Chapter 112 – Man in Black
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Beretta should have been terrified. The idea of being caught alone with a tall, black-clad stranger at the very back of a moving train would haunt any nine-year-old’s nightmares.

…So why did she feel so calm? 

“My name is Beretta,” she said, lifting a hand to grasp the railing. From the rear of the caboose, she could see the range whipping by; rocks, cacti, and various wildlife scrolled into view, then drifted toward the eastern horizon as the Armature Express rolled along. “I am on the hunt for suspicious things.”

Gio’s smile widened. “Well, ya must be quite the hunter, then. I’m as suspicious as it gets.”

She nodded matter-of-factly. 

“Aren’t ya gonna ask me what I’m doing here?”

“Yes,” she replied, “But could it wait a moment? The range looks so nice at nighttime.”

The man chuckled, then relaxed, taking a long drag from his cigarette. “I guess. Let me tell ya, though, it really loses its luster after an hour or two.”

“You have been back here all this time?” she said with a frown. “Since we left the station?”

Gio hesitated, running his fingers through his slick black hair. He gazed off into the distance, but Beretta got the sense that he wasn’t paying attention to much besides his own thoughts. “Yeah. I’ve been back here,” he admitted. “I’m not supposed to be on board. Guess ya could call me a stowaway.”

“So you are hiding?”

He took another drag, then shrugged his shoulders. “Pretty much.”

“From who?”

“Everybody.”

“Well, you are not doing a very good job then.”

The man looked at her incredulously, then laughed. It sounded genuine. “You’ve got a smart mouth,” he accused, “But you’re right. In my defense, I didn’t count on a crack investigator like you being on my case.”

Beretta could feel her curiosity growing by the minute. Who was this man, and what was he doing here? She wanted desperately to know–for her late-night misadventure to mean something–but she could tell how guarded he was. Getting those details out of him would not be an easy task.

“If you are not supposed to be on the train,” she began, “Maybe you could ask Mr. DeVipersmuth? He might let you stay if you are nice to him.”

DeVipersmuth?” he rasped mid-exhale, his next words lost in a fit of coughing. When he finally recovered, he looked to her with tears in his eyes. “That’s… Terrible. Is that really what he said his name was?”

She gave another nod.

“I’ll bet he wore that shitty fake mustache of his too, huh?” he snickered. “That guy is unbelievable. Do me a favor and ignore anything he says, alright? I wouldn’t trust him to roll a watermelon downhill.”

Beretta raised her eyebrows; she’d never have expected that such an innocent suggestion would get such a big reaction! “Are you saying that he is not who he says he is?”

None of them are, kid,” he told her, shifting his gaze back toward the open range. “So you’d better watch your back.”

“Who? The people running the train?”

He bobbed his head impatiently, a faraway look in his eyes. 

“How do you know?”

He heaved a sigh, allowing a fresh gout of smoke to spew forth from between downturned lips. “I just do. Now stop hassling me about it, alright?” With that, he flicked the butt of his spent smoke over the railing and fixed her with a ferocious stare. “And not a word about me to any of ‘em, got it? I took a big risk sneaking out into the boonies like this. The last thing I need is those jokers breathing down my neck.”

“I will not tell,” she promised, lifting a hand over her heart as a show of sincerity. “But you are not here to hurt us, are you?”

It was her most important question yet. She looked deep into the man’s eyes, trying her best to judge his intentions, but she saw nothing telling within them.

Nothing at all, really, except sadness and exhaustion.

“No. I’m not here to hurt ya,” he said, smirking a little as he brought a hand to rest on his own chest. “I’m just here to do right by an old friend. And, actually, while I’m at it I’ll tell ya one more thing: that guy you’re with, Luca? He’s dangerous. Not his fault, but… Keep an eye on him, alright?”

Beretta cocked her head at that. Luca? Dangerous? It seemed impossible to believe. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Will he hurt us?”

