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Authors: Wesley Ellis

lone star 04

Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
 
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
 
Teaser chapter
"KI? WHAT
IS
IT?”
“I don't know,” he snapped. “Gaiter, look out!”
 
 
Jessie turned. Her boot caught a loose board and sent her sprawling. In the smallest part of a second she saw it happen ... the enormous gray shadow sprang past Ki out of the alley. Gaiter stood frozen in the street . . . his hand snaked to his waist and three quick explosions brightened the night. The thing leaped off the ground with a snarl and slammed him in the chest. Gaiter shrieked . . . the creature tore at him, shook its great head.
 
 
“Oh, God!” Jessie's stomach turned and she quickly looked away. Gaiter's throat was completely gone. His face was twisted in horror...
Also in the LONE STAR series
from Jove
LONGARM AND THE LONE STAR LEGEND
LONE STAR ON THE TREACHERY TRAIL
LONE STAR AND THE OPIUM RUSTLERS
LONE STAR AND THE BORDER BANDITS
LONE STAR AND THE UTAH KID
LONE STAR AND THE LAND GRABBERS
LONE STAR IN THE TALL TIMBER
LONE STAR AND THE SHOWDOWNERS
LONE STAR AND THE HARDROCK PAYOFF
LONE STAR AND THE RENEGADE COMANCHES
LONE STAR AND THE KANSAS WOLVES
 
 
A Jove Book / published by arrangement with
the author
 
 
PRINTING HISTORY
Jove edition / October 1982
Third printing / April 1983
 
 
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1982 by Jove Publications, Inc.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part,
by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.
For information address: Jove Publications, Inc.,
200 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.
eISBN : 978-1-101-16888-2
 
 
Jove books are published by Jove Publications, Inc.,
200 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. The words
“A JOVE BOOK” and the “J” with sunburst are trademarks
belonging to Jove Publications, Inc.

