In which Dodger solves an important riddle
“What is that thing?” Al asked as Dodger held the cylinder between them.
“Something I can help with,” the doc said from the doorway.
“You mean something I can help with,” Mr. Torque said. “That is, if I felt so inclined.”
“Yes, it is a good thing you escorted me back. Though you must remember, you don’t have much runtime so far from the line-”
“Don’t you think I know that? Sir. Don’t lecture me about my makeup. I don’t lecture you on why you’re such a tub of lard.”
The doc gasped, then stamped a foot in irritation. “Mr. Torque! Why do you always have to misbehave in front of new people?”
“Or in front of any people,” Boon added with a snicker.
“Gentlemen, please,” Dodger said. “If you don’t mind holding your bickering for a few minutes, I would like to introduce you to …” Dodger paused as he turned to Al, or rather the empty chair where Al had been moments before. “Where’d he go?”
“He’s behind the table,” Boon whispered.
Dodger peered over the edge of the overturned table to find Al cowering against the wall. “Al? Are you all right?”
“Please, keep it away,” Al begged, his eyes wide with terror.
“What are you talking about?”
“Keep it away from me!”
“That metal monster. Please, I don’t know why you lied about working with that crazy little dog, but can’t y’all just go away and leave an old man be?” Al covered his head and rocked back and forth. A sob arose from his quivering form.
Dodger looked up to Torque. “I think he’s frightened of you.”
“Who?” Mr. Torque asked.
“Me?” Mr. Torque held a metal hand to his copper chest, aghast at the idea. “What on earth would he have to be afraid of me for?”
“Because Rex had his mechanical servant mess Al up pretty bad.”
Mr. Torque’s whiskers bristled at the news. “Well then, I’ll have plenty to say when we meet up with this so-called Mr. Grinder.”
Al whimpered at the name.
“Giving clockwork kind such a bad reputation,” Mr. Torque said.
“Yes,” the doc said. “I understand why you are so upset. That’s your job isn’t it? Fouling the name of clockwork creations all over the world?”
“Oh, ha ha. Sir.”
Dodger ignored the bickering pair and stepped behind the table. He lowered himself to Al’s cowering height and tapped the shivering man on the arm. “Mr. Jackson, sir, you don’t have to be scared of them. They don’t work for Rex, and neither do I.”
Al raised his face to Dodger. In his sudden and unfamiliar cowardice, the man looked every bit of ninety, maybe more. “They don’t?”
“No, sir. The doc is a good man. So is his assistant. They are here to help you and the kids. I promise.”
Dodger smiled. “Yes, sir.”
Al scowled. “Ain’t that just Jim dandy, ‘cause we both know what your promises are worth, Rodger.” He waved a hand at Dodger. “Come on, help an old man to his feet.”
Dodger gave Al the requested help, and though his ego stung from the offhand remark, he was glad to see Al come around again. “Doc, this is my mentor, Aloysius Jackson.”
The professor tipped his hat in greeting. “Well met, good sir. My name is Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer, PhD, MD and DGE.”
Al nodded to the doc with a grin. “Damn good egg, are ya?”
Dodger wasn’t surprised that Al had figured that one out.
The doc giggled. “Why yes! Thank you for noticing. Allow me to introduce my manservant, Mr. Torque. Please excuse his manners. Or rather lack of manners. Or rather lack of everything.”
“Sorry if I don’t trust your walking bucket of bolts,” Al said.
“Bucket of what?” Mr. Torque cried.
“Torque,” the doc scolded. “Calm down. Can’t you see this man has been through enough? He doesn’t need your attitude right now. And Mr. Jackson, I can assure you that although my manservant appears cold and lifeless, he is, in fact, cold and useless.”
“Shove it up your coal chute, sir,” Mr. Torque said.
“If it is all the same,” Al said, “I’d rather it not be in my house.”
“It?” Mr. Torque asked. He began to grumble about the rudeness of people in the world today.
“It ain’t dangerous?” Al asked. “Is it?”
“Dangerous?” the doc asked, then giggled again. “He’s no more dangerous than … than … well, I think I can settle this with a quick fact.” The doc snapped his fingers at Torque. “Torque, tell him what you do in your spare time.”
“No,” Mr. Torque said.
“I solve crimes.”
Al snorted a short laugh.
“Tell him the truth,” the doc said.
“No,” Mr. Torque said.
“Tell him, you pompous metal mistake!”
Mr. Torque sighed with a tin hiss. “I write.”
“You write what?”
