In which Dodger takes part in a battle of wits
“Commander Rex,” Dodger said, remembering the man’s profile from Bigby’s coin. The same coin Kitty gave the circus owner when she absconded with the elephant. Only Rex would be narcissistic enough to put his own profile on his own gold.
“Very good, Mr. Dodger,” Rex said. “Nothing gets past you. Does it? I was right. You are the perfect man for the job. Far better than that other halfwit.”
It was strange to hear that voice issue from a normal human mouth. A male mouth. This thought sparked a series of other thoughts until Dodger made an embarrassing connection. “Ugh! I kissed you!” Dodger wiped at his mouth, rubbing his sleeve across his tongue over and over and over. He spied the gun still laying at his feet.
Rex rolled his eyes and huffed. “Is that really necessary?”
“Absolutely. I can still taste your mustache.” Dodger doubled over and began gagging overdramatically. In his act, he let his arms dangle, his fingertips just brushing the gun.
“Yes, yes, very amusing. Very droll. You love to break the tension up with a bit of showmanship, don’t you?”
The words were so much like the doc, they stopped Dodger in his repugnant tracks. But not before he had the gun in hand. He straightened up again, leveling the weapon at his enemy. “Everyone loves a bit of showmanship.”
“So your beloved professor has been known to say.” Rex kept his calm, staring down the barrel of Dodger’s gun.
“You’re controlling this dream, aren’t you?”
Rex chuckled. “Yes, but it isn’t a dream.”
“I told you so,” Rebecca said. She crossed the room to join Rex, standing nearly atop the man as she inspected him.
It didn’t take a Dittmeyer to realize Rex couldn’t see or hear the Forsaken. Maybe it was because she was unique to Dodger’s psyche. Or maybe it’s because she wasn’t just a figment of his imagination after all. Maybe part of her was really here after all.
“If this isn’t a dream,” Dodger said, “then what is it?”
“Oh come now,” Rex said. “You don’t fool me. You know exactly what this is.”
Dodger did. He just didn’t want to admit it. “You’re inside my mind.”
“Correct.” Rex’s eyes never left the barrel of the weapon so expertly trained on his head. “Well? Are you going to just stand there pointing that thing at me all day or are you going to shoot?”
Dodger cocked the pistol. He glanced to Rebecca again.
“You know it won’t work,” she said.
“I don’t think you’ll fire,” Rex said over her. “Once upon a time you found the solution to every problem in the barrel of a gun. You’re better than that now, Mr. Dodger.”
“I’m not better, just older, and more experienced.” After disengaging the hammer, Dodger tossed the pistol to Rex.
“Surrendering so easily?” Rex said and pocketed the weapon.
“Not at all, but I’m gonna guess you won’t go down as easy as Tyler Crank. We might be inside of my mind but you’re obviously the one in control here.”
“Yes, I certainly underestimated your hatred for your old partner. As well as your confidence in your lady friend.”
“Confidence has nothing to do with it. You might be able to reproduce Lelanea, but you don’t know her like I do.”
Rex grinned. The smile suggested he would fix that little problem soon enough.
“Why are you inside my head?” Dodger said.
“I think you know the answer to that,” Rex said.
“I’m too tired and too old for this kind of game. Just tell me.”
“Just tell you? Come now. What about that world class wit? A man as well read as you can surely piece this one together. ”
Why was nothing ever easy? With a sigh, Dodger closed his eyes and put that world class wit to work. What would Rex want with Dodger’s mind? Wait, not just something to do with Dodger’s mind. Something to do from inside of his mind. The answer came to him as bright as a summer’s day. Rex wanted to put his mind inside Dodger’s body. Of course. He was tired of being a little dog and wanted to be human again. The only way to do that was to take over someone else’s body. Here, inside Dodger’s mind, Rex was human. Just as Boon was no longer a ghost inside of Sarah’s mind.
Now there was another point of interest. Whatever Rex wanted with Dodger’s mind, he also tried the same thing on Boon, but it didn’t work. Why? Because, as the professor would say, Boon wasn’t in his right mind. He was out of his mind. As in absent entirely.
