equally tight set of matching black pants and blouse. This was an unusual mode of dress for a gal her age, but Dodger didn’t mind, all things considered. Yes, she was a looker to be sure, but one particular aspect of the pretty young thing gave Dodger pause.
A cascade of bright red hair tumbled over each shoulder.
Dodger sighed. Yea gods, but she had to be a redhead, didn’t she?
Had she been alone, had she not been so well armed, had she not been in the employ of his nemesis, Dodger might have struck up a conversation. But she was armed, with a pistol sitting on each hip, and she wasn’t alone. Along with her, she dragged another man, hands bound behind his back and a canvas sack over his head. They rounded Dodger, until they stood behind him just in front of the barn doors.
“Mr. Dodger,” Rex said. “May I introduce my chief of security, Miss Katherine Walker.”
“You can call me Kitty,” she said, and grinned, her ruby lips parting to show off perfect pearly whites.
Rex gave an audible tut at the nickname.
“Kitty?” Dodger asked. He glanced up to Rex, and back to the young woman. “Your name is Kitty, and you work for a dog?”
“Yes, yes,” Rex said. “The humor isn’t lost on any of us.”
“Ironic,” Kitty said, shifting her weight from hip to plump hip. “Isn’t it?”
“No,” Dodger said.
Dodger shook his head. “It isn’t ironic. It’s amusing, sure, but that isn’t how irony works.”
“As you can clearly see,” Rex said. “Kitty is our resident scholar.”
Dodger hoisted a thumb up at the dog behind them. “Now that was irony.”
The young woman looked to her boss man—or rather boss dog—in the rafters, a flash of anger seizing her lovely green eyes.
“Are we done with introductions?” Rex asked.
“Not quite,” Dodger said. He nodded to the bound man. “I think one more fellow deserves a word.”
“Why, Mr. Dodger, I am astounded. Don’t you recognize an old friend when you see one?”
Kitty pulled away the hood, revealing the bound man as one of the dog persuasion, but it was hard to tell what breed thanks to the fact that the poor son of a gun had been beaten within an inch of his life. It wasn’t until the beat down man raised his swollen face that Dodger did indeed recognize him.
“Bottle?” Dodger asked.
Bottle shifted his groggy attention to Dodger. “Dodger, sir? Is that you?” The dog man strained to smile, showing Dodger what was left of his broken teeth. Which amounted to even less than usual. “Bless you, sir. Thad said you’d come for us. He said you’d rescue us.”
“He was right. I will. I promise.” Dodger turned about to look up at Rex again. “Fine, you win. Let them go. The Pack has nothing to do with this.”
“On the contrary,” Rex said. “They have everything to do with this, because they got involved with you. Kitty? If you please.”
At the command, Dodger spun in place to find that the woman had produced a blade in one hand and yanked poor Bottle back by the scruff of his hair with the other, exposing his tender throat.
“No!” Dodger cried before he rushed toward the pair.
Before Dodger could reach her, the young woman ran the blade across Bottle’s gullet, after which she threw the dying man to the floor at Dodger’s feet. There Bottle writhed and gurgled as he clawed at the gushing fountain of his own throat. Dodger lowered himself to the dying man, and tried his best to hold pressure against the gaping wound, but it was too late. Bottle looked up at Dodger, confusion filling his eyes as the last of his life slipped between Dodger’s wet fingers. In seconds Bottle ceased his struggle, going limp under Dodger’s grip.
“I’m so sorry,” Dodger whispered. He ran his hands across Bottle’s eyelids, closing them partially out of respect, but mostly because he couldn’t stand that frozen moment of confusion still filling the dog man’s eyes.
The look that said, You were supposed to rescue me.
The look that said, You failed me.
The look that said, You killed me.
Dodger got to his feet, snarling and heaving, wondering where to direct his fury first. He almost threw himself at the grinning woman, but caught himself as he thought better of it. There was bound to be more under Rex’s employ, and only one Dodger. Instead, Dodger stared into the loft at the one truly responsible.
“You didn’t have to kill him,” Dodger said.
“Oh my,” Rex said, watching the fallen form of Bottle behind Dodger. “It looks like you were right after all. He doesn’t appear to … oh no wait. There he goes.”
A soft pop sounded somewhere behind Dodger as the smell of fresh baked bread filled the barn. At the sound and smell, Dodger closed his eyes. He was far too tired for such devastation.
“So,” Rex said. “Turns out I wasn’t lying. Fancy that.”
Dodger drew a deep breath, centering his anger and focusing on his options. No weapons. A pack of wild dogs surrounding him with a merciless bastard at their command. No help on the way. This wasn’t the tightest fix he had ever been in, but it ran pretty damned close.
“Deliver the Sleipnir,” Rex said, “with her entire crew, to my compound on the coast in seven days. For every day you are late, I will kill one of your Pack and send you what is left of the man. I have included some directions to my compound at the bottom of the box. I’m afraid you will have to get blood on your hands in order to find it, but as we can see, you are used to such things. Do we understand each other now, Mr. Dodger?”