“You mean trash.” The doc tutted and glanced to Al again. “You see, he writes all right, but all this bucket of bolts produces is filth, Mr. Jackson. Pure and utter filth. Bodices bursting apart at the seams with merely a look from the leading man. Heaving bosoms and tightening trousers. Intimacy of the most inappropriate nature. That sort of thing.”
“It is called erotic literature, sir, and my publisher assures me it will be the next big thing.”
“Yes, well, your publisher thinks you are a nineteen-year-old girl from Alabama, so how clever can he be?”
“The point is,” Dodger said, “Mr. Torque is as gentle as a baby doe. He couldn’t hurt a fly, much less a human being. Isn’t that right, Torque?”
Thankfully, the clockwork man agreed rather than arguing further. “Yes. I suppose so.” He narrowed his copper eyelids at the doc. “Unless it was a particularly annoying and very fat fly.”
Al laughed at that. “All right, all right. I reckon I’ve seen enough. There is no way y’all work for that awful mutt. Not a chance. Come on in and make yourselves at home, as it were. I apologize for the mess. My last houseguests weren’t as gentle natured as you all.”
The doc and his manservant crossed the threshold and closed the door behind them.
“My,” the doc said, looking about the ruined house. “That animal certainly has no manners.”
“Either that,” Mr. Torque said, “or you need to fire the maid.”
“Mr. Torque,” Dodger said. “Can you play this back for us?” He handed the cylinder to the manservant. “It might have the whereabouts of some missing kids on it.”
“Missing children?” the doc asked. “Dear, oh dear. I hope they are all right.”
“So do we. That recording should help us find them. Will you please play it for us?”
“I suppose so,” Mr. Torque said. “If there are children involved. And because you said please. And because he didn’t ask.” Torque tipped his head to his master.
“Thank you,” Dodger said. “Doc, can you take a look at Al? He’s pretty banged up.”
“Of course.” The doc made his way over the debris of the living room with his bag in tow.
“What shall I do?” Boon asked.
Patrol the perimeter, Dodger said. Keep an eye out for trouble.
“Will do.” The spirit slipped out through the closed front door.
The mechanical man set to prepping his inner workings to play the cylinder while Dodger assisted the doc with mending Al.
“I hope I have enough compounds,” the doc said.
“I don’t need any fancy medicine,” Al said, smacking away the doc’s hands. “Just need some rest.”
“True,” Dodger said, laying his hands on Al to hold him still, “but we need you with us. And you can’t travel in this state.”
Al cut his eyes at Dodger. “Whatcha mean, travel? You think I’m getting aboard that behemoth sitting in my yard, you got another think coming.”
The strains of Vivaldi cut the argument short.
“Mr. Dodger!” Rex’s recorded voice shouted from Torque’s mouthpiece. “It is so good to speak with you again. Perhaps ‘with you’ isn’t quite the right phrase here. At you?” Rex laughed.
Al trembled again under Dodger’s hands.
“If I am right about our schedule,” Rex continued, “you are on the afternoon or perhaps eve of our second day. Only twelve days left, Mr. Dodger. Better put them to good use. I am certain your precious mentor has given you some details as to what occurred here. If not, then a simple glance around should tell you what you need to know. I have taken Patricia’s children, and I would’ve had her too, if it weren’t for her untimely demise. Shame, don’t you think? Such a beautiful thing, only to be cut down in her prime. Then again, perhaps it serves her right for being a whore in the first place. Yes?”
“That son of a biscuit eater,” Al whispered.
“I had plans for her,” Rex said over Al’s whisper, “but those plans had to change, as death robbed me of her employ. Still, I am nothing if not adaptable. You have witnessed that already, so I am sure you understand. I suppose you are curious as to the children’s location. To this, I say, ‘Answer me one question, and you will know their location.’ Are we ready? Here it is.”
Dodger closed his eyes and prepared for the coming riddle.
Rex said, “The man who builds it doesn’t want it. The man who buys it doesn’t need it. And the man who needs it doesn’t know it. What am I? Good luck, Mr. Dodger. If you don’t solve the riddle in the next six hours, your precious little ones will be with their mother once more.” Vivaldi rose in volume to drown out Rex’s wild laughter.
Dodger took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and set to unraveling the riddle.
Somewhere beside him, Al said, just under his breath, “Amateur.”
Dodger snapped open his eyes and stared down at the older man.
Al folded his arms with a wince. “He could’ve made it a bit more of a challenge.”
“You have solved the puzzle?” the doc asked.
Al grinned at the doc. “Haven’t you?”
“Well?” Dodger asked.
“Well?” the doc asked.
“What is it?”
“What is what?”’
“All right then, no need to shout. It’s a-”
“No cheatin’,” Al said over the doc’s answer.
