8

EIGHT
“Temperance”

all-the-seas-and-riversI was tired. The east was pink, and growing pinker. Normally, I like pink. I was wearing it, my belt buckle. I just resented the sky for wearing the same color to the party.

I was tired. Thinking tired thoughts. Miss Delacaye had wasted money on a room for me that night, but I was too tired to care much. My appetites had been watered down by the long night.

As I stepped up onto the Harvester’s porch, I let my eyes and shoulders collapse for a moment. My legs and back did all the work to keep me from tumbling forward.

“Detective Finister.”

I raised my eyelids, but my shoulders refused to join them. The deputy was as usual, hips cocked in that casual and confident fashion, thumbs tucked into his gunbelt.

“You’re up early.”

He chuckled. That wasn’t his usual.

“I got a good night’s sleep, thanks to you.”

I smiled a weak smile, out of etiquette. “I did not. Thanks to your Lodge Gang.”

That put a new slant in his posture and his hat. I reached into my blazer, and he didn’t tense up this time. He just watched as I tapped out a smoke into my fingers. I sighed from the effort of tucking the pack back into my blazer. There was a scraping sound and the smell of sulfur. He was holding out a lit match. I leaned the cigarette into the flame.

“You look like shit.”

I puffed out a cloud of smoke. “Perception matches reality.”

He grinned sideways, nodded as he shook out the match and flipped it toward the desert.

“I met with a man tonight. Connected to my case.”

He settled a bit. “I don’t know anything about your case.”

I closed my eyes and nodded, drew on the smoke. “Let me fill you in a bit.”

Deputy Clark didn’t move. On the outside. But, I could see in those steady eyes that he was taking it all in. Watching, thinking, planning his next move. A perfect gunslinger.

“I’m tracking goods being smuggled into Chayan by some sneaky conspiracy that uses assassins from the Pennant Cities to do their dirty work. I bumped into a team of them in San Caniche, while they were hunting a likely Chayana agent who was also tracking those goods.”

“Chayana,” he said. “A woman.”

“A very capable woman who is also on a train somewhere headed toward Puertobueno, where those smuggled goods are headed.”

“Two questions.” He bit the inside of his cheek. “Three questions.”

“I’ll try to have three answers.”

“One, what’s being smuggled?”

If he were the perfect gunslinger, that shot would be at the most difficult target. Once again, he’d aimed well.

“I have no idea. I only know that a pirate killed a steamer captain to keep them caught up in red tape in San Caniche. That case being settled, the goods are free to roam.”

“A pirate,” he said. “Like eye-patches and such?”

“He didn’t have an eye-patch, but yes. Was that your second question?”

“No,” he said. “That case that got settled. It was your case?”

“Considering the complications, it may not be settled, but yes.” I drew on the smoke. “Was that your second question?”

“No,” he said. “Two, why are these goods headed to Puertobueno?”

I took a deep breath. “That, also, I do not know. I only know that people are willing to kill to stop them, pirates specifically, and people are willing to kill to see them through, the man I met specifically.”

Deputy Clark’s lips twisted in a combination of understanding and appreciation. He nodded as his mouth settled into a grin. “He tried to kill you, this man you met tonight?”

I didn’t bother asking if that were his third question. “He set his thugs on it. I had an able associate who kept that from happening.”

“Another player I don’t know about.” His tongue played inside his mouth. “A lot of gamblers at this table.”

I had to agree with that, and my agreement forced a chuckle from my belly. It was oddly as sore as the rest of me. Stress will do that.

“He’s a hobo, a monk, so he’s got grit and focus. I met him through a ninja.”

His eyebrow cocked and I wondered for a moment if I’d missed my own tell and he was mimicking me.

“I’ve heard the ninja got grit and focus, too,” he said. “A fine bunch of card players you’ve lined up.”

