by Mark Finn
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Chapter One: The Navel Adventures of Larry Croft

Larry Croft frowned and stared at his mostly-naked body in the mirror. His bacon-grease brown hair was short and close-cropped, in keeping with his new lifestyle of harmonious simplicity. The philosophy was cribbed from a website that he had found one night, a point-by-point analysis of the television show Kung Fu that tried, valiantly, to recreate the teachings of the order of Shao Lin monks that Kane belonged to. Larry thought it was brilliant, and immediately adopted it as his own personal code.

Now, as he turned in the mirror, he could see that he was getting fat again. Kane wouldn't be pleased, he thought, as he struck a mock karate stance. The muscles in his shoulders and arms bunched as he shadowboxed, but the little paunch wouldn't go away.

What else did Stercutus want, he asked himself. He'd given up snack cakes altogether, even quit the Novelty Candy Company six months ago, right after his health insurance paid for the surgery that eliminated the great empty flap of skin that had once contained his 300-plus pounds. The procedure cost Larry his navel, because of the amount of skin they had to move on him, and it took three months before everything was really all right, but he had managed to briefly date a girl during that time, and for Larry, that was a terrific trade-off. The Novelty Candy Company waited until all of Larry's medical bills were paid for before letting him go due to "cutbacks."

Larry received two months' severance pay, which was more than generous considering he had bilked the company's insurance into paying tens of thousands of dollars for what was essentially cosmetic surgery. They knew it, and he knew it, so no one really minded that Larry got fired. Including Larry.

He ran his hand over his smooth, hairless stomach, feeling the space where his belly button had once been. It had taken a long time for Larry to be able to look at his abdomen again, and finally without being disgusted at the sight. Now, he desperately wanted to fish for lint. He missed it. "Maybe they can put it back on," he mused, as he got dressed. Larry pulled on his pants and found them tighter than he was used to. The gym, he said to himself, pulling on a Kiss T-shirt from their second farewell tour. I'm going to hit the gym again and see if I can't burn it off like last time. After next week, he amended. When we're all rolling in money.

Larry found that, because of the incident at last year's MagicCon, his metabolism had become heightened and burned with supernatural efficiency. Larry's friends heard about what happened second-hand, but no one knew the truth.

Larry was convinced that he had become possessed at MagicCon by the Roman god of Shit, called Stercutus. In the guise of Stercutus, Larry caused several scenes, knocked a few people around, and destroyed a lot of property. As Stercutus, Larry also got drunk, and kissed and fondled a gorgeous woman, so it wasn't all bad.

The now-legendary incident had gotten Larry permanently banned from MagicCon and the Radcliffe Hotel for life, and nearly earned him an arrest record. Being banned from the largest fantasy and science fiction convention in Northern California was a serious blow, but Larry had gotten a taste of life, and he wanted more. He moved out of his apartment in the suburbs and rented a garage apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. He started lifting weights and playing Frisbee in the park. He drank beer and sang at Karaoke Night. He even started dating women for the first time in his life.

But old habits die hard, and the lure of his role-playing games and comic books was strong. Gradually, Larry began to slip back into his old ways. First, the various fantasy art prints migrated, one by one, out of the closet and back onto his walls (but only the more tasteful artists, like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo). Then, he restarted his weekly game session, coercing his three friends, D.J, Burt, and Turk, into playing with him. Now, it seemed, his body was starting to catch up.

He walked to his kitchen table, where a selection of his gaming materials laid spread out. He neatly stacked several printed pages and hid them under his writing tablet. Those were for later. Tonight, there would be no game. It would be a meeting of professionals. A meeting that would change his life and the lives of his friends forever.

It had started last Wednesday, while Larry was shopping at the Rolling Ogre, the best gaming store in San Francisco. As he sifted through the dice bins, he overheard part of a conversation between Bob, the owner, and a tall, peculiar gentleman at the front counter. One thing led to another, and Larry got dragged into the discussion. That was when he met Rob Rutlege.

