In which Dodger lends an ear
Carr led Dodger out the opposite door, the one to the left of the Hepplewhite, then down a long hallway. Several doors dotted the hall, each carefully labeled. He made note of both Agent Carr’s door, as well as a door marked, humorously enough, General Crank. At the end of the hall was another door, leading to a stairwell that spread in both directions. The sounds of heavy machinery in operation drifted up from the lower deck, while the upper deck seemed blissfully silent. Carr motioned for Dodger to go first, smart lad.
“Which way?” Dodger said.
“Down,” Carr said. “Up leads to the control room. Down goes to the engines.”
Dodger made careful note of that as he made his way down the stairs with Carr on his heels.
The lower deck wasn’t as fancy or finely decorated as the upper. It consisted of the inner workings of the Phoenix, the mechanical guts as it were, in all of their plain and complicated glory. The airship’s engines chuffed and bellowed, filling the deck with a constant thunder of noise. The place stank of sweat and grease, and was crawling with bulldog men working in silence to keep the airship aloft. It reminded Dodger of the crew of a steamer maintaining the ship’s boilers and equipment. Only he didn’t see any coal. Dodger assumed the ship ran by means similar to the Sleipnir, if not exactly the same. Why not? Thanks to a bit of charm and top notch acting, the dog had access to all of the doc’s ideas at one point in time.
As Carr led Dodger deeper into the belly of the ship, one thing became obvious.
“I take it I ain’t got a suite?” Dodger shouted over the roar of the engine.
“Not exactly!” Carr yelled.
The young agent directed Dodger to a single door at the back of the roaring engine. Dodger stepped through, not surprised to find a cot and a single chair in the sparse room. Nothing else. It had all the feel and purpose of a brig. Which, he supposed, was exactly what it was meant to be. Carr closed the door behind them, and to Dodger’s surprise, the sound of the engine dwindled to a muffled chuff.
“Thank Ganesh for that,” Dodger said. “I don’t think I could’ve lasted long listening to that noise.”
“The ship is well built,” Carr said. “You can barely hear the engine from the second deck, and not at all from the upper deck. I don’t know what dampens the noise, but it’s amazing. Rex is quite the genius.”
Dodger grinned. “He isn’t a genius. He’s a thief.”
“Ah, I thought as much. Did he steal the design from-”
“From my boss, yes.”
Carr motioned to the cot and chair. “I’m afraid this is all we can offer for accommodations.”
“Are you?” Dodger said.
Carr paused and looked at Dodger in confusion. “Am I what?”
“Afraid? Because you should be. We should all be scared out of our wits. I know I am.”
The young man shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Dodger took a step forward, coming toe to toe with the agent. “Yes, you do. You know exactly what that mutt is up too. You’ve been too close to this operation for too long not to know. You can’t be that blind.”
Carr closed his eyes, as if mimicking Dodger’s accusation. He lingered there, for a moment, then stepped away as he opened his eyes again. “Of course I know. I wished I didn’t, but I know.”
“Then why do you stay here? Why keep Crank as a partner if you know what is going on?”
Carr furrowed his brow and said, “Crank isn’t my partner.”
Dodger didn’t expect that. The kid could’ve said any number of things. Spoke a variety of defenses for his actions. But this? This was genuine news.
“What do you mean Crank isn’t your partner?” Dodger said.
“I said I worked for him. I never said he was my partner.” The man dropped onto the cot with a sigh. He sat for a quiet moment, staring at his hands while the muffled chuff of the engine seeped in through the door.
Dodger took the chair, giving Carr plenty of time to gather himself and his explanation.
At length, the kid said, “My original partner’s name was Agent Sadler.”
“Buck?” Dodger said over the kid.
Carr raised his face, a sad little smile on his lips at the mention of the name. “Yeah. Good old Buck Sadler. I learned a lot from Buck.”
“I can imagine. Buck is a good guy. Hell of a shot and handy with a whip.”
The smiled slipped from Carr’s face. “He was a good guy.” He looked away again.
A cold finger of worry traced up Dodger’s spine. “What happened?”
“Rex happened.” The kid took a deep breath, as if steadying his nerves. “Buck and I worked for a few years together. We had a lot of good times. Did some good things. I mean really good things. The kind of stuff Al taught me to do. That was, until we were assigned to work under Tyler Crank as part of a special task force. As we understood it, Crank was in the process of negotiating a weapons manufacturing contract from one Commander Rex. We never got to meet Rex. We only had contact with Crank.”
