Monday, May 12, 2014

V10:Chapter Six-A Town Called Jubilee

Volume Ten
Chapter Six

A Town Called Jubilee
 In which Dodger finds things are not what they used to be

It took a few moments for folks to notice the new arrivals, but once they did, a crowd gathered. At first it was a whisper here and a sideways glance there. This tumbled into a gasp or two, and then came the pointing and excited chatter. Within minutes, the bustling town stopped bustling, and turned their collected attention on Lelanea, Dodger, and most of all Mr. Torque. Folks parted like Moses commanding the Red Sea, giving the three a wide berth as they made their way toward the inn. Men and women and children all smiled and pointed at the three travelers.

“So much for keeping a low profile,” Lelanea said.

“What on earth are they gaping at?” Torque asked.

“I reckon they’re staring at you,” Dodger said. He scanned the crowd for potential danger, but found only wide eyes and bright smiles. “Though I don’t know what the smiles are about. They obviously have never spoken to you before.”

“Har, har,” Torque said. “As if you are a superior conversationalist. I could talk rings around you.”

“I’m sure you could.”

The inn rested in the heart of the small town, which forced the three of them past a half dozen other businesses along the way, all of which conveniently seemed to close the moment Dodger and company approached. The wave of closures started with a small general store just at the edge of town. A large, friendly looking ‘Open’ sign hung in the front window, but the instant Lelanea came within a foot of the door, the sign quickly flipped to ‘Closed.’ The trio received a repeat performance at a seamstress, the barber shop and a restaurant. Every place they walked past, without even the intention of stepping foot inside, closed before they could reach the door. In fact, the only place that didn’t close the minute they walked up was the inn, which Dodger put down to sheer luck.

The inn was modestly furnished with a plain countertop for a bar, a few wooden tables and a small stage at the back. Simple and honest. Dodger liked that. It reminded him of Decker’s Inn back at Blackpoint, a lifetime ago. The place was busy, with every table taken and only a few stools open at the bar. Lelanea didn’t linger in the doorway, nor did she wait for an invitation. She stormed forward, with Dodger and Torque trailing along in her wake. The moment they entered, the place went silent. All conversation came to a stop as the entire bar turned its collective attention to the new arrivals. Dodger could almost feel each patron flipping their own signs to ‘Closed.’

The barkeep was so busy working he didn’t notice Lelanea at first. The sudden silence must’ve drawn his attention, however, for he looked up from his work and smiled politely at her, then to Dodger. Once the man’s gaze landed on Torque, his eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open. Just as quickly as the shock came upon him it passed. He snapped his mouth shut and stared at the countertop, which he diligently began to wipe.

Lelanea either failed to notice the chilly change in the bar’s climate or she didn’t care. She continued her beeline to the bar, stopping only when she reached the counter. Dodger followed her, coming to rest a respectable three or four steps behind her, with Torque easing up beside of him. The patrons returned to a murmur of conversations, while continuing to stare at the newcomers.

“Excuse me?” Lelanea said.

The innkeeper did his best to ignore her, and Dodger could feel the effort of it from where he stood.

“Excuse me?” Lelanea repeated.

The innkeeper pushed his cloth down the bar, away from where she stood.

Dodger braced himself for what was sure to come.

“I said, excuse me!” Lelanea shouted.

The bar fell quiet again. Every patron stared up at her.

“Can anyone help us?” she said. “I think we are lost. We are looking for a place called Boulder Shadow.”

A soft gasp came from the back of the room, then, as if on cue, almost the entire bar full of folks stood and exited the inn. Dodger had seen the likes of such a mass exodus only once before, when he caught up with a bounty after three months hard chase. But that was a man to man fight. This was a beautiful woman seeking help. What kind of rude town had they stumbled across?

Even the innkeeper sidled to the door at the back, with every intention of slipping out.

“You!” Lelanea said, pointing at the innkeeper.

The man stopped in his tracks and raised his hands.

“Don’t you dare,” Lelanea said. “I’m not done with you.”

The man sighed, lowered his hands and finally turned to face her.

“My name is Daisy Carpenter,” Lelanea said.

