~~~

There were three lulls every evening at the card tables prior to each scheduled Harper’s Hell Run. This gave players a chance to cash in their winnings, make bets on the Run, or simply relocate in time for a good seat to watch the show.

Nine had just finished playing his final round of Black Jack, twenty minutes before the final Run. He sat back in his chair, watching the buzz of activity as dealers closed down tables while half-drunk customers complained about their loses or boasted about their wins—either way everyone started to collect themselves in time for the last event. Nine smiled and shook his head. Harper’s brilliant, he thought to himself. As barbaric as the Runs are, he’s timed them perfectly, using them to distract disgruntled patrons, collect his gains, and get them the hell on their way and out of his Casino Non-Royale.

He stood and stretched, looking forward to sleeping and shutting out all the numbers racing through his head. Nine turned and headed for Asshole Mike’s poker turf, hoping to check on the girl, avoid trash talking with the cocky prick, and then crashing hard. After seeing how Mike treated his young runners, especially the punk girl who had lost him a bet, Nine wasn’t taking any chances. He needed to know the unappreciative little thief was still okay since it was his fault that she’d been involved with Mike and Nine’s wager for his jacket.

Nine rolled his eyes and took a deep breath.

Asshole Mike was standing, talking to a small crowd of players at the close of his latest game, looking like he was giving them tips on how to be the best damn poker player in the world. Nine hated coming over to this side of the pavilion casino where the sharks ate sharks for dinner. Nine always did his part in making sure he won just enough to stay profitable, but he never tried to attract too much attention—not like Asshole Mike who thrived on it. He quickly scanned the area for the young runner but couldn’t find her.

Great. That means Asshole and I will have to have another quick chat. But knowing this guy, they’ll be nothing quick about it. Nine approached the card hustler, skipping the etiquette this time, and stepped right up into his little ring of fans.

The card shark glared at him, frowned, and then finished his conversation with players from his latest game. He professionally laughed with them like he was their best buddy, while encouraging the lambs to return tomorrow to finish the slaughter.

When the small crowd departed, Mike rolled his eyes, refusing to look at Nine, and said, “Did you come back to gloat? Really, you need to get over it. I have. It was just a silly side wager. Nothing to get all confident and in my face about. And may I remind you, we had a deal. You stay where you belong and the hell away from my tables.”

“Relax,” Nine said. “Games are done for the night. I’m not here to listen to your bullshit. I’m just checking in on the girl.”

“Girl? What girl are you referring to?”

“Stop fucking around. You know who I’m talking about. Your runner. I told you I’d be back to make sure you behaved. You’re a real champ for that, by the way. Big tough guy, pushing children around. Should be proud of yourself.”

“Oh,” Mike said, with a humorous smile, “that girl. Sorry, chump change, I’d already forgotten about her. And stop calling her ‘my runner’. Girl’s fucking bad luck, you saw that for yourself.”

Nine shook his head and smiled. “Wow. You lost a bet and you can’t even take responsibility for it. Blame it on the girl, right?”

“It’s late. What do you want?” Mike said impatiently.

“Where is she?”

“Oh, you’re still talking about the girl. Okay. Well… I didn’t do anything to her. After our chat, I started to see just how much trouble she was causing me, so I demoted her.”

“And… what does that mean?”

Mike finally looked at him. “It means, she’s no longer my runner. But I’ve found a way for her to make up for the trouble she’s caused and provide a little entertainment on the side.”

Nine was losing patience. “Look, asshole. I don’t want to hear it. I’m tired. Just tell me where she is so I can check up on her and I’ll be out of your hair. Unless, of course, I find a few more bruises on her that weren’t there before, then you and I are going to continue this conversation.”

“Relax. Just follow the crowd, tough guy. You’ll find her soon enough. I’m headed there now to see how she does.”

Nine looked toward the crowd slowly moving toward Harper’s Hell Run. He glared at Mike. “Tell me you didn’t put that little girl in the Run.”

Mike laughed. “That’s exactly what I did.”

Nine wanted to grab Mike, throw him to the ground, and beat the shit out of him. But that would cause a scene, and Mike knew it.

“Why the long face?” Mike said. “She didn’t even like you. Now you can go watch the annoying brat with everyone else. The crowd loves it when women or kids are involved in the Run. Don’t know why, but I don’t care. I’ve placed a side bet on that little twerp getting eaten by the second obstacle.”

Nine took a threatening step toward him. “Anywhere else, I’d knock that fucking smile off your face. Why the hell would you put a child in that horrible race? What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