I didn’t know if he counted himself in that number, but I knew the easiest target in his vision. I was, at the very least, that good of a detective. “The Huobu monk was the one who clued me in that the assassins were involved with the Lodge Gang.”

His thumbs shifted outward on the gunbelt. It looked to be out of instinct.

“That was your third question.”

“It was.”

“Here’s the story. Our hobo,” I laid that plural possessive down like a face-up card, to measure his allegiance, “was riding a train from La Torre to Próximo. The train was derailed and set on fire. The hobo’s friends were killed. The men who derailed the train were assassins, working their tricks in Chayan for some reason. I figure the fact that Puertobueno is the nearest major Chayano city to the Pennant Cities has something to do with that.”

He nodded. “And the Lodge Gang?”

He was intent on that third question. “Before this hobo monk killed the assassins, they mentioned that the Lodge Gang had been eliminated. They seemed conflicted about it.”

He kept nodding. He was working out targets and trajectories.

“The Lodge Gang,” I said, lifting the smoke stick to my lips. “You’re the one who eliminated them.”

He watched me draw smoke. I could see he envied me the indulgence. I allowed myself a very urban side-nod of my head, feeling the weight of the new fedora on my scalp. He stayed quiet, so I decided to lay out my hand.

“Here’s what I think. You wiped out the Lodge Gang, who were working for the assassins, who were working for this smuggling conspiracy. The assassins move in to fill the gap, take on the watch over these railroads, and then bump into this hobo monk. Another set of assassins were sent to find out who eliminated the Lodge Gang. Toward that end, they burned your town to the ground.”

He was thinking about it. I needed to give him a bit more to think about.

“Burning things seems to be their method.”

“Modus operandi.” He had some big words in him.

“That one,” I said.

Clark chuckled. “I knew I needed a detective. I couldn’t have figured all that on my own.”

I laughed. “To be fair, I probably couldn’t have taken out the Lodge Gang on my own.”

His face went dark, even as the sky grew lighter. “That didn’t turn out as well as I might’ve hoped.”

“Well, you’ve still got Flora.”

His eyes locked on mine. Not angry, just thinking. He thought in my favor, finally. “You’re right.”

My detective’s instincts told me he still needed more encouragement. Especially since I might need him to survive this case.

“Sometimes, we live with our feet in two worlds. One on solid ground and one in the water. We know some things, and other things are a mystery. We have to trust that the mystery tempers the illusions in what we think we know. Like water tempers wine.”

“Huh. You’ve got some good words in you.”

“They keep me sane.”

“Flora’s the mystery for me, you think?”

I felt we were being square, so I pushed three questions on him. “Flora’s not your wife, is she?”

“She is not. But, we were moving toward that horizon when Banter got burnt.”

“She lost more in Banter than you did.” I left the question mark off, for his sake.

He blinked slowly, no longer defending himself. “She did. She lost two kids. Not hers, but she had taken them on as her own.”

Now I had part of his motive. He’d killed the Lodge Gang. Their assassin allies had killed Flora’s step-children. He had a debt to repay.

“You still have your deputy’s badge?” My third question.

He untucked a thumb and lifted it to the seam of his leather vest. The thumb pulled the vest aside to revealed a metal star. The crown of the rising sun glinted from it.

“You should know, sworn deputies of the law have authorities that cross national boundaries. You’ve got gifts beyond the pull of your pistols.”

He let the vest close and rubbed the back of his neck. “I hadn’t considered.”

I puffed on the smoke and grinned. “That’s what I’m here for. To consider things like that.”

He retucked the free thumb. “I reckon so. What’s our next move, then?”

I packed my bags, what little I had unpacked the evening before. The Huanese suitcase was still missing. Ricky, who had slipped through the broken window as Jimmy Fu and myself were getting better acquainted, had insisted on taking possession of it. Neither the hobo nor I had come up with a reasonable counter-argument.

