Pokin’ and Pryin’
In which Dodger digs a little deeper
“Well?” Torque said. “He obviously knows something. Follow the man.”
Dodger pushed the door, holding it open for Lelanea to pass through. He motioned to Torque. “Come on then.”
Torque whizzed past Dodger with a whistling snort.
Dodger shook his head as he followed the others outside.
The town had formed a semicircle around the inn, listening to the words of their mayor.
“So just get back to work, folks,” White said. “And let them get back to theirs. Don’t bother them.” He took a long draw on his cigar before he added, “At all.”
With that last stress of a command, the crowd dispersed, leaving the mayor alone on the steps with the newcomers. Though, not for long, considering the mayor was well on his way to wandering off again.
“Mayor White,” Lelanea said before the man could get away again. “This is important. Do you have the PAUL or not?”
The mayor looked over his shoulder at her. “It was destroyed. In an accident.”
Lelanea did her best to hide her disappointment. “Then he is no longer functional?”
“No. It is not. As I already tried to explain.”
“How unfortunate. Well, I suppose that is that.”
“What happened to him?” Dodger asked.
“Arnold,” Lelanea said. “They don’t have what we need. We should leave these nice people alone and move along.”
“What happened?” Dodger said again.
“No,” Mayor White said, turning about to face them again. “The man is curious. Tell me, sir, if I sate that curiosity, can we all get on with our respective lives?”
“Sounds good to me,” Dodger said.
“Fine then. The infernal machine got itself buried under twenty feet of rock and stone. Where it remains, to this day.”
Dodger looked toward the cliffs in the distance. “What kind of accident can bury a machine like that?”
Lelanea didn’t call Dodger down on that one. Instead, she turned her attention to White.
The mayor chewed on his cigar as he eyed Dodger. “I’m afraid I don’t know all of the details. Now, again, if you folks will excuse me, I have a town to run.” Mayor White walked off and left the newcomers standing around on their own.
“What an odd man,” Lelanea said.
“He’s more than just odd,” Dodger said. “He’s full of it.”
Lelanea stepped closer to Dodger, lowering her voice to a whisper as well. “You think the honorable mayor is lying?”
“I thought as much, too.” She smiled and nodded at a passing couple.
Dodger scratched his chin, using his hand to cup his whisper toward her. “Boy I sure miss underspeak.”
“As do I.” She drew closer to him, until her breath lay hot on his ear. “Do you think the machine is here?”
Dodger almost shuddered at the intimate proximity. He turned his head to whisper, “Let’s just say I have a hunch that it isn’t as destroyed as he lets on.”
Lelanea thought on this for a moment, then placed an arm affectionately around his shoulder, pulling him to her in a fake hug.
Dodger dithered as to where to place his eager hands.
“My waist,” Lelanea said, as if sensing his moral quandary.
He did as commanded, placing his hands just above her shapely hips.
“I don’t want to doubt your hunch,” she said, “but do you really think it’s worth wasting time here to find out? Every extra minute we tarry puts us behind. Rex expects us in just a few days.”
“I realize that,” he said, “but if PAUL is half as massive as the professor claims, we not only want him on our side, we need him. Especially now that monster has monsters of his own. Rex expects us, but he won’t expect what we will bring with us.”
“Why would the mayor lie? Or for that matter hide the thing if it’s still operational?”
“Who knows? Perhaps he worries someone will come along and take it.”
“He is right to worry.” Lelanea finally released Dodger, taking a step back to look up at him. “How do we find the thing? Where do we even start? The mayor so much as commanded the town not to talk to us.”
Movement caught Dodger’s eye. He glanced over her shoulder to the inn, just in time to see the nervous innkeeper duck back inside the establishment. “Then we need to find someone who will ignore that command.”
“Tell you what, take a stroll around town. See if you can get anyone to talk to you about the history of Jubilee.”
“And what do you plan on doing while I gather information?”
“I’m going to go have a word with the barkeep.”
Lelanea crossed her arms and stared at him. “A word? Or a drink?”
“Come on, wifey. You know me better than that.”
She thought about this for a moment, then nodded. “I suppose I do.”
“You take the bucket of bolts and meet me back here in a half hour.”
“Why do I have to take him?”
