Chapter 2: The Fifteen-Year-Old Debt
"…your princess owes me a thousand coins."
There was silence as the bartender concluded his statement. The three boys gaped at him slack-jawed, which prompted him to glower back at them in response.
Princess…? What princess!? We don't have a princess in Sugar Rush!
That was literally Rancis' first thought.
He was not the first person to vocalize the thought, however. Gloyd's skeptical voice rang throughout the tavern before Rancis could even get a single word out.
"Ha! Could've fooled me!" Gloyd chuckled, banging his palms against the polished wood as he keeled over the table in laughter. "Sorry, Mr. Bartender, but you should have bothered doing your research before trying to pull the wool over my eyes," he managed to say, still chortling. "Sugar Rush doesn't have a princess!"
"Oh, is that really the case?"
Rancis grew uneasy, hunching back when he saw the amused bartender confidently flash a I-know-something-you-don't smirk in response to Gloyd, the man's large nose and clean-cut brown hair (not as good as his own, though) only adding fuel to the fire. "Now that's a funny statement for you to make…" the barkeep drawled, drumming his fingers on the table as he continued on, "…considering that said princess was the one who'd bailed your sorry hinds out in the first place."
Swizzle was the next to show the bartender a humored expression. "Look, mister. I think we'd definitely remember if an imaginary princess were to bail us out of our antics." He shot Gloyd a knowing look, no doubt thinking about the numerous times that they were forced to flee for their lives when they took their jokes on the female racers way too far. "It was a good attempt, but I think you can lay off with the jokes now," he chuckled, trying to play it off.
Unfortunately, the bartender wasn't amused by Swizzle's attempt to deflect his question. "You young'uns really think you can get out of this by feigning ignorance, eh?" he asked, ferociously narrowing his blue eyes at the seated racers. The three boys, already on edge, were suddenly caught off guard when he let out a humored chortle. "Well, if you wanna play it that way, be my guest. We'll see who wears the other down first…"
The barkeep shook his head, reaching for a stool as he sat his haunches down on it. "Still, I must apologize. I shouldn't forgo my usual pleasantries just because of you incessant lil' troublemakers."
"Incessant lil' troublemakers?" Gloyd mouthed to Rancis with a hushed whisper, echoing the barkeep's words in a tone which made it blatant that he took offense from the description.
Rancis was quick to reply. "Hey, fits you to a T," he pointed out, causing Gloyd to huff and frown in response.
The bartender cleared his throat when he saw that Gloyd and Rancis were distracted, causing the two to look back at him. "And now that I have your full attention, the name's Tapper. Root Beer Tapper," he introduced with a janky nod of his head. "I own this here joint," he said, using his arm to proudly gesture around the area, "and if you want to be technical — this entire game is mine as well."
"Congrats." Swizzle clapped his hands sarcastically, still unnerved at being approached like this on one of his game-jumping trips. It was glaringly clear to Rancis that in spite of what his friend's calm demeanor might imply, this was a situation that Swizzle had never dealt with before.
"We would have known that little tidbit from the name of the game itself, genius," Gloyd added, earning a chuckle from Swizzle.
Tapper swiveled his body around, not amused by the joke. "So, final call. Why are you three here at my bar, innocuously ordering root beer when your princess owes me an astronomical debt? Sixty-two gallons of root beer don't come cheap, mates. I already did you all a favor by absorbing the other costs for all the damages that you pests caused to me and this here place, but for her to go AWOL on me even after all of that…"
His eyebrows furled in frustration. "…now that's something," he added as an afterthought.
"Come on, now!" Gloyd folded his arms, the first traces of irritation beginning to show. "Don't try to mess with me and my friends! There ain't no princess who stole money from you! I already told you, we don't have a princess in Sugar Rush!"
Even Swizzle piped up in agreement. "That's right, dude. We really don't have a princess! King Candy's our ruler!"
Rancis was about to add a third dissenting opinion, but Tapper snorted before he could voice out against the bartender.
"Playing hard to get, hm?"
Rancis looked at Tapper incredulously, unsure of what to make from his spiteful tone. "I'm sorry…?"
"Frankly, I'm not sure if you boys are faking that you don't know what I'm talking about, or if it'd happened so long ago that you legitimately forgot." Tapper wiped his brow, before holding his head up high with a smirk. "Too bad for you clowns, though. I have video evidence and an IOU that says otherwise."
"Hold up a second… you have what?" Rancis felt his voice wavering as he trailed off upon hearing Tapper's claim. The bartender's collected composure only further added to his unease. "Wait, you're serious? You're not pulling our leg?"
