Danni California: Part 8

Continued from Part 7, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

I stared down at the sketches in front of me for a couple seconds, running my eyes over the lines of the girl’s face, and then lifted my gaze back up to my supervisor, sitting in front of me.

“She’s barely old enough to call herself an adult,” I said, my tone turning the words into a question.  “And the Organization wants to send a Priest after her?”

Across from me, my supervisor gave a shrug with one shoulder.  The man was infuriatingly good at that, I had noticed, and I already hated it.  I was still young, idealistic, and I believed deeply in the value of my work.  To see someone else treat our mission so callously bothered me at some small level.

“She’s a liability,” my supervisor (I refused to think of him as my boss) said, as if this explained everything.  “The girl’s come from nowhere, and she’s robbed nearly a dozen banks now.  A couple in Louisiana, but she quickly headed north, and the last few she’s hit have all been in Indiana.  So that’s where you’ll start.”

“She’s a bank robber?” I asked, returning my gaze back down to the sketches.  They were just rough pencil and charcoal, but the artist had managed to capture a glint in her eyes, a determined set to her jaw, that spoke volumes about the girl’s strength of character.

“And almost a killer,” my supervisor added.  “Girl carries a .45 – hell of a big gun for such a sweet little thing, but she knows how to use it.  Nearly blew the leg off one of the local cops when he tried to corner her.”

I raised my eyebrows.  The girl in the sketch didn’t look like a cold-blooded assassin.  “Just trying to arrest her?” I said in doubtful tones.

My supervisor winced, as if he’d been hoping to avoid clarifying.  “He might have decided to take a couple liberties with her,” he added.  “Small town cops tend to be… unreliable.”

Nice way of phrasing it, I thought to myself.  Better than saying that most of them are petty thugs with a power complex, not much better than the criminals they’re supposed to stop.  But I know when to be diplomatic, so I held my tongue.

“Anyway,” the man picked up, leaving behind the embarrassment of small town police, “we’ve been asked to step in by the banks, and they’re sending you.  Find this girl, put a stop to the robberies, and maybe see if you can recover any of the cash.”

“Capture is acceptable?” I asked, looking once more down at the girl’s picture.  She didn’t look like someone that the banks desired so desperately to be dead that they’d hire us.  The Organization did good work, but we didn’t come cheap.

My supervisor was shaking his head, however.  “They want this to be an example,” he told me.  “Put a bullet in her.”

I made sure that the man didn’t see my grimace as he stood up from my desk and walked away.

I knew, however, that despite my personal objections, the mission came first.  I had been a Priest for nearly a decade now, and my training taught me to overlook personal feelings.  Feelings, sentimentality, they were just distractions.  I trusted my gut, my training, and my Colt.  Whatever mistakes might have led this girl into a life of crime, they were already committed.  And now, with a Priest after her, she didn’t get another chance.

The Organization already had a train ticket paid for and ready to carry me out west, towards Indiana.  My packing consisted of grabbing my knapsack and slinging it over my shoulder, and then checking my weapons as I headed towards the door.

Priests traveled light.  We carried just enough to do the job assigned to us.

To be continued . . .

Danni California: Part 7

Continued from Part 6, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

“And that,” the man in black said, leaning back a little from his typewriter to gaze at his audience, “is where I first heard of Danni.”

Jenny glanced over at the other member of the audience, feeling confused. Old Hillpaw was nodding, as if this made sense to him, but she was lost.  With the strange sensation that she was back in the single room farmhouse where she struggled through all six grades of school, she put her hand up in the air.

“I’m lost,” she blurted out as the man in black turned his gaze towards her.  “Who are you, anyway?  What do you do?”

Old Hillpaw’s eyebrows drew together into a thunderstorm of a frown, as if this knowledge should be obvious.  But the man in black just sighed, shaking his head back and forth.

“Ah, how quickly we fade into obscurity,” he said, speaking more to the empty air than to his bar companions.  “Let me try something else, miss.

“Have you heard of the Priests in Black?”
Even Jenny knew that name.  She physically jerked back in her chair, her mouth dropping open as she stared at the man in black.  As the new and terrifying realization made its way through her mind, she pushed her chair back, as if trying to put physical distance between her and the story’s narrator.