Mike gave him a confused and frightened look, stepping back while trying to look like he wasn’t intimidated. “I don’t get you, pansy. What gives? She’s just a runner… and a bad one at that. Lots of players put them in the Run when they feel their luck’s gone bad. It’s a way of saving face among all our peers. Word got around fast that she cost me our little bet earlier. So… this was my way of handling it.”

“Did you not hear me, asshole? She’s just a kid! You don’t do that to children! You protect them!”

Mike still looked confused. “Look, I don’t know what world you live in. But that’s how things are done here. Once you’re no longer profitable in New Cleveland, you don’t last long. Hell, even you should know that by now.”

Nine rolled his eyes and gave up. The longer he talked with this monster the more he wanted to attack him. “Take her out,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“The Run, asshole. Take the girl out of the race.”

“You know I can’t do that,” Mike said. “It’s all been arranged. Bets have already been made. You don’t just remove someone from the Run. Seriously, are we done here?”

Nine closed his eyes. The asshole was right. Even if Mike tried, once someone was entered into the Run, there were no ‘take backs’. To even suggest it was against New Cleveland law.

Nine opened his eyes, realizing exactly what he had to do. You can’t take someone out of a race… but if there’s enough time… new competitors can be included. “How much time?” he said.

Mike was about to leave. He turned and asked, “What was that?”

“How much time before a Run can someone be entered?”

Mike gave him a crazy look. “Race starts in fifteen. It’s too late for that. Why do you ask?”

Shit. He’s right. Nine tried something else. “You’ve got some pull around here, don’t you?”

Mike smiled, never tiring of having his ego stroked. “Yes. But what does that have-”

“Then use it and get me into that race,” Nine said.

Mike raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You? Why the hell would you want that?”

“Does it matter?” Nine said.

Mike laughed. “I’ll admit, I’m a little puzzled, and amused by the idea of seeing you in the Run… but in the end… I don’t really care. Besides, entries still require a fee. Sorry, chump. I’m not cashing in a favor for your sorry ass.”

“You can have all my winnings,” Nine said. “That should cover any fee and still give you a profit for the favor. Just get me in that damn race.”

Mike was stunned. “What’s your angle?” he said, suspiciously. “You don’t give up your winnings for a chance at dying in some stupid race. You’re up to something. What did you do, place a large bet on yourself and then realize you can’t cover it?”

Nine slapped his forehead in frustration. “Man, I’m sick and tired of talking to all of you soulless wonders around here. It’s like New Cleveland’s version of stupidity.”

Mike frowned, not appreciating the insult. “Tell me your game… or forget it. Profits or no profits, I only invest on a sure thing, and your holding cards.”

Nine was running out of time. If he did nothing to stop that girl from getting slaughtered in the Run, and over a stupid jacket, he’d never live it down. “I’m in it for the girl,” he said. “No angles. No cards. She deserves better than this—all the kids do. It’s my fault she’s in this mess, and I’m just trying to clean it up.”

Mike just stared at him, giving Nine his best poker face. Finally, the asshole smiled, and said, “I get it now. It’s a bit freaky for my taste… but hey… I’m not judging.”

It was Nine’s turn to be confused. “What?”

“My runner,” he said. “You have a… thing… for her. Okay. I don’t see it, but hell, everyone’s got their fetishes. I get it. You want to save that girl for yourself. I bet you even came over to buy her from me, right? Then, you found out what I did, and now you’re desperate. That about cover it?”

Nine was about to protest with disgust, realizing what the prick was implying. Then stopped. What the hell. Let him think whatever he wants. I’m obviously not going to appeal to any sense of right and wrong. New Cleveland’s clearly made that an obsolete notion. Nine smiled. “You figured me out.”

“Thought that was it,” Mike said, feeling proud of himself. “So… this is your way of buying out the girl, right? Should you both make it through the Run, you intend on turning things around on me and suggesting that you’d paid for her with your winnings. Is that your game?”

“As you said, she’s not ‘your runner’ anymore. If I succeed, it’s in your best interest to let me take that bit of bad luck off your hands, or… you get to watch us both get eaten by the dead. Either way, you make out with all my winnings. Sounds like a win/win.”

Mike smiled. “It does. That’s what troubles me.”

“Tell you what,” Nine said. “Just get me into the race. If I get the girl out, we can still negotiate on a price.”

“With what? I’ll have all your winnings?”

Nine laughed. “Oh, I’m sure we can still negotiate on something you want.”

Mike nodded. “Yes. You’re right about that,” he added with a sly smile. “Okay, I’ll get you in. I’ll need five minutes to arrange it… but don’t you dare run off and make me look bad.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Nine said, suddenly realizing what he was about to do.

He smiled at his own stupidity and shook his head as Mike departed. “Damn,” he whispered. He thought of his friends scattered all around town. “I really needed you guys a minute ago… to remind me to shut the hell up.”

