~~~

All throughout New Cleveland, remnants of the former amusement park lay scattered and abandoned like bones penetrating the rough skin of the town that was built on top of it. These strange abnormalities once resembling attractions, disfigured by rust, buried in weeds, or submerged within the contaminated lake, had either been stripped of material for building, or had been repurposed. Such as the massive wave pool turned fight pits, or what was left of the Big Dipper rollercoaster, now a massive guard tower and gallows. Other former attractions were simply left alone while time and nature transformed them into twisted, metallic beasts hidden in the dark corners of the town where imaginative minds merged with gossip to create ghost story lore—another abundant source of entertainment in New Cleveland.

On the far west side of town, the Grizzly Run, a once popular water rafting ride at Geauga Lake, still made its presence felt as long concrete chutes, twisted and turned like intestines bunched together. Now drained of water, it dominated the landscape on this end of New Cleveland. A creative entrepreneur named John Harper saw potential in the former water ride and had converted it into one of the town’s most unique and terrifying attractions. After careful planning and persuading Candyman that his vision was profitable, the town’s only horror-centered race was born, renamed, Harper’s Hell Run.

Within the quarter-mile of twisting ‘U’-shaped shafts, a variety of walls, obstacles, traps and most importantly—the reanimated—were placed throughout the course, offering contestants a chance to compete in a race around the tubes, while maneuvering to avoid the dead that were changed up in various places throughout the course.

Candyman had been skeptical about the idea at first, believing Harper’s idea would generate no interest in a world already full of so many dangerous terrors, but Harper had used that very point to pitch his idea:

“Under the right controlled conditions,” he’d pitched, “and with a substantial reward promised to the winner, everyone would jump at the chance to prove themselves a survivor in the world ‘out there’, provided they could safely remain within these walls. But not only that, those who aren’t brave enough to face the course themselves, can still participate by watching the races, placing bets on their favorite survivors, and making their own mark of worthiness against this dark-ass new world.”

Candyman had changed his mind. The potential profits outweighed the risks of bringing the dead inside, which were heavily monitored by Lunatics with sniper rifles during each race, and Harper had been right.

After Harper’s success, especially with the betting end of the races, he’d expanded his business, taking over and rebuilding the large pavilion area directly south of Harper’s Hell Run, and turning it into an add-on outdoor casino where various card games were played on converted picnic tables. All sorts of other events were included—anything, anyone could place bets on in New Cleveland, from life expectancy wagers involving the murder shops to the latest odds on New Cleveland’s current champion over at the fight pits. Instead of money, which no longer had any value, bets were made, paid for, or lost with weapons, sex, drugs, clothing, food and other essential supplies.

Even people purchased at auctions were fair game at the tables.

And, of course, New Cleveland received a percentage of all profits.

~~~

Seymour Patterson, a.k.a., Nine Lives, sat bored out of his skull beneath one of the large wooden pavilions used for card games as he waited for the player on his right to make his bet at the makeshift Black Jack table.

The man was old, wearing what looked to Nine like some fur coat stripped right off Robert Redford’s back from the movie, Jerimiah Johnson. He also wore a matching hat made from the same fur with two green eyes staring back at him from the side of the hat. Between waiting endlessly on the man wrestling with indecision at his Jack-of-Diamonds showing and having those two beady critter eyes staring back at him, Nine was on the verge of screaming. He looked down at his own hand again.

Six-of-Spades showing. Three-of-Hearts face down.

Of course, he thought. Damn sixes and threes. Together they make nine, which is just a deceptive six in disguise. I know how this plays out.

Nine knew the odds. He knew he could’ve hit and received a face card giving him nineteen total. Normally, those were good odds since the dealer in a normal game of Black Jack was forced to hold at seventeen. But not in New Cleveland, where the dealers had every advantage to win, and the decks were often rigged. House rules.

But Nine never played the odds. He played the numbers. He’d chosen to stay, riding on his nine total.

