Danni California, Part 18

Continued from Part 17, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

When I next awoke, I was able to sit up, groggily lifting up my hand to press it against my forehead.  My eyes scanned around and I saw that I was still in the same room, still sprawled out across the same rough bunk, as where I last remembered being, just as Danni…

Danni had kissed me!  My mind seized onto that fact, clung to it like a drowning sailor clings to a spar of wood.  There were a million other thoughts circling around the periphery of that fact, a million ways to interpret it, but I didn’t let them emerge from the shadows.

Looking around, my eyes caught a flash of red-orange hair.  There she was!  But as I turned towards her, I immediately saw that something was wrong.

Danni was crouched down by the closed door leading out of the shack.  Now that I could sit up and look around, I saw that we were in a single-room cabin, shoddily constructed and with stars visible through the cracks in the wooden boards.  Aside from the bed on which I lay and a small, uneven table, there was no other furniture inside the shack.  The roof looked to be made of tin boards, more rusted than bolted together.

My eyes, after making this quick circuit of our location, returned to Danni.  Such was the extent of my grogginess that it wasn’t until my second glance at her that I realized that, in her hand, she held my revolver.

“Danni,” I whispered, and the girl practically leapt a foot into the air.

She moved quickly, rushing over to my side, one hand rising up to press briefly against my lips before she withdrew it.  My eyes went to hers, and I saw fear reflected back at me.

“I think there’s someone outside,” she whispered to me, her voice barely audible.  “Jasper, I’m scared.”

Before I could respond, I heard the snap of a twig echoing in the silence outside.

Praying that my muscles would respond, I forced myself up from the bed.  I could feel soreness and stiffness in my limbs still, but my arms and legs moved as my mind commanded, and I sat up on the bed.  I slid forward, down onto my knees on the floor beside Danni.  My hand reached out to her, and she handed me my pistol.

There was definitely someone outside.  As I scanned around, straining to see through the cracks in between the boards of our ramshackle shelter, I caught a flash of movement.  By the time I had the gun up and pointed, though, I didn’t know if the intruder outside was still there.

As soon as I pulled the trigger, I would lose the element of surprise.  I only had one shot.

Next to me, I felt Danni lean in close, her eyes wide as she looked around.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from scanning the cracks, but for a moment my concentration was broken as the young woman put her arms around me.

I knew that I just had to be patient.  The person outside was cautious, patient, but they didn’t know that I was inside and waiting for them.  I took a deep breath, following my training.

There!  Even before the thought had crystallized fully in my mind, the gun was up, my finger tightening on the trigger.  The revolver cracked as a heavy slug punched out, straight through one of the boards in the shack’s wall.

And a second later, we both caught the thud of a body hitting the ground outside.

Danni leapt to her feet, but I reached out, catching her wrist.  When she looked down at me, I held up two fingers.  There could be another person out there, a partner.  She reluctantly sat back down, and we sat in silence for ten more agonizing minutes, listening.

We heard nothing.  Finally, after I felt reasonably confident, I stood up, and we stepped outside.

The body wasn’t hard to find.  The man had been dressed in black, but his pistol was silver, glinting brightly even in the dim moonlight.

I used one foot to turn the body over, even though I knew what I would find.

The eyes of a Priest stared sightlessly up at the night sky as a dark stain spread outward from the hole punched in the center of his chest.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 17

I wonder how long this is going to end up being…

Continued from Part 16, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

When I next woke up, my first thought was a fervent wish that I had remained unconscious.

Everything was pain, almost blinding, sparks of red and white shooting across the blackness of my inner eyelids.  I couldn’t hold myself still, and immediately curled forward, wincing and gritting my teeth to keep from screaming.

Then I felt something cool and damp press against my forehead, and a soothing voice murmured words I couldn’t understand.

I opened my eyes.
At first, all I saw were blurred shapes, the world still hazy with pain.  I blinked a couple times, helped by that cool cloth still blotting against my forehead.  Slowly, those blurs resolved themselves somewhat into shifting strands of red hair, floating above me.

“I,” I began, my voice immediately cracking with disuse as I opened my mouth.

Before I could say anything more, a finger, soft and warm, pressed itself against my lips to hold them shut.  “Hush,” murmured another voice, soft and feminine and filled with caring.  “You don’t need to speak.  Just take it easy.”

