Danni California, Part 28

Continued from Part 27, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

At this point, Jasper, the man in black, sat back, lowering his stack of meticulously typed up papers down onto the table in front of him.  His eyes came up to survey his stunned audience.

Whether she was truly the first to find her voice again, or if Old Hillpaw simply let her speak, Jenny became the one to break the silence.  “It… exploded?” she asked, sounding more bewildered than anything else.

Jasper nodded.

The waitress shook her head.  “But… but why?”
“The explosives,” Hillpaw answered the question for her, before the man in black could do so.  “That must have been their plan all along, why they had to take the detour up to Minnesota in the first place.  Remember, he bought all those explosives?  He used them on the Organization’s headquarters.”

Jenny nodded, but she still looked mostly lost.  “And Danni was still alive?  I feel so lost.”

“Well, of course I’m alive!”

The new voice made both of Jasper’s listeners spin around, their heads jerking in unison like marionettes.  A new woman stood at the entrance to the bar, the midday sun streaming in from behind her and illuminating her in a halo of light.  No details were clear – except for her hair, which glowed in a corona of bright orange red around her head.

For a moment, the newcomer stood in the entrance, and both Jenny and Hillpaw could see the light glinting off her smile.  Then, moving with confidence despite a slight limp, she advanced into the bar, heading for their table.

Of course, as she settled into the last open seat at the table, there was no mistaking her identity.  Danni looked older, no longer a completely carefree teenager, but even the slightly darkened burn scar that curled up one side of her neck couldn’t ruin her smile.  She eyed the waitress and the old man with curiosity as she lightly patted Jasper’s shoulder.

“So,” she asked, “these are your captive audience, listening to all your autobiographical ramblings?”

Jasper smiled back at her, and his audience saw a new emotion on the man in black’s face: clear, shining love.  “They do keep on coming back, as if they want to hear more,” he pointed out, his frown ineffectual below his crinkled eyes.

“It’s all a ruse, my dear.”  Danni leaned in, totally unfazed by the audience, to plant a long, passionate kiss on Jasper’s lips.  “Did they figure out the little twist in your story, yet?”

She glanced over at the listeners, still smiling.  “What I’m sure Jasper neglected to tell you, downplaying his heroic role, is how he dug through the rubble of that cabin in North Dakota, finding where I’d been thrown by the blast,” she explained.  “And as I proved, I’m just too tough and full of life to be killed!”

Danni grinned, and Jenny couldn’t help but smile back at her.  Jasper, however, still looked sober for a moment.

“It was a close thing,” he pointed out.  “For a while, I wasn’t sure which way you would end up going.”

Danni shook her head, as though dismissing this, but the observers didn’t miss how she reached over and laid one hand on top of his, squeezing gently.  “As I recovered, we knew that we’d never be free of this until the Organization was well and truly gone,” she went on.  “And we didn’t have the time or ammunition to gun down everyone in that tower – so we chose to simply remove the tower.”

“The first few days in Philadelphia, I spent most of my time crawling through the sewers, planting the explosives,” Jasper added.  “We timed everything to go off at nine, but there were a million things that could go wrong.”

“And yet, despite you somehow getting yourself shot, we made it work,” Danni finished.  “And since then, the Organization has largely collapsed.”

Jenny was smiling, glad to hear that the story had a happy ending, but Old Hillpaw still wore a slight frown.  “But isn’t it still possibly dangerous to tell us?” he asked, his eyes on Jasper.

For a moment, the smile disappeared from the man in black’s face, and he nodded.  “There’s still a bit of danger, yes,” he acknowledged.  “But no one knows about our involvement in the Organization’s disappearance – and after its collapse, most of the politicians were quick to distance themselves from it and disavow it.”

“And just to be sure, we chose to settle out here, practically on the frontier,” Danni added.  “In a small town like this?  Easy to hear about any newcomer who might skulk around.”

Both of the audience members nodded to this.  Sure enough, the arrival of anyone new generally spread through the little town like wildfire.

“So,” asked Jenny at length, “what are you going to do, now that you’ve typed up the story?”

Jasper glanced down at the stack of pages.  “I think I’m going to send it off to New York, one of the big publishing houses,” he said reflectively.  “Anonymously, of course.  But I think it’s a story that ought to be told, nonetheless.”

“And I’m sure they’ll love it,” Danni added, standing up and wrapping her arms around the man in black from behind.  Even standing, it was easy to miss that she even had a limp at all, and her smile still lit up her face.  She leaned down, kissing Jasper on the cheek, holding on to him as though he was her rock, her anchor.

It was a strange combination, to be sure.  The assassin, and the woman he’d been sent to kill.  And yet, looking at the pair, both Jenny and Hillpaw had to admit, in the privacy of their own minds, that the two seemed to fit together perfectly.

And all in all, it was a good story, they both agreed.  A story, they felt, that ought to be told.

The man in black, the Priest, and the girl with hair of fire, the bank robber, the outlaw.

A good match.

The end!  Finally!  Wow, that story went on quite a bit longer than expected.  I think I’ll need to recover with some short stuff before undertaking another epic of such size.

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Danni California, Part 27

Continued from Part 26, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

The metal grappling hook sailed out, trailing rope behind it as it flew away from the building.  I stared after it, feeling the rope flying out through my fingers and watching the little black dot zoom away.

It landed on the closest nearby building, and I heard a clink as it hit.  I waited a moment, feeling the rope drop to slackness, and then carefully gave the line in my hands a gentle tug.

For a heart-stopping second, it slid loosely, suggesting that the grappling hook had failed to catch on a target.  But then, just as I cursed and prepared myself to haul it in for another throw, I felt the line suddenly flex with tension.

“We’ve got a line!” I shouted to Danni over the pop of gunfire, pulling the rope tight and hauling it around the doorframe.  “Come on!”

I could see Danni leaning up against the side of the doorframe, sheltered from bullets that now poured in through the open holes.  She had popped the revolver open, but I saw her trembling fingers struggling to fit the new bullets into their chambers.