“I can see why.”
“Our job was to act as security for Rex. Seemed he had some trouble managing his work force; his men, as he called them. Those men turned out to be the dog faced fellows you see out there. Only then they weren’t just bulldogs. They were all manner of dogs.”
It hadn’t occurred to Dodger that Carr didn’t know he was already familiar with the mutations Rex had visited upon those unfortunate souls. “I’ve seen their kind before. I’ve ran into Rex’s men on more than one occasion.” Dodger gave a short history of Thaddeus and his men. How they helped him overcome Butch. How they pledged their loyalty to him, regardless of his want or desire to be their leader.
Carr was duly impressed. “My word, you have had experience with them. Well, Buck and I had never seen the likes of it. That there was no small wonder the men had a rebellious streak. Look what that monster did to them. Buck ended up voicing his concern for the dog men. How it seemed unnecessarily cruel.”
“In other words, Buck sided with the dog men.” Dodger grinned. Good old Buck.
“Yeah and that was his first mistake. Crank warned Buck to suck it up or he would be dismissed. Not only from the job but from the agency.”
Dodger drew a quick breath through his teeth. Getting fired from the agency was what got Dodger a chest full of buckshot. He was lucky to survive. Most folks that found themselves dismissed from this line of work didn’t end up so lucky. Almost all of them ended up dead. “I take it Buck didn’t suck it up?”
“He did, at first,” Carr said. “It didn’t take long for us to realize that Crank wasn’t negotiating weapons for the government. Sure, Rex plans on giving Crank unheard of power in the form of deadly weapons, but not as a representative of the US Government. Crank is some kind of self-appointed general of Rex’s personal militia. And even worse, Rex is raising an army and plans on marching on the capital.”
“That doesn’t surprise me one bit.” Dodger thought of the door he passed earlier, but knew the lack of surprise had nothing to do with the marker. He could’ve guessed outright that Crank would take on such a title. He was just smug enough. Just stupid enough too.
“It surprised us. We thought we were here to protect our nation, not overthrow it. Buck confronted Crank about it, and of course Crank told him to-”
“Suck it up,” Dodger said with the kid.
“Only this time Buck wouldn’t. He stormed in on the mysterious Rex, expecting to confront the man at the head of this coup. You know what he found instead.”
“A little dog with big ambitions.”
“You mean a little dog with a big body guard.”
Dodger got it then. “Mr. Grinder.”
“Mr. Grinder,” Carr said as he nodded. The kid’s eyes grew damp as he described what happened to poor Buck Sadler. “The moment Buck broke in on the dog, that mechanical man was on him. One punch to the head. Cracked Buck’s skull open like an egg.”
Dodger flinched at the description.
“I tried to do the right thing,” Carr said. “I fled from the compound and returned to Washington to report what happened to my superiors. Only they didn’t care about Buck’s death. They were just pleased to hear everything was on track. Do you understand what I am saying, Agent Dodger? When I told them about Rex’s impending coup, they already knew. They’re expecting it.”
“That’s not good,” Dodger said. He had some idea that a certain amount of folks near the top of things might be on Rex’s side, but having the kid confirm it made it worse than just suspecting it. “How many are in on it?”
“I don’t have any idea. I didn’t hang around to find out. I was instructed to return to help Crank and keep my mouth shut if I knew what was good for me.” He looked to his lap again. “I did what I was told. So, you’re right, Dodger. I am scared.”
Dodger moved over to the cot and patted the young man on the back. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. When I said I was terrified, I was being serious. William, I am scared half to death of what that little mutt plans on doing. And I don’t just mean taking over the US. I mean what he is going to do to the world. To the universe. Hell, what he is going to do to time. He is dangerous, and he needs to be stopped.”
“I know. But how?”
“Not sure.” Dodger scratched his chin, a new problem bothering him. “What I don’t understand is where is he getting the men to make his soldiers?”
Carr looked truly confused. “What do you mean?”
Dodger gave a quick and dirty explanation of where Thaddeus and his friends came from. He described the POW process of melding dogs with men to give the soldiers far more loyal traits. “If he has enough for an army, where did he get the men to make them?”
