9

NINE
“The Game of the Name is Death”

all-the-seas-and-rivers“How’s your steak?”

“Well done,” she said under dark and lowered eyes. I couldn’t tell if she were happy with it, but she clearly was still unhappy with me. I forked a pink chunk of meat on my fork and held it up to show her we hadn’t ordered the exact same thing. Pink was my color of the day.

She held up her lager as if to punctuate the difference. I lifted my coffee. The rim of the white porcelain was decorated with a little wreath of curlicues that were just off-pink enough to ruin the chromatic synchronicity. She’d told me to stop saying big words, but she couldn’t stop me from thinking them.

“No whiskey?” she asked around a mouthful of spiced green beans. The pointed way she asked it told me she had been following my post-Green Star debauch.

“That stuff is liquid death.” I could have used a little liquid death right about then. “So, what’s the case now? We stop the goods from reaching Puertobueno?”

“Not until we know what they’re for.” She shook her head. She was more interested in the why than the what. I aligned with that. She shook her head again. “Puertobueno is a long ride.”

“More time,” I said around a mouthful of haricots verts. “More things can go wrong. Mind telling me who you’re working for?”

“Working with.” She sliced into her steak. I was glad to see both of her hands occupied with metal that wasn’t tucked behind her back. “My family has ties to the Chayano government.”

“I have ties to government myself.” I savored her sudden curiosity more than my steak. “New Léxico. So, I guess this is an international affair.”

“This isn’t any kind of affair,” she scoffed. “And, the smuggling already made it international. Not to mention the assassins.”

“What’s their game, ya think? The Pennant Cities?”

“Am I your detective, now?” She permitted herself a grin and stuffed green beans into it.

Samantha seemed more amenable to our new alliance than she had been with our original one, even though she had pointed a gun at me both times. I guessed I had passed some sort of test. I didn’t bother trying to ferret out what that test had been, or how I had unwittingly passed it, or whether her General Cabayo was still on offer, since the lunchtime coffee had failed to overcome a lost night of sleep and a thick, rare steak. I was in no form to play detective.

By the time I got back to the cabin, Deputy Clark was down to his jeans and undershirt, taking a nap on top of his covers. In the bunk I had expected would be mine. At least at first. I had entertained a hope that the proximity might finally endear Miss Delacaye to my inestimable charms.

I kicked off my beach-sand loafers, toed off the matching socks, slipped away the pink belt, shouldered off the white cotton blazer and the shoulder holster, unbuttoned and slipped off the white cotton shirt, and hung the coffee-cream fedora on a brass hook that I did not much care whether was intended for that purpose or not. The mirroring hook carried the deputy’s gunbelt and, over that, his hat. My effects, less the fedora, were in a heap on the floor.

As the train clacked and bumped on the rails, I lifted the covers of my bunk and slid into my bunk. With an unenthusiastic thrust of my hips, I slipped off my linen pants and dumped them on the heap. The effort made my breath ragged. I felt like a solid lump of death.

As I settled under the covers, my nose caught the lingering scent of Miss Delacaye’s perfume. She’d been sitting there, going over the books. I suddenly realized that she’d realized my gambit offering the Clarks the second cabin and had sent me off to lunch to ensure that, when I returned to the cabin, even if the deputy had stayed with Flora in the other cabin, I would be too weary to make a pass. Even a clumsy one.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thanked whatever Powers there were on the Other Side that I had that woman as my assistant. She was more than my match.

When I half-woke, it was dark. The train was still clickety-clacking along, with that ragged railroad roll that bedeviled gentler stomachs. I held my breath, and couldn’t hear breathing.

I reached down to my blazer by feel and plucked out the brass-and-pearl lighter I had splurged on with my Green Star money. In the flame-light, I could see that the gunslinger, and his effects, were gone. Miss Delacaye was not in his place.

I was instantly awake. Clark’s assassins were on the train. He knew it. You put the two and two together. I didn’t like the mathematics, either.