“Leave it!” I shouted, beckoning to her.  My own shoulder still throbbed where I’d been hit, but I still pulled out my gun and sent a few shots back through the open door.  I doubted I’d hit anyone, but it at least forced the shooters to take cover and stop firing for a moment.

Danni gritted her teeth as she pushed herself across the floor to me, but I scooped her up in my arms as best I could manage.  We hurried over to where the rope descended out through the shattered glass, into empty space.

For just a second, we both looked into each other’s eyes, knowing how risky this next move would be.  Impulsively, despite the lines of pain that were clear on her face, Danni pulled herself even closer to me and kissed me soundly on the mouth.

“See you on the other side, Jasper,” she whispered as she broke away, reaching out and looping her arms around the rope.

I couldn’t say anything; my mouth felt slack as she threw a leg over the rope as well and, with nothing bracing her, she slid out the window.

I was tempted to stay there, to watch as she descended.  But the bullets now once again pouring in through the doorway, growing closer to my position as the other shooters became emboldened, told me that I had to move.  I put my gun away, but before I reached up to grab the rope, I fished out my pocketwatch and flipped it open.

A minute until the clock struck nine.  I didn’t have any time to spare.

I reached up and grabbed the rope, praying for it to hold me as I trusted it with my weight.  For a moment, I felt the rope give a sickening lurch, but I knew that I didn’t have any other option.  I kicked off, and my stomach dropped down to my feet as I plunged out of the building, sliding along the rope.

As I exited through the shattered window, I realized that I was sliding down the rope head-first, making it difficult to know when the other building was approaching.  I craned my head around, twisting my neck in order to time when to clamp down on the rope to slow myself.

The other building rushed up towards me.  I tightened my grip on the rope until I could feel the threads burning my fingers, just barely managing to slow myself enough to survive the landing.  I hit at the far side, tumbling off of the rope and rolling across the building’s roof.

As I finally slowed, I flipped over and pulled myself up to my feet, looking around for Danni.  I spotted her a few feet away, still looking pale but hurrying over to help me up.  She didn’t appear too injured, I saw with a wave of thankfulness.

“Are you okay?” she asked, as she reached down to help me up.

I let her lend me her uncertain support, but as we rose up, a bullet ricocheted off the roof only a couple feet from our position.  The shooters up on the sixth floor of the tower now stood in front of the broken window, their guns still firing down at us.

There was nowhere to take cover.  All we could do was crouch, looking up at the high tower of the Organization behind me-

-just as it suddenly erupted into orange flame, with a roar like a giant’s howl.

In that moment, as we both stared up, the entire tower vanished as multiple explosions around its base burst up through the ground.  Huge gouts of flame shot up, lapping at the sides of the tower like a hungry tongue.  The roars of multiple explosions washed over us like shock waves, obliterating all other noise.

It was exactly nine o’clock AM.

To be continued – not much more now . . . 

Danni California, Part 26

Continued from Part 25, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Both Jenny and Old Hillpaw audibly gasped.  “What?” they both stammered out in unison, staring at the man in black.

Jasper couldn’t help grinning at the stunned looks on his audience’s faces.  “Wait,” he said, glancing back down at the pages in front of him.

“It will make more sense soon.”

*

She looked pale, but she was on her feet.  And the hand offered down to me felt solid enough.

I let her pull me back up, although I tried to use my own muscles as much as possible.  “You aren’t supposed to be here,” I told her, as I regained my feet.

Danni didn’t look impressed.  “And look what would have happened,” she pointed out impatiently.  “You down on the floor, with more Priests-“

Before she could finish, bullets whizzed overhead with sharp cracks.  The Priests climbing up the stairs had reached our floor.

Moving together, Danni and I dove behind the dead man’s desk.  My shoulder made me grit my teeth and grunt against the pain as we landed, but the next hail of bullets stopped against the heavy wood.  I closed my eyes for a moment, doing my best to block out the pain and push it away, to the back of my mind.

When I opened my eyes again, Danni was watching me closely.  “After all I’ve been through, you can’t die on me, now,” she remarked, but although her words were flippant, her eyes looked concerned.

I waved a hand at her.  “I’m fine,” I insisted, pulling out my revolver.  Only one – I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to fire on my wounded side, and I would rather use the hand for faster reloading.

This, now, this was a skill I knew well.  Pop up, just for a moment, get a glimpse of where the enemy is taking cover.  Cock the gun – single action is more accurate than a full pull.

Listen to the next rain of bullets.  Wait for the pause, listen for the click of an empty chamber.  Rise, fire, anticipate their retreat.

Don’t wait for the sound of the body falling.  Swivel.  He’ll be partly behind cover, now, but he’s predictable.  Two through the plaster – it’s no armor against lead.

Gun back on the entrance, waiting for stragglers.  Listen to the two impacts of bodies hitting the floor.

Thump.  There’s one.

And the second-

Even as my mind realized that I’d made a mistake, Danni’s gun roared beside me, and the second man fell back with most of his head reduced to vapor and splinters.

The girl nudged me as she climbed up to her feet once again.  “Getting sloppy, are we?” she teased, moving towards the door.

I put a round in between the eyes of the next man as he appeared at the entrance to the floor.  “You’re just too distracting,” I retorted, as he hit the ground.

Danni scoffed at me as we both moved towards the door.  I couldn’t help noting that she remembered much of my training; she kept herself behind cover, protecting her chest and keeping her gun out and in front of her, ready to take a shot as soon as it presented itself.  Her steps were careful, always ensuring that she was braced and wouldn’t be knocked back when she squeezed the trigger.

We dropped two more as they climbed the stairs, but a glance down the stairway revealed more Priests milling beneath, clearly trying to plan their next assault.  We retreated quickly, but bullets still followed us.

I glanced over at Danni.  “Looks like they’re all coming up after us,” I commented.

“Good.  Let them come.”

I held her gaze for a moment longer.  “You okay to cover the entrance?  I know you’re still recovering from-“

She waved me away before I could finish.