Dodger started at the pseudonym. Somewhere along the way, they forgot to discuss such details. It didn’t surprise him that Lelanea would unilaterally decide such a thing, but it did surprise him that she chose his own fake surname. Best way to keep things straight, he supposed.

She held her hand up to Dodger. “This is my husband Arnold.” She shifted her hand to Torque. “And this is our manservant, Mr. Ratchet.”

“Mr. Ratchet,” the innkeeper and Torque echoed at the same time; one in awe and one in displeasure.

“Ratchet?” Torque said again. “In all my days I never-”

“We were hoping you could help us with some directions,” Lelanea said. “I am afraid we’ve gotten ourselves … would you please put your hands down? We aren’t trying to rob you.”

The man dropped his hands.

Dodger heard a soft chuckle rise from a single remaining patron at the back of the inn.

Lelanea huffed. “As I was saying, we seem to have gotten a bit turned around.”

“Turned around?” the innkeeper said.

“Yes, we are lost. As in not where we should be?”

“Where were you headed?”

“We are looking for a town called Boulder Shadow. Have you heard of it?”

The innkeeper swallowed hard. “Boulder Shadow? Why are you looking for that place?”

“Because we have business there. Do you know where it is or not?”

The question made the innkeeper even more nervous. “I, uh, that is to say … can I get you something to drink?”

“No, thank you. Just tell us where Boulder Shadow is, and we will be on our way.”

“Boulder Shadow is, well, it’s, well I think it is-”

“Do you know where we can find it?” Dodger asked the fellow at the back of the room.

The stranger stood from his seat with the slow creak of aging bones and made his careful way to the bar. At a clean foot taller than Dodger, he all but towered over the much shorter innkeeper. The man also dressed in a manner that announced his profession without him speaking a word; that classic all black suit and spats, complete with pressed tails and a top hat he carried under one arm. The gentleman approached Dodger with a nod, then stopped to bow deeply at Lelanea.

“Good afternoon, m’lady,” he said. “Allow me to apologize for our town. We aren’t accustomed to such unusual visitors.”

“Unusual?” Lelanea said.

The undertaker motioned to Torque.

“Ah, of course,” Lelanea said with a smile. “Sometimes I forget we have him along.” She held her hand out to the man. “Daisy Carpenter.”

He grasped her hand. “Barnaby Marlow.” Marlow politely shook hands with Lelanea, then looked to Dodger.

“Arnold Carpenter,” Dodger said, raising his fingers to his brow. “I take it you’re the stiff collector?”

“Arnold,” Lelanea said. “You must forgive my uncouth husband.”

“Not to worry ma’am,” Marlow said. “I’ve been called much worse.” The undertaker turned his attention onto Torque, gazing up and down the length of the metal man. “What a fascinating piece of machinery.”

“Piece of machinery?” Mr. Torque said. “I’ve never been so offended.”

Marlow’s eye went wide. “It speaks?”

“It does. And it bites as well, so back off, stiff collector.”

“Ratchet!” Lelanea snapped. “Again, you must forgive my uncouth manservant.”

“Ma’am, please,” Marlow said. “It is an unusual honor to be called any name by such a fascinating machine.”

“Damn right it is,” Torque said.

Dodger gave a quick snort of laughter.

“And it curses, too?” Marlow said. “How strange.”

“Strange?” Torque said. “I’ll show you who’s strange you overgrown sack of-”

“All right, Ratchet,” Dodger said, “that’s enough of that. I’m afraid he gets his smarts from his momma, but his smart mouth from his daddy.”

“Indeed,” Marlow said. “As much as I am enjoying this exchange, might I give you a piece of advice?”

“Is it free?”

The undertaker gave a tight smirk. “Our town isn’t accustomed to visitors, much less such unusual ones. It might suit your intentions better if you took your business—whatever it is—elsewhere.”

Dodger lost his humor. “That sounded a lot like a threat.”

“Consider it a warning.”

“Consider it duly noted,” Lelanea said. “But we aren’t leaving until someone tells us where we can find Boulder Shadow.”

The tight smirk widened. “I’ve never heard of the place.”

“You should have,” Torque said. “Because it’s right where we are standing.”

“I assure you I have no recollection of such a name,” Marlow said.