Ricky and Jimmy had resolved to bind Señor Kinsey and hide him in the ancient tower for the time being. With any luck, he’d either die of thirst or break free long after we were gone. Unfortunately, both of Kinsey’s thugs had moved on to their spiritual destinies. The monk and the ninja resolved to hide their corpses in the tower with Kinsey.

It seemed we had a clean escape.

Miss Delacaye rapped her delicate knuckles on my door as the sun began to pour its oppressive glow through my room’s window. I was surprised that my feet started toward the door before I noticed I recognized the knock. It reminded me that, even diluted with weariness, my detective’s instincts still retained their potency.

I opened the door and leaned hard on its frame.

“Breakfast,” she said. Then, she saw my bags packed. “That’s a leap of faith, considering that you haven’t read the papers.”

I tolerated her ribbing. “I assume you have, stories telegraphed ahead.”

She reached into her jacket and pulled the corner of the San Caniche Reporter into my view. “In fact, I have. Goods from the Green Star steamer were sent forward on a train that, per my analysis of the schedules, should be arriving in La Torre this morning.”

“Headed for?”

“Headed for Rio.” She looked at me over her glasses. “How had you guessed?”

“I became well acquainted with the pace of red tape in San Caniche while waiting for the Green Star take.” The effort of that bullshit bravado was exhausting. To be honest, I had packed just to have something to do that made me feel prepared for whatever came next. I would have been happier to just sleep off the day. “Can we book cabins on that train?”

She leaned back. “I’ll know that when I get to the station. After breakfast.”

“Empty cabins telegraphed ahead?” I smiled.

She settled deeper into her professional persona. “Mr. Finister, should I check the openings first or book us a table first?”

I was in no condition to be setting her morning itinerary. But, I needed to relearn being an adult man.

“Book us a table downstairs on the way to the station.” I realized that was what she would have done anyway. It was efficient. She knew that. She was testing me? Let me test her. “Make it for four.”

“The cowboy and his wife.” Her look said she thought I was being a bleeding heart.

“It’s not like that. The gunslinger is already involved in the case.”

She sighed. “You look like hell. You didn’t sleep.”

“Johnny Suitcase and I met with the lieutenant.”

Her face went soft.

I reached toward her, withdrew my hand. My thumb wanted to tuck into my belt. I stopped it. “It turned out alright. Nobody hurt. Nobody on our side. After you check the schedules, I’ll fill you in.” She did not like my coyness. But, she accepted it. “Over breakfast.”

“This lieutenant told you something that completed a triangle with something the cowboy told you.”

I let a smile stretch my face to excess. “You are the detective I wish I were.”

Miss Delacaye booked us a table at a place two doors north from The Torch, a diner called The Four Letters. Those four letters, based on the archaic script under the diner’s name on the sign outside, were M, A, K, and E. I didn’t bother trying to figure that out.

Even to my urban eyes, it was a subtle, artful place. Green table-cloths. Yellow flowers. A glowing crown on the menu above a boast that the fish was fresh from Corona del Golfo. Not exactly the Huntsman’s hotel restaurant, but better than I would expect from La Torre.

Miss Delacaye had her hands crossed over her menu. “Want to fill me in before our guests arrive?”

“You left them invites?”

“On my way here, on my way to the station.” Her efficiency was unparelleled.

I scanned the menu. I already knew I wanted the Léxican omelet, but who knew what else might catch my eye? “Ricky handed off the Johnny gig to a hobo monk. A solid fella by the name of Jimmy Fu.”

Her eyebrows collapsed. “A hobo? They’re all named Fu.”

“His train was derailed by assassins looking for cargo headed to Rio.”

Her elbows found the table and her hands found her face. She peeked through her fingers. “Did they find any?”

I glanced casually over the menu. The prospect of coffee and food had renewed my verve. “Uncertain. They burned the train.”

She wiped her face and picked at the edges of her menu with her fingernails. “And the cowboy?”

“The deputy? They burned his town.”

