It was half-past five in the morning when we pulled into the station. The train wouldn’t be departing for another hour. In other words, we had time here. Lots of it.
I watched Annie exit the train out of the corner of my eye. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three. She was out of earshot. I turned to Marq.
“Okay, so what do we do now?”
“Breakfast. The Monkey King’s train won’t be pulling in for another half an hour. We have until then to get our shit in order. You remember what I told you, right Al?”
“Yup. Pop one in the sigil system to cap the train’s movement, then another in the cargo hold to spook the animals, make them rampage. Then drop the last one off in the conductor’s bag.”
“But don’t detonate it,” Marq reminded me as Nayeli said something about the animals in the background.
“Right. Make it look like sabotage from within,” I said as Nayeli started shaking Marq by his shoulders.
“I want you in and out as soon as we have confirmation that the three of them have left the train,” Marq said, his voice wobbling like paper in front of a fan with each shake. “Even they have to eat and they won’t go far, so we’ll plan to wait after our meal and intercept them in the station’s diner while you and Sostene rig the rails to explode. That means you two are gonna have to be quick. Dine and dash so you can skedaddle to the rails before they see us and then skedaddle right on out once you’re done in case we need backup. I doubt they’ll cause a scene in a public restaurant, but you never know with these types.”
“These types?” I asked. “What, you mean asians?”
“No,” he said, scolding me. “Don’t be a racist.”
“What?” I said. “I ain’t a racist. I got plenty of demihuman friends.”
“You are a demihuman, Al. And I meant types like these guys in particular. These ‘hero’ types. I’ve been thinking about it all since we left New York, and these guys have got something to do, something to die for. They’re on a mission. For what or for who I don’t know, but they’re not like us, that’s for certain. They’re still on the other side of the fence. They’re willing to die and they’re willing to kill, but not for themselves. Not yet.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said. “You think I kill people because I want to? Well, maybe that’s how Nayeli rolls, but I sure as hell don’t.”
Marq smirked while Nayeli made the exact opposite expression. “No, it isn’t, is it? But, you work for the family now, Al. That means you kill for the family. And what does the family want?”
I faltered. “… Money, I guess.”
“That’s right Al, they want money. Money, and power, and to live forever on top of a gold fucking throne surrounded by wine and beautiful women. That’s what my dad wants. That’s what his dad wanted. And his dad before that, and his dad before that, all the way back to the beginning of fucking time. That’s what they want most, for everything to go great for them and for their lives to be nothing but peaches and daisies. Some of them wanted it so bad they were willing to kill. The determination to change the world has always been built on a foundation made of desire, and beneath that a bedrock of greed. The lust for the ideal life in an ideal world, regardless of what form that may take. Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Buddha, Jesus fucking Christ. It doesn’t matter who it is or what you think your motives are, selfishness is what motivates us as a species. It’s a rare man in this world who’s truly selfless, and they’re always the ones who can’t be dissuaded or bargained with. Because they’re the ones who’ve suffered the most. And that’s not us, Al. That’s never been us.”
“So what, you think people are selfish for wanting a better world? You think I’m selfish for looking out for my little sister? That doesn’t make any fucking sense, Marq!”
He smiled knowingly, then handed me something.
“Here. It’s a two-way rune. I had it carved on a small enough stone to fit in your ear so you can listen in on the conversation while you’re working the train. The range is only about forty or fifty meters though, so stick close to the train. When you hear me say the word ‘macaroni’, that’s your cue to get out of there and back to us.”
Marq started walking towards the diner without waiting for my reply, Nayeli on one arm and Felicity on another, leaving me all alone to just think about what he’d said. He never asked me to get it. I don’t think I ever did.
When we sat down at the diner I ordered continental. They didn’t serve vampires there, so there was nothing Sostene could eat. Needless to say breakfast went by fast, and thank god for that. After everything that happened on the train, I don’t think I could’ve stood another minute of the atmosphere at that table. I paid for my meal and stepped out, citing an emergency bathroom break due to last night’s lousy train food as my excuse. Shouldn’t have been too hard to believe.
I ducked behind the bathroom and wedged the smooth little stone into my ear so I could hear what was going on in the diner. At first I didn’t hear anything, but then someone coughed and apologized in Annie’s voice. The awkward silence at that table could fill a room.
Jamming my hands in my pockets, I snuck back outside and blended in with the crowd as best as I could. I looked around for Sostene, and as always, it wasn’t very hard to spot a vampire in the daylight. Just keep walking until you see the yellow umbrella.
I sighed as I walked towards him. “I can’t believe you brought that butt ugly thing.”
Sostene frowned, part of his fangs showing. “My mother bought me this.”
“Yeah? And how long ago was that?”
“… eighty years ago,” he said awkwardly. “… it was a nice umbrella when she bought it.”
“And now it looks like something the cat dragged in,” I said. “Listen, no offense Sostene, but you need to do some shopping. Your clothes don’t last as long as you do, you know.”
“Oh really? This coming from mister rags to riches?” he said angrily. “I remember what you looked like when I first met you. The suit you were wearing looked like it worked double time as a hotel for the rats.”
