Author’s note: I tried this once before, here: http://www.missingbrains.com/2013/04/part-1-california-rest-in-peace.html . However, just because I abandoned the story then, doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten about it. Time for a second try!
The man came into town every morning, riding in on his old motorcycle. The creaking monster spat out clouds of black smoke behind it, belching so loud that the whole town could hear him coming.
He’d plop himself down at the bar, pulling out his typewriter, slowly feeding in a new sheet of paper. He’d wait for Jenny to come around, bringing him the cup of dark sludge that the place had the audacity to try and pass off as coffee.
No one really knew what he did, what he might have done. Of course, dressed all in black like he did, there was no shortage of rumors. People whispered that he’d been a gangster, that he had killed a man, that he’d robbed a bank, a whole string of banks. Someone even claimed that he might be involved with that whole California fiasco, although they hadn’t offered any further details.
Only one other man in town seemed willing to approach the man in black. Old Hillpaw, the grizzled prospector, would sometimes come into the bar in the afternoons. Once his daily whiskey was in hand, the gray-haired old man would wander over to drop heavily into the chair opposite the man in black, staring at him over the paper sticking up out of the typewriter.
They never seemed to speak much, but the man in black would give Old Hillpaw a nod that seemed friendly enough, and Hillpaw would nod back. For weeks, they shared the table, never opening their mouths. Hillpaw never asked what the man was typing, and the man in black never offered Hillpaw the chance to read his work.
But one afternoon, as Jenny strolled closer, the rusty and chipped coffee pot in hand, she heard Hillpaw clear his throat. The waitress paused, holding her breath. Were the two men finally about to speak, to divulge the mysterious past they both shared?
Hillpaw’s voice was old, gritty, as creaky as the rest of him. He sounded like half of the ore he had mined had ended up in his lungs. He cleared his throat several times, coughing loudly, until the man in black finally paused and looked up, his fingers hovering just above the typewriter keys.
“Where’s your hat?” Old Hillpaw asked.
Jenny blinked in surprise. Had the old prospector lost it? What sort of question was that? But the man in black didn’t look surprised.
“Don’t wear it any more,” he said, his voice even with just the slightest hint of a Southern drawl.
There didn’t seem to be much else to add, but Hillpaw, after a few minutes’ thought, persisted. “You remember me?” he asked the man in black.
The fingers paused, once again lifting up off of the typewriter keys. The man in black stared across the table at the prospector, not speaking. “South Dakota,” he finally said. “You were at the bar.”
Old Hillpaw clapped his hands together, looking delighted. “You certainly still have your wits!” he cackled, rocking back and forth in his chair as he stamped his feet. Back a few feet away, Jenny hovered, unsure of whether the old man had finally lost it.
But after a minute, Hillpaw’s braying laughter ceased. “See, here’s the problem with the story,” he said to the man in black. “I know the end, o’course. Saw part of it myself, and read about the rest in the papers. But I don’t know the beginning.”
“The beginning was in the papers, too.”
Hillpaw shook his head. “Nah, that’s just them writers, putting words on a page,” he replied, dismissing the man in black’s comment. “That’s not the real beginning. Not where they started.”
“No,” the man in black agreed, “that’s not the real beginning.”
For a minute longer, the man in black paused, looking down at his typewriter and the neat stack of typed paper beside it. Then, slowly, he raised his gaze back up to Old Hillpaw, sitting and waiting across the table. “Too impatient to wait?” he asked the man.
Hillpaw glanced down at himself. “Hell, I might not be around by the time you finish,” he replied.
The man in black leaned forward, reaching out and lifting the cup of coffee up to his lips. He took a long, slow sip of the sludge within, setting the cup back down on top of his papers so the stack wouldn’t slip away. He shrugged and leaned back in his chair, his long black coat falling open to the sides.
As the man’s coat fell open, Jenny saw something gleaming, tucked beneath his shoulder. As she realized what was stowed there, she gasped, unable to keep quiet.
“And you might as well sit down and listen, too,” the man said to her, no change in his tone. He didn’t even turn his head to look at her.
Jenny realized with a start that the man had known she was hovering, listening in, the entire time. Not meeting his gaze, she pulled up a chair from the next table over, setting down the coffee pot and smoothing her barmaid’s skirt.
For a minute, the man in black just stared back at them both, his eyes dark, appraising. The heavy revolver hanging under his arm gleamed dimly in the light. His two audience members stared back at him, Hillpaw looking studiously blank, Jenny trying not to show her uncomfortable nervousness.
“It starts back further than the papers ever said,” the man in black finally began, his voice filled with deep timbre. “Back in the deep South, before the riots tore it apart. Even before the rebuilding made enough for the riots to tear apart.
“It starts with a cop – and with a woman named California…”