Still, I spared one last look at her as I stepped to the large window in my dead supervisor’s office.  When I pulled her from the burning wreckage of the cabin in North Dakota, she’d been a twisted, broken thing.  I could still see the signs of that trauma in the ropy burn scar that ran up one leg, in how her foot twisted slightly inward.  The back room doctors had done their best, but for days she had been unresponsive.  I couldn’t count how many times I’d pulled myself from my bedroll, my heart pounding as I struggled to listen for her breathing, fearing that I would hear nothing.

The Priests had been watching for a man with a girl, maybe a man by himself.  They weren’t checking cripples.

The window’s glass was thick, but it shattered at my blows.  I reached under my coat, finding the iron shape I’d concealed there.  Once more, I checked the knot that connected the sharp instrument to the thin rope I’d worn coiled around my waist.

From behind me, I could hear exchanged gunfire.  Cries and thuds told me that Danni’s rounds were finding their targets, but I knew she couldn’t keep up that sustained fire for long.  I could feel her pushing down the pain that surely came with each recoil.

A twirl of the iron hook.  I knew I couldn’t take long.  I had to make this throw count.

The chunk of metal thrummed as it swung past my head, looping until it was a blur.  From behind me, I heard Danni’s revolver click empty.

I couldn’t wait any longer.

I let go of the rope in my hand, watching the iron grappling hook sail away, out into empty space.

To be continued . . .

Danni California, Part 25

Continued from Part 24, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Inside the tower, the receptionist behind the counter was already rising to her feet.  The Organization didn’t pay a full Priest to sit behind the front counter and take messages, but every employee went through basic training.  Everyone was supposed to know how to fight back in an emergency.

For some people, however, that training was a while ago, and there’s been no call for that information in their head ever since.  They get rusty.

I put a hole in the woman’s head from across the lobby before she had taken two steps away from her chair.

The receptionist wasn’t the only person in the lobby, of course.  Two other men, businessmen from the looks of their suits, were also climbing out of their low chairs where they’d been waiting for their appointments.  I put them both down with a single shot each.

The gunshots would attract attention, of course.  I sprinted forward, for the doors that were just around the corner.

A second later, I nearly died.

Two more guards were thundering down the stairs, their own revolvers drawn and in their hands.  The only reason I survived was that they weren’t expecting me to be so close to the stairs already.

One of the men got a shot off, but it went wide.

I made sure he didn’t get to take a second attempt.

I jumped over the bodies and hurried up the stairs.  From each floor, I could hear shouts.  A minute later, a jangling sound of many bells ringing simultaneously assaulted my ears; someone had pulled the building’s alarm.

I didn’t let myself slow down.  My legs were already burning, but I mercilessly forced them to move faster, taking the wide steps three at a time.

Finally, the doorway for the sixth floor came into view.  I was glad to see it; already, other Priests were barreling out into the stairway both above and below me, their guns drawn and at the ready.  With my getup, it would be tough for them to instantly spot me as the intruder, but the building body count would lead them to me.

A man was stepping through the doorway to the sixth floor into the staircase as I reached it.  I slammed my knife into his throat and shoved him down the steps as the line left behind from the blade blossomed in red.

I was through the doorway before the dead guard’s body behind me hit the stairs.  There were more guards, of course, and I knew that my boss’s receptionist kept a sawed-off double barreled shotgun in a cubbyhole beneath her desk.  They weren’t ready for my entrance, however.

In the eyes of a Priest, unprepared is only a single bullet away from dead.

The receptionist fell last, and she at least managed to drag her gun out from its hole beneath the desk before she toppled backward in a spray of blood and brains across the wall behind her.  I stepped past her, reaching down and snagging the weapon out of her lifeless fingers.

One blast shattered the lock on my former boss’s doors.

Of course, I should have known better than to think that I’d catch my boss unawares.  He had his own gun drawn, pointing at the door as I blasted in.  I could barely see the little tremble in his hand as he pointed the weapon at me.

“Jaspers,” the man rasped, staring at me with eyes that looked bloodshot.  “Why?”

Did he deserve an answer?

“Because this is wrong,” I replied, watching him closely.  “We claim to be above the rest, but we’re just killers.  We may be the best, might demand the most money, but we still kill at the whim of others.  What right do they have, to choose who lives and dies?”

My supervisor shook his head.  “Our targets deserve-“

“Death?” I finished before he could.  “For disobeying, for petty theft?  And what do we deserve, for all the blood on our hands?”

The man opened his mouth, but no words came out.  Instead, he closed it again after a second, and I saw his eyes tighten ever so slightly.

I pulled the trigger first.  The pellets in the shotgun’s second barrel didn’t have much room to spread before they collided with my boss’s head, but the force was enough to shatter his face into fragments.

The man was fast, however.  I felt the slug from his gun punch into my shoulder, spinning me around and sweeping my feet out from beneath me.

The shotgun fell from nerveless fingers.  I shook my head, gritting my teeth against the pain, and tried to stand.  I couldn’t put any weight on my right arm, however, and felt myself collapse back to the ground.

“Need a hand?”

I knew the voice.  I looked up, my eyes widening in surprise.  For just a moment, all of the pain belonged to a different man, one far away from me.

Danni.

Almost to the end, now – to be continued!

Danni California, Part 24

Continued from Part 23, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

The next morning, I rose solemnly from where I had spent the night sitting on the floor.  My joints felt stiff for a moment as I stretched them, but they quickly limbered up.  I still went through the full range of exercises, making sure that I had a full range of motion for all of my limbs.

Once all of my muscles were loose and ready for action, I began to dress myself.

I didn’t let myself stop to consider that this might be the last time I ever did so.

First, I pulled on the lightweight armored vest I had picked up.  It wouldn’t stop a direct slug, I knew, but it might slow down and deflect shrapnel or ricochets.  More importantly, it let me keep the flexibility and speed that I knew would be my best defense.

Next came the two belts of ammunition, bandoliers that slung across my chest.  I made sure to tighten the straps so that they wouldn’t catch on anything.  I couldn’t let them slow me down.  The bullets slid into their little leather loops weighed me down a little, but I knew that the belts would grow lighter as I expended their contents.