http://us.penguingroup.com

Chapter 1
Ki made his way back along the train toward his own compartment. Most of the cars he passed were relatively empty. The few passengers aboard kept to themselves, drowsing in the sultry afternoon or staring straight ahead. There was nothing to see outside, only shimmering waves of heat off the flat Kansas plain. The KP wasn't getting rich on this trip, which didn't surprise Ki at all. Anyone who didn't have to travel would be back home resting in the shade, instead of baking in a fine upholstered oven.
Sometimes a passenger glanced up and gave him a quick, curious look as he passed. Ki was used to that and ignored it. For the most part, he looked no different from a thousand other young men. His suit was a simple blue-gray tweed cut to fit his lean, wiry frame. He wore a twill cotton shirt the color of a pale winter sky, and a plain shoestring tie. A black Stetson and ankle-length Wellingtons completed his wardrobe.
Still, there were differences, if you cared to look for them. His hair was straight and hung to the top of his collar. In the light, it had the blue-black cast of a raven's wing, the sheen of burnished metal. The hair formed a sharp point high in the center of his brow, then swept back abruptly to show the prominent curve of his skull.
It was the eyes, though, that most often caught a stranger's attention. They were a deep, penetrating brown, and seemed to have no whites at all. A small fold of skin close to the lids lifted slightly at the corners to show his Oriental heritage. The high, sharp plane of his cheeks and the quick sweep of his jaw completed the image.
If a man bothered to notice Ki at all, he simply glanced up a moment and looked away. Women, though, let their eyes linger a little longer. Bolder young ladies studied him with open curiosity. The pretty redhead at the end of the car was one of those. She fastened on him the minute he entered the coach, and followed him all the way through. Ki returned the glance but didn't stop. He was interested, but something else had caught his attention.
Two men sat together across the aisle from the girl. Just before Ki passed the middle of the car, they stood and walked casually before him out the door to the platform between the two coaches. Ki came instantly alert. To his trained eye, they telegraphed their purpose in a dozen different ways. A swing of the arm, a slight, almost imperceptible tightening around the mouth. To Ki, their bodies betrayed them with every step they took. The lazy, indifferent manner of the pair told him something else entirely—something they didn't wish him to see.
Part of this was
kime,
the subtle hint of power and purpose the samurai learned to sense in another. Part of it was something else that had no name. The enemies Ki sensed here lacked the fire and strength of fighters with honor. There was a vague hint of darkness, a twisting of the soul that told him what the pair were, what they wanted from him.
Ki left the coach and walked straight for the two. They stood between the swaying cars, blocking his way, making a show of ignoring his presence. They were stocky, hardfaced men, one slightly taller than the other. The tall one wore a Colt Peacemaker under his belt. The other was seemingly unarmed, a fact Ki noted with care.
“Excuse me,” he said politely. “I am going to the next car, gentlemen.”
The man with the Colt drew a cheroot out of his vest, then turned to Ki as if he'd suddenly appeared out of the air. “Willie, you see anyone tryin' to get by?”
