They called him Crinkles, a virtuoso, a Renaissance man, the king of maestros. I discovered him on a sales trip through the Midwest a year ago on Halloween Eve. It was my last night on the road, and I secured a room at a Holiday Inn in a small town west of Cleveland. Then I set out to find a restaurant for dinner."I'm looking for a place with the flavor of the town," I told the pretty young concierge. "Not a hotel dining room." "The Cicada," she said, smiling. "Two blocks down, this side of the street. Good food and drink, reasonable, casual dress. Best of all, they say Crinkles will be by." "Crinkles?" I asked. "A little orange bug from another planet," she said, with a wink and a smile. "Does a song and dance routine that's out of this world, pardon the pun. Makes the rounds on Halloween each year." "Thanks," I said, picturing some American Idol reject in my mind. I decided to walk the short distance. Halloween is big in this town, and I passed costumed pedestrians, lampposts festooned with straw stuffed scarecrows, and pumpkins piled into pyramids on every street corner. By the time I arrived at the Cicada I'd gotten into the spirit of it, and I fairly skipped through the doors into the tavern. A long bar stood on my right, tables and booths opposite to my left, a raised dance floor in back. A seat yourself place, and a festive after work crowd. Perfect. I took a vacant stool midway down the bar. I ordered a draft beer and asked for a menu. The bartender said, "They'll be busting the doors down later, to see Crinkles." "From out of town," I said. "But I heard about him at the Holiday Inn. What's the story?" "Best song and dance, comedy routine on the planet," he said. "You be sure to stick around." I nodded. "Thanks for the tip. I will." I swallowed some beer, then settled back to people watch. I was in high spirits. Successful trip, home tomorrow, and maybe a good show tonight. "Hey Crinkles, how's it going, man?" the bartender suddenly whooped. He grinned broadly as he looked past me toward the tavern entrance. I swiveled around on my stool and spotted this bizarre character dressed up like an orange insect. He wore a white golf shirt and tan Bermuda shorts, leaving a wide bare strip between them around his pumpkin shaped thorax. His huge, bulbous head sported two, foot long antennae on top, and two large, multifaceted eyes dominated his face. He had long, buglike arms and legs covered with short black bristles, and six long black talons sprouted from each of his hands and larger feet. "Top of the world," Crinkles said, prancing up the aisle. He spoke in a deep, resonant voice, with the timbre and diction of a newscaster. No kid, this, though he stood barely four feet tall. "How's it going, guys?" he asked, beaming, taking a few bows. They cheered and applauded him with gusto. His costume crinkled loudly as he half skipped, half danced down the aisle, sounding like a cricket chirping in tuneless clicks and clucks. He stopped and gave me the once over, the facets of his eyes reflecting my image as they flashed a dazzling array of colors. "New guy, huh? Just passing through our burg?" he asked, in that well modulated voice. "Yeah. Just for the night. Home to New Jersey tomorrow. My name's Henry Doggett. Pleased to meet you, Crinkles." He high-fived me with his dry, gloved hands and said, "Hell of a place, New Jersey, cool guy," and all the facets in one eye turned orange, in a parody of a wink. "Let's groove later, 'gator. Gotta check in with my buds. In a while, 'dile." He skipped on down the aisle, crinkling and clicking his feet in a snappy, upbeat rhythm, and joined a group of guys who stood up and patted a vacant seat. "So what's your drink tonight, Crinkles?" one of them asked. "A dry martini with an orange peel," Crinkles replied. "For starters," and he laughed and chittered, as if he had told a hilarious joke. The guys joined in. "Coming right up, Crinkles," the barkeep said. "On the house." I nursed my beer, studied the menu, but I found the excited banter from the Crinkles crowd intoxicating, as he amused and delighted them with jokes and commentary on current affairs. He punctuated his speech with snapping talons and wriggling antennae, drawing praise and laughter from a gathering crowd. Then he hopped off the barstool and skipped up to the jukebox. He pulled a series of coins from a pocket with one hand, flipped them high and caught them with the other as he snapped them deftly into the slot, while punching out a sequence of songs like a drumroll. Then he backflipped and pirouetted so that he faced us again. He flashed me a grin, then flicked his antennae and snapped those talons to the beat of the music. He began to move his body to and fro, then strutted up and