"I'm totally, one-hundred percent serious about this." It was this point that Tapper sighed and averted his eyes. "But unfortunately, I'd given up hope on ever recovering the debt until you three showed up. You see, I have never seen a single person from Sugar Rush come in here ever since that day. Fifteen whole years, pard. Can you blame me for thinking that?"
Tapper looked despondent as he leaned on the surface of the bar. "So to be honest, I… misplaced the tape and the IOU."
Rancis was actually surprised at his confession. It was the first time in the entire conversation that Tapper hadn't been confrontational. In fact, he had seemed ashamed to say those words.
"You misplaced your own evidence?" Gloyd folded his arms suspiciously, a glint in his eye. "But that means you have no proof," he noted, a sneaky smile forming on his face.
Tapper adjusted his bowtie. "Well, you have my word for it. Your princess owes me a thousand coins."
"Your word? That's all we have to go on?" Rancis unconsciously muttered under his breath, a skeptical look adorning his face.
At first, there was no obvious reaction. However, Tapper's face changed all of a sudden, growing very dark from his insinuation. Rancis couldn't help but to shiver, feeling the atmosphere change as the air grew brittle.
Tapper polished an empty mug with his cloth, placing it on the tabletop with a clack. "Let me make one thing very clear, mister. Because of my job, I hear lots of stories from people who sit down to drink. When people come down here to relax, they tell me… things." The barkeep cringed — ever so slightly, but the motion was there. "Things that they don't tell anyone else."
A hint of darkness crept into the bartender's voice, but it was obscured and hidden away before any of the three Sugar Rush racers could comment on it.
"But the two things which I would never do is to use that knowledge for my own advantage or mislead others with that info by telling a customer a deliberate lie. I adamantly refuse to do such vile, cruel acts," Tapper murmured.
Swizzle subtly gestured to get Rancis' attention. "Hey… isn't this guy going off topic?" he mouthed to his friend, "Weren't we talking about the nonexistent princess? Why's he headed off on a tangent?"
Rancis simply shushed Swizzle, shooting him a shrug in return to show that he had no clue with regards to Tapper's behavior either. Admittedly, part of him was curious as to what had gotten the barkeep so riled up and made him switch the topic from the debt that he had been so hard up about earlier on.
Was it something that he'd said?
"We have a certain level of trust here in my tavern. Whatever happens in Tapper's, stays in Tapper's." Tapper made sure to stress the statement, prompting a few nods from others who were listening in. "My patrons have faith in me to be a listening ear while they rant at me and spill all their secrets, and in return I will adhere to basic decency by keeping the contents of the conversation between us, thereby maintaining their trust and respect."
Rancis found himself unconsciously gaping at the bartender in stunned silence as Tapper spoke his heart out. He'd never expected to hear something like this, and it honestly made him feel a little jealous. Maybe it was because of Sugar Rush's gender inequality, but he knew for a fact that if something juicy were to happen within their game, it wouldn't be long before everyone would learn every last detail through the grapevine.
The gossip train was to be feared. Rancis had been a hapless victim of it before, and thus knew just how brutal and efficient it was.
"Point is, I stand by my morals," Tapper continued to ramble, wiping his brow with the cuff of his sleeve. "I mean, you go on over to Burger Time and see if any random chap will tell Chef Pepper their life secrets while dining there. Look kid, there's a reason that I have earned a reputation as the arcade's para-counsellor over the years."
Without any warning, he proceeded to slam both of his hands against the tabletop, causing everyone in the tavern to look at the group. All three of the boys flinched from the motion. It had not been telegraphed at all and none of them had expected the feeble-looking barkeep to lose his cool like that.
Silence filled the entire tavern, the peace eventually being broken only by none other than Tapper himself.
"So when I say that I give my word, you better believe it. Root Beer Tapper does not give his word lightly." He stood up in a swift motion, knocking the stool back as he locked eyes with Rancis, unwavering blue eyes meeting hesitant ones. "You got that, boy?"
Rancis hastily nodded with a gulp. The fact that Tapper had hissed those words out without raising his voice ironically made them have more of an impact as compared to say, if the outraged Tapper had hurled insults at him. If that had been the case, Rancis might have treated his speech like one of Taffyta's snide taunts — in one ear, out the other.
With a sigh, Rancis glanced to his left and noticed that Tapper's speech had also managed to have a profound impact on his friends as well. Swizzle had a contemplative look on his face, and even the agitated Gloyd appeared to be docile for now, momentarily deep in thought.
"So…" Rancis started, choosing his words to Tapper carefully. "I believe you."
He winced when he saw Gloyd glaring at him. His friend looked absolutely betrayed, causing Rancis to make a mental note to apologize to him later.