Rutlege was an old artist, now working for the free weekly paper. But back in the day, he was one of the creative geniuses in the art department of Gamesmen, Ltd. His artwork in the LegendMaster books and adventure modules was an inspiration to thousands of teenaged would-be artists across the country. Larry introduced himself, and they fell to talking. One thing led to another, and Larry took Rob out for a burger and some beers. As Rob drank, his tongue loosened considerably, and Larry's investment of food and drinks paid off handsomely, as Rob dished the dirt about the old days at Gamesmen, Ltd. That was when he told Larry the story. It wasn't much, as stories go. Competently told, with a few laughs here and there. But Larry seized upon it, and wouldn't let go. For him, it wasn't a story. It was an open invitation.

He spent a whole week researching the background, checking out facts as best as he could, and otherwise concocting an elaborate plan. It took every once of self-control in Larry's large frame not to blurt the whole thing out to D.J. and the guys. Tonight, he thought, that itch would finally be scratched.

Inspiration struck him. He picked up two ten-sided dice, one black and one white. "One to fifty, I wear it. Fifty-one to Double-zero, I don't." He rolled the dice. The black die showed a zero, and the white die a five. Oh-Five! In LegendMaster, that was a critical hit! It was a sign, an omen. He ran back into his bedroom and when he re-emerged, he was wearing his battered brown fedora. Indiana by-god-Jones, he thought. This is my destiny.

Larry's watch beeped. He glanced at it. Six o'clock. The guys would be here soon. After they showed up, he could go pick up Rutlege. But first, duty called.

Larry walked into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. On the bottom shelf was a small, tasteful, miniature altar to Stercutus. He knew what such altars looked like, just as he knew that Stercutus was the god of shit. A lot of Stercutus' personal information stayed behind, like scraps of paper in a hurriedly- abandoned apartment, after Larry's incident at the convention.

He dropped his pants and sat down on the toilet, carefully composing a prayer to Stercutus in his mind as he let his bowels go.

Next Chapter

Chapter One: The Navel Adventures of Larry Croft
Chapter Two: 1123 Miles to Tempe
Chapter Three: Enter the String
Chapter Four: The Waiting is the Hardest Part
Chapter Five: Rutlege's Story
Chapter Six: The Plot Thickens
Chapter Seven: The Fifth Man is Revealed
Chapter Eight: It's a DRY Heat
Chapter Nine: Preparing to Lam
Chapter Ten: The Mislaid Plans of Mouse and Man
Chapter Eleven: The Danger of Talking to God
Chapter Twelve: Anchors Aweigh, Let's Go Men
Chapter Thirteen: The End is Near
Chapter Fourteen: Roll to Hit
Chapter Fifteen: Six Feet of Beef Stick for the Soul
Chapter Sixteen: Hello, My Name is Indio, California
Chapter Seventeen: Threadgill Takes Charge
Chapter Eighteen: The Players on the Other Side
Chapter Nineteen: On the Road to Perdition
Chapter Twenty: Welcome to Tempe
Chapter Twenty-One: The Game is Afoot
Chapter Twenty-Two: Should Have Known Better
Chapter Twenty-Three: Test-Run at the Waffle House
Chapter Twenty-Four: The Supply Run
Chapter Twenty-Five: The Backhoe
Chapter Twenty-Six: A Frank Discussion
Chapter Twenty-Seven: A Brief History of Larry's Van
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Go Speed Racer, Go
Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Owner of the Thumbscrews
Chapter Thirty: Brain Teasers
Chapter Thirty-One: Frick and Frack Check In
Chapter Thirty-Two: Scouting
Chapter Thirty-Three: The Stakeout
Chapter Thirty-Four: The Food Fight
Chapter Thirty-Five: Time to Dig
Chapter Thirty-Six: Deep in the Night
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Paydirt
Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Phallus of Ebon Keep
Chapter Thirty-Nine: Otto and Stacy Make Good
Chapter Forty: Thieves in the Night
Chapter Forty-One: Critical Failure
Chapter Forty-Two: Downtown
Chapter Forty-Three: The Hoosegow
Chapter Forty-Four: An Emergency Breakfast
Chapter Forty-Five: Two Early Phone Calls
Chapter Forty-Six: Threadgill Meets the Gang
Chapter Forty-Seven: Back to the Van
Chapter Forty-Eight: Five Days Later
Table of Contents

About the Author

Mark Finn is the author of Blood & Thunder: the Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. He also writes excellent short stories, essays, articles, and reviews. In addition to his regular gig at the Vernon Plaza Theater, he can be found intermittently on The Clockwork Storybook blog and RevolutionSF, holding court or damning with faint praise.