~~~

Late night in New Cleveland. Long after most businesses had closed, all but a few of the town’s generators were shut off to conserve fuel. This was considered by most to be a very dangerous time to be out and about, wandering the dark streets. Although no official curfew was enforced during these hours, the added darkness served to discourage citizens from straying too far from wherever they’d found to sleep in large numbers—the only deterrent to keep from mysteriously disappearing before dawn. Sometimes, the occasional visitor might overstay their welcome in one of the many establishments set up to indulge the bleaker side of humanity, only to find themselves kicked out at closing time, alone and lost in one of New Cleveland’s dark crack districts where predators of all kinds had set up their playgrounds in the after-hours.

A big man, concealed in a large hooded robe, cautiously crept down one of these cracks, being mindful not to let the moonlight above expose him while cleaving to shadows in an alley formed by several long trailers. Any other time, the man would’ve been grateful for the precious ambient light, giving him an advantage over those waiting in dark corners like traps for weaker prey, but not tonight. The last thing he needed was to get spotted by anyone, whether it was a Lunatic patrol or just someone looking to make a profit by reporting suspicious activity to shop owners about strange robed men lurking about their establishments.

The big man continued to creep about the quiet town, one of the few times he could appreciate the silent, yet deadly, calm present in a place usually full of wild animals in a cageless zoo of debauchery. But now, everything about New Cleveland had been sedated by the night, like a large dark blanket temporarily thrown over the eyes, acting as a veil concealing every permanent blood stain the town had accumulated, along with each horror story that went along with them.

But even now, the darkness could not command all to remain still. While most places in town went to sleep, others were just awakening as ghosts mingled with monsters, with little to distinguish them. Various amusement park relics left abandoned in remote areas of New Cleveland sat like silent beasts pretending to be long dead while the town was built up around them. And in such places, it was rumored that voices from the past spoke in whispers, and one could feel a thousand eyes upon them as if standing in a crowd that was not there.

The man was headed to such a place to meet his shady contact.

To the west of the fight pits sat the remains of a kid’s playground built within a small pool. Splash Landing, as it was called in a previous life, was once a pirate ship jungle gym where kids could climb her decks, pretend to set sail on imaginative adventures, or just jump overboard from planks, or barrel down small slides into uncharted waters to finally get bombarded by cannons that soaked them to their playful ends.

The man arrived just to the south of Splash Landing and removed his hood, revealing his hard, bruised face beneath a tangled mop of dark hair. Tony took a deep breath to steady his nerves as he gazed upon the former kid’s attraction. The once magnificent pirate ship lay partially submerged in a sickening green pool of long stagnant water, resembling a small swamp. Tall weeds had grown up around the pool, as well as within it. The smell of muck, shit and urine overwhelmed his nostrils as he covered his nose and mouth, trying not to gag. New Cleveland had no working sewage system and places like Splash Landing had been converted into gathering grounds for the town’s waste.

Tony continued to stare at the wreck within the pool. He could hear the faint laughter of children like echoes breaking through the silence. His faraway tired eyes were dark and haunted, like this place.

From the other side of Splash Landing, Tony could see a faint light coming from beyond the pirate ship, behind a wall of weeds at the edge of the pool.

That was the signal.

Tony cautiously moved through the tall grass until revealing the source of the light.

His contact sat buried in the weeds, wearing an old dirty bath robe. His mangy grey hair hung over his shoulders, blending in with his long beard. His eyes were covered by thick brown glasses. His legs were crossed, his back straight, looking like some homeless Buddha.

“That’s close enough, Tony,” the contact said in a pleasant voice that seemed to belong to anyone else. “Please, sit with me. We’ve much to discuss.”

Tony sat down in the weeds, twenty feet from the strange man. He looked around and said, “You pick the best places to meet. This place smells like I’ve just crawled up inside New Cleveland’s asshole.”

The contact smiled, revealing his stained teeth.

For a moment, Tony thought the man’s teeth resembled fangs. He dismissed it, blaming this disturbing meeting place for firing up his imagination.

“Sorry for the… strong aroma,” the strange man said. “Besides being a discreet location to meet, I’ve never minded the smell. It’s sufficiently distracting for someone like myself.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Tony said, shifting uncomfortably. “I hope you have something useful to tell me this time, Taven. These late-night rendezvous are getting harder to pull off without attracting notice.”