Threes, Sixes and Nines were always bad. Fives, Sevens and anything ending in Zero, unless it was Zero were favorable. Twos, Fours and Eights could go either way depending on if they were accompanied by a bad card or a good one… and only if the total ended with a favorable number. And Ones… well… they were the loneliest numbers… as that famous song said. He only gambled on Ones if he was playing solo at a table. Nine’s rules.

The old codger was still deliberating over his Jack showing.

The dealer, an emotionless little man with beady eyes like the ones on the old man’s hat, looked like he could stand there for hours, if need be, as long as he kept winning hands. The dealer had a Six-of-Clubs showing.

“You still playing, or are you dreaming about the cards you really want?” Nine asked the old timer.

The old man grumbled something inaudible in his direction and continued to stew over his hand.

Nine smiled. He’d already figured out the man’s hand. He’s got the last six, face down, giving him sixteen. If he’d bluffed his way through this from the beginning and held up, the dealer would have had to hit, and bust… but he’s waited too long, betraying his shit hand. He wants to hit, but he knows he might bust… and he will.

“I’d let it ride,” Nine said, causing both the dealer and the old man to shoot him dirty looks. “Just saying. You either got that twenty… or you don’t. Dealer doesn’t care. He’s going to hit regardless.”

“Mind your own damn business,” the old man snapped.

“Okay,” Nine said. “I’m just trying to tell you what the numbers are saying… that’s all. There are far too many sixes in this round. I’d let this one ride and save yourself some pain. Make the dealer stick his hand in the viper pit and see what happens.”

“What about you, jerk face?” the old man said. “You ain’t gotta prayer with that six you got showing.”

“You might be right,” Nine admitted. “But the dealer doesn’t know what I know… and neither do you.”

“Cocky bastard,” the old man said. He glanced up at the dealer. “Hit me, asshole!”

The dealer’s face never changed. He quickly drew another card and flipped it over. It was the Queen-of-Hearts. “Bust!” The dealer declared, revealing the old man’s sixteen plus another ten.

“Son-of-a-whore!” the old codger yelled, slamming his fist on the table. He gave Nine a dirty look and then stormed off, muttering to himself about shady card sharks stinking up the waterhole… or something like that.

Nine laughed and stared at the dealer. “Thought he’d never make up his mind,” he said.

The dealer stared back indifferently.

“Wow, you really are the talkative one, aren’t you?”

The dealer said nothing.

Nine smirked. “Well… okay, then. Why don’t you put us both out of our misery.”

The dealer flipped his bottom card up, revealing a Three-of-Diamonds. With his Six showing, that gave him nine total, exactly what Nine had.

“Wow,” Nine said. “Look at that.”

He’ll hit this because the odds are telling him to, Nine thought. But the numbers will bite him in the ass… unless the game’s rigged.

The dealer took another card. He flipped up the Three-of-Clubs.

Nine smiled. It’s a damn conspiracy! Sixes in the grassy knoll while those Threes are standing in the repository! I’ve won this hand because he’s about to take the bullet.

For a moment, Nine thought the dealer was going to hold at twelve, since he just stood there, staring at the strange young man. Then, he finally gave himself another card. Ten-of-Diamonds. Dealer busts.

“Winner!” the robotic man dealing cards declared.

Nine got up with a smile. “See,” he said. “The numbers don’t lie… unless they’re supposed to. Odds can’t anticipate that one, my friend. If it makes you feel any better, I bet real low on that hand.”

The dealer looked away, already losing interest in him as three more customers moved in to sit at the table.

“Well, it was nice chatting with you,” Nine said, turning away from the table and shaking his head. He’d already won most of the games he’d played this evening, more than doubling his profits… or rather… John Harper’s profits.

As a ruse to encourage people to play more games, Nine’s job was to go around the casino and win as much as he could, showing potential customers how easy it was to play and get paid. He already had the intel on which tables were rigged and which games were legit. Nine played only on the tables where the dealers weren’t performing magic tricks with the cards. It was a clever ploy, scattering hired players around the tables with a skill set for the games and a unique understanding of numbers, especially when it came to odds or counting cards, in the hope that it appeared like more people won in Harper’s casino than lost. And, of course, Nine had to pay back his borrowed winnings, plus profits, but he was able to keep a small percentage for himself… a very small percentage.

