Back on Track
In which Dodger plays the Traitor
Dodger opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. Not the sky, or a canopy of green, or even a layer of fog or utter darkness. No, it was a proper ceiling, though it was dark and dingy and leaking some kind of liquid from more than one spot. He sat up, holding his groan to himself since he wasn’t sure if he was alone. Dodger glanced around the dim room, his sorrowful eyes landing on a row of bars that made up most of the wall to his left. No windows. No doors. A pair of pitiful, sputtering torches lit the place as best they could. It wasn’t much light, but it was enough to illuminate a depressing fact.
A room with no windows and no doors with a wall made of bars equaled only one thing.
“A cell,” he whispered. “I’m in a damned cell?”
“Might as well shout it,” someone to his right said. “No one’s gonna hear you either way. Save me, of course.”
Dodger sat up and brushed down his clothes—still all black, though the gun belt was gone. As was his hat. “And who is me?”
The speaker giggled. “Boy, you’re in pretty poor shape if you don’t know who you are.” He giggled again.
There was an undeniable madness in that giggle. Dodger had heard that kind of laugh before. It was the crazy kind of giggle from a man who had seen, and probably done, far too much. A special kind of crazy that made Dodger wish there was another wall of bars between them. Dodger was also forced to ask himself who or what the crazy old coot represented in Sarah’s troubled mind.
“Yeah,” Dodger said as he got to his feet. “Must’ve hit my head when they threw me in here.”
“I bet you’re surprised they locked you up,” the giggler said. “I bet you thought they would’ve thrown you a party, considering who you are.”
“Why? Who am I?”
That set the stranger to guffawing like there was no tomorrow. Dodger leaned against the bars, crossed his arms and waited patiently for the man to stop laughing. The giggler in the shadows eventually settled down once more, his laughter dimming to a soft chuckle.
“Let’s try this again,” Dodger said. “Who do you think I am?”
“Better,” the man said. “Much better. You learn fast.”
“Then educate me a bit more, if you please.”
Another giggle. “Woowee, and so polite. Maybe you ain’t who they say you is.”
Dodger pushed away from the wall, the man’s words taking him by surprise. “A traitor? Are you certain?”
“Not just a traitor,” the laughing man said. “The Traitor. You’re the one who told King Rex where the Princess was hiding. Ain’tcha?”
“King Rex?” Dodger asked, unable to hide the mounting surprise in his voice.
“I know. He says we best as well get used to calling him that. Now that he has the Prince and Princess under his control, all hope for the kingdom is gone. Especially since Sir Rodger is behind bars, too.”
“I didn’t tell anyone where to find the princess. She wasn’t hiding anywhere. In fact, we were on our way back to rescue the prince.”
“Yup. That’s the same story you told King Rex. Or so they say. I understand he promised to pay you handsomely. And now here you are with me. Locked away for all eternity.”
“This doesn’t make any sense. If I helped Rex, why-”
“King Rex,” the man corrected Dodger.
Dodger sighed. “Fine. If I helped King Rex, then why would he toss me in a cell like this? I thought he’d want a man like that at his right hand. Or at the very least, left.”
The stranger shifted in the shadows, coming closer to Dodger. “Are you kidding? You sold out a little girl. That is pretty low, even by the new King’s standards. How can anyone trust you now? As they say, once a traitor, always a traitor.”
As the man started up with the laughing again, Dodger pondered his precarious situation. Could he have betrayed his friends? The old Dodger sure would have, and Tyler Crank? Heck, you’d have to pay him not to betray someone, because he’d double cross his own mother just to see the look on the woman’s face. It was in that man’s blood to turn on his brother. And now here sat Dodger, playing the role of that man he had grown to hate. Perhaps Sarah’s subconscious sensed Dodger’s guilt for living such a foul life for so many years, and wrote that guilt into her imaginary play. Or maybe Rex had set this up all along, so the waking Sarah would never trust the real Dodger.
Either way, it was up to Dodger to break both of those chains, as well as a cell door.
Dodger grabbed the cell bars and shook them as hard has he could.
“Won’t do no good,” the stranger said. “I’ve tried everything. We are never getting out of here.”
“Yes, we are,” Dodger said.
He shook the bars again, focusing on the bottom set of hinges, and the way they shifted with each shake. Dodger backed away from the bars and eyed the cell around him. A rusted pair of ancient shackles lay in one corner, bolted to the wall. Dodger snatched up the shackles and yanked on them. They pulled away with ease.
“Come up here and hold the door still,” Dodger said as he returned to the cell bars.
“What was that?” the man asked.
“Come and hold the door. I can knock the pins out, but I need both hands.”
“What? I didn’t quite catch that command.”