It was awfully hard to evict someone that wasn’t home.
Dodger thought for a moment about Rex being inside of his head. If that was the case, did the little mutt have access to everything? Memories and secrets alike? Hell no. Dodger wouldn’t let that happen. Aboard the Sleipnir, Dodger might have had a mind like an open book, but here be planned to snap that book shut and put a lock on it. Rex wasn’t welcome here. Dodger would make certain the little mutt understood that.
When he opened his eyes again, the scenery had changed. Gone was the laboratory aboard the Phoenix, replaced by a small halo of light surrounded by endless darkness. Miss Rebecca was gone too. A single table with two chairs rested in the middle of the blackness. Dodger sat in one chair, while Rex sat across from him.
“Very clever,” Rex said drumming his fingers on the table in impatience.
Dodger furrowed his brow.
“You might be able to shut me out,” Rex said, “but you won’t be able to keep me out. I will get deeper inside. I will get what I have come after.”
A chess board appeared between them, the pieces scattered all over the board as if they had already played half a game. Dodger smirked at the screaming metaphor. Talk about subtly.
“I take it you’ve you figured it out?” Rex said.
“You tried this before,” Dodger said, glaring at Rex. “With Boon. You tried to put your mind inside of Boon’s body, but it didn’t work.” It didn’t surprise Dodger when one of his white pawns slid diagonally forward, taking possession of one of Rex’s rooks.
“Excellent!” Rex gave an excited clap. “I knew you would grasp it with ease. Yes, I tried this with him first, and obviously it didn’t work. I have been wracking my brain for weeks as to what went wrong with that one. I tried to slip inside his head, just as I have with yours, but when I arrived there was nothing there. I know the man is a simpleton, but a complete blank? Do you have any idea why that was?”
Dodger avoided the question with a shrug. “Why keep him if he was useless?”
“Leverage. I’ll admit, at first I only kept him alive because I was curious as to where I went wrong. But after I learned about what a prime specimen you were, I kept Boon on a hunch. I suspected learning about his existence would give the professor a reason to follow me.”
“Heck of a hunch.”
“It doesn’t matter now because I have you. In fact, after we are done here, I’ll turn off his life support systems and get rid of his corpse.” A black bishop slid forward.
“Why?” Dodger said in a gasp.
“Why not? The man is all but dead. Without my machine he would have died long ago. He has no value to me. He is nothing more than a useless hunk of frozen meat. A meatcicle, if you will.” Rex cocked his head at Dodger. “Unless you know something I don’t.”
Dodger didn’t answer. His rook slid across the board and took Rex’s bishop.
“I thought as much,” Rex said. “But no bother. I have you now. I have you exactly where I want you.” Rex’s knight skipped ahead, taking Dodger’s queen. “Checkmate in three moves.”
“I’m tired of playing games,” Dodger said.
“Of course you are.” Rex leaned over the chessboard, nearly knocking over the pieces. He gritted his teeth and hissed at Dodger, “Because you’re losing. Everyone tires of the game when they are the loser.”
“What do you want from me?”
Rex leaned away again, crossing his arms. “You said so yourself. I want your mind. And once I have it I can control your body, I will have all of your talents as well as the trust of the professor. Then I will have the train and all or her marvelous gadgets within, including the TAP. And with access to a time machine, I will have the world.”
“If you just want the train and the TAP, why don’t you just take them? Why all of this cloak and dagger garbage?”
“Because the train is only part of what I desire. The other part is the philosopher’s stone.”
Dodger stared hard at Rex. “The key to immortality? What kind of fantasy world are you living in-”
Miss Rebecca whispered in Dodger’s ear, Don’t forget, you and Boon aren’t the only ones he’s shown interest in.
“The kid,” Dodger said.
Rex grinned. “My, you’re all sorts of clever today, aren’t you?”