Nine walked among the crowd busily moving about the tables. Part of him enjoyed his new position, only because it gave him a chance to mingle with people and almost forget their old world had died. But it never took long for something bad to happen or find himself engaged in some dark conversation that quickly reminded him that New Cleveland was not anything like the old world… it was hell.

Someone in a hurry to pass bumped into Nine’s right side. “Hey, watch it!” he said, turning.

A young girl no older than ten, spun around and said, “Sorry, sir. Gotta split.” She had short, wavy blue hair that hung over her right eye. It was completely shaved on the left. Before Nine could say anything else, the girl whirled back around and quickly maneuvered her way through the crowd.

Nine stopped and tracked the girl. Aside from the fact that she’d just tried to pickpocket him unsuccessfully (he’d learned to keep his valuables in his front pockets) it was the back of the girl’s jacket that caught his complete attention.

It was a jean jacket, far too big for her, with familiar ‘80s rock band logos etched on the back in black Sharpie. It was Brian’s jacket, his deceased older brother. The very same jacket that Nine had given to Diane.

“Shit!” he hissed, quickly following the girl.

Nine ended up at another gambling table at the other end of the pavilions where one of his peers was running operations, currently playing poker.

Nine frowned at the tall slender man about his own age, wearing a leather jacket and an annoying cocky smile as he sat in the middle chair of a crowded table. He had messy black hair and wore a large loop earring in his left ear. Mike Fucking McMurphy, he thought. I should’ve known.

The young punk-looking girl stood at Mike’s right, whispering something in his ear. The girl was clearly one of Mike’s runners. A few of Harper’s players, who’d been at this gig much longer than Nine, had hired street kids to scout the crowds for potential prospects. ‘Suckers’ as the veteran players liked to call them. They also used runner children to keep tabs on who was winning, and equally losing, big bets, as well as a using them to fetch them drinks and numerous other tasks, including a little thievery on the side. Harper’s players considered their runners carefully, treating them like good luck talismans.

Nine sighed and slowly approached Mike, stopping a few feet behind the card shark to allow the current round of poker to finish playing out, as etiquette dictated. Nine had learned early that friendly conversation between Harper’s players was impossible since most of them considered each other as competition to remain in Harper’s employment. Those who won big games always threatened those who won smaller hands… and none of them liked the ‘new guys’, such as Nine, who encroached upon their territory.

Mike won big hands and made the boss a lot of money. He also had no patience for nickel-and-dime pansies like Nine, or so he told him once when Nine tried to introduce himself.

The young punk girl noticed Nine standing behind them. Her eyes went wide as she quickly whispered again in Mike’s ear.

Mike ignored the girl long enough to finish out the poker hand. He won, of course. Mike refused to turn around, hoping the annoying pansy would disappear.

Nine took a deep breath and rolled his eyes. Assholes will always abound, apocalypse or no apocalypse. He said to the asshole’s back, “Excuse me… Mike. Could I have a word?”

Without turning, Mike said, “What do want, pansy? Did you finally realize there’s shit money to be made at Black Jack?”

Nine laughed. “Whatever you say. I’m not here to interrupt your… game. This is about your runner.”

Mike looked at the girl.

She shrugged her shoulders at him.

“And… what about my runner?” he said, still refusing to turn around. “Could you make this quick, by the way. We’ve got another game about to start.”

“Well… she tried to pickpocket me about five minutes ago,” Nine said.

Again, the girl played dumb.

“Was she successful?”

“No.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Nine was losing patience with the jerk. “It’s about the jacket she’s wearing. It belongs to a friend of mine.”

Mike sighed heavily to show his annoyance. He finally turned around to look at him. “This friend of yours… is he or she dead now?”

“That’s a fucking shitty thing to ask,” Nine said. “But… no… she’s not.”

“Ah, a girl then. That changes everything.”

“How so?”

“Is she attractive? Or should I say… was?”

Nine balled his fists. He wanted to punch the prick. “That’s strike two on the stupid questions I’m not here to answer.”