“You- you’re one of them?” she gasped out, shaking her head back and forth in a tangle of hair as if trying to deny reality.  “But they’re killers!  They assassinate people, shoot people!  They’re murderers, and worse!”

Unbelievably, the man in black tossed back his head and laughed, a surprisingly hearty laugh that shook his whole frame.  “Relax, young lady,” he said, as he reached up to wipe a tear from his eye.  “I haven’t killed someone in longer than you’ve been alive.”

At his urging, Jenny settled down a little, although the whites of her eyes were still wide around the edges of her harried and insecure expression.

“But yes, I was one of them,” the man in black said, once he was sure one of his audience members wasn’t about to bolt from the table.  “Of course, we called it the Organization.  Loyal, we were, as well we should be after the time and training they invested in us.  But even still, I didn’t mind the other nickname we picked up.”

The man nodded to Old Hillpaw.  “I wager you know it.”

Hillpaw licked his lips.  Even though he hadn’t physically reacted, the old-timer looked almost as nervous as the waitress next to him.  “Machine gun priests,” the old man said, his voice hoarser than usual.

“That’s the one,” the man in black nodded.

Jenny glanced over, confused again.  “Wait, they were priests?  I thought they were assassins?”

Even this new revelation about their storyteller couldn’t prevent Old Hillpaw from giving a lecture when he knew more than another.  “Oh, they weren’t true priests,” he explained.  “But they dressed all in black, long coats like robes, with their guns hidden underneath.  And when they wanted someone dead, they’d deliver last rites with a machine gun.  Hence the name, see?”

The waitress still didn’t quite understand, but she nodded.  Hillpaw opened his mouth, about to add more, but he then remembered the other person at the table, and decided to not completely dominate the conversation.

“That’s how the public saw us,” the man in black said, quietly.  “But to us, it was a calling.  We were the arm of the Organization, keeping the world on track, eliminating the criminals, the insane, those that caused a threat to the order.”

“To your Organization’s order,” Old Hillpaw challenged.

The man in black didn’t respond, but his eyes settled on the old man.  After a second, Hillpaw flushed, dropping his gaze down.  “Sorry,” he muttered into his nearly empty drink, and then tossed back the rest.

“We eliminated threats,” the man in black repeated.  “And so, one morning, a sketch and a description arrived at my desk.

“The sketch showed a girl, once with her face bare, and once with a black bandana covering up her nose and mouth.  The description called her slender, lithe, with blazing red hair.  She was armed and considered extremely dangerous.”

The man in black glanced over at his stack of papers beside his typewriter, and shook his head.  “I didn’t know her name, didn’t know her story.  Not yet.

“All I knew was that she was my next target.”

To be continued . . . 