As the dog spoke, Dodger came over with a sudden thought. “What about Washington Boon?”
Rex hesitated, as if surprised by the question. “What about him?”
“You said you wanted to see me in Celina before the next sunset or you would kill Boon. Again. Where is he?”
“I appreciate your loyalty to your current employer, but Boon doesn’t concern you. Why should he? It wasn’t as if you knew him.” Rex paused as he considered Dodger a moment. “Or did you?”
Despite his anger, Dodger grinned. “Never met the man in person.”
“Just as I thought.”
“If that’s what you reckoned, then why use the man to bait me? What made you so sure I’d come running just because you threatened the train’s last gunman?”
“I knew you would come running to impress your lady friend. But if I were you, I would focus my worry on those I am responsible for, Mr. Dodger, and let well enough alone.”
“Don’t you mean let sleeping dogs lie?”
Kitty giggled at Dodger’s back, brining a small grin to Dodger.
Over their banter, Mr. Grinder said, “The Phoenix has arrived, sir.”
“Excellent,” Rex said. “And not a moment too soon. Kitty?”
Dodger glanced over his shoulder at her. The young lady nodded her farewell, and took her leave from barn by the same door Dodger had arrived. The moment she closed the door behind her, a huge metal shutter slammed over the thing.
“I take it that’s not gonna open back up for the likes of me,” Dodger said.
“I’m afraid not,” Rex said. “I wished we could end this differently, but we all have a part to play in this drama. You the reluctant hero and I the incorrigible villain-”
“I ain’t no hero,” Dodger said.
“That’s a shame, because I certainly am a villain.” Rex chuckled again. “And what kind of villain would I be if I just let you walk away from this meeting unscathed? No. You will find this entire barn has been sealed. Nothing gets in or out. Grinder, if you please.”
Mr. Grinder flipped a switch on the wall near the window. The darkened stables before Dodger lit just as brightly as the rest of the barn, revealing three identical contraptions, one resting in each stable. A thick bundle of wires protruded from the sides of each object, leading down and disappearing into the floor. Each contraption displayed a large set of numbers printed on wooden slats; three, zero, zero.
“Three detonators,” Rex said. “But only one controls the two tons of explosives resting beneath the barn. Disarming them should be simple for our hesitant hero, yet he won’t have time to defuse them all. Which does he choose?”
Dodger wrinkled his nose at the dog. “What is wrong with you? Did you not get enough love as a child?”
“Mock me all you wish, but it’s really quite the clever trap. I’ve impressed myself. I am such an evil genius.”
“You might be evil, but genius you ain’t. If I can’t get out of this mess, then how do you purpose I’ll be able to bring you the train?”
“You won’t. And in three minutes this whole barn will blow to kingdom come, taking you with it. Then everyone you know and love will die because of your failure.” Just under his words, a droning hum filled the barn. “Lucky for both of us, you won’t fail, Mr. Dodger. I have faith that you will escape. You always think inside the box.”
The pulsing grew stronger, making Dodger’s teeth ache with each powerful throb. It reminded him of the rhythm of a steam engine chuffing its way down the rails. Only, instead of coming from ground level, as he would expect, this chuff came from somewhere overhead.
“I must take my leave!” Rex shouted over the pulsing whooshes. “I wished we could discuss this more, but my ride has arrived! Shame, too, for I have so much more to tell you! All about your trials and tribulations!”
“My what?” Dodger shouted.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to hear the dog’s words. Dodger strained to hear Rex shout, “Let’s just say it should prove to be a very interesting as well as busy two weeks for you! Grinder! Get us out of here!”
Just as Dodger wondered how the manservant planned on climbing down from the second story window while holding the dog, a rope ladder appeared behind the pair. Someone from above had unwound the thing, providing the dog and his manservant the perfect getaway. Mr. Grinder mounted the ladder while still maintaining his grip on the dog, but didn’t climb. Once Rex was in position, a set of metal bars slid over the open window.
“Three minutes, Mr. Dodger!” Rex shouted. “Good luck!”
Once Rex had his say, the rope pulled the dog and his manservant into the air and away from the barn. Dodger raced to the loft’s ladder, clambering up as quick as his tired legs would let him. He ran to the barred window just in time to catch sight of a dark blot rising into the distance, heading westward, as the pulsing whoosh faded into the quiet afternoon.
Dodger climbed back down the ladder, taking care to step lightly on the floorboards. If Rex wasn’t bluffing, then there was enough dynamite underneath the place to vaporize not only him, but the entire abandoned town and possibly even the Sleipnir. Dodger looked across the barn to the stables, and the three matching contraptions within. Which one controlled the explosives? As he pondered the situation, the mechanisms all gave a loud, simultaneous beep. Their matching displays changed, shifting the wooden slats to a new set of numbers; two, five, nine.
Two, five, eight.
Two, five, seven.
The three minute countdown had begun.
End Volume Six