Here's the shtick: I write a story, a scene at a time. Then I fork it, writing two new scenes that branch off the first one, kind of a choose-your-own-adventure kind of thing. Upvote money picks the fork we take.
After four such forks, though, it's hard for me to keep the thread. So here is the whole story so far. In half an hour or so, I'll move on to 5A and 5Z, and we'll try those options for a way forward.
Throw The Bones
The story so far:
Abbett watched the street. Shimmies of heat jitterbugged on the pavement. Nothing moved.
Not even Abbett, whose eyes stayed pegged forward like they’d been stapled to Wadsden Street. He’d have a crick in his neck later, but that water was already under the bridge and gone, and all that was left to him was to make sure the pain earned something worthwhile. He increasingly doubted it would. Not enough to move, though.
To his right, a sidewalk, cracked and weedy, with a chain link fence where a building had once been. Bricks, rust-colored and crumbly, lay haphazardly in the vacant lot. Next to it, farther up the street, stood a decrepit warehouse, windows boarded up. Beyond that, a car sat in front of what had been a diner, back when this part of town had regular people in it. The rest of the block was similar, stretching out ahead. Both sides. Slowly decaying in the blazing July sun, like hundreds of other blocks in dozens of cities.
But those blocks didn’t have that car parked there.
Abbett’s eyes hurt from the reflection off the chrome bumper of that car. It gleamed like a department store Christmas display. Even brand-new cars didn’t come that clean. The tailpipe jiggled every now and then, just a fraction, but enough that Abbett knew the car was running. Had been, for going on half an hour, since it had glided to a stop in front of that diner.
By that point, Abbett’s head had already been down low, out of easy sight, and behind the front bench. Someone in that car had glanced through the driver’s window on the way by. Empty. No one ever looked in the back seat.
Two men had exited the car, both wearing suits in the July heat, one with a conspicuous bulge at his left breast. They’d walked across the sidewalk and down the short flight into the sunken diner.
Abbett’s car blended perfectly with the rest of the street. Missing a hubcap, once-white paint scratched and patchy, decorated with rust, it had been parked there for months. Abbett parked it there himself.
The back seat was surprisingly comfortable, and the car had more to recommend it than it appeared from the carefully-prepared exterior. Today he thought he might get to use some of the other qualities than the cushy rear bench. Today. Had to be today.
If those men would just come back out of the diner while Abbett could still use his neck muscles.
His eyes flicked down to his watch. Four oh eight. More than half an hour now. Shadows had begun to creep along the street, but it would be another three or four hours before the sun got low enough that he could move without worrying about being seen. Because though two men were inside the diner, one more was left outside, keeping the car running. Abbett could see the driver shift every so often and raise his hand to mop his brow.
Must be nice.
Not for the first time today, Abbett wondered if he was too old for this.
The diner door opened. One of the men—Abbett had begun calling him Whitespats—came out onto the bottom step of the stairs and stretched, adjusted his hat, and climbed up to street level. He scanned the street, and, seeing nothing, bent to chat with the driver through the passenger window.
He was nothing. It was the other man Abbett wanted, the one still inside.
Harold Crane, who was supposed to be forty-six blocks uptown in a posh office a quarter mile from City Hall, shuffling papers for the Mayor. Instead, he was here. Again.
Crane didn’t come out. A bead of sweat collected at the crown of Abbett’s head and decided to roll backward through his thinning hair and down his back.
Whitespats lit a cigarette and stood with his back to the car, watching the diner and keeping an eye on the street. From behind Abbett, a car rolled down the street toward them. Whitespats kept his profile low, behind his own car, not crouching, but not presenting a target, either. His hand drifted upward to the bulge in his coat.
But the car passed, chugging down the center of the street, and turned left at the next block.
The street went back to decaying in the sunshine.
Whitespats turned and looked directly at Abbett.
Abbet would have frozen, but he had already not moved in so long he was sure he'd turned to marble already. He was deep in the shadow of the back seat, his head even with the headrest. With the glare off the windshield, he should have been invisible. But Whitespats took a puff on his cigarette and kept his eyes locked on Abbett’s car. With a little lurch, he pushed off his own vehicle, shrugged his coat into place, and started toward the car.
Abbett’s left hand found the bulge in his own coat pocket, where his Czech Hotrod lay cool and anxious. He slid his hand into his pocket and gripped it, the slight movement out of sight behind the front seat.
Whitespats took a couple more steps, then turned at the sound of a door opening.
The diner. A black fedora pushed through the door and out into the sunshine.