The revolvers slid snugly into their matched shoulder harnesses.  I made sure that they were loose enough for me to draw in a single, fluid motion, without any snags.

To cover it all, I pulled an item from the bottom of my pack.  I hadn’t worn my Priest coat in weeks, now.  To do so would be to draw attention to myself.  That wasn’t what I wanted.

But now, for my destination, it would serve as my camouflage.

And finally, finishing the ensemble, I pulled out my old black, flat-brimmed hat.  Its time in the pack had flattened and crushed its shape somewhat, but I smoothed it back out with my hands.  Only once it was once again somewhat crisp, as best as I could manage, did I carefully fit it on my head.

I was walking into the place where I would be most known, most likely to be recognized.  Every other man and woman in the building would know me, would instantly know the price on my head.  Each second of anonymity I could buy was precious.

I looked around the room, gazing down at the bed for several minutes.  I didn’t speak.  What else was there for me to say?

And then I left.

The sun was still barely a red shard above the horizon, and the streets were not yet filled with people.  It was nearly silent as I made my way through the maze of little back roads I’d mapped out.  My eyes remained up on the horizon, locked on the black tower that rose up from the other buildings, directly ahead of me.

The Organization.

My first challenge lay in front of the tower.  A large courtyard, covered in stone, with no cover, stood between me and my destination.  Even in building their headquarters, the Priests had thought defensively, strategically.

Despite my focus, my heart quickened slightly in my chest as I began crossing the courtyard.  Keep calm, betray nothing, I thought to myself.  Don’t let anyone question you.

I made it more than halfway across the courtyard before someone noticed me.

“Hey, you’re coming in early!” a voice called out behind me, nearly making me jump in surprise before I clamped down on my reactions before they could betray me.  “Wait up a moment!”

The other Priest jogged forward; I could hear his footsteps on the smooth stones.  It wasn’t until he came up alongside me that he slowed, and I saw his expression shift from open greeting to one of confusion.

“Wait a sec,” he said, his brow furrowing.  “Hold on, aren’t you the rebel-“

I spun towards him, my hand flashing out.  The knife blade extending from my fist buried itself to the hilt in his neck, silencing him forever.

But now, my cover was blown.  The man’s body sagged, his eyes already glazing over.  I pulled the bloody knife free, but the man was dead weight, and he sagged down onto the ground.  Already, blood spurted out from his body to puddle beneath him.

As soon as I’d released him, I broke into a run.  I was scarcely thirty paces from the front doors of the tower.  I could make it.

Thankfully, luck was on my side.  There were guards stationed outside the front doors of the Organization’s tower, of course, but their reactions were slowed, by some combination of the early hour and their surprise at a direct frontal assault by a lone man.  My knife cut deep across the left guard’s throat before he could even draw his weapon.

The right guard was drawing his gun, but I didn’t slow down.  I spun around, pulling my arm back in against my chest to increase my speed, and let go of the knife with my hand tilted sideways.

The blade flew true, disappearing into the other man’s chest.

I got to see the man’s eyes go wide as he tried to sluggishly comprehend what had just happened.  He looked down, down at the handle protruding out from his chest.  He opened his mouth, trying to say something, or maybe ask me a question.

I reached out and grabbed the handle of the knife, pulling it free.

It was as if I’d flipped a switch.  With the blade out of his chest, the other guard slowly toppled forward, falling to the ground like a felled tree.

I didn’t watch him drop.

My eyes were up, on the doors leading into the tower.  I didn’t see any panicked movement inside, not yet.

That would soon change.

The time for subtlety was over.  I drew one of my revolvers, wiped my knife blade clean of the blood and tucked it away.  I took a deep breath, several breaths, filling my muscles with oxygen.

And then I entered the tower.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 23

Continued from Part 22, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

When I arrived in the Iron Range, finally reaching my destination, obtaining the supplies I needed proved to be surprisingly easy.

Gunpowder and dynamite both were in no short supply, and in these areas, a little extra money could ensure no questions about the purchase.  I still made certain to buy from several different vendors, not allowing any of them to know the true amounts of explosive I obtained, but the extra caution didn’t seem necessary.

Some of the detonators and other equipment proved harder, if only slightly.  I needed some specific equipment for delayed reaction, and that meant clockwork.  I had many talents, but figuring out how to re-jigger a little bit of clockwork for a new purpose wasn’t one of them.  I was instead forced to rely upon visits at night to little old men with a shop full of tiny tools, paying in cash and hoping that I could afford their silence.

It took a while, but eventually I had all the parts.  It was a series of heart-pounding trips to get them all assembled and properly stored, ready to travel, but eventually I had it all complete.  Everything on my shopping list had been crossed off.

And then I once again climbed aboard a train.

This time, it was easier to move without attracting too much notice.  I still made sure to take every possible precaution, but the Organization was looking for a man and a young woman, traveling together.

I no longer fit that description.

A week later, after several back-tracking trips (like I said, it never hurt to be cautious), I arrived at my destination.  As soon as I climbed off of the train onto the platform, I felt the bustle of Philadelphia hit me like an ocean wave.

The city!  For so long, now, I had been out of the urban environment.  For a moment, I felt overwhelmed as I stared around at the thousands of people, all rushing off on their own errands.  I felt like a million eyes were on me, too many to track.

I took a deep breath, using those techniques I’d learned so long ago to force down the fear, the emotion.  I carefully threw away each emotion, pushing it down and out until only determination and an inner void remained.

And then I retrieved my precious trunk, filled with its explosive cargo, and headed into the city.

I got a cheap room, but it wouldn’t matter much.  I had many trips to make, and I wasn’t planning on returning to pay my bill at the room afterward.  I just needed a place of safety, somewhere I could duck back to between trips.

It took three days to put everything into place.

The whole time, I felt uncomfortably aware of those eyes on me, watching.  I had done my best to alter my description to make sure I no longer looked like the Jasper that the Organization knew and remembered.  My long beard itched, and I’d lost weight in some places and gained it in others.  I had long since discarded my black coat for prospector’s brown, and my flat-brimmed hat had been replaced with a shapeless lump of leather.  It shaded my eyes, but it was anything but fashionable.

