In which Dodger makes a run for it
Rodger Dodger had seen his fair share of traps and tricks in his day. From tripwires to pitfalls, spring-loaded blades to rope-triggered shotguns, he had been both the sucker and the saboteur more times than he cared to admit. Once, many moons ago, he wired a public carriage with a nasty amount of dynamite rigged to blow at the press of a button. Thankfully, the target turned himself in to the authorities before Dodger could explode a coach full of innocent bystanders. Upon reflection, Dodger realized that the whole scenario was a pretty low thing to think up, yet the trap laid out before him in the ghost town of Celina was the work of a right bastard.
Dodger stared at the trio of ticking contraptions. Three choices. Three minutes. This couldn’t be real. The whole thing had to be a game designed solely to wind up Dodger’s nerves. That was it. A joke in poor taste, and nothing more. Rex wouldn’t just blow Dodger as well as the whole crew and train to hell just to prove a point. Would he? Dodger glanced down to the fly-ridden box of fur and death at his feet. Perhaps the little doggy would do just as he said.
He sure seemed crazy enough.
Dodger approached the time bombs, hoping that, with a little luck, he could disarm them all in less than three minutes. He had a bit of experience with such things, though admittedly not in these numbers. But once he was on them, he saw that there was no such option. Rex wasn’t kidding when he said Dodger couldn’t disarm them all. Dodger couldn’t disarm any of them. The wiring itself was in a tight, inaccessible bundle of leather- and canvas-covered wires that ran into the floor. Even weirder, the back of each of the things bore a palm-sized button that read Press Me. That seemed easy enough. But which one should he press? He was fairly sure that pressing the wrong one would detonate all of them.
Closing his eyes, Dodger rolled back over the last few minutes of conversation in his mind. The animal seemed enamored of his own intelligence, so perhaps he’d let something slip. Some kind of verbal clue. A chance to mock Dodger without him being any the wiser. Only, Dodger was pretty wise himself. And yes, he did remember something the little yippy son of a gun had said.
Lucky for both of us, you won’t fail, Mr. Dodger. I have faith that you will escape. You always think inside the box.
Dodger glared at the box across the room. Without a moment’s hesitation he ran to the thing, lifted it and dumped the terrible contents onto the hay-strewn floor of the barn. The severed tails of half a dozen or more dogs slithered out with a wet slop. Scarlet pooled at his feet as the flies migrated from container to floor, following the bits of flesh and fur and bone. Dodger gave the wooden crate a few perfunctory shakes before he turned the thing over again. Lo and behold, there was a blood-soaked envelope attached to the bottom of the box. He scooped the envelope out, doing his best to ignore the blood squishing between his nimble fingers.
He returned the box to the floor, upside down, using it as a cap to cover the awful pile of disembodied tails. Dodger gave a quick glance up to the timers on the machines. Each reported that thirty seconds had passed. Two and a half minutes left before the barn went up, taking the whole town with it. Dodger breathed deeply again to center himself. If death was coming for Dodger at last, then it did little good to panic. After all, hadn’t he spent a long time welcoming the idea of death?
Dodger pondered this point as he opened the envelope and pulled out the contents. The main bulk was a folded map, which Dodger disregarded, assuming it indicated Rex’s compound off the coast of California. Little good such information did him right at this moment. He pushed this aside in favor of another slip of paper, which bore a cryptic message.
How does an
Enigma solve itself?
May I give a hint?
If you wish to
Deduce the answer,
Don’t hesitate to
He flipped the paper over and over, unsure what to make of it. Look left? Dodger glanced to the left side of the barn, where a foot or so of canvas covered one section of the wall. Dodger dropped the envelope, and everything in it, as he sprinted over to yank the canvas aside. On the wall were a few words, hastily painted in red.
Wrong left, you fool. You have everything in hand.
“Damn it!” Dodger shouted. He took another deep breath, gritting his teeth at the sound of the clacking countdown across the room. Fifty seconds had now passed. Less than two minutes left. Dodger picked up the paper again and read the message once more, straining his overtired brain to solve the riddle.
Everything in hand.
