Leon the Professional

In part two of Scumbug Scrambag Julia and the Scumbug retrieve a spaceship while humanity cuts a deal with Germa the Gerbil.

When I described the idea for this story, someone mentioned Leon the Professional, a movie about a hitman protecting a twelve-year-old girl. I watched it. Let’s talk about it!

First of all, wow is the little girl in that movie sexualized. Leon’s love for Natalie Portman is fatherly, but she busts out singing Like a Virgin and Happy Birthday Mister President dressed as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe. It’s seriously off-putting, like, wow. She’s meant to be 12.

Second of all, I like little Mathilda deciding she wants to be a hitman. The evil guys who killed her brother are the final villains of the movie, and she initiates those confrontations by venturing out to them herself. Its narrative is efficient—no lose ends, and the beginning causes the end.

Scumbug Scrambag should be very different even if it steals inspiration.

First, eight-year-old Julia shouldn’t have such a Lolita thing going on. I think her calling the Scumbug “Scumdaddy” will be the beginning and end of the sexual tension. While that explicit tension is played for laughs, implicit themes about child-trafficking dominate the plot.

Second, I don’t think Julia wants to be a hitman, even if her backstory is hilariously tragically dark. I’m not sure what her deal is, but I do think, like Mathilda, Julia will initiate the final confrontations by setting out on her own. The Scumbug has serious misconceptions about how the universe works, and Julia will have to set them straight.

Overall, I’m glad I watched the movie. It’s always nice to see what’s been done with the story-elements I’m playing with, and it makes me consider how I want to approach tropes I’ll inevitably butt against. But wow it’s uncomfortable watching Natalie Portman telling Jean Reno she loves him. Phoo boy.

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The Latest Thingie I’m Doing

I just posted the first chapter of Scumbug Scrambag today! It’s about an alien ooze who works as a hit-man for an intergalactic crime-family, but now goes on the lam to protect an eight-year-old human girl.

This is the latest in a series of thingies I’ve done. I think doing thingies is good for me. I enjoy feeling productive and making thingies to show people. I guess that’s why I’m making pictures again, too. People like pictures. I do, at least.

I think Scumbug Scrambag will be under 40,000 words, a short novella. Unlike a lot of stories I’ve written here, I’m not really sure where it’s going? I’m trusting my idea of a virtue-wheel to buoy me and named the chapters after things which I think should happen one way or another. The Scumbug has a strict notion of morality and it’ll be tested in the coming chapters. Is it true that every life-form either eats its parents or its kids? Even if it is true, is it any sort of thing to teach an impressionable young child like Julia?

And which side does humanity fall on? This first chapter paints the ambassador representing Earth as kind of a dickhead. He was apparently willing to kill an orphan for political points against the mysterious Big Cheese—the ambassador is the kind of life-form who eats his kids. But is that ruthlessness really what humanity needs right now? We’d better hope Julia eats him first.

And what about Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid? Where on the spectrum will the Scumbug settle? Who knows? Certainly not me.

I think I’ll post a new chapter every two to three weeks, but no promises. I’m running a marathon in Japan, soon, so my schedule’s a bit up-in-the-air.

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The Scrambag

(This is part two of a story starting here.)

The Scumbug shot through space faster and faster. Julia floated around in the co-pilot’s seat watching the cosmos streak by until she got bored and turned to her phone. “Do you have wifi? You’ve got bad reception, Scumdaddy.”

“Please, please, please don’t call me that,” said the Scumbug. “What’s reception? What’s wifi?”

“My phone doesn’t have the little bars that let me talk to people. I can’t text my friends back on Earth.”

“Good. No one can know where we’re going. If you’ve got air, you’ve got enough.”

“I’ll need water, too.”

“Water?” The Scumbug rippled skeptically. “Humans drown.”

“Yeah, but we still need water.”

“You guys are picky.”

“And food.” Julia played a phone-game which worked in airplane-mode. “I’m not that picky. I’ll eat spaghetti or whatever kind of noodles you can cook.”

“Slow down, short-stuff. What’s spaghetti? What’s a noodle? What’s cooking? My translator can’t keep up.”

“You have a translator?”

“Duh. Can’t speak human, can I? And you can’t speak Scumbug.”

“But… where is it?” She looked around the Scumbug. There were twenty fist-sized lumps embedded in its mass. “Are your kids translating for you?”

“Close. Those aren’t just my kids. Whenever I blorp anything up, I crunch it down and it joins the lumps. They’re digestive stones—like, a flaybo might eat rocks to mash stuff in its stomach.”

“A flaybo?”

“Humans don’t have a word for flaybos, so the translator gives you garbage. But like I was saying, I blorped up the translator, so it’s locked in these lumps. Anyway, what’s spaghetti?”

“It’s a noodle.”

“But what’s a noodle?”

“I answered your question,” said Julia, “now you answer one of mine. What’s the Big Cheese?”

“Um.” The Scumbug’s membrane wavered. “It’s hard to explain to someone who’s just entered the cosmic theater.”

“Why? Is it like a really big seahorse?”

“No. What? No. The Big Cheese is… well… Your phone has reception, connecting you to your friends, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’ve got reception, too. Everything in the universe makes a little impression on you, and you make an impression back on them. All of that together—all the connections between everything ever—that’s the Big Cheese.”

Julia frowned. “The—the interconnectedness of all things put a bounty on me?”

“Yeah.”

“What does that mean?”

“Hold on, I’m looking through my translator’s dictionary.” The Scumbug bubbled. “What do you call it when humans pool resources to secure more resources?”

“A bake-sale?”

“That doesn’t have the political connotation I’m looking for.”

“A fundraiser?”

“Does ‘fundraising’ imply the inevitability of physics?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Osmosis,” said the Scumbug. “That’s the word. Water goes where there’s no water. Exploitation goes where there’s no exploitation, and that’s the Big Cheese. You got a bounty because mob mentality decided to pluck Earth like a ripe berry.”

“…But… who would you collect the bounty from? How does it work?”

“Look, kid, if I understood economics, I wouldn’t be an assassin. Now tell me: what the hell is a ‘noodle’?”

“It’s… um… It’s a food, and you cook it, and it’s floppy and starchy.”

“Cook? What does it mean to cook?”

“You know.”

“I really don’t.”

“Um. You boil water with noodles in it for a few minutes, and then you get rid of the water and eat the noodles.”

“Let me get this straight,” said the Scumbug. “See, I do bad things for a living. I once fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs. I don’t know noodles from spaghetti, but I can learn what’s lethal. What’s lethal to humans? Combustion and drowning. And, uh, decapitation,” it mumbled. “But now you’re telling me, before you eat stuff, you put it in boiling water?

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you homeopaths?

“What?”

“Never-mind.”

For a while the Scumbug and Julia were quiet. In the cosmic distance, bursting supernovae colored black space. When Julia’s phone-battery was almost empty she took a portable charger from her skirt-pockets and plugged it in. “Do your lumps have a power-outlet?”

“Julia, did you know you’re the most polite victim I’ve ever kidnapped?” asked the Scumbug. “Usually people are screaming their heads off.”

“Well, you’re planning to kill them, aren’t you? You said you were taking me to a safe-house.”

“Maybe I’m lying. Maybe I’m cashing in your bounty, and you’re gonna be a hostage for the Big Cheese.”

“All my daddies lie to me, but at least they had power-outlets and wifi.”

“Kid, what’s your deal?


“We haven’t found your daughter and the Scumbug.” The seahorse wore a sling carrying his numerous young, whom he gently rocked as he spoke with the ambassador. “Tracking the Scumbug is tricky because of its… eu natural transport method. I’m sorry it destroyed your robot.”

“Bah,” said the ambassador, “that’s what the robot’s for.” His current office was exactly like his other office under the Marianas Trench, and equally ambiguous in location. “And don’t worry, that wasn’t my daughter—I don’t have any kids. Rescuing Julia would be good for Earth’s image in the cosmic theater, but losing her is a punch we can roll with.”

“Huh?” The seahorse covered his children so they’d sleep. “But you told me—”

You told me the Big Cheese put bounties on successors of leaders for leverage,” said the ambassador. “I don’t have kids. I adopted one. I’m told Julia was a problem-child. She won’t be missed. Leverage minimized.”

“Um. Wow.” The seahorse bobbed dismissively, like a shrug without shoulders. “If you need any consolation, the Scumbug won’t cash the bounty and doesn’t hurt children. Julia is paradoxically safe.”

“Why? Is the Scumbug a softie?”

“Oh, no. The Scumbug is an abominable monster. It once fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs. But unlike amoral entities like Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid, the Scumbug has rigid morality. The Big Cheese trusts the Scumbug only when its ethics can be exploited.”

The ambassador smiled. “…What if we exploit them first?”

“Sir?”

“Shh.” Now the ambassador was grinning ear-to-ear. “With the Scumbug involved, I’ve finally found the reason we went to space in the first place. Do you know why I’m ambassador, Charlie? Why I’m spokesperson of Earth?”

“My name’s not Charl—”

“Because I sent the Ultra-Voyager,” said the ambassador. “I funded the space-probe which traveled far enough to alert the Big Cheese to our presence. Do you know why I sent that probe?”

“To explore the cosm—”

Branding!” The ambassador clapped. The seahorse flinched, but the eight armed guards in the office had nerves of steel. “My company makes useless electronic crap and commercials which convince you to buy useless electronic crap. There’s no value in a space-probe which won’t find anything for a bazillion years unless it convinces chumps that your GPS-chips are faster, or some bullshit.”

“You told me your company revolutionized Earth’s transport-infrastruc—”

“I revolutionized Earth’s cash-flow into my wallet. And look at the mess it landed me in this time! Adopting a daughter to be kidnapped at the behest of a seahorse! But we’ll come out on top of this, lemme tell you.”

“How?” asked the seahorse. “Even as we speak, Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid are on this very planet narrowing down our location. When they find us, they’ll make us talk. When we say the Scumbug captured Julia, they’ll chase her down, even if they know she’s worthless to you, just because the Big Cheese doesn’t know—or they might kill us for the inconvenience!

Perfect.” The ambassador clapped again. “Get me in contact with Germa.”

“Wh-What?”

“Or is Lady Mantoid more accessible?”

“Everything we know about these assassins comes at the expense of top-secret espionage. You want to expose our spies to the risk of death or torture just to contact their targets directly?”

“Why are you here?” asked the ambassador. “Is all that espionage just for fun?”

The seahorse shook. “We hope to protect budding civilizations from the Big Cheese.”

“For what purpose?”