Crane said something Abbett couldn’t hear, but Whitespats turned, tossing his cigarette into the vacant lot, and went back to his own car. He held open the rear door, let Crane in, and climbed in after him. The car pulled smoothly away from the curb and glided down the street a block. It turned right, and was gone.
The sound of the engine hadn’t died completely away before Abbett was out of the car and making for the diner. He twisted his head, feeling the muscles cramp, trying vainly to loosen them. Eight steps, nine, and he jogged down the stairs and opened the door.
The interior was so dark his eyes had trouble picking anything up but shadows. But a voice called out from in the back, “You forget something?”
Abbett grunted, a noise he hoped wouldn’t be immediately identifiable as not belonging to Crane, and stepped farther in. He drew the Hotrod and crouched behind the counter. Dust coated everything, thick and velvety, except for a trail across the floor from the door back around past the bar and to the right, where a decrepit sign said “estroo” with an arrow.
Footsteps. A man stepped round the corner and looked toward the door. Abbett, deep in shadow, wished his hair was the dark black of his youth. But the man didn’t see him, just kept coming around the bar, a quizzical look on his face. When he drew even with Abbet and reached for the door, Abbett stood up and put the Hotrod against his thoracic vertebrae.
“Hello, Vernon,” he said.
“Abbett,” Vernon said, his hands drifting upward like they were filled with helium, “Thought you were dead.”
“You sound disappointed. Ah ah, keep the hands where I can see them.” Abbett rummaged in Vernon’s pocket, but his piece wasn’t there. He had one, surely. “You want to toss your gun for me? Slowly now. I’m old. I might misunderstand a quick movement.”
Vernon pulled one hand down and drew a .38 out of his shoulder holster. Abbet tensed, finger pressing the trigger, but Vernon tossed the gun to the side.
“You got other people here?” Abbett said.
“Just me,” Vernon said, voice flat. Abbett couldn’t tell if he was lying.
“Sit down,” Abbet said.
Vernon’s head swiveled to look back. “You serious?” He wiped his pants. “I just got these pressed.”
“Your launderer won’t mind doing it again. Sit, and face me.”
Vernon went down on one knee, grimacing. He wiped a hand through his fair blonde hair, and sucked in a breath, glancing up to see if Abbet meant it. Abbet waved him down the rest of the way with the barrel of his gun.
Vernon shook his head, but put his cheeks on the floor. Abbet relaxed a fraction, and stepped back a couple paces. He caught another smell, underneath the dust. Something he couldn’t place, but it didn’t belong in a diner, whatever it was.
“What’s it been, Casparus? Ten years?” Vernon said, dusting his pants. It just spread the dirt. He scowled.
“Nearer fifteen. What are you doing here?”
“I bought this place. Gonna renovate it, do some modifications. I always wanted to run a diner.”
“You always wanted to eat in one, not run one. What’s really going on?”
“Cas, my friend, (here Abbet made a face) I’m opening a diner. Just like I said.”
“You have some interesting guests.”
Vernon’s eyes closed for a moment. A look of weariness blew across his face, and away. “Architects. Helping me with decor and suchlike. I got no head for that stuff.”
Abbet cast a glance around the room. A broken chair leaned drunkenly against the far wall. Two tables stood stacked on top of each other like psychotic toadstools. And everywhere the dust, the rot of the DoBro wharf district, gone to seed with most of its residents.
“You’re not making a lot of progress.”
Vernon spread his hands, a sheepish smile on his face. “I work slow. Not as young as I used to be. You look pretty good, for a fella your age.”
Abbet refused to be distracted. “How ‘bout you give me a look around. A tour of the premises.”
“I wouldn’t want to crease your pants funny. Besides, she doesn’t look her best right now. Come back in a month or so.”
Abbet’s nose twitched. Dust floated through the air. He could feel it in his lungs. They spasmed, struggling to work for him.
“I think I need to insist.”
“You always were a stubborn bastard,” Vernon said, climbing to his knees, then staggering to his feet. He stared at his pants, streaked with dust. “Aw, look at this. Cas, you got a lot to answer for.”
“Your turn to give me answers,” Abbet said, and stepped to the side. “Follow this path…follow…”
And he sneezed.
Not a petite ah-choo, but a full-throated, shnozz-clearing eruption that practically shook him off the floor and made his scars throb. Before he could recover, Vernon, all shamming gone now, ripped the gun out of his hand.
“Careless. You didn’t used to be careless,” Vernon said.
Abbet sneezed again and wiped his nose with a sleeve. “Not careless,” he said, snuffling, “human. I’m human.”
Vernon laughed out loud. “You? Human? You gone into standup now? No one in this city is less human than you. You almost make me believe in the resurrection.” He shoved Abbet back into a padded booth. The bench cut his legs from under him and he sat with a whump.
