Monday, August 20, 2012


a Black Centipede mini-serial
by Chuck Miller

FALL, 1933


As it happened, I was experiencing a lull in the endless procession of super-criminals. I had finally managed, two days previously, to put paid to the absurdist antics of Doctor Duchamp and the Dada Gang. I had no idea what they'd been trying to accomplish. For their first great coup, they had managed to steal every urinal in the Zenith Department of Public Works building, some fifty in all. The following morning, the missing pissoirs were found affixed in rows to the imposing facade of the Sanhedrin Museum of Art. Though it was technically a felony, I regarded it as little more than malicious mischief, and felt inclined to give the whole thing a pass.

But they made the mistake of staging their next impromptu exhibition at the Benway Building. I don't know about art, but I know what I don't like, and a mob of pretentious whackos defacing the building I own is at the top of that list. The Benway is the closest thing in the city of Zenith to a world-class cultural icon, so it was a tempting target. The gang painted a huge mustache and goatee on the front of the building. Harmless enough, you might say, but they accidentally killed two window washers in the process. I lamented the deaths, but appreciated the fact that the gang had provided me with a moral justification for what I did next.

I tracked them to their bolthole and confronted them. Duchamp informed me that he and his cohorts were non-criminals who had committed a series of non-crimes, therefore any attempt on my part to arrest them would be-- like life itself-- utterly meaningless. It was the lamest attempt at sophistry I had ever heard, and did nothing to improve my mood. I told him that was just fine, since I was there to un-arrest them. I never cared for the surrealists, or whatever they were supposed to be, so I gave the doctor and his gang a quick lesson in hot lead existentialism. In the process, I foreshadowed future developments in the field of modern art--Jackson Pollock would have loved what I'd done with the floor of the Dada Gang's hideout...

Since then, things had been quiet.

I figured that whatever lunacy Percy had plotted might at least clear my palate in readiness for the next diabolical mastermind. And, of course, it would give me the opportunity to ferret out any shocking truths he might be hiding from me.

"Well," he said, rubbing his hands together and smiling, his earlier nervousness forgotten, "I'm thinking we go with Doctor Reverso. He's in the movie, which is still doing good business. So if you and him was to mix it up in some high-profile location, and a reporter and a shutterbug just happened to be right there..."

"Yes, yes," I said, "I'm sure you have it all figured out and ready to go. I don't need to be privy to the inner workings of your Machiavellian mind. Frankly, it's just too much for a rube like me. You're the Napoleon of publicity stunts, Percy. Wherever you lead, I shall follow-- no questions asked."

He gave me a skeptical look. "Are you feeling okay?"

"If I felt any better, I wouldn't be able to stand it. I'm just eager to watch your plan unfold. You came up with it on your own, right? Hearst didn't suggest it to you?"

"Hell, no!" Percy shot back. "The Boss is a clever guy and all that, but I'm the idea man. That's what he hired me for. What did you think, I got this job because of my looks?"

"Certainly not. Hearst isn't charitable enough to employ someone based on an infirmity. Obviously, you caught his eye for other reasons."

"Well, yeah. I'm a smart cookie, no matter what you think, and Hearst knows that. He said I..." Percy stopped short and gave me a fishy eye. "Hey, did you just insult me?"

The remark I'd launched into his ear a few moments ago had finally reached the dock.

"Certainly not," I assured him. "I was using Socratic irony." I figured that would put me on safe ground, since there was no way in hell Percy knew what Socratic irony was. I wasn't entirely sure, myself.

"Oh," he said, mollified. "Well, uh, gosh, thanks."

"Not at all. You've earned it. Now, tell me about your plan."

He did. It was actually pretty straightforward. Not very clever or devious at all. It was an ethical disaster, to be sure, but it lacked the baroque quality of the Roosevelt operation.

"I'm sure glad you agreed to this," he said, "because I've already got the ball rolling. Mag DeMilby Junior will be on his way here as soon as I give the word."

Mag DeMilby Junior was one of those nameless faces that are as familiar to moviegoers as members of their their own families. As a character actor, he had appeared in dozens-- if not hundreds-- of movies, beginning in the salad days of the silents. He was the crooked cop, the heroic cop, the cruel dogcatcher that tormented the Our Gang kids, the gangster who took a pot shot at Cagney, the newspaper editor, the small-town judge, the doctor who couldn't fathom the meaning of the tiny bite marks on the neck of his deceased patient, the depraved henchman, and so on. His mug was as ubiquitous as those of Lionel Atwill, Vernon Dent, George Zucco, Edward Van Sloan, and scores of other actors whose names you can never think of when you see them. 

And, most recently, he had been Doctor Reverso, in "Blood of the Centipede." In fact, it was the first film in which his name appeared right up there with the stars, instead of being tossed  indifferently into the closing credits. Now his resume boasted a rather more impressive role than "Man in phone booth" or "irate desk clerk."

And DeMilby was, like most of his Tinseltown comrades, an inveterate boozer and skirt chaser. 

And this is not just gratuitous character assassination on my part. His proclivities played a large role in the catastrophe that lay just ahead...


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