"That's good." Tapper exhaled. "Now that we've got that out of the way. I need you to do a favor for me—"
"No way, hoser!" Gloyd was fuming now, his orange cheeks glowing with genuine anger as he cut Tapper off. "I've taken your nonsense for far too long, but now I've had it! We. Are. Leaving!"
"I would not recommend that." Rancis shivered when he saw that Tapper's eyes had hardened as he spoke. He had a resolute expression plastered on his face, one which reminded Rancis of what he dubbed as Taffyta's I'm-gonna-win-and-there's-nothing-you-can-do-about-it face.
Gloyd stood up, his patience long gone. "Watch me leave," he deadpanned, making a face at Tapper while the other patrons looked on in shock. "Rancis, Swizz. Let's move!"
Tapper shot the three boys a shrewd look. "Oh, I'm afraid you fellas aren't going to weasel your way out of this that easily…" he said as he snapped his fingers. The noise, despite being relatively soft, reverberated around the entire tavern like a judgement coming from the programmers themselves.
As if on command, an entire group of cowboys entered through the multiple saloon doors. In a synchronized manner, they surrounded the table, causing all of the Sugar Rush racers to freeze in their tracks.
"It helps to have friends." Tapper explained, reaching for a keg and filling a mug up with root beer before sliding it over to one of the cowboys. "These are the rowdy ruffians who come to my bar during arcade hours. They work for me… at a price."
"Is that a challenge?" Gloyd fired back at him, staring down the cowboys with a smug look on his face. Rancis gawked at his friend, stunned. He wasn't the least bit fazed by the bartender's threat. Frankly, Rancis felt like after all of the crazy pranks he'd pulled off, the prankster's nerves had ended up being as large as the pumpkin on his head.
Swizzle looked like he was ready to fight his way out too, causing Rancis to swallow his saliva with a tinge of fear. He placed an elbow on the tabletop, beginning to feel faint. He never was good at brawls.
His eyes flickered to the saloon doors, briefly contemplating if he could escape from the situation that he'd found himself in. "You can't do this to us!" he finally managed to get out.
"Believe me. I don't want to, but I have to…" Tapper sighed. "It's not even about the money, honestly," he said, surprising all three of them. The way he'd broached the topic the whole time had led to them likening him to a relentless creditor throughout the conversation.
"It's not?" Rancis questioned him, shocked by this new information.
Tapper wiped his brow, heaving a sigh. "No. I mean, it'll be great to recover the money for financial purposes, but the reason I want the money back is more personal." He paused, looking at them intently. "It's because your princess took advantage of my trust and smashed it into smithereens." He slammed his fist on the table agitatedly, causing a few mugs to shake. "The very fact that you had the gall to appear in my tavern is proof that she's been laughing at me for the past fifteen years!"
Rancis digested the information, glancing to his left to see his friends' reaction to Tapper's spiel.
A single glance was able to tell a lot. He could see that Swizzle was still thinking if he could backflip off of the cowboy henchmen, while the slight twinkle in Gloyd's eye meant that he was probably thinking of some payback prank to pull for revenge.
"As I was saying, I'll let you off on one condition."
Those words were like the Jumbotron announcing the final results of a race. All of their eyes were drawn to Tapper immediately.
Seeing that he was now the center of attention, Tapper lowered his voice, the dim light of the tavern only serving to make him appear more ominous. "Y'all go back to your game and find your princess. One way or another, you better get her to pay what she owes me back in full — one thousand gold coins."
"But we don't have a…" Swizzle tried to insist, trailing off when he saw the stubborn look on Tapper's face. "…never mind." He dropped the topic, giving up.
With a smile, Tapper snapped his fingers, prompting the aggressive cowboys to back away and give the bartender and the racers some space.
Tapper reached into a pocket in his blue overalls and pulled out a small, black flip phone, placing it on the table before sliding it over to Rancis. "Good thing I always keep one of these things with me," he muttered as Rancis picked it up, examining the device.
Swizzle tilted his head in confusion as Rancis turned the slick black device around. "What is this thing, man?"
"It's a cell phone, kid," Tapper said impassively. "One of those classic models from the '80s." He lifted his left arm to reveal a second, identical phone in his hand. "We use it for contact. I know the number of the phone that I just gave you, but you can get me at 1-800-827-7377," he recited off the top of his head, taking a napkin emblazoned with the name of his tavern and writing down his contact on it using a ballpoint pen.
Hesitantly taking the napkin from Tapper, Rancis proceeded to shove it in his chocolate-coated blazer, slipping it in an inner pocket alongside the clunky phone. He could clearly discern from Tapper's actions that the bartender didn't expect them to remember the number by heart.