Mike smiled at him and shook his head. “C’mon, rookie. You know the score by now. Maybe you had a girl, and now you probably don’t. What happened? Did you lose her in a bet?”

“The jacket,” Nine said. “It’s mine. Just hand it over and I’ll leave you to your… business.”

“No, pansy,” Mike said. “The jacket’s mine. I bought it downtown, fair and square. It’s not my fault your girl lost it. You do know what happens to possessions when girls are… well… no longer in need of them, right?”

“That’s not the case here, asshole.” Nine took a threatening step closer. “My girl is fine. In fact, if you knew who she was and who she worked for… you might be a little less… difficult… right now. I’m trying to be nice here, but you’re pushing it.”

Mike raised his eyebrows at him. “Woah, tough guy. So… sorry. You want to cause a scene? Really? You think Harper’s going to like finding out that your harassing his best player?”

“Second best,” Nine said. He couldn’t resist. “You know the real score. I may not have the miles in yet, but in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve made the rest of you look like pocket change when it comes to profits.”

“Spoken like a noob who’s had a lucky run. Come back and talk to me like that after you’ve been here a few more minutes. We’ll see how lucky you really are, then.”

“So says the cocky prick who knows I’m making him look bad,” Nine pushed. “That’s the only reason you’re giving me shit. But the numbers don’t lie.”

That struck a nerve. Mike stopped smiling. “The jacket’s mine. I don’t care who your girl is or who she’s fucking.”

“Watch it.”

“Point is… something happened to her. Something that caused said jacket to be sold in the marketplace downtown. Make up any story you want, if it makes you feel better, but the jacket’s still mine. You got a problem with that, then you can take up with the vendors… that’s the fucking law, chump.”

Nine tried to stay calm. Every word oozing from this serpent’s mouth threatened to provoke him to do something he’d regret, and the last thing he wanted to do was attract attention to himself, especially now, and over a jacket. He needed to change tactics.

“Fine,” he said. “You may have the law on your side, but that doesn’t change the fact that the jacket doesn’t belong to you.”

“Does now.” Mike turned back to the table.

This made the young runner smirk.

Nine glared at her, causing her to look down nervously.

“I’ll play you for it,” Nine said.

“Fuck off, noob.”

“Sounds like a pussy talking,” Nine said with a laugh. “All that big, bad talk, and you won’t accept my challenge?”

Mike said nothing.

“You know what? Keep it. I’ve just won something much better, pussy.” Nine started to turn.

“Wait!” Mike turned back around.

Nine stopped, but kept his back facing him.

“Does the fucking thing mean that much to you?”

Nine finally turned, flashing the asshole a cocky smile of his own. “Not as much as watching your cowardly ass back down from this noob’s challenge.”

“Fine,” Mike said. “I’ll play you for it. You win… and you won’t… I’ll give you the damn filthy thing. But when I win, you’re going to stand there while my runner shreds it to pieces right in front of you.”

The young girl looked displeased by the prospect of losing the jacket either way.

Nine never faltered. “Deal.”

Mike laughed. “Name your game, noob. I don’t care what it is. Just make it quick, because I’ve got another round starting in a couple of minutes. Unlike you, my time means something here.”

Nine looked right at Mike’s runner. “How lucky is she?”

“That’s for me to know, pansy. Why do you ask?”

“Well… since this all started with her, I suggest we bet on her skills.”

The girl looked back and forth between them, confused, and a little frightened.

Mike looked intrigued. “Go on.”

Nine rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Since you know her success rate, you’ll clearly have the advantage. I, on the other hand, won’t need the odds… just the numbers.”

Mike squinted his eyes at his runner, then stared impatiently at Nine. “Just spit it out, already. What’s the challenge?”

“Have the little thief do her thing,” Nine said. “If she can successfully pick three out of six random customer’s pockets, you win. But if she fails, the jacket’s mine. As far as odds go, that’s fifty percent, but only you know how good she really is, so you’d be betting on your own luck.”

“Interesting,” Mike said. He stared at his runner again.