“Altruism, obviously, and to establish mutually beneficial trade-relati—”

“The bounty is two trillion units,” said the ambassador. “If we can wring just a billion units out of that, that’s 100,000 units per seahorse-baby you’ve got there—isn’t that like altruism for your budding little darlings? …Is 100,000 units a lot? It sounds like a lot.”

“Well, it’s not a lot a lot, with inflation lately, but most of these spawn won’t live older tha—hey, what? How, and why, would you profit from an abduction? Julia isn’t your child, but—”

“As long as the Big Cheese doesn’t know that, there’s two trillion dollars waiting to be cashed. Maybe more if we play our cards right.”

The seahorse shuddered. “Sir—Before we go on, can I send my children in your escape-pod to their mother on our home-planet?”

“Why?”

“I don’t think my kids should see this.”

“See what?”

“I won’t explain until I send them away.”

The ambassador pushed his glasses up his nose while looking at an armed guard. That guard opened a panel on the wall, and another guard took the seahorse’s sling of numerous young.

“I don’t think they’re old enough to hear the truth about the Big Cheese,” said the seahorse as the escape-pod shot off. “I’ve looked through my translator’s dictionary; there’s an Earth personality, called, um—Saint Nick? Santa Claus?” The ambassador nodded. “Do you believe in Santa?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“Is that little girl Julia old enough to know Santa isn’t real?”

“Maybe? I certainly wouldn’t spill the beans in front of her.”

“So you understand why I had to send my kids away,” said the seahorse. “I didn’t want them to hear the Big Cheese doesn’t exist.”

“…Then who put a bounty on the kid?”

“Who leaves presents under the tree?”

“Everyone.”

Bingo.” The ambassador squinted. “Aliens all over the galaxy contribute to the subjugation of newcomers. Every Earth-day, a hundred planets just like yours enter the cosmic theater to be crushed by the Big Cheese. You could set your watch by it. Even my retirement-fund invests in these bounties. It’s a decent ROI.”

“You. Paid. For the kidnapping. Of my daughter. Whom you were protecting.”

“If Earth had buckled under Julia’s capture, my family would enjoy the fruits of humanity’s capitulation,” said the seahorse. “We’re altruistic, not stupid. But even I wouldn’t suggest what you’re suggesting, sir.”

The ambassador grinned. “What am I suggesting?”

“You want to call an assassin and sell them information to kidnap a little girl you adopted. Earth didn’t need protection from the Big Cheese after all—the Big Cheese was here, waiting ready.”

“Ah, ah, ah—Come on. Look. You’re a good guy—you came all the way to Earth just to help us out. But like you said, you’re not stupid—if you saved Julia, you’d profit in trade with Earth, and if you didn’t save Julia, you’d make a dime at the backdoor! But the Scumbug nabbed her, so you didn’t even profitNow we’ve got a chance to make a dime when we would be in the red, or even dead. I’m only suggesting it because I know you’re thinking it. Don’t be a Charlie Horse.”

“You’re not bad at this, ambassador.” The seahorse took a glass tablet from a hidden fold in his flesh. He tapped the tablet with his snout and it lit up like a screen. “I can contact Germa the Gerbil if you’ll sign a contract.”


“There it is.” The Scumbug made a long pseudopod point at the approaching planet, which was yellow like a desert. “Home of the flaybos.”

Julia stirred awake. “Huh?” She rubbed her eyes. “How long have I been asleep?”

“How long have you been what?

“Asleep. Sleeping. Lying down with my eyes closed.”

That’s how humans sleep? I thought you were being passive-aggressive.”

“I was doing both,” said Julia. “I was sleeping because it’s so boring here. I can’t charge my phone, I can’t go online—you’re the worst, Scumdaddy.”

The Scumbug bubbled. “Julia, I hope you always think I’m the worst thing in the universe. That’s success, for me. I’m a good little Scumdaddy, if that’s really how you feel.”

“You’re weird. All my other daddies said they’d be the best daddy ever.”

“And they were liars, right? Well, I’m telling the truth.” The Scumbug fell into the planet’s gravitational pull. Julia, in the co-pilot’s seat, pressed against the Scumbug’s ceiling. “There are way worse things in this universe than me, and I hope you never meet them.”

“Like what?”

“Flaybos,” said the Scumbug. “Quick, kid, how fast can humans hit the ground without dying?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll play it safe.” The Scumbug’s volume flushed downward, faster than Julia was falling, becoming thinner and thinner until it hit the ground a mile ahead of her. The Scumbug looked like a green lollipop with a mile-long stick whose shortening decelerated Julia to the sand. “There. Are you dead?”

ch2-4.png

“No.”

“Okay, get out. Wait. What air you breathe, kid?”

“Um. Earth-air?”

“So, nitrogen?”

“…Maybe?”

“Kid, I need to know what keeps you alive. There’s a little argon in Earth-air, is that the stuff?”

“No, that doesn’t sound right. When Ambassadaddy took me to the Marianas Trench, he said we need oxygen.”

“But…” The Scumbug was hopeless. “But oxygen combusts.”

“And?”

“You’re the most fragile creatures in the universe, huh? Do humans need to be decapitated sometimes, too?

“No, but we need oxygen, and water, and noodles.”

“Fine.” The Scumbug churned. One of its twenty dark lumps lost a pea-sized mass which popped from the Scumbug’s membrane and rolled to Julia. “Eat this.”

“This ain’t no noodle.”

“It’s one of my translators. If you eat it, it won’t matter what you breathe—or even if.”

Julia took the translator and wiped off some slime. “Ew.” She swallowed it. “Yuck.”

“Okay. Get out.” The Scumbug opened and Julia walked onto the sand. “Are you dead?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then dig.” The Scumbug shaped itself into a scoop and shoveled a ton of sand. “Flaybos live underground.”

“Um. I think you’re better at digging than I am.” Julia scooped sand with both her hands.

“Just participate, kid. Humor me.” In a few minutes the Scumbug had dug a hole so deep Julia couldn’t see the bottom, not that she cared to look; she was busy with a sand-castle.

“I thought you said flaybos were worse than you. Why are you bringing me straight to them?”

“Not all flaybos, kid. Remember I said I fed one to his own jeorbs?”

“Yeah.”

“A flaybo doesn’t forget something like that. Okay, get back inside me.” The Scumbug opened for her.

“Why?” asked Julia.

“Because it’s a deep hole. I don’t think you’d survive the drop.”

Julia entered the Scumbug. “Scumdaddy, promise me you’ll get a spaceship. This really isn’t working.”

“You’ll fit in the scrambag.”


The ambassador perked up when the seahorse’s glass tablet vibrated. The seahorse touched it and the tablet played audio—heavy breathing. “Who’s this?” asked a voice like a rusty asteroid.

“You’re coming for us, o Germa the Gerbil. You’re on speaker-phone with the human ambassador.” The seahorse touched the tablet again and Germa’s face appeared onscreen. The ambassador thought Germa looked blind and dumb, more like a naked mole-rat than a gerbil.

ch2-3.png

Germa spat black spit. “I found your coordinates through this call—you’re hiding under Mount Everest. I’ll be there in minutes. Prepare to face me.”

“You’ll get no benefit from meeting us,” said the seahorse. “Instead, you’ll benefit from hearing what we have to say.”

“Scream it now, or you’ll scream it while I eat your insides.”

The seahorse gave a sour look to the ambassador, as if to say ‘see what I told you?’ but the ambassador waved it away and spoke. “Germa, by the time you get here, it’ll be too late to cash in on this opportunity.”

“If your screams are useless, your intestines alone still sustain me. I don’t mind if you don’t survive my interrogation—humanity can replace you with an ambassador more willing to compromise when I kidnap their loved ones.”

“What I’m saying is,” said the ambassador, “you’re the second assassin we’ve called. We told Lady Mantoid where she can kidnap Julia at her leisure. She’s well on her way.”

Germa snarled, revealing long, dull teeth. “Why? You’d betray your own daughter?”

“I met Julia for the first time about two weeks ago. She means nothing to me. But if the Big Cheese doesn’t know that, the bounty is on. Lady Mantoid paid quite a price for Julia’s location.”

“Don’t lie. She would never pay for something she could squeeze from you for free.”

“I thought so too,” said the ambassador, “but she changed her mind when she heard.”

“Heard what?”

The ambassador leaned in. “We don’t know where Julia is, either.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to scream. Prepare to die.”

“Wait wait wait!” The ambassador chuckled and held up one finger. “We don’t know where Julia is, but when we told Lady Mantoid why we don’t know, she knew right away, and she was in a hurry to get there. You should be, too.”

Germa trembled. “…Why don’t you know where Julia is?”

“A trillion units,” said the ambassador. “Final offer. Take it or leave it.” The seahorse objected, but the ambassador shushed him.

“The girl’s bounty is two trillion,” said Germa, “and with Lady Mantoid already on her way, I might not see a unit of it. I’ll save myself a trillion units and void the bounty by revealing Julia’s worthlessness—or just by killing you. Dead ambassadors have no leverage, and Earth’s next ambassador will know that I mean business.”

The ambassador tutted. “Lady Mantoid knew you’d say that. That’s why she paid us not to call you. She knows every second counts. You could steal her thunder if you leave now.”

Germa puffed. “I was humoring you, fool. I know Lady Mantoid is still on Earth at this very moment because I’m tracking her spaceship.”

“You’re sure trying! She’s counting on you sticking around while she hunts down the bounty. Maybe she’ll claim it before you get word out that Julia’s a dud. Maybe she’s already cashed in! Tick tock, Germa.”

Germa deflated.

“A trillion units, Germa. Lady Mantoid paid us more than that.”

Germa grumbled. His nude pink claw appeared on the glass tablet as he poked something on his screen. The seahorse nodded to the ambassador.

“The Scumbug got Julia first,” said the ambassador.

Froth bubbled from Germa’s lips. “The Scumbug!”

“The Scumbug took off, I don’t know where. But Lady Mantoid seemed to know, and she’s on her way. The Scumbug wouldn’t lay a finger on Julia, so the bounty is wide open, and it’s nowhere near me.”

Germa climbed into a spaceship and set his screen on the dashboard. Beeps booped when the gerbil bopped buttons. “After I capture Julia and collect the bounty, the Big Cheese will learn she’s worthless to you. Then the Big Cheese will choose another way to crush your planet, Ambassador, and I’ll be back. I want to be paid for eating your insides.”

“Pleasure doing business with you.” The ambassador touched the glass tablet. “How do you hang up?” he asked the seahorse, and the seahorse retrieved his tablet.

“Lady Mantoid is still after us,” said the seahorse. “You’ve scammed Germa, but she’s not half the fool. I wouldn’t dare contact her even if I could. We must change safe-houses before she gets here.”

