With an annoyed scowl setting the exposed part of his face into deep lines, Jake Lasater slowly returned his hot Colts to the holsters at each hip and waited for the thick white veil of smoke to clear. He let out a long, resigned sigh and winced as he rubbed the shallow gash in his right sleeve and bicep. That’s when he noticed the black shuriken sticking out of his left arm just above the elbow. He pulled the irritating little weapon out with a jerk, dropped it on the ground and realized that the fingers of his right glove were now sticky. Holding his fingers up to his good eye, he saw a yellow residue, like honey or pinesap. It coated the dark leather in a jagged pattern that matched the shuriken points. He gave his fingers a sniff and regretted his curiosity straightaway, turning his head with a jerk. The stuff smelled like a cross between snake oil and horse piss fermented in a cheese cellar too long.
“Tricky Tong bastards,” he muttered with a sour, southern Missouri drawl. He aimed his curse like a pistol at the four, silk-clad bodies lying in the muddy alley between him and the bright daylight of Sacramento Street. He’d seen men in the street go running when the shooting started, but they were already starting to walk by as if nothing happened. Chinatown was a rough place where people minded their own. On top of that, everyone knew that the San Fran Marshals would take their own sweet time to check things out in that part of town—if they came at all.
Lasater kneeled and wiped his fingers on the crimson shirt of the dead gambler who’d started the whole thing, trying to remove the sticky resin. “And here I thought we were friends, Po,” Lasater said to the corpse as he rolled it over and looked down into a still, muddy face. All four bodies were clad in red silk, which meant they were part of the Tong. “And you have your boys try to poison me?” Annoyed disbelief filled Lasater’s voice. “San Francisco is not at all what I expected.”
Lasater reached beyond Po’s body and picked up his short top hat from where it had fallen during the fight. Miraculously, it had landed on the one dry spot for twenty feet in both directions along the alley. With a muted whine of clockwork gears from his legs, Lasater stood, brushed the dust off the brim of his hat and adjusted the silver and turquoise hatband so it was straight once again. “You’re lucky you didn’t muss up my hat, Po, or I’d have to kill you again, damn it.”
Lasater gave an irritated shake of his head and pressed the top hat back into place. As it settled over his wavy dark hair, a relieved smile broke up the irritated scowl. He’d had the hat made special back in Kansas City only eight months ago. The inside of the brim had a small inner notch so that it fit snugly around both his head and the skin-tight leather strap that held his left ocular in place. The intricately hinged, brass-set lens was as dark as pitch and blocked out most of the light. The whole thing was set into a steel plate that covered a quarter of his face from cheek to forehead, and the steel had been riveted to the leather band that wrapped around his head and tied at the back. He’d worn the thing since he was discharged from the Union Army back in ’64.
Amputations were common in the Civil War, and like so many others, Lasater had left a fair amount of flesh, bone and blood in that hot Army tent after a Reb canon did its job on him. When the bandages had finally come off his face, the Army docs discovered that, along with everything else, the canon round had made his left eye permanently dilated. Even low light hurt him, but Tinker Farris, at the expense of Lasater’s inheritance, had fixed him up pretty well in all quarters. Lasater was actually more of a man now than when he started. He took his discharge and what little money he got for the amputations and headed west to find his fortune and forget about other people’s wars.
Kansas City, Scottsbluff, Santa Fe, Denver, Fort Hall—he’d gambled his way across the territories and done pretty well moving from one saloon to the next, one poker game to the next. He’d tricked, bribed and shot his way out of or through a number of fiascos along the way and never once landed in jail, but the Central Pacific line pretty much ended in San Francisco, so here’s where he ended up. Unfortunately, the four bodies in front of him now meant that this latest fiasco was just getting started. It also meant he’d have to leave San Fran in a hurry when all was said and done. He had mixed feelings about that. He’d been there only a couple of weeks and even made friends with Hang, Po and a few other members of the Tong. He didn’t ask about their business, and they didn’t meddle with his. It was all poker between friends. Right up until he walked away with all those winnings.
It had actually been five men who had come up behind him and “urged” him into the alley at the point of a dagger in his back. The fifth, the one with the big scar running down his cheek, neck and under his collar, had run off with the bag of winnings Lasater dropped in the mud to distract the thieves. That’s how he got the drop on them. When their eyes followed the bag, his Colts sailed free and sang their song. He’d accumulated the bag’s contents in a particularly long and lucrative poker-game over at Hang Ah’s saloon around the corner, and eight hundred dollars in paper and coin plus a fair amount of gold dust was not something he planned to just leave behind. He only had a few coins in his pocket, so the bag was pretty much his whole stake.
Lasater walked out of the alley, his black boots squishing through the mud, and stepped into the bright, morning sunshine of Sacramento Street. Hang Ah’s was just a block up and across the thoroughfare. Scar’s muddy footprints made a beeline straight for it, so he made a path of his own, following in the footsteps of the Chinese thief and reloading his Colts as he went.
It was still early morning and between mining shifts, so Lasater barely had to weave his way between the migrant residents of Chinatown to get to Hang Ah’s. A rainbow of brightly colored silk and patches of drab cotton walked up and down the street, with every man sporting a long, black queue either down his back or wrapped around his neck. He didn’t see a single woman amidst the workers. Lasater, at six-foot, could see easily over the pointed hats and silk caps that covered most every other head. A white man in Chinatown was an uncommon enough sight, and with his left ocular looking ominous and his dual shooters looking even more so, the path in front of him seemed to open up all by itself. That is, until one of those new-fangled mining rigs stepped out onto the street from the gaping warehouse doorway of Qi’s Emporium of Wondrous Power.