Above and Beyond
In which Dodger boards the Phoenix
Breakfast came early the next morning, and consisted of much the same meal as the night before. Dodger was a tad bit sore from sleeping on the ground, especially after having spent the last few weeks on a comfortable bunk aboard the line. Crank was crankier than ever, Dodger assumed for the same reasons. Carr seemed to be the only one unaffected, which was the privilege of the young, Dodger supposed. The older men ate in near silence while the kid broke the camp down, then all three mounted up. Dodger was just about to ask how far they planned on traveling today, when a dark and ominous blot appeared in the sky to the southwest.
“There’s our ride,” Crank. “He must’ve gotten tired of waiting on us. If we push hard, we should meet up in the hour.”
“Yes sir,” Carr said.
As promised, the men pressed their fake mounts much harder than the day before. Dodger clung to Carr’s waist and bounced wildly on the back of the mechanical horse. In less than a half an hour, he regretted the night spent on the thin blanket under the stars. By the time the airship went from blot to shape to hovering shadow, Dodger regretted every single one of his forty plus years. When they drew to a stop just under the hovering ship, he dismounted from Carr’s mare with a groan. His joints popped and cracked as he stretched his tired body.
“What’s the matter, Dodger?” Crank said. “Getting old?”
“I’m sure you recognize such a thing,” Dodger said, rubbing as his sore rump. “Considering your experience with being so much older than me and all.”
Before Crank could argue, a small platform descended from the ship, lowering a single man to the ground. The bulldog man stepped off of the platform and approached Crank with a salute.
“Sir,” the dog man said. “The commander awaits your presence.”
“I’m sure he does,” Crank said. He shoved the horse reigns into the dog’s hands. “Take our mounts back to the camp. Mine needs oiling. Damn thing squeaked all the way here.”
The dog man motioned for Carr’s reigns as well. The younger man turned over his horse, but not without patting the muzzle of the thing first, almost lovingly. The bulldog led the pair of horses away from the shadow of the airship.
“Well, come on then,” Crank said. He shoved Dodger toward the platform.
“Where are we headed?” Dodger said, as if it wasn’t obvious.
“Up,” Carr said.
The three men boarded the platform, which turned out to be far sturdier than Dodger expected. The stand rose with a surprising speed, lifting the men into the air. In moments they were an easy one hundred feet off of the ground. The view was gorgeous from up there. The wide open meadows and rolling hills to the north. The hazy desert in the distance to the west. Dodger fancied he might even be able to just make out the shape of the circus way far off to the north east. He breathed deeply, enjoying the moment for what it was worth.
“Amazing,” Car said. “Isn’t it?”
Dodger reeled in his sense of wonder and shrugged. “I’ve seen better.”
“Smart ass,” Crank said.
It struck Dodger that he was just trying to be glib, trying to get under Crank’s skin, but in truth he had seen far better while in the service of the doc. A nice view was one thing, but the amazing things Dodger had witnessed while in the employ of the professor far outweighed pretty scenery. This was nice, but it wasn’t amazing. A full on magical battle between a time traveling sorcerer and a pack of weather demons on the rain soaked rooftop of a fast moving train that laid its own tracks?
Now that was amazing.
The platform came to an abrupt stop next to a causeway. Dodger was taken a bit aback by the size of the airship. It looked fairly big from the ground, but now that he was aboard it, the ship seemed three times the size he first thought. About the size of a roomy, two story house. One of those nice ones that Dodger always thought would be a great home to take a wife and raise a family. The balloon suspended above it was three times that. Overall, it was an impressive sight. Still not amazing, but Dodger would begrudgingly give Rex impressive on this one.
Crank stepped off the platform and held his hand out to Dodger, welcoming him aboard the Phoenix in total silence, something for which Dodger was grateful. Dodger moved onto the ramp, followed closely by Carr, who locked the floating platform into place behind them. Without a word, Crank turned on his heel and stormed down the causeway, pushing into the room at the end. Carr prompted Dodger along, leading the pair of them down the ramp after Crank.
Cherry, oak and mahogany made up most of the room beyond the causeway. Overstuffed chairs and a wide, luxurious couch dominated the main space. An enormous roll top desk covered with a menagerie of carved animals rested against one wall. A pair of matching tall cabinets sat across the room, while a low slung, wider cupboard stood to the other side between a set of doors. In front of this lower cabinet sat a tea trolley loaded with cakes, cookies, a set of fine bone china complete with steaming teapot, and a selection of teas. In the midst of all of this sat a tall stool topped by a padded velvet seat. Somewhere overhead music drifted into the room.
Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre. How appropriate.
It appeared Rex had a level of taste that matched his ambitions. Where the doc kept the Sleipnir fitted with a simple, honest and homey décor, the Phoenix was decorated as if expecting a visit from royalty. And why wouldn’t it? After all, Rex thought of himself as a king among men. Dodger glanced around the room, what he thought of as the equivalent of the meeting cab on the line, and made note of the number of exits. Aside from the two doors at the other side of the room, a number of windows lined both walls. These weren’t preferable exits, considering the several hundred foot fall waiting outside, but they would do in a pinch.
“Where is he, damn it!” Crank snapped.
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” Carr said.
A waver in his voice belied his attempt at calmness. Dodger could see it on the kid’s face. William Carr was afraid of Commander Rex.
“Can I ask you something?” Dodger said.
Crank grunted at Dodger rather than answering.
Dodger took it as a yes. “How did you get mixed up with the little mutt?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Crank said. He grinned wide.
“Yes,” Dodger said. “I would like to know. Very much so.” He grinned wide too, but only because he heard the professor in his own voice. He had spent far too much time around the man.
Crank’s grin slipped into a scowl. “None of your damned business.”
“No need to get your boxers in a bunch. It was just a question.”
“You’ll have to forgive our Mr. Crank,” a familiar voice said.
Dodger closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. Rex. It was time to face the man of the hour. Dodger quietly settled his nerves and promised himself he wouldn’t outright lunge at the little mutt. He opened his eyes again and turned around to find Rex’s mechanical servant standing in the right hand doorway at the far end of the room. In the manservant’s arms rested the dog in question.
“As we both know,” Rex said. “Tyler tends to be a bit rough around the edges. Mr. Grinder, forward, please.”
The mechanical manservant took smooth and steady strides toward the tall stool, depositing the dog onto the velvet seat with gentle caution. Dodger almost kicked himself for not realizing that’s who the stool was for.
“Thank you, Mr. Grinder,” Rex said. “That will be all for now.”
Grinder stepped away from his master and settled into a space between the tall cabinets. He placed his hands behind his back, squared his shoulders, and fell still. The mechanical man stared into the distance, as if letting his mind wander until Rex called for him again. Dodger had the sinking suspicion that even if he feigned movement toward Rex, the powerhouse of a machine would leap into action. That action probably consisted of breaking both of Dodger’s arms and perhaps even killing the human.
“Welcome aboard the Phoenix, Mr. Dodger,” Rex said. “I am pleased you’re here. We have so much to discuss. And even more to do.”
“Nice set up you got here,” Dodger said. “Looks just like the line. Only-”
“Only better,” Rex finished for him. “I find the professor’s ideas and designs intriguing, but always in need of improvements.”
“Imitate and improve? That your motto?”
“It’s a good a motto as any I have heard others live by.”
Dodger wanted to make another smart ass remark, but he smirked instead. In fact, he found himself repressing the urge to laugh. No matter how many times he met up with the mutt, Dodger couldn’t get over the humorous notion of a talking Chihuahua with a bent for world domination. It seemed silly.
It was silly. No bones about it.
Dodger’s smiled deepened at this thought.
“Go on,” Rex said, catching Dodger’s smile. He shrugged as best his form would allow him. “Grin all you like. I realize you think my exterior is humorous.”
“No,” Dodger lied. “I don’t.”
“Of course you do. I am sensitive to the reactions that my appearance has on people. You find it amusing. Do you know what I find amusing?”
“I can’t imagine what you find funny.”
“Then allow me to elucidate. I enjoy gauging the reactions my appearance incurs. It says a lot about people, how they respond to my form and manner. Your humor, for example. It tells me a far greater deal about you, even more than you would care for me to know.”
Dodger doubted the validity of that, though he doesn’t argue. He wasn’t in the arguing position at the moment.
Rex pressed on. “You might be interested to know that your former partner also found my appearance funny. As you can see, now that Tyler has gotten past his compulsive laughing, he has become completely indifferent to me. Just one of the boys now, eh Tyler?”
Crank nodded, but didn’t answer.