Willie frowned and sniffed the air. “No. But I sure do
smell
something.” He looked straight at Ki and grinned broadly. “By God. You know what we got here, Karl? We got us a real yellow nigger.”
Karl tried to look pained. “That's a Chinaman, son. One of your gen-yoo-wine chinks. Isn't that right, mister? They call you Ching or Chow or what?”
Willie sniggered at that, and granted Ki another grin.
“You're mistaken,” Ki said gently. “I'm not Chinese. I'm half Caucasian and half Japanese.”
“Oh, damn, I'm sorry.” Karl looked at Willie and frowned. “See now, we was wrong. He ain't a chink-chink at all. He's a Jap-chink.” Willie liked that, too.
“I would like to pass, please,” said Ki. His breathing was slow and easy, spreading calmness throughout his body. This journey was important to Jessie; he had no wish to call attention to himself or to her with a fight. The pair's insults meant nothing.
Karl's smile suddenly vanished. “You know what?” he said darkly. “I thought chinks was supposed to
build
railroads. I never heard nothin' about ‘em
ridin'
on them.” His eyes flicked to his friend. “You think maybe Ching here'd be more comfortable closer to the tracks?”
“I sure think he would,” Willie agreed.
It was going too far. Ki didn't want it to go further, but he knew there wasn't a chance in hell of getting out of it without trouble. The men wanted it to end this way—Ki had known that from the beginning.
“I would like to get past,” he said once again. “Please.”
Karl liked that. “How ‘bout
please
with a little chink dance thrown in?” His fingers edged slowly toward the Colt.
For the first time, Ki answered the man's smile. “Would a Japanese step do?”
“Well, hell, yes it—”
Ki moved. His left hand came up in a blur, fingers thrust out stiffly. The blow struck the gunman at the base of his throat, just above the collarbone. At the same time, his eyes caught the wicked flash of a blade driving straight at his gut. His right hand was already in motion in the
shuto-uchi,
the knife-hand strike. A blade for a blade, thought Ki.
Willie howled and grabbed his shattered wrist. Ki whipped his hand up again and chopped him once across the temple.
The whole encounter had taken less than two seconds. Neither man was quite unconscious, but both were paralyzed with pain and would give him no trouble. They were alive only because he had used just enough force to put them out of action and avoid injury to himself.
Now, though, he had the problem of what to do with them. At any moment, someone was likely to come through the door of either car for a breath of air and find him with two men writhing in pain. He could leave them, and go about his business. Which meant they would surely trouble him again. He could call the conductor and have them locked up until the next stop—but that, too, would call attention to Jessie and himself.
Ki knew the only logical answer was to remove them from the scene. The train was moving at high speed across the flat countryside—which meant they might injure themselves or maybe even break their necks. He stoically accepted the possibility. They had initiated this encounter, and must face the consequences.
Quickly he went through their pockets, then hefted them up one by one and tossed them over the side. A few moments later he threw their weapons far out over the prairie and straightened his jacket. With any luck at all, everyone aboard would be too bored to glance out their windows and see two stout bodies tumbling by.
 