“No need.” The ambassador leaned back. “Germa left, and if he’s tracking her spaceship, she’s tracking his. She’ll be off this planet in a heartbeat. Now tell me…” The ambassador kicked his feet onto his desk. “What will a trillion units buy us?”


The home of the flaybos was a subterranean catacomb of rooms like sandy tombs lit by glowing mold on all the walls. As the Scumbug led her through sandstone corridors, Julia peered down halls to see what the flaybos looked like. Even seeing them she didn’t quite know what to think.

“Hold on.” The Scumbug crunched up tight to fit into a narrow hall. “You’re gonna stay here for a few hours, probably longer.”

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A bunch of little thingies were listening to a big thingy tell a story in another language. “Are these flaybos?”

“Yeah, but most of them are jeorbs.”

“What’s a jeorb?”

The Scumbug wiggled. “Huh? You don’t have a word for jeorb?” Julia shrugged, and the Scumbug flared. “You’ve got a word for sons, and you have a word for daughters, but you don’t have a word for jeorbs?” Julia shrugged. “Kid, I got business. Ask the flaybo what a jeorb is.” The Scumbug slurried away. “Her name’s Julia! She’s with me!”

Julia joined the jeorbs. The flaybo smiled at her. She thought he was smiling, at least. She still wasn’t totally sure what she was looking at. She eventually decided that the flaybo was a giant beaked head on a few tiny tentacles. “What’s a jeorb?” asked Julia.

“It’s a little flaybo!” squawked the flaybo.

“So what’s a flaybo?”

“It’s a full-grown jeorb!”

The jeorbs looked at Julia like chicks waiting to be vomited into. When the flaybo bleated, the jeorbs paid attention to him again, and the flaybo kept telling his story.

Julia’s translator floundered on most of the flaybo’s recitation, and the few words which were translated weren’t so clarifying. Eventually she got bored and wandered the chamber looking for power-outlets, but didn’t dare stray too far in the labyrinthine corridors. She wondered if the flaybo’s story would end eventually, and then they could all play parcheezi or something, but the flaybo kept rambling. The jeorbs hung on every word.

So she was surprised when the jeorbs all leapt upon the flaybo and devoured him alive. When the flaybo was totally dismembered and eaten, the jeorbs had doubled in size, but their hunger had doubled as well. They ate each other until there was only one jeorb left, twice the size of the original flaybo.

Julia hid in a narrow corridor while the giant jeorb ate rocks. As it paced searching for more, the rocks in its belly knocked together.

Then the giant jeorb vomited a slurry until it deflated to the size of the flaybo—which, Julia guessed, meant that it became a flaybo. The slurry he had hurled up congealed into a student-body of jeorbs.

“You don’t need to hide, Julia,” said the flaybo.

“I think I’ll hide anyway.”

“Now you get to hear the story from the beginning. I’m sure it’ll make sense then.”

“Why?”

“Our story starts when the Scumbug fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs.” Julia peeked from her hiding place. “The Scumbug told the jeorbs its own story to hide its scrambag.”

“How?”

“I can’t tell you,” said the flaybo. “That’s part of how it works.”

“All you do is tell people things, it seems like,” said Julia.

“Exactly. I can only tell the story. The Scumbug changed the story.”

“Is that how all flaybos work? Telling stories to jeorbs?”

“I wish I could tell you,” said the flaybo. “Other flaybos aren’t in my story anymore.”

Julia frowned. “So… Scumdaddy is making you keep secrets?”

“The Scumbug doesn’t make me do anything,” said the flaybo. “The story is the thing.” With that, the flaybo began reciting the incomprehensible story to its jeorbs. Hours later the jeorbs ate the flaybo and each other, and the surviving jeorb became a flaybo when it vomited the next generation. Julia watched this happen again and again until her boredom overcame her fear of getting lost. She walked down a narrow corridor.

“Kid.” The Scumbug filled the whole corridor before her. “Get inside me. The scrambag is ready.”

“You’ve got weird friends, Scumdaddy.” Julia walked into the Scumbug, who carried her through corridors. “This flaybo just kept… um… eating himself over and over, I guess?”

“No, his jeorbs were eating him. Didn’t they teach you anything?

“Not really. They said they couldn’t teach me, because you changed their story.”

“Right. That’s what they taught you. That’s how flaybos work. Flaybos tell stories to jeorbs about how to live their lives. When a flaybo dies, a jeorb replaces them seamlessly, telling the same story. That’s the word—a jeorb is a replacement, but for yourself, across time.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Do humans have a word for ‘the person I’ll be tomorrow’? That’s a jeorb. I fed that flaybo to his own sense of a continuous self, so he’ll just keep doing that forever. Every other flaybo in this planet tells a story which makes jeorbs into a twisted little secret-police which would kill you in a heartbeat. Now get ready, there’s gonna be like a billion of them in here.” The Scumbug oozed out a corridor into a great subterranean hollow. It became completely dark, but Julia heard slithering tentacles.

“…Scumdaddy?”

“Are you scared of the dark?”

“Not usually, but I’m making an exception.”

“I could make my lumps glow, but I won’t. You’d be more scared with the lights on.”

“Just a little?”

The Scumbug relented and its twenty lumps glowed dimly. Julia curled up. It was like being in a car-wash from hell—jeorbs were everywhere. The Scumbug was burrowing through a heap of them, and they seemed angry about it. “There’s a reason I hid my scrambag here, kid, and it’s not the view, and it’s not the hospitality. It’s kinda like burying contraband in a cornfield full of angry gophers. And, um, made of angry gophers.”

Julia watched a jeorb trying to attack the Scumbug’s amorphous mass. From this angle, the jeorb looked like a furious sea-star. “Why’d you have to leave me behind for so long?”

“Imagine I buried a locked safe in that gopherfield,” said the Scumbug, “and I didn’t want the gophers to attack you while I put in the combination, so I left you with a gopher I lobotomized. And also, I used his lobotomized brain to bury the safe in the other gophers.”

“Scumdaddy, you’re bad at metaphors.”

“Your language is bad at giving me material to work with for metaphors. What matters is, here’s the safe.” The Scumbug blorped up a large white orb.

“So… what’s in the safe?”

“The safe is actually a spaceship.” The white orb opened. “Get in and let’s leave these gopherfield behind.”

“Oh, wow, Scumdaddy. This is way better.” Julia relaxed in the orb and it shut closed behind her. “Does it have power-outlets?”

“Julia, this scrambag is the vessel I was born in. It’s like an eggshell older than your planet. Of course it has power-outlets.” A small panel shifted into the orb’s wall, and behind it were power-outlets. “Now hold on tight, we’re leaving.”

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“…Hold on tight, to what?

“It’s an idiom, kid. Gird your loins.” The Scumbug’s scrambag accelerated using unseen humming mechanisms. The orb was transparent enough for Julia to see jeorbs and sand sliding off the Scumbug as the scrambag rose unstoppable into the sky. “If Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid have caught wind that I kidnapped you first, they’ll be here soon. We’re going off the grid.”

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Daddy, Daughter, Scumbug

“I’m not gonna lie and pretend this’ll hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is gonna hurt me. A bit. I don’t like pickin’ on the little guy, ya know?”

The bodyguard cried and wretched on his gag. He rolled in his bondage, thick iron chains. He was in a circular clearing in a cornfield. He spat out the gag, one of his own socks. “What are you going to do to me? Who are you? What are you?”

“I’m the Scumbug,” burbled the Scumbug. The Scumbug was greenish ooze, like swamp-sludge—about 600 gallons, over 6000 pounds. A host of objects cluttered its interior. One of those objects—a large wooden crate—moved through the Scumbug’s membrane and flopped wetly onto the cornfield. “From beyond the stars I’ve brought your worst nightmares, buddy.”

ch1-1

“Oh god, oh, please!”

“Earth should’ve kept to itself. Now you gotta deal with me. I combed your whole planet for the most awful animals your monkey-ancestors ever met. If you don’t answer me, I’ll sic them on you.”

“What do you want! What do you want!”

“Where’s the ambassador who represents Earth?”

The bodyguard sobbed. “I can’t tell you.”

“Then suffer.” The Scumbug tore open the crate with abominable amoeba-strength.

“No, no! I—Umm.” From the crate, a flood of puppies and kittens mobbed the bodyguard. They playfully licked his nose. “Scumbug?”

“Save your pleas. I’ll fish your broken body from the beasts when you’re ready to talk.”

“Uh. Okay.” Bunny-rabbits hopped by. “Is this your first time on Earth, Scumbug?”

“Yeah. Until humanity entered the galactic theater, this solar system was off-limits. Now…” The Scumbug extended a pseudopod and plucked the bodyguard into the air. The kittens bat at his dangling shoelaces. “Where is the ambassador?”

“I won’t tell you.”

“Last chance,” said the Scumbug. “Tell me or I’ll chuck you back to the ravenous beasts.”

“I’ll take my chances with the beasts.”

“Are you sure?” The Scumbug hung the guard near the rabbits. “You’re not… um… terrified?”

“Of course I am,” said the bodyguard. “Please don’t throw me to the bunnies, I beg of you, spare mercy.”

The Scumbug sighed, somehow, deflating in disappointment. “It’s always tough to interrogate a new species. Are any of these animals intimidating?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Not even these?” The Scumbug held the bodyguard above the crate to peer inside, where a pile of piranhas had dehydrated to death.

“You were close with those ones, actually,” said the bodyguard.

“Fine. I’ll do it the old-fashioned way. I’ll cut off one of your legs, ask you again, and if you don’t answer, I’ll cut off your other leg.”

“Oh, lord, please, no!”

“Quit whining. Legs grow back.”

“No they don’t!”

“Really? How about fingers?”

“No!”

“Can’t you grow anything back? I’m trying to let you off light here.”

“I’ve heard… um…” The bodyguard knew he shouldn’t say this, but couldn’t stop himself. “…Nipples grow back.”

The Scumbug vibrated. “Don’t foist your fetishes on me, freak. Tell you what: fess up where the ambassador is or I’ll cut off your head. Then you’ll be just a sad little coconut, rolling back to your friends to tell them not to mess with the Scumbug.”

“…Humans don’t live as just a head!”

“Oh, you guys are pathetic!” The Scumbug smashed the bodyguard on the ground. The hoard of adorable animals scattered into the corn. “Don’t make me blorp you up! Where’s the ambassador!”

The bodyguard sobbed. “What are you alien assholes gonna do to his daughter?”

The Scumbug said nothing.

“You’re after the bounty, aren’t you? Why do you alien assholes want the ambassador’s daughter? She’s eight!