The easy choice would be to let my eyes close once again, to drift back into the peaceful embrace of oblivion.  But I forced myself to blink, and slowly, the blurry shapes in front of me began to swim into focus.

Up above me were wooden boards, a roof of some sort.  I realized that I was horizontal, and it felt like I was lying on some hard bed.  Those red hairs floating in the air above me were connected to a girl crouching beside me, one of her hands still dabbing at my forehead with the blessedly cool cloth.

Although it sent pain coursing through my body with each fraction of a degree, I turned my head slightly to the side, looking at her.

Danni, her hair an orange halo around her face, smiled down at me.  “I’m glad you’re still alive, Priest,” she said to me, as her eyes flicked over me.  “I was fairly convinced you were dead for a while!”

“I might still be,” I responded, my voice still rough and raspy.  I found that, although the pain persisted, I could block out enough to start to pull together my shattered thoughts.  I tried to think back to how I had ended up here, but it was all nothing but shards in darkness.  “What happened?”

For a moment, a cloud passed across the girl’s face.  “The train was falling into the water beneath the bridge,” she said, “and you threw me clear of the cars.  I think you were going to jump after me, but-“

I remembered, a flash of panic and horror.  “There was another car, the one behind ours, that hit before I could jump,” I recalled.

Danni nodded.  “Yes.  I saw you get thrown clear, but you were limp, like a ragdoll.  I had to dive down to pull you out before we were both buried under the debris.”

I tried to raise my head to look around.  “Now where are we?” I asked, but as I tried to lift my chest, another wave of cutting, stabbing pain forced me back down, and I gritted my teeth as I panted and fought to remain conscious.

Next to me, the girl leaned forward, putting her other hand on my chest and pressing me gently down.  “Will you stop it?” she scolded, sounding almost motherly as she ran her hands over me.  “You need to relax, Priest!  We’re safe, that’s what matters, and you have to recover.  You were on Death’s doorstep, knocking, before I pulled you back.”

My eyes rose up to the girl, and a sudden flush crept through Danni’s cheeks.  “Not that I cared about you or anything, Priest,” she murmured faintly, reaching up to push a few strands of that bright red hair back behind an ear.

“Jasper,” I said quietly.

“What?”

“My name.  It’s not Priest.  It’s Jasper.”  A little chill passed through me.  I had never before told anyone, much less one of my targets, my real name.

But above me, Danni stared at me for a moment, and then smiled.  “Jasper,” she repeated, running her finger lightly down my cheek.  I could feel the heat of her skin soaking into mine.  “Well, Jasper, focus on resting.  Try to relax.”

I started to open my mouth to say something, but the girl leaned down to shush me.  This time, however, instead of pressing a finger against my mouth, she met me with her lips.

The kiss was as light as a feather, but warm as the sun’s spring rays.  As Danni pulled away, I wanted to say something, but I fell back into peaceful, shady oblivion before I could form the words.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 16

Continued from Part 15, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Most people, seeing the bridge ahead of their speeding train explode in a wave of fiery ignition, might have paused in shock, gasped, or wasted time on some other useless activity.

Those people weren’t trained Priests.

As soon as my eyes registered that burst of flame, I knew the train was going down.  I spun around, rising up from my seat as I shoved my gun roughly back into its holster and out of the way.  One arm shot out, wrapping into a fist around a handful of Danni’s shirt, and I hauled her up and out of the compartment.

A moment later, even despite the screeching of brakes as the train conductor frantically attempted to bring the massive vehicle to a halt, I felt us starting to tip.

The train was going over the edge.

Screams rang out from around the car as we started to tilt, obliquely pitching forward.  I did my best to stay on my feet as the train car shifted beneath my feet, and although I had to hold Danni up, she didn’t let out any noise.  When I shot a quick glance at her, I could see that her face was pale, but she wasn’t yet lost to panic.

Doing my best to stay in the middle of the pitching car, I hurried towards the rear of the car, the back door that led out.  “Come on,” I called to Danni, and she did her best to keep up with me.

But before we could reach that back door, the car suddenly gave a sickening lurch, and tilted until it was nearly straight vertical.

I felt my stomach clench.  We were dropping, in free fall off the track.

The drop only lasted a second or two, although it felt like longer to my adrenaline-fueled mind.  I kept one arm looped firmly around Danni as my other arm clenched onto one of the seats, holding up both of us as the car tumbled down towards the bottom of the bridge.

