“Strangers Off a Train”

all-the-seas-and-rivers“Miss Delacaye.”

I tried to sound conciliatory. We’d had a long argument before departure, primarily about her coming along. My main point was that I had been on a train before. Her main point was that I had since deteriorated as an adult man, my debauchery after the Green Star take being her primary damning evidence. There would be bills on the journey, and she had taken over that part of my life almost entirely.

At the time, I was unable to summon a reasonable counterpoint. In the intervening two days, I still hadn’t found one.

But I had found a nice felt fedora in a town just outside of San Caniche, bleached to a pleasant coffee cream. The hat, not the town, although Marsalado was also bleached to a pleasant coffee cream. As a substitute for autonomy, I refused to take the hat off, even inside, an act of petty rebellion. Except to sleep, in which state Miss Delacaye never saw me.

As I awaited her response, I felt my eyebrow cocking. An annoying tell that I couldn’t shed.

“Mr. Finister,” she peered over her newspaper and returned my cocked eyebrow over her glasses. She’d been practicing. “What is our itinerary? What should we tip the porters on our overnights, if—and I stress the if—” She had. “If we choose to take hotel rooms rather than staying in our cabins—”

“Our separate cabins, costing us twice the necessary.”

She folded the paper. “Our professionally necessary separate cabins. What do we tip the porters? What are the best hotels in each town? When do we arrive in Próximo?”

I needed a win. “We arrive in La Torre in less than an hour.”

She snapped the newspaper and hid behind it. “You only know that because I told you that we have to overnight there. No decent hotels, but the goods you’re tracking—”

“I get the logistics.” I tugged at the fedora, but her eyes were hidden behind the San Caniche Reporter. “You’ve been reading the same paper for days.”

“I bought a new copy in Marsalado. Stories telegraphed ahead.” She lowered it just enough to roll her eyes at my fingers, which were still pinched on the rim of the fedora. “You want to know if the Green Star cargo has been released?”

All I had was the fedora. “Sure thing, darling.”

“You know I don’t like that, Mr. Finister.”

“Sure thing, Miss Delacaye.”

“The cargo was released.” She snapped the paper as punctuation.

“So, we’re overnighting in La Torre.”

She sighed. She’d been practicing that one since I’d hired her. “We already established that. Ricky’s waiting for you there, and all three of us will be waiting for the cargo. As established.”

“So, we might be leaving on a different train.”

“My my,” she said behind the paper. “You’re the detective you think you are.”

A man was standing next to our booth. He was dressed like a Gorham thug. Dark green flannel suit, peach button-up shirt with no tie, black bowler hat. He had our attention, which was his clear intention.

Miss Delacaye lowered her paper. My hand wanted to remove the coffee cream fedora, but I scolded it.

“May we help you?” That was her introduction, not mine.

“My employer will be wanting to meet with you.”

This was the clue I was waiting for. If there were any truth to this grand conspiracy Ricky and Samantha had ferreted out, its lieutenants would be competent enough to ferret out any counter-conspiracy. And, despite Miss Delacaye’s more than competent logistics, booking our train tickets and hotel rooms under assumed names, those lieutenants would find me. After all, as Miss Corazón said, my picture had been in the papers, all the way to Rio de Cabra at least.

I smiled my best detective’s smile at my assistant. Oh yes, I was the detective I thought I was. The pearlies stayed exposed as my gaze shifted toward the thug. “Your employer is on the train?”

He was put off by my smile. Certainly not by my fedora since he had also not removed his bowler. Bad manners know no professional boundaries.

“My employer will be on the next train.”

“So, you want me to hang out in La Torre until he arrives.” I glanced at Miss Delacaye. She sighed.

“My employer will be wanting to meet with you.”

“Yeah, you said that.”

He looked uncomfortable working with words instead of fists. And apparently he was out of words.

“Just for you,” I pointed at his face with two fingers. They wanted a cigarette for the full effect. Too late. “I’ll hang out in La Torre until he arrives.”

The thug shrugged and nodded. I turned back to my assistant. “Do you have any hotel suggestions for this young man?”

She sighed again, many years of practice, and folded the newspaper. “You might try the Harvester place. Reasonable prices and no questions asked.”

He took a step back. He scratched at his forehead, nudging the bowler hat. “I hadn’t—”

“I figured you hadn’t. It’s out of the way, few onlookers. Straight down the tracks south.”

