There was not much light in the room and that made him deeply uncomfortable. But it had been the choice of this new contact, this… what had they referred to themselves as… ah, yes. This emissary. It had been their choice to meet somewhere inconspicuous – and this wooden shack in the back-end of absolutely nowhere, Utah – fully fit that bill. The potential reward could outweigh any risk and so to this very place he had come.
What little light there was came mainly from the gaps between the walls and from the valiant rays of sunshine that persevered long enough to get through the film of grime over the windows. It highlighted motes of dust that sparkled in the air in front of him. There was a dry, dusty scent overlaid by the smell of things that had long since died beneath the floorboards.
The whole place had a definitive air of having been abandoned some considerable time ago, but also possessed of the slightly clandestine feel of a secret meeting place for those in the know. He marked it well. Such locations were most useful.
Two old chairs had been knocked over by some past scuffle perhaps, or maybe local coyotes had got into the building and had themselves a field day. Either way, they looked serviceable enough and so he stood one up, dusted it off a little and sat down. He rested one leg atop the other, idly flicking at the spur on his left boot. That entertainment didn’t keep him occupied for long and he felt that old restlessness creeping in. He was not used to being kept waiting and it did not sit well with him.
Reaching into a belt pouch, he drew out his cigarette papers and spent a few industrious minutes rolling himself a smoke. Putting the tobacco tin back in its pouch, he drew a match across the shack’s wall and it burst into life, flaring briefly. He lit his cigarette and, shaking out the match, leaned back on the chair until its front legs lifted. He put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply. Smoke curled around him and he enjoyed, if only for a moment, a chance to stop. A pocket in time where he could actually relax and not need to be fully alert.
A few seconds later, he felt an arm snake around his throat and the tip of a knife was pressed to his Adam’s apple.
He swallowed. Carefully.
• • •
“Were you never told of the dangers of leaning back on a chair?”
The voice was female and while her English was excellent, there was an undeniable heavy accent that marked her as not a native of American or British soil. The outlaw showed no exterior signs of alarm and maintained his veneer of utter calm. The pressure on his throat lessened and he set the chair back down on the ground.
“I like to live dangerously,” he replied, his tone mild and composed.
He had not seen another person in this one-roomed building, neither had he heard anybody enter it. That he had failed to keep his guard up put him at a distinct disadvantage.
Jesse James did not like being at a disadvantage. It made him irritable. He stood the moment he could, having long ago learned the disadvantages of being the one seated while your aggravator stood. Turning, he realised that he now had the height advantage over the woman.
She was perhaps five and a half feet tall and her face was mostly shrouded in the shade of the cabin. Even if it had not been, she wore a mask that covered her from nose to chin anyway. But the tips of her cheekbones were visible; prominent and well-defined. Her eyes were dark and were fixed on him in a manner that he found a little uncomfortable.
“Let us get straight to the point, Mister James,” she began and he held up a hand.
“Let’s slow it down, ma’am. I’m guessin’ top speed is the way you choose to live your life, but let’s start slower. Friendlier, like. Let’s take a moment or two to savour this happy meetin’ of like minds, come together for the same ultimate…”
“Yes, yes,” she said irritably, waving his eloquence away with an indifferent gesture of a slim, white hand.
She was clad in black clothing: a hooded top and a long skirt of what Jesse took to be silk. It fell to mid-calf and was slit from ground to thigh on either side which made it both extremely un-ladylike and eminently practical.
When she walked, as she did now, beginning a pace of the cabin, it allowed her complete freedom of movement. He approved, on both counts and stared just a little longer than was socially acceptable.
• • •
“Jesse. Please. An’ what should I call you?”
She ignored his question, whether intentionally or not.
“I have it on good authority that you are acquainted with the individual known as Burson Carpathian.”