 
He opened the door to his own coach and walked to Jessie's compartment, and saw the man sitting beside her. The man said something that amused her, and Jessie laughed. Her green eyes crinkled at the corners, and she tossed a shock of strawberry blonde hair over her shoulders.
Ki disliked the man instinctively, and knew his feelings were only partly due to the stranger's easy manner with Jessie. He was a tall, striking man in his early forties, with an aristocaratic nose and and commanding blue-agate eyes. Silver patches brushed the sides of his temples, tinting a full head of curly black hair. The silver was a perfect match for his expensive, dove-gray suit and dark blue shirt.
Polished
was the word that thrust itself into Ki's mind. The man was entirely too polished, too smoothly honed, for Ki's liking.
Jessie glanced up, saw Ki, and quickly motioned him into the compartment. “Oh, Ki—I'd like you to meet Mr. Torgler. He's going to Roster, same as we are.”
“Very pleased to meet you,” said Torgler, in a mellifluous voice Ki had fully expected. He thrust out a strong hand, and Ki grasped it. “Miss Starbuck and I were just passing the time. Devilishly hot, isn't it?”
“Yes it is,” said Ki. He felt the man's eyes all over him, and took the opportunity to do some searching of his own. Something was there, but it eluded him for the moment. Torgler was good at hiding what he didn't want seen—and that in itself told Ki a great deal.
Torgler stood and nodded at Jessie. “Ma‘am. It's been a pleasure. I hope your stay in Kansas is most rewarding.”
“Well, thank you, sir,” smiled Jessie. “I've truly enjoyed your company.” Without another look at Ki, he walked quickly out of the compartment and disappeared.
Ki slid into a seat across from Jessie. Jessie looked at him and raised an inquisitive brow. “Well now. What was all
that
about?”
“All what, Jessie?”
“All right,” she grinned, “don't go Oriental on me, Ki. You know very well what.”
Ki shrugged. “I don't like the man, Jessie.”
“Didn't much care for him myself, but I think he's likely harmless.”
“Why
?

“Why what?”
“Why didn't
you
like him?”
Jessie closed one eye in thought. “Oh, he's a little too ... what? Confident. Sure of himself. Nothing wrong with that, but Mr. Torgler makes too big a thing of it.”
“Ah,” Ki brightened. “Exactly.”
Jessie studied him closely. “You're going somewhere with this, aren't you?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He quickly related his encounter with the two men between the cars, and what he'd done with them.
Jessie listened, then let out a sigh. “I don't think there's anything else you could've done, Ki. And as you say, they brought it on themselves.” She looked past him, squinting into the late afternoon. “And you think maybe there's a connection, right? That it has something to do with our business?”
“There's no way to tell. This is not the first time I've had to, ah,
explain
my Oriental heritage. And there is no reason to connect those two with Torgler. Except a look I didn't care for. Oh, I did go through their clothing. There was nothing to connect them with our business.”
“‘Course, if they're mixed up with our European friends, there wouldn't be,” Jessie said shortly.
“No, there wouldn't.” Ki shook his head. Something about Torgler kept tugging at the back of his mind. Jessie had noticed it too. Ki's old teacher, Hirata, had put it into words long ago, and now Ki remembered. It is easy to spot a bruise on an apple. But what of the fruit that is rotting from the inside out? That was Torgler—or at least it was Ki's impression of the man. But again, there was nothing at all Ki could really put his finger on.
 