Danni California: Part 6

Continued from Part 5, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

The next Monday, Danni wasn’t at the construction site.
Most of the workers didn’t even notice the absence of the young, slim girl who had counted herself among their number.  The foreman noticed, but only in the vaguely annoyed sense that he would have to go round up another worker to replace her.  It wouldn’t be hard to find someone else desperate for money, but it still took effort, and it still annoyed the foreman.
James noticed, however…
He bobbed up and down through the breakfast line, trying to see if he had somehow missed her, had passed her.  After a few passes, however, he concluded that she was nowhere to be found.  There was no way that he could miss her big shock of flame-red hair.
Should he hope that she would turn up, or should he go looking for her?  James decided that the paycheck was more important than why his friend had decided to play hookey, but he kept his eyes peeled all day.  
Yet still, there was no sign of Danni.
As soon as the day was over, he dashed back down to the makeshift barracks that the workers called home.  Where in the world could she be?
When he entered, however, he spotted movement over by her bunk.  Someone was digging through her things, someone wearing a cloak and cowl to conceal their identity!  
“Hey!” James shouted, running over towards the hooded figure even as he was uncomfortably aware of the fact that he didn’t have a weapon of any sort.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?  Get away from that stuff!”
“James?” came the voice from under the hood – and as the figure stood up and turned to face him, he saw Danni’s face staring back at him in surprise!
He skidded to a stop, barely keeping from colliding with the girl.  “Danni!  Where’ve you been?  You missed work!  You’re gonna get fired!”
“Let them!” the girl shot back, reaching down for a small canvas bag at her feet.  She pulled it up, undid the latch holding it closed, and flipped it around so that James could see the contents.
He stared.
The bag was stuffed with cash, more cash than he had ever seen in his life!  There were stacks upon stacks of bills, wrinkled but bound together with paper bands.  The denominations printed on the faces of the bills varied, but there were ones, fives, tens, and James was fairly certain that he saw at least one stack of hundreds!
Hundred dollar bills!  The young man couldn’t even imagine a hundred dollars.
“Wh-wha?” he managed, trying to find the words to express his incredulity.
Danni grinned at him, the cheeky, irrepressible grin that he recognized.  She reached down into the bag, carelessly shoving some of the bills aside as her fingers quested for something heavier, something towards the bottom.
She pulled out the piece of heavy metal, the muscles in her slim arms tensing as they held it up.  “Remember how you said that all the money’s tied up in banks?” she asked, as James stared at the object in her hands with a mixture of awe and horror.  “Well, I robbed one!”
James couldn’t even speak.  He just shook his head back and forth, staring at the huge, glinting metal weapon in Danni’s hands.
“Like it?  I stole it off the foreman,” she commented, taking his silence as admiration.  “A forty five, I think.  It’s huge!  I just waved it at the bankers, and they all shut up and did what I told them!”
After another moment, the young man licked his dry lips.  “Danni, you’re gonna get killed,” he whispered.
But the girl shook her head fiercely, errant strands of her red hair escaping from beneath the hood.  “No!  Come on, you and me – we can finally get out of here, can go actually do real things, live real lives!” she insisted.  She shoved the gun back into the bag amid the stacks of cash, and reached out to put her hand on James’s shoulder.  
“And I want you to come with me,” she finished.  “But we gotta go now!  Come on!”
Even if he had wanted to resist, the young man never stood a chance against Danni’s reckless, youthful determination.  But he did manage to ask a question as he was tugged out the door.
“Where are we goin’?” he managed to ask, before all his breath had to be devoted to running to keep up with the girl.
“North,” came the answer.  “That’s where all them folks with money are, right?  Well, we’re gonna go change that!”
An hour later, the local constabulary came bursting into the barracks, guns drawn.  But by that point, Danni and her friend were long gone.