I didn’t care about my looks.  The bulky brown coat hid the two revolvers – mine and Danni’s – that I carried beneath it.  The hat kept the sun out of my eyes as I prowled through the streets of Philadelphia, and helped to keep me from looking up.

Whenever my gaze did wander upwards, however, I couldn’t help but hiss and suck in my lips against my teeth.  There it stood, a black tower, rising up into the sky like a middle finger raised against the Lord.

The tower of the Organization.

Inside, I knew, were files, desks, records, and more.  An armory with weapons for the Priests inside.  A vault, built into the basement, containing the most secure information.  The building was an armored bastion against the forces of chaos in the world, a heavy hand of order on this new and growing nation.

My fingers itched as I stared up at the tower.  Unbidden, my mouth twisted into a scowl.

They had done this to me, had put me up against Danni, and then wrenched her away.  I didn’t waste any time grieving.

Not when there was work to be done.

After those three days, after I’d carefully slid the last little brown oilskin-wrapped package into place, I spent one last night in the hotel room, sitting with my legs crossed on the floor.  I had taken apart both revolvers – I’d pulled Danni’s from the wreckage, had carefully rebuilt and restored it – and put them back together, fully oiled and gleaming.  I’d checked every bullet on both belts that crossed my chest.

I knew that I wouldn’t get any sleep tonight.

Instead, I passed the long night’s vigil, staring at the bed in front of me and letting my mind go blank.  I embraced that blankness, the void.

It would serve me well tomorrow, until I could do no more.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 22

Continued from Part 21, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

For just a moment, as the air turned to fire around me and violently threw me back, all I saw was blinding light.

An instant later, I hit the ground, the violent blow knocking the air from my lungs and splaying out my limbs.  My brain was already racing, however, and I scrabbled like a spider to get up.

Once back on my feet, however, my hand dropped away from my side, away from where it had rested on the butt of my revolver.

There was nothing left for me to fight.
All around me, little charred unidentifiable scraps rained down.  Of any other living soul, Danni or the old man, there was no sign.

The house that had stood before me only seconds previously was gone.  Only a few charred beams remained, canted at crazy angles, blown out by the force of the blast.  Most of the cabin was little more than rubble.

I shook my head, my brain not yet comprehending.  I was still in fight or flight mode, not able to reason or think logically.  I ran forward, ignoring the heat radiating up even through my boots or the little guttering flames that curled up around my footprints.

A half dozen steps closer to the house, I heard a groan off to one side.  This time, my gun did come sliding out of its holster, but as soon as my eyes fell upon the man, I knew that it wouldn’t be needed.

He lay up against a tree – what remained of him, at least.  Ash already fell across him and hid the full extent of his injury, but where his legs should have been, only a dark stain persisted.  He coughed, however, and I saw his eyes flicker sluggishly.

I stepped forward, my gun coming up beneath his chin.  “What happened?” I demanded, trembling with energy coursing through me.

He coughed again, and I saw the little dribble of red from one corner of his lips.  “She’s smart,” he rasped, his voice unsteady.

“What did she do?”

He just shook his head.  I could see his energy ebbing quickly.  “Didn’t know that she could draw that fast,” he wheezed.  “Should’ve hit her first before trying.”

But then, the man’s lips quirked up into a smile, revealing bloodstained teeth.  “But she didn’t know ’bout the gunpowder behind me,” he spat with vicious enjoyment.

My eyes tracked down the man’s chest.  Sure enough, I could see the hole where Danni’s bullet punched in through his ribs, clear even despite the other damage of the explosion.  Glancing past the man, I realized that the tree against which he lay was likely the only thing still holding him together.

I stood back up, looking down at the man for a moment longer.  He let his head sag back to look up at me, still grinning and showing the red droplets staining his lips and teeth.  “Can’t get away, Priest,” he hissed.  “Can’t ever get away from us.”

I didn’t respond.  But my leg swung around in scything kick, knocking what remained of the monster in front of me sideways.  He hit the ground with a grunt of pain as his shattered spine tore away from the tree, but I was already turning away, towards the house.

*

The man in black paused here, and with a start, Jenny realized that the storyteller was shaking in his seat.

She didn’t even think.  She leaned forward and threw her arms around the man in black, pulling him in up against her.  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she whispered in his ear as she hugged him fiercely.  At the corners of her eyes, Jenny could feel tears of her own welling up.

For several seconds, she hugged the man, feeling him shiver.  Beside both of them, Old Hillpaw looked more awkward than ever, although even he reached out and uncomfortably patted the man in black on the back.  “Sorry,” he murmured as well, knowing that the words brought no comfort.

A good minute passed before the man in black was finally able to suck in a shuddering breath and speak once again.  “I can go on,” he finally said, reaching out blindly for his sheaf of typewritten pages.

“It’s okay.”  Jenny surprised even herself with the strength of her voice.  She let go of the man in black, but kept her hands on his upper arms, trying to somehow draw off and lessen his grief.  “You don’t have to keep going.”

But the man in black, even through the little drops of liquid shimmering on his cheek, managed to look determined.  “Yes, I do,” he stated, with gentle finality.

Old Hillpaw touched Jenny on the shoulder.  “It’s good for him to finish, to get it out,” he suggested.

Reluctantly, Jenny let go of the man.  But she looked more watchful now, like a mother anxious about her young offspring playing outside for the first time.  For the first time he could remember, Old Hillpaw didn’t think of her as childishly young, as he watched her expression set itself.

The man in black picked up his notes once again, although he had to set them down once or twice and wipe his eyes clear so that he could read the carefully typed words.  He opened his mouth, but the words didn’t come, even after several attempts.

Finally, Old Hillpaw decided to give their speaker a break.  “Maybe jump ahead to the next chapter,” he offered with uncharacteristic kindness.