There was a waitress standing over us. Blonde curls cut short just below her ears. She smiled at me and glanced at the two empty chairs.

“Still waiting?”

“I’ll have a coffee while we wait.”

“Two,” my assistant said. The waitress bounced on her heels and showed her teeth through a broad grin. Before I could gather my senses, she was gone. Then, I noticed Clark and Flora noticing me as they walked in.

“To wrap it up,” I said, “the assassins who burned the train were connected to some banditos named the Lodge Gang, who this fine fellow—”

Clark tipped his hat to Miss Delacaye and removed it.

“—shot full of holes, the whole gang. All…” I let the mathematical mystery hanging and nodded for Clark and Flora to take their chairs.

The deputy pulled Flora’s chair with a loud scrape and settled her in it. He put his eyes hard on me and said, “All seven of ’em.” Flora looked up at him over her shoulder and he gave her an apologetic glance.

Miss Delacaye lifted her behind from her chair and offered a hand to Flora. They wrapped fingers delicately and nodded at each other.

Clark hung his hat on his chair’s back and sat in it with his knees wide. His hands reached for his gunbelt, and he forced them to rest on the table, with some effort. This man was never shut off. I had to admit to myself that I was happy to have his ambiguous violence on my side of the case.

Two cups of coffee appeared in front of my assistant and me. Followed by two empty cups for our guests, and a green glass carafe filled to the brim with steaming bean juice. The waitress was standing there with her golden curls, her golden grin, and the serving tray tucked under her left arm.

“A moment with the menus?”

Flora was the one to speak. Before even Miss Delacaye. I took note of that. “Yes, ma’am. You have fresh eggs?”

“This morning’s eggs, ma’am. I’ll come back.” She did that charming little heel-bounce and turned. Then, she turned back. “Would anyone like some cream, to cut the coffee?”

Clark shook his head. I copied him. The women just smiled. The waitress nodded and turned to take care of her other customers. A basic bunch of locals, nobody of any consequence. A few pistols here and there, but no hands worthy of them.

“My name is Sofia Delacaye, Mr. Finister’s assistant.”

“Miss,” the lady said. I took note, and so did everyone else. “Mrs. Flora Clark. Sorry, recently married.” She was good on the save, I had to give her that. Deputy Clark was suddenly staring at his menu.

Miss Delacaye casually lifted her own menu. “Then you and I are in similar positions. Trying to help stubborn men find their better selves.”

Clark and I shared a look. We were both good to let it go.

Flora found her own menu with one hand, the carafe with the other. She poured herself a cup and held the bottle of coffee out for Clark. He slipped his thumb into the handle of his cup and lifted it for her to fill.

“Patrick is easy enough to handle,” Flora grinned. “His virtues are admirable.”

Miss Delacaye returned the grin. “As are Marshall’s. Although he’s taken leave of them of late.”

The gunslinger lifted the corner of his mouth at me as he sipped at his coffee. He was winning the contest.

I raised my own cup. “I’m happy to have brought Mr. and Mrs. Clark into our little family.”

From the look Mr. and Mrs. Clark traded, I had stepped on a snake. He was still winning, but no longer happy about it. The bad word I had spoken was “family.” Flora had lost two kids in Banter. I lifted the coffee clumsily to my lips. Maybe I should have cut it with cream.

“Deputy Clark filled you in on our case?” Miss Delacaye to the rescue. I felt my manhood shrink like I had stepped into a cold San Caniche tide.

Flora took her coffee. “He did. I want to find the men who burned our town.” She smiled warmly at Deputy Clark. “We both do.”

“You know Mr. Finister stands to lose a heavy take if those men get away?”

That was a cut I did not appreciate. Deputy Clark’s hands were no longer on his menu. But, his eyes were burying themselves into mine.

Flora smiled at me, but for my assistant’s benefit. “I did not know that. Men have a funny way of tempering truth with secrets.”

