Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 23

The buffet was better than anything Jones could have predicted. There was a salad bar laden with cold shrimp, smoked salmon, fresh lettuce, and pickled beets. The main courses included prime rib, lobster, tikka masala, and mushroom quiche. Fresh fruit, strawberry tarts, slices of cake and layered parfaits crowded brownies and cupcakes vying to be dessert. Jugs full of lemonade, ice tea, and cucumber water sat in ice near the plates. Waitstaff guarded the tables. Jones could see that they were checking the buffet tickets carefully. His heart full of longing, Jones tore himself away and headed to the card tables.

The room was quieter here, with fewer people and more cameras. A poker tournament was about to start. Jones approached a table. Six men and women stared each other down. The dealer lay down a card. One of the players groaned, got up, and walked away. The dealer looked up at Jones. “Are you in?”

Jones shook his head, and started to back away. “I don’t know how to play poker,” he admitted. A voice behind him spoke up. “Deal me in.” Jones stepped aside to allow a bearded, towering man in a studded leather vest ease himself into the spot. He had an exoskeleton on his back that supported his prosthetic right arm. Without a word, two more players dropped their cards on the table and walked away. The cyborg acted like he hadn’t noticed. The back of his neck had an intricate blackwork armadillo tattoo. From the armadillo’s mouth, a speech balloon declared, in expert calligraphy: MAD CRAB. The dealer looked at Jones. 

“Two more spots.” 

“I’m definitely an amateur,” Jones protested again. “And I don’t have much money.” The dealer paused, staring off into space. His wristwatch beeped, and he squinted at the screen for a second, angling it away from the players.

“Not a problem,” said the dealer. “The secondary market seems quite interested.” He gestured at the empty seat and Jones sat down, leaving an empty seat between him and the cyborg. At this point, he wanted that buffet ticket more than anything. He wondered how good cyborgs were at counting cards.

A man in a park ranger shirt filled the last seat. The ranger nodded at the cyborg next to him. “Hey Tasty, how’s it going tonight?” His voice had a frantic, gregarious edge. The dealer frowned. “Texas hold-em’,” he said.

Jones really did not know how to play poker, and it showed. During the first hand, he lay his cards down on the table, to show the others. Everyone groaned.

“You get one re-deal,” the dealer said.

Jones realized he’d left his shoes back at the slot machines. The whine of the air conditioners was starting to bother him. “Can someone tell me the rules?”

The dealer pulled a brochure out from under the table. Jones tried to sit the next few rounds out while he read it, but the dealer made him ante. The ranger tried his best to help. “You have to ante, then fold. No, don’t bet, fold.” 

Jones was now hopelessly mired in gambling debt.

The next hand, Jones held a two of clubs and a six of diamonds. He decided he would try bluffing, and bet everything he had. The other players glared at him, then at the dealer, and immediately folded. Two more made as if to leave the table. The cyborg placed his metal palm down on the green velvet, and they froze. 

“Let’s enjoy the adventure,” the cyborg said. The players stayed.

Jones folded the next three rounds, spending down his minor surplus of cash. The ranger next to him whooped. “Crackerjack!”

Instead of cards, the dealer had given the ranger buffet tickets. The ranger turned to the cyborg next to him. “Hey Tasty, you want my extra?” The cyborg declined with a tilt of his head.

“I’m going to keep playing,” he said.

The ranger turned to Jones. “What about you?” 

Relief flooded Jones’s dopamine receptors. He slid away from the table. His knees were quivering. The cyborg, Tasty, had shown little interest in him, but Jones hadn’t expected to get this close to a member of Mad Crab. He tried not to think about what he had seen when Fran broke into the Virtual Vegas server room and followed the ranger to the buffet.

The ranger introduced himself over a plate of pad see ew and pineapple. “I’m Fred,” he said. “I’m a ranger at the Mohave preserve. Somehow they haven’t shut us down yet - but staff is pretty small. There have been layoffs. And furloughs. And layoffs. Morale is low. But I love what I do. I have autonomy, flexibility. On my days off I like to drive up here, and enjoy the extra company, meet a few new people, catch up with some of the regulars.” 

“Is the preserve nice?” asked Jones. The ranger nodded, bobbing his whole torso in affirmation.

“We’ve done a pretty good job, considering,” he said. “We lost a lot of cactus and a lot of Joshua tree when the temperature started rising. There’s still some places where the vegetation looks the way it did thirty years ago. Almost no one comes for recreation anymore. You can get the same thing in Virtual Vegas, but without the deadly heat. Ironically, that makes some of the more delicate sites easier to preserve. We were having a terrible time with the archeology sites for a while. Vandalism. Now we don’t even fence our petroglyphs. No one’s going to touch them, no one's there. We don’t fence anything. Most of my job is to keep the sand off the train tracks.” The ranger chuckled. 

“Can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent out there with a broom. Check out my triceps!” He pulled up the short sleeve of his ranger shirt so Jones could admire them.

“They are very well defined,” Jones agreed. 

“Tell you what, you don’t seem like much of a gambler. Find me later. I can give you a ride to the reserve, if you like. There’s some safe places to camp.”

“I’d appreciate that,” said Jones. “A ride is hard to get these days.”

The ranger whistled in agreement. “Did you hear about the autonomous car network? Estimated outage is three weeks. What a clusterfuck.” He stood up and brushed the crumbs from his lap. “The buffet is free refills,” he said. “They’ll try to imply that it’s not, but they’re lying.”