My crumpled pile of clothes was quickly assembled into a crumpled Marshal Finister, private eye. I didn’t have time to dig out new threads. I threw open the cabin door and found myself staring at a man in a black suit.

“He’s on the roof,” said Jimmy Fu.

I went through two lungs full of air before I realized I was breathing hard. I tried to recompose myself. “You’re taking to street clothes well.”

“It keeps me from getting thrown off the train.” His face was obnoxiously placid.

“Doesn’t it break some kind of rule?”

“He’s on the roof,” he said. I nodded and he nodded and he turned and I followed him.

The iron ladder up the side of the car was crumblingly rusted. Once I got to the top, I had to clap my hands to get the flakes off. I heard a thump and Jimmy Fu was standing beside me with clean hands. One long climb for a detective, one short leap for the hobo.

The roof of the train car was a dark parallelogram extending forward from where Jimmy and I stood. The gunslinger stood at the far end in the starlight, staring over his shoulder at Jimmy and me. His face was hidden by shadows that would have done the grave proud. The dark desert rolled by on either side, cacti and brambly bushes and rocks. And probably a few snakes and lizards and sand rats. And dried skulls and more rocks and more snakes.

Jimmy and I made our way toward Deputy Clark. His back was turned long before we arrived. It was a measure of trust I appreciated.

“Nice night,” I said.

“I slept my measure,” Clark said.

“We’re over the border now, most likely.”

He tugged his hat over his face and stared forward toward the engine. I needed to change up my play.

“I thought you’d be out hunting the men who burned Banter.”

He cleared his throat and glared at me. “You and I are partners now. I’m not betraying that.”

I had taken a wrong step without moving my feet. I could feel Jimmy Fu’s disapproval without even turning. I had to change up my play again. To buy time I reached into my blazer and pulled out my cigarette case.

Clark grunted. “Give me one of those.”

Jimmy Fu put a hand on the gunslinger’s elbow. “Those things are death on fire.”

The deputy shifted his thumbs outward on his belt, nearer his pistols, as if to gesture toward a better target for the hobo’s metaphor. I tapped out a stick and tucked it into my lips as I watched their eyes work each other. My brass-and-pearl lighter was in my hand before they’d finished.

I thumbed the lighter into life as they fought about it wordlessly. The cigarette crackled, but I saw nothing because my eyes were closed in ecstasy.

When I opened them, Clark’s right hand was off his gunbelt. I held out the case and shook a stick into his hand. He lifted it to his mouth. I thumbed the lighter and lit it for him.

Jimmy Fu was looking up at me in Ricky’s ridiculous black suit. His hand thrust out so fast I thought I was dead for a moment, but it stopped short of plucking my heart from my ribs. It just sat there, fingers outstretched. His face was calm but even a slouch detective like me could see he wanted let inside the circle.

So I tapped him out a smoke.

He took it, glanced disapprovingly at Clark, and moved it to his mouth with an unmonklike clumsiness. I held out the lighter, but he waved it off. His hands danced in the air, and I recognized a Huanese character in their motion, one of the few I knew. It meant anger, but also fire.

The cigarette in Jimmy’s mouth burst into flame.

“That’s a neat trick,” Clark said without a tell in his face. Even in winning the cigarette contest, I had lost.

“So, we’re three together in death.” I grinned what I hoped was my most charming San Caniche grin and took a long draw on the smoke.

Clark dragged on his cigarette and let it hang toughly from his lip. It bounced twice, which ruined the image somehow. Jimmy Fu was frowning at me.

Clark cleared his throat and pinched the cigarette between finger and thumb. I was suddenly lost in speculation about how the way one holds a smoke marks you as urban or frontier. I noted that the hobo was holding his in his fist, like a knife. That knocked me out of my mind, just in time to listen to what the deputy had cleared his throat to say.

“How’d you kill your three?”