Dodger let out a soft sigh. “Please come and hold the door?”
“That’s more like it. Young folks can be so rude these days.”
When the giggler moved into the torchlight, Dodger lost his ire and felt doubly sorry for the stranger. The poor man was older than the hills, with long gray hair and a matching long beard. He had almost wasted away, his belly so gaunt it drew concave with each breath under his thin, filthy clothes. The fellow stooped in his shuffle, taking each step with measured care. Eventually, the old man made it to the bars, where he grabbed the door with his gnarled hands and held on.
Using the cuff as a hammer, Dodger easily knocked the bottom pin out of the hinge, then set to working on the top hinge. “What are you in here for?”
“You know,” the man said, letting out a soft giggle, “I’ve been down here so long, I don’t really remember.”
“Must’ve been pretty bad.”
“You mean like betraying my comrades?”
Dodger grumbled under his breath, “Or your conscience.”
“What was that?”
After Dodger knocked out the top pin, he shifted the weight of the bars onto his own shoulders. It was heavy, but nothing he couldn’t handle for a few feet. He staggered with the thing to the back wall, where he placed it on the floor as quietly as he could. When he turned about again, the older man was already standing outside of the cell, stretching his arms and cracking his back.
“Feels good to be outside of that thing at last,” the man said.
“I’ll bet,” Dodger said. “Do you know anything about this place?”
The geezer held his hand up and wiggled it back and forth. “A bit. I used to know it like the back of my hand.” He glanced down at his hand with a grunt. “Another age spot? When did that get there?”
“Not to worry. I’m sure the others aren’t very far.”
“Others? You mean your fellow ruffians and neredowells?”
“If by ruffians you mean Sir Rodger, then yes.” Dodger didn’t give the man a chance to argue the point. He just tucked the shackle into his shirt and took off down the hallway.
“Hang on now,” the man yelled after him. “Give an old man a chance to catch up.”
Dodger slowed in his steps, but only a little. If the old fart wanted to travel with the likes of Dodger then he would just have to keep up of his own accord. Dodger didn’t have time to wait around for an old timer to make his way along.
The hallway turned out to be a twisting maze of empty cells and dead ends. Dodger raced back and forth, this way and that, doubling back past the old man several times. All the while, the stranger shuffled along, aimlessly, as if he didn’t have a care in the world or a better place to be at that moment in time. This lackadaisical attitude infuriated Dodger. He didn’t have the benefit of apathy or insanity. He needed to find the others and get this whole thing back on track before the real Rex destroyed everything. Dodger crisscrossed the labyrinth for another half hour or so before he came close to admitting defeat.
“I don’t think we are ever going to find our way out of here,” Dodger said.
“Sure we are,” the man said. He shuffled past Dodger and pulled on a sputtering torch.
With a soft grind, the torch slid forward and an opening appeared beside Dodger.
Dodger leaned over and stared into the hole. “When were you planning on telling me that was there?”
“When you stopped running around like a fool chicken missing your head. There is only one way to solve any problem.”
“Stop and think,” Dodger and the older man said at the same time.
It was then that Dodger finally recognized the aged and tired face of his own mentor. He wanted to shout out with joy, to dance and sing, to hug the old geezer and this time never let the man go. But he knew such actions were useless. The man was nothing more than a phantom. Here stood the ghost of Aloysius Jackson. Regardless of what he looked like, or acted like, this man wasn’t the real Al, no more than Dodger was the real Tyler Crank.
“What’s gotten into you, son?” Al asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Nothing,” Dodger said as he realized he was staring at the old man. “I’m just more tired than I thought.”
“I would guess so, with all that crazy running around. Come on then, let’s get back to your friends.”
Dodger followed Al into the opening. The pair of men scurried along the tunnel for a few thousand feet, feeling along in the utter darkness until a pinpoint of light faded in from the other end.
“There,” Al said as he stopped to catch his breath. “That light up ahead. If I remember correctly, that’s the main cell where they hold the regular prisoners.”
“Regular?” Dodger asked. “What did that make us?”
Al winked. “Special.”
“I don’t know if I like the sound of that.”
“I thought you might, considering the best thing about being special is that no one ever comes to check on ya. So no one will miss us.”
“You’re right. In that case, I’m pleased to be considered special.”
In a soft voice, Al asked, “Is your conscience pleased as well?”
Dodger almost did a double take in the darkness. “What did you just say?”
“Me?” Al asked in a louder voice. “I didn’t say nothing. You must be hearin’ things. Let’s go and find those friends of yours before you start talking to yourself.”
Dodger fell in behind Al once more, wondering if there was more to this phantom of a memory than met the imaginary eye.