Like Old Times
In which Dodger spends an evening reminiscing
Thankfully, the ride was quiet. Neither Crank nor the kid tried to speak over the thunder of the horses, leaving Dodger to contemplate the mess he had just walked into. He had just delivered himself into the hands of the enemy. No big battle. No classic showdown. Dodger only hoped this was worth it. That the crew of the Sleipnir would get over their pouting and get the hell away. He wasn’t a praying man, but for once he was tempted to pray that they didn’t waste his sacrifice.
After a few miles, Dodger’s thoughts were interrupted by a strange sensation. Something began to gnaw at the back of his mind. Something about the rhythm of the horse’s movements. Dodger had taken to the back of many a steed and mare, and compared to even the smoothest ride, there was just something unusual about this horse’s steps. They were too regular. Too even. No, that wasn’t the word he was looking for. What was it? Dodger almost snapped his fingers when he realized what it was.
The horse’s movements were too mechanical.
Dodger watched Crank’s horse, admiring the even galloping paces and the steady, smoothness of the ride. Mechanical horses? Would wonders never cease? Dodger stored this thought at the back of his mind as he returned to worrying for the crew.
Crank spurred his horse for all it was worth, pushing the thing for several hours, only stopping when the sun finally set. He leapt down from the fake animal and surveyed the surrounding open landscape. “We can camp here for the night. Leave out again at sun up.”
“Why?” Dodger said after he climbed down from the back of Carr’s faux mare. “Can’t we just ride all night?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Why not? It’s not like it’ll wear the horses out. They are fake, aren’t they?”
Carr gasped in surprise.
Crank scowled, not amused by Dodger’s deduction. “The horses might be fake, but my ass isn’t. Neither is yours. Now suck it up. We need to rest so you can be fresh as a daisy for your meeting with Rex tomorrow.”
“How did you know they weren’t real?” Carr said.
“It was just a guess,” Dodger said.
“Lucky guess, sir.”
“Billy,” Crank snapped. “Stop fraternizing with the prisoner and pitch camp.”
The young man grumbled under his breath as he acted on Crank’s command. Dodger made note of the tension between the men. When Dodger was Carr’s age, he doted on Crank’s every word. Yet Carr seemed to dread Crank’s commands. And Crank certainly didn’t show his partner any respect. Yes, there was more than just tension here. There was a crack in the armor of the beast. A crack Dodger might be able to widen, with a little patience and persuasion.
“Prisoner?” Dodger said. “That’s a little harsh, isn’t it? I thought we were just old pals.”
“Shut up,” Crank said. Dragging his boot heel across the ground, Crank drew a line in the dry dirt. When done, he shoved a finger at the wobbly shape. “If you want to survive the night, get in the circle. Stay in the circle.”
“You call that a circle?” Dodger said. “It’s an oval, at best. At worse it’s an affront to Euclidean geometry.”
“Get in the circle,” Crank repeated through gritted teeth. “Stay in the circle. Leave the circle and I will shoot you.”
“Oh yes. You have no idea. Just give me a reason.” He yanked a blanket from his saddle and tossed it to Dodger. “You can use this for tonight.”
“How generous of you. I guess I should be glad the horse isn’t real, or the blanket would be soaked from the way you pushed the thing. You always were hard on service animals. Or any animal for that matter. Most men too, come to think of it.”
“Keep that smart mouth up and I’ll take the damned blanket back. You can sleep on the cold ground for all I care.”
“Sorry,” Dodger said, though he wasn’t sorry at all. He took his time spreading his blanket out inside the circle, over dramatizing each time he drew too near the edge.
Crank sneered at the display, but thankfully kept his mouth shut.
Within an hour or so, the younger man had set up two bedrolls, built a small fire and managed to cook up a bit of grub for the three men. All while Crank sat on his fat rump and watched, only helping himself to a flask of what was sure to be whiskey. Dodger tried to lend the kid a hand several times, only to have Crank snap at him and push him back to his designated spot.