He felt a cold shiver trickle down his spine. Sure, he knew Carpathian. He’d struck a deal with the old boy some time back and owed him a great deal. The woman snapped her fingers imperiously, pulling him out of his moment of reverie. He grunted in irritation at being treated like a pet hound, but if she cared, it didn’t show in her eyes. They were like mirrors, he realised. Cold, hard, unforgiving. His own unshaven reflection looked back at him and he suddenly felt as though he were under the most intense scrutiny he had ever been.
He could lie, of course. He was, after all, rather accomplished at that skill. But something in the woman’s stance suggested that if she believed him to be telling untruths… well.
His eyes briefly travelled over the length of the twin swords she wore at her back. Yes. If she suspected lies, he would be quartered where he stood. He had encountered the weapons of those who fought for the Blazing Sun in the past. He didn’t doubt their capabilities.
He decided honesty would be his best bet.
“Sure, I know of Carpathian. Not many people in these parts who could say they hadn’t at least heard of him…”
“But your dealings were of a more… personal nature, were they not?”
Her eyes darted to his arms and he rather self-consciously twitched his sleeves. He shrugged.
“He helped me out in a bind. Owe the man. That’s how it works, ma’am. Someone does you a favour, you do them a favour back.”
He took a last pull at his cigarette before dropping it to the floor and grinding it beneath the heel of his boot. He had a lingering suspicion that the woman quite liked the idea of doing the same to him.
The annoyance charged his irritability further. It emboldened him.
“What’s it to you?”
“Tell me where I can find him.”
Her arrogance was astounding, but if she even so much as cared, she didn’t show it. She paced a little more, circling him. Her movements were like those of a prowling animal, alert and ready to strike at a given opportunity.
“An’ tell me, ma’am, what you can offer me that would encourage me to betray such a confidence?”
She reached up, pushing back her hood, and pulled the mask from her face so that he could see her face properly. He could also see how extraordinarily beautiful she was. Cold, haughty, regal features that were nothing like the women Jesse had always known here. There was a gentle hint of something exotic. Jasmine, if he’d been able to put a name to it. He felt a sudden attraction to her, but it was something beyond simply physical. She had the look of power.
• • •
Jesse James loved power. It was something that he and Burson Carpathian had found in common.
She looked him over again, a piece of dirt on the ground beneath her, and her lip curled back in a sneer.
“I can offer you my services, of course.”
“No offence, darlin’, but really… what you have – an’ don’t misunderstand me here, what you got goin’ on there is surely very nice – probably ain’t quite what I need in a…”
“You doubt my abilities as a warrior? You doubt that I am a woman agile and capable enough to reach the forbidden and impossible places?”
She took a step closer to him and reached for the hilt of one sword.
He could hear the silken slither of it being freed from its scabbard. His own hand went to his hip, to the holster and the weapon therein.
She laughed and released her grip on the sword. It dropped back into place.
“Good,” she said. “You do not trust me.”
“I don’t trust many people, lady, least of all ones threatenin’ to turn me into an object lesson in why you shouldn’t run with scissors.”
She gave a short laugh, one that held real amusement at his words and he preened just a little. He’d won some approval and for reasons he couldn’t hope to fathom, that pleased him.
“Not trusting one’s enemies is easy,” she said, inclining her head. Her long, black hair fell around her face briefly before she pushed it back. “Not trusting one’s allies is a wise thing indeed.”
“Are we allies? I don’t even know your name.”
“I believe we will become such, Mister James.”
She moved closer, that heady scent of jasmine filling his olfactory senses to dizzying confusion.
“I believe so.”
She smiled, the pearly white of her even teeth offset against the darkness of her clothing.
“And as you are so desperate to have something solid to begin with… well, then.”
She stepped back and performed a courtly bow from the waist.
“You may call me Nakano Gozen.”
“And you can call me Jesse, please. Mister James is my pa.”
“Pleasure,” he said, cheerfully, but she didn’t respond.
She indicated the chair and said nothing. Ignoring his own rule about maintaining the height advantage, he sat down as though compelled to do so.
She smiled pleasantly.
“Now,” she said. “Let us begin.”