down the aisle in perfect synch with the rhythm of the song. "More! More! More!" the crowd urged. His articulated gait was so infectious that we were obliged to clap our hands and stamp our feet as he pranced and danced and at last bounded up onto the dance floor. "Go, Crinkles, go!" we shouted in a steady cadence as the little orange bug twirled and leapt and twisted about, never losing his rhythm, never losing his step until the rafters fairly shook from the crescendo of cheers and applause. Then he coasted to a stop, raised his arms, and bowed to us. "Thanks, fans," he said in his radio announcer's voice. "But no kicks without chicks, so we'll flow when they show." The crowd moaned and groaned, and chanted, "Encore, encore," but Crinkles held up his hands for quiet. "Gotta work on my thirst, first." He stepped down from the platform and cartwheeled back to his seat at the bar. They gave him a standing ovation. I couldn't wait to see more. I finished my beer. "Say who is this guy?" I asked, as the bartender walked by. He drew me another mug and said, "Truth be told, we don't know. He plays this gig every year at Halloween. He's a local dude - he knows us all, but nobody's figured out who he is." "No clue at all?" I asked. "Beats me. He never talks about his real self, just his persona. But he sure has talent. He can sing and dance and do comedy and quote Shakespeare. You name it, he does it, you better believe it." "I do," I said, taking a swallow of beer. Moments later I observed three young women entering the tavern, walking down the aisle checking for an empty booth. One of them spotted Crinkles. "Oh my God, Marci! Look! It's Crinkles," she gushed, and they screamed and swooned like teenage groupies, swarming him, hugging him, beseeching him to sit with them. "Later, sweethearts," he said, "and don't forget to put me on your dance cards." He hailed a barmaid. "A round for the gals, and put it on my tab." I ordered a burger and fries, as Crinkles joined another group of corporate revelers and regaled them with bawdy tales, then segued into a ventriloquist act where he projected a sequence of Mel Blanc characterizations right into the mouths of his audience, and you'd swear that's where the voices came from. He excused himself then, and I lost track of him for the moment. I started eating, but soon I noticed something, like that creepy feeling you get when someone is watching you. I looked up, and there was Crinkles, standing on the dance floor, staring at me. He raised his glass, then came toward me. "You're an observant man, Henry," he said. "I like that. Mind if I join you?" "Not at all," I said. "Sit down." He took the empty stool next to mine. He stared at me for a moment, intently, with those compound eyes, hundreds of facets flickering in wavelike patterns. I felt uneasy under his glare, as if I were the insect, and he the entomologist pinning me to a specimen card. "I like your style, Henry. You're intelligent, worldly, articulate, sophisticated, and shrewd. No local yokel, you. And a man who knows what he wants, and gets it." He grinned at me, showing hundreds of white, needle sharp teeth in his maw, and that's when I knew that he wanted something from me. "So, are you a local yokel?" I asked, smiling, so he'd know I was merely playing on his own words. He twittered loud and raucously, like a locust uttering a mating call in high summer. I drew back in surprise. "Not at all, my friend," he said. "So from where?" I persisted. He winked at me. The bartender placed a fresh martini in front of him. He tossed it down in a single gulp with a loud slurp, then tapped the glass on the bartop. "Another," he said. Then he turned to me, eye facets flashing black and white in swirls that made me dizzy. He laughed, and said, "I've got a proposal for you, Henry. A deal that we could make. Game?" Bingo. He did want something. "What kind of deal?" I asked warily. But before he could answer, one of his groupies approached and implored him to dance. "We'll work out the wrinkles later," he told me, as he hopped off his stool and escorted the young lady to the dance platform. He twirled and whirled his partner around, and soon a crowd of onlookers gathered and clapped to the beat of the music. He moved so fast, so gracefully, so acrobatically, that it appeared they had rehearsed their number for years, even though her skills were far beneath his. When the song ended he bowed to the lady and then to the rest of us as we stood up and cheered. He wasn't even breathing hard when he came back and sat down. "Got a light, Henry?" he asked. He pulled a pack of Salems from his shirt pocket, downed his martini, tapped a cigarette from the pack and flipped it into his mouth. "Sorry, no, I don't