“You’re pretty tight-lipped, bud,” said the Scumbug. “If I had your children, do you think you’d be so cocky?”

“Don’t you dare threaten my kids, sicko! I don’t even have any kids!”

“That’s exactly why the Big Cheese wants the ambassador’s daughter,” said the Scumbug. “The Big Cheese knows it could blow up your planet before you’d surrender, but with the right child-hostage you’ll be under the thumb. Earthlings are more useful as slaves than debris.”

“Then you know why I can’t tell you where to find her.”

“And you know why you gotta tell me,” said the Scumbug. “I’m humanity’s only friend right now, and with friends like me, hoo boy, you’d better hope you never meet your enemies! Now.” The Scumbug smashed him against the ground again. “Where is the ambassador?”


The ambassador pushed up his glasses. He and his daughter sat at a desk in a darkened office. Behind them were four armed guards. Before them was alien who looked like a man-sized seahorse. “It doesn’t look good,” the seahorse bubbled.

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“Lay it on me,” said the ambassador.

“The Big Cheese upped the bounty to two trillion units,” said the seahorse. “My sources know of at least two hit-men out to capture your daughter. They were spotted in your solar system.”

“Don’t worry, Julia.” The ambassador pat his daughter’s head, but she just played disinterestedly with her smartphone. “Who are they?”

“The first is an awful mammalian-type, Germa the Gerbil.”

“A mammal? If we can milk it, we can kill it.”

“The other is Lady Mantoid, an infamous insect.”

“I swat flies for breakfast.”

“Don’t take these professionals lightly,” said the seahorse. “Both want the bounty for your daughter’s capture, but if capture seems unlikely, they’ll assassinate your daughter instead, just so no one gets the bounty. In fact, if one captures your daughter, the other might kill you so the girl is worthless to the Big Cheese.”

The ambassador cocked his head in smug disbelief. “Why? You said the Big Cheese wants my kid for leverage over Earth’s representative.”

The seahorse shook his head. His snout bobbed. “Not leverage the way humans understand it. You think the universe is a game with Earth and the Big Cheese on opposite sides. In reality, Earth is one of the paltry tokens with which the game is played. The Big Cheese placed the bounty to teach you your place. Whether you or your daughter live or die is beside the point. The galactic theater is a hell you know nothing about.”

Julia tapped her phone.

“What do we do?” asked the ambassador.

“We wait,” said the seahorse. “This secure location is still secret. Our sources are spying on Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid. If either advances on our location we’ll deploy the appropriate countermeasures. We can show the Big Cheese that Earth isn’t just a paltry token—it’s a token so paltry that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

There was a knock at the door. The seahorse turned to see there was no door in this office.

“Ah, that’s my ringtone.” The ambassador pulled out his phone. “Oh. One of my bodyguards is video-calling me.” He tapped the screen. “Hello? Holy crap, what happened!”

The bodyguard was black-and-blue in a hospital bed. “I’m sorry, sir. They know where you are. They beat it out of me, and threatened my parents. I can’t believe they let me live.”

“Who?” asked the seahorse. “Describe your alien assailant. Were they mammalian, like a furry nightmare?”

“No,” said the bodyguard.

“Then it’s not Germa the Gerbil. Were they sleek and chitinous, with chattering mandibles?”

“No,” said the bodyguard.

“Then it’s not Lady Mantoid. What did they look like?”

“They were a pile of sludge. It called itself the Scumbug.”

The seahorse screamed and jumped from his chair—it had three floppy legs. “We’re doomed!

The ambassador turned off the video-chat and chased the seahorse flailing around the room. “Don’t panic! This is the safest bunker humanity’s best scientists could build!”

“Where’s the escape-pod?” The seahorse scrambled on the walls. “Open it! Now!”

“Don’t!” said the ambassador to his armed guards. “You said it yourself: the Big Cheese will decide if humanity’s worth plundering based on our reaction to his goons. If we take the escape-pod right away we’re spineless.”

“Would you rather be spineless or dead?” asked the seahorse.

“I don’t mind dying.”

“It’s not just your own life you’re wagering,” said the seahorse.

Julia looked up from her phone. “We have to take that risk,” said the ambassador. “Tell me about the Scumbug. It knows where we are. Can it get here against the whole might of Earth’s military?”

“The Scumbug likely won’t realize there is a military opposing it.”

“We’re at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Can it survive this deep in the ocean?”

“The Scumbug won’t notice the water, either.”

“Well, can the Scumbug get through sixty bank-vault-doors guarded by the most highly trained—” A sizzling sound interrupted the ambassador.

“Oh, please, open the escape-pod, I’m begging you!”

The ambassador and his armed guards looked around the room for the source of the sizzle. “Um. Sir?” A guard pointed to the ceiling, where a solid metal circular vault-door was starting to glow.

“Open the escape-pod for Charlie-Horse over there,” said the ambassador.

A panel opened on the wall. The seahorse jumped into a closet-sized space and coiled into the fetal position. “Ambassador! Your daughter!”

Julia looked up from her phone. “Should I get in the escape-pod, Ambassadaddy?”

“No, Julia. Stay right there.” The ambassador pulled a pistol from his jacket pocket. “It’s take-your-daughter-to-work day.'”

The vault-door melted.

ch1-4.png

The Scumbug dripped through the ceiling shining like the sun. The armed guards opened fire, but the bullets shot right through. The Scumbug splashed over them like a wave. The guards screamed, burned, melted, and died. “Hello sir.” The Scumbug released the red-hot magma it had carried. “Did you know your planet is filled with this stuff? It’s a security hazard if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Get in!” shouted the seahorse. The ambassador and his daughter stayed still. The seahorse shut the panel, sealing himself in the escape-pod.

“I was expecting you, Scumbug.” The ambassador walked behind his daughter and pointed his pistol at the Scumbug.

“Also, did you know humans drown? Why are you hiding under all this water if you drown? I asked a couple people, but they didn’t tell me. They just kept bubbling. You guys have weird interrogation-resistance techniques.”

“You can tell the Big Cheese mankind won’t be pushed around.” The ambassador stuck the pistol in his daughter’s right ear. “You want the two trillion units, don’t you? If you move to kill me, I’ll kill her and then myself. You’ll get nothing.”

The Scumbug burbled.

“Humanity won’t be bullied. We’d rather die here and now than give in to the Big Cheese.” The ambassador pulled the pistol’s safety. Julia stared down the Scumbug without moving an inch, as if her thumb was stuck to the screen of her phone. The Scumbug had no eyes to stare back, but its surface bristled with heightened awareness. “Leave my office, Scumbug.”

The Scumbug swung a pseudopod slimmer than piano-wire and cut off the ambassador’s head. Nuts and bolts and shrapnel flew from the decapitation. The ambassador slumped, a pile of broken machinery.

“Huh. That’s new.” The Scumbug rolled over to the ambassador and blorped the whole guy up. The ambassador floated in the Scumbug, and his arms and legs popped off. “Oh, I get it. He’s a robot. I’ve killed robots before.” The Scumbug swelled, then contracted to the size of a tombstone. The Scumbug’s contents were crunched until only twenty fist-sized lumps remained. Then the Scumbug expanded to its usual size. “Kid? Where’d you go?”

The escape-pod panel clicked closed. The Scumbug crawled to it.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Launch the escape-pod,” said Julia.

“I’ve been trying since I closed it,” said the seahorse.

“I disabled the escape-pod before I came in,” said the Scumbug. “That was, like, the first thing I did. I don’t know kittens from puppies, but escape-pod-disabling is rookie assassin stuff.” The Scumbug oozed through the razor-thin gap between the panel and the wall to pry open the escape-pod. The panel clattered to the floor.

Seeing the Scumbug, the seahorse shook. With a gut-wrenching grunt he spurt ten-thousand young from his stomach. Tiny pale seahorses quivered.

“…You got lucky, daddio. Take your kids and scram.” The Scumbug scooped the seahorses out of the escape-pod, then contracted to fit into the pod beside Julia. The Scumbug snaked oozy limbs into the circuitry and reconnected some wires. The escape-pod rocketed up into the bottom of the ocean. “I’m the Scumbug. What’s your name?”

ch1-5

“Julia.”

“Your daddy turned out to be a robot.”

“I’m adopted. But that robot was controlled by a real guy, the guy who adopted me.”

“Well, I’m adopting you now. You’ve been double-adopted.”

“Octuple-adopted,” said Julia.

“Oh. Is that normal on Earth?”

“Nope. When Ambassadaddy heard the Big Cheese would put a bounty on his kid, he adopted me because I’ve been passed around so much. He figured I wouldn’t mind being kidnapped. Or, at least, no one else would mind me missing.”

“That’s… really sad.”

“All my parents tend to die,” said Julia. “Maybe that’s why Ambassadaddy had a robot. He knew adopting me put a target on his back.”

The Scumbug shivered. “Are you making this up?”

“This wasn’t the first time one of my daddies pointed a gun at my head,” said Julia.

“…Was it the second?” Cryptically, Julia did not answer, but raised her eyebrows and looked away.

The escape-pod shot out of the ocean into the sky. A military jumbo-jet swooped down from the clouds and caught the escape-pod in open bomb-bay doors. A soldier opened the escape-pod and saluted. “Are you safe, Ambassad—oh my god!” The Scumbug swallowed him and digested him, and everyone else on the jet.

“This ride will do for now. C’mon, kid.” Julia sat in the co-pilot’s seat while the Scumbug flooded the rest of the cockpit. “Julia, right? If I could break into your bunker, Lady Mantoid and Germa the Gerbil could’ve done it in half the time. I’m taking you somewhere more secure.”

“Where?”

“I’m not sure yet. Saving kids from the Big Cheese has been a hobby of mine for a while, but I’ve never gotten this far before.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“Then we’re going to Neverland, baby.” The jet steered up toward the sky.

Ten minutes passed. Julia kicked the Scumbug’s surface. It was like viscous water. “When you said Neverland, did you mean we’d never get there?”

“This spaceship is awful. How long does it take human vehicles to leave the atmosphere?”

Julia laughed. “This isn’t a spaceship, it’s an airplane!”

“You mean… humans invented a vessel that can only go where there’s air? But why?

Julia shrugged. “There’s air everywhere we want to go, usually.”

“Okay, well… We’ll get high as we can, then we’ll go the old-fashioned way.”

Julia kept kicking the Scumbug, making it ripple slowly. “What even are you, Scumdaddy?”

“I’m begging you, please don’t call me that. I’m an alien. Humans entered the galactic theater a few Earth-weeks ago, so now all us space-folks are swinging in.”

“Enter the galactic theater? What does that mean?”