 
The flat plains of the Kansas heartland flashed by the window, one mile stretching into another. Jessica Starbuck stared at her reflection in the dusty glass and didn't much like what she saw. Not for the first time, she felt that terrible sense of loneliness, the fear that she had bitten off a great deal more than she could chew. Even the loyal Ki, who in many ways knew her and understood her better than anyone else, could do little to help her at moments like this. He would protect her with his life, use his keen sense of danger and almost frightening talents to guard her from harm. In the end, though, she was alone. She was Jessica Starbuck, her father's child and heiress to the vast Starbuck holdings. She had inherited both the power of that title and the awesome responsibility that went with it.
And always, overshadowing all else, was the ever-present specter of those faceless men who would take it all from her—who had ruthlessly murdered her father, and signed her own death warrant at the same time.
Jessie knew the story well, even those parts not another living soul could recount. She had grown up with a part of it, seen it in her father's restless eyes, and heard the final chapter only moments before his death. Alex Starbuck had been a maverick from the start, a man who set his own course and knew what he wanted. Many young men had sailed with Commodore Perry to open the door to Japan. Most had served out their time and come back home with only the memory of that exciting adventure in the Orient. Alex Starbuck came home too—but not for long. He liked what he saw in Japan, and returned to learn more about those isles and their people. Later, when he knew what he needed to know, he returned to San Francisco, sought out a group of wealthy men, and made them a proposition. There were fortunes to be made in that newly opened land. He, Alex Starbuck, could deliver valuable import/export contracts with the Japanese. All he needed was money. He was a persuasive young man, and in time, the money came to him.
Starbuck took another important step in San Francisco. He married a lovely young copper-haired girl named Sarah, a woman who stood by his side all her life as his lover and companion.
Jessie had fond memories of her childhood in San Francisco—memories of her breathtakingly beautiful mother and the big, handsome man who was her father. Those were years when she was showered with presents from Alex Star buck's Eastern trips—silks, painted fans, and small ivory boxes with tiny cities and people carved in their sides. Better still, there were stories of fierce, scowling warriors, and secret gardens with exquisite lakes and trees—and still more exquisite ladies posed on delicate bridges, like butterflies on a branch.
At the time, Jessica was too young to know the rest of the story—that there were others interested in making their fortunes in the Orient, men from wealthy business cartels in Europe. Always on the alert for ways to extend their holdings, they saw such an opportunity in the successful young American. Money was tight in the late 1850s, and Starbuck was overextended. A group of Prussian businessmen approached him with an offer that seemed made in heaven. They needed Alex's ships for their silk trade, and were willing to sublease them at a staggering profit for Alex. Starbuck, of course, snapped at the offer—and soon learned the reasons behind the generous terms. The Prussians weren't shipping silks at all. Their cargo was Chinese slaves.
Alex tried to fight them, but the experienced Europeans were ready for him. They struck out at the Starbuck interests in the Orient and tried to ruin him, using every weapon they could bring to bear—coercion, bribery, and even murder. And Alex Starbuck struck back...
 
 
Jessie sighed and sank back in her seat, listening to the hypnotic rhythm of the rails. From her window she watched the sun falling rapidly over the horizon behind a brilliant array of clouds. The broad, open fields of Kansas seemed greatly out of place with the thoughts that plagued her mind. Sometimes she found it all hard to believe, though she'd heard the tale from her father himself, when Alex Starbuck knew he was dying. It was a terrible, ugly story—nearly impossible to relate to the man himself. Starbuck had fought his enemies from one continent to another. Ships were hijacked and warehouses burned. Treachery was the order of the day, and there were no holds barred. It was a game her father hated, Jessie knew. But he was in it, and there was no getting out.
Finally the war intensified in a manner Starbuck had never imagined. On a trip to Europe, a runaway carriage struck down Sarah and killed her. Starbuck knew it was no accident—he, instead of his wife, had been the target. In a rage that Jessie could still not connect to the kind and gentle man she'd known her father to be, Starbuck took his revenge. He found the man responsible for Sarah's death. They had taken from him, and he would take from them in kind. The old Prussian count had a son, a young man in his twenties. Alex Starbuck, who had never committed a violent act in his life, killed the Prussian's heir with his own hands...
 
 
“Jessie?”
She looked up and found Ki watching her. She could hardly make out his face in the gathering dark, but knew what was there. “Yes, Ki?”
“It does no good to go back,” he said gently. “It can change nothing.”
Jessie forced a laugh. “More Oriental wisdom, old friend?”
“Nothing so grand, I'm afraid. Only words. Things that scatter quickly in the wind, and are likely as useless as brittle leaves.”
“No, that's not so at all,” she told him, reaching across to touch his hand. “Not true at all, Ki.”
 