“Um,” he responded eloquently, “thank you, ma’am.” He tipped his hat and stomped off, likely more out of habit than trying to make a point, toward the rear of the car. Once he was through the connecting door, I retrieved a pack of smokes from my jacket and tapped out a stick.

“I take it,” the lighter crackled and set fire to the tobacco, “that we’re not staying at the Harvester place.”

She tucked the paper under her hip. I didn’t let my eyes follow it. Then, she removed her glasses, and tucked those into her breast pocket, forcing me to once again be a big boy with my eyes. Now I knew she was punishing me. Nonchalance forced me to keep my eyes on hers, and she knew her bare face had an affect on me. Even if she couldn’t see it without her glasses. The barest removal of clothing. Another well-practiced maneuver.

She had me by the tail, though. We were chained together by her way with money and my way with not having a way with money. My brain just spat out a mixed metaphor. I caught myself nodding slowly into her dark and smokies.

She lowered her eyelids. “Mr. Finister, your tells will be your downfall.”

I drew on the stick, then pointed at her with the two fingers holding it. Gesture redeemed.

“Sometimes, Miss Delacaye, falling down isn’t such a bad thing.”

I considered it a win. She considered it a cue to shake her head, scoot out of the booth with paper in hand, and walk toward her cabin. I gave in to my tells and watched her walk away.

We arrived at La Torre on schedule, long after sunset, per Miss Delacaye’s prediction. She offered to see our bags to the hotel, a three-story affair on the main square called The Torch, while I waited for Ricky to show himself. She didn’t trust him much. It took a bit of cajoling to get her to include the Huanese suitcase among our luggage, particularly since the railroad charged per bag and the suitcase was empty.

But, if I were going to meet with a lieutenant of this pirate-assassin conspiracy, I would need Johnny Suitcase.

I figured that Ricky would be watching the station. From the layout of the town, the best place to do that would be from an adobe tower in the middle of an empty square of desert right alongside the rails. In the light of nearby streetlamps, I could see that the tower had been blackened, probably from a long-ago fire. There was nothing near it but some bushes and a well. And some chickens, huddled near the base of the tower.

I took up a position next to the well, leaning against it and lighting a cigarette to give the impression of taking a casual smoke break. I hoped my city outfit would give me an excuse for such an odd choice of getaways. The townsfolk kept to the boardwalks at the perimeters of the square, seeming hesitant to breach its bounds.

The cigarette was burning too quickly. Where was Ricky? He should have seen me by now.

I heard spurs. A man was walking through the shadows into the square, making a beeline toward me. He was too tall to be Ricky, dressed in browns and blues, not black. He wore a cowboy’s hat. That didn’t fit into any conspiracy I was expecting, counter or otherwise. And, the  next train hadn’t come, so he wasn’t the boss who wanted to see me.

“Friend,” I ventured. I hoped.

The man did not miss a step. His thumbs were tucked into a belt on which also hung two pistols. I couldn’t tell if it was to reassure me that his hands were occupied or to threaten me by their proximity to the pieces. Perhaps a little of both. Or perhaps it was just a habit.

He nodded his head at me. “You a detective?”

One shot and a bull’s eye. I didn’t know how good he was with the pistols, but he was dead on with the questions.

Still, he hadn’t said “the detective” and hadn’t said my name, so I couldn’t convince myself he’d been looking for me in particular. Maybe just told to keep a look out for any detectives coming south? He settled against the well, mirroring my one-elbow stance. I decided to seem amused, but then realized that The Amused Guy played better in the city than it did in the country, so I wiped it off and aimed for mere curiosity.

“Why d’you think that?”

He stretched his bottom lip with his tongue. He didn’t like me answering a questions with a question, and wasn’t auditioning for The Amused Guy either. “Saw you from the hotel. You dress like one, no offense.”

“Didn’t take any,” I said.

That hint of my temperament seemed to encourage him. “Or, anyway, like someone out of a steamer port. Out of town, so you might be out looking for something. Dressed too nice for a working man. Too flashy for a businessman, no offense.”

“None at all.”

“And, too formal for just taking a holiday. Smoking out here by the well, where you can see everyone coming and going. So good chance a detective.”