“Hey, I didn’t have money to buy any new clothes,” I said defensively. “You have to have something saved up from Marq, right?”
He just looked at me funny. “What world do you live in?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He sighed. “Forget it. Here I am still working just to pay off my mortgages to the boss and he’s showering you with expensive clothes and free train rides. I guess it’s just easier to give charity to someone with a face people can’t mistake for a nickelodeon horrorshow. Wouldn’t want the family getting the wrong idea.”
I paused. “Wait, are you saying… Sostene, are you broke?”
“I rely on Marquis almost entirely to pay for my house and living expenses, so yeah, I’m broke. And you’re not?”
“Wellllll…” I said, trailing off. “With everything that’s been happening lately the money’s just been kinda disappearing one way or another. And you know what they say about how underpaid rookie soldatos are…”
“Admit it, you just lost it all because you weren’t careful enough with it.”
“Hey, I can’t help it that I’ve had more hospital bills to pay than a hooker has pubic lice. I mean between me and Annie…”
“In the first place, you could’ve at least not gotten yourself put in the hospital. Ever think of that, genius?”
A loud horn blew and the sound of the Nimbus rolling into the station derailed our conversation as we both immediately got ready to work. I waved to Sostene and he disappeared, reappearing in the rafters up above. I jumped down onto the tracks inbetween the Nimbus and the parked City of Cleveland, careful to hide myself behind box cars so no one on the other side of the tracks would notice me.
“See anything yet?” I whispered to Sostene. He could hear me, but I couldn’t hear him, so he just nodded, pointed to the clock, and held up three fingers. They were positioned at three o’clock. That means that at an average walking pace, they’d cross the tracks and see me in less than thirty seconds.
I climbed up onto the side of the Nimbus. Poking my head up to window height to make sure the compartment had been emptied, I lifted the window and crawled in. By the looks of things, I was halfway to the boxcar where they were keeping Bob and the other circus animals, and halfway to the cab where I’d find the sigil system.
The sigil system is more important, but the cab is more likely to still be occupied than the boxcars, I remember thinking. A choice had to be made.
-Well well, if it isn’t Mr. Yamada and friends. So good of you to join us-
I heard that and immediately took off down the hall towards the cab. We were already pressed for time. Even if I could only set up one before I got caught, the sigil system was still the obvious choice. It was the most important target. If I didn’t take that one out, this whole plan would be in the shitter, so it didn’t matter if there were still people in there or not. If the conductor was still hanging around… well, I guess I’d just have to off him.
I jumped over the couplings to the next compartment.
-Mr. Allesandri, I heard Kichirō say in a slightly muffled voice, as if he was far away. This is unexpected. What brings you to Arizona?-
-Nothing much. Though judging by the way you and your friends are dressed, I’d say you’re here for work. What is that, orichalcum armor?-
-With a bronze finishing-
I slammed open the cab door and looked around. Nobody. I was in luck. I fished out some of Mr. Wang’s Surprise from my jacket pocket and wedged it between the spaces in the floor, cutting open the carpet with my knife. The larger portion of the sigil system that powers the train is usually directly beneath the cab, so setting it there would ensure I at least broke the connection to the leylines by blowing a hole in the sigil.
-Well, it is great to see friends so soon after leaving New York, but I’m afraid we really must be going, Mr. Allesandri-
-Really? Leaving so soon, Kichirō?-
-Yes. Is that a problem?-
-No, no. I have no intention of keeping you. But I’m telling you, missing out on the breakfast here is a mistake. The macaroni and cheese here is to die for-
I put away my knife and stuffed a handful of the Surprise into the conductor’s handbag. Time was up, and I needed to go. I ran in the opposite direction, back to where I’d crawled in through the window. I couldn’t see Sostene them at this point, all I knew was that they’d left the diner. Getting out of here without being spotted by them was going to be a matter of pure dumb luck.
I hoisted myself out the window and landed on the tracks, quickly looking around. I couldn’t see them, so I looked up at Sostene. After he gave me the thumbs up, I dashed across the tracks and climbed onto the couplings of our own train. Looking back, the three of them were still nowhere in sight, so I decided to toss the rest of the explosives I had underneath the car holding the animals. It wouldn’t be as good a scare as sticking it right on the door, but it would have to do. I nodded at Sostene, and he disappeared from the rafters as I slipped back onto the platform.
“We’re good to go,” I said as soon as we’d made it back to the diner. “The explosives are underneath the animals’ boxcar instead of on the door, but I think it’ll still be good enough to leave an impression on ‘em.”
Marq grinned as I whispered into his ear. “Good. Nice work, Al.”
“What are you two talking about?” Annie asked suspiciously.
“Nothing, I was just having Al check up on something for me back on the Cleveland,” Marq said. “Well then, shall we go?”
Nayeli handed him a cigarette and he took out his lighter. Immediately I got the message to plug my ears and close my eyes because that was the detonator, and Marq was about to press the plunger.
He flicked open the lighter, raising it to his lips. The wheel spun. That’s when everything went to hell.