Hop, Skip and Jump
In which Dodger tries to talk Al out of coming along
Coffin Keep was just a short jaunt by train.
Convincing Al to board the Sleipnir was the real work.
“Just get on the train,” Dodger said.
“No,” Al said. “I ain’t gettin’ on that thing. I don’t like trains, but I especially don’t like that one. I’ll walk. I feel more than up to it, thanks to your boss man’s medicine.”
“And by the time you get there, those kids will likely be dead.”
“That mutt said we had hours.”
“The train will take minutes.”
“I’ll catch up.”
“You’ll get on the train.”
Dodger rolled up his sleeves.
“I swear, Rodger,” Al said. “You lay one hand on me, and I will break you in two.”
Dodger growled. “Get. On. The. Train.”
“Who wants pie?” Feng asked from the meeting-cab doorway.
Al sniffed. “That pecan?”
“Been years since I had it.”
Feng pulled the pie, and its delicious aroma, into the cab, leading Al by the nose as he boarded behind the Celestial. Dodger repressed a snicker and climbed in behind them.
“Welcome aboard,” the doc said. He held his arm out to the others in the cab. “Let me introduce the rest of the crew. This is Feng, our resident cook.”
“Nice to meet you,” Al said, and licked his lips as he glanced back down at the pie.
Feng wasted no time in serving the man up a slice.
“Ched,” the doc said, “you’ve met already.”
Ched tipped the brim of his cap, but Al wasn’t interested. His sole focus was on that steaming slice of heaven. He scooped away a huge bit and brought the spoon to his wrinkled lips.
“And last but not least,” the doc said. “My lab assistant and niece, Lelanea Dittmeyer.”
Al finally glanced up, that scoop of pecan pie lingering at his open mouth as he raised his eyebrows and stared at the beautiful niece of the doc.
Lelanea smiled and gave a small dip of a curtsy. “It’s a pleasure and an honor to meet you, Mr. Jackson.”
“Pleasure is all mine,” Al said, then stuffed the pie into his mouth with a wide grin. A moan rose from the old man as his eyes all but rolled to whites with delight.
“I take it you like it?” Feng asked.
“Thanks. The secret is in the crust.”
“And what is the secret?”
“In the crust.” Feng winked.
Al poked his spoon at Feng and laughed. “You, I like.” He returned to scooping the pie into his face. It was gone in seconds. “That was great. Now, if you don’t mind, I will be on my way. I got a long walk.”
“We’ve already departed,” Dodger said. He hooked a thumb to the speaking tubes beside him. “I gave the word to Torque the moment we boarded.”
Al whipped about to stare out of the window at the passing scenery. “It don’t feel like we’re movin’ at all.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” the doc said. “These buffoons have gotten used to her movement, and they complain at every bump and turn. It is nice to hear someone appreciate her for what she is.”
Mr. Torque’s tinny voice whistled through the speaking tubes. “We should arrive at your coordinates in approximately fifteen minutes.”
Al jumped at the disembodied voice.
“It’s all right,” Dodger said. “The tubes allow us to speak to each other from different cabs and rooms.”
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Al said.
“Why?” the doc asked.
“Why would you want to be a monkey’s-”
“Figure of speech, doc,” Dodger said.
The doc puffed his cheeks with a huff. “Ah, a colloquialism.”
“Right,” Dodger said. “Al, take a seat and help me fill them in on what’s going on. We don’t have long.”
Al parked himself beside Lelanea, to Boon’s obvious discomfort. But to be fair, the old man couldn’t see the ghost. He didn’t know that the shape-shifter was in love with the spirit either. Or that Ched wasn’t quite alive but not quite dead. Or that the professor couldn’t settle down because no one wanted him near their town for the supernatural trouble he attracted. Or that Feng was an ageless, time-traveling magician. Dodger couldn’t explain it all right now. Such things would have to wait until they were done with Coffin Keep. The idea of that made Dodger smile. Would Al join up with them? Or would he want to stay behind once he had the kids safe and sound again? Dodger wasn’t sure which he hoped for more.
It only took a few minutes of rushed description to catch the others up.
“What do we do now?” Boon asked, standing protectively by Lelanea’s side, hand lingering in the air near her shoulder.
Dodger glanced to him, to Al, then to Lelanea. He raised his eyebrows.
She took the hint and asked the same question aloud, for Al’s benefit.
“As soon as we get there,” Dodger said, “I’ll go after them.”
“We’ll go after them,” Al said.
“Ish that wishe?” Ched asked.
“No, sir,” Dodger said. “It isn’t wise, nor is it happening. You stay here, Al, and help them guard the line. They need you here. I can handle this on my own.”
Al scowled at the command. “You brought me with you because you claimed you needed me there. I ain’t lettin’ you go on your own, son.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Yes you do. You’re pretty fired up right now, and so am I. Anybody can become angry; that’s easy. But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way, that’s not within everybody’s power, and it’s not easy.”
“That was a very wise observation,” the doc said.
“It should’ve been,” Dodger said. “Aristotle said it about twelve hundred years ago.”
“Ah. I see where you get the habit now.”
“My point,” Al said, “is that you need me to help keep you focused.”
“I’ve been focused on my own for twenty-something years,” Dodger said.
“Pardon me sayin’ this, boy, but look where that’s gotcha.”
Everyone squirmed at the retort, looking everywhere but at Dodger.
“All right,” Dodger said. “Fine. Since you know so much about everything, you can come with me. Just don’t get in my way.”
Al chuckled as he elbowed Lelanea. “And he says I ain’t changed. He sounds the same as he did when he was just a boy.”