Dodger smirked as the answer arranged itself before his eyes, and he felt a bit of a jackass for not seeing it right away. Rex was correct in his assessment of himself; he was one clever doggy. How does an enigma solve itself? When it spells out the answer in capital letters, all aligned to the left of the page. Dodger ‘looked left’ and read all of the capital letters in a row.
“The middle it is,” he said.
Dodger folded the paper and stuck it in his pocket as he approached the middle contraption. This seemed far too easy. After the hullabaloo of a speech Rex had just given about the importance of villainy, this whole riddle game seemed like a joke. Especially the ease with which Dodger had solved it. On the other hand, the dog thought mighty highly of himself. Perhaps he was testing Dodger’s intelligence. Trying to gauge the mind of his opponent in order to prepare for their final face-off.
The clacking of the contraptions’ clocks reminded him that he didn’t have a whole lot of time to ponder such things. This was it. Did he trust Rex’s clues? Did he have a choice? No. He didn’t. Rodger Dodger was, at that moment in time, the single thing he hated to be in any situation. He was at the mercy of someone else. With a heavy heart, and with blood on his hands once again, Dodger pressed the middle button.
The clacking came to an abrupt halt. Dodger breathed easier in the ensuing silence, a little more than smugly pleased with his success. Until, to his chagrin, a new kind of ticking filled the barn. The machine in front of him set into motion again. Once more, Dodger refused to panic. He set his jaw, closed his eyes and waited for the end.
Oddly enough, the end sounded a lot like Vivaldi.
Dodger cracked an eyelid to see that the contraption before him had sprouted a metal horn, from which the strains of Vivaldi poured forth in sweet tones. Either there was an orchestra under the floorboards, or the machine was playing a recording, just like the one the doc had played on Mr. Torque not an hour before. And yes, with the music, there came that awful, familiar voice.
“Mr. Dodger!” Rex said across the metal tube. “I am so pleased you solved my riddle. Though, admittedly, it wasn’t much of a riddle, was it? I promise they will get better as the days progress. And by better, I of course mean more difficult. Much, much more difficult. But we like that sort of thing, now don’t we? I know you do.”
Dodger cocked his head. What in Sam Hill was that maniac going on about now?
“I am sure you are eager to begin your journey,” Rex said. “And you shall, soon enough. After this recording has played out, the doors will automatically open, and you will all but run back to your precious train. Using the clue I have already provided, you might be able to discover my whereabouts before your time is up.” The dog chuckled.
Clue? Dodger grabbed the envelope again and slid the contents free. Nothing but the map was left … unless … Dodger unfolded the map and found that it wasn’t complete. It was half of a map—the east half, unfortunately—torn roughly away from the rest of the whole. But more importantly, once Dodger unfolded the thing all of the way, he found a single name scrawled across the paper, written in what looked to be dried blood, and in a hand with which Dodger was well acquainted.
“How long has it been?” Rex’s voice asked in an eerie echo of Dodger’s thoughts. “Five years? Ten? You should know he spoke of you as though he had seen you only yesterday. Of course, it took a good bit of convincing to get him to talk at all. I find the bones of the elderly break so easily. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Dodger? Like branches snapping underfoot.”
Dodger gritted his teeth, pushed down his anger and did his best to keep from launching an assault at the machine. He wanted to smash the thing to bits, but he had a feeling he needed to hear the rest of the message in order to find Rex. Find him and kill him. If Rex had really done what he claimed, Dodger reckoned the dog had made the biggest mistake of his now very short life.
“As for the other half of the map,” Rex continued, “now you know who has it. Find it, and you will find me. Of course, not without a trial first. Why do you think I gave you a generous two weeks? Surely the majestic Sleipnir can make the journey in far less time. No, those two weeks are for my pleasure and your pain. I have a burning need to test you, Mr. Dodger. To know not only how far you are willing to go, but if you can figure just how to get here in time. And I know firsthand that you enjoy just such a challenge. Two weeks, Mr. Dodger. I look forward to seeing you again.”