“This is the place,” Torque said.

“Ratchet,” Lelanea said. “Not now.”

“But my LISP says this is the exact-”

“I said not now.”

“His lisp?” Marlow said.

“Trust me,” Dodger said, “you don’t want to know.”

“If that is all you have to share, Mr. Marlow,” Lelanea said, “we will find someone else to talk with.”

“But this is the location of Boulder Shadow,” Torque said.

“The contraption is correct,” another voice said.

Dodger turned to find an elderly man surrounded by a halo of cigar smoke lingering in the doorway. The fellow stood about two feet shorter than Dodger, sporting a mop of thick graying hair that hung freely to his shoulders, with a beard and mustache combo to match. He dressed in all white, save for a pair of black boots and a thin black bolo around his collar. The bolo sported a silver dollar piece for a catch, pulled tight to the hollow of the man’s wrinkled throat. The elderly man sucked a few times on his cigar and quietly eyed the three, as if evaluating them just as much as Dodger was assessing him.

“Mayor White,” the innkeeper said. A kind of reverence came over the man as he backed away with a slight bow.

The undertaker crossed his thin arms and leaned against the counter.

“Barnaby,” the elderly man said, “you haven’t’ been boring our new visitors. Have you?”

“I was just leaving, Herbert,” Marlow said, the smirk long gone. He nodded to Dodger and Lelanea. “If you’ll excuse me I have some things to attend to.” The man left without another word.

The mayor pointed to Torque with his cigar. “So, Gerald, I see you’ve made some new friends.”

“No!” the innkeeper shouted. “Not me. Never met them before now.”

“Just as well. You aren’t much for knowing.” The older man pulled on his cigar a few times, then offered his hand to Lelanea. “I’m Mayor White. Welcome to our little town of Jubilee.”

Lelanea took up the man’s greeting. “Daisy Carpenter.”

The elderly gentleman bent to kiss her knuckles rather than shake her hand. He looked up at her from his half bow and winked. “It’s always a pleasure to meet such a pretty lady.”

Lelanea removed her hand from his grip. “This is my husband, Arnold.”

White stood straight once more and nodded to Dodger. “Well met, young man.” He returned his devilish smile to Lelanea. “What is a young couple such as yourselves doing in these remote parts?”

“I don’t mean to seem repetitive,” Lelanea said, “but we are looking for a town by the name of Boulder Shadow.”

“Like I said, you found it. This used to be Boulder Shadow. Now it’s Jubilee.”

“Why the name change?” Dodger said.

“Why the interest?” the mayor said.

“We aren’t interested in your town, per say,” Lelanea said. “We are interested in buying something of yours.”

“Buying?” the mayor said.

“Yes. We are after something called PAUL.”

The mayor didn’t react to her question. He didn’t flinch, didn’t start, didn’t even raise an eyebrow, and it was the combined absence of these things that raised all of Dodger’s alarms.

That and the audible gasp from the innkeeper.

Once the innkeeper gasped, the mayor closed his eyes with a sigh. He gnawed on his cigar for a brief moment, then opened his eyes again and said, “I hate to disappoint another lovely lady, but you came an awful long way for nothing.”

 “Really?” Lelanea said. “It’s my understanding that you purchased a device called a Pneumatic Automatic Lumberjack from one Professor Dittmeyer several years ago.”

The mayor’s left eye twitched just a bit at the name. “Did he send you?”

Lelanea never lost her stride. “No. I merely am interested in buying the machine from you. As you can see, I have a keen interest in such things.” She nodded to Torque. “Just name your price, and we can take the machine off your hands and be on our way.”

“As attractive as the offer is, I’m afraid I have nothing to sell you.”

“Are you telling me you didn’t buy the machine from Dittmeyer?”

“I never said that.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“That you came all this way to leave empty handed.”

“Then he isn’t for sale?”

It isn’t fit for selling.” White stressed the word ‘it’ with a sneer of disgust. He closed his eyes, and with supreme effort forced the sneer into a smile. “Now if you folks will forgive me, I have a town to run.” Mayor White exited the inn, leaving Dodger and Lelanea to stare at one another in disbelief. 

In which Dodger digs a little deeper

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