“The Big Cheese ignores most sentient life that keeps to itself, within a few tens of millions of miles. Your ambassadaddy burst that bubble and broke your egg. The Big Cheese wants to scramble that egg.”

“Why?”

“It’s how you make omelettes, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s how you make scrambled eggs.”

“Look, kid, in this big ol’ universe, there are two kinds of life-forms: the kind that eats their kids, and the kind that eats their parents. The Big Cheese thinks Earth is a tasty little youngin’.”

“What kind are you?”

“See these?” The Scumbug swirled the twenty fist-sized lumps within its volume. “I was born with kids, and I blorped ’em up. I got that allll outta my system.”

“…So, if you’re no longer the kind of life-form that eats their kids, then now you’re the kind of life-form that eats their parents?”

“No. There are three kinds of life-forms: the kind that eats their kids, the kind that eats their parents, and me, the Scumbug. Now close your eyes.”

Julia closed her eyes. “Why?”

“To keep calm. We’re high as this vehicle can take us.” The Scumbug bubbled up Julia and her co-pilot’s chair. “I’m taking you to a safe-house in another solar-system, and we’re going the old-fashioned way.”

“What does that mean?”

“When humans first went to space, did they use spaceships? Did they use airplanes?” The Scumbug raided the munition’s bay for explosives. “Of course they didn’t. They swam to space with nothing but their birthday suits.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“Really? It’s how every other species first gets to space.” The Scumbug blew up the jet’s payload. The jet detonated and the Scumbug was thrown into orbit. “Humans are weird.”

ch1-7

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Play DüKKA!

Dukkha is the dissatisfaction intrinsic to existence.

DüKKA is dukkha’s dorky younger cousin who steals your tiles in my mobile-game, available now on the Google Play Store! (It’ll be on IOS someday, maybe.)

It’s free and it’s fun. Outsmart DüKKA for control of the board’s center in a jaunty metaphor for our meaningless lives.

I think the ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ difficulties are TOO easy, but I want to add a ‘custom mode’ where you can change the rules. Under some rule-sets, ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ might be the only way to stand a chance.

I also want to add a harder difficulty. ‘DüKKA’, the hardest difficulty at the moment, has an interesting flaw. Can you exploit that flaw to get 100 points when DüKKA only has 60?

I’m working on a video for my YouTube channel about all the pretentious philosophical bollocks behind this silly puzzle-game where the AI mocks your mortality. If you’d like to see it, subscribe!

The Aftermath

(This is the eleventh and final chapter of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can win a race against a horse. Jonas crossed the finish-line first, but that’s not enough for Alphonse.)

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2019

After an emergency-room sponge-bath and some morphine for my torn-up leg, I fell into coma-like sleep. I woke on a king-sized bed under a chandelier, completely alone.

I prepared for the onset of accumulated aches and pains, but somehow felt as good as I possibly could after an ultra. Even my left knee was sewn back together. My patella rolled like new. Frankly I was surprised they didn’t stitch my missing finger back on, too. The knuckle-nub was just nicely bandaged. “Hello?” I sat up and looked around. This was no ordinary hospital: marble columns supported a vaulted ceiling. I heard a bubbling hot-tub. “Is anyone here?” No nurses or attendants were near to advice me.

On the nightstand stood a bottle of champagne. I couldn’t read the French label, but it tasted expensive to me. I drank a quarter of the bottle before testing my body-weight on my left foot; the knee didn’t disagree. I limped to the hot-tub, shrugged off my medical gown, and sank right in. The bubble-jets melted my bones out my pores.

Who paid for this? Maybe Alphonse ponied up my million bucks and the hospital transferred me to the hoity-toity wing—but I doubted it. Alphonse wouldn’t pay so eagerly.

I finished the champagne before Whitney walked in. “Jonas! You’re awake!”

“Hey Whitney! Did you bring me some ice-cream sandwiches?” I offered her the last drops from the bottle. “Get in the hot-tub! The bubbles are on!”

“You’re talk of the town,” said Whitney. “You made the 11 o’ clock news nationwide. Everyone knows about Georgie Masawa’s corpse, too. You didn’t tell me you found a body at the time, and I’m kind of glad you didn’t. Would’ve put me off my stride.”

“Awesome!” I splashed at her. She backed away from the hot-tub and I knew she wasn’t in the mood for games. I drank the last drops of champagne myself. “How long have I slept?”

“About 36 hours.”

“I could use another 36.”

“Sorry to hear that, because we’ve got business.”

“Where am I? Whose champagne was this?”

“I’ll get to that,” said Whitney. “Alphonse is suing the pants off everyone in spitting distance. You. Me. Hermes. Kevin. Everyone.”

“For what?”

“Anything he can think of. He’s charging hundreds of people $10,000 for every mile they traveled in the estate, even the news-crew in that helicopter.”

“Geez.”

“Alphonse is also suing our publisher preemptively. He doesn’t want us writing a book about this. The publisher paid for you to be treated here, and for your champagne. How’s your knee?”

“Better than ever.” My left knee never felt so strong even before my boyhood skiing accident. “So do we need, like, a lawyer, or something?”

“Nope. The publisher wants to handle the lawsuits, too. Their legal-department is negotiating with Bronson’s right now. It sounds like there’s gonna be one catch-all mass-settlement. Alphonse might pay out for the dangerous conditions of his estate, and mutilating you, and all that.”

“Good. Sounds like I’m not needed.” I tilted the empty bottle hoping for another drop. “Can you ask the publisher for more champagne?”

“Ask them yourself,” said Whitney. “We’re meeting soon to discuss the trial.”

“Ugh.” My quadriceps protested when I pulled myself from the hot-tub.


The hospital staff lent me a wheelchair for my tired legs and Whitney rolled me out to a limousine. The chauffeur, in tuxedo, opened the door for us and supported me on their shoulder as I stepped into the back. I recognized the three other passengers.

“Hey Kevin. Hey Hermes.”  Whitney sat beside me. “Hey, you. What are you doing here?” Sandra was across from us with her arms folded, silent.

Kevin slapped my back. “How are you enjoying your million bucks, Jonas?”

“Um.” I looked at Whitney. “Where is that money, anyway?”

“Alphonse hasn’t coughed it up and doesn’t want to.”

“What’s his excuse?” I asked.

“He’s got thousands,” said Whitney.

“Fuck that,” said Kevin. “If he’d won, he’d demand Jonas pay a million bucks, for sure.”

“Uh. Yeah.” I shivered. “For sure.”

“I’ve never ridden in a limo before,” said Hermes. “Your publisher must be loaded, Whitney.”

“I’ve never met them before,” said Whitney. “Kevin knows them.”

Kevin shook his head. “Nuh-uh. I know of the publishing company, as a business. I’ve never met anyone in person. I get phone-calls from representatives.”

“So… Who are we meeting?” I asked. “A team of lawyers?”

No one in the limo said a word. Sandra smirked.


A sixty-flight elevator up a building downtown opened to an office with dark glass windows. Behind a mahogany desk, Craig smoked a thick cigar. “Come on in and take a seat, unless you brought your own.”

“What the fuck,” I said, “I know you!” Whitney pushed my wheelchair alongside Sandra’s as we all entered the office. “You and I bet booze-money over nudie cards at Alphonse’s casino! Aren’t you Craig, the helicopter-pilot?”

“I’m a lot of things,” said Craig.

“I’ll say,” said Kevin. “Three days ago I knew you as an ex-military drone-geek on an internet forum. Who the hell are you, really?”

“I really am an ex-military drone-geek, Kevin. I’m just more than that, too. Thanks for plugging my delivery-business on your blog. Sit down, and drink up, if that’s your style.” Craig poured himself a little brandy. Sandra rolled up for a shot. “We’re here to celebrate. Congratulations on the race, Jonas.”

I wanted a shot, too, but Whitney held back my wheelchair and I figured she was right to do so. “Craig, right?” asked Whitney. “Is it just a coincidence that you published our book and you work for Alphonse?”

“Mmm… Let’s say it was in the stars I would be your inside man.” Craig ashed his cigar and looked at us over his sunglasses. “Kevin, Alphonse says you owe him over ten million dollars.”

“I know, it’s such bullshit,” said Kevin. “He’s charging me ten grand per mile I drove in his estate, plus a million bucks for each photo-set I posted online.”

“Hermes, Whitney,” said Craig, “you each owe Alphonse more than half a million. Hundreds of people are being charged up to 200,000 apiece for running to meet you, Jonas.”

“I wonder if Alphonse will let them pay with body-parts,” said Sandra. She raised her eyebrows at me and I shuddered. I thought only Alphonse and Whitney knew I’d wagered my legs, but of course Craig and Sandra knew too.

“That won’t be necessary, Sandra,” said Craig. “We just need to play our cards right. I know more about Alphonse than anyone but his father, and Father Bronson is dead. I’ve negotiated Alphonse to an assailable position. I need all of you on my side to tip the scale.”

“Didn’t you betray Alphonse at his most desperate moment?” asked Kevin.

“Boy, he was furious! But we both have secrets to keep, and that let me strike a deal. We’ll meet in court to determine what’s owed to every involved individual in sort of a class-action lawsuit. You might make more money than just your race-winnings, Jonas.”

“Oh yeah? How about this?” I raised my left fist, flipping him off with my middle finger’s ghost. “You were in that helicopter when Alphonse fucking mutilated me. You watched him do it. Your goons in leather grappled me.”

“The goons are gone, and that event is our Ace.” Craig opened his leather jacket and half the room almost vomited. Sandra yawned. “Alphonse gave me your finger, toothpick under the nail and all.”

My finger had half-mummified and smelled like a corpse. “Holy shit, dude!” said Kevin.

“This toothpick heard most of the race,” said Craig. “Alphonse thinks I deleted the audio record but I didn’t.” He grabbed the middle finger and depressed the toothpick’s ruby handle with his thumb. The toothpick screamed my scream.

“Alphonse—” I sputtered, “—take the finger!”

“Beg!”

“Please!” A gunshot. Craig pressed the ruby handle again to cease reenacting my trauma.

When my neck’s raised hair settled, I managed to speak. “Okay, you have evidence Alphonse is a twisted sicko. Let’s skip a civil suit and lock him in the slammer.”

Craig tutted. “It’s not that easy, Jonas. Like you said, I watched all this happen. If we run for the end-zone, Alphonse will spill some dirt and destroy my credibility. You won’t stand a chance on your own. Alphonse can make anything and anyone disappear unless I’m here to wrangle him.”

“Then wouldn’t Alphonse spill dirt right away, destroying your credibility?” asked Whitney.