Their storyteller didn’t argue.  He shuffled through the papers, setting the rest of that chapter aside.  Neither Jenny nor Old Hillpaw had any inclination to pick it up and read the rest for themselves.  Whatever tragedy lay in those pages could remain unseen.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 21

Continued from Part 20, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

The next morning, both Jenny and Old Hillpaw kept their eyes glued to the door.  Each time it opened, they both turned and looked, wondering if the man in black was even going to show up and finish his story.

A little later that morning, however, the man in black came in, making no fuss and heading over to his usual table.  Both the waitress and the old man at the bar managed to hold back for several seconds before they headed over.

The man in black nodded at both Jenny and Hillpaw as they settled into the other two chairs at the table.  He showed no surprise at their curiosity, but merely waited for them to settle into their seats.

“Now, where was I,” he said, once both Jenny and Old Hillpaw were listening.

Old Hillpaw held his tongue for a moment, remembering how the story had been about to get worse, but Jenny immediately spoke up.  “You were heading up towards the Dakota territories,” she volunteered.

The man in black nodded again.  “Ah, yes,” he agreed, shuffling through his papers.  “We were almost to the Iron Range of Minnesota, and we were starting to think that we had lost the Organization’s agents behind us…”

*

We were still traveling slowly, Danni and I, but with each day that we headed north, our confidence grew.  It had now been over a week since someone had last attempted to kill or capture us.

I had to admire Danni’s courage and resolution.  Over half a dozen crackling campfires, she shared her story, explaining how she grew up with nothing, how she set her sights on obtaining more than she knew she’d receive in her life.

I mostly felt impressed as I listened to her story, but a small part of me, my beaten-down and half-extinguished morality, recoiled in horror.  This was what we pushed for in our society?  This is the status quo that the Organization fought to preserve?  We kept an entire class forced down, denigrated to second-class citizens at best, forced to toil in poverty for the entirety of their short, sad lives?

With each night we spent talking, my respect for Danni grew stronger, and my anger against the Organization and its ilk grew hotter and more furious.

Yet whenever I felt myself withdrawing, growing cold with anger against the wider world, Danni somehow sensed my innermost thoughts.  “Jasper, it’s going to be all right,” she soothed me, one of her hands straying gently along the length of my arm.

I shook my head.  “You broke out, but you haven’t seen what I have,” I responded, not meeting her gaze.  “Trust me, you don’t know how bad things can get.”

“So what, you’re going to solve all those problems at the end of your gun?” Danni responded, rolling her eyes – but not taking away her hand from where it rested against me.  “I’m sure that will fix everything.”

If she had been anyone else, I would have snapped back at her.  But with Danni, I held my tongue, and after a moment, she moved closer to me so that she could lean up against my side.  I lifted my arm to rest it around her shoulders, and we sat and watched the fire burn down to glowing embers.

The next morning, as we walked along the North Dakota road, I caught a rumbling in the distance.  The road we trudged along was little more than a dirt trail, but I could see a pillar of dust rising up from the approaching newcomer.

Our coats, heavier to protect against the chill of the fall air, were bulky and made it difficult to maneuver.  Still, I drew my revolver as we stepped off to the side of the road, Danni sliding back behind me.

The rumbling noise resolved itself into a man, most of his face covered with a huge, bushy beard, sitting on top of a wooden horse-pulled cart.  He eased off on the reins as he approached, and the cart slowed as his horse dropped to a walk.

“Well, howdy!” he greeted us with a smile, pretending not to notice the gun in my hand.  “Yew folks look like yew could use a ride!”

My eyes ran over him.  Stout, probably in his fifties, apparently unarmed.  Deep wrinkles in his face turned up when he smiled, as he did now.  “We sure could,” I agreed, making a decision.  “Mind carrying us on a bit?”

The man’s smile deepened.  “Well, sure, but I could offer yew more than that, if you’re interested,” he said, as we hopped up into the back of the open cart behind him.  “I’m headed back towards my house, down this road a ways.  If yew need a warm, comfy place to spend the night, I’m always up for some company!”

I hesitated.  The man looked friendly enough, but a lifetime of instincts screamed not to trust anyone.
I glanced over at Danni, however, and my heart softened.  She could use a night someplace warm, someplace indoors instead of out in a bedroll at a makeshift campsite.

“We’d be thrilled,” I answered the man.

For the next few hours, as the cart trundled on, I chatted with the man, although I knew enough to let him do most of the talking.  He prattled on about the cold winters, how hard it was to survive up here, how he always “kept his nose pressed to the ground” for opportunities.  I nodded but said little.

A glance behind me revealed that Danni was sprawled out in the back, her head resting on her pack, her mouth open slightly as she slowly breathed in and out.  I couldn’t help smiling at her innocent slumber.

With the sun halfway down in its descent from the top of the sky, we arrived at the man’s house, a small but sturdy looking cabin.  The horse eased the cart to a stop, and I hopped back to wake up Danni and help her down.  “C’mon in when yew two are ready,” the man commented, and ducked inside.

Once awake, Danni waved away my offer of help climbing down from the cart.  “Here, I’ll go inside,” she said, grabbing the two packs.  “I can see that you need to stretch, after sitting up on that cart all day.  Take your time!”

I protested, but she wouldn’t hear it.  “Go on, walk around, make sure we’re safe,” she insisted, pushing me away before heading for the house.

I thought about ignoring her command, not wanting her out of my sight.  But she was right; I had been sitting on the cart for far too long, and my cramped muscles cried out for a stretch.  I strolled down the road a little ways, gazing out across the empty fields as I let my sore legs recover.

A hundred feet out, I suddenly paused.

Wait a minute.  Why were the fields empty?

I turned around again, looking back at the little cabin.  I now noticed that there were no other outbuildings around.  Where would the man’s horse stay?  There was no barn for it.

An alarm began wailing in my head, and I started back towards the house at a trot. Something was wrong.

Three steps closer, my ears caught the faint sound of a scream, coming from the throat of a terrified young woman, and my trot turned into a flat-out sprint.  My muscles screamed, but I ignored them, fumbling at my hip for my gun.