This was the third meeting Taven had arranged since introducing himself to Tony after his first fight. Tony had wandered off alone away from the fight pits, wounded within and without, needing space to deal with his conflicting emotions after killing his first man for sport.

Taven had crept up on him with ease, startling the big man. Tony had originally dismissed the filthy man as some homeless nut when he’d approached, until the man had said, “I know why you’re here, Tony. A group of strangers seeking strangers like themselves. I can help you find them. I can help you free them. There is a time and a place for everything, if one can master the art of patience.”

Tony had hit a low point, not knowing how he was going to get any of his friends out of this mess, feeling like New Cleveland’s prize murderer in the arena. Taven’s timing could not have been better for holding out a shred of hope. Tony had desperately snatched it up, believing the strange man could help him… could help all of them.

So far, Taven, who seemed to know a lot about him and his friends, including Orosco’s group, had only offered hints as answers to Tony’s questions, providing just enough for the big man to believe that these meetings would yield results in time. And since Tony had no other solutions, he had nothing to lose by trusting the odd man.

“I’ve been patient,” Tony began from the weeds. “But so far, you haven’t given me anything I can use to help my friends. I’m starting to doubt whether you’re of any use at all, or, if you’re just tricking me into confiding in you so you can go back and tell Candyman everything I’ve said.”

“Oh, but I have good news today, Tony,” Taven said. “I’ve known for some time where your missing group of friends were. I was simply waiting on the right when.”

Tony’s eyes lit up. “You’ve found them? Orosco, and his people? They’re still alive?”

“Yes… yes… and yes,” Taven said. “Timing is everything in New Cleveland. You just have to wait for the right moment to present itself… a moment that opens up a multitude of possibilities… and I believe that moment approaches.”

Tony sighed. “Speak plainly for once. If you’ve found them then tell me where they are. I can’t help them with riddles.”

Taven laughed. “Not riddles, my friend. It’s more a matter of routines than riddles. I’ve learned to wait, and watch, and understand the patterns in things. Some consider me a seer of sorts because I can predict the patterns in such a way… and anticipate the outcomes… or in this case… many outcomes.”

The big man balled his fists. “You’re doing it again! Tell me something that makes sense, or these little meetings stop right now! I’m far too tired for your bullshit. You told me last time that you’d have answers for me after my ninth fight… and that it would be the last time I’d spill blood in that fucking pit of death!”

Taven held up his hands. “Yes… and it shall come to pass! But the bloodshed is far from finished. Up until now, every moment you’ve spent in the pits have been preparing you for the one moment that comes… a moment which will require a killer’s precision… without hesitation.”

Tony did not like the sound of that. He settled down. “What are you getting me involved with, Taven?”

“What are you willing to get involved with to save the ones you care about?” the strange man shot back. “Would you kill for them? Once more?”

Tony closed his eyes. He could still picture every death replay in his mind, each victory in the pit—a bitter pill to swallow—but buying him and his friends time while he kept suspicious eyes focused on himself, allowing the others to gain whatever information they could while their leader continued to abide by the rules of ownership, requiring him to spill blood… again and again. “You know I would,” he said sadly. “You know that I have.”

“Indeed!” Taven said excitedly. “Yes, you have! But now, your moment has arrived! A moment full of choices and outcomes! The time has come to fight—not in the pits—but in the world that would watch your friends suffer. One last fight! Will you? Can you? Or is there nothing left behind those suffering eyes?”

Tony glared at the man. “I’m not giving up, if that’s what you’re asking. This town has stolen a lot from me, parts of me I may never get back, but not what’s vital. Are you hearing me, Taven?”

Taven smiled, flashing his sharp, toothy smile. “Yes… I am hearing you clearly, my friend.”

Tony could see his sharpened teeth now. “What are you?” he whispered. He’d always suspected that there was something wrong with the man but had chosen to overlook it.

Taven laughed. “I am the future.”

He shook his head and looked away. “More fucking riddles. Let’s get on with this.” He locked eyes with Taven and said, “Fuck what you are, or what I can or can’t do. Talk to me about this… moment. Just give me something… anything… point me in the right direction, and if it’s another fight that’s required, then so be it!”

Taven nodded with satisfaction. “You are ready. Your friends… they are also ready to fight. I’ve seen their suffering, too.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Not important now. They are ready to join you in the moment that comes. And that moment is nigh.”