smoke," I said. "Well what's this, then?" he asked, pulling a lighter out from behind my ear. He flicked it, lit his cigarette, then enclosed the lighter in his fist. When he opened it, the lighter was gone. "Ghastly habit," he said, exhaling a plume of smoke. "Lethal for us bugs. It's a bitch to quit, too." "Yeah," I agreed. "I quit a few years ago." "Like I was saying, Henry, my man. I think we can make a deal, an arrangement to suit both of us." He blew a perfect smoke ring, then another, smaller one that shot through the first. "What kind of deal?" I repeated. "Procreation," he replied, and he laughed and wiggled his antennae. "There's more of us here than me, you know. We don't do it the way you do. I like your style here, but it doesn't work for us." "So how do you do it?" I asked. For the first time I saw that he was getting drunk. He'd lost his train of thought. What had procreation got to do with our deal? "Fast, man, ever so fast. Ever seen your black widow spiders go at it?" He blew more smoke rings, elliptical in shape. "The females eat you?" I asked incredulously. "Even worse, sly guy. Come here, closer, and I'll tell you." He grabbed my hand with one of his dry, taloned paws and pulled me toward him. He was very strong. In a conspiratorial voice he said, "For us, it's not the sex. It's the thrill of escape that gets us off. See, we do them, but if we're not Jack-be-nimble, they drill us with their ovipositors, insert their eggs. Like maggots, they infest us, eat us up and ooze out of our rotting corpses as little bugs. Get it?" This was getting revolting. I pushed my half eaten meal away. "That looks good," said Crinkles, but he wrinkled his face and added, "but I like my meat live. Not rare, live. Hey, gotta take a whiz. Then I gotta mix with the chicks. Catch my final set, then we'll finish our chat." Off he went to the men's room, and when he came out he sashayed down to a booth and bowed to a bevy of women. They all jumped up, and Crinkles led them to the dance floor, prancing all the way like the Pied Piper. What a performance it was! He danced with each of them individually and then all together in an act that resembled a finely choreographed ballet, and the crowd got so worked up I thought they'd bring the house down with the sheer energy of their exuberance. I'd almost forgotten about our deal, and I wondered if he had. When he returned he showed no sign of fatigue, and no sweat darkened his orange costume. I shook my head in disbelief. "Now where were we?" he asked, as he signaled for yet another martini, which Dan had already mixed for him. Crinkles took a swig and uttered a satisfied sigh. "Love that booze," he said. "Not like those noxious cancer sticks. Did I tell you I'm trying to quit the weed?" He chugged his martini down. I nodded yes. He was drunk, slurring now, sloppy with his glass. But something nagged at the back of my mind. If he was so drunk, how come-- "Oh yeah," he said, snapping his talons. "Our deal. You drive a hard bargain, Henry, but I need an agent, badly. You see, I want to take my act further, and I figure you're just the man for that. Say twenty percent off the top?" He'd caught me by surprise. "Well I, I," I stammered. "Thirty percent it is, then. And a generous deposit up front. What say ye, mate?" I was too flabbergasted to respond. "And to top it all off, I'll reveal my true identity. You want to know, right? And truth be told, I could use a little help back to my place. A little tipsy. It's right on the way to the inn. We can sign the deal, I'll make the deposit, and show you who I am. That's some bargain you drove me to. So how about it?" Why not? I thought. I'm a salesman, right? And I could sell his act anywhere. It sold itself. Thirty percent for no work, and some dough up front. I didn't take the time to think it all out. That's the problem with salesmen - we make the easiest marks. "Okay, deal," I said. "Splendid! Now?" he asked, with a big, buglike grin. "Why not?" I signaled Dan, and pushed a twenty toward him with the tab. "Keep the change," I said. "Early start back home tomorrow." "Thanks," he said. "Stop by on your next trip out." "I'll do that." I bounced off my stool, thinking Crinkles might need a hand, but he was already standing. "Hold my drink, Dan," Crinkles said. "I'll be back for an encore." "Wait, mate," Crinkles said, as I stepped outside into the crisp night air. And then he was beside me, arm thrust through mine, skipping two steps to my one, but somehow staying abreast. We walked halfway down one block and passed a dark alleyway, when Crinkles suddenly stopped, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me into the blackness. "This way, my man, to my lair." "Hey," I said, "Hold it, Crinkles." But