Danni California: Part 5

Continued from Part 4, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

Ten hours later, the foreman gave each of the workers a nod as they passed by.  In his hands he held a thick stack of thin envelopes, and he handed one of these to each man as they passed.
Danni knew better than to rip the envelope open right away.  The foreman might be a cheap skinflint, but he knew better than to rip off his workers.  He told them all how little they were going to make, and then paid them precisely that.  If he tried anything else, he’d soon be without a crew.
“Hey, Flame-head,” called out a voice next to her.
Danni glanced over at James, the skinny, scrawny youth jogging to catch up with her.  The young man looked half-starved, like always, but he still put on a grin as he loped up beside her – and Danni’s smile in return was genuine.  
“Hey, Skinny-bones,” she replied, the nicknames affectionate rather than insulting.  “How was your long day of grueling labor?”
“Oh, same as always,” the kid replied with a shrug.  His back was still a bit hunched; that tended to happen after spending the whole day picking up the nails that the other workmen dropped.  He, unlike Danni, had already ripped open his pay envelope.  Danni could see the end of it sticking out of a pocket on his oversized, baggy canvas trousers.
“So,” James continued after sucking in another breath, “what are you going to do tonight?  Are we hitting the town?  Living it up like kings?”  He bounced a little as he trotted along, making the pockets of his pants jingle with the change inside.
Danni couldn’t help but smile at the kid’s exuberance, but even though she was only a year older than him, she couldn’t help feeling wiser by many years.  “Yeah, maybe later,” she dismissed his suggestion.  “But first, I gotta go visit my mom.”
James’s eyebrows rose.  “You know, I’ve never gotten to meet your mom?” he said, his tone turning the words into a question. 
Danni stopped and just looked at him for a minute.  Even for those few seconds, she could see the man growing uncomfortable, his shoulders pulling back a little, but he didn’t back away.
“Okay,” she finally said.  “Follow me.”
*
A half hour later, they both stood in silence, looking down at the smooth stone in front of them.
When James finally spoke up again, his voice was hushed, muted of its usual enthusiasm.  “Sorry, Danni,” he said quietly.  “I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay,” the girl replied, reaching out and patting her friend on the shoulder.  Her eyes, however, never left the stone in front of them.
When they arrived, she had bent down and carefully cleared away some of the weeds and taller blades of glass, making sure that the stone was visible.  It wasn’t properly carved, but she’d paid off the tab of one of the masons in town, and he’d chiseled some words into the stone in exchange.
“Might not be carved proper, but at least it’s good granite,” he had remarked as he finished hammering in the words that Danni requested.  “Should last a while if you keep the roots off it.”
And the girl had done so.  Every two weeks, while the rest of her work crew headed down to the bars to fritter away their meager pay so that they could live like rich folks for a night, she would make the hike up to this hill and carefully clear away any errant plants encroaching on the stone.
After another few minutes, Danni opened her mouth again.  “She wanted me to make something,” she said, not looking over at James.
“What, like a house or something?”
She shook her head, the long strands of red hair falling out around her face.  “No, of myself.”  She gestured around, out at the skeletal frames of buildings in the distance, at her dusty and stained clothing.  “She wanted me to be more than just another little poor girl.”
James opened his mouth, but the boy found himself at a rare loss of words.  “Yeah, but no one gets outta here,” he finally said, truth winning out over tact.  “I mean, nobody leaves – there’s nothing else out there.  At least here there’s work, enough to get by.”
He saw Danni nod, but the woman didn’t reply.  “All the money’s owned by the rich folks up north,” he went on.  “And they keep it all in banks, so you can’t even rob ’em!  So we’re all kinda stuck here.”
The girl had straightened up a little, and glanced back at him.  She was taller than James, and as she looked down at him, James thought for a moment that he saw a queer glint in her eyes in the dusk.  
“What?” he asked, confused.
After a second, though, Danni shook her head.  “No, it’s nothing,” she said.  “Forget it.”  
But as they headed down the quiet hill, back towards the hustle and activity of the town, an idea was growing and flowering in her head…

Danni California: Part 4

Continued from Part 3, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

As the man in black paused in the retelling of his story, Jenny felt herself rise back up to the present.  She had been sitting and listening for far too long, she suddenly realized.  The bar was still as empty as always, but if her boss came out and spotted her lounging and listening to this story, she’d be in for an earful.

Next to her, Old Hillpaw also started as the young waitress rose up abruptly from her seat.  “Figure I ought to wet your whistle, if you’re gonna keep going,” he commented to the man in black, who answered this with a slow nod.

The man in black didn’t say anything as the two members of his small audience left his table.  He simply returned his attention back to the typewriter, once again slowly pecking out word after word.

Ten minutes later, a scrape across from him made the man in black look up.

His audience had returned, it seemed.  Jenny was once again perching on the edge of her chair, sparrow-like, all the empty tables now glistening after a fresh wipe-down from her rag.  Old Hillpaw was also slowly lowering himself into his own chair, taking pains not to spill the mug of frothy pale beer he held.

A similar mug had been placed in front of him, just outside the swing of his arms as he worked his typewriter, the man in black noted with a faint but undeniable note of satisfaction.  He picked it up, taking a sip and letting the liquid splash across his tongue.

Once he had slaked his thirst, the man in black resumed telling his story.  Despite her apprehension, Jenny couldn’t help but find herself drawn back in.

* * *

The bell was loud and insistent, ringing repeatedly.  Even as she squirmed and turned on the thin, hard mattress, trying to pull the itchy blanket up to cover her ears, Danni couldn’t block out the noise.

Around her, voicing similar grunts and groans of displeasure, she could hear the men waking up and crawling out of their own cots.  None of them wanted to leave the relative comfort of their bedding, but they all knew the punishment for being last.

As the sounds of activity grew louder, the bell still tolling, Danni finally pulled back the blanket with a hiss.  Even at the early hour, the sunlight was streaming into the ramshackle building.  It reflected off of the frost on the few remaining pieces of glass in the windows, and highlighted the motes of dust floating in the air.