There had been water down there, I remembered, and a moment later we impacted with a combined splash and a screech of tearing, shearing metal.

Below us, I saw the front third of the train car immediately fold and crunch like an accordion, and several screaming passengers from that part of the car were immediately silenced.  As we hit the water, the car dropped back to somewhat near horizontal, and I didn’t waste time.  I stumbled forward, kicking out at the back door.

The door opened, thankfully, despite several deep kinks in the metal frame.  Turning back to Danni, I grabbed her with both hands and pulled her up to me.  The girl still didn’t look lost completely to panic, but I could see that her eyes were wide.

“Hope you can swim,” I said to her.  Before she could reply, I heaved her out of the train car, into the water rising up to swallow us.

I knew that more cars were still falling, and before I could leap from the drowning train myself, another car impacted next to us with a massive splash, knocking the floor beneath me askew.  I did my best to stay on my feet, but I felt myself slip as I pitched forward.

As I tumbled out of the train car after Danni, I saw the metal edge of the rear platform rushing up to meet my head.

A moment later, everything went black.

To be continued . . .

Danni California, Part 15

Continued from Part 14, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Jenny still didn’t look fully convinced, but the young woman knew her place.  She closed her mouth, and although the man in black could tell that she was still full of unasked questions, she chose to let him continue with his story.

So, after giving her one last second to expel any outbursts, the man began speaking again.

*

I slid into the luxury car compartment across from Danni, making sure that she saw my pistol drawn and pressed against my thigh.  “One wrong move, and I’ll shoot you before you can even think of standing up,” I warned her.

The girl barely spared the gun a glance.  “I’m sure, Priest,” she replied back to me, tossing her hair back over her shoulder.  She was the picture of carefree.

I waited perhaps a second longer, and then opened my mouth again.  “What do you have to say?” I asked.

Danni pursed her lips for a minute before replying.  “It just seems a bit cliche, doesn’t it?” she finally remarked.  “I mean, I’m out here running around, living life, and you’re the plodding hunter, sent here to chase after me and put an end to my fun.”

“Fun?  You’re stealing people’s livelihoods!” I exploded back, surprising even myself with the intensity of my reply.  “Don’t you think this is the punishment you deserve?”

But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, the girl was leaning forward, her eyes alive with blazing fire.  “I’m not stealing from anyone who doesn’t have enough to give it up!” she shot back, glaring at me.  “The bank replaces all the money – and besides, if we all weren’t dirt poor, I wouldn’t be bothering with theft in the first place!”

“We?” I repeated.

Danni waved an arm around her.  “What, you don’t think I’m hauling all my ill-gotten gains around with me, do you?” she asked, her tone making this remark seem cuttingly obvious.  “Where do you think it all goes?”

To my surprise, it was a question I hadn’t considered.  And as I tried to figure out the answer, feeling my brain squirm as it was forced down new and unexpected pathways, Danni leaned forward.  She reached out, and I jumped slightly as her fingers landed on my knees.  My gun was still resting along one thigh, but she ignored it completely.  Her eyes burned holes straight through mine, into my soul.

“There are people, thousands of people, starving and dying out there,” she murmured to me, her eyes not blinking or pulling away.  “There’s no one helping them.  No one except me.”

For a long moment, I was paralyzed.  I could do nothing but gaze into the bright, burning eyes of this young woman in front of me.

Finally, one of her hairs shifted a little, crossing her gaze, and the moment broke.  “That may be,” I retorted, staring back at her, “but this isn’t the way to help them.  You’re going to get caught, and they’ll be right back where they started.”

The girl didn’t back down.  “Caught by you?  Because this doesn’t seem so bad.”

I shook my head.  “After I missed, that first time, the Company sent others after you,” I told her.  “They’re probably hunting you, right now – I doubt they’re far behind me.”

“And what would they do?  Storm the train?” the girl asked.  Fortunately, she didn’t ignore the serious tone of my voice, and she glanced around.

Once again, I shook my head back and forth.  “Trust me – I’m selective compared to some of their methods.  They’re not above dynamiting the entire track, not caring about collateral damage.”