 
Starbuck had told her the rest of the story on his deathbed, his eyes flooded with tears of shame. The murder of his enemy's son was the one act in his life he could never forgive, though he was paying for it dearly.
The old count waited, and finally struck back. His assassins caught Starbuck in a hail of bullets on his own Texas ranch. An eye for an eye, one man's son for another man's wife—and then the man himself.
And it doesn't stop there,
Jessie thought grimly. The earth was dark and the gloom seemed to close in around her.
It goes on and on, and there is no way to bring it to an end...
Chapter 2
In light of his earlier encounter, Ki urged Jessie to let him stay in her compartment for the night. She could curl up under a blanket on one side of the small room, while he kept watch.
“You will be less comfortable,” he told her, “but you will be safe.”
“I don't think there'll be any trouble, Ki. Really,” said Jessie. “And you'll be right next door.”
Ki pushed the point, but in the end Jessie won out—promising to keep a revolver handy and pound the wall if she needed help.
After a quick dinner she didn't enjoy, she let the porter make up the room and locked the door behind him. She knew, of course, that it made little difference whether Ki was with her, or just behind a wall. Even when there was little chance of trouble, he'd be on guard. Ki slept, but it wasn't what she called sleep at all; at the slightest hint of danger, his mind and body would be instantly alert. She didn't pretend to understand how he did this; she simply accepted it for what it was. It was a part of Ki. A part of
kakuto bugei,
the true samurai way. And a samurai, she knew, was as likely to let himself fall into a deep, snoring sleep on guard as he was to dig for worms with his precious
katana
longsword.
 
 
Jessie turned the light down low, slipped out of her tweed jacket and skirt, and perched on the bed to remove her stockings and cordovan boots. Standing again, she slid the white silk blouse off her shoulders, unhooked the light chemise underneath, and let it fall about her ankles. She was naked now, except for the red garter holster she wore high on her left thigh. Neither the holster nor the ivory-handled derringer tucked inside did much to hide her charms.
Crossing the small compartment, she caught a quick glimpse of herself in the narrow strip of mirror—a flash of full, uptilted breasts, the curve of a thigh tinted in gold in the soft light. Jessie approved of what she saw, and neither lingered nor turned away from her reflection. Many young women of her day might have blushed at their own sexuality, she knew—but old Myobu, the geisha who had been her father's courtesan in his early days in Japan, and later Jessie's friend, tutor, maid, and almost mother, had taught her better than that. A body was born with its beauty, and the feelings that went with it. Whether she was alone or in the arms of a man, those feelings, for Jessie, were as natural and healthy as breathing.
Turning off the light, she stretched out on the coarse railway sheet, closed her eyes, and listened to the miles clack by. Even though the sun had vanished hours before, the land held on to its heat. The compartment was stuffy and close. She was tempted to raise a window, but then thought better of it. Smoke and cinders from the big Baldwin engine would have filled the room instantly.
“Damn it all, anyway!” she said crossly. Slipping bare legs to the floor, she sat up and glared at the wall. The thoughts of the day still plagued her, and wouldn't let go. She couldn't put the looming shadow of the cartel out of her mind. They were always there—her father's enemies, and now her own. She'd learned a great deal about them since Alex Starbuck's murder; they were bigger and far more frightening than she'd first imagined. It wasn't just the Starbuck empire they wanted. That was only the start. It was the country itself they had their eyes on—a young and burgeoning nation of untold wealth and promise. They wanted that wealth, and would stop at nothing to get it. She and Ki had met them head-on more than once, and knew what they were capable of doing.
Jessie leaned back with a sigh. And now it was likely starting again. Like Ki, she didn't believe his encounter had simply happened—not with the two of them headed for Roster, Kansas, and the problems they'd face there. The message had come to the Starbuck ranch three days before. The Starbuck land offices had financed a number of groups of European immigrants—loaned them the money to get wheat started, in exchange for crop committments. Now those immigrants wanted to back down, sell their land at disastrous prices, and move on fast.
Why?
Jessie wondered. They'd come from the Old World to get a new start. What was scaring them off? Instinct, and a few lessons learned the hard way, told her the cartel had its hand in the deal somewhere.
Finally, Jessie drifted off to sleep, but her waking thoughts followed her into dark and fitful dreams ...
 