The bell finally stopped ringing as Danni fumbled for her boots on the floor.  It was replaced, however, with a voice no more pleasant.  “Up and at ’em, you lazy lugs!” the foreman thundered, stomping into the barracks.  “We got honest work for y’all – maybe the first honest work y’all have done in your lives!”

They all knew better than to rise to the bait in those barbed words.  Danni tightened her frayed coat around her slim body, flexed her fingers in the ragged gloves to try and send some heat into her digits.  Alabama might be the Deep South, but it was still bitingly cold in the mornings.

Once he had roused his reluctant charges from their beds, the foreman’s booming voice switched over to calling off the roles for the day.  Danni kept her head down, focusing on stretching out her stiff limbs, one ear listening for her name.

There – roofing crew.

It was no surprise, she figured, that she ended up on the roof most of the time.  Unlike most of the men around her, she was light and nimble on her feet, with a head for heights.  Up in the rafters, balancing on those thin beams of wood, agility was just as important as strength.

Carl, a disagreeable little man with a face like a rat, sniggered at her as she fell into line for the breakfast slop.  “Watch yer step, missy,” he called out to her.  “Don’t wanna see yuh fall and break nothin’, need a big strong man to take care’ah yuh.”

“Let me know if you see one,” Danni shot back, and the rough laughter of the other workers turned on Carl.  He flushed crimson, but shut his mouth with a click.

Just another day of long, grueling, back-breaking work.  Most of the time, Danni didn’t let herself think too much.  Thinking, she had learned, could very quickly get someone in trouble.  Especially a girl like her.

But when she was standing up in the rafters of that day’s construction project, feeling the breezes rustling her fiery red hair, she couldn’t keep her mind quiet.  Between hammering in nails, Danni would stare off at the horizon, watching the brilliant colors flare as the sun rose up from below the trees.

Sometimes, she could even catch a glimpse of what she imagined was light reflecting from the ocean, the Gulf.

She had never been anything but poor, and she knew that she’d never be anything more.  But still, up above the ground, she could feel the yearning, so strong it was like a physical hook in her stomach, tugging her onward.

To be continued…

Danni California: Part 3

Continued from Part 2, here.
Start the story here.

Three months later, as Carson strolled back towards his police station, he could sense that something was wrong.

The building, even before he reached the heavy, weathered front door, somehow felt emptier.  Even before he laid his hand on the handle, he felt like it was colder than usual, like the absence of life within meant that less heat was spreading out into the building itself.

Even so, he had to open the door.  Carson braced himself, took a deep breath, and stepped inside.

Her departure had been surprisingly orderly, he saw.

There was no mess, no wild disarray of belongings scattered across the desks in the room.  The furniture was still all in its normal places, the chairs pushed in at the desks, the papers all in neat stacks.  Even in her last hours, California had kept things tidy.

The only detail out of place was the wide open door to the jail cell.  Inside the cell, the bed was made up, the sheets neatly tucked beneath the thin mattress and the pillow carefully placed at the head of the bed.

Aside from the sterile bed, the cell was completely empty.

The sight was jarring – it wasn’t how Carson had left it, just a couple hours earlier, when he went out to do his patrol rounds.  When he had left the station, there had been a nice braided rug down on top of the cell’s concrete floor.  Posters had been stuck up to the concrete walls, along with a pair of hand-made flowery curtains.  A knitted throw blanket, with intricate stitching that left Carson speechless at its complexity, had been spread across the bed.

All of that was now gone.

But more importantly, the cell was empty.  In fact, so was the entire station.  The female presence, the girl that Carson had come to think of as an almost permanent structure in his life, was absent.

“California?” Carson called out as he stepped inside, even though he doubted he would get any answer.  He used the nickname he’d grown fond of, not using the girl’s real name.

But sure enough, there was no answer.  Carson made his way over to his desk and sank down into the chair, one hand coming up to cushion his head.  He tried to think about what had just happened, just hoping to figure out how he felt.

He’d always known that California wouldn’t stick around forever.  Like a small bird, she had hesitantly emerged from her shell, especially as she came to realize that no one was coming for her, no one posting bail to get her out of this cell.  She was stuck there, and Carson was her only contact.