“Oh my. I do apologize.” The professor went quiet and returned to inspecting Al’s various wounds.
“Really?” Dodger asked. “You’re going to do this now? Those kids are in danger. We have to go get them. We don’t have time for this nonsense.”
“And I thought I raised you smarter than you are actin’ right now. Calm down. He just said we had six hours to figure it out. No sense in running off guns a-blazin’.”
Dodger grabbed his hair and had to fight the urge to pull it out by the roots. “I was right; you haven’t changed. You’re still insufferable.”
“And you’re still a roustabout. Solve the puzzle, darn it. Stop embarrassing yourself. And me.”
Exhaling slowly again, Dodger parked himself on the footstool, or kiddie chair or whatever it was, and gathered his thoughts. A man who builds it doesn’t want it. That could be any number of things. Why would a man buy it but not need it? Because he is buying it for someone else. Of course.
“Whatcha looking for?” Al asked.
“Just the right compound,” the doc said. The sounds of the man rummaging around in his medical bag filled the room. “I have some medicine that will not only mend your broken bones in a few minutes, but will make you feel ten times younger.”
“Sir, I am almost ninety years old. I don’t think anything can make me feel anything less than ninety.”
The rummaging sound ceased. “Sir, I am almost sixty and am willing to bet otherwise.”
Dodger smiled. He knew he should step in and explain that betting against the doc in anything but cards was always a mistake. Yet he didn’t. Served Al right for being so pigheaded about the riddle. Riddle, riddle, riddle. Dodger squeezed his eyes shut, trying to concentrate as the men bantered back and forth about bets and medicine and the merits of their advanced ages.
The man who needs it doesn’t know it? Why not? What would keep a man from knowing he needed something? Ignorance? A loss of consciousness? That could be it. Perhaps that was why the first man was buying the much-needed thing for the second man—because the second man was unable to make the purchase himself. What would an unconscious man need that could be built by someone who didn’t want it himself?
Dodger opened his eyes, and his smile widened.
“Ya got it, boy?” Al asked.
“Good. I thought you’d never—Ow! Watch where you’re sticking that thing.”
“Sorry,” the doc said. “But the needle has to be inserted in the tenderest of places to achieve maximum effectiveness.”
“I’ll put my foot in your tenderest of places if you don’t cut … it … out …” Al’s words faded as he went stone still. His pupils dilated to fill his eyes. His breath turned into a raspy wheeze. Sweat pebbled across his wrinkled brow.
“Al?” Dodger asked. “Doc? Is he all right?”
“Don’t worry,” the doc said. “He will be fine in a few—there we go. He is coming back already.”
Al blinked a couple of times as his body relaxed and his breathing returned to normal. He flexed his arms without wincing, then rolled his head around on his loosened neck. Al touched his eyes, gently probing the places that had been swollen mere seconds before.
“How do you feel?” the doc asked.
“I feel ten years younger,” Al said.
“Excellent. I believe you owe me a pound.”
“I’ll give you fifty pounds if you hit me with that mix again.”
The pair of them laughed, and the sound of it warmed Dodger’s heart. He never suspected his current boss man would meet—let alone get along with—his old boss man. Would wonders never cease?
“Can I ask one question?” Mr. Torque asked.
“Certainly,” the doc said.
“What was the answer?”
“The riddle!” Mr. Torque caught himself, calming his voice and manners. “I realize I am decades ahead of most humans in both intellect and style, but I cannot, for the life of me, solve this little puzzle that is so beneath me.”
“Your lack of life might have a lot to do with your not understanding the question.”
“The answer is something you will never desire, use or need.”
“Stop being rhetorical and get to the point!”
The doc giggled, delighted by the metal manservant’s irritation.
“It’s a coffin, Torque,” Dodger said, letting the poor clockwork man off the hook.
“Ah,” Mr. Torque said. “I was going to guess that.”
“Of course you were,” the doc said. “What I don’t understand is how it helps us find those missing kiddies.”
“That part is the easiest,” Dodger said. “He has them in a place called Coffin Keep.”
“Are you sure?” Mr. Torque asked.
“He’s sure,” Al said.
“What is Coffin Keep?” the doc asked.
“A manmade system of caves a few miles northwest of here,” Dodger said. “So called because a man named Coffin made them.”
The doc’s eyes brightened at the news. “Manmade caves? How interesting. I should like to see that. Still, how can you both be so certain? Perhaps the coffin clue means something different?”
“No, it’s Coffin Keep all right,” Dodger said. “Because Coffin Keep was the last place Al and I saw each other.”