He hadn’t taken his eyes from the train rocking and clacking ahead of us, but we all knew who he was talking to. I had won the cigarette contest and lost the assassin-killing contest. For now. I tried to remember the last time I had emptied my gat into someone. The mathematics of that told me I was way behind in any killing contest. I tried to stifle the resulting grimace.

Jimmy Fu dragged clumsily on his stick and sighed the smoke away. “I tore out the throat of one, flung his sword—” He nodded or shook his head in an odd way that signified both agreement and doubt. “I think they call it a scimitar. I flung it into the second one. Then, I hit the third one with a gravestone.”

Those were some impressive tactics, I grudgingly admitted.

“That’s outside of my skills,” Clark said, blankly.

I cocked an eyebrow at Jimmy. “Mine, too. I guess we’ll each have to have our methods.”

Clark glared at me. “These three are mine.”

“Can’t argue with that,” I said. “You’ve got history. I’ll get the next three.”

He didn’t look away as I had expected. “How will you?”

I was up to bat and I hadn’t seen the pitcher throw. I had a lungful of smoke and had to set it free. A little pink part of my mind was warning me not to be glib.

“Detective stuff. Think on my feet. Try to find a soft spot I can exploit.”

Clark nodded, lifted the smoke to his lips, and drew hard.

“Then, press that soft spot until it gives.”

Morning brought another breakfast for four. As the two Clarks took their seats, I discreetly scanned the dining car for Samantha and her brandish-happy pistol. The last thing I needed was to have my newfound alliance revealed clumsily before I had a chance of revealing it in my usual dashing manner.

“Looking for Coca and Fu?” Miss Delacaye asked. She wasn’t amused, which meant it was a serious question.

“Fu & Koka,” I said, defending my fantasy of their spin-off detective agency. It embarrassed me and I let it show.

“So,” she smiled graciously at our complement, “you’re watching out for our three problem cases.”

“Not here,” Clark said as he set his hat on the booth table next to the window.

“Not here,” I grinned at Miss Delacaye.

Flora scooted close to the deputy. Their hips touched, probably not the first time this trip. She lifted her menu, all smiles despite the heat in our banter. “Coffee for everyone?”

I nodded sideways at Miss Delacaye as if to suggest she could spread a little sunshine like her new best girlfriend. Her response was to breathe at me with eyes that were unresponsive to my suggestion. Nothing had changed between us.

“Here,” Clark said, brushing a hand through his loose hair. I sat back in my seat and felt my chin turning. Clark shook his head, and I took his hint. His tongue pushed out on his lower lip toward my left shoulder.

“Miss,” Flora beamed in the general direction of the deputy’s tongue. A waitress had appeared.

I took the opportunity to glance over my shoulder in defiance of Clark’s warning. The potato-shaped lady was smiling winningly at us, a pewter carafe in one hand and a quartet of off-pink decorated porcelain cups threaded along the pointer finger of her other hand. I had correctly intuited her manual dexterity.

Just beyond her compromised assets were a trio of cleanly dressed fellows with dark, desert skin and neatly cropped beards, rather blandly seating themselves in corner booth. They were cloaked in loose red trail coats that could easily conceal the curved swords Jimmy Fu had difficulty naming earlier. They were calm and quite comfortable. They had the air of death about them.

I returned my eyes to Deputy Clark with a look that I hoped said something like: “Yep, they are here and now what, my trigger-happy friend?”

His return glare was less than amused. I couldn’t even imagine what amused would look like on that trail-hardened face.

I reached into my crumpled blazer and pulled out cigarette case and lighter in a single, smooth move. I set the lighter on the table and flipped open the case.

“Patrick,” Flora said, shoving her menu in front of his face. “Do you think you’ll have biscuits and gravy again?”

His eyes glanced at the folded paper. He glanced at Flora. He glanced at me. He even glanced at Miss Delacaye, who was pointedly studying her menu as if she had no idea that lethal violence was floating in the air over the coffee cups that the potato-shaped waitress was setting neatly around the table.