At first, she had been dismissive, contemptuous towards him.  But slowly, she had opened up, until he finally felt comfortable letting her out.  She was still a captive bird, but she could be free to move around her cage.

And then, last night, as he got ready to leave, she had asked him to stay.

The night had been wild, amazing, almost otherworldly.  Whenever he closed his eyes, Carson still felt the hot brush of her bare skin against him.  He could still hear her faint moans breathed into his ear as he shifted and moved on top of her, pressing down to squeeze her between his body and the cell’s thin mattress.  He vividly remembered how she had given one last, fulfilled cry as she arched her back on top of him, squeezing down on him inside of her as they both finished together.

When Carson had opened his eyes that morning, he had found her curled up against him, her body tucked up against him and pressing against his chest, his crotch, her legs slid in between his.  She had shifted a little as he rose and dressed himself, turning to give him a glimpse of her naked torso.  The sight nearly tempted him back to bed, but his duty called him away.  He spread the blanket back over her and, with a smile, left the station.

That had been his last sight of her.

Carson thought of putting out a call, of filling out a report.  But what could he say?  She was technically free to go, and he had no real claim on her.  He could go chasing after her, but he didn’t even know which direction she had chosen.

Like a bird, California had flitted into his home, graced him with a taste of her presence, and then gone on her way.

For a long time, Carson just sat at his desk, breathing slowly, doing nothing.

And then, he slowly rose back up to his feet.  He closed the door of the empty cell.  And then, hat in hand, he headed down to the diner to get a cup of coffee.

Danni California: Part 2

Continued from here.

It was the sixties, and all that folks could talk about was the railroad.

It was going to span the entire United States, they claimed.  It would stretch all the way from the civilization of the East Coast out to the wild West, to those hills that prospectors claimed were full of gold.  It would connect the two halves of the world, would let folks travel the whole length of the continent in under a fortnight.

Even now, although the great Trans-Continental project wasn’t yet completed, there were already folks heading in both directions as fast as they could, searching for some sort of magical opportunity, as if they were certain to find it if they just traveled far enough.

For Carson, he didn’t much mind when folks from his town vanished overnight, leaving behind just a scrawled note announcing that they were going west.  Most of the folks who left weren’t exactly the most stable type to keep around.  Many of them had spent at least a night or two cooling off in his cells downstairs.

If they just left, well, Carson wouldn’t complain over that.

But for each one who left, another individual would appear, taking their place.  And these individuals, these newcomers, they usually brought their crazy foreign ideas in with them.  Those ideas often stirred up trouble.

Particularly the girl who now glared defiantly across the room at Carson, her hands wrapped around the heavy iron bars of his cell.

Something about the girl’s wide eyes put Carson a little off balance.  Even though she was the one locked up, after he’d dragged her away from the town square even as she dug in her heels and yelled, she didn’t act like she was imprisoned.

“How long do you think you can keep me here?” she demanded, glaring at Carson with eyes that seemed to blaze.  “You can’t just leave me locked up!”

“Sure I can,” the man returned, not letting his tone betray any slip in his calm demeanor.  He lifted up his chipped coffee mug, taking a slow sip as the girl glared daggers at him.  His eyes roved over the girl from above the rim of his mug.

She was dirty, and definitely looked as if she’d just rolled in off the railroad, into sleepy Mississippi.  But under that layer of dirt and grime was thick, strawberry blonde hair, and her skin had the bronze sheen of a life spent out under a sun less harsh than here.  Her clothes were ill-fitting, but covered in riotous color.  If she just cleaned herself up a bit, Carson thought, she would be quite an attractive young woman.

But she’d have to get that scowl off her face, first.

“So, California,” the police officer said, using the name he’d given her when he dragged her in yesterday afternoon, “what brings you out here?”

The woman stared defiantly back at him.  “Life,” she fired back, as if this was the obvious answer that he’d somehow overlooked.

“And life brought you here,” Carson finished, reaching up and rubbing one hand through his own hair.  He looked at her again, sizing her up as she kept on staring back, through the dirty strands of hair hanging down across her forehead.

“Listen,” the cop finally said, setting his coffee cup aside.  “You want a shower?  Get yourself cleaned up?”

