The man lay dying, not by Atom’s hand, but instead ravaged by a disease carving his lungs with more pain and precision than the gunslinger had ever inflicted on a living soul. Far beyond the help of doctors or med-docs, the man dozed in a comfortable, drug addled haze.
“Lilly, be that you?” he squinted up at Atom.
“No, sir,” Atom shifted in his bedside seat. “I was just hoping to have a word with Lilly. Is she around?”
The man’s eyes sharpened. He tried to sit up, but the drugs and disease had wasted his body to nothing more than a skin-covered frame. Crossing his arms, Atom gave a pleasant smile. He surveyed the man’s face, taking in the parchment-like flesh hanging beneath a pair of deep, dark eyes.
“What’s your business with her?” the demand brought a fit of coughing to the dying man’s lips.
Blood dribbled down his chin.
Discretion directed Atom’s gaze out the window. “I just have a message to pass along,” he studied a stand of hemlocks on a hillock across the narrow valley. He searched the dusky paths beneath the towering boughs. “Nothing more, for the time.
“Have you seen her?” Atom turned back to the man and fixed him with a sorrowed expression.
“It’s been a few years since she left me here,” the man’s wan smile threatened to split the paper thin skin at the corners of his mouth. “She promised to come back for me as soon as she could scrape the money for treatment.
“The sisters have taken my care on charity,” the man coughed again. “They keep me alive on the hope that she’ll return.”
The man drifted. For a long moment Atom studied the living corpse, then rose to his feet and stole to the window. He glanced over his shoulder before sliding the glass back to allow a cool autumn breeze to sweep the cloying death scent from the room.
He took in a lungful of fresh air.
The abbey overlooked a river valley. The sisters had chosen the site well. Trees of gold and red swept down the gradual slope in scattered and well maintained bundles of color.
Only the hemlocks maintained their green to offset the brilliance of the landscape.
“Da,”Margo galloped into the room on an imaginary horse. “Watch Turtle, please.”
“Who’s Turtle?” Atom turned back from the window.
“My horse,” Margo rolled her eyes in exasperation and as she put her little hands on her hips he snatched a glimpse of a young Kozue.
“Oh, Turtle. Bring her over,” a sad smile crept to his eyes.
“Turtle’s a boy, Da.”
“Lilly?”the dying man lifted his head with feeble strain. His eyes fluttered open like delicate butterflies.
“No, sir,” Atom returned to his seat, leading Turtle with subtle turns of his wrist.“That’s just my daughter, Margo.”
The man rolled his head and studied the girl.
Atom nodded to Margo and motioned her closer.
“I had a daughter, once upon a time,” the wet cough doubled the man in his bed.
“She here?” Margo wandered over and leaned on the edge of the bed as the fit passed and the man fell back like a lifeless doll.
“No, little one,” the man tried to smile, but the effort seemed beyond his power. “She’s not here anymore. How old are you?”
Margo held up two fingers.
“Go,” Atom beckoned. “Let the man be. He needs his rest.”
“It does me good to see a child in here,” the man grumped. “All I ever get are the stuffy old sisters. They’re good souls and they care for me without complaint, but they don’t have the same smile and energy of a little one.
“Your girl does more for me than all of them put together,” the invalid pressed a button and the bed groaned up into a sitting position.
“I heard that,” a grey-frocked sister strode through the door with a bowl of soup on a tray. “If I told the others how you really felt they might start acting like little girls to amuse you.”
“No, you’re fine,” the dying man whispered.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Atom rose, swept Margo up in his arms, and wandered out the door.
Out in the stone corridor, Atom slipped Margo to the floor and led the way through the building to the front of the abbey. As they passed the ornate carvings of the front doors Margo pulled at Atom’s hand and halted to study the scenes tracing the journey of the sisters across the stars to found their secluded refuge.
Atom tousled Margo’s hair and with a contented smile he sauntered onto a broad porch. As he adjusted his heavy brown coat the heavens crackled with lightening and a curtain of rain swept down the hill like the skirt of a woman’s dress.
