Sunday, September 30, 2012



SIX: OH $#%!

Alas, I did not get the spectacle I was anticipating. Patience and Prudence dealt with Anonymoushka in a manner that was so swift and decisive, I would have missed it entirely if I had blinked at the wrong moment.

Patience found a pressure point in the faceless woman's neck, and applied a stiffened index finger like a wasp's stinger, swiftly and efficiently. Anonymushka wilted and collapsed in on herself like a cake someone had left out in the rain. Prudence squatted down, peeked under the veil, looked up at her "sister," and nodded.

"Well," I said, pushing myself off the wall, "you've robbed me of a catfight, but since you may have saved my life, I'll overlook it."

The girls turned to me and gave me two identical stares. I won't call them blank, but I can't tell you what was in them. 

I had encountered Patience and Prudence several times-- never as adversaries-- and while they certainly tolerated me, I did not know whether they liked or trusted me. They both nodded in a manner that might have been friendly or guardedly hostile or neither. I smiled at them, though of course it was hidden behind my mask. Still, I always had the feeling that these two saw right through my facade-- perhaps literally. But they never responded in kind.

Until today. Or so I thought at first.

I was astonished to see both of the normally unexpressive faces break out into wide grins. I felt very special for a second or two, until I realized they weren't looking at me-- they had caught sight of my young companion. Stymie Beard had provoked the first expression of joy I had ever seen from the closely-guarded pair.

Ignoring me completely, Patience and Prudence descended upon the young star, shaking his hands, patting his back, and even planting a pair of quick kisses on his cheeks. I was knocked breathless, but Stymie seemed to take it in stride. He was probably accustomed to adulation, and of course had no idea that the girls' customary demeanor was the polar opposite of this sort of thing. I felt privy to strange and awesome secret knowledge-- the redoubtable Patience and Prudence were human enough to be starstruck!

They didn't express it verbally, because they were unable to. They had both, I knew, had their tongues cut out by the abominable Doctor Almanac, as part of a regimen of torture and abuse designed to bend them to his diabolical will.

But Almanac had underestimated them, as had a number of other unfortunates who had lived-- or not-- to regret it. The girls had resisted Almanac until he had been slapped down by the Stiff and Baron Samedi, at which point the new kings of the hill had rescued them