“You want his body too,” Dodger said. All the pieces fell into place now. First Rex would take command of Dodger, absorbing his knowledge and talents, all the while raising Little Dodger as a replacement. Then, when Dodger was worn out husk of an old man, Rex would leap into his protégée. “That’s your idea of immortality? To keep leapfrogging from kid to kid to kid?”
“Certainly not,” Rex said with a small frown. “Nothing so gauche. I know for a fact that Professor Dittmeyer has the capacity to create that which man has sought for ages. An elixir that fights off the effects death itself. His driver is proof enough of that.”
Dodger couldn’t help but chuckle. “If you can call that living, you have a funny idea of what life is all about. Of course, you might be suited to the life of a lazy not-dead drunk.” Dodger bore his teeth and did his best impression of the not-dead driver. “You shure sheem to have the shparklin’ pershonality shuited to it.”
“Shut your mouth!” With a resounding smack, Rex brought his hand down on the chessboard, slapping it with his palm and then sweeping it clean of all the pieces. He grabbed the edges of the table and seethed with naked rage for a moment, trembling from head to toe as he glared at Dodger. “I will not have some murderous, irredeemable filth like you mock me! Me! I am a genius and you will show me proper respect!”
Slowly, Rex reigned his anger back in, until he sported little more than a curt frown. That little display was interesting. It showed Dodger that the man wasn’t in as much control as he thought. He could be pushed. And that was a good thing.
“I am not an idiot,” Rex finally said. “I can see the forest despite the trees. I see the potentiality of Dittmeyer’s work. All he needs is a push in the right direction. A prompt,” Rex paused as he leaned forward again and finished with, “from a trusted friend.”
“So that was your plan?” Dodger said. “To take over Boon’s body and use him to manipulate the doc into creating an immortality elixir?”
“Yes, but all of that changed when you came into my life. I am nothing if not adaptable. Now I have a highly trained assassin at my fingertips, and a healthy child to command when the time is right. Think of it, my mind filled with your secrets in the body of a fresh faced young man. Forever.”
Rex’s blue eyes sparkled under the halo of light, twinkling nearly as bright as his now wide and eerie smile. Dodger almost cringed away from that smile and those eyes. The purest signs of insanity if he had ever seen them.
“You’re crazy,” he said.
“Crazy?” Rex said. He tapped his chin as if thinking about this point. “I suppose I might just be. But I also hold all of the cards here, Mr. Dodger. Now that I have you, I have access to everything you know.”
Not everything, Rebecca whispered. If you can keep him shut out he will only see what’s on the surface. He can only reproduce what he thinks he knows about you.
Dodger nodded. “All right then. How was this supposed to happen? I surrender my consciousness and, what, give you control?”
“In a matter of speaking, yes.”
“What makes you think I would just surrender?”
“If you surrender to me, willingly, I will keep your mind alive in the background. You would act as a consult of sorts. Not in charge, mind you, but enough of your consciousness left to help shape the future of the world.”
“And if I don’t?”
Rex’s smile faded as his face grew hard once more. “If you don’t surrender willingly, I will rip your mind away from you and I will set it ablaze with terrors that you cannot begin to imagine and then I will grind the ashes under my boot heel until there is nothing left.”
Dodger sucked on his teeth for a moment, considering the proposal. “While I appreciate your generous offer, I’m afraid I will have to decline. I might have spent most of my life as murderous, irredeemable filth, but at least I was never an ass sniffing, crap eating mongrel.”
The room went dark, swallowing the table and chess board and Rex. Dodger got to his feet, feeling the stool vanish from under him as he stood. This darkness wasn’t the familiar arms of his own subconscious welcoming him home for a rest. This darkness was empty, unfeeling and dead. Cold as a day old corpse. Dry as the dust of a gravestone. From all around him arose thin, hissing whispers. Unintelligible words repeated over and over with the background noise of a thousand writhing snakes. The sound made Dodger’s skin crawl. This was it. This was what Dodger wanted. For Rex to attack. Only when the man attacked could Dodger defend himself. And defense lead to counterattacks.
As Al used to say, you couldn’t untie a rope if you couldn’t reach it.