I slipped a cigarette between my lips. I set my eyes on Clark, who nodded his cowboy nod at me. I tapped out a smoke for him, lifted my lighter, and set flame to the tobacco duet.

“Go ahead and pour us some,” I said to the waitress. She complied.

“The train is well protected,” Miss Delacaye stated for her mixed audience. “Enough guards to keep us safe from any undue ruckus.”

I nodded at that as if we were just regular passengers worried about nothing more than a few desert banditos.

“The railroad is taking good care of us,” I said, with a warm look at the waitress. “Can we have some time to look at the menus?”

“Are the eggs fresh?” Flora asked. Her smile was tense.

“Oh yes,” the potato lady said. “Fresh from La Torre. We bring on new supplies with each stop.”

Miss Delacaye showed her teeth. “Thanks!”

The waitress set the carafe on the table and moved off to another table.

“There are innocent people here,” Flora whispered with her head leaning toward Clark.

He chewed on the cigarette. He looked up into my eyes, as if to see how I was thinking on my feet. I nodded my agreement with his non-bride.

“Enough death,” I said, lifting my menu. “For now.”

He sucked on the smoke stick. “Death is unavoidable.”

“Yup,” I said, in my most earnest frontier drawl. I pinched my cigarette between finger and thumb, cowboy style, and took a deep breath from it.

As we finished up our biscuits and eggs and bacon, the train whistle brayed mournfully and the clickety-clack fell away like a jazz drummer crumbling under the weight of the White Horse. The train was braking with a metal-on-metal whine. The four of us stared out the window. The expanse of yellow Chayano desert out the window was broken by the black square of a burned caboose, turned on its side like a bison that had thirsted to death.

Jimmy Fu’s train, I realized. The other three realized it, too. I reached into my blazer and pulled out a folded stack of bills.

The deputy put a hand on the table. “You can’t keep—”

“I can,” I said. “Because this is my stake in our case. When it’s your stake, I’m sure you’ll pick up the tab.”

I flipped out a pair of sawbucks and set them on the table next to the gunslinger’s hand. I didn’t realize until I’d done it that the duality accentuated the deal I had just outlined. I sent my eyes to take in Miss Delacaye’s assessment of the deal, and she seemed to approve. Her eyes darted past my elbow, and I followed them. The three “problem cases” were gone.

A man wearing a blue railroad uniform and a prominent pistol appeared at the rear of the dining car. All eyes were on him and he expected it.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” He knew how to punctuate. “The railroad has called for a brief stop to allow us to investigate the scene of a recent bandit raid. There is nothing to be alarmed about. The bandits are long gone, and all that’s left is a burned-out train. We’re just poking around the ashes to look for clues and then we’ll be on our way.”

The diners began whispering to each other. They were less than convinced. Flora and Miss Delacaye had worried eyes, but Clark was peculiarly pleased. His second cigarette found its way to his mouth.

The railroad bull walked to the middle of the car. “The company has arranged a lunchtime picnic on the far side of the train. Totally gratis, while we poke around.”

That did the convincing. Even full bellies could appreciate the promise of free food. The railroad bull moved on to the next car past an audience of smiles.

Clark wasn’t grinning with his mouth, but his eyes looked it. “They’ll be in the open.”

“So will the railroad thugs,” I said. That was what Flora was hoping I would say. She put a hand on Clark’s elbow.

“Your new ally,” she said with eyes that somehow managed to be wet and warm at once. “He lost friends on this train, didn’t he?”

The deputy’s face was lost in gunslinger calculations. He could not figure out where she was aiming, but she knew she was.

“He did. Two of them in a cargo car.”

Flora glanced at Miss Delacaye. I felt there was a conspiracy afoot, but I was as lost as the gunslinger.

“I’m guessing they didn’t get a decent burial, being hobos.”

Clark’s shoulders dropped and he cocked his head to one side. “Flora.”