And then, fifty feet from the front door, I saw the house flash with red and orange, and a giant’s fist slammed into my chest and threw me backwards.

To be continued . . . (we’re getting towards the end, I promise!)

Danni California, Part 20

Continued from Part 19, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

The first step in my plan, as I explained to Danni on our first night back in civilization since the train crash, was getting our hands on supplies.

“We can’t just go around buying up everything and showing our faces,” I explained as I rubbed stable dirt into the creases on my face, checking my reflection in the silvered glass piece in the hotel room.  “We have to assume that the Organization knows that I’m with you, and they’ll be watching for either of us – or, even worse, both of us together.”

The hotel that we had chosen was slightly nicer than the average, and I’d circled carefully through the town streets before I decided that it was acceptable.  The building was tall but didn’t stand next to any comparable adjacent structures, preventing infiltration.  The manager and staff were paid well enough to ensure the privacy of their visitors, but not so well that they wouldn’t accept a bribe to make sure they kept their mouths shut.

Against the Priests, however, I didn’t know how much good that bribe would do.  When a man’s got a gun to his head and he can feel the last few seconds of his life trickling away, money tends to not matter too much to him any longer.
Even as I explained our first steps, however, Danni didn’t seem thrilled.  She was even less enthused when I told her what she’d have to change about her appearance.

“I can’t do it!” she cried, both of her hands flying up to try and protect her gorgeous locks of burning red-orange hair.  “It’s who I am!”

“Be reasonable, Danni,” I commanded, still holding the knife in one hand.  “Either you cut it, or you dye it.  Preferably both.  It can always grow back out and return to its normal color.”

Finally, the young woman let me trim and dye her precious locks.  “I would almost rather just have a shootout and put an end to all of this,” she complained as she watched the little strands of hair fall down the floor around her chair.  “At least then I’d get to plug a few of these bastards before I go.”

“No offense,” she added a moment later, turning to glance back up at me.

“None taken,” I replied, smiling back a little at her earnestness and concern about offending me.  I couldn’t remember the last time that someone had worried about hurting my feelings – at least, not out of anything but fear or self-preservation.

A few minutes later, and my rough haircut was done.  Experimentally, Danni reached up and felt her new, shorter hair.  “At least it will be easier to keep out of the way,” she remarked, although I knew she was trying to make herself feel better.

I put the knife away and sat down on the hotel room’s single bed.  “I have something that might cheer you up,” I suggested.

She glanced over at me.  “Yeah?  I kind of doubt it, but give it a shot.”

So I laid out the rest of my half-formed plan.

By the time that I finished, Danni was no longer frowning.  Instead, a slow, deliberate grin had spread across her face and her eyes sparkled with anticipation.  “Wow,” she breathed out.  “That’s even more bloodthirsty than anything I’d imagined, Priest.”

“Not any longer,” I replied to her.  “It’s just Jasper, now.  I think I’m done with the Priests for good.”

“That’s good – I approve,” Danni commented, standing up and stepping over to stand beside the bed.  She leaned forward on top of me, letting her hips push back a little and accentuating her figure.  “I’m not sure the long black coat suits you.”

“Really?  I kind of liked it.”

Danni shook her head.  “I think it’s time for you to try something new,” she murmured to me.  “Why don’t you try taking it off?”

A few minutes later, she made several soft sounds of approval as the coat settled into a crumpled pile on the floor.

And soon after that, the coat was covered up by other garments, falling softly to the floor as we discarded them.

*

The next morning, as the sun climbed higher in the sky, we were headed out of town, our new horses now loaded up with fresh supplies.

“Our first destination is up north,” I had told Danni the night before, as her fingers traced soft circles across my bare chest.

She sat up a little as she gazed down at me, propping herself up on her elbows.  Even darkened and cut short, her hair still hung around her pretty face like a halo, making her seem alive and full of motion.  “What, up near Minnesota and the Dakota territories?  Why would we want to go up there?”

“I know a man up there,” I replied, my finger slowly sliding down the curve of her spine.  “Runs a mining company, working on the Iron Range.  He’s going to have some of the supplies that we need – and he’s the only option I can imagine for what we’re considering.”

Danni nodded, turning and leaning back so that she could gaze up at the wooden ceiling over us.  Her head nestled into the crook of my arm, fitting comfortably.  I liked the feel of her warm body pressed up against mine.  “God, this plan is crazy, isn’t it?” she said after a minute.

“It is,” I agreed.  “But, honestly, I don’t see much of another option.”

For a long time, Danni was silent.  I was starting to think that she might have fallen asleep, when suddenly she nodded.  “Well, no looking back,” she said, the words barely above a whisper.  “Let’s do it.”

Our next couple of weeks were largely uneventful, although they definitely took all the energy we had.  We’d be up each morning with the sun, pushing the horses as much as we dared as we headed north.  We did our best to stick to smaller roads and trails, trying to avoid the main thoroughfares as much as possible.  There was no way of knowing where the Organization would position its spies, but we did our best to be as invisible as we could.

We still had to stop every now and then for supplies, and we’d often take the chance to trade in the horses.  No point in getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere if a horse threw a shoe.  When we dared to venture into larger towns, I put out a few feelers to see whether the Priests were after us.

After the third attempted ambush, I started to realize just how deep in the mud hole we’d sunk.

“They mean to make an example out of you two,” one of my contacts told me in hushed tones over a beer at the back of the little town’s saloon.  His gnarled hands trembled a little as he lifted his drink.  “They’ve started to hear more murmurs of dissent, and Management is cracking down hard.  They’re throwing everything up against you two, now.”

My contact pointed at me.  “‘Specially you,” he reiterated.  “Deserting the Priests?  Jasper, no one leaves the Priests.  Not with their heart still beating, at least.”

“Well, I did,” I replied, tossing a few coins onto the table for the beer.  “Thanks, Doc.  I’ll be seeing you.”

“I hope so,” the man murmured as Danni and I left.

After that conversation, Danni and I began moving a little slower as we tried to take even more precautions.