In fact, the look of disdain on Tapper's face told Rancis that he was very much aware that he was forcing them to do something against their will. There was a brief flash of discomfort on Tapper's face which hinted to Rancis that coercion wasn't something he did often.
"Don't lose the phone." Tapper strode off, leaving the trio to themselves again as he went back to the kegs at the back of the tavern. "I've got work to do now, so you can go. Don't show your face around me again until you have the money. I'm giving you one week before I send the Surge Protector after you. Now scram!"
The Sugar Rush racers didn't need to be told that twice. On Tapper's command, they sprinted out of the tavern and didn't look back.
Rancis was surprised that he was able to take such big strides while outside of his kart. He supposed that fear had an innate ability of doing that to a person.
As the beige walls of Game Central Station slowly came into view, Rancis never felt more glad in his life. It wasn't Sugar Rush, but it was so much better than the dark, dim atmosphere that permeated through Tapper's.
In fact, Rancis ran so fast that he slammed right into something cold and metallic. He fell to the ground, clutching his head in agony before letting out a strangled cry when he saw what he'd run into.
"Hey, Rancis. Are you ok-ay…" Gloyd caught up to him, before sheepishly kicking his feet and stumbling on his words when he saw that his friend had slammed into the leg of a menacing man at least four times their size. The dull, metal-plated armor that surrounded his entire body was just icing on the cake.
"Hey! Watch it!" the large-sized armored man sneered, causing Gloyd and Swizzle to hover away. But upon seeing that he had scared the minuscule children away, he softened his face and mellowed his tone. "Damn, you scared me, kid!" he admitted with a chuckle to Rancis, who was still sprawled out on the ground. "I thought that Kohut or Sarge managed to catch me sneaking out of Hero's Duty without express permission."
"Sorry! I-I didn't mean to hit you!" Rancis scrambled to his feet and backed away, holding his arms out at the man apologetically.
The bulky man gave a small nod to thank the diminutive boy before walking along. "Man, I really need a drink…" the gray space marine moaned before his voice went into a monotonous drone as he slinked away. "We are humanity's last hope. Our mission, destroy all Cy-Bugs. We are humanity's last hope. Our mission, destroy all Cy-Bugs…" he slurred continuously, repeating those words over and over again until he was out of sight, disappearing into the entrance to Tapper's.
"Okay?" Swizzle muttered. "What was that all about?"
"I dunno, but I want out of this place!" Rancis then proceeded to angrily fold his arms at Swizzle. "Before I forget… you lied to me, Swizzle! You said that our trip to Game Central Station will be exciting and uneventful! This is literally the exact opposite of what you promised me!"
Swizzle shrugged, frowning as he gazed back at the entrance to Tapper's game. "I can't predict the future, man. I just react to the powerups which life deals to me on a daily basis. That's the way I roll."
"Let's just head back to Sugar Rush." Gloyd gestured towards the entrance of their game, making his way to it while dragging his feet. "I've had it with this place myself."
Rancis nodded, rushing for the entrance. However, right before he entered, he heard a chime coming from his blazer.
"Yo… it's the phone, Rancis!" Swizzle exclaimed. "Pick it up!"
Rancis pulled it from his pocket, fumbling with the device but eventually managing to answer the call. "Hello?" he answered with his usual cool voice. "Who is this?"
"T-Tapper?" His calm composure instantly shattered.
A vaguely proud voice rang through the speaker. "Heh. You actually picked up. Within three rings, too. Good etiquette, boy. I must say, I'm frankly impressed."
Rancis felt a chill go down his spine when he realized that Tapper was actually talking to him. He glanced around Game Central Station, debating if he should put the call on speaker so that Gloyd and Swizzle could hear the conversation between them.
Eventually he relented and did so when he saw that the locale was relatively vacant, meaning the chance of anyone listening in was low. "What do you want?" Rancis asked, biting his lip.
"Just checking that you won't bail on me."
Gloud mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, "crazy prepared brat". Rancis ignored his friend's complaint, holding the phone closer to his ear. His hands clammed up as he tightly gripped the device. "D-Don't worry. We'll get the money, we swear!"
"Rancis, was it?" Tapper appeared to hesitate, stumbling as the name rolled off his tongue. Rancis froze for a moment, wondering just how Tapper knew his name when he suddenly recalled that his name had been mentioned by Gloyd in front of the bartender at least twice.
"Y-Yes, Mr. Tapper?" he responded, a nervous stutter in his voice.