Once they settled down, Dodger chewed on a perfectly cooked piece of ham with delight. Sometimes, adventuring with the doc came at the expense of meals. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten.
“This is good,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Good?” Crank said. He dumped his unfinished meal into the fire in disgust. “It’s awful. Just like the way you used to cook. Eh, Dodger?”
“Remember that time in France?” Crank said, trying not to giggle between words. The whiskey took its toll on the old man. “When you tried to convince the mark you were a world class chef?”
“Remember it?” Dodger said. “My left thigh still aches on cold days.”
“What happened?” Carr said, eager to hear the story.
“Dodger made our mark some escargot,” Crank said. “Only he served the snails raw.”
“How was I supposed to know you baked ‘em?” Dodger said. “They always tasted like wet snot to me. I just assumed they were supposed to be raw.”
“That’s because you’ve never had any taste,” Crank said. “Anyways, the mark was this real piece of work that fancied himself an epileptic.”
“Epicurean,” Dodger corrected.
“A what?” Carr asked.
“A food fancier,” Dodger said. “He thought he knew how to bake a better biscuit just because he studied all the biscuit recipes in the whole world. Hell, my mom never left her home town, and I never tasted a better biscuit in my life.”
“I rest my case,” Crank said. “The point is, Dodger here served our mark raw snails, and the man was so offended he knifed Dodger in the leg.”
Carr gasped. “No way.”
Dodger raised a hand. “Hand to God. Still have the scar to prove it.”
“You remember what you did next?” Crank said.
Lowering his head, Dodger said, “Yeah. I sure do.” This part of the story, Dodger could’ve done without.
“What?” Carr said, his voice quivering with excitement. “What happened then?”
“Dodger unloaded his gun into the man’s back!” Crank said, and set to laughing with the annoying pitch of the ugliest hyena.
Dodger sucked on his teeth while his old partner cackled up a storm. Crank always knew how to ruin a good story. Of course, Tyler Crank had far different ideas in what made a good tale. Discussing the gruesome death of a mark wasn’t Dodger’s idea of a campfire story, unless you were going for the horror side of things.
“And then,” Crank said between guffaws, “he drew his other gun and emptied that one into the man too. Blam! Blam! Blam! Twelve shots, point blank, almost all in the same spot. He was shooting clear through to the floor after the fourth or fifth. Then he went for his blade but I pulled him off the mark before Dodger could cut up what was left. You remember that, Dodger?”
“How can I forget it?” Dodger said.
Not that Dodger hadn’t tried.
The French Job, as he and Crank had come to call it, was the heaviest memory Dodger carried. That particular Dodger, the French Job Dodger, became the model of the man Dodger never wanted to be again. The vibrant echo of his violent past. A weeping ghost that haunted him to this day.
Crank slapped his partner’s leg. “Aw, you should’ve been there, Billy. The screaming. The crying. The begging. And that was just the man’s wife. You should’ve heard his kids when they walked in on Dodger trying to cut apart their dead old man!” Crank was in hysterics by now, he was laughing so hard. Tears poured down his face as he enjoyed the misery of the man’s memorable death.
Carr looked to Dodger, brow furrowed in disbelief, then back down to his own plate where he pushed around his food rather than eat it. Seemed Crank was the only one amused by the bloody story. So much for wonder and awe.
Dodger turned his plate up into the fire, his appetite suddenly gone in the face of the kid’s disappointment.
Mid guffaw, Crank spotted Dodger’s embarrassment, and coughed the rest of his own laughter away. “What’s with you?”
“Nothing,” Dodger said.
Crank grunted. “Whatever. I remember a time when you used to laugh at the end of that story too.”
“Yes, well, I’ve moved on.”
“You mean you’ve gone soft.” Crank grunted again. “I don’t know why that mutt thinks so much of you. I mean, sure, you used to be worth a damn. Now? Now you’re softer than a rotten apple.”
“You know what they say about a bad apple,” Dodger said.