he yanked me off balance, and I had to scramble after him until I regained my footing. "C'mon, chum, we made a deal, right?" he said. "Don't you want to see who I am?" "Let go," I protested, and snatched his gloved hand that held my wrist. It crackled and split and broke under my grip, and the remnants fell to the ground. Christ, I thought. I'd ripped the guy's getup, and maybe blown the deal. "Sorry, Crinkles. I ruined your costume. I'll pay for it." "No prob, Henry," he said. "I'll just remove the damn thing now. It's been driving me crazy the last couple of hours, anyway. So, close your eyes and turn your back until I give you the okay." "Okay." I turned and listened as he discarded the various parts of his bug wear. "Okay," he said. "You can look now." I couldn't see him at first, for he was in my shadow, but I could see his golf shirt, shorts and pieces of his costume scattered around. I moved so that the street lamp shone on him. And then I screeched in horror. "Surprise!" he said icily. "Surprise." Crinkles stood before me, a slightly smaller version, glistening in the light as a slimy liquid covered and dripped from his orange, insectile body. I gagged, and tried to run, but I was stricken, paralyzed with fear. I shrieked again. "Guess what?" Crinkles said. "We molt!" And he laughed uproariously. Then he darted toward me, so fast I had no chance to get away. He grabbed both my wrists in his slimy, taloned hands and said, "I've got another surprise for you Henry. Guess what?" I stood there, trembling, in shock. "I'm a female. That's what. And you, my dear chump, will play host for my eggs. Watch this demo." He turned his head slightly, then shot a long, green, whiplike appendage from his mouth, six feet out, that cracked and sizzled at the tip. I screamed in terror, and as adrenaline finally kicked into my veins, I pulled my hands away. They slid out from his grip, lubricated by the oily scum, and I spun around and ran headlong for the street. I had two steps on Crinkles before he reacted and gave chase. I saw that deadly ovipositor shoot by and snap at me, and I redoubled my efforts. Terrified, I dashed out into the street, when I heard the blaring of a truck horn, the screech of brakes, and a crunching thud behind me, as the truck missed me by inches. I kept running until I heard a heavy door slam, and a man bellow, "Hey! Hey, guy! Did I hit you? Are you hurt?" I stopped and looked back. The driver stood by the cab of his truck. "I'm all right," I shouted. "Sorry, I didn't see you." I walked toward him. No way would Crinkles dare attack me now, as some pedestrians had gathered round. "Thank God, man," the trucker said, "I thought for sure I'd hit you. But I hit something. I heard it." "I heard it, too," I said, and then we both saw the debris behind the truck, splattered on the street. "God, what is that stuff?" the trucker asked, as we edged closer to the mess. And suddenly I knew what had happened. Crinkles had been right behind me, and the truck had pulverized him. These were his remains. Then the trucker started laughing. "Jesus!" he exclaimed. "Will you look at that. I hit a bunch of pumpkins, smashed them to pieces. See?" Yes, I could see. Pieces of Crinkles, orange on the outside, a sticky, whitish tough rind on the inside, his exoskeleton, I surmised. And his guts, like pumpkin pulps, a mass of seeds and gook and gunk. "A bunch of rotten pumpkins," said the trucker, "from the smell of it. How about that? Hey next time watch your step, huh man?" I apologized again. The trucker drove off, and the crowd dispersed. I set off for the hotel, shaking badly. But by the time I got there, I'd settled down, and I had time to reflect on the matter. So that's what he'd meant by a "deposit," and carrying his act "further." I was to transport the little bastards back to New Jersey, where I'd be devoured alive. And then I remembered that Crinkles said there were more of them, and I shuddered at the thought. More of them? Where? And where had they come from? But so far, I don't know. Every once in a while I run a Google search: "Dancer, Crinkles, Orange Bug." But so far, I haven't gotten a hit. So far.
x x x
At first I thought we might miss out on this terrific yarn from Mr. Krauss. First, to print it, I’d have to—again—violate my rule about only one story per author per year. Second, Mr. Kraus told me that the story had already found print in another venue. Well, as to the first problem, I might have published THREE of Russell’s submissions if I weren’t afraid that was entirely too much of a good thing. As for the second problem—anotherealm only does reprints if the author still has rights to the story. Russ did, so we did. I think it worked out well. How about you? -GM