The Non-Electronic Bug – part three

fiction

The Non-Electronic Bug – part three

By E. MITTLEMAN

When I turned around to look for Skippy, to ask him some questions, he was gone. Evidently, he didn’t want to answer.

I beat them up and down every block in the neighbourhood until I spotted him in a beanery, drinking a cup of coffee and looking worried.

I sat down beside him, quiet. He didn’t look around. The counterman opened his mouth to say hello. I shook my head, but Skippy said, “That’s all right. I know you’re there.”

I blinked. This was a creep! But I had to find out what was going on. I said, “You made a mistake, kid.”

“Running out?” He shrugged. “It’s not the first mistake I made,” he said bitterly. “Getting into your little setup with the bugged game came before that.”

I said, “You can always quit,” but then stopped. Because it was a lie. He couldn’t quite–not until I found out how he read Chapo’s cards through a drawn shade.

He said dreamily, “You’ve all got me marked lousy, haven’t you? Don’t kid me about Henry–I know. I’m not so sure about you, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I can hear every word that’s on Henry’s mind,” he said somberly. “You, no. Some people I can hear, some I can’t; you’re gone I can’t.”

“What kind of goofy talk is that?” I demanded. But, to tell you the truth, I didn’t think it was so goofy. The window shade was a lot goofier.

“All my life,” said Skippy, “I’ve been hearing the voices. It doesn’t matter if they talk out loud or not. Most people I can hear, even when they don’t want me to. Field glasses? I didn’t need field glasses. I could hear every thought that went through Chapo’s mind, clear across the street. Henry too. That’s how I know.” He hesitated, looking at me. “You think Henry took eight thousand off Chapo, don’t you? It was ten.”

I said, “Prove it.”

The kid finished his coffee. “Well,” he said, “you want to know what the counterman’s got on his mind?” He leaned over and whispered to me.

I yelled, “That’s a lousy thing to say!”

Everybody was looking at us. He said softly, “You see what it’s like? I don’t want to hear all this stuff! You think the counterman’s got a bad mind, you ought to listen in on Henry’s.” He looked along the stools. “See that fat little woman down at the end? She’s going to order another cheese Danish.”

He hadn’t even finished talking when the woman was calling the counterman, and she got another cheese Danish. I thought it over. What he said about Henry holding out on me made it real serious. I had to have more proof.

But I didn’t like Skippy’s idea of proof. He offered to call off what everybody in the beanery was going to do next, barring three or four he said were silent, like me. That wasn’t good enough. “Come along with me,” I told him, and we took off for Jake’s spot.

That’s a twenty-four-hour place and the doorman knows me. I knew Jake and I knew his roulette wheel was gaffed. I walked right up to the wheel, and whispered to the kid, “Can you read the dealer?” He smiled and nodded. “All right. Call black or red.”

The wheel spun, but that didn’t stop the betting. Jake’s hungry. In his place, you can still bet for a few seconds after the wheel starts turning.

“Black,” Skippy said.

I threw down fifty bucks. Black it was.

That rattled me.

“Call again,” I said.

When Skippy said black, I put the fifty on red. Black won it.

“Let’s go,” I said, and led the kid out of there.

He was looking puzzled. “How come–”

“How come I played to lose?” I patted his shoulder. “Sonny, you got a lot to learn. Jake’s is no fair game. This was only a dry run.”

Then I got rid of him because I had something to do.

* * * * *

Henry came across. He even looked embarrassed. “I figured,” he said, “uh, I figured that the expenses–”

“Save it,” I told him. “All I want is my split.”

He handed it over, but I kept my hand out, waiting. After a minute he got the idea. He reached down inside the waistband of his pants, pulled loose the tape that held the dimes to his skin and handed over the radio receiver. “That’s it, huh?” he said.

“That’s it.”

“Take your best shot,” he said glumly. “But mark my words. You’re not going to make out on your own.”

“I won’t be on my own,” I told him and left him then. By myself? Not a chance! It was going to be Skippy and me, all the way. Not only could he read minds, but the capper was that he couldn’t read mine! Otherwise, you can understand, that I might not want him around all the time.

But this way I had my own personal bug in every game in town, and I didn’t even have to spend on batteries. Card games, gaffed wheels, everything. Down at the track, he could follow the smart-money guys around and let me know what they knew, which was plenty. We could even go up against the legit games in Nevada, with no worry about bluffs.

And think of the fringe benefits! With Skippy giving the women a preliminary screening, I could save a lot of wasted time. At my age, time is nothing to be wasted.

I could understand a lot about Skippy now–why he didn’t like most people, why he laughed at jokes nobody else thought were funny or even could hear. But everybody has got to like somebody, and I had the edge over most of the human race. He didn’t know what I was thinking.

And then, take away the voices in his head, and Skippy didn’t have much left. He wasn’t very smart. If he had half as much in the way of brains as he did in the way of private radar, he would have figured all these angles out for himself long ago. No, he needed me. And I needed him. We were all set to make a big score together, so I went back to his rooming house where I’d told him to wait, to get going on the big time.

However, Henry had more brains than Skippy.

I hadn’t told Henry who tipped me off, but it didn’t take him long to work out. After all, I had told him I was going out to look for Skippy, and I came right back and called him for holding out. No, it didn’t take many brains. All he had to do came around to Skippy’s place and give him a little lesson about talking.

So when I walked in the door, Skippy was there, but he was out cold, with lumps on his forehead and a stupid grin on his face. I woke him up and he recognized me.

But you don’t make your TV set play better by kicking it. You don’t help a fine Swiss watch by pounding it on an anvil. Skippy could walk and talk all right, but something was missing. “The voices!” he yelled, sitting up on the edge of the bed.

I got a quick attack of cold fear. “Skippy! What’s the matter? Don’t you hear them anymore?”

He looked at me in a panic. “Oh, I hear them all right. But they’re all different now. I mean–it isn’t English anymore. In fact, it isn’t any language at all!”

* * * * *

As I say, I’m a genius. Skippy wouldn’t lie to me; he’s not smart enough. If he says he hears voices, he hears voices.

Being a genius, my theory is that when Henry worked Skippy over, he jarred his tuning strips, or whatever it is, so now Skippy’s receiving on another frequency. Make sense? I’m positive about it. He sticks to the same story, telling me about what he’s hearing inside his head, and he’s too stupid to make it all up.

There are some parts of it I don’t have all figured out yet, but I’ll get them. Like what he tells me about the people–I guess they’re people–whose voices he hears. They’re skinny and furry and very religious. He can’t understand their language, but he gets pictures from them, and he told me what he saw. They worship the Moon, he says. Only that’s wrong too because he says they worship two moons, and everybody knows there’s only one. But I’ll figure it out; I have to because I have to get Skippy back in business.

Meanwhile, it’s pretty lonesome. I spend a lot of time down around the old neighbourhood, but I haven’t set up another partner for taking the card players. That seems like pretty small stuff now. And I don’t talk to Henry when I see him. And I _never_ go in the beanery when that counterman is on duty. I’ve got enough troubles in the world; I don’t have to add to them by associating with his kind.

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