“No!” said Craig. “I know enough about Alphonse to go down swinging. Revealing our connection is the nuclear option, and there’s no telling who’d go down in the crossfire. Five hundred people might end up paying fines with body-parts, including everyone in this room. I’m not joking. This trial has got to be a controlled demolition.”

“What does that mean?” asked Kevin.

“Alphonse almost certainly has his own copy of the toothpick’s audio-record,” said Craig. “As long as we let him think he’s controlling the narrative, we’re at truce. When he digs himself a deep enough hole, I’ll have a clear shot at his vitals. I can detonate him at a safe distance.”

“You’re making this sound like a death-match,” said Hermes.

“Damn straight,” said Craig. “I’ve watched a Bronson collapse before. If we can’t defuse Alphonse, we want this to be an implosion.”

“I’m in,” said Sandra, “and you’d be in, too, if you knew best. Without this settlement there’s no telling how bad it could be. If we’re in this together, we’ll do better than break even.”

“Hell, I’m in.” Kevin shook Craig’s hand. “You seem to know what you’re doing.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen half a million bucks in my life,” said Hermes. “I couldn’t begin to pay. I guess I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Whitney rubbed my shoulders. “What do you think, Jonas?”

I wished I was more drunk. “You got me into this, Craig. In Alphonse’s underground casino, you and your goons buttered me up into racing Champ.”

“And you won,” said Craig. “Let’s keep winning.”

“Jonas.” Sandra shook the arm of my wheelchair. “You said you pity me, and I get it. I pity the horse, too! But there’s no pitying Alphonse. Let’s bury Alphonse, crutch-kid.”

I swallowed. “I’m in.”

“What’s the plan,” asked Whitney. Craig cracked his knuckles.


The courtroom was packed. As I limped through the audience, I recognized Danny and Debra and a few other folks who ran with me. Whitney led me across the bar to join Craig, Sandra, Kevin, Hermes, and a man and woman I didn’t know. “Who are they?” I whispered to Whitney.

“That’s investigative-journalist Naira Nightly and her camera-guy Mike Mann. They filmed your news-spot. Alphonse says they owe him a hundred bucks for every frame of video they recorded in the estate.”

To our left, Alphonse sat with his lawyer. Alphonse’s broken arms were repaired good as new, just like my knee. He wore his gaudy military jacket and sucked a minty metal toothpick. His lawyer wore a pastel yellow suit and had blonde hair, expensively cut. He typed on a laptop. Craig bumped my elbow. “That’s Alphonse’s top lawyer, Lloyd. The rest of his legal team is probably video-chatting on that laptop from across the country.”

“Where’s our legal team?” I asked.

“I’m it, baby.”

“All rise for the honorable Judge Fairfax,” said the court clerk. It took me a moment to join the rest of court in standing for the judge, a portly man who already looked fed up. Judge Fairfax took his seat. “Please be seated,” said the clerk.

Fairfax smacked his gavel. “Court is now in session. Alphonse Bronson, stay standing.” Alphonse remained risen. “I watched that news-spot about the race, Mister Bronson. There were many concerning elements.”

“Assuredly,” said Alphonse, bowing, hand over his heart.

“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. Alphonse soured. “That news-crew over there uncovered a corpse suspected to be Georgie Masawa, who disappeared in your estate when you were a young boy. You’ve denied our requests to collect the body to perform an autopsy. Correct?”

“Yes,” said Alphonse. “I ch—”

“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. “With your permission or without, we’ll recover that corpse. More immediately pressing, the news-spot reported the poor condition of your horse. You wore spurs—”

“Spurs are entirely legal,” said Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd.

“—spurs with long pointed tips, spurs which got you banned from multiple riding associations, spurs which you jabbed inches deep into your horse’s gut. A local veterinarian also said he personally inspected your horse and determined it was delirious and unresponsive. At the finish-line, two hooves were totally missing. I almost threw up seeing that.”

Lloyd interjected again. “Bronson-brand cutting-edge medical-technology makes such injuries irreverent.”

“I’d like to examine the results of those technologies,” said Fairfax, “but Alphonse, you won’t let us see the horse, either.”

“Champ wants to rest,” said Alphonse, “and out of the goodness of my heart, I’m leaving him alone.” I wondered if Champ was already glue.

“The veterinarian said your ‘goons in leather’ accosted him and spray-painted his face and his favorite tank-top. Many people in your estate said they felt menaced by this ‘biker gang.'”

“You’ll have to take that up with my head of security.” Alphonse grinned, knowing Craig wouldn’t confess to the role.

“Regardless, these events happened and you acknowledge they happened. You agreed to pay 6.6 million dollars for fines related to animal abuse and zoning violations, and a replacement tank-top.”

“I’m glad to make things right.” Alphonse bowed again, this time sweepingly. “May we begin to make our case that I’m owed more money than that?

“Go ahead,” said Judge Fairfax.

“I think questioning the ultra-runner, Jonas, would be illuminating,” said Lloyd.

“Hell yeah.” I stood to take the stand. “You better cough up some dough, Alphonse. I won the race.”

Alphonse smiled and let Lloyd speak. “Jonas, we could spend all day explaining why your victory was illegitimate, but more importantly, Alphonse is owed money regardless.”

“Not a penny from me,” I said. “Alphonse charges $10,000 per mile but he waived that for the race.”

“Aha. So you knew of the charge,” said Lloyd.

“Of course. Everyone knows.”

“Aha, indeed, aha. That means everyone in this class-action lawsuit knew they would owe Alphonse money when they set foot inside the estate.”

“He opened the gates,” I said.

“And they passed through those gates knowing they would be charged. The estate is no charity. Alphonse is calling in the tab. Over five hundred people owe over $200,000 apiece. The bulk is owed by Naira Nightly and Mike Mann, who recorded and released video footage knowing it would cost them. I assume their studio will pay on their behalf.”

Judge Fairfax stroked his fuzzy black beard. “Mister Bronson, does anybody actually pay these exorbitant rates?”

“Of course,” said Alphonse. “My typical guests are more esteemed gentlemen, mostly business-associates who enjoy discussing deals on horseback. They pay for every meter of every mile, even for their arrival and departure by helicopter. Those fees keep the estate in tip-top condition. So you see, when Tom Dick and Harry in the class-action suit claim they felt ‘menaced’ or ‘endangered’ on my property, despite my more than thorough security, I’m the financial victim, and demand compensation.”

“Tom, Dick, and Harry?” Craig flipped a few papers at his desk. “Alphonse, do you know who Tom, Dick, and Harry are, and why they’re included in this suit?”

“No, and expecting me to know the names of my intruders is unreasonable.”

“Tom, Dick, and Harry were three preteens who disappeared in the late 2000s,” said Craig. “They were last spotted near your front gates. Their parents requested I add them to the class-action suit in honor of longstanding theories that the boys died somewhere in the Bronson Estate. You and your father refused to reveal security-footage or admit rescue squads to conduct a search. Then you electrified the gates and put up barbed wire.”

“Objection—” said Lloyd, but Alphonse silenced him by raising one gloved hand.

“If you want to question me, Craig, why don’t I take the stand?”

“Why don’t you?” Craig gestured for Alphonse, and I returned to Whitney’s side.

“I know of those conspiracy theories,” said Alphonse as he sat. “Just another example of how we Bronsons are notoriously portrayed in bad light. Some kids go missing in the tristate area and I’m expected to open my estate and share private footage. Let me tell you something—if those kids had climbed the gates, and did die on my property, then the parents shouldn’t come to me for evidence, or for an apology—they should come with payment for the time their kids spent on my land.”

A groan rolled across the court. Craig smiled. “Only the time? Or could Tom, Dick, and Harry be charged for anything else?”

Alphonse relished the audience’s seething. “As a matter of fact, there might be additional fees. For example, disturbing a topiary-bush could incur a botanical-repair fine. I take pride in my pristine estate.”

“Are you charging any of the five hundred quote-unquote intruders for property-damage?”

“I wish,” said Alphonse. “Tree-branches were broken, grasses trampled, and strategically-placed rocks turned and overturned, but I cannot attribute the damage to anyone in particular, so I must cover the restoration myself.”

“Did Jonas do anything of the sort?”

The court was silent, but up close, I saw lightning crack between Craig and Alphonse. Craig coyly stared him down, daring Alphonse to reveal unscrupulous behavior. Lloyd nodded no, no, no, but Alphonse eventually grinned, which I recognized as the nefarious concoction of a spin. “As a matter of fact, Jonas wrecked havoc across my estate.”

“How do you know?” asked Craig.

Alphonse showed the judge his minty metal toothpick. “Jonas accepted wearing a toothpick which recorded the race with an audio receiver. He dropped it around mile 75 when he went off-course and lost his finger. Isn’t that right, Jonas?”

I swallowed. Telling the truth, that Alphonse had taken my finger, would endanger Craig, and without Craig, we might have less than nothing. “That’s right,” I said. Whitney squeezed my hand.

“It wasn’t easy to retrieve that toothpick,” said Alphonse, “like finding a needle in a haystack the size of Rhode Island. But its audio captures Jonas disturbing my property! I’m charging you for it, Jonas.”

“Can we hear that audio?” asked Craig.

Alphonse beamed. “Lloyd?” Lloyd sighed and brought Alphonse the laptop. Alphonse clicked and typed, hunt-and-peck. “This is Jonas filling his water-backpack from my river.” The laptop played the sound of the stream around the 30-mile mark. “This is him drinking it.” The laptop gulped. I remembered the bitter taste. “This is him deciding my water isn’t good enough, and dumping it on a cactus patch.” The laptop splashed. “That water was chemically treated to sparkle photogenically. You stole my water and you killed my cacti, Jonas. You’re going to pay, for this and for a hundred other things.”

“But you’ll pay right back,” said Craig. “Please, play the audio of Jonas losing his finger. Let’s see if your estate’s hazardous conditions are at fault, and if you owe Jonas medical expenses.”

“Ha!” Alphonse selected a file. “Let’s hear, shall we? To set the scene, Jonas and Whitney are both hallucinating and Whitney has removed her top.”

Whitney blushed while the laptop spoke our voices. “Hey, what’s that?” it asked as her. “There’s another fork in the road.”

“Maybe it was Alphonse, trying to trick us into going the wrong way,” it said as me. Alphonse chuckled.

“You’re hallucinating, Jonas.” Kevin squinted at the telltale clip of an audio edit.

“I don’t think I’m hallucinating right now. Doesn’t this zigzag in the dirt look like a—” Then my voice cut off, replaced with the sound of me sliding down a ditch next to a skeleton. Alphonse had edited together miles 76 and 69.

Alphonse stopped the playback. “Jonas lost his finger because he and his lady-friend went off the trail. He was probably distracted by his topless waif. Can I be blamed?”