That wasn’t a bad bit of reasoning, I had to confess.

“You figured all that out when you saw me from over at the hotel?”

“I think fast, I guess. You here out of San Caniche?”

Two shots, two bull’s eyes. And that second was the killer. If he were just looking for a detective, any detective would merit the stroll from the hotel to the well. But, if he were looking for Marshall Finister, making sure the detective you found was from the right city would help.

Of course, helping his guess, San Caniche was the closest steamer port and in the direction from which the latest train had come, but he’d still read me like a dime novel. And on the cover of that dime novel I saw a detective with one pistol getting shot down by a gunslinger with two. Poorly drawn, especially around the faces.

I pointed at him with the fingers that were holding the cigarette. “You’re right twice.” I smiled a smile I hoped conveyed admiration. My volley, and I had to aim carefully. If I tried to guess at his what and where-from, I’d likely guess wrong and be no closer to knowing why he was talking to me. And, if I asked him if he were looking for a detective, that still wouldn’t tell me why. To hire him? To kill him? To warn him off?

I couldn’t figure out if he were a hired killer or just some a cowboy, but he’d guessed my job and my hometown, both on the first try. He certainly didn’t need a detective, even if he were looking for one, but that was the only productive question I could think of.

“You need a detective?”

He nodded. The conversation had softened, so I reached into my blazer. He tensed up and I decided it would be wise to move more slowly.

“You like a smoke?” I pulled the pack from my pocket with finger and thumb.

He shook his head. “I don’t. Smoke, that is.”

I slipped the pack back in my pocket and nodded. “It’s a nasty habit, I’ve been told. Repeatedly. What do you need with a detective?”

He untucked a thumb and removed his hat. He looked around, scanning the diminishing night crowds on the nearby boardwalks. “I’m looking for some men. I tracked them here.”

A side-hire. I didn’t have the time. But, I felt that blowing him off cold wasn’t a good idea. He looked hard and determined. I extended my hand.

“Marshall Finister. Private eye out of San Caniche.”

He set his hat on the edge of the well and shook my hand. “Patrick Clark. Deputy sheriff of the town of Banter.”

“Never heard of it.” Too glib. Too city. Not polite enough. “No offense.”

“It’s in New Léxico. Well, it was.”

He held his cards close to the chest. But, he also tipped them too far. “Those men you’re looking for had something to do with that past tense.”

His eyes settled on mine. There was an uncomfortable measure of death in them. Death he’d seen. Death he’d dealt.

“They did. Whole town burnt. I think they was in with a gang out of Banter who was raiding into Chayan. The Lodge Gang.”

It didn’t ring a bell, but gangs in New Léxico were a penny a dozen.

“You know what they look like?”

He pushed his lip out with his tongue again. Detective that I was, I knew he had little or nothing.

“I do not. I know there were three of them, and they were on horseback.”

I decided recklessly to test his temperament. “That’s pretty standard around these parts.”

He chewed his lip at me. His hand settled on the hat he’d set on the well. “Yes. No rail line out of Banter.”

I watched his face as he set his hat on his his head, to see how reckless I had been. He shook resignation into his face. “No need for one, now.”

I decided to ease into my refusal. I drew on my smoke thoughtfully, as if considering his information.

“I have a case, and it’s a heavy one.” I nodded at him to show him I respected his concerns. “But, if I turn up anything about a Lodge Gang, I’ll let you know.”

His face was tight, but he was nodding.

“Free of charge. Professional courtesy from detective to deputy sheriff.” I nodded and he nodded harder. He was taking to me, man to man, gunslinger to private dick, country mouse to city mouse. “That agreeable?”

“Best I could expect, I expect.”

“Where are you staying?”

“My—” He twisted his cheek, either in a lie or an uncomfortable truth. “My wife will be checking us into The Torch.”

The cigarette was threatening my fingers, and Ricky was clearly not showing. I dropped the slug into the well and tipped my hat at the gunslinger.

“Me too,” I said. “I should get back. Want to walk together?”

When we got to the hotel, on the main square, there was a dark-skinned lady at the desk, a real dish in a dusty white dress with nice black curls, talking to the man in the ill-fitting uniform behind the desk. His posture was stoic and resistant.