 
When Jessie Starbuck entered the diner for breakfast, she earned the admiring glances of every male in the car—and chilly looks from their wives. For the sake of comfort, she'd cast aside her more tailored traveling wear in favor of faded, sky-blue denims and a matching jacket. The wide brown leather belt emphasized the natural slimness of her waist. The denims were scandalously tight, and when Jessie moved down the aisle to the click of her boots, the motion caused lovely things to happen to her firm bottom.
She was aware of the whispers in her wake, and ignored them. Trailing a wealth of riotous, strawberry-blonde hair over her shoulders, she made her way to the table Ki was holding. The strain of the day before and a nearly sleepless night should have left her drawn and depressed. Instead, her stubborn Starbuck heritage had come to the fore, and she'd traded the mood for a saucy and impish air. She would
not
give in to her troubles, and by God, anything that got in her way would wish it hadn‘t!
“Morning,” she greeted Ki cheerily. “Slept well, I hope?”
“As well as you, I'm sure,” he said, raising his brow a bare quarter-inch.
Jessie got the message and stuck out her tongue. “All right, so I didn't. And you didn‘t, either.” She gave a light shrug and glanced out the window.
“Beautiful
day, Ki. Just marvelous!”
“Yes, it is quite pleasant,” he agreed. Her cheery mood pleased him, and he held back a smile. Samurai discipline was certainly not Jessie's way, but sometimes she showed a remarkable ability to be what she wanted to be—in spite of what was going on around her. “I've ordered eggs, ham, and muffins,” he said solemnly. “Will that be sufficent?”
“Don't be cute,” warned Jessie. “Not till I've downed some of that good railroad coffee.”
Ki hailed a waiter, who immediately filled their cups. Jessie made a pleasant sound in her throat and went after the scalding liquid.
“Oooooh, my dear! My goodness
gracious!”
Jessie paused and stared, the cup halfway to her lips. The chubby little lady waddled down the aisle toward the table, swinging her purse in delight.
“Child, if you are not the
image
of my daughter, Lou Ann? Lord, I
never!
Is this seat taken, honey?”
“Uh—”
“Oh, good!” She slapped a hand to her ample breasts and sank down across from Jessie. “Just hate to eat alone. You know?” She blinked through spectacles that made her eyes look as big as small moons. “Don't tell me now. No, wait, let me get it m‘self.” She tapped a finger on her teeth. “You ain't a Wheeler, are you? No, the Wheelers don't run to pretty hair, and you sure got that.” Suddenly her eyes lit up and she stabbed the air with her hand. “A
Morrison.
Now that's it, tell me I'm wrong, child.”
“I'm terribly sorry.” Jessie grinned and shook her head. “I don't think I'm either one. Guess I'm mostly a Starbuck.”
The woman's face fell. “Oh, dear, you just
got
to be kin somewhere. Lord, if you an' Lou Ann was sittin' side by side, it'd be like tryin' to tell one pea from another. ‘Course, she's a little stouter.” She cackled and shook at the thought. “A
little
stouter, I say. That and then some! All us Wheeler girls take to fat. Runs in the family.” She leaned toward Jessie and frowned. “You suppose they got tea on this train, 'stead of coffee, dear? You get real
nice
tea on the Union Pacific. Don't know why the other lines don't do it. Now, when I come into Denver last May—no, I'm tellin' a lie. Was it May, or last part of April? Had to be May, ‘cause Lottie was expectin' her first and that'd be May. Lord, I said to Lou Ann—”
Jessie rolled her eyes and cast a furtive glance at Ki. Ki, though, pretended great interest in the steaming hot muffins and crisp fresh ham arriving at the table.
Coward,
Jessie thought ruefully.
Some samurai you are!
Jessie couldn't fault the old lady—she was doing what old ladies did. It just wasn't the right morning to hear about overweight daughters named Lottie and Lou Ann. Jessie picked at her food, nodding now and then at her uninvited guest. At least, she thought drearily, no answers were required—just a nod in the right places.
Glancing up, she saw her acquaintance of the day before move past to the front of the diner. Torgler was sporting a handsomely cut black suit, a plum-covered vest, and a soft ivory shirt. The black pearl pin in his blue ascot was just the right size—neither too small nor overly pretentious. The man ignored Ki, nodded politely at Jessie, and vanished behind her.
Jessie ground her teeth and muttered under her breath. Torgler made a real show of being a gentleman, but she hadn't missed the way his eyes brushed over her breasts. There was nothing wrong with a man's admiration. Jessie welcomed it, and more than once gave back as good as she got. Torgler, though, was a sneak—not man enough to hang an honest smile on to his look.
“—Lou Ann's first young‘un. Lord, no, you'd think Jimmy come from a
whole
different family. He wasn't no more like—why, what's wrong, girl?”
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Jessie said lightly. She pushed back her chair and stood. “Be right back. Just catching a quick breath of air.” She shot a look at Ki and darted down the aisle before the old lady could get her engine going again.
The woman looked at Ki, a little frown creasing her brow. “That girl is
not
well,” she said darkly. “Not well
at
all. I got two of my own, and Lord, don't I know the signs!”
“I'm certain she is all right,” Ki assured her. “Truly.”
“Huh!” She sniffed at Ki and lifted her great bottom off the chair. “What's a
man
goin' to know ‘bout sufferin'? Think I can't see sick when it's starin' me in the face? Poor dear child!”
Ki watched her wander off after Jessie. She looked for all the world like a feather mattress loosely bound in baling wire—with a tuft of gray down spouting out the top. Poor Jessie, indeed! Ki suppressed a grin and went back to his breakfast.
 
