A Quick Shopping Trip

The Doc's convoluted idea was the scam of the century. Even if no one outside the body would know about it, the Others would never forget. Earlier in the day when the Doc revealed it to him, Alf marveled at the sheer audacity of the scheme and slapped old Rube so hard on the back that the old man nearly lost his spectacles. Of course, when it came to executing the plan, the Doc was about as handy as a back pocket on a shirt, but Alf had the perfect qualifications for the job.

Getting control of the Body was the first obstacle--even at night someone was always awake and watching. Doc had it all figured out though. It took serious finesse to get all the Others distracted long enough so that Alf could take the body out and run a few errands before anyone noticed what had happened. There was one topic that engrossed everyone so completely that they'd pay no heed to what went on outside.

If the Original disappeared, who would take control?

Rube sparked the fire just after lunch time. “The Big Guy has currently been out of commission for an extended interval,” he commented to Vann, “which I find intriguing because he doesn't usually leave us in charge for this long.” The Doc noticed that Vann's tongue flicked at his lips. “Still...I'm sure it's nothing to worry about.”

Vann walked around for the next half-hour casting sidelong glances at everyone. Alf stoked his paranoia when he sidled up to him and said, “Son, you're jumpy as spit on a hot skillet.” Vann didn't admit to anything, but Alf nudged him in the ribs, “Can't say I blame you. I've been feeling a might twitchy myself with the Head Honcho taking his long nap.” Vann jumped as if he'd been bitten, and Alf told him, “whoa, don't get your cows a runnin'. And keep this under your hat. We don't want to cause a stampede.”

Within half an hour, it was like a wildfire had broken out among the personalities.

While the Others argued over who should take the reigns, Alf slipped to the front. Doc kept them busy by shifting his support from one personality to another, singing someone's praises so he sounds like the greatest leader since Alexander the Great, and the next second making him look worse than emperor Nero. He had them wound up tighter than a cheap alarm clock.

Once Alf had the Body, he found Xochitl and hightailed it away from the depot where Kendall had been waiting for the midnight train. He only had three stops to make, but the places were at different ends of town, so he needed Xochitl to get him around before the Others noticed he was gone.

His first stop was the assayer's office. Thick bars obscured the windows, and the reinforced iron doors were locked with three bolts. “That's about as much use as a trap door on a canoe,” Alf chuckled as he climbed the window bars like a ladder and swung himself onto the roof. He wriggled through the skylight and dropped to the floor between two sturdy shelves arrayed with a variety of goodies that glinted in the faint moonlight that followed him in.

Alf scanned the shelves then slapped his knee. “The darned fools put the skylight right over their strongroom!” He laughed and spoke to the room, “thank you kind sirs for saving me the trouble of picking the lock.” Alf ignored the gold nuggets and freshly minted ingots, only pocketing a small vial of nearly worthless gold dust. There was however one temptation in the strongroom that he couldn't resist. Before he left, the assayer's scales had been readjusted so that the next group of prospectors coming through town would get a little extra cash in exchange for their gold.

Next on his shopping list were a bottle of clear lamp oil and a large pane of inch thick glass. Alf examined the lock on the back door of the hardware store, then cracked his knuckles, wriggled his fingers dramatically and flourished his lock pick like a magic wand. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he whispered, “the Astounding Alfredo will now attempt to break the immovable lock that binds the impregnable door to King Solomon's treasure trove.” His lockpick clicked and scraped around the dark hole in the lock, but after several minutes Alf stood up and frowned. “I'll be euchered. This lock's stiffer than a priest's collar.”

He eyed the back of the store seeking another way in, but there were no windows. He scowled at the lock again, then shrugged and turned the doorknob. The door opened. “Well, feed me nails and call me Rusty!” Alf grinned. Once he was in, it only took a few minutes to gather the items and change several of the shop signs so the hammers were now saws and the saws were now burlap sacks. Then for good measure Alf reversed the keys on the cash register.

His final visit took him to the pharmacist's for a long list of specific chemicals that the Doc made Alf memorize. Alf couldn't cotton on to how formaldehyde, phosphorous, alcohol and a dozen other ingredients were going to help, but he dutifully tucked them into the backpack right after swapping the leaflets about breastfeeding with the leaflets about proper dental hygiene.

On the way back to the depot, Alf stopped long enough to trade places with the Doc. The old man could mix his chemicals and work his magic with the other items while Alf enjoyed the fireworks inside. The Others were still hollering to beat the band, and Alf watched the show, happy as a tick on a stray dog, until he got the Doc's signal and returned to finish the job.

Alf guided Xochitl around the back of a dilapidated warehouse toward the train depot. Despite all the recent bickering inside the Head over whether or not to leave her behind, Alf knew she wouldn't enjoy the train ride and would be better off spending a few days hunting deer or antelope or grizzly bear or whatever it was she hunted. Besides, she could run faster than any steam engine and would follow them like a bad penny, so it didn't matter in the end. He patted her warm neck and felt her rumbling purr through the saddle.

Several of the Personalities said she was creepy, with her two heads and very sharp teeth and very very sharp claws, and some of the Others still thought she was just a horse, but Alf liked her. He felt like she understood him.

They stopped at the back corner of the warehouse, and Alf peeked around at the depot. The gaslights flickered and glinted on the polished steel of the red-eye engine that huffed in the dark like an old bear waking up from a long, grumpy nap. Alf didn't expect to see many passengers--this time of night the only people out were burglars and bad women--still, a handful of silhouettes loitered on the platform waiting to board the train. Alf gathered up the satchel, the pack and the bedroll, and whispered, “see ya, Flower.” Xochitl sleepily blinked once and bounded into the dark as silent as a shadow.

As Alf walked, a point of the crystal poked his side through the battered satchel like a taunting finger prodding him to carry out a particularly feckless dare.

On the platform, Alf settled himself into a wooden rocker and looked around at the unsavory characters waiting to board the train. Alf wasn't sure what Kendall was thinking when she decided to hop a train at this time of night. A girl by herself amongst all these curly wolves was just asking for trouble.

“She must really hate Area 17,” he muttered.

The train would be leaving soon, and Alf figured it was about time to get the Others back on track. He made a show of pulling the glimmering crystal from the satchel. Its sickly green and gold light cast eerie shadows into the eves of the station master's office, and a couple of burly caballeros made no attempt to hide their curiosity, eyeballing the crystal as if it were a new dancer at the saloon.

Alf could feel alarms going off inside the Body. The Doc told Vann that trouble was brewing outside. Vann tried to push his way to the front, but only attracted everyone's attention. While they wrestled for control, Alf balanced the crystal by its point on one finger, watching the gold flecks spiraling around like a slow waltz. The pressure built as several of the others tried to pull him back inside.

“OK, OK! No need to throw a hissy fit,” Alf said to himself as he tucked the crystal back into the satchel and relinquished control of the body.

The End

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