"Don't forget… one week. That is all my patience will allow. Now that I know that your princess had deliberately broken my trust by defaulting on her payment, I will not relent in pursuing the return of my rightful funds." Tapper sounded so furious that Rancis was able to hear his ragged breathing over the line. "You heard what I said about trust earlier, didn't you? I think you can understand where I'm coming from."
Rancis nodded, forgetting that Tapper couldn't actually see his acknowledgement over the phone. He only realized his mistake when he saw Gloyd snickering at him. "Y-Yes!" he squeaked, his voice going high-pitched.
Gloyd and Swizzle both cackled at his faux pas before Rancis shot the two a warning glare. Before he could let the cheeky duo have it, Tapper's voice reverberated out of the speakers, his grim tone causing all of them to focus on the phone.
"Listen up, Rancis. I will not be double-crossed by anyone from Sugar Rush again. You and your friends better keep to your end of the deal. Don't forget, while your princess currently owes me a thousand coins… it won't remain that way for long. It better not, for all of your sakes." Tapper paused tentatively, his voice growing contemptuous when he resumed speaking. "By the way… you said that King Candy was your ruler, correct?"
Crap. No, no, no. Not happening, not happening.
Rancis didn't even need to look at Gloyd and Swizzle to see that their expressions most likely mirrored his own. He was careful not to let any trace of reproach enter his voice, in spite of his growing frustration and terror. "Yeah… we did say that. King Candy's totally our king," he rasped. He didn't have the guts to deny the statement, and thus mentally began cursing Swizzle in his head for handing Tapper a smoking Sweet Seeker by casually bringing the information up in the conversation earlier.
This had been his worst fear the instant Tapper had confronted them, and now it looked like it could very well become a reality. After all, he didn't want the bartender potentially tipping off King Candy, which would result in a very disappointed ruler waiting for them when they entered Sugar Rush.
A disappointed King Candy was never a good thing. Despite being perpetually jolly and goofy a good ninety percent of the time, the remaining ten percent where he'd seen King Candy legitimately angry at something or someone still gave Rancis the shudders.
"I have lots of contacts. If need be, I'll pop by over to Sugar Rush—on business and off-hours, of course—and demand payment from him myself should you three exceed your time limit."
Rancis let out a breath that he didn't even know he was holding. Tapper wasn't going to tell King Candy after all, thank mod! His panic, however, returned tenfold when he processed the latter half of the statement.
The situation had just gone from bad to worse.
"So if you know what's good for you, you best get his daughter to comply."
"Wait!" Rancis yelped. "But King Candy doesn't have—"
The line proceeded to go dead as Tapper hung up, a beeping dial tone the only remaining hint of the dire conversation that had just transpired.
"Whup," Swizzle shrugged, a goofy smile on his face. "We are so screwed," he helpfully supplied, Gloyd chuckling at the morbid joke before strutting into the entrance to Sugar Rush.
As he followed Swizzle, Rancis was only certain about one thing — Tapper was serious about reclaiming his money.
But now, the stakes were higher than ever before.
King Candy could not afford to know. If it ever came down to Tapper trying to reclaim his thousand-coin debt from him, their entire adventure would be revealed to Candy, guaranteeing them a stay in the Fungeon for sure.
"How did things come to this?" Rancis pouted. "I'd like to know, please."
Neither Gloyd nor Swizzle answered him.
A distraught Rancis finally trudged along after them, trying to keep his fretting of King Candy finding out to a minimum, lest he end up a total wreck.
But amidst all of the emotions which surrounded his mind like a raging hurricane, one constant thought continued to permeate through all of his concerns.
I know Gloyd and Swizzle don't buy a word he says, but Tapper is so insistent that I just feel like he's telling the truth. Someone must really owe him a thousand gold coins… man, that's a fortune. No wonder he's mad.
Rancis furrowed his brow.
But if that the case, then it means that… Sugar Rush actually has a princess?
Surprise! Bet you weren't expecting events to take a turn like that, huh?
I have a sneaky suspicion that Tapper revealing a certain someone's true heritage *cough* was what most of you were expecting after last chapter's cliffhanger… but nope! Not going to take the plot in such an obvious direction or make it that easy for our poor protagonists. Where's the fun in that?
But to be fair, back when this was conceived as a concise oneshot, Tapper would have flat out told Rancis and co. exactly who Sugar Rush's princess actually was. But now that this is no longer a oneshot… heh heh heh… I'm so evil.
As of now, Tapper has managed to recruit the three boys—against their will—for the explicit purpose of collecting a thousand coins back for him from their game's "princess". But since there's no princess, how can Rancis and his friends possibly raise the money without raising suspicion? Stay tuned to find out!