“Because I have men stuff to do.” Dodger threw his fake spouse a wink before leaving her fuming behind him.
“See you later, darling,” Lelanea said, all but spitting the words at his back.
Dodger felt kind of bad leaving it like that, but what else could he do? He knew this fake marriage was wearing just as thin on her as it was him. One minute they were all too comfortable playing the parts, but the next it was too close for comfort. He supposed in another world, another time, maybe they could’ve had a real chance. But with things the way they were—with Boon alive and the world in such peril—now was not the time to discuss feelings, attractions or desires. Dodger reminded himself once again that her ship had sailed, and that sexy sloop was never docking in his port again.
He pushed such lecherous thoughts from his mind as he made his way into the abandoned bar. He took a seat at the counter and waited for the innkeeper to make his appearance. And waited. And waited. Just when Dodger was ready to give up, the man in question appeared in the back doorway. The innkeeper caught sight of Dodger waiting on him and without missing a beat he spun on his heel, turning about to leave.
“Hey there!” Dodger shouted.
The innkeeper stopped in place and hung his head with a soft sigh.
“Is this a bad time?” Dodger said. “I thought you were open. I can come back later-”
“No, no,” the man said. He turned about again and approached the counter with a wide, forced smile. “What can I do for you?”
“I’d like something to drink.”
“I heard you were in a rush to leave.”
“Sure, but thought I’d wet my whistle before we hit the trail again, if it isn’t too much trouble.”
“Certainly not. What’ll it be? We have beer, whiskey and gin.”
Dodger grunted. “Are you sure?”
“No you aren’t sure, or no you don’t have any?”
“I am sure we don’t got none.”
Dodger decided to skip the lesson on double negatives. “Well then, I guess I will have a glass of your finest beer.”
“Right away, sir,” the innkeeper said. In less time than it took to order the thing, Dodger had his hands on a nice, warm beer.
He took a sip, eyeing the barkeep over the rim of the mug. “You married?”
The innkeeper shook his head but kept on wiping down glasses.
“Good on you,” Dodger said. “Sometimes it ain’t worth the trouble of a warm bed. She’s all uppity ‘cause we didn’t find what we came for.”
“Sorry to hear that,” the innkeeper said.
“Me too. She’s just so used to getting what she wants. Like most gals, I suppose.”
“I hear ya.”
“I don’t think we got a chance to formally meet.” Dodger stuck out his hand. “Arnold Carpenter.”
“So I heard. I’m Gerald Benton.” The innkeeper swiped his hand across the front of his apron, then quickly shook hands with Dodger before returning to his work. “You should know Mayor White said you would leave soon.”
“Yes, sir. And you should also know what he says sort of goes around here.”
“Ah.” Dodger leaned across the bar and lowered his voice “We’ll, we aren’t from around here, are we?”
A soft fear rose to the man’s eyes. “What are you saying?”
“That the little lady and I will leave when we’re ready.”
“And the m-m-mechanical man?”
The pair of men fell quiet as Dodger gave the Benton a chance to brood on what that meant. There was a chance the innkeeper would panic, and decide that messing with the likes of Dodger was far too risky. In that case, Dodger would have to convince Lelanea to move in with a softer touch. To Dodger’s delight, the fear on the innkeeper subsided. He smirked as he slid another beer mug across the counter.
“On the house,” he said.
“Are you certain?” Dodger said.
“Yeah. In fact, all of your drinks are.” The smirk grew into a broad grin.
Dodger thanked the man and scooped up the fresh mug. Benton left Dodger alone at the bar, heading to the backroom to do whatever his work required of him. Sipping on the free beer, Dodger wondered just how far he could push the innkeeper for information before the man folded under the pressure. Benton was all but chomping at the bit to talk about something. Hopefully that something was the same something Dodger wanted to talk about. If only there was a way to bring it up without tipping Dodger’s hand.
“Mr. Carpenter?” the innkeeper said.
Dodger glanced across the bar to see Benton lingering in the doorway to the backroom. “Yes, sir?”
“I hate to ask, with you being a customer and all, but do you think you can give me a hand with this keg?” The man jerked his head toward the room behind him, then slipped away through the open door without giving Dodger a chance to refuse.