“I guessed as much,” Lelanea said. She linked her arm through his elbow, bringing the old man to a wider grin. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but don’t you worry about the danger of such a mission? I would think such things were a young man’s game.”
“You mean to say, ain’t I a bit old for this sort of thing?”
Lelanea lowered her eyes and smirked. “Yes, sir. I’m afraid you caught me in a most embarrassing question.”
Al pulled her closer and patted her hand. “A pretty young thing like you might think of me as old, but just ‘cause there is snow on the rooftop don’t mean there ain’t fire in my furnace.”
“I am sure you have loads of such fire, Mr. Jackson.”
“Call me Al.”
“When you get back, Al, you must tell us all about Dodger’s youth. We’ve found that he is a bit reserved about such things.”
“Al,” Dodger warned. “Don’t you even think about it.”
Al nodded, all serious and proper, at Dodger, then turned to Lelanea and winked.
Lelanea laughed softly. “Mr. Dodger, can I have a word with you for a moment? It’s concerning the primer.” She leaned against Al to say in a lower voice, “Boring stuff, I’m afraid. Why don’t you go and have another piece of pie while I speak with your pupil?”
“That sounds like a fine idea, ma’am.” Al reluctantly released his grip on Lelanea, and scurried to the opposite end of the cab for more pie.
Lelanea patted the couch beside her and smiled far too wide for a woman who rarely even grinned. This didn’t bode well. Dodger eased down next to her, preparing himself for a tongue lashing of the unpleasant variety. Sure enough, the moment he sat, she leaned in close and began berating him for allowing Al to come along.
“This is unacceptable,” she fussed in a clipped whisper. “You can’t be serious about taking him with you.”
“I don’t think I can talk him out of it,” Dodger whispered in return.
“The man is in his eighties,” Boon said. “Old folks shouldn’t be traipsing about on adventures.”
Lelanea gave a soft huff and crossed her arms, flaring her nostrils at the spirit.
“Oh come now,” Boon said. “That man is relatively three times your age, even if he is less than half.”
Dodger blinked in surprise. Just how old was this supposed niece of the doc? Dodger stored the question and new information for a later discussion.
“I only mean,” Boon said, “that he’s going to get himself killed.”
“Or someone else,” Lelanea said.
“As much as I don’t want him to come along,” Dodger said. “It isn’t a lack of ability that makes him a liability.” Dodger pointed across the cab at Al, who was deep in a pie-related discussion with Feng and the doc. “I am willing to bet that he can still shoot better in his sleep than most men wide awake.”
“At his age?”
Dodger picked up an empty teacup from the table beside the couch. He weighed it in his hand for a moment, then reared back and threw it at Al for all he was worth. Lelanea gasped as the cup made a bee line for Al’s skull. Just as the projectile was about to strike the old man’s hard head, Al reached up and caught the cup, without even looking in Dodger’s direction. Al then placed the cup on the pie trolley, all the while never breaking stride in his conversation concerning the perfect pecan pie.
“Ah,” Boon said. “I see now.”
“My apologies,” Lelanea said.
“Apology accepted,” Al said, grinning at her and Dodger a moment before he returned to his discussion.
“Did I forget to mention that he has always had excellent hearing?” Dodger asked in a whisper.
Lelanea narrowed her eyes, but neither she nor the spirit had more to say on the matter.
The train slowed just as Mr. Torque announced their arrival.
“That was fast,” the doc said. “I’m afraid I wasted Mr. Jackson’s time with pie talk instead of allowing him to prepare himself.”
“No worries,” Al said. “I got all the preppin’ I need right here.” He touched his hands to the old Colts parked on his hips.
“Yes, I see that. And while those antiques are just lovely, may I offer you a fresher pair?”
Al wrinkled his already very wrinkled nose. “Fresher? They’s guns, not flowers.”
“I only meant a newer pair. I have variety of weaponry I would be more than glad to-”
“You mean like his guns?” Al asked, pointing to Dodger. “Because if that’s the case, then not just no, but hell no. I can make do with my own. I always have.”
“But I only meant to offer my help-”
Dodger laid a hand on the doc’s shoulder, calming him. “It’s okay, sir. Al is set in his ways. Besides, we don’t have time to show him how to work one of your fancy weapons.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricksh,” Ched added.
“Old dog?” Al asked. “Ain’t you just a rude pup.”
“Enough pleasantries,” Dodger said. “We got to go. The rest of you stay put and hold down the fort.”
“Shall I join you?” Boon asked.
Please, Dodger said to Boon. Aloud, he added, “Miss Lelanea, you give us twenty minutes. If we don’t return or you don’t hear the sound of gunfire, then you know what to do.”
“I understand,” Lelanea said aloud.
“I don’t,” Boon said.
Twenty minutes, she said in underspeak. Then I’ll come after you three.
Good girl, Dodger answered with a grin. He hadn’t been sure she could underspeak. That might come in all kinds of handy. When I get back, we need to talk a bit about your condition. All of it. I would like to know exactly what you can do, in case I need you.
I agree. The time for secrets has passed. That goes for yours as well. For instance, what in the world did this man train you to do at such a young age?
“You two done moonin’ over each other?” Al asked. “Or should the rest of us go and get those kids while you stare into each other’s eyes a bit longer?”
“I wash wonderin’ the shame thing,” Ched said.
“As was I,” Boon said.
Lelanea smirked. “They’re just jealous because you have eyes worthy of staring into, Mr. Dodger.”
“As do you,” Dodger said before he could help himself.
Feng and Ched chuckled.
Boon did not.
Clearing his throat overdramatically, Dodger made for the door. “Let’s get on our way before I say something I’ll really regret.”
“I wish you would,” the doc said. “Because I’m afraid I have no clue as to what just happened here.”