Wednesday, August 29, 2012


a Black Centipede web serial
by Chuck Miller


Fall, 1933

So Percy made his phone call, and I went about my business. DeMilby would arrive, Percy told me, two days hence, so I wouldn't have to worry about the Doctor Reverso nonsense for at least 48 hours. For a mayfly, that's two whole lifetimes.

I helped Stan Bartowski run down a gang of excruciatingly uninteresting counterfeiters, an operation that went down with a complete lack of bloodshed. A total bore. After that, I went out on my own in search of more entertaining prey. I'd been hearing a lot of tantalizing rumors that John Dillinger had been spotted in Zenith. Of course, Dillinger was the most famous outlaw in the world at that particular time, and he was "spotted" on a daily basis in every major city in America, and most of the minor ones. But I had come to suspect that Dillinger very well might be holed up in my hometown. I had what I considered some pretty solid leads. 

However, as I was on my way to check one of them out, I got sidetracked by a reanimated Aztec mummy that had been unleashed on the city by Adrian Countenance, one of the super-criminal masterminds that had been springing up like weeds in recent months. I reduced the mummy to dust, but Countenance got away. Poor Dillinger was forgotten in the excitement.

Once all of that was as squared away as it was going to get, I made my weary way back home, to my secret citadel in the top six floors of the stately Benway Building. The offices of the semi-mythical Unlimited Advantage Worldwide Corporation were the facade that hid from prying eyes my sanctum sanctorum, the Centipede's Lair.

No sooner had I walked through the door-- the sun had come up an hour earlier-- than one of my telephones rang. I had several lines coming into the office, each with its own number. I gave the numbers out now and then, to people I might want to hear from if they ever decided they needed to call me. One was dedicated to Stan Bartowski, another to Amelia Earhart, another to Doctor Unknown, and so on. Percival Doiley did not have one, nor did William Randolph Hearst-- the former because he had a tendency to make a nuisance of himself, and the latter... Well, because he was William Randolph Hearst.

When I saw which phone was ringing, I was mildly surprised. Several months earlier, I had given the number of this phone to an extraordinary group of youngsters who had rendered me some much-needed assistance. I had referred to them as my "Baker Street Irregulars," after the gang of urchins who had been employed as agents by Sherlock Holmes. The youngsters, however, had vetoed this and come up with a name of their own.

I removed my mask, lifted the receiver and said hello.

"Mister Centipede? Is that you?" came a youthful and very familiar voice-- familiar not only to me, but to most of the moviegoing public in 1933.

"Yes, it is," I said.

"Whew, thank goodness. I was afraid you'd be off on a case and I'd get a secretary or something. This is Matthew Beard calling. Do you remember me?"

 "Of course I do. Do you think I'd forget the President of the Junior Secret Centipede Club? How are you getting along, Stymie?"

Matthew "Stymie" Beard was a mainstay of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" two-reelers. I had met him and the rest of the regular cast members in Hollywood, during the filming of "Blood of the Centipede." I had a bit of legwork that needed doing around the studio, concerning a small matter I was investigating, and the kids had proven to be natural-born detectives, every bit as clever and resourceful in real life as they were on-screen.

Matthew Beard sounded remarkably mature over the phone, though he was only eight years old at the time. Considerably more articulate than Percival Doiley, for example. He had a good head on his shoulders, and a good heart to go with it. He was also willful, and would go his own way, regardless of the consequences. In fact, director Robert McGowan had given him the name "Stymie" because that was what Matthew tended to do to McGowan's efforts to keep the productions on schedule. The youngster had a habit of wandering off the set to indulge his curiosity about anything that happened to catch his attention.

He reminded me a great deal of myself.

"Where are you, Stymie?" I could hear crowd noises in the background.

"I'm there. I mean, I'm here, in Zenith, where you are, sir."

"Really? What are you doing here? Filming on location?"

"No, not exactly. I guess I sort of came out here on my own."

I frowned. "What? On your own? Are you insane? Are you aware of how young and vulnerable you are? You haven't run away from home, have you?"

"No. Not really. Temporary, I guess, but not just to be doing it. I need to talk to you right away. I have something to tell you. I think it's important. It's about Mister DeMilby. You remember him, don't you? Something funny's going on, and he's in it, and it has to do with you. I was sort of poking around the studio and I overheard him talking to somebody, and... Well, I need to tell you about it. I know it's important, REAL important. I can't even say it to anybody else but you." His voice had taken on an edge of near-desperation.

"Okay, calm down. Where are you right now? Are you safe?"

"I guess so. I'm down at the train depot. I kind of stowed away on the train Mister DeMilby was on. Crazy thing for me to do, I guess, but what I overheard back at the studio sounded pretty serious. I just followed him and when he got on the train, I snuck on, too. I didn't think too much about what I was doing."

"Sounds that way," I said. "You did a very rash thing, you know." I sighed. "Well, I've been guilty of that myself, more than once. I'll come get you and you can tell me all about it. Stay right where you are. Don't go wandering and don't talk to anybody, okay?"

"I won't," he promised. "Both of those things I won't do."

"Good. I'll be there as soon as I can. It seems like you've done a very foolish thing, but I'll reserve judgement on that until I hear what you have to say. See you in a few minutes."

The mask went back on, and I took my express elevator to my private garage in the basement. I could be at the depot in less than five minutes. Once I collected Stymie, the first order of business would be to notify his parents and anyone else who might be looking for him. Then I would hear what he had to tell me. I knew that if he had done this thing, he believed he had good reason. And if he believed he had good reason, chances were that he did.

And after I heard him out, I would make arrangements to ship him securely back home.

I have no clue why I expected it to be that easy...




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