Deputy Clark quickened his step and took up a position at her shoulder. His thumbs were tucked in his gunbelt, that weird combination of threat and reassurance. The man behind the counter blanched at the gunslinger’s arrival. I grinned at that and stepped up beside him to take in the exchange.

The deputy settled his hips. “Is there a problem?”

The man summoned some courage from his too-tight livery. “Sir, are you… with this woman?”

The woman slapped a handful of flag dollars on the counter. “We would like a room. We have good money.”

“Miss,” the man said with a disapproving eye.

The gunslinger took a step forward, putting his the knuckles of his thumbs against the counter. “We’re man and wife.”

The man huffed out a breath. He was afraid of what he was about to say, but felt compelled to say it. “Maybe in New Léxico territory, but not in the state of Costilla, you’re not.”

For fuck’s sake. I felt myself taking on a side-hire without pay. The gunslinger’s thumbs shifted on his belt. Outwards. Bad, bad, bad. To head things off, I stepped up beside him.

“My name is Marshall Finister, lately from the capitol of San Caniche. I have a room here.”

The man behind the counter took a breath and scanned the ledger on the counter. Deputy Clark turned to look at me, and his “wife” followed his gaze. She was smooth-cheeked and gorgeous. Her curious frown hinted at dimples a smile would make irresistible. I felt a warm hollowness in my chest at her attention.

But then, they looked at each other, and their eyes spoke only of death, ashes, and sorrow. They were like a couple chained together by tragedy more than by love. My affection for her shattered in the weight of their mysterious bond.

“Yes, sir,” said the clerk. “Your assistant, Miss Delacaye, booked two rooms.”

I felt my tongue pushing against my lip. Mimicking the gunslinger’s tell. My thumbs wanted to stuff themselves into my belt, but I compelled them to maintain my individuality.

“Cancel them.”


“Cancel them,” I said. I nodded at Deputy Clark and his woman, whatever the relation. They were both confused, their mouths open. “We’ll all be relocating to the Harvester.”


I took off my coffee cream fedora and slapped it angrily onto the counter. Everyone, even the gunslinger, took a step back.

“Give me her room number, now! I’ll go up and let her know about the new arrangements.”

The hotel clerk glared devilry at the other two. “Room 15, just down the hall.”

I lifted the hat and shoved it at him. “Thank you, Turncoat.”

I stepped away from the counter and Deputy Clark stepped with me.

“The Harvester?”

His woman was eyeing me over his shoulder, standing in that dusty white dress with saddlebags at her feet. I couldn’t tell if she had simply admired my performance, or appreciated the “Turncoat” I had slapped on the end of it. Either way, I was glad to have her approval. It put me in with her gunslinger, who didn’t seem the sort of man to have on the outs.

“It’s straight down the tracks south. Out of the way, few onlookers, reasonable prices.”

His face didn’t move. I needed more to reestablish our man-to-man, and my memory of Miss Delacaye gave it to me.

“And no questions asked.”

Clark’s woman liked that. I liked that she liked that.

“This is insanity, Mr. Finister,” Miss Delacaye shared. She believed earnestly in sharing. Particularly with me.

I let my loafers pad the desert hardpack. City wear on country dirt. The stars and dim, ground-oil streetlamps shone our way on the journey. I preferred the warm light of the whale-oil lamps you found in port cities.

The way ahead was empty. Deputy Clark and the putative Mrs. Clark had made their way and were probably settling into their common quarters.

“Marshall, we’ll be too far from the train station to watch for arrivals.”

I turned to glance through her glasses. Her eyes were not to be trifled with. So I didn’t. The porters behind her were listening in.

“We’ll hear the whistle.”

“Mr. Finister.” Her voice was a shaking leaf in an angry storm. “All this over some cracker cowboy and his Negro bride?”

“It wasn’t so long ago in Costilla that I wouldn’t have been permitted to hire someone with a Chayana name.” I put it in the feminine so she’d get my point. “I won’t invest money in The Torch. We’re staying at the Harvester place.”

She grunted. That was her tell of resignation. I had my win.

“I had to pay The Torch for the night, nonetheless. They had a no-refund policy.”

“We won’t stay at The Torch, Miss Delacaye. Final, final, final.”

She sighed. “Your tells will be your downfall.”

“So you keep reminding me.”

She grabbed my elbow. The first physical contact she had allowed herself in years.