Off to the side Daisy and Shi sat in a pair of rockers playing a game of checks.
“She here?” Daisy looked up from the board to squint at the approaching rain.
Atom shook his head. While Margo wandered over to watch the game, he stepped over to the edge of the porch. Leaning on the railing he stared out into the muddying yard, watching as the rain pounded in waves, blurring the view of the valley’s upper slope.
The pilot rose as stretching his back he joined Atom at the rail. “So what’s our play here?” he crossed his arms and planted himself just beyond the rain’s reach.
Atom’s whip-thin frame seemed a wiry sapling beside Daisy’s solid trunk. For a time Atom leaned in silence. When he rose his hand drifted to rest on his rail-pistol. He continued to study the rain, plans dancing through his head.
“We wait,” Atom looked up at the heavens.
Daisy flexed his arms as he weighed Atom’s words.
“Why you so sure she’s comin’ back ta this place?” Shi slid a piece on the board before rising and hitching up her gun-belt to saunter over to Atom’s side. “Way I sees it, she en’t been ‘round in two plus years, she en’t comin’ back now.
“Why’s this wendy so valuable anyhoo?” Shi grimaced at the rain.
“Information,”Atom puffed his cheeks, blowing a slow breath as he turned to sit on the railing.
“You know I don’t flip a toss about yer reasons, but seein’ as we’ve time ta burn her, you might as well spin the whole yarn. Give us somethin’ ta chew a bit while we wait out this drizzle.”
Daisy remained silent, but his eyes danced between the two gunfighters as he followed the conversation.
“Not much of a story as I know it,” Atom squinted at the closed doors. “She married into the Genkohan. Damon is the boke she married. He was an upper in the han.”
“That stiff in there?” Shi asked.
“He’s not dead yet.”
Atom frowned as he turned back to the rain. “We’ll all be there someday. Fact is, he was high enough to know han secrets and when he and Lilly took the black those secrets went with them.”
“And they’re worth killing for?” Shi’s hand drifted to her pistol.
“I didn’t ask, but I’d wager they’re not too pretty.”
“Damaging to the han or bigger?” Daisy asked.
Atom shrugged. “Worth something to someone.”
“So why’re we here?” Shi grumbled. “Shouldn’t we be trackin’ this Lilly?”
“She’s a ghost,” Atom said. “That’s partly why the Genko’s are so riled. She has no trail and not even Kozue has been able to track her prior to marrying Damon. They think she was planted to steal the information. They suspect she’s from one of the Ghost Tribes and that she was contracted by a rival or even the emp himself.”
“That info must be fair heavy,” Shi whistled. “I hope we’re making a pinch on this haul.”
“The usual,” Atom strained to see past the rain veil. “I don’t reckon the job’ll be too tough, even if she is a ghost.”
“It’s tough killing ghosts.”
“You have experience?” Daisy cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, not so much, but they’re bokes just like the rest of us,” she pulled her pistol and checked the action. “Every boke bleeds.”
“Not ghosts,” Daisy scowled at the gun.
“So why here?” Shi ignored Daisy’s look and glanced up at Atom. “Years away and somehow you thinkin’ she’ll be floatin’ back through? If’n we can’t track her and we don’t even know where to start, shouldn’t we be touchin’ some of yer old sources to stir some info?”
“When she left Damon here, she stayed for several weeks by his side. She may have been a ghost at one point, but she gave that up to take the black. She built something with that man in there and I’m wagering she’ll be back around. He’s on the doorstep.
“She won’t let him cross over without a final goodbye,” Atom crossed back to the game board.
In the absence of Daisy and Shi, Margo had taken over. Using the square pawns she built a pyramid for her hands to climb like conquering behemoths. Like palm-sized dinosaurs her imaginary creations battled for control of the mountain.
“So we wait?” Daisy followed Atom. “How long?”
“Until she shows up,” Atom dropped into a rocking chair, kicked out his long legs, and closed his eyes.