 
Jessie stood between the two coaches and took a deep breath of cool morning air. Good God, the woman could talk the ears off a mule! One more word about Lottie and the kids and—the door opened behind her and Jessie turned abruptly.
“Oh,
there
you are, my dear!”
“What?” Jessie blinked and bit her lip. “Listen, it‘s—nice of you to worry, but I'm really all right. Honest.”
“I'm so glad to hear that, Miss Starbuck.” The pleasant smile faded. “Now get back away from that door—fast!”
“What? Hey, now—”
“Move
it, sister!” A hand slipped into the folds of her shawl and came out with a large Smith & Wesson. Jessie stared and backed off. The thick spectacles were suddenly gone, and so was the crackly old voice. The former grand-mother leveled the revolver and thumbed back the hammer. “Miss Starbuck, you got a choice,” she said evenly. “Jump off this train with your heart still pumping, or go off dead. Decide right now. Don't make a hell of a lot of difference to me, one way or the other.”
Jessie looked into the cold, slate-gray eyes and knew she meant it. “Mind telling me what this is all about? If it's a robbery, you—”
“Damn it,” the woman blurted, “I got no time to
talk!”
Jessica saw cords tighten in the lady's wrist, and knew the action came from a finger squeezing back on a trigger. God, the woman didn't intend to wait for an answer, she meant to kill her then and there!
“All
right,”
blurted Jessie, “I'll jump, damn it, if that's what you—” Jessie took one step toward the door, twisted at the waist, and kicked out hard with the toe of her right boot. The motion brought her body around at an angle, left shoulder slanting at the floor, left hand sweeping up fast under the woman's wrist. Foot and hand found their targets at once. The woman shrieked and came off her feet. A white blossom of fire exploded near Jessie's ear and singed her hair as the Smith & Wesson punched a neat hole in the roof. Jessie hung on and followed her assailant to the floor. The woman lashed out with her feet and bruised Jessie's ribs with her free hand. Jessie gritted her teeth and took it, fighting to keep the pistol out of her face. The woman was strong, and nowhere close to finished. Jessie tried to remember everything Ki had tried to teach her. She buried her head in the woman's shoulders and let the tight fists pound away and tear at her clothes. Nothing counted now except keeping that revolver aimed in some other direction. Again and again she slammed the thing hard against the steel floor. The woman cursed, came up off the floor, and bit Jessie's ear.
Jessie bellowed, jerked over fast, and shoved the woman's head into the wall. The gun fell free. The woman broke loose and went after it on all fours. Jessie leaped, determined to get there first.
Suddenly something swept past her, scooped the woman easily off the floor, and wrapped strong arms about her waist. Jessie shook her head and came to her feet. The woman screamed and cursed like a sailor, churning her legs in the air.
“We have a very active old lady here,” Ki grinned. “Very strong for her age.”
Jessie pulled her torn silk blouse together as well as she could and scooted around to Ki's side, carefully avoiding the kicking legs. “A little too active, if you ask me. And not all that old, either.” Jessie reached up and yanked off the iron-gray wig. A full head of shiny auburn hair sprang free and tumbled over the woman's shoulders.
“Damn you, leave me alone!” she screamed, twisting under Ki's steel grip.
“Granny, you've got real pretty hair under there,” said Jessie. “And I'll bet there's a face somewhere to go with it.” Using an edge of the woman's shawl, she scrubbed the weathered features with a vengeance. Years fell away like magic, along with overgrown brows and well-applied wrinkles. Jessie stepped back and took a look.
The girl glared. “You satisfied?”
“I guess so. Ki, she isn't a day older than I am. And I'll bet there's a lot more cotton than fat under that gown. Have you ever seen her before?”
“Ah, yes—I am afraid so,” Ki said dryly. “I saw her yesterday. She was sitting across the aisle from the men who attacked me.”
Jessie sighed and shook her head. “Miss, if you're half as smart as I think you are, you know you're in an awful lot of trouble. You want to be helpful or try the other way?”
“Go to hell, lady!” the girl snarled.
Jessie exchanged a quick glance with Ki. “If you know who I am, you likely know my friend here, too. He can touch a certain point on your neck and everything'll kind of go black for a while. Of course, if he doesn't do it just right . . .”
“Hey, now, look—” For a moment, the girl went pale.
“You want to tell me anything?”
“I . . . got nothing to say. Whatever you do to me!” Her eyes were still bold and determined, but her voice lacked some of the bravado of a moment before. Jessie had no intention of asking Ki to use his arts on the girl, and Ki well knew it. The girl, however, wasn't all that sure.
“Why don't we start off with something easy?” Jessie suggested. “What's your name?”
“It's... Lucy Jordan,” the girl said quickly.
Likely something she made up on the spot, thought Jessie. “Fine, Lucy. Now I know this wasn't your idea. Who put you up to it?”
Lucy laughed in her face. “A man named Smith, lady. It always is—‘less it's Jones sometimes!”
“Is he on this train?” Ki put in. “Can you point the man out?”
“Sure.” Lucy shrugged and gave him a wink over her shoulder. “If he's wearin' a big brown envelope with some fat bills in it, I'll know him right off. That's all I ever seen of him.”
“She's probably telling the truth,” sighed Jessie. “She's good, and the cartel hires only the best. I expect it happened the way she said. Somebody knows somebody who knows how to contact the right person, and nobody can trace the business back to the beginning.” She looked straight at Lucy Jordan. “Is that how it works, friend?”
Lucy shrugged, doing her best to show a lack of interest. “Listen, Miss Starbuck. Don't take it personal-like, all right? Hell, it's just a job. I got nothing against you.”
Jessie met the girl's eyes and felt a chill touch the back of her neck. She was young, and almost a striking beauty. She was also a professional assassin, and most likely meant just what she said. Jessica Starbuck or anyone else was a job and nothing more—a person who should have been cold meat right now, instead of standing up, talking to her killer.
“Thanks,” she told the girl calmly. “Knowing that sure makes me feel a whole lot better.”