~~~

Unlike the fight pits, requiring gold coin status to get the best seats, Harper’s Hell Run was open to the general public. The eager crowd moved in all around the top of the large winding, looped concrete ditch to watch a dozen contestants survive the obstacle course. Most of the revenue from the races came from the betting pools prior to each run. Some bets were huge, others were small, giving every New Clevelander a chance to win by betting whatever they had on whoever was favored during each of the three daily Runs. The goal for each contestant was to complete the circuit through the course, and place as high as possible, depending on how many people survived. The last Run of the evening was always after sunset, making it the most challenging event, and often leaving the fewest survivors, making the final Run the deadliest and most popular to watch.

Nine felt himself being guided toward the starting line. He could hear the other contestants all around him, and beyond that, the excited murmur of the crowd. He tried to steady his breathing, not wanting to hyperventilate due to the sack placed over his head, a requirement for all contestants to keep them from gaining an advantage prior to the race, but the added anxiety was making it difficult to stay calm.

I heard someone say there were twelve of us, he thought. That’s a good sign, as far as the numbers are concerned. That would make me number twelve since I’m the late arrival. He tried to console his nerves with his own understanding of ‘the odds’, while trying not to sweat to an early death inside the sack.

After he was put into position, someone removed his sack. He squinted as his eyes adjusted to the single spotlight aimed down at the starting line. Beyond that was the open night sky, the moon creating silhouettes of the crowd leaning over the top of what resembled a concrete half-pipe that reminded him of a large skater park. Nine stared around at his equally disoriented competitors—some men, some women, some older, some a little younger than himself, until he found the shortest one pressed up against the back of the group.

The runner girl looked nervously in both directions of the course and then moved in a little closer to the tall man standing right in front of her, attempting to make him a human shield.

Nine approached the girl, startling her with his words. “There you are,” he said. “Relax, kid. We’re going to be okay.”

Confused at first, the young girl with the punk haircut, stared up at the stranger shrouded in shadow, until she recognized the jean jacket. She frowned, letting her shoulders slump. “Oh, it’s you.”

Nine laughed. “It’s nice to see you again, too.”

The girl tried to move around another contestant, but Nine moved with her. She turned back, annoyed. “What do you want? You already got my jacket. You trying to steal my shirt, too?”

“First of all,” Nine said, “it’s my jacket. Second, in payment for the ass-whooping I spared you from, I’ll settle for your name. Mine’s Nine, by the way.”

“That’s a stupid name.”

Nine shook his head. “I see we’re off to a great start. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Yeah… thanks for nothing, asshole. I’m in here because of you.”

“Nice language. You kiss your mother goodnight with that mouth?”

The girl said nothing.