“Not you. Probably,” he assured her. “But keep him away from the Nine if ya can. It’ll only end badly.” He turned to face the range for the final time, then, closing himself off to further questions. “It’s late. You should get some sleep, kid–you’ll want to be well-rested when tomorrow rolls around.”

She nodded and left him to his thoughts, withdrawing into the darkness of the caboose. The way back to her little compartment proved blessedly uneventful, and after sliding the door shut behind her, she settled down to sleep, trying her best to calm her racing mind. Yet, despite her best efforts, her eyes kept fluttering open.

…And shifting inexorably toward Luca.

CJ woke up in the dark. 

It was cold, she was hurting, and she was surrounded by people she didn’t much like. Not exactly her idea of a good night, but she’d been through worse. She lifted her head off the steering wheel, then glared down at her mangled legs the way others might glare at a puppy who’d messed on the floor.

“Ahh shit,” she grumbled. “Guess I won’t be ruttin’ anytime soon.”

The pink-haired one in the bowling jacket turned to her, surprised. “CJ? You’re awake? How’re you feelin’?”

“How d’you think I’m feelin’? My legs’re all fucked up. Now, be a doll and get that glove box open.” She pointed it out for him, indicating the warped door of the misshapen compartment as if it hadn’t been totalled along with the rest of the car.

“Are you kiddin’ me? It’s at least half as fucked up as your legs.”

She nodded slowly. “I got eyes. What’s your point?”

He blinked a time or two, then wedged his fingers into whatever creases he could find and started to pull. When that didn’t do it, he started to cuss and shift around in his seat, trying to finagle his way into a position of greater leverage.

“Kick it,” she suggested. Sure enough, that did it; the moment his heel pounded the handle, the door popped open to admit a flood of knickknacks and trash: hairbrushes, pomade, and sewing needles. Crumpled-up papers and crumpled-up hats. Chewing tobacco. A length of rope. A small, potted cactus.

…And a suspiciously phallic object that the man recoiled from like it was after his life.

“Now, that ain’t mine!” she protested, faking indignation right up until her lips started to curl up at the sides. “...It was Teresla’s. And mine.”

He chuckled at that and rolled his eyes. “I’m guessin’ that ain’t what you had me go lookin’ for?”

“Take a look at me ‘n’ tell me what use I’ve got for a thing like that,” she grunted. “Naw, what I want’s still in there. Should be a bottle of hooch.”

Now that the compartment was open, finding the booze proved to be an easy matter for him. Half of what had been in there was on the floor now, so it was as simple as reaching in and grabbing it. Once he had, she snatched it from his outstretched hand and wrenched off the cap, dousing her sorry legs in half a bottle’s worth before downing the rest.

“You good?” he asked when she was done. “We were just discussin’ next steps.”

“Who was?”

“Me. And him,” the big Truvelan–Marka–said from his place in the back. 

“Alright. What’re we steppin’ towards?”

The first man–what was his name, again? Morgan. That’s right, Morgan–gave her a sidelong glance. “I’ll save you havin’ to turn around and see it,” he began, “but your daughter’s trussed up on top of your Niner friends’ car.”

“Ah. I thought it seemed quiet in here.”

That one didn’t get the laughs she expected, so she shifted gears. “What’s the hold-up, then? Why don’t you fellers just get out, shoot ‘em, and go get her back?”

“It is… Complicated,” Marka said. “Perhaps it would be best if you looked out the window?”

CJ smacked her lips and obliged, leaning a little to the side so she could see whatever he was talking about. The telltale sight of shiny, spindly shadows all over the ground outside gave it away before she’d even leaned halfway.

“Mm-hmm. Sid’s little pets,” she observed. “I see why you’re still in here, then. He’d have ‘em swarm you the moment you left the car.”

She looked back to see the two men nodded along grimly together, eyeing the spider-army warily.

“Luckily for you boys,” she drawled, “you’re ridin’ with the sharpest gal on the range.”

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