Leaning forward, I glanced out the window of the train car.  “There – see that bridge, up ahead?  A few sticks of dynamite at the base of that, and the whole train would go tumbling into the river below.  A few hundred deaths, but you’re the only death that matters.  That’s a likely choice.”

I caught Danni starting to open her mouth to reply, but before she could speak, a flash of orange lanced into my sight.

And just ahead of the train, that bridge I had pointed out was now disintegrating in a roar of flame…

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 14

Continued from Part 13, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

With my gun in my hand, turned slightly at an angle to present less of a target, I stepped into the luxury car of the train.

I had seen the flash of red hair through the window before I entered, and my senses were on high alert.  The high seats here obstructed my view, making it impossible to see where Danni had gone, but I knew that she had to be here somewhere.  My instincts were screaming at me, warning me to be ready.

Beneath my feet, I could feel the rhythmic rattle of the train as it rolled over the tracks, the whole car shaking slightly side to side.  I had to be aware of that motion, of how it could potentially throw off my aim.  I needed to sense it, to let the motion into me so that I could compensate for it when I took the shot.

I slowly moved up the aisle, my eyes darting back and forth between the slowly revealed seating areas on either side of me.  I made sure that the gun in my hand was hidden inside my open jacket.  I didn’t want to cause any more chaos than was necessary.

My eyes rolled over the people sitting in these seats.  The luxury car was sparsely populated, but there were a few wealthy guests on board, most of them gazing blankly out the windows or down at newspapers.  Few of them spared even a glimpse up at the man skulking past their seating areas.

And then, as I advanced to the next compartment, I saw her.

I first saw the flash of red, nothing else.  It was enough to set me off, however, and I started to bring the gun up, pointing it into the compartment.  Both my hands clamped down on the grips of my gun, and I clicked the hammer back on the revolver.

Danni glanced up at me, her eyes flashing with amusement.  “Hello, Priest,” she said, her voice absent of any concern.  “Put the gun away for now, would you?  Take a seat.”

And so I did.

*

The man in black paused his story, leaning back in his seat and surveying the faces of his audience.  Old Hillpaw’s wrinkled, grizzled face didn’t reveal any of his thoughts, but Jenny’s mouth was hanging open in an O of surprise.

“Wait a minute – I thought you were going to shoot her!” the young waitress exclaimed.  “You had your gun out and everything!”

The man in black nodded.  “I thought that I was going to, as well,” he said, glancing down at his lap for a moment.  “But when she saw me, when her eyes met mine, I just felt myself go, well, blank.  She gave me a command, and I couldn’t even think.  I just did it because I didn’t know what other choice to make.”

The young waitress was still shaking her head, clearly not understanding.  In Old Hillpaw’s eyes, however, the man in black saw a look of understanding.  The older man didn’t speak, but it was clear that he knew exactly how the man in black had felt.

“I still had my gun,” the man in black said to Jenny, trying to justify his mystifying actions.  “I could have shot her at any time.  I knew that here, on the train, she couldn’t get away.

“So why not wait and see what she had to say?”

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 13

Continued from Part 12, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

I didn’t even bother to call this sighting of Danni in to the Organization.  I had too many other thoughts, too many other conflicting questions in my head to deal with first.

I couldn’t deny to myself that now I was obsessed.  There were others out there, after Danni, but I had to get to her first.  I was going to beat the rest of them out, no matter how much of me it took.

“But why?” asked the little voice in the back of my head, still slinking around at the periphery of my mind.  “Are you looking for her to kill her?  You’ve failed at that twice already.  And if you want her dead, why does it matter whether the bullet comes from your gun or from another’s?”

I didn’t have answers to those questions.  But I was still determined, driven despite not knowing why I was so motivated.

Now, although the girl was in the wind once again, I had a better idea of where she might be headed.  Since I had caught her, Danni had to know that the other hunters, ones who might just take a shot from afar, couldn’t be far behind.  She would be headed out of town as soon as possible.

Ordinarily, she’d probably take a car.  But that was how I had tracked her last time – and the girl was young enough, devious enough, to mix things up, to take a different approach.

Boulder City was the perfect place for her to do so.  The railroad, only recently completed, ran right through the city.

But which train would she be on?  I stared up at the list of departures at the station, trying to think like a young bank robber, high on life and living large while she still drew breath, knowing that any minute now her life could end from a bullet.  Where would she go?