“Could you be a little more specific?” Tony growled.

Taven smiled. “Two mornings from now, at dawn, a convoy leaves New Cleveland, heading east. Orosco, and the others will be on those trucks.”

Tony tensed up. “Where’s the convoy going?”

“You know this already.”

Tony’s face grew dark. “Mosquito Creek.”

“Yes,” Taven hissed like a snake. He leaned forward and whispered, “But it will never arrive. The convoy will depart New Cleveland and head in an entirely different direction. Do you know why?”

Tony’s face was a stone. “Because you’re going to tell me where they keep this convoy?”

“Yes.”

Tony nodded. “And I’m going to be the reason it never makes it to Mosquito Creek.”

“Bloodshed,” Taven hissed. “Bloodshed fit for a true champion.”

“Don’t ever call me that again,” Tony warned.

“As you wish.” Taven leaned back. “I will now tell you where it is, how to get close without being seen, but most importantly… when to attack it. And the when is what matters most. Understand?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “I understand.”

“And we will need a sufficient distraction, which I’ve provided.” Taven revealed a crate sitting beside him. He removed the lid. “Come see.”

Tony moved in closer to inspect the contents of the crate. His eyes went wide.

Within the crate were various blunt weapons, a small crossbow, a wrapped bundle of dynamite, and a detonator.

“Fuck me,” Tony whispered. “Where did you get all this?”

“We’ve much to discuss,” Taven said, ignoring the question. “There isn’t much time before you will be missed.”

“Just one thing, first,” Tony said.

Taven gave him a curious look.

“What’s in this for you? I know you don’t give a shit about what happens to me or my friends. So, what is it? If I’ve learned anything about New Cleveland, it’s that everyone’s playing an angle… and everyone’s looking for a profit.”

Taven giggled, lightly clapping his hands in delight.

Tony was trying to decide when it was he’d put his trust in a madman.

“Wise Tony! Tony the Wise! That is what I shall call you.”

“I’d rather you not. I’ve done my share of stupid… these little meetings included.”

“Fair enough. But you deserve to know. A worthwhile question… well timed… deserves its answer.”

“For Christ’s sake… enough with the fucking riddles!”

All the humor left Taven’s face. For once, he spoke plainly. “You will intercept the trucks and save your friends. What happens after will be up to you. But when the convoy fails to arrive at Mosquito Creek… on time… the truce between Sodom and its Destroyers will cease… and what follows will be glorious!”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You asked why I’m helping you. You have your answer.”

Tony’s eyes went wide. “What happens when Mosquito Creek doesn’t receive that convoy?”

Taven smiled. “You know the answer to that, as well.” The strange man leaned in and gave Tony a scrutinizing gaze. “Bloodshed will beget bloodshed. Are you prepared for the consequences of your actions, Tony? Are your friends worth what will follow?”

Tony considered everything he and his friends had seen and suffered because of New Cleveland. Surprising himself with how little he felt, or the lack of hesitation, Tony nodded. “Yeah… I’m fine with those ‘consequences’ you mentioned. Just help me get my people out of here. As far as what happens after, I don’t care if this fucking place burns to the ground.”

Taven laughed. “You have become a hard man, Tony. Sometimes it takes a hard man to do hard things, make difficult choices… and sometimes… make sacrifices.”

“Lets’ just get on with the plan,” Tony said, averting his gaze and shifting uncomfortably.

Taven hesitated, staring at the big man with a crazy smile.

“What?” Tony said.

Taven smiled. “Do you know what I am, Tony? Why I wear these dark sunglasses in the middle of the night?”

Tony didn’t look at the man. “I have my suspicions,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. If you can help me get my people to safety, I don’t care what you are behind those glasses.”

Taven laughed, then got serious. “And If I told you that I was a devil?”

Tony shook his head and laughed. “Then I guess I’ll eventually regret this deal I’ve made with you.”

Taven nodded with a playful chant, “Wise Tony, Tony the Wise.”

The big man added nothing as he silently considered this crazy man. Devil or not, trusting this creature has got to be one of the most ‘unwise’ choices I’ve ever made.

Over the next thirty minutes Taven shared the details of his dark plan.

And Tony listened intently to the devil’s every word.

~~~

Next Episode 51-1

Previous Episode 50-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 50-9: 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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