The girl nodded confidently and winked.

Mike smiled and looked back at Nine. “I’ll take that bet. You’re a sucker for believing the odds are fair. You don’t give my runner enough credit.”

“Yeah, but I know the numbers, asshole,” Nine said. “And they don’t care about credit. Circumstances are never the same and the numbers know it.”

Mike had no idea what that meant. He waved a dismissive hand in his face. “Let’s get this over with.” He excused himself from the table, got up out of his chair and walked over to Nine. The girl followed.

“You pick them,” Nine said.

Mike laughed. “You sure? That’s tipping the odds my way again. I can spot an easy target anywhere.”

“Won’t matter,” Nine said. “Go ahead. How much time will she need?”

“Ten minutes… tops.” Mike whispered with his runner as he pointed around the crowd, picking out six potential targets. He then slapped her on the ass like a dog and said enthusiastically, “Go get ‘em, girl!”

Nine moved up beside Mike as the two of them watched the clever girl go to work.

“After this is finished,” Mike said, crossing his arms. “You stay the hell out of my territory. Are we clear? Stick to the Black Jack tables and spare me these annoying headaches.”

“No problem,” Nine said. “Anywhere I’m out range of the sound of your annoying voice is a good day for me.”

Mike laughed. “You really are a fucking pansy.”

“And you’re already King of the Assholes, in my book,” Nine said, mockingly crossing his arms.

The young girl had already picked her first pocket. That made one of her first two attempts as she held up what looked like a wallet.

“One down,” Mike said.

“Who the hell still carries a wallet?” Nine said. “What’s the damn point?”

“It’s civilized, I suppose,” Mike said. “Old habits are hard to break.”

“Think he’s still carrying cash?”

Mike raised an eyebrow. “Probably. Hell, in a few years there might be a market for old currency. Some nostalgia bullshit sold in an antique shop.”

“Maybe he’s got nude pictures of his ex-wife,” Nine said. “If your runner’s not got them by now, she’ll have sticky fingers for sure after that one.”

“You’re fucking stupid,” Mike said with a laugh.

“I try,” Nine smiled.

They watched as the girl moved around the crowd. She raised a small fold-up knife into the air, after picking a rather robust gentleman eating God-only-knew what. That made two in a row.

“Two out of three, not bad,” Mike said. “I think you’re about to say goodbye to your favorite jacket.”

“Hate that fucking song,” Nine said. “But now I’m hungry for meatloaf.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

The girl attempted to steal what looked like a candy bar from the back pocket of a jittery woman. She almost got it, but the woman spun around quickly, reaching back to secure the chocolate.

“That was a nice try,” Nine teased.

“Fuck you. I wanted that candy bar,” Mike shot back. “She’ll get it in five. Just watch.”

The next attempt was a man wearing a long rain coat.

“What is it with people wearing furs and heavy coats around here?” Nine said. “Have I missed the memo saying winter’s coming early?”

“People feel safer in bulkier clothing,” Mike said. “Makes them look bigger, more threatening, not to mention the extra layers serve to keep an unwanted knife blade from penetrating too deep, walking along in the wrong alley.”

Nine shook his head. “Makes sense. I guess I’ve been hanging out too long on the friendlier side of town.”

Mike gave him in incredulous look, then turned back in time to watch his runner botch up the current job as the man in the coat took a sharp turn to the left, causing the girl to quickly retrieve her hand before being caught.

“Dumb bitch,” he hissed. “She should’ve seen that coming.”

“You’re just pissed about the chocolate bar,” Nine teased. “She’s still got one more chance to get you one.”

“Would you please shut the fuck up.”

“Anything you say… your majesty.”

They both watched as the young girl approached another man standing in the center of a crowd, reading signs, and looking confused.

“This will be an easy one,” Mike said. “That guy’s just asking for it.”

Nine watched as the young girl reached into the man’s back pocket with stealthy fingers, retrieving a round gold object.

Mike smiled. “That’s my girl. Looks like a fucking gold coin! Game’s over dipshit.”

“Wait,” Nine said. “It’s not a coin.”