“Okay,” Nice said, looking in both directions of the dark course. All he could see were several shadowed obstacles just outside the range of the spotlight. Beyond both dark sections, another spotlight was lit up in the distance. “We can chit-chat latter. Right now, I need you to stay close to me. We stick together, we’ll make it through this.”

“My hero,” she said sarcastically. “Is that why you’re in here?”

“Wow. You’re just oozing with gratitude. But, yeah, that’s why I’m here.”

“Don’t do me any more favors,” she said. “I think you’ve done enough.”

Nine started contemplating what on earth would possess anyone to have children. He tried again. “Look, I have a little experience with this kind of thing. I’ve been outside so I know how the dead operate. And… I’m the luckiest son-of-a-gun you’re ever going to meet.”

“Not from my perspective,” she said. The girl stared at the coat. “Well, maybe you are a little lucky.”

“How so?”

“After your dead, I can get my jacket back.”

“Nice.”

The race was about to begin. All the contestants stared at each other nervously.

“There’s no time,” Nine told her, losing the rest of his humor. “I mean it, stay close to me. I’ll get you out of this.”

For once, the girl did not bite back. Her fear was apparent. “I don’t want to do this,” she said. “I don’t think… I don’t think I can move from this spot.”

“You’ll be okay. We’ll take it one step at a time… together.”

“Don’t leave me out there,” she said, failing to retain her tough act and wiping a tear from her eye with the back of her hand. “Promise.”

Nine smiled. “You got it, kid. I promise.”

The girl nodded and smiled nervously.

“Okay,” Nine said, staring in both directions of the course. “Rules are simple enough. We can start in either direction. We can’t climb out or the Lunatics along the course will shoot us, and we just need to get all the way to the top. Easy-peasy.”

“I heard… I heard there’s traps everywhere,” the girl said. “The dead are chained up in places you don’t see them until it’s too late.” She looked around and finished, “And… it’s very dark in here. We won’t see them at all.”

Nine could feel the young girl’s panic starting to infect him. Get it together, he reminded himself. You’ve been through worse than this. He reached down and grabbed the girl’s hand. “Stay cool,” he told her. “The dead are like old dogs. They don’t know any new tricks—well, not the reanimated ones, anyway. We can outsmart them if we don’t cave to fear. Most of the time, they’re staring off into nowhere like a bunch of potheads at a Grateful Dead concert… until they see us. Then they get super clumsy, like stupid dogs going for a bone. We can use that to our advantage in here.”

“Why do you call them Grateful Dead? Is that a thing outside of here?” she asked.

“Seriously?” Nine shook his head. “Never mind. I’m just saying that the dead are predictable. We can use that. You ready?”

“No,” she said. “But, I’m short and quiet. They might not even see me, right?”

“Exactly,” Nine encouraged. “You’re starting to get it.”

“And… since you talk so much… they might eat you first, and I can get away.”

Nine scowled at her.

She smiled. “Just playing.”

He laughed. “Kid’s got jokes. Okay. That’s cool.”

“Which way?” she said.

“We’ll let the rest of these jokers decide that for us,” Nine said. “As soon as the race starts, everyone’s going to go nuts. We’ll just hang back a little, see which way most of them go, and then go the other way.”

She nodded. “Smart. Let the dead eat the competition, then just slip around them while they’re snacking on human candy-bars.”

Nine cringed. “I wouldn’t have put it that way, but… sure… if that helps you sleep at night. Did you just call them ‘human candy-bars’?”

“Sorry,” she said. “I really wanted that candy-bar I tried to steal earlier. Been thinking about it ever since.”

“O-kay.”

“And… I’m really hungry now,” she admitted. “Is that wrong, you think?”

“Only if you’re craving the human kind,” he said with a wink.

“Uh, that’s like… gross,”

Nine laughed. “I like you, kid. Don’t get eaten.”

“You, too. I really like that jacket.”

Without any fanfare or warning, someone from above shouted down to them:

“READY… SET… GO!”

~~~

Next Episode 50-7

Previous Episode 50-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 50-6: 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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