I doubted that she’d head too far north.  Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas – they would be great places to hide, but that wasn’t what Danni was after.

She didn’t want to hide, I knew.  She wanted to keep on living, keep on chasing danger so that she would feel that rush.

She also wouldn’t be going back, back towards where she had already been.  I was fairly certain that I could discount most of the trains headed back east.  Why would she return, when she had already left that world behind?

There was one train, however, that fit all the criteria.  It was headed west, towards California through the mountains.  It had a luxury car attached, and I knew that Danni would want to ride in the highest class.  And most importantly, it was leaving in mere minutes.

I broke into a run, headed for that track.

I barely made the train, leaping up and on board just before, with a puff of smoke and the screech of many tons of metal grinding into motion, the machine began to move.  I ducked inside, not bothering to watch as we pulled out of the station.

Once on board the train, I began slowly moving up through the cars, my eyes peering into every corner and one hand tucked inside my coat, resting on the butt of my pistol.  I didn’t want to draw the weapon out into the open, where it could scare the other passengers – but as soon as I saw Danni, I would have my gun drawn on her.

The luxury carriage, an elegant cabin coupled to a drinks car, was up near the front of the train.  I made it through most of the other cars without any sign of Danni.  But when I stepped up to the window on the door leading into the luxury carriage, I caught a flash of bright red on the other side.

There she was.

I took a deep breath, drew my pistol out of its holster, and then, gun at my side, I threw open the door and stepped into the train car…

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 12

Continued from Part 11, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

I stared up at the fiery-haired girl on the floor above me.  Danni’s gun aimed right at my face, and I knew that my time had run out.

“Sorry, but it’s you or me,” the girl repeated – and before I could even open my mouth, her finger tightened.  She pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked.


For a good second, longer than I’d admit to anyone, we both held there, frozen.  The gun had clicked over on the round – a misfire.

If I had moved right then, I could have moved back, maybe dodged the next shot.

If Danni pulled the trigger a second time, the next round in her .45 would have gone through my skull.

But neither of us moved.  We just held still, staring at each other in mutual disbelief.

It seemed to go on forever, but finally, the spell was broken.  I let go of Danni’s ankle and scrambled back, at the same time as she kicked her foot free and clambered up to her feet.  We were both back up on our feet, but thinking more of defense than attack.

Now up and standing, but still close enough to each other that either of us could reach out and touch the other, we stared at each other once again.  I could maybe try and tackle her, knock the gun out of her hands before she could get off a shot, my tactical training told me.  I knew that I had about a fifty-fifty shot of managing to avoid a bullet in someplace lethal.

But before I could move, Danni did.  She darted forward, pushing the gun up against my ribs as she leaned into me.

And before I could react, I felt the lightest brush of her lips against my face.

Before I could grab her, the girl danced back, pushing off of me and kicking me off balance as she darted backwards.  “Better luck next time, Priest!” she called after me, as she disappeared out of the hotel’s front door.

I could have lunged for my own gun, still lying on the floor.  I can reload my pistol in seconds while at a dead run.  By the time I was through the doors of the hotel and outside, my own weapon would be fully loaded and ready to bring the girl down.  She couldn’t outrun a bullet.

Instead, I stayed frozen, standing there amid the wreckage of the lobby.  Ever so slowly, one of my hands lifted up to touch where her lips had brushed against the corner of my mouth.

Finally, a thought managed to work its way through the haze and mist in my mind, yelling and shouting to make itself clear.

The Organization isn’t going to be happy about this, it whispered to me darkly.

It was true.  I needed to send back a telegraph with my report.  The Organization had given me a pass last time I failed to bring down the girl, but they wouldn’t accept two failures in a row.  This meant an Organization-wide bounty on the girl – and every Priest in the area would perk up and think about going after her.

If I wanted to redeem myself, I’d have to beat them all out and find the girl myself, before they could do the same.

As I slowly labored over to pick up my gun from the floor, still feeling a twinge of pain pierce up from my abdomen with each step, I felt my resolve harden.  I knew my skills, and I knew that I could find Danni first.

But a dark thought in my head perked up, uncoiling in my mind like a snake.  “But why are you so set on finding her first?” it asked me in a soft hiss.

To prove myself, to redeem myself, I told that intruding thought.  If I didn’t find Danni, I was likely to be demoted, if not fired.  And the Organization had very strong views on how it terminated its employees when they were no longer capable.