“If you want to seal that alliance, you should offer to help him bury them.”

Miss Delacaye nodded. They were trying to keep us out of trouble.

Clark and I made our polite appearance at the desert picnic, scooping pulled chicken, stewed tomatoes, and potato salad onto our not-quite-pink rimmed porcelain plates and scarfing the whole mess down as quickly as a polite appearance would permit. There were makeshift tables constructed from sawhorses and planks, covered somewhat elegantly by red and white tablecloths, and chairs made of crates and overturned buckets topped for comfort by pillows. Parasols were popped here and there by the more sun-wary passengers. Altogether it was a pleasant expedition.

But, quickly, the deputy and I excused ourselves. Ostensibly to our cabin to sleep off the meal. Instead, we sneaked through the train to the caboose and slipped around the burned out railroad cars to find a Huobu monk waiting for us in the concealed tip-end of the fallen train’s arc.

Jimmy had procured some shovels, and I didn’t bother my mind wondering where or how. Inside the blackened cargo car, the dead hobos were in bad shape, shredded a bit from the derailing, but conveniently mummified by the dry of the desert. They smelled a bit, but it was a dusty, stale smell. We pieced together the scraps as well as we could in the far arc of the fallen train, hidden from the railroad bulls, who were focused at the front looking for the cause of the derailment.

Jimmy insisted we arrange the pieces sitting, cross-legged, as if the dead monks were meditating. Clark and I met this with silence, without protest. It fit the narrow holes he had been instructed us to dig. Eventually, the three of us were standing over two graves that were waiting for fill dirt.

“Death is ahead for all of us,” Jimmy said.

Clark nodded and let a hand rise from his belt to the monk’s shoulder. Jimmy looked up at him with placid appreciation.

“You have words? You know their names?”

Jimmy closed his eyes. “No words, no names.” He thrust his arms out with a suddenness that made the air complain. His hands spun and swept, drawing Huanese symbols in the heat of the desert. I recognized some of them. Jian, sword. Xing, star. Bianfu, bat.

Jimmy finished his motions, nodded, and the deputy and I set to shoveling dirt.

“Finister, I have done some more—” The monk paused to search for a word. I turned to look at him, tool in hand. “Reconnaissance?”

“That’s the word,” I said with a shoveling huff.

“The goods being smuggled on the train. They contain fancy rock-busting engines. Broken apart to be assembled later.”

Clark grunted as he thrust dirt over his hobo corpse. “How do you know they were designed to bust rocks?”

“The paperwork on the crates,” Jimmy sniffed. “It said they were designed to bust rocks.”

I grinned sidelong at the deputy. “That’d settle it.”

We finished the job. Clark insisted we scatter the fill dirt and put some debris over it. Jimmy insisted we put two stones over each grave, touching.

Footsteps eventually broke the long silence. I glanced sidelong at Clark, just as his eyes were closing and his thumbs edging toward his guns. Jimmy Fu turned, then moved around the nearest grave to face the men walking up behind us. Soon enough, Clark turned with a grinding sound of boots against the desert. My lips tightened to tell me I was nervous. I cracked my neck and joined my allies in spinning.

Standing in the late afternoon sun, shadows lying westward toward the burned train cars, were Miss Delacaye’s three problem cases in their red trail coats. Their eyes were on the shovels.

“We have buried a couple souls who had been forgotten,” Jimmy Fu said. I was glad he said it. Myself, I had no idea what to say and I was uncomfortable with any speculation what the deputy might say.

One of the three stepped forward. His trail coat flapped in the desert breeze, but not wide enough to reveal the hilt of any curved sword.

“How did you know they were here to be forgotten?” His voice had a foreign clip and trill.

Clark shifted his hips. I glanced at him in time to see his tongue wet his lips. “We were just poking around. Noticed them in the cargo car. Probably just hobos.”

The three assassins traded suspicious eyes at that. When those eyes returned to us, the three of them stepped in unison toward the three of us, moving apart as if to flank us. Three steps. A sort of numerical symmetry.