“Can we hear any more?” asked Craig.

“No,” said Alphonse. “The fall also corrupted the toothpick’s audio. We’re lucky to have what evidence there is.”

“And where is this toothpick now?” asked Craig.

Their eye-contact was electric. I worried I was close enough to be zapped. Alphonse leaned on the stand. “I sold it to you, Craig! My trusty helicopter-pilot.”

The court murmured, and Judge Fairfax rubbed his temples. “You, Craig, are Alphonse’s helicopter-pilot?”

“I am,” said Craig.

“And head of a publishing company?”

“Mm-hm.”

“And you run a drone-delivery service? And you shot down your own drones?

“I’ve got fingers in lots of pies.”

Judge Fairfax sighed, resigning himself to a tedious fate. “I knew this case would be complicated. So, Craig, where is this toothpick?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Alphonse. “The toothpick’s audio-record was wiped by the head of my tech-security.”

Craig grinned. “And who is that, sir?”

Alphonse pondered. “I can’t remember. I recently fired most of my help” I knew Alphonse and Craig were tiptoeing around dirt, but I think Alphonse had genuinely forgotten Craig’s many roles in the estate.

“Maybe they’ll come forward later,” said Craig, as an oblique threat. “For now I’d like to talk to my friend Sandra.”

“By all means.” Alphonse descended, and court-security helped Sandra take the stand from her wheelchair.

“I’ve been Alphonse’s best jockey for years now,” said Sandra, “so I know all the horseshit. Where to fucking start.”

“Language,” said Judge Fairfax.

Sandra rolled her eyes. “Alphonse has factories where he grinds cheap horses into glue.”

Lloyd raised a hand. “This is publicly known and irrelevant to the trial.”

“When racehorses lose, he grinds them into glue, too,” said Sandra.

Lloyed kept his hand raised, and when the audience quieted enough, he spoke. “It’s still irrelevant, and besides, when you eat a hamburger, you know a cow went into it. When you eat jello, you know it’s made of bone. When you use glue, you worry an animal was needlessly harmed, but there’s no worry with Bronson! Bronson glue uses every part of the horse! Not an ounce of harm goes to waste!”

“Not an ounce of jockey, either,” said Sandra. “The losing jockeys have their organs harvested and sold on the black market. There’s a rumor among his staff Alphonse has two livers.” Alphonse chuckled. “What he can’t sell, he grinds into a paste we call ‘jockey juice.’ I took it all the time. It let me walk.”

Now Alphonse laughed. “What a story! I tell you, Bronson medical-technology is second to none and has achieved marvelous miracles, but is there any evidence of the wrongdoing you suggest?”

Lloyd spoke before Sandra could: “How could Alphonse possibly pull off the organ-harvesting operation you claim? It’s baseless and preposterous.”

“Nah, it’s easy,” said Sandra. “Alphonse and his billionaire buddies train folks on the fringe like me into jockeys with nothing to lose. How many people go missing every year? I bet some end up in glue.”

“This is just slander,” said Lloyd.

“I’m afraid I have to agree,” said Judge Fairfax. “Ma’am, do you actually have any tangible proof of these claims? It seems like there should be plenty.”

The casino,” said Sandra.


A warrant was quickly drafted. Alphonse graciously and generously allowed select few to enter his estate free of charge. Craig piloted one helicopter ferrying Sandra, Whitney, and me, while Alphonse and Lloyd followed in another police-chopper with two officers.

Whitney leaned on the window. “This side of the estate isn’t half as pretty.”

“I kinda like the desert charm,” I said.

“How often did you run here?”

“Every weekend. Totally hammered, too.”

“Oh, Jonas.”

“There it is!” Sandra pushed me aside to see through the window. “That’s the bunker!” She prepared her wheelchair.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Craig.

We all landed near the cement bunker. Alphonse stepped from the police-chopper and shouted over the helicopters’ roars. “Let’s see if there exists such a fabled casino!”

“Let’s.” I led the group to the bunker and typed a code onto the keypad. It blinked red. “Um. I guess he changed the pin.”

“Or maybe you never knew the pin, because this casino is a fantasy,” said Lloyd.

Alphonse brushed me aside and typed the code himself. The bunker clicked open. “Officers?”

The police-officers opened the steel door. Gone were the silk curtains and chandeliers. The walls and stairs were stone lit by flickering LED. Below was a concrete room full of canned beans.

“Nothing at all!” said Alphonse. “Just my personal safety-bunker!” The officers rubbed their mustaches. “What a bizarre allegation—a casino on my property! How ridiculous!”

“I’m disappointed,” said Whitney. “I wanted to see that casino. You made it sound pretty lush.”

“It was.” My stomach twisted. Had Alphonse disintegrated the casino in a day and a half?

“How’d you do it Alphonse?” said Sandra, but Craig just shook his head and blew bubblegum.

The officers descended into the bunker and we all followed. Craig carried Sandra in her wheelchair down the stairs. “Well, I don’t see a casino down here,” said one officer.

The other officer examined a can of beans. “What’s this bunker preparing for, Mr. Bronson?”

“You don’t have to answer that,” said Lloyd.

“The bunker is for whatever may come,” said Alphonse. “I appreciate safety, but I don’t put much stock into conspiracy theories.”

“Neither do I,” said Craig, “but a bunker is a good thing to have. Have you checked the thickness of the walls to ensure safety against nuclear strikes?”

Alphonse shrugged. “Yes.”

“I’ll check again.” Craig produced from his leather jacket a handheld device like a tiny metal-detector. “This is a ground-penetrating radar. It makes maps of subterranean areas. It’ll make sure the outer walls of your bunker are built to last.”

Alphonse bit his lip. “You didn’t mention this in the warrant,” said Lloyd, but Craig waved the device definitively and gestured for the officers to look at its screen.

“See?” said Craig. “This bunker isn’t safe at all. It’s over a huge, hollow cavern.”

Alphonse shook. “My my. Thank you for alerting me. I’ll deal with it on my own time.”

One officer took the radar. “The cavern below us has some precise corners, Mister Bronson.”

“Doesn’t this remind you of Vegas?” said the other. “It looks like Caesars Palace.

Alphonse clenched and unclenched shaking fists. “Entirely coincidental,” said Lloyd, “and even if there were a casino down there, it was discovered via unlawful means, and as fruit of the poisoned tree—”

“Alphonse invited us onto his property without condition,” said Craig. “No rule against ground-penetrating radar.”

“Get out!” shouted Alphonse. “All of you, out!” Lloyd palmed his face as Alphonse chased us back to our helicopters.


Alphonse was so humiliated by the incident that he reappeared in court on Lloyd’s laptop, video-chatting from the veranda of his mansion in the estate.

Judge Fairfax reviewed Craig’s radar-map of the casino. “Is this, in fact, a casino, Alphonse?”

“It could be a peculiar cave,” said Lloyd. “In any case, Alphonse has already paid 6.6 million dollars in fines. Let’s finish this civil case before considering some fantasy criminal one.”

“It’s a casino!” said Alphonse, over the laptop’s speakers. Lloyd groaned. “A little social gambling is perfectly legal in the district! I don’t make a dime from my associates except my fair winnings, and the fee for their footage in my estate. It’s no business, just friends who enjoy the aesthetic of a casino. Jonas, every weekend for four months, you ran to that casino, correct?”

“Uh huh.”

“Then you owe me for the privilege! Each time you visited the casino, you ran twenty miles on my property. You owe me $320,000.”

“You invited me to your casino.”

“And you came knowing of the cost.”

Judge Fairfax ran his hands through his hair. “Alphonse, if you charge an entry fee, it’s not social-gambling!”

“Many elements of that are debatable,” said Lloyd.

Judge Fairfax slammed his gavel. “Jonas, in the casino, did you gamble money?”

“Yes.”

“A lot?”

“Not personally. I tried not to lose more than fifty bucks at once. But I heard the billionaires bet whole horses.”

“And Alphonse,” asked Judge Fairfax, “did you report your winnings on your taxes?”

Alphonse said nothing. “My client’s taxes aren’t up for discussion,” said Lloyd.

Sandra shouted. “He launders the money by pretending to sell glue!

The court was silent. Judge Fairfax cradled his face. “Mister Bronson.”

“Yes?”

“I’m trying to make sense of what I’m hearing. You’re widely known as a successful glue-manufacturer who controversially uses animal-products. Now I’m to understand that not only do you source those animal-products from the losers of races you host in an illegal gambling ring, but also, no one even bought the glue?”

“No, no! You’ve got it all wrong!” said Alphonse, but Lloyd typed a private message to him on the laptop.

Perhaps that statement could be called partially accurate, in a technical legalese sense,” said Lloyd, “but it’s hardly the matter at hand. If you want to bring criminal charges against my client, do it later. And there’s still no evidence of organ-harvesting.”

“You’re fired,” said Alphonse.

Lloyd pushed up his glasses to see Alphonse on the laptop. “I’m sorry?”

“Your attitude makes me look guilty. Get out of here.”

“You fired the rest of your legal team,” said Lloyd.

“I’ll represent myself.”

Lloyd’s lower lip trembled, then stiffened. He glared at Alphonse like this wasn’t the first disagreement they’d had. “Alright. Goodbye.” Lloyd packed some folders into his suitcase and left the laptop on the table when he stormed from the courtroom.

Judge Fairfax rubbed his eyes. “Oookay. Let’s take this from the top.”

“Jonas,” said Alphonse, “you owe—Hold on. You. Lady. Yes, you in the front row! Turn the laptop toward Jonas.” Debra turned the laptop. “You owe me your legs, Jonas! And so much more.”

The whole court gasped. Alphonse played another clip from the toothpick, my agreement to wager my legs around mile 40. Whitney and Hermes squeezed my shoulders, but Kevin was just flabbergasted. “Dude. Seriously?”

“What else could I have done?” I said. “He said he’d take 40% of my legs if I quit the bet.”

Kevin grunted. “You’re lucky I bothered saving your ass. Literally, I saved your ass.”

Alphonse stopped the recording. “Jonas, you put your legs in the pot, and I won the race. You’ll pay.”

Naira Nightly stood so quickly her chair fell behind her. “We broadcast Jonas winning the race from two different angles on national television. Half the people in this courtroom witnessed it firsthand!”

“He had to win by some duration,” said Alphonse.

“Yeah,” said Mike Mann, “and your horse didn’t cross the finish-line for twelve minutes.”

