Disputed Territories, Former USA; 2028 CE

Pansy had worked Territorial trains before and usually scored. Still the right age, today she was a college student on holiday. At the station in cold Milwaukee, the wind howled like a lonely wolf as Pansy waited with her denim jacket snapped tight and a pack on one shoulder. With seconds left on the platform, scattered travelers hunched in their coats and turned their backs to the weather from the lake.

When she boarded, Carroc was nowhere in sight though she sensed his thoughts. As the raven flies, he was already winging toward their rendezvous in Kansas City where he’d arrive before the train, going south first.

The dining car was as warm as a pile of puppies. Feeling festive as she anticipated a Yuletide take, Pansy took a seat for an initial survey. The older woman across the mounted table glanced up from her book. Straight-backed, sour-lipped, the woman wore diamond earrings.

Pansy stuffed her leather backpack on the bench to her left, mirroring the woman who’d folded her coat and tote to occupy the seat on her right. As long as the dining car didn’t become crowded, they were free to commandeer luxurious space.

When the waiter came around, Pansy ordered cocoa with marshmallows and paid with a rail pass, the stolen card with which she’d purchased a ticket for the ride.

“What are you reading?” Pansy tentatively tested the heat of the cocoa with her lip.

The woman peered over her wire-rimmed spectacles, flipped to the front of her book as if the title should be obvious, then sighed with exasperation at the unmarked jacket. “Unmasking the Face. You wouldn’t know it.”


The woman hmphed.

“Where you headed?” Pansy blew on her chocolate, spinning marshmallows on the dark, steaming surface as the white confections began to melt.

“St. Louis to give a talk at a conference.” The woman sniffed self-importantly.

Carroc, listening in as he flew over the snowy countryside, didn’t like it. The mark should be traveling past Kansas City so Pansy would already be gone when the traveler collected her belongings. But you’ll do as you like. You always do.

“That sounds interesting.” Pansy smiled and sipped. “What about?”

“You wouldn’t understand. It’s about the psychosocial stages of cognitive development.”

“In humans?” The raven’s warning thoughts stirred in her mind.

“No,” the woman said icily. “In lobsters. Of course, in humans.” The earrings touted two diamonds each, one on a stud and another dangling, glinting in the fluorescents overhead. Glaring over the edge of her book, the woman returned volley. “Where are you going?”

“Home for the holidays.” Pansy grinned like a kid and patted her leather backpack. “To see Mom and Dad.”

With a long-suffering sigh, the woman closed her book, set her glasses on top, and headed down the aisle in the direction of the lavatory, presumably coming right back. Pansy first checked the book. Turned out the title was The Stable Boy by Dawn Ashley.

Spinning around the table, Pansy occupied the bench warmed by the woman. A rapid rummage through the tote revealed another romance—how fast did she read them?—a sandwich wrapped in poly, a mickey of Johnnie Red, hat and gloves, a dead cell with a cracked face, and a looseleaf notebook filled with bad poetry.

Not one bloody item of value, no overnight clothes, and no hint of academic lecture notes. Returning to her seat, Pansy looked to see if any diners had thought her actions strange. No one had flinched. Two men conversed with animated gestures over coffees. One woman fondly watched her small son eat a bowl of ice cream. Three single passengers in the sparsely-occupied car had their heads down, eyes and thumbs on their cells.

From outside the railcar and inside her mind, Carroc cawed with laughter. Pack of lies. Told you to steer clear. The raven lived for moments like this.

Well, it took a liar to know one. The diamonds were probably fake, too. Matched at her own game, Pansy grimaced and drank her cocoa before moving to the next car.