The woman looked suspicious still, but she nodded.

Carson rose up, picking up the keys from the old roll-top desk beside him.  “Now remember, don’t try anything,” he warned her.  “But I’m trusting you, not putting any cuffs on you.  And I’ll send someone running down to Miss Fansworth down the street, see about getting you some clean clothes.”

For just a moment, in California’s eyes, Carson saw a hint of something unexpected.  Was that gratitude?

But a moment later, she had raised her shields once again, and was glaring back at him.  “Don’t think that you’ve won me over with this,” she snapped at him.

Carson rolled his eyes as he unlocked the cell door.  “Perish the thought.”

To be continued!

Danni California: Part 1

Author’s note: I tried this once before, here: http://www.missingbrains.com/2013/04/part-1-california-rest-in-peace.html .  However, just because I abandoned the story then, doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten about it.  Time for a second try!

The man came into town every morning, riding in on his old motorcycle.  The creaking monster spat out clouds of black smoke behind it, belching so loud that the whole town could hear him coming.

He’d plop himself down at the bar, pulling out his typewriter, slowly feeding in a new sheet of paper.  He’d wait for Jenny to come around, bringing him the cup of dark sludge that the place had the audacity to try and pass off as coffee.

And then, laboriously, he’d start to type.

No one really knew what he did, what he might have done.  Of course, dressed all in black like he did, there was no shortage of rumors.  People whispered that he’d been a gangster, that he had killed a man, that he’d robbed a bank, a whole string of banks.  Someone even claimed that he might be involved with that whole California fiasco, although they hadn’t offered any further details.

Only one other man in town seemed willing to approach the man in black.  Old Hillpaw, the grizzled prospector, would sometimes come into the bar in the afternoons.  Once his daily whiskey was in hand, the gray-haired old man would wander over to drop heavily into the chair opposite the man in black, staring at him over the paper sticking up out of the typewriter.

They never seemed to speak much, but the man in black would give Old Hillpaw a nod that seemed friendly enough, and Hillpaw would nod back.  For weeks, they shared the table, never opening their mouths.  Hillpaw never asked what the man was typing, and the man in black never offered Hillpaw the chance to read his work.

But one afternoon, as Jenny strolled closer, the rusty and chipped coffee pot in hand, she heard Hillpaw clear his throat.  The waitress paused, holding her breath.  Were the two men finally about to speak, to divulge the mysterious past they both shared?

Hillpaw’s voice was old, gritty, as creaky as the rest of him.  He sounded like half of the ore he had mined had ended up in his lungs.  He cleared his throat several times, coughing loudly, until the man in black finally paused and looked up, his fingers hovering just above the typewriter keys.

“Where’s your hat?” Old Hillpaw asked.

Jenny blinked in surprise.  Had the old prospector lost it?  What sort of question was that?  But the man in black didn’t look surprised.

“Don’t wear it any more,” he said, his voice even with just the slightest hint of a Southern drawl.

There didn’t seem to be much else to add, but Hillpaw, after a few minutes’ thought, persisted.  “You remember me?” he asked the man in black.

The fingers paused, once again lifting up off of the typewriter keys.  The man in black stared across the table at the prospector, not speaking.  “South Dakota,” he finally said.  “You were at the bar.”

Old Hillpaw clapped his hands together, looking delighted.  “You certainly still have your wits!” he cackled, rocking back and forth in his chair as he stamped his feet.  Back a few feet away, Jenny hovered, unsure of whether the old man had finally lost it.

But after a minute, Hillpaw’s braying laughter ceased.  “See, here’s the problem with the story,” he said to the man in black.  “I know the end, o’course.  Saw part of it myself, and read about the rest in the papers.  But I don’t know the beginning.”

“The beginning was in the papers, too.”

Hillpaw shook his head.  “Nah, that’s just them writers, putting words on a page,” he replied, dismissing the man in black’s comment.  “That’s not the real beginning.  Not where they started.”

“No,” the man in black agreed, “that’s not the real beginning.”

For a minute longer, the man in black paused, looking down at his typewriter and the neat stack of typed paper beside it.  Then, slowly, he raised his gaze back up to Old Hillpaw, sitting and waiting across the table.  “Too impatient to wait?” he asked the man.