The voice and the music fell quiet, followed by the soft click of the inner cylinder ceasing its rotations. As promised, the shutter over the barn door lifted, in a slow draw, allowing Dodger access to the outside world again. He looked to the door, then back to the three machines. He began to wonder if there was ever any dynamite in the first place. As if waiting for him to think that very thought, the machines shuddered and shook and came to life again. In a loud clatter, each set of wooden slats flipped back, resetting the timers to a new set of numbers.
Ten, zero, zero, zero.
Dodger blinked at the timers. No way. Rex couldn’t be that crazy.
Nine, five, nine.
Yes, Rex was just that crazy.
Nine, five, eight.
Without a minute to lose, Dodger stuffed the section of map into his back pocket and hightailed it from the barn. He ran past the doors and all but burst into the middle of town. Blinded for a moment by the warm sunshine of the late afternoon, Dodger swayed on his feet, squinting as he searched the horizon for the outline of his train. To the south, he spotted her, all twinkling brass and glimmering copper in the bright light. He made his way toward her, pressing himself as hard as he could run, feeling every bit a man of forty-odd summers, with a double helping of winters. His lungs burned, his thighs ached and every joint in his body screamed for him to slow the heck down. At his body’s bitching and moaning, he pushed even harder, bringing the Sleipnir closer to him with every broad step.
To his surprise, once he cleared the town proper, he was greeted by two figures moving toward him. At first, they walked at a leisurely pace, but once they saw him, they began to run. For a brief moment, Dodger thought it might’ve been more of Rex’s men. But as they came closer, he could just make out the shapes of Ched and Lelanea, no doubt coming to check on Dodger despite his instructions.
“Get back to the line!” he shouted to the pair.
“Dodger!” Lelanea cried. “Are you hurt?”
Dodger swallowed his explanation, choosing to save his breath for those last few hundred or so feet. Never mind that if he stopped to explain the situation, he might find himself unable to start again. Instead, he approached the pair, ran between them, and buzzed past them, leaving a frustrated Lelanea and a confused Ched calling after him. His plan worked, however, for it only took a few seconds for the pair to realize that if Rodger Dodger was hauling ass away from the town, then so should they. Lelanea and Ched were hot on his heels in seconds, and the three ran all the way back to the train. There, he led them straight to the engine cab, each clambering up the grating and scrambling into the car.
A surprised Mr. Torque gasped from his place at the helm. “My word! Is that any way to knock? What if I had been in the middle of-”
“Get us out of here!” Dodger shouted over the metal man’s objections, then collapsed to his hands and knees, struggling to catch a burning breath.
“I will do no such thing. You can’t just barge in here and-”
Although usually a fountain of acidic comebacks and disobedient one-liners, Mr. Torque knew better than to argue with that tone of command. Even he could recognize danger when he heard it. He did as asked, grumbling quietly to himself as he pushed buttons and flipped levers with the speed that only a mechanical man could possess. The train shifted into motion under their feet.
“You’re lucky we had her ready to roll,” Ched said.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” Feng said from the doorway. “I told you we would need to make a fast getaway.”
“Dodger,” Lelanea said. “Where are you hurt?”
“I’m not.” Dodger said, his breathing evening out a bit.
“You’re awful bloody for an uninjured man.”
Dodger looked down at the sticky mess of his red hands. “It isn’t my blood.”
“Then whose is it?” Mr. Torque asked.
“Let’s get back to the meeting cab, and I’ll explain.” Dodger motioned for the others to go ahead, then turned back to nod at the clockwork man. “Mr. Torque, you need to push her hard and get us as far away as possible as fast as you can.”
“Why the abominable rush?” Mr. Torque asked with an impatient sigh.
“Because that town is rigged to explode. So unless you want your metal rump spread out from here to St. Louis, I suggest you get the Sleipnir in gear.”
His question answered, Mr. Torque’s metal eyebrows tilted to an odd angle of astonishment. “Any particular direction?”
“Northeast until I say when.”
The train lurched into a quicker pace and shifted in the requested direction.
“Explode?” Lelanea asked. “What are you talking about?”
“I am talking about two tons of dynamite under the town,” Dodger said. “Courtesy of our generous host.”
“That man ish a crazshy,” Ched said.
“Wrong,” Dodger said. “Rex is worse than just a crazy man. He’s a maniac with a plan.”