“That rough man is staying at the Harvester place.” She meant the thug, not the gunslinger.

“I know. Why are we calling it the Harvester place?”

“That cowboy has no role in your case. The other man at the Harvester does.”

My loafers came to rest on the gravel beside the rails. She stopped, letting the porters carrying our luggage separate around us.

“The gunslinger has no role in our case,” I said. “He’s looking for some bandit gang who burned his town, with no ties to the assassins we’re looking for. But, I won’t stay at a hotel where his wife isn’t welcome.”

She closed her eyes. She was accepting my offense. I let my hand settle on her elbow. A reciprocal physical contact. She sighed in her practiced way.

“Alright, alright. I get it.” She tugged herself free and followed the porters. I followed her. She glared at me over her shoulder. “When we get back to San Caniche, you shall work the legislature to change the law or this is just another reckless whim.”

She was cornering me into a future case with no profit. A very uncharacteristic turn for her. She paid my bills, after all.

“I’ve got a few bribes left in the Green Star take, I suppose.”

She cocked her eyebrow over those glasses and turned away from me.

“If we keep the Green Star take,” she spoke into the night.

A train whistle punctuated her cynicism. The big bad boss had arrived. Another win, I figured. She turned before I could summon my grin or suppress my cocked eyebrow.

There was a knock at the door. I had yet to change into my pajamas. I had only gone into the washroom to brush my teeth. I scanned the poorly decorated room. My gun was on the crude bedside table. I scanned the unopened bags. The Huanese suitcase was missing. Ricky had come while I was in the washroom. Game on.

A familiar voice grumbled through the door. “My employer is here. He wants to meet with you at The Torch.”

Of course, he does. I did not look forward to making that hike in reverse, particularly back to that place. I felt hostile, so I let the pistol lie and opened the door. It was the thug from the train. Of course, it was. He stepped back to let me lean out from the door.

I decided my inner monologue made a decent outer dialogue. “Of course, he does. My associate will also need to be there.”

“Your associate.” He didn’t know how to verbally punctuate a question. Clearly better with fists than words.

“Johnny Suitcase.”

“Johnny Suitcase.” He missed the question mark again.

“My verbal contracts agent. He’s got a better memory, and keeps me in line.”

His face showed a struggle. “Johnny Suitcase?” He’d found the punctuation.

“Yeah. Real name Johnny Ogama.” I improvised that one. “He just brings an empty suitcase as a sort of lucky charm. It’s a nervous thing, but he’s steady otherwise.”

He blinked and blinked. I needed to reach him at the thug level.

“You know how smart guys are. They develop these ticks. Rabbits’ feet, weird clothes, washing their hands too much.”

He nodded. His lips worked into a grin like two spongy tidal pool creatures having relations. I let myself chuckle, at his reaction but he didn’t know that. He chuckled back.

There was a doorknob shuffle down the hall. Miss Delacaye leaned out of her room. The thug glanced at her.

“She’s not coming. I am. And Johnny Suitcase. You go on, pal. I’ll gather my hat.”

He stomped off down the hallway and disappeared down the stairs.

Miss Delacaye was breathing hard against her pajama top. “The Huanese bag?”

I nodded.

The room at The Torch was much like the one I had coerced Miss Delacaye into abandoning. Cranberry chairs, peach-and-cranberry bedclothes, peach-and-blue Aristani carpet with little cranberry antelopes dancing around the edges, and dark-stained missionary tables here and there. A part of me remembered my shabby room at the Harvester and regretted my cancellation. A noisy part of me, that required a stiff scolding.

The lieutenant was a Chayano, smoking a cigar in one of the cranberry chairs and dressed in a peach linen suit of a cut I had seen in Rio de Cabra many years before. A cranberry handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. Likely a color-matching coincidence. There could not be any suits like that for sale in La Torre. He was thick and dark, with eyebrows turned up at the ends like horns.

“Detective Finister.” Not a hint of an accent. I let myself be visibly impressed.

The thug who had invited me was standing near the window alongside a rough-looking woman who could have been his twin sister. My tells ricocheted off her stern face, even though it was inestimably beautiful. I found myself wondering what her fist would feel like bruising my kidneys.

I turned my attention to the lieutenant. “Señor?”

Mister Kinsey.”

“I doubt that.”