“And how about you?” Crank said, knocking Carr in the shoulder. “You’re awful quiet tonight.”
“I’m just tired,” Carr said. “I guess.”
Crank belched. “Bunch of pansies.” He got to his feet stretched, scratching his belly. “I’ve gotta take a leak. Keep an eye on him.” Crank staggered away from the dying fire.
Once Crank was out of range, Carr whispered, “Did you really do all of that?”
“I was a different man then,” Dodger said.
“I’m sure you did what you feel needed to be done to put the mark down.”
Dodger snorted. “Put the mark down? Tyler teach you that?”
“What did Al teach you?”
Carr glanced to Dodger as his mouth opened just a bit in surprise. The kid tried to recover with a casual shrug. “The same stuff I’m sure he taught you.”
“I’ll bet. He always was a creature of habit.”
Somewhere in the distance, Crank let out the mother of all farts, then proceeded to curse up a storm. Dodger couldn’t help but snicker. Carr chuckled under his breath as well.
“How long have you been with that jackass?” Dodger said.
“Feels like too long,” Carr said, a touch of regret in his voice.
“Why do you stay with him?”
“Because I have too.”
Dodger stared hard at the kid, expecting a better answer than that. What he got was a pretty good comeback.
“Why did you work with him?” Carr said.
“Because I didn’t know any better,” Dodger said.
“I guess that makes two of us.”
Before they could discuss anything else, Crank stumbled back to the camp and collapsed onto his bedroll. “Billy, tie that man up. I don’t trust him … no further … than I can …” Crank’s words trailed off into a soft snore.
Dodger raised his hands to Carr. “Go on. Best follow your master’s word.”
Carr ignored Dodger and stretched out onto the bedroll.
“You ain’t gonna tie me up?” Dodger said.
“Do you need tying up?” Carr said.
“I won’t run, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Then why waste the rope?” Carr turned over onto his side, away from Dodger. “Besides, I got it on high authority that there isn’t a knot in the world that can hold Rodger Dodger.”
“Tyler Crank is hardly an authority on anything.”
“I wasn’t talking about him.”
Dodger smirked at the dying embers. What a world. To think after so many years of slaughtering folks and raising hell, Dodger’s antics would create such a smug and inescapable legend. The real shame of it all was kids like William Carr were all too eager to fill Dodger’s very large, very bloody boots. Surely Al taught the kid better. Surely. And just as surely men like Tyler Crank came along and undid every bit of good Al instilled in his young charges.
Now Al was gone, who would teach the kids right from wrong?
The thought of it chilled Dodger to the core.
“Do you mind if I ask you something?” Dodger said.
Carr rolled back a bit, to glance over his shoulder at Dodger. “You’ve been asking me things all night.”
“How long have you been with Crank?”
“Just a year or so,” Carr finally confessed.
Dodger nodded in the darkness. “Then you were the last one Al trained, eh?”
Carr turned away from Dodger again. “So I hear.”
“You know he’s ... gone.” Dodger couldn’t bring himself to say Al was dead. Not now. Not ever.
The kid swallowed hard enough to give off a soft sound in the quiet night before he repeated, “So I hear.”
Dodger laid back on his blanket and stared up at the night sky. The stars were plentiful, thanks to a clear evening. As he scanned the twinkling points of light, he picked out a few constellations. Centaurus. Corvus. Virgo. Coma Berenices. Dodger wondered if anyone else within a hundred miles knew the names of as many stars as he did. Anyone besides the professor. And assuredly Feng. Lelanea, no doubt. Maybe Ched. Lord knew the driver was full of surprises. Boon might not know the names but he knew who to ask. About the stars and so much more. Dodger bit back a bitter twinge of regret. He wasn’t even gone one night and he already missed them. That was the trouble with family. In his line of work friends became a liability, but family? Ah, family always became a burden.
Damn the crew of the Sleipnir, Dodger cursed in silence.
Damn them and damn their useless train.
Damn them and keep them safe.