“But Jonas had to win by several hours,” said Alphonse. I felt fire in my fists. “I mentioned, at the time, some police-officers stopped me for three minutes around mile 98, but there were other delays. For example, I had to wait for Jonas at mile 40 to inquire about gambling his legs. That was at least an hour lost! And, by the way, those police-officers will pay $40,000 each for intruding on my land. So will that meddling veterinarian.”

“You rat!” I pointed across the court. “You weren’t waiting for me at mile 40! You said you stopped because you injured yourself and were swapping with Sandra!”

“Oh?” Alphonse leaned close to his camera and his face became large on the laptop. “That part of the audio-record is missing. Do you have any evidence to back up your claim?”

My feet were weak. My knees knocked.

“We might,” said Craig. “Alphonse, you said the head of your tech-security wiped the toothpick’s memory before you gave it to me.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Alphonse, I am your tech-security.”

Alphonse blinked and backed away from the camera. “Wait.”

“I managed to recover that audio. In fact, there’s more audio on the toothpick than you let on.”

Wait.

“Maybe we should play the whole thing for the court? It’s only thirteen hours or so.”

“Craig!” Alphonse shouted so loudly he clipped his microphone. “You can’t share that evidence until we have access to it too!”

“Who’s we?” asked Craig. “You’re alone, Alphonse. Do you want to discuss this over coffee?”

Judge Fairfax slumped back in his chair. “I need a recess anyway. I’ve got a headache.”

As the court cleared up, Craig punched my shoulder. “Mountain King. Your check’s in the mail.”


“I’ll buy the toothpick from you,” said Alphonse.

Craig smiled and sipped some tea. Alphonse had boiled the water himself; it was the finest culinary art he could handle now that he’d fired all his help. The seating on his mansion’s veranda was luxuriously adjustable beach-chairs. “How much will you pay, Alphonse?”

“I produce the toothpicks for ten thousand dollars each. I gave that one to Jonas for free. I bought it from Jonas for ten thousand dollars. I gave it to you for free. I’ll buy it from you for twenty thousand. It’s more than fair.”

Craig laughed, just once. “Ha.”

Alphonse hadn’t touched his tea. “Forty thousand.”

“Alphonse.”

“Eighty thousand.”

“Alphonse, I own a sixty floor office-building in every country worth dirt. Every floor of every building does something unrelated, but they all report to me. I made eighty thousand bucks last year working as your helicopter pilot, and I half-assed that. You didn’t even remember my name, but I owned all those men in leather. I owned some of those tuxedos walking around your casino, too. You’ll have to do better than eighty thousand dollars.”

Alphonse’s mouth hung open as he gathered words. “What do you want?

“I want your military-jacket. I want your pistol. I want your estate. I want all your assets. And I want your body, Alphonse Bronson. The whole thing. Head to toe.”

Alphonse cleared his throat and straightened his back. “Why would I give you one percent of that? Do you know something I don’t know about the audio on that toothpick?”

“No, I just know how the public would react,” said Craig. “That’s never been your strong-suit, has it? You’re the kind of guy who can put needles under someone’s nails and wonder why no one sits with you at lunch. If the court hears your cackling after you shot Jonas’ finger off, it won’t matter if there’s proof you harvested organs. You’ll be underground before you’re dead.”

“I’ll drag you down with me.”

“You’ll try, but I’m mist. I can be gone in an instant. You don’t have those kinds of connections.”

“Yes I do! I’ve got—”

“You had me, Alphonse. I was your go-to guy. See that’s your problem: you only remember the names of your enemies, but you didn’t know I was one, so I was invisible. You know nothing about me, but I know everything about you. You can’t disappear. You get to barter with me.”

“Oh.” Alphonse’s eyes widened. “Okay, I’ll give you the jacket, the pistol, and ten million dollars.”

“Alphonse.” Craig chuckled. “I’m not just selling you a toothpick here.”

“I have to pay for Jonas’ finger, too?”

Now Craig burst out laughing. “No, Alphonse, I’ll give you the finger! You’re buying your dignity! I want your jacket, your pistol, your estate, your assets, and your life. It’s a small price to pay for what remains of the name ‘Alphonse Bronson.’ You’ve messed up. I’m your only way out with a scrap of esteem.”

Alphonse spent a long time biting his fingernails, pleading, and not drinking his tea. Finally he wiped tears from his eyes. “Okay, Craig.”

“Okay?”

“Take it all. Just leave my dignity.”

“Here.” Craig opened his leather jacket and gave Alphonse the finger with the toothpick stuck in it. “The audio dies with you.”

Alphonse smeared his sobs away and surrendered his gaudy military jacket. Craig put it on. He made it look good. “What are you going to do to me?” asked Alphonse.

“Now that I own your body? Anything I like.”

Alphonse swallowed. “Are you going to harvest my organs?”

“No, no–though I would like to count your livers. See, Alphonse, you’ve done too many strange drugs to trust your organs. What’s in those toothpicks, anyway?”

“What are you going to do to me?” Alphonse asked again.

“I might make you into glue. Let’s go.” Craig led Alphonse through his mansion into a back-entrance to the casino by way of the horse paddocks. As they walked, Craig listed factual statements. “You have conceded the race to Jonas and the class-action lawsuit to me. Your estate is now a non-profit nature preserve. We’ll find Tom, Dick, Harry, and Georgie, and your lab-boys will help perform the autopsies. We’ll confirm your father’s biggest cock-up. He was a lot better at hiding his shame than you, Alphonse, but you helped me dig up Masawa’s murder.” He led Alphonse to the glue-grinding and jockey-harvesting machine, covered with an unsuspicious tarp. “Get in,” said Craig.

Alphonse, clutching the toothpick to his chest, climbed into the big metal box. Craig shut the hatch behind him. “Um.” There was a TV in the box with Alphonse, tuned to the news.

“Get comfy. You’ll be here a while,” Craig said from outside the box. “Don’t worry—I’ll bring you food and water, and I’ll move you somewhere more hospitable when this is all over. I just thought the box would be poetic.”

“Craig! What are you doing!”

“Alphonse, you’re not worth glue. Your estate is gorgeous. Your jacket is gaudy. But your pistol? This is a work of art, Alphonse. This is the real prize. Do you know why I came to you offering my skills as a helicopter-pilot and security expert? Do you know?”

“Um. I thought it was to exchange your service for currency.”

“Your father and I were born the same year, Alphonse. I know because we met in the early fifties, when we were both eight years old. We met because my father was a diplomat, and your grandfather was a diplomat, of sorts.”

The TV in the box showed Alphonse news about the trial. “Diplomats of where, exactly?”

“I’d like to know!” said Craig. “I was one of the few survivors, and as a child at the time, my memory is hazy. It was either South America or South Africa, or maybe Eastern Europe. What matters is, it’s my father’s pistol, Alphonse.”

“Well, now you’ve got it back. Congratulations!”

“He brought this pistol to meet your grandfather because he heard rumors, Alphonse. Rumors your granddad was a de facto dictator through military power and assassinations. The gun did not keep my father safe.”

“What happened?”

“Your grandfather shot my father dead with this silver pistol, in front of me, and he tried to shoot me dead, too.” Craig lifted his shirt. Alphonse couldn’t see it from inside the box, but Craig had an old scar across his belly. “He dumped me in a river, Alphonse. I woke up with some local native tribe.”

“…The Masawas?”

“Georgie was a babe at the time. The tribe helped me escape the country while your granddad tore it apart to cover up his crimes. My father’s murder was the beginning of the end for your home country.”

“So in the race’s last moments, you betrayed me by refusing to bring Champ Junior back across the finish-line.”

Craig laughed. “Alphonse, my betrayal was planned the moment the first shithead crawled from the ocean onto land. I sent Champ Junior across the finish-line to stop you! I convinced you to race Jonas with a book I published! At the charity-race which produced Jonas and Sandra, I made that sadistic donation to tempt you! Did you even remember betting on Jonas as a child? You’d remember if you actually read the book, Alphonse, because Whitney wrote about you. Destiny foretold that Jonas would race the horse, and Sandra would ride it.”

“You couldn’t have planned every minute detail!”

“Pfft! If I told you I arranged Jonas’ boyhood skiing-accident, you’d have no choice but to believe me.” Craig examined the silver pistol’s hilt, embossed with horses. He pressed one horse’s eye and the hilt opened. There were cold-war era electronics inside. “My father put an audio-recorder in this pistol. It recorded his own murder, my attempted murder, and the next six weeks. We’ll see exactly what your ancestry did.”

“If your beef is with my grandfather, why are you doing this to me?

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the organ-harvesting. Maybe it’s the horse-grinding. Maybe it’s because I don’t like your breath after all those toothpicks. But I promise you, Alphonse, the public will never hear of you again, and won’t learn another tidbit about little baby Bronson. But they, and you, and I, will hear this pistol’s record. What was your granddaddy so ashamed of that he destroyed his country to escape it? Let’s find out, Alphonse.”

Craig left Alphonse in the box. Alphonse sat in front of the TV and watched the news.

Outside the paddock, Craig walked along the horse-stalls. They were all empty except for one, which he opened. Champ and Junior followed Craig in walking freely onto the estate.

THE END

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Phoenix Wright and Moving On

Jonas and company engage in a trial to determine whether Alphonse gets paid or pays out. If Alphonse can’t keep his mouth shut, he’ll lose everything.

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even know any lawyers personally. Luckily, accuracy is hardly relevant to courtroom-drama. Fudging it is probably more exciting than the real deal.

Have you ever played the video-game Phoenix Wright? I haven’t, but I’ve watched those boyish nimrods The Game Grumps play it, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Phoenix Wright is a defense-attorney in a world of cartoonish mystery. In court he spars with the prosecutor using a system of legality which only vaguely resembles reality. The law is flexible because Phoenix Wright is in a game, and a game is supposed to be fun even if going to court is usually like pulling teeth.

Likewise, I’m not concerned about realism in this court-case, just making a compelling back-and-forth. I want Alphonse to lose for his inability or unwillingness to understand how others perceive his actions, and his simultaneous egotistical attachment to his public image. I also want as few new characters as possible, so I limit myself to Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd and Judge Fairfax, both of whom have limited roles.

And, uh, that’s a wrap. Thank you so much for reading all this way (about 40,000 words total, a proper novella!). I’ll periodically reread and edit this story; I think Jonas’ and Whitney’s relationship needs some work, and I should probably learn more about horses eventually. My writing motto is “First get it down, then get it right.” Let me know if you have any comments, or noticed any plotholes, or anything like that.

Eventually I’ll start a new writing project, but I’m not sure what it’ll be quite yet. I’ve got a few ideas bumping around.

In the meantime, why not try reading another story, or checking out my YouTube channel?

Stay frosty, and don’t bet your legs unless it’s a sure thing!

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