“You will surrender,” Rex said from the midst of the whispers.
“You talk a big game for a man that hides in the shadows,” Dodger said.
Laughter rolled around Dodger, rumbling out of the blackness like thunder.
“I know what you fear,” Rex said. “I know what keeps you up at night.”
Without warning, a soft luminescence streamed down from above, shining on the small space around him. Dodger blinked a few times at this intrusion of light. When his eyes adjusted, he found he wasn’t alone anymore. A crowd of men and woman surrounded him on all sides, seven or eight people deep. There were a good fifty folks around him with more stretching back into the darkness beyond the halo of light. Each one sported a pale and waxy complexion, with glassy eyes and emotionless expressions.
“I have read your dossier, Mr. Dodger,” Rex said from all around him. “I’ve studied it. I know it by heart. I know all about your personal demons. Your panic attacks. Your anxiety issues. The reason you really quit the Agency. Patricia Jenkins was just an excuse. You wanted out for a long time. Long before she came into your crosshairs.”
There it was, Dodger’s painful truth. Patricia Jenkins was just an excuse. He could’ve passed up the job, gone onto something else and forgot all about her. Instead he put his career and life on the line to protect her. Turned his whole world upside down to keep her and her children safe. And why? Because he had long since grown tired of killing. He had grown tired of the monster he had become. He wanted out and she became his excuse. Instead of a scapegoat, she was an escape goat. A tangible reason to quit. Dodger glanced across the crowd, putting names with faces he hadn’t seen in years. Yet he still remembered them. Remembered them as well as what he did to them. All of them.
“This is your nightmare,” Rex said, then chuckled. “Coming face to face with the people you killed over the years. Those you slaughtered without mercy or regret.”
“Without mercy, true,” Dodger said. “But regret?” He looked into the eyes of the nearest ghost; a thin, pale man with an impressive, bushy mustache. “Regret is all I have left. Isn’t that right, Mr. Porter?”
The thin man nodded.
“Who?” Rex said.
Dodger never looked away from the spirit. “I thought you read my file, Rex. You should know Mr. Porter here was my first mark. He had a bad habit of talking to the wrong people about the wrong things. Selling government secrets is what they called it. Crank and I caught up with him in China. I never even spoke to the man. Just did the job and got out of there. One shot to the head was all it took.” Dodger raised his fingers into an imaginary gun and pulled the trigger.
The pale ghost nodded again, then vanished in a thin haze of smoke.
Dodger turned his attention to a curvy woman to his left and grinned. “Madame Bouchard. It’s been a while.”
She gave a slight smirk.
“The Madame here was my, what? Twenty fifth kill?” Dodger said.
The spirit shrugged, unsure where she stood in his long line of murders.
“She ran a bordello in Spain,” Dodger said. “Turned out to be a front for a privately run all female assassin agency. The deadliest and most talented ladies money could buy. Deadly and talented, in many, many ways. We had some good times before it was all said and done.”
The Madame pressed her hand to her gray lips and blew Dodger a kiss before she went up in a puff of smoke.
“What is this?” Rex said. “I deliver your personal nightmare and you reminisce about old times. What is wrong with you?”
“Demons,” Dodger said, his gaze sweeping the line of ghosts. “You were right when you called them that. These are my personal demons. My demons. You’re not the only one that has read that dossier, Rex. I got my own copy and spent far longer committing it to memory than you will ever have time for. Each name. Each death. If you think you can torture me with these memories, you’re sorely mistaken.” He reached out and ran a hand through three of the spirits. They shimmered and swirled at his touch. His heart ached at the feel of them. “I’ve been torturing myself with the very same things for years and years.”
A soft grunt came from the background, and with it the ghosts disappeared, leaving Dodger alone in the dark once more.
“Fine,” Rex said from the emptiness. “If a hundred ghosts won’t bring you too your knees, let’s try a single specific one.”
The lights rose again, this time illuminating the last thing Dodger expected to see.
A walnut coffin with a white trim.
His mother’s coffin.