The Crunge: A Tale of the Skeletal Man (Part 1)

1

The man sitting next to me smelled horrendous, talked way too much, and was big as a house. But he played cards horribly and I was up ten thousand fifty dollars already, so a little stink and rubbing of elbow to love handle could be overlooked.

“I hope you’re happy fella,” the fat man says. “You’re taking all I have.”

“I’m taking? It’s more like you are giving me everything you have. Besides, no one is forcing you to play. I would have given up ten hands ago,” I gather my money and slip it into my pocket. “I tell you what, when we land I’ll buy you a drink. Nothing soothes the loss of money like a warm gullet. So what’dya say boss?”

“A drink won’t buy me a house.”

“And neither will I,” I pull a cigar out of my shirt pocket and light it. “Tell you what I will do. I just so happen to be great friends with The Commander, I’ll chat him up, get you a bang up job, and not one of those excavating jobs, we lose about two thirds the men we send out there-”

“The cold?”

“-to worms.”

“I thought the Worm Annihilation Front had that under control?”

“Oh, yeah, let’s be a little naïve and believe that twenty college dropouts are going to eradicate a worm problem as big as ours in a year. Not going to happen.”

The fat man stands with much difficulty. “Well, you do what you can. If a job comes your way I’d be much grateful, promises just don’t hold much weight these days.”

“Can’t say the same for those pants.”

He takes a thumb, slides it between fat and fabric, gives it a tug forward.

“Elastic my friend. A gift from the gods.”

The fat man walks away and leaves me with a ragtag group of gamblers all pretty pissed I have their money. I quickly stuff the winnings in my pocket. Excuse myself from the table and stand.

“We’re not finished here,” says a cloaked fellow from whom I won the biggest pot.

“Sorry pal, we are. Everyone’s tapped.”

“You’re not.”

“Well, that’s a difference of opinion.”

The man slams his fist on the table toppling chips and spilling drinks.

“No pal, it’s not.”

“You play a game of chance…there’s a chance you may lose. Deal with it.”

The cloaked man stands, uses his right hand to unveil a pistol.

“You sure you want to play it this way? On my ship?”

His hand creeps around the butt of the gun. A finger slides over the trigger.

“You fire that you’ll be dead before the bullet hits me.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“It’d be the first time you won tonight. Not great odds.”

The gun slides from the holster. He holds it, down at his side. Out of the corner of my eye I see the fat man has returned. He stands with the other spectators, waiting in anticipation.

“I tell you what. Return your gun. I’m feeling charitable today. I’ll give half what I won and free drinks till you reach your destination.”

“You’re scared.”

“Not scared, just concerned about the poor soul who’ll clean up this mess.”

“You return all my money. That’s the only way we’re solving this.”

“You’re right…how much was it again?”

“Six…”

A shot rings out. The bullets catches the cloaked man in his right eye. He falls to floor dead. I holster my pistol.

“Free drinks till we clean up this mess,” I tell my passengers. They run to the next room to place their orders. I walk over to the man I shot. I bend down and pull the hood from his face.

“A dolan. No wonder. They’re sore losers,” says the fat man.

“You come back for your money as well?”

“Didn’t cross my mind before, definitely not now.”

“Thing is, you and I could’ve come to some kind of peaceful resolution. He was going to shoot no matter what.”

“I was scared for a second.”

“Only a second?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s get that drink.”

“You buying?”

“It appears so.”

*

“So I gain like fifty pounds and she leaves me which makes me more depressed so all I do is eat and eat which led me to obesity you see before you.”

“You never told me your name.”

“Oh, sorry, Hank Barker.”

“Well Hank, I’m Charlie Cutter.”

“Wait, Charlie Cutter? Bullshit.”

“The one and only.”

“So that speech about get me a job and knowing a commander was just…”

“Bullshit, yeah. Sorry, I have to give the appearance that I’m an everyman.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I can trust you.”

“But you don’t know me.”

“I know things about you that no one else knows.”

“But how?”

“All I need is a name.”

“Then what?”

“That’s where the mystery will lie dormant. It’s not for you to know.”

“I’m confused.”

“That happens. Look, when you first boarded my vessel I could sense something about you. When you gave your name I could do more than sense it.”

“So what is it?”

“I need your help.”

“Help with what?”

“The Crunge.”

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