Still, even with our slowed pace, we made progress.  We decided to swing around, cut through the Dakota territories instead of risking going straight north through St. Paul.  The Minnesota capital was on the Mississippi’s head, a prime location for outsiders to hop on and off the barges that traversed the wide river.  We’d attract less attention, we figured, if we headed north through the Badlands and then cut east.

*

The man in black sighed, leaning back from the table and shrugging his shoulders to stretch out the sore muscles.  “I think that’s a good place to take a break,” he commented to his audience.

Jenny, perched on the edge of her seat, blinked with surprise.  “What?  But we’re getting to the good part!  I want to know what your plan was!” she cried out in dismay.

Old Hillpaw held his tongue.  He wasn’t sure, but he thought he caught the slightest hint of a quiver in the man in black’s voice.  Something was coming, he sensed.

The man in black shook his head.  “Sorry, hon, but we’re not getting to the good part,” he said to Jenny with surprising gentleness.  “In fact, I’d say we’re getting to the bad part.”

The young waitress just stared back at the man in black, her mouth hanging open in a little O.  “The bad part?” she repeated.

“This story doesn’t have a happy ending, I’m guessing,” Old Hillpaw commented.

The man in black glanced at him.  “It has an ending,” he said.  “How you feel about that ending, though, I’ve no way of knowing.”

He stood up, reaching up into the air and stretching.  “But it’s getting late,” he pointed out, glancing out at the setting sun through the bar’s grimy windows.  “I think the rest of this story will have to wait for tomorrow, if you’re still willing to hear the rest.”

Jenny nodded immediately, jumping up to her feet.  “I’ll be here,” she promised.

The man in black glanced at Hillpaw, and the old man was astonished to see a little hint of hope in those dark eyes.  “I’ll be here too,” he gruffly gave in.  “Not like i’ve got much else, anyway.”

That little glint of hope, of concern that Hillpaw might say no, was gone as fast as it had appeared, but the older man knew what he had seen.  “Until tomorrow,” the man in black concluded, gathering up his typewritten pages.

“Until tomorrow,” Hillpaw and Jenny echoed after him.

To be continued (still) . . . 

Danni California, Part 19

Continued from Part 18, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

At the latest revelation from the man in black, Jenny let out a gasp, her eyes going wide and looking as though she was about to topple off her chair.

“You shot another Priest?” she exclaimed, her voice loud enough to make another couple patrons glance around.

Old Hillpaw, perhaps possessing a bit more self-preservation instinct than the young waitress, hurriedly shushed the woman.  “Keep your voice down, girl!” he hissed.  “That kind of talk still gets folks into hot water!”

But this time, Jenny didn’t yield to her elder.  “But I thought the whole Organization blew up a decade ago!” she retorted, the words half questioning and half argumentative.

The girl glanced at the man in black for an answer, but Hillpaw was the one who replied.  “That may be, but lots of folks still walk around in long black coats,” he said, his eyes tersely scanning the interior of the bar.  “Some of them might be priests, some might not, but that name still holds power, and shouldn’t be used lightly.”

When Hillpaw’s eyes returned back to the storyteller at their table, he was surprised to see the man in black chuckling.  “Young lady, if you thought that one dead Priest was a surprise, you’ll have your jaw on the floor by the end of this story,” he commented, tossing back the rest of his drink.

Only once the glass was full again, Jenny scooting back into her seat after doing her duty as waitress, did the man in black look up at his audience.  “Anyway.  Where was I…”

*

We didn’t have much choice but to make a run for it.

Of course, that Priest hadn’t been working alone.  Too much to hope for, really.  The next one ambushed us as we hiked up from the little shack, back towards the rail line – or, at least, that was his intention.  If it wasn’t for the errant flap of a black coattail in the breeze, we might not have spotted him before he could draw on us.

Fortunately, the hired man holding the Priests’ horses was more than happy to surrender the animals once he learned that their previous owners were dead.  Our drawn weapons didn’t slow his decision any, either.

I still felt slightly weak as I hauled myself up into the saddle, but I wasn’t about to let Danni outperform me.  The girl’s face was drawn and pale, clearly affected by fear, but she showed none of that emotion in her actions.

“What now?” she asked, above the clatter of the horses’ hooves.

I shook my head to get my thoughts moving.  “We need to get supplies,” I shouted back, trying to corral my thoughts together.  “We can’t hide out without supplies – and we need to get our hands on cash if we want supplies without drawing more attention to ourselves.”

At that, the girl suddenly flashed me a devious little grin.  “Money’s not a problem,” she replied, reaching down and tugging open the knapsack she had carried up from the little shack down by the crash site.  Inside, I caught a flash of green bills.

“You pulled it off the train,” I guessed.

Her smile grew another inch.  “I always carry some on me, just in case I need to make a quick escape,” she retorted.  “I had it with me when I jumped.  Glad to hear it will come in handy!”

I didn’t say anything back to the girl, but my opinion of her, already deep and tangled, grew a little brighter.

Still, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help casting my thoughts further ahead – and beyond our immediate future, our possibilities were bleak.

The Priests wouldn’t stop hunting us.  That was why they were so powerful – and so feared.  All their members were trained killers, and they didn’t stop.  Even if a target had been on the loose for years, Priests kept on searching for that person, kept on sending members to finish the job.

If the Priests were hunting us – and that indeed seemed to be the case – we would never be safe.

As we rode across the dusty plain, however, two thoughts crept into my head, both of them unexpected and unsettling.

Somehow, in the last forty-eight hours or so, I had switched from thinking of Danni as my opponent, to thinking of her as my ally.  Even now, I suspected that, if I drew my gun and put a hole in the chest of the young woman riding just ahead of me, I’d be able to return to the Organization.  I might face demotion, but I’d be off the hit list.

So why couldn’t I kill her?

I didn’t have an answer to that question.  Instead, I turned my attention to my second thought.  This one was not a question, but a suggestion, the vaguest and haziest inkling of a plan.

It was wild, crazy, almost certainly impossible.

But, try as I might, I could think of nothing else – and the idea didn’t fade away…

To be continued . . .