“That they do.” Miss Delacaye cocked her eyebrow at me as she retopped her cup. “Marshall needs to ferret out who the Lodge Gang were working for, who is smuggling goods into Chayan, in order to prove he solved the Green Star case.”

“The one with the pirate.”

“That one.”

I wrapped my hand around the carafe. “I’m less worried about the money than I am—” I almost said “my reputation,” but my instincts told me that was too urban a motivation for La Torre. “Than I am making sure I got everything right.”

Deputy Clark’s hands found their way to his menu again.

“Well,” Miss Delacaye sent her eyes across the room, searching for our waitress. She lifted a finger once she’d accomplished that end. “Once we find who’s behind the Green Star goods, we’ll find who’s behind what happened in Banter.”

Flora had followed my assistant’s eyes around the room, but she’d found another target. She turned her warm, brown eyes on me and nodded to a table in the corner.

“Those two fellows in black.”

She nodded sideways and I followed it. There were Ricky Coca and Jimmy Fu, wearing near-identical black suits. Ricky grinned and lifted his menu at me, his bow-tie spinning once. Jimmy seemed put off by the display.

I let my eyebrows hop once, because they wanted to. “Those are the ninja and the monk.”

Clark let out a huff. “Which one’s the fop?”

“The ninja,” I said. “He takes some getting used to.”

“The monk’s story takes some getting used to.”

Miss Delacaye and Mrs. Clark blinked hard at that. Clark had laid down an Ace, with a purpose.

“Does it?”

He leaned back in the chair, setting his hat to an odd cock. “It does. If the assassins are wanting these goods to get to Puertobueno, why would they derail a train?”

The women blinked again and set their menus on the table like choreography. I had been called on a bluff I hadn’t known I’d made. I missed my hat, which was hung on a rack by the door of the restaurant. I stared down at the price of the Léxican omelet and told my detective’s brain that it needed to wake the hell up.

“And then burn it,” Clark added.

“Well,” I said. The only well nearby was next to the ancient, burnt tower. Burnt like Banter. Burnt like the Huobu’s train.

All eyebrows were cocked on me. It was like I was interrogating myself, in triplicate. Think, think.

“If a train gets derailed, that means the railroad gets  nervy.”

Clark nodded and worked his lower lip with his tongue.

“If the railroad gets nervy, that means more security for the trains that follow. And whatever goods are on them.”

Clark sniffed and picked up his menu. “I think I just want biscuits and gravy.”

I glanced at the women. Miss Delacaye saw I was thinking on my feet, and she was not happy about that. I should’ve figured things earlier, and she knew it. The sadness in her eyes made me sad. Mrs. Clark was wearing that peculiar smiling frown people get when they appreciate someone thinking on their feet. That made me happy again, but not for myself. The gunslinger had a perfect match in her.

“I was thinking about biscuits, myself, but I might try the Léxican omelet.” I smiled at Patrick. He was a vision of calm again. “Considering we’re headed into Léxico State.”

“I don’t think they really eat those there,” he said.

“Just a gesture,” I said. We were mates again.

Miss Delacaye snapped her menu as the waitress appeared behind Mrs. Clark. “I’ll have the country breakfast, biscuits and gravy for Mr. Clark and the Léxican omelet for Mr. Finister.”

“I’ll have the country breakfast as well,” said Flora.

After a grin, a bounce, and a turn, the waitress was gone.

Miss Delacaye lifted her coffee to her mouth. “More security means more armed men on the next train.”

I sighed and let my shoulders drop dramatically. Deputy Clark’s eyes had gone cowboy tight.

“Miss Delacaye,” I said. “Every scene can’t be a fight scene. You gotta temper it.”

The next train did have open cabins, it turned out, but Miss Delacaye had been told they couldn’t be booked until it arrived. So much for the power of the telegraph. Or the trust in it. I hoped the story in the Reporter about the goods being shipped could be trusted.