Dodger gulped the last of his ale then wiped the back of his mouth with his sleeve as he got to his feet. He followed the man’s lead, slipping behind the bar then through the open doorway at the back where a flight of stairs greeted Dodger. He took the stairs with caution, just in case this was as setup after all. The staircase bottomed out in a storeroom filled with barrels, extra chairs and tables, dusty bottles of rotgut and wine, but no innkeeper.
“Mr. Benton?” Dodger said.
“Over here,” Benton said from behind a stack of kegs.
Following the voice to the back of the cramped room, Dodger found the innkeeper poised over a wide mouthed barrel on its side.
“If you can get that end,” the innkeeper said, patting the huge keg at his feet. “I’d really appreciate it.”
“No problem,” Dodger said, and stooped to grab the far end.
“There’s a pulley near the stairs. To my left. Lift on three.”
On the count of three, the pair lifted the barrel and duck walked it toward the stairs. The weight of it almost overpowered Dodger, but there was no way he was going to let the smaller man know that.
The innkeeper grunted with the weight. “I don’t know … why I order them … so large.”
“The bigger kegs … are easier … to pull from,” Dodger said between grunts and gasps.
“What … do you know … about pulling?”
“Used to … work a bar.”
“Here is good.”
At the command, Dodger lowered his end, setting the huge thing on the floor near the stairs. “Phew. You need help lifting it up the stairs?”
“Naw, the pulley makes it simple.” Benton had already looped the roped around the keg and was in the process of yanking the keg from the floor.
“All right then.” Dodger lingered a moment, hoping the man had more than help in mind. When the moment stretched into an uncomfortable silence, Dodger decided to cut his losses and try to fish for info somewhere else. “I suppose the wifey and I should shove off.”
“Yeah, that might be a good idea. You’ve probably seen everything you want to see in Jubilee.”
“Yeah, I reckon.” Just as Dodger turned to leave, the innkeeper cleared his throat.
“Of course, you might wanna check out the old mines.”
Dodger smirked briefly before wiping the smile from his face and turning about to eye the innkeeper with exaggerated curiosity. “Old mines?”
“Oh, yeah, this town originally sprang up around the old mines. Course, there’s nothing in them now. The gold dried up years ago, but the people stuck around once the land was cleared for farmin’.”
“Isn’t that what the miners bought PAUL to do? Clear the land and make it inhabitable?”
The innkeeper nodded.
“That’s pretty clever,” Dodger said. “Was that White’s idea?”
“Nah,” Benton said. “It were Travis’s idea. He used to be Mayor White’s foreman. He’d worked on plenty of crews before and he knew once the mines were empty, the people would leave. We needed a way to make folks stay. Can’t build a town without people. Can’t have people without a place to put ‘em.”
“And PAUL made a place for people to stay,” Dodger said, finishing the idea.
“I take it all of that happened before this town was called Jubilee?”
The innkeeper wrung his hands and dropped his gaze to the floor, falling quiet as if he had said too much.
Dodger was losing him. But to be fair the fellow had given away just enough info to move this investigation along. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to-”
“No, I want to tell you. I need to. Mayor White means well, but he sometimes forgets the truth of the matter.” Benton continued to wring his hands and look at his feet.
“And the truth is?”
The man swallowed hard. “If you head straight out of town from the back of the church, you should find a trail that leads right to the old mines. If you wanna see it. And I think you and the missus will want to see it.”
Dodger couldn’t ask for more. “Thanks. I appreciate the help.” As he reached the top step, Benton spoke again.
“Arnold?” the man said.
Dodger looked back to the innkeeper on the bottom step. “Yeah?”
“Please be careful.”
“I appreciate the concern, but I’m always careful.” Dodger smiled.
The innkeeper furrowed his brow. “You don’t understand. I … that is to say … well … if you find what you’re looking for, just be real careful. White may act like he has a poor memory these days, but there are certain things that none of us can forget. No matter how hard we try.”
Dodger left the man and his cryptic counsel at the bottom of the staircase, and made his way back to the Rhino and his friends waiting there. As Dodger traveled along, he couldn’t help but recall the words Decker said to him just a few weeks prior. The Orphic warning that sent Dodger on his way. That cautionary advice that boarding the Sleipnir would be the death of Arnold Carpenter.