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She stopped dead and sucked in her breath. Leaning forward to bring her head closer to the vanity mirror, she focused on the part line, and there it was: a single gray hair slapping her silly, crushing any aspiration of permanent or even prolonged youth.

It was not fair. Twenty-four years old and turning gray? Working her fingertips to separate the offending strand, she reflexively yanked it out and used both hands to hold it up in better light. Frieda, her diminutive German maid, had prepared her hair that morning and not mentioned it. How could this happen? How could something this life changing take place in less than a day?

Without a conscious decision to do so, she began reviewing her finances, racing through the numbers she checked almost daily, numbers that told her how long her money would last when—not if—her looks no longer produced it.

The sum she came up with sent a shiver down her spine. Looking into the mirror, she saw a woman facing disaster, displacement, discomfort, degradation, and hunger. She saw poverty and all of the apocalyptic demons that rode in poverty’s posse intent on dragging destitute females into a hell no man could imagine.

She would not go back there.

With a strength she never analyzed, Jenny LaBelle had never succumbed to the cushioning effects, the powerful allure of either narcotics or alcohol, refuges from reality calming the fears of so many young women she’d known on the road from Louisiana to Wyoming. She drank sparingly but had never allowed laudanum or opium or cocaine to enter her body after the first experimentation.

She had to retain control of her excellent mind, especially when she was selling her exquisite body.

She stood and walked to the window, pulled back the curtains, and regarded the empty vastness behind the hotel. She always had a plan in the back of her mind, a “next step,” a “just in case” that had served her well more than once when things suddenly went sideways.

Moving to the full-length mirror in front of the modesty screen behind which she undressed, she regarded her image. She could not afford to be self-deluding, literally could not afford it.

“Good enough for a while longer, young lady,” she said, smoothing a nonexistent wrinkle from her dress. She moved to her oaken armoire, pulled open the bottom drawer, and extracted a slim book bound in brown leather with a green leather spine bearing gold embossed letters that spelled A-C-C-O-U-N-T-S. She sat on the four-poster bed and rested the ledger in her lap.

“Time to get serious, Jenny, my girl,” she said. Opening the book and running her manicured fingertips over the familiar ciphers, she sighed. “So far to go and so little time.”

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