“Is that truly why you want to find her?” that dark thought in my head pressed.  “When you catch up to her again, will you be able to kill her?”

Or what?

The black snake hissed impatiently.  “Do you truly want to kill her?  Or are you searching for her so you can protect her?”

Protect her?  As if this girl had somehow completely shaken my core, my sense of who I was?  I shook with outrage at the suggestion.

Yet somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to answer that dark thought in my head.  Instead, I remained mute as it, satisfied, crawled back into the depths beneath my consciousness.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 11

Continued from Part 10, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

A month later, I caught up with Danni.

A girl with fiery red hair, a Southern twang in her voice, and far too much cash to throw around.  It wasn’t the easiest trail to follow, but Danni was certainly recognizable – and she didn’t bother to change her name, either.  Slowly but surely, I hunted after her as she fled west.

When I finally found her, she was just on the east side of the Rocky mountains, making her way through the mining towns.  Always with her big .45 cannon ready, of course – that detail stuck out even more strongly than anything else.  No matter what the big, strong man in front of you might say, he remembers staring down the barrel of that gun.
Unfortunately, word travels fast.  Even before I arrived at Boulder City, in the Colorado Territory, I was catching rumors that a Priest was in the area, hunting this bank robber.

Always weird to hear a rumor about yourself.  Like a goose walking over your grave.

So when I arrived, I didn’t waste time staking out the girl’s next targets.  There weren’t many places in Boulder City to stay, and I picked the biggest hotel to start.

She was at the second-largest hotel, and was waiting for me in the lobby.

I didn’t have much warning.  I stepped into the lobby, caught the flash of bright red-orange, and threw myself behind a couch as the vase behind me exploded.  I landed, rolled, and came up with my revolver in hand as another round shredded through the back of the couch.

“You know, I always thought that Priests were so scary!” I heard the girl call out, her clear tone sounding almost… delighted?  “But you’re not so bad at all!”

I gritted my teeth to hold back a response and rolled again – but this time, I came out into the open, my gun leveled across the room.  And this time, it was Danni who had to duck back behind the wood of the concierge desk as I sent copper-jacketed lead flying her way.

“Give up!” I yelled to her, between shots.  I knew that the girl was ready to pop up as soon as I gave her the opportunity, so I maintained regular covering fire as I crept closer.  “You don’t have to go down like this!”

Sixth shot.  I was out.  I ducked down on the other side of the concierge desk, but didn’t pop open the empty gun yet.  I waited, guessing at what the girl would do next.  Sure enough, she jumped up a moment later, and I saw the tip of her barrel protrude out over the edge as she searched for my hiding spot.

I lashed up, striking out with the barrel of my own empty gun.  I was aiming blind, but I knew where she was standing – and my gun’s hot barrel smacked against her fingers, sending her own revolver skittering away across the floor.

Before the girl could do anything more than gasp, I was leaping up over the wooden barricade.  For a moment, I saw her eyes go wide as I bore down on her.  A second later, she was down on the ground beneath me.

Even as I threw myself down on her, I was amazed at how light the girl felt in my grip.  She was slim, a tiny little handful in my big arms as I pinned her and brought her down onto the ground on the other side of the desk.  I don’t know if it was her small size, but something made me twist slightly as we fell, making sure that my weight didn’t crush her as we hit the floor.

For a second, as we landed, the two of us were staring into each other’s eyes.  The girl’s big green irises were only a couple inches from mine.  Her eyes were wide, but her lips were pursed slightly, gently parted, as if she was about to kiss me.

Once again, I felt that strange little surge of emotion in the back of my mind, trying to tell me something that I didn’t understand.

And then we landed on the ground – and the girl brought her knee up between my legs.  With a crunch, my sight went red with sharp, piercing pain.

By the time I pried my eyes open again, desperately pulling myself back up, the girl had leapt off of me.  She was racing across the floor on her hands and knees, reaching her hand out.  I threw myself forward and grabbed onto her leg, trying to hold her back.

My fingers tightened around Danni’s ankle.  The girl tried to kick free, but couldn’t escape.

I pulled her back, towards where I could grab onto her – and she twisted around onto her back, bringing her hands back to aim her revolver down into my face.