“He doesn’t. It might have been the case for your friends, but that’s not how Rex does it now. He grows them, from scratch. It takes a few days to make a dozen or so, but they emerge fully formed from a series of vats. And he is building more vats every day. It’s, well, unnatural.”
Dodger thought about the buffalo sisters, and how the doc said they were probably vat grown in hyper-time. This meant Rex would have to move out soon, lest he lose his precious army to hyper-decay. “How many men does he have?”
Carr shrugged. “A few months back he had a handful, now he has almost a thousand. In a few weeks he will have far more.”
“A thousand?” Dodger whistled low. “A thousand. That’s a lot of men.”
“With more arriving each day.”
Dodger stared at the young man, confident he had found a friend in this pit of vipers. “Agent William Carr?”
Carr looked up to Dodger. “Yes, sir?”
“Have you ever heard Rex talk about a piece of machinery called a TAP?”
“No. I don’t think so. Why? Is it another weapon?”
“Sort of. It’s not meant to be, but I supposed it can be used as one.”
“If it can be made into a weapon, either Rex or Crank will find a way.”
Dodger rubbed his chin again in thought. “What does Rex want with me?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m not privy to that information either. They don’t really tell me a whole lot.”
“Don’t sweat it. I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. The real question is, when the time comes, can I count on you?”
For the first time since they started talking, the young man smiled freely. “Of course.”
“Where is that monster keeping Washington Boon and the kid?”
“The uppermost deck. He has a laboratory there. He is keeping the big man alive with some strange contraption inside of the lab, and the kid is in a cage on the bridge.”
Dodger stood and pulled Carr to his feet. “You best head back. You’ve spent far too long talking to me. I’m sure Rex will wonder what took you so long.”
“You’re right. I’ll try to get back when I can. Maybe I can find out more for you?”
“No. Don’t jeopardize your position. You’ve done enough already.”
Carr smiled wider. “Understood. I know you took a great risk by agreeing to come with us, but I am glad you’re here. I feel like I can finally do something about all of this. I haven’t felt this confident in a long time.” He stuck out his hand. “Thank you.”
Dodger shook the offered hand. “Thank you, too. You’ve risked a lot by talking to me at all, much less conspiring with me. Now go on. Leave this old dog to lie for a while. I need to think.”
A sudden and sharp knock rose from the door just as Carr reached out for the handle. Worry flashed across the kid’s face, as well as fear. Dodger nodded to the door, telling Carr to answer the damned thing. The young agent did so, opening the door to a bulldog holding a silver tray.
“Food for the prisoner,” the dog man shouted over the noise pouring into the room. He shoved the tray at Carr.
Carr took the tray and placed it on the chair. He raised the silver dome from the platter to reveal a feast of roast beef, potatoes and carrots, with apple pie for desert. Dodger’s stomach did flips at the smell of it all. A cold glass of water sat on one side of the tray, dripping with condensation and all but sealing Dodger’s fate. His dry throat tickled, teasing him into thirst. He might be able to pass up the food, thanks to the amazing meal made by Feng a few hours before, but he was going to drink that water, no matter how bad of an idea it was.
“You reckon it’s safe?” Dodger said, hoping to hell it was.
“I suppose it’s safe enough,” Carr said. “And it’s delicious, I can promise you that. It’s the only good thing about working for Rex, his cook is incredible.”
Of course the mutt’s cook was incredible; he was bound to be an exact duplicate of Feng. Well, not exact. Even the all-powerful Rex would be hard pressed to find a second ancient Chinese sorcerer with a flair for cuisine. Dodger repeated the same mantra that gotten him this far. “I suppose if the mutt wanted me dead he would’ve killed me before now.” Of course, there was always a chance that this was the moment that Rex wanted him dead. Still, going out with a full belly wasn’t a bad way to end things.
Carr moved toward the door, turning back to ask, “When the times comes, how will I know?”
“You’ll know,” Dodger said and gave the kid a wink.
Without another word, Carr slipped out of the room, the roar of the engines spilling in for a brief moment before the door closed again. Dodger thought he heard a soft click, and was certain he had been locked in. No surprise there either.
“How will he know when the time comes, old man?” Dodger said aloud to no one in particular. He exhaled long and slow, because he had no earthly idea.
Dodger mulled over this conundrum as he turned his attention to the waiting meal.