“But even if I couldn’t kill you…I could though, couldn’t I?” he said, raising the gun, Abbet’s own gun, and sighting along it. “Just pull the trigger, and bam, down you go. Easy.”
Abbet knew that could be. It had happened enough already, so many times he almost lost count. But he wasn’t dead yet. How, he didn’t know. But he wasn’t. And he wasn’t ready to go down this time, either.
So he said, “I know about Harold Crane.”
Vernon sighed. “Crane gets around. That doesn’t mean anything.”
“This isn’t the kind of social venue he’s normally seen in. What are you guys doing here?”
“Like you don’t already know.”
By now, if there had been anyone else in the diner he would have come out there, so Vernon had been telling the truth after all. So maybe it was time to use the rumors to his advantage.
Abbet pushed himself up with the table and the back of the bench. “Well, this chat has been lovely. But I have things to do.”
Vernon’s grin cracked a little. He held the gun out a bit more stiffly. “No, no, now. I can’t let you out of here.”
Abbet fixed him with a stare that came from the cold of Hell. “Stop me, then,” he said.
Vernon’s arm held the gun out straight as a Benedictine nun, pointed right at Abbett’s chest, but Abbett bet he wouldn’t pull the trigger, and took a step forward.
Vernon backed away, keeping distance. “Get back there on the bench Abbett, or so help me, I’ll-"
“You’ll what?” Abbett said, his voice pitched soft and reasonable. “Shoot me? Then what? Drag my body over to the Olivet and throw me in? How long before Crane gets wind of that? You want to join me in the river?” While he asked his flow of questions, he kept moving, sliding carefully toward the door, making no sudden moves.
“I can’t let you go, Cas. You know that.” Vernon’s face hardened like concrete. Some more resolve stiffened his posture.
“You can’t stop me from going, Vernon,” Abbett said, but he wondered when he said it if Vernon believed that. Because if he didn’t…
The door stood directly behind his back, now, and Abbett was tempted to turn to it and go up the stairs and out into the sunshine, ignoring Vernon and the snub-nosed .38 altogether. But he took a deep breath, preparing, and again he smelled something, sharp and metallic, something that he knew he’d smelled before, but couldn’t place.
“I guess you win this round,” Vernon said, and the gun dropped a notch.
Too easy. Vernon wasn’t this soft.
Abbott kept circling, now angling for the hallway with the sign that said “estroo”. His feet shuffled grittily over the unswept floor.
Alarm showed all over Vernon’s face, and the gun came back up. “Now, now, Cas, what are you doing?”
“Sorry, Vernon. When you gotta go, you gotta go. The men’s is down this way, right?”
Vernon realized what he was going to do and shouted for him to stop, but he wasn’t even close to fast enough. Abbett pitched himself headlong down the hallway and the flat crack of the .38 punched a hole in the wall behind him. More remodeling to do. Hope they weren’t in any hurry to open.
The hall was dim, but Abbett could make out two doors on the right—a mens and a women’s, probably—one door to the left, slightly ajar, and a larger, heavier door at the end of the hallway, twenty feet away. He’d never make it.
But the hall was dark. Abbett’s suit was dark. And Vernon half believed the rumors he’d been told.
What the hell. You only live once.
Or, you know. Most people do, anyway.
Abbett hurtled down the hallway and threw a shoulder into the door. Splinters of wood exploded around him. A bullet ricocheted off the doorframe, tearing out a ragged chunk.
The door didn’t give way.
Not entirely. It shuddered in its frame and fractures appeared in the post and lintel, but the lock held and the door refused to open. Abbet sagged a little against the polished wood, his shoulder throbbing. He didn’t want to hit it again. Without momentum, he could never break it down.
“No more fooling around, Cas,” Vernon said, silhouetted against the faint light of the diner. “You’ve gone too far this time. We was partners, yeah, but that was a long time ago.”
“Remember how that partnership ended, Vern?” Abbett said. He fished slowly in his pocket with his bruised arm, hoping Vernon couldn’t see.
“I remember how it should have ended, yeah. But then you wouldn’t be walking around any more. Yet here you are. What am I supposed to think of that?”
Abbett got his hand on the knife in his pocket, and flicked it open, talking all the while to cover the soft click. “Think whatever you want. Obviously you’re not as good a shot as you think you are.”
“I been practicing. Goodbye, Cas, this time for good.”
Abbett dropped to one knee, drew the knife, and threw his best fastball right into the flash of the gun.
This blog series loves the Minnow Support Project and all its lovely denizens.