I mentioned that no man, no matter how big and tough he claims to be, easily forgets the terror of staring straight into his death.  That’s true, even for me.  I stared into that yawning, gaping black barrel, knowing that the rest of my life was measured in fractions of a second.

“Sorry, Priest,” Danni said as she held the gun, her voice no longer filled with mirth.  “But it’s you or me – and I’m not ready to give up on life just yet.”

My eyes were on the barrel, but for just an instant, they darted up to her eyes.  There was a strange emotion in there.  Was it a look of regret?

I didn’t have any more time left.

Danni pulled the trigger.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 10

Continued from Part 9, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

I knew two things that I hadn’t known before, I reflected, as I leaned back against the springs of the uncomfortable hotel bed.  The springs beneath me squeaked and groaned in protest against my weight, but I paid them little mind.  I had slept on far worse.

First, I knew the girl’s name.  Danni, she was called.  The girl had an accomplice, a boy waiting outside with a stolen car, and some of the bystanders heard him call out her name.

The name wouldn’t do me much good, however, now that I knew the second fact.

Danni had flown the coop.  She was nowhere to be found in Indiana.
I’d spent the last few days plumbing contacts far and wide, trying to get a bead on this girl.  The automobile stuck out, those weren’t exactly common around here.  When I heard that she was making her getaway in a car, I hoped that I’d be able to use that tip to locate her.

The next day, the car turned up abandoned in a ditch off one of the main roads.  My contact told me that the thing was shot to hell – broken rods, a bent axle, and the engine was basically slagged.  “Only good for scrap,” he confided in me.

Didn’t do me much good.  That just meant that Danni and her male driver had ditched the vehicle.  Danni probably just flagged down the next car or cart to come along, pointed that big .45 of hers at the driver, and continued merrily on her way.

For some reason, the thought of that little slip of a girl, her red hair flying out on the loose as she happily hijacked some poor sap’s vehicle, made me smile a bit.  It was probably just the ridiculousness of the image in my mind.

Shifting a little, trying to find a halfway comfortable position on the sharp and complaining bedsprings, I felt something poking into my leg.  I reached into my pocket, and my fingers closed on the offending object.

I drew out the small metallic object.  It was the pair of bullets, one from my gun, one from Danni’s gun.  I had tucked the fused mass into a pocket after the robbery, and had been carrying it around ever since.

I knew that I ought to throw it away.  Priests were trained to travel light, after all.  It served no purpose.

Yet staring at it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it meant something, that the two bullets colliding, a little miracle of physics, had some deeper implication for me.  I was not a religious man, but holding this bullet sent a little shiver down my spine.

After a minute, I tucked the little lump of copper and lead away.  Ignoring the prodding of a spring in the small of my back, I turned my attention back to the problem at hand.

But no matter how I turned around the question in my mind, there was no other answer.  I’d have to wait for Danni to strike again, hit another bank, to tell me where she was.

I wasn’t looking forward to telling my supervisor that I’d missed my chance to bring her down when I had the upper hand.

Still, there was something about the hunt, the chase, that always got my blood pumping.  I was a wolf, out on the hunt, stalking and tracking my prey.  I would be slow, deliberate – but I’d keep on coming, until Danni could run no further.

I didn’t know how long it would take, but I would catch her.

To be continued . . . 

Danni California, Part 9

Continued from Part 8, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Two weeks later, I was in Indiana, sitting outside and sipping at a cup of lukewarm tea.  The tea was not especially good, and there was still a chill in the spring air – but the view from my table was just perfect.

I picked up the cup of tea, lifted it to my lips, and repressed a shudder as the foul liquid hit my tongue.  And they had the gall to charge for this?  I was half tempted to demand my money back.  Indiana wasn’t that far from New York, but the hicks out here had definitely lost something in translation.

Setting the cup firmly back down, I lifted up my newspaper again – but kept the top of the paper low enough so that I could glance over the top.  Across the street, the tall marble pillars of First National Bank were quiet.  There was no commotion, and the few morning customers seemed content to slowly climb the wide steps as they prepared to make their deposits and withdrawals.

I was here on a hunch.  Three banks had gone down, all in cities to the South – but drawing a line through those locations made an arrow that pointed straight to First National.

It had been three days since the last robbery.  This bank robber, some girl who had decided that the reward was worth the eventual cost, would likely strike any day now.