I glanced at Clark again, to see where his hands were. Thumbs were still tucked obstinately in his gunbelt. The breeze caught his vest, and his badge flashed a glint of the afternoon sun. I turned back to the assassins. They were unanimous in their interest in Clark’s badge.

One of them stepped forward, breaking the three-part symmetry. “Where are you from? What’s your name, deputy?”

Clark cleared his throat. “I have no name.” There was in invitation to violence in that. I leaned toward him.

“Shots make sounds,” I whispered, hoping to remind him of the dozens of railroad bulls around the bend. Well-armed railroad bulls.

Jimmy Fu stepped forward, grinning warmly in an almost Ricky-esque manner. He bowed toward the assassins, with his hand open in the universal gesture of let’s just all stay calm. Then he turned those open hands toward Deputy Clark and, with his back to the assassins, let his fingers sweep the air. Two characters I recognized. An Jing, meaning “silence.” His fingers reached forward and touched the deputy’s pistols. With a jaunty spin, he turned back to the assassins with his grin and his open palms and bowed again.

The assassins wore faces neither moved nor mannerly. Their eyes were set for death. They closed those eyes and shook as if taken by a palsy. The air around them seemed to shiver like a great heat poured from them. They bent at the waist and stepped outward in both directions. Three red-coated assassins became nine.

I heard a gasp escape Clark’s lungs. The nine assassins set their boots to the hardpack, spreading their arc around us. Hands reached into coats in unison, and suddenly we were facing nine men armed with curved swords.

They were within a few running steps of us. Clark might finish a couple of them, Jimmy Fu perhaps two, me a pair if I were lucky. That left three to cut us down. I noticed that my pistol had found its way out of my blazer into my hand. I also noticed that I was standing an unfortunate step ahead of my two companions, making me the nearest target. A quick glance back told me Clark’s thumbs were still tucked in his belt. Damned gunslinger habits.

The assassins were shimmering again. This was turning out very badly indeed. Before I could recalculate my own gun-fighting skills in light of having already drawn my gat, we were facing twenty-seven opponents.

I always hated mathematics.

Clark was still scanning the assassins with a placidity that seemed more fit for the monk. Jimmy Fu, for his part, looked uncharacteristically surprised. I imagined my own face mirrored the monk more than the gunslinger.

One of the assassins, a third of the way across their flanking arc, spoke in that foreign manner.

“According to papers we uncovered in the town of Banter, your name is Poti–”

A flurry of flapping cloth and metallic clicks erupted from the deputy. I counted two flaps and three clicks. Three clicks for three bullets, silenced by the monk’s magics. One had ripped through the fedora that fell off my head as I flinched.

I found myself on one knee, breathing hard. Well, it came out more like a series of snorts. One hand was pressing my pistol impotently against the dust. I smelled gunpowder. And I heard nothing but the gentle sweep of the desert breeze.

The sound of Clark’s guns reacquainting themselves with hard leather broke my paralysis. My eyes moved. I saw three men in red coats, lying against the hardpack. The rest of the assassins, were gone. Mirages? Somehow, the gunslinger’s eye had singled out the real ones. I looked up at my companions.

Clark nodded at the monk with an appreciative frown. “That’s a neat trick.”

Jimmy smiled serenely and bowed.

I wrapped my fingers around the pistol and lifted it as I got to my feet. I bent to gather my wounded fedora and set it on my skull as I gathered my sense. There was a silence that I felt needed filling, so I filled it with detective talk.

“Potty?”

“Patty,” the deputy said with warning look in his eye. “Nobody calls me that. Any more.”

I took his “any more” in all of the possible ways he could have meant it. I resolved to reassert my leadership of this alliance, in the dissipating smoke of Deputy Clark’s performance.

I glanced at the deputy and the monk, then nodded toward the shovels. “Three more graves, then?”

“They’ll fit in one,” Clark said.

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