The girl went to raise the round object, not realizing that it was still attached to a gold chain on the man’s belt. The man immediately turned and caught the girl trying to steal his pocket watch. The girl quickly dropped the watch and disappeared in the crowd while the man started to give chase, then gave up.

“Sonofabitch!” Mike hissed. “She should’ve known better than that.”

“I win,” Nine said, turning smugly to face the jerk. “Don’t feel bad,” he consoled. “With those numbers at work, the odds didn’t stand a chance.”

Mike refused to look at him. He glared toward his runner who was slowly returning, looking like a dog who had just been caught pissing on the rug. “Give it to me,” he hissed at her.

The girl flinched at his harsh tone and quickly removed the jacket. She handed it to Mike who snatched it roughly from her hand.

Mike, without turning toward the gloating Nine, tossed the coat at his feet. “There. Now get out of here,” he said.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he mocked, picking up his jacket. By the time he stood back up, Mike had backhanded the young girl, knocking her to the ground. “What the fuck?”

“I said, get out of here.” This time Mike glared at him. His eyes filled with anger. “Now!” He then kicked his runner hard in the gut.

“Stop that!” Nine said. “She’s just a kid!”

“She’s mine to do with, however I please,” Mike said. “You got your fucking rag back. Now let me handle my affairs in peace.”

The girl remained on the ground, cowering, trying her best to cover her face as Mike screamed at her. “You’re fucking worthless! Bad fucking luck bitch!” He kicked her again. Hard.

“I said stop that shit, or I’ll start kicking you around to see how you like it!” Nine stepped in between Mike and the girl.

He glared at him in disbelief. “You really are fucking stupid!” he shouted in his face. “She’s my property… don’t you get it? I could slit her fucking throat right now and be well within my rights!”

“You touch that girl again, and I’m going to knock your fucking teeth out,” Nine promised.

Mike saw something in Nine’s face, something he’d not seen before, but only heard about. Nine clearly had the look of someone who’d been outside, surrounded by monsters, and had lived to tell about it. It was clear that he was staring down another monster now.

Mike held up. He raised his hands submissively and smiled. “Okay, noob. I get it. This isn’t your thing. I respect that. I was just disciplining this piece of shit for her own good. But I’ll back off… alright?”

“You better,” he said, pointing a finger in his face. “You don’t hit kids, asshole. That was never cool before the world went to shit, and it’s not fucking cool now. So, hands off!”

“You got it,” he said. “You’re right… you’re right. I just lost my head for a minute. I won’t hit her again.”

Nine glared at him and nodded. He turned and walked over to the girl still cowering on the ground. He reached his hand down to help her up.

The girl swatted it away. “You don’t know what you’ve done,” she hissed. “Stop helping… you’re making everything worse!”

Nine retracted his hand, confused.

Mike laughed. “Wow, noob. You really don’t know shit about how things are here, do you?”

He turned back. “You’re right about that one,” he said sadly. “Just… just don’t hit the girl. I’ll be back to check on her, and if I find another mark… I will take it out on you. Count on it.”

Mike saw the no-nonsense look in Nine’s eyes and simply nodded. “We’re cool. Just leave. I’ve still got a game to finish here, anyway.”

“Fuck you, and all your games,” Nine said, turning to walk off.

He put on his brother’s jacket, refusing to look back at the King of the Assholes, or at the girl who despised him for trying to help.

He thought of Diane, and what losing the jacket meant.

God, please let her be alright… please!

They all knew where she was and who she was with. Tony had advised them all the last time they’d managed to meet to keep distance between them to avoid suspicion. And because of how close Diane was to Candyman’s court, they all saw her the least.

Nine could not get to her safely, not without making things worse for both of them. They couldn’t risk exposing all their plans to get the hell away from this nightmare by flaunting their relationship all over town. He looked down at his jacket—Diane’s jacket. He desperately needed to hold her close, especially in this cold place, where no one held on to anything precious… unless it was profitable.

~~~

Next Episode 50-4

Previous Episode 50-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 50-3: Amusement” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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