Hillpaw glanced down at himself.  “Hell, I might not be around by the time you finish,” he replied.

The man in black leaned forward, reaching out and lifting the cup of coffee up to his lips.  He took a long, slow sip of the sludge within, setting the cup back down on top of his papers so the stack wouldn’t slip away.  He shrugged and leaned back in his chair, his long black coat falling open to the sides.

As the man’s coat fell open, Jenny saw something gleaming, tucked beneath his shoulder.  As she realized what was stowed there, she gasped, unable to keep quiet.

“And you might as well sit down and listen, too,” the man said to her, no change in his tone.  He didn’t even turn his head to look at her.

Jenny realized with a start that the man had known she was hovering, listening in, the entire time.  Not meeting his gaze, she pulled up a chair from the next table over, setting down the coffee pot and smoothing her barmaid’s skirt.

For a minute, the man in black just stared back at them both, his eyes dark, appraising.  The heavy revolver hanging under his arm gleamed dimly in the light.  His two audience members stared back at him, Hillpaw looking studiously blank, Jenny trying not to show her uncomfortable nervousness.

“It starts back further than the papers ever said,” the man in black finally began, his voice filled with deep timbre.  “Back in the deep South, before the riots tore it apart.  Even before the rebuilding made enough for the riots to tear apart.

“It starts with a cop – and with a woman named California…”

To be continued (for sure, this time!)…

Part 1: California, Rest In Peace

I didn’t look up as the emissary entered my office. My pistol was in pieces, scattered across the desk in front of me. With a thump, a manilla file landed among the parts.
I slowly raised my gaze, the leading edge of my flat-brimmed black hat rising to reveal the young man’s face. I watched, feeling a dispassionate, disconnected interest, as his face blanched slightly. The Company didn’t employ many of us, and I was known for my skills. With three fingers, I delicately lifted the slide of my Colt off the table and locked it into place. I kept my eyes on the emissary’s face as I reinserted the recoil spring.
“Job for you,” the young man stammered out, licking his dry lips. “Er, from the Company. Bank robber.” His eyes followed every movement of my fingers as I slid the clip back into my pistol.
With the tip of the barrel of the reassembled weapon, I flipped the folder open on my desk. My eyes dipped briefly to examine the pages, but the barrel of the Colt held a steady bead on the emissary’s head. “Indiana Central Bank and Trust,” I read aloud.
“Yes sir. The robber’s a girl, from the south. Pretty brazen robbery. Wears a black bandana, but that’s about as far as she goes for disguises. We have more background in the file.” I flipped to the next page in the file as the man spoke.
“Interesting parentage,” I commented. “Cop and a protester? Odd pairing, especially in the Deep South.”
The emissary shrugged. “Suppose so. The whole girl’s a little odd, if you ask me. Just look at the name she goes by.”
“Indiana Bank and Trust? Doesn’t seem a big enough incident to merit a Priest.”
“Ah, but it’s not just one bank,” the other man interjected. “She’s hit three, so far, and probably another one today. The Company’s taking a hard stance against criminals, so they’re calling in the big guns. You’re to send a message – she’s stealing from our network, so the Company steps in to take care of the problem. And you, as a Representative of the Company-”
I stood, pushing my chair back. The young man took a reflexive half-step back as I rose, cutting off mid-speech. “I’m to ensure the problem goes away,” I finished his sentence. “Understood. Now, out.” The emissary didn’t need me to tell him twice, and scurried away.
Pushing aside the lapel of my long black coat, I slid the Colt into its holster under my left shoulder, balancing the weight of its fellow on my right. Scooping the file off the table with one hand, I checked my reflection briefly in the mirror on my wall. My white collar stood out, the only bright spot against my black clothes. Below the brim of my hat, the eyes of a trained killer gazed back at me.
When the Company had a troublesome issue, they would send a machine gun priest to take care of the solution. We had earned our name – messy problem, messy solution. But we guaranteed that the problem would go away.
Leaving the office, I glanced down at the name on the file. Danni California – she probably hadn’t intended to cause much trouble. But the Company had sent me the file, and I was going to make Danni California go away.