My hand briefly slipped beneath my long black jacket, checking the weight of the gun that hung just beneath my shoulder blade.

The girl’s cost would soon be paid.

I didn’t have much longer to wait.  Before the sun had reached its peak in the sky, the little snatches of conversation carried across the street in the breeze vanished.  In their place, I heard yells, shouts – and then a loud, echoing gunshot.

I was on my feet before the echo faded.  I vaulted the waist-high fence of the cafe, my newspaper falling away in the breeze as I reached beneath my coat for my gun.  I took the steps three at a time, dropping my shoulder down so that I could slam through the front doors of the bank.

Even as I burst in, my eyes flashed around, taking stock of the situation.  Priests are trained on situational awareness.  “The trigger is only as fast as the eye behind it,” my old instructor used to shout at us.

There wasn’t much to spot, however.  Most of the people in the bank, customers and clerks alike, were down on the floor, some with their hands up covering their heads.  Behind the counter, two young men, their eyes wide with terror, emptied out their drawers into a pair of sacks.

And standing on top of a leather-covered counter in the middle of the room, the bank robber watched as she held her gun at the ready.

Her appearance surprised me.  She was young, just a little slip of a girl, the picture of exuberant and overconfident youth.  She wore loose clothes that nonetheless were pulled tight around a fit figure, and the curves suggested beneath those garments said that this was no immature girl.  A black bandana covered most of her face, but it couldn’t hold back errant strands of

Of course, my entry made a considerable amount of noise as I burst in through the door.  Even as I brought my gun out from its holster beneath my jacket, the girl on the counter spun, her own gun coming up to point towards me.

For a moment, there was a flurry of motion as we both simultaneously fired and dodged.  Even as I pulled the trigger, I knew that my shot went wide as the girl vaulted down behind the counter.  Her shot also missed, although I felt the slight breeze as the round passed by only inches from my head.  Well, the girl wasn’t afraid to take a lethal shot.

I landed crouched on the balls of my feet, up against the counter’s heavy wooden bulk.  I knew that the girl was on the other side – I could hear her breathing.

“Give up!” I called out, trying to make my voice sound encouraging, harmless.  “Just put down your weapon, and you can get out of here alive!” I hoped that I sounded believable.

But my query was in vain.  “Why don’t you give up, instead?” the girl called back, her voice high and clear.  “Come on, I promise not to rough you up too much!”

And then she laughed, high and clear and fearless.

For just an instant, I considered it.  Unlike my own promise, the girl wasn’t likely to shoot me.  And if I could break her out of this stalemate, I had a good chance of wrestling her weapon away, disarming her.  I’d quickly come back out on top.

And what’s more… there was something about that laugh.  It was so utterly fearless, like nothing I’d heard before.

“Last chance!” the girl shouted, and I heard her shifting on the other side of the bench.  “Or are you gonna try some crazy Priest bravery?”

She moved again – but this time, it wasn’t just shifting on her feet.  I leapt around the side of the bench, but she was already up and sprinting towards the side door of the bank.  Her gun was pointed back behind her, towards me, but her face was turned towards the exit.

My gun was up, and even though my whole body was in motion and off balance, I still took the shot.

There was a high-pitched clink, like a piece of jewelry on a woman’s wrist.

At the sound, the girl turned back, glancing over her shoulder at me as her arm came up to push open the door.  For just an instant, my eyes locked on hers.  I had only the briefest impression of vivid green, sparkling and almost smiling.

And then she was gone.

Gravity returned an instant later, and I had to stumble forward to catch myself from falling.  Behind me, I could hear the clerks and customers slowly and nervously returning to their feet.  But I didn’t pay attention to them.

Instead, I stepped forward a couple of paces, and then bent forward to examine a small object on the floor.

My bullets were copper-jacketed, for extra penetrating power against a target with a metal vest.  The girl, however, was using cheaper rounds, composed only of lead.  Yet still, the two rounds had hit each other with enough power to flatten each other out into a disk, a sandwich of two colors.

I picked up the still-warm disk, two bullets fused together, and weighed it in my hand as I gazed out the door.  The girl would be long gone, I knew.  I’d have to resume the long hunt.

In my head, however, I felt a curious and novel sense of foreboding.  I stood on the precipice of something, I suddenly felt – although I couldn’t see what it might be.  I didn’t know what might come…

To be continued . . .