After a second round of coffee and an offer of sweet muffins from the waitress, declined by all, a heartbroken whistle told us that the moment had come, because the train had come. I scanned the diner. Ricky and Jimmy were already gone.

I left a few Flag dollars for the bill, over Deputy Clark’s protests. I assured him that he was far more valuable to me than a breakfast, which seemed to settle the matter. For him and Flora. Miss Delacaye was less settled about it.

We made our way to the train station along the edge of the railroad ballast, boots crunching the broken stone. It was a quiet walk. The burned tower came into view, and I couldn’t help wondering how Kinsey was reacting to the ropes Fu and Coca had bound him with. And how he was reacting to the presence of his two accomplices, who hadn’t needed ropes.

The buzzards would sniff out those accomplices and be keeping Kinsey company soon.

Fu and Coca were nowhere to be seen. Fu & Coca. It sounded like a spin-off detective firm. In San Caniche, where those names would garner more respect than out here on the frontier. Maybe, Fu & Koka. The Tominese spelling of Ricky’s name. The Streamer Kingdoms and the Empire of the Banner, working side by side. It had a certain archetypal appeal.

We stepped up to the station office, a decadent detective, a sober gunslinger, a cynical urbanite, and a compassionate country girl. Miss Delacaye took the lead. The station clerk recognized her, and seemed a bit put off by the recognition.

“Now?” she prompted.

His face shrank like a dried apple. “Yes’m. Three cabins open, as I said.”

I leaned in. “We’ll take—”

“—two,” Miss Delacaye finished for me. She dug Flag dollars from her purse and slid them across the hard dry wood of the counter through the gap in the metal cage. The clerk scratched at a pair of receipts with a quill pen and exchanged them for the money, shaking his head of dry, blonde hair the whole time.

“We’ll take one.” That was Flora. Her smile was brighter than the morning sun. She nodded at the deputy to complete the “we.” Clark’s thumbs were where I expected them to be. The station clerk’s face shrank to its former scorn.

Here we were at this scene again.

The station clerk unshrank everything but his eyebrows. “The railroad will be glad to accommodate you, once you cross the border into Chayan. Right now, I’d be trading in my job for a prison cell.”

Clark took a step forward. I put a hand on his upper arm. The eyes he turned on me were not friendly. I offered him my friendliest eyes in return. I could see he needed words.

I grinned at the station clerk. “How long before we cross?”

“Well after midnight.” He was uncomfortable.

“I have an idea.” I grinned at Miss Delacaye and snatched one of the receipts from her fingers. She looked about as suspicious as she should be. “You gals take a cabin and Deputy Clark and I will take the other.”

Flora was happy at that, but my assistant was glaring at me. Trying to ferret out my game. I was worried she would succeed, when I was saved by a new voice.

“I’ll take the last one,” Ricky said. He stepped between Miss Delacaye and me with a fistful of dollars and his black bowler rakishly askew. He gave me a sidelong wink that let me know he’d figured out my gambit. Before my assistant could protest, he had exchanged paper for paper. The station clark was happy to have the issue settled and his dry face nodded as he stepped away from the gated counter.

To head off my assistant’s detective work, I changed the subject. “Where’s Jimmy?”

“This is the ninja,” Clark said, without the slightest hint of a question mark.

“Ricky Coca.” He extended a black-gloved hand. The gunslinger yanked a thumb from his belt. They shook. Ricky was happier about that than the deputy.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Mr. Clark.” His smile was annoying.

I put a hand on Ricky’s shoulder. “I’ve heard little enough about our friend Jimmy. What’s he up to?”

Ricky rolled his eyes at me. To his credit, he didn’t roll his bow tie. “Jimmy neither needs nor wants a cabin. He’s been busy doing some detective work.”

Clark had both thumbs tucked again. He glanced at me. Someone else was doing my work. He forgot his question mark again: “The goods are on the train.”

Ricky nodded at Clark. “They are.”

