Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-eight.
Tonight we present The Web
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Weekly Podioplex!
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight we visit a series of gamblers and the strands upon which they walk.
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
“It’s a decent gig as long as you’re the spider and not the fly,” said Baldy, his elbow on the bar. He spoke with his head at a tilt, a distantly ringing phone at his ear.
Despite his name, the man with the blue towel over his shoulder still maintained a full head of jet-black hair. The title had stuck after he’d found himself, years earlier, holding a razor after losing a small-time bet. Across the mahogany sat his cousin, ten years his junior. They shared the same round face, though her close-cropped scalp was lined instead with blond stubble.
“I just don’t get it,” she replied, lowering her Yuengling to her cardboard coaster. “Everyone here bets on the Hydras. Doesn’t matter if they’re having a good year or a bad year, every drunk in a red jersey is laying down his money on the home team. Now, that’s fine when Ahmed Ribbons has his ribs shattered in the middle of the summer and you’re rolling in money, but what happens – like three years ago – when they actually have a decent season? Don’t you get cleaned out?”
As she finished her question, however, someone picked up at the far end of Baldy’s call.
He raised a finger to pause the conversation.
* * *
In Boston a man named Zucco, his left arm arm clipped at the elbow and his accent holding a hint of Dublin, was wrangling an ancient phone receiver while watching a pair of teens being idiots around a very expensive pool table – it was but one of the thirty in the two-story hall, but it was the only one currently in danger of having its felt gouged.
Grunting a series of agreements to Baldy’s cross-country questions, Zucco split his attentions in case he should have to cover the microphone and shout at the kids.
For the thirteenth time that day he wished his Uncle would let him switch the phone over to something a little more modern – at least something portable. Yet they’d been using the four-line system for thirty years and the old man claimed he hadn’t made his money by messing with a successful recipe.
Signing off on the call with a final snort, Zucco leaned towards his large black book and recorded the bets Baldy had just placed.
“More juice on the Celtics?” asked Matt the Mick.
Matt the Mick was a rarity in the establishment. Despite years of loyalty as a patron – and despite being fully aware of the backroom dealings that took place there – Mick only came for the snooker. His hustle was all in his stick.
“Yeah,” answered Zucco, his eyes still on the teens. “A fellow turf accountant pushing some of the money he’s collected on the Hydras game tonight onto the green.”
“Huh,” replied the Mick, “but aren’t the Hydras up by a thousand goddamn points?”
“Doesn’t matter. Guy like that doesn’t want the exposure, he just wants his vig – his cut from the loss. When those thousand goddamn points were determined there was a bit of extra stretch put in ‘em so that no matter what the loser pays an extra percentage. Think of it as the bookie’s fee.
“Now, my friend there’s bein’ flooded with bets by the locals, who of course are all laying money on their hopes and dreams, not the actual likely outcome of the goddamn game. My chum calls me up to balance his take against the guys I’ve got locally hoping and dreaming that it’s gonna be the Celtics, and that covers his ass in the long term.
“He doesn’t actually care which team wins – he wants to balance his bets against each other so he can get a reliable paycheck out of his slice.”
Matt shrugged. “Sure, but if you’re taking bets from other fellas in your line of work on top of your own pool, doesn’t that put you in an even bigger shark tank? What if they want to lay bets you can’t match off against locals?”
“Well, actually, that reminds me: I gotta make a call,” replied Zucco.
Before he could pick up the phone, however, the sound of a dragging cue, and the ripping of felt, reached his ears.
* * *
Five minutes later a phone rang in a small stripmall office on the west coast. There was no alternate pretense to this room, no legitimate business it paraded as. The windows that fronted onto the pavement were frosted, and no signage had been hung beyond its perennially locked door.
This backroom was better equipped than Zucco’s poolhall – a single long desk carried a bank of four lines, each connected to a wireless headset and labelled with a colour sticker so that the identical units could be told apart for charging. Ahead of each phone sat a quick-handed operator, their fingers hovering over their laptops’ keyboards and touchpads. They said little as they responded to the incoming calls, their attentions instead focused on accurately capturing the numbers they were punching into spreadsheets.
What little response they did make was almost always in the form of numbers.
“Seven points over.”
“That’s three million total.”
Though the group had been working together for months, it was rare that all four found themselves in a moment all were simultaneously unoccupied, and what little conversation they exchanged usually happened before or after shift.
For the first time that night, however, a pause came.
Michigan, who refused to use his real name, Byron, had anticipated this moment for weeks. There were no assigned stations – time of arrival generally dictated the order of their seating.
This was why it had taken so long to finally be able to pose his pressing question: Rosario simply hadn’t been sitting alongside him.
Leaning into the silence, he put a hand on her elbow.
“Steaks and a movie after the night’s done? I know a great chophouse.”
“Well,” answered Rosario, her L dragging in hopes that it might be interrupted by an incoming call. She’d suspected something like this might be coming, after Byron had delivered a few unwanted compliments regarding the tightness of her jeans, and so she’d been avoiding him for weeks.
Rosario thought of herself as a serious person. The people they worked for, she knew, were also very serious, and she hoped one day to do something with them more lucrative than juggling numbers in a strip mall.
There was nothing wrong with Michigan, exactly – he simply wasn’t serious.
She had a career to consider, and being a woman only doubled her need to stay focused. It might be organized crime, but it wasn’t so organized that it felt any need to pay attention to equal hiring practices.
Before the next bet might be laid, or she might arrive at a deflection, the cheap green carpet beneath their feet began to fold. It was as if an illusion at first, the far end of the room rising while Michigan and Rosario watched, but then the wheels on their surprised coworkers’ chairs were overtaken by gravity, and they rolled towards the open-mouthed observers.
Though the bookies had long considered their phone lines the humming silk of their web, they had not known that in the end – in all ends – there was always a greater spider.
As an uncountable mass of refracting eyes burst from its ancient egg sack all debts were cancelled, and yet all was still lost at the rising of Kar’Wick the Spider-God.
Flash Pulp is presented by https://www.skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
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