“Young William, on the other hand,” Rex said, eyeing the lad in question, “is terrified of me. Always has been. Always will be.”
Carr tried to keep a brave face, yet shifted in his stance, just a bit, away from the dog.
“Did you know that, Mr. Dodger?” Rex said.
“I sort of guessed, yes,” Dodger said.
“Of course you did. Because nothing gets past you. Nothing. That’s why I like you. You’re so very observant.”
Rex turned his beady eyes on the man. “You disagree?”
“No, sir,” Crank said, though Dodger could hear the lie in the man’s voice.
Rex glared at the man in quiet thought for a moment, then asked, “Tyler, how many tea cups are in the room?”
Crank narrowed his eyes at the dog, then looked to the trolley. After a quick count he said, “A half dozen or so.”
Without taking his eyes off of Crank, Rex asked, “Mr. Dodger? Your guess?”
“Half dozen,” Dodger said, and truly intended to leave it at that. With all his heart and soul he wanted to leave it at that. He should have left it at that.
“See?” Crank said. “Your new friend isn’t such a big-”
“On the trolley,” Dodger said without realizing his lips had moved.
“Go ahead, Mr. Dodger,” Rex said, a smile rising to his little mouth.
Crank, however, wasn’t smiling. Crank was frowning. No, he was scowling. Dodger had seen that scowl plenty of times over the years. Usually just before Crank went for his gun. Still, Dodger enjoyed pressing down on that nerve. Enjoyed getting under Crank’s skin. He always enjoyed it, and now doubly so that he didn’t have to answer to the man anymore.
Dodger cleared his throat, pointed to the low cabinet against the wall between the doors and said, “There are a half dozen cups on the trolley. However, that cabinet over there is a Hepplewhite, circa 1750, maybe earlier. It might be full of papers, but I doubt it because it was main design was to store tea sets. Seeing as how you’re the kind who prefers to match his items with their intended purpose, I am going to go with tea sets. How many are in the thing depends on your obsession with collecting them.” Dodger paused to point at the matching cabinets against the opposite wall. “The other two cabinets are Chippendales. Again, there can be anything inside, but I can count about four cups through the glass in one of them from here. So, there are at least ten cups in the room. At least.”
The little dog tossed back his head and cackled, filling the room with the echoing madness of his humor. Dodger got the impression if the mutt could’ve clapped, it would’ve. Crank, on the other hand, continued his scowling. Dodger didn’t have to look at the man to know it. He could feel Crank’s eyes burning holes in his back. Carr stared at Dodger too, wide eyed and mouth agape. Dodger gave the kid a wink, which brought a smile to Carr.
“Oh you are good,” Rex said once his laughter wound down. “Very good. Which is why you’re just the man for the job.”
“Job?” Dodger said. “Don’t tell me you wasted both of our times dragging me all the way out here to offer me work. I got a job, and I ain’t lookin’ for another.” Dodger touched his fingers to his forehead. “Good day.” He turned and made as if to exit. He knew he wouldn’t get as far as the door, but you can’t blame a man for trying.
The moment he turned on his heel, Mr. Grinder snapped to attention, standing full upright and cracking his huge knuckles. Dodger looked over his shoulder at the now wide awake automaton and waited.
“Mr. Grinder would be glad to show you out,” Rex said. “Though I would watch the first step. It’s a doozey.” The dog chuckled as Dodger turned around again.
“Look,” Dodger said. “Enough of this glad handing and polite runaround. I don’t want to be here. You want me here. There is a reason for this that I am sure I won’t like. Why don’t we cut the crap and you just tell me what you want with me?”
Rex lost his humor at Dodger’s frankness. He stared at Dodger as he thought on this a moment. “You’re right. Enough glad handing. Time is precious and it is running out. Mr. Carr, will you escort our guest to the lower deck?”
Dodger didn’t like how the mutt spat out the word guest, like it left a bad taste in his little mouth.
Carr hesitated before taking a step forward and placing his hand on Dodger’s left shoulder. “Will you come with me?” It was a polite enough question.
Not wanting to give the kid a hard time, Dodger nodded. Rex knew just what he was doing by sending Dodger off with Carr. If he had asked Crank to escort Dodger to wherever the hell they were going, Dodger might’ve put up a hell of a fight.
Might’ve. After all, Rex was right about that first step.