Miss Delacaye put a finger on my chest and I let her move me out of the way. I chalked it up to the sleepless night. “And guarding those goods?”

The grin Ricky offered my assistant was oddly constrained. “Twenty armed toughs from San Caniche.” He turned that grin on the gunslinger. “And three new toughs who joined them right here in La Torre.”

Clark took a breath through stiff lips. “Wearing assassin’s robes.”

Ricky shook his head. “Wearing fresh clothes, though. Probably bought locally.”

“Mr. Finister.” Miss Delacaye’s head was cocked. That meant trouble. She had figured out my ruse.

I offered her my friendliest eyes. “Once we’re in Chayan, we’ll renegotiate the cabins.”

We were on our way to Próximo by noon. Miss Delacaye was, quite insistently, alone in our cabin taking stock of our bags and our finances. In open violation of the laws of the Great State of Costilla, Mr. and Mrs. Clark were in the other cabin, likely taking stock of each other. At least, that’s what my decadent heart hoped for.

I was fighting sleep in the dining car, sipping coffee to little effect and waiting for my lunch order of steak and spiced green beans. I considered ordering a bourbon to raise my libido. I settled on scanning the car for likely targets.

The passengers were paired up as tight as blue jays. A few of the ladies were hardy scores, but not one of them seemed bored with her current partner. And, none of the waitresses were worth bedding. Most were standard issue Plain Janes, no charms to speak of. One exception had a body shaped like a potato, but warm eyes and a winning smile that might entice you to kiss it in a moment of weakness or dire need. And, kissing leads to embracing, embracing to groping, and if she understood the balance of her flaws and virtues the groping on her part would be in places that might relieve of man of the remainder of his restraint.

I felt a circle of cold steel on the back of my neck. As cold as an ice-water shower.

“Once you’re done browsing the wait staff, lean slightly toward me so you can feel this barrel warm up from the misplaced heat you’re trying to summon.”

I knew that voice. There was a hint of a Rio accent she was working hard to cover up.

“That’s not necessary. I’m just daydreaming while my lunch gets ruined.”

The cool pressure eased off and I heard the sound of steel against leather. Samantha rounded the booth and took a seat opposite me, wearing an embroidered dress the color of mountain snow. Her brown skin filled in the image with cold granite.

“You have an odd way of tempering a man’s thoughts.”

She set her left hand on the booth’s table. “I also have a hand still resting on the piece I got your attention with.” Her right hand was tucked behind her back.

“That’s not necessary,” I said again. “We’re on the same trail, on the same train, on the same case. Give or take a few bits of information you haven’t shared.”

“You’re the detective. Fill in the gaps.”

“Mine or yours?” I felt my eyebrow cocking and forced myself to stare into the wasteland passing by the window over the clickety-clack of the train. “Alright. The assassins turned a train over recently, to give reason to up the guards on the smuggled goods. They also burned a town in New Léxico as an answer to their local agents getting gunned down.”

“Local agents.” Her eyes told me she was thinking. Her right shoulder told me her grip on that gat had relaxed. “These local agents were the ones supposed to knock over that train?”

The girl knew how to use a question mark. “That’s my estimate. The tactical environment grew complicated and the plan was elevated to a higher echelon in the conspiracy.”

Her eyes rolled and she shook those dark red curls. “Stop. Big words don’t equal big ideas.”

“Forgive my vocabulary test. You still have a hint of an accent.”

Her right shoulder tightened and made me regret my ribbing. She cocked her eyebrow at me and made no effort to restrain the tell. “I don’t trust you.”

I nodded. “I don’t trust me, either. But I have drives, as you’ve assessed. Among them, my drive to keep the Green Star take. And those drives can be trusted.”

She pursed her lips, a half pout. “But, can they be tempered?”

The charming potato lady was standing over us. Both of her hands were balancing plates. “Miss? You want your steak and hericot verts here?”

Two plates of steak and green beans. It was my turned to cock an eyebrow.

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