The man grinned. It would have been more menacing had he worn a mustache. “You don’t need to know my real name. I was told you’d have an associate?”

“We’ll talk when he arrives.”

He motioned me to a cranberry chair. I sat and, as if on cue, there was a triple knock at the door.

Señor Kinsey smiled in his half-menacing way. “Come in.”

The door opened. The thugs had hands in jackets. First in was the suitcase, then a man.

It was not Ricky. It was a Huanese fellow dressed in Ricky’s black suit, silly little bowler tucked on his head. It looked poorly worn somehow, like he had never worn a hat before. I tackled my tells and pinned them to the ground with all the force I could muster. I felt my right middle fingernail digging into my palm. What the fuck had Ricky done?

“Johnny Suitcase,” Kinsey said.

The man nodded quickly. The bowler nearly slipped off and he caught it with his free hand. He glanced at me and closed the door behind him.

Kinsey looked over his shoulder. The two thugs started walking across the room.

“I’ve been told you bring the suitcase as a lucky charm. It’s empty, yes?”

The man, who was still obnoxiously not Ricky Coca, nodded. His face was serene. He was taking in the confusion better than I was. He was in the know, where I liked to be.

“So, you won’t mind if my own associates confirm that?”

The man nodded again and handed over the suitcase to the two thugs. They slopped in onto the bed rudely and flung it open.

The man spoke: “I’ll need it back before I can speak. Again.”

Kinsey waved his cigar in the affirmative.

“Señor,” the woman said. “There are some hobo rags in here.”

“Nothing much, boss,” the thug I knew said. “There’s not even very much clothes.”

“Very many clothes.” the woman said.

“There’s nothing in it, boss.” the man said.

Kinsey waved his cigar at them. They closed the suitcase with a snap, handed it back to not-fucking-Ricky, and stomped back to their places near the back window. Kinsey waved Johnny Suitcase toward an empty chair. The man sat in it and nodded toward me.

Kinsey pointed his cigar at me. “You’re still working the Green Star case that you already solved.”

I shook my head. Resisted taking off my fedora. “I’m taking a vacation to Rio de Cabra.”

“With your professional assistant. Under assumed names.”

I leaned side-to-side in what I hoped was a common masculine conspiracy. “We’re not married, so…”

“Is that why you have separate rooms?” He settled those goat-horn eyebrows on me. He was the detective I wished I was, at the moment. I doubled down on the conspiracy.

“She’s taking some convincing, if you get my meaning.”

“I get you beyond your meaning.” He lifted the cigar to his mouth and took a long draw. “So, tomorrow, you and your assistant will be taking the train south to Rio de Cabra.”

I had a bit of purchase here. “I wouldn’t have stopped in this shit-hole of a town unless your man had intercepted me.”

Kinsey tapped out ashes into a clay tray. “Unless you had let my man intercept you. If you were on vacation, you could have told him to have himself off.”

“My curiosity got the better of me. I’m a detective by trade. Thought he might have a side-hire.”

Johnny Suitcase was darting his eyes back and forth, taking in the conversation.

“A side-hire to what?”

Nice parry. “A side-hire on my vacation.”

Kinsey grinned at that. “So, you had no previous plan to stay over in La Torre?”

“As I said, your man got the better of my curiosity. Otherwise, we’d be well on our way to Próximo by now.”

Kinsey laughed and drew hard on the cigar. That meant he didn’t believe me. I was that good of a detective.

“And you take your associate on vacation with you as well? Maybe you’re trying to convince both of them?”

To his credit, Johnny Suitcase didn’t squirm at that innuendo. He had his hand on the suitcase handle, as I would have wanted Ricky’s hand.

“Mr. Finister,” Kinsey tamped the cigar out in the ashtray. The way he spoke my name put gats in the hands of his two thugs. “You’re still working a dead case, and that makes my boss very uncomfortable.”

The pistol I had stuffed into my blazer suddenly felt like it was in Aristan. Two gats already cocked and leveled at your face will have that effect on one’s perceptions of distance. Johnny Suitcase just sat, body unmoving, expression unmoved, with his hand nowhere near the suitcase.

“Your boss?”

Kinsey leaned elbows on knees. His loose Chayano garb crumpled with a menace his clean-shaven couldn’t manage. “We’re not to have a villain’s confessional here. Mister Finister, you’re just going to die.”

“That’s going to be noisy,” I said.

Kinsey shook his head. “The hotel owner will understand my position on your presence, I predict.”

There was a sweep of black across the room. The woman disappeared through the glass of the window with a crash and a sickening, third-story thud on the alley hardpack below. The other thug’s gun clicked. Johnny Suitcase had shoved the meat of his own thumb to block the hammer.

Kinsey stood and spun toward Johnny. He’d found a gun somewhere in his crumpled clothes. Johnny yanked the pistol from the thug’s hand and sent the man to the carpet with a fist.

Kinsey leveled his gun at Johnny. I cocked my pistol behind Kinsey’s right ear.

“Now,” I said in my best tables-turned cadence. “We’ll be asking the questions.”

Kinsey lowered his gun. I pressed the barrel of my own pistol against his earlobe. He opened his hand and let the gun fall to the Aristani carpet with a quiet drumbeat.

“Who’s your boss?” I figured it was a good place to start.

Kinsey chuckled. “I have no idea.”

I glanced at Johnny. He was as serene and unreadable as ever.

“You got an idea that would lead us to him?”

“I got a trove of ideas. No idea where they’d lead you.”

His lack of an accent was annoying me. “So tell me, Señor Kinsey. Tell me the nearest of your ideas.”

His head turned into my pistol, eyes mostly white around dark pupils.

“I was hired by foreigners. Out of the Pennant Cities.” He meant assassins. I nodded him to go on. He gritted his teeth and his hand worked like he wished he hadn’t dropped his weapon. Too late for regret.

He glanced down at his useless pistol. “They were clearing the path for some smuggled goods out of San Caniche.”

Oh, yes. I was the detective I thought I was. “Smuggling them to Puertobueno.”

Kinsey nodded. His shoulders slumped. Johnny stepped forward, perhaps sensing a moment of looseness into which he needed to inject vigilance. If Ricky had chosen this substitute, he had chosen well. I decided to reintroduce tension, ask Kinsey a hard question.

“By the north route through Sarleton, or the south route through Rio?”

Kinsey closed his eyes. He wanted to lie. I convinced him otherwise by tilting the barrel upward into his braincase.

“South,” he whispered. “Through territory they claimed to control.”

Something in my face made Johnny’s face turn even more serious. Then, his body turned serious. In a whirl of black, he put a foot into Kinsey’s face and sent him limp into the peach Aristani carpet.

“What the fuck?” I uncocked the pistol and let it fall to my thigh. “Why?”

Johnny shrugged. “He was done talking.”

I accepted that, decided on a semantic redirect.

“No. I mean why didn’t you use the suitcase?”

He went a bit limp. He glanced at the thug and Kinsey. He turned toward the broken window. He’d done a good job, I had to admit. But, my question still hovered, unanswered.

“I can’t take a blase in my hand.”

So, he was a Huobu monk. Sworn to fight unarmed.

“What are you doing here?”

“Ricky Coca told me you were looking for an assassin conspiracy in Chayan.”

Typical ninja redirection. Ricky was staying in the shadows and letting another throw his punches. To be honest, I admired him a bit for it.

“An assassin conspiracy. Is that your stake in this?”

“I am also seeking assassins in Chayan. I told your ninja this. They derailed and destroyed my train.”

“Sorry about that. I know how much the trains mean to you.” I felt there was more to be uncovered. “These assassins were looking for cargo out of San Caniche?”

“I don’t know what they were seeking. Before I killed them, they only managed to set fire to my train.”

He was holding back. His serenity was intentional. “There were extra cargo cars.”

The monk’s face went open. He hadn’t expected my intuition. “There were. But I don’t know what was on them.”

The telegraph only forwarded San Caniche stories so far. “Any other anomalies?”

He nodded, letting me lead him into the intrigue. “They intended to kill everyone on the train. And, they mentioned that a gang who controlled that area had been eliminated.”

A gang. I knew how fate played mortals. I knew how cases got complicated, intertwined like threads in an Aristani rug. I knew what the answer to my next question was going to be, detective that I was, but I felt compelled to ask it anyway.

“A gang? Which gang?”

“They said,” he stared into the ceiling, searching his memory. “They said it was the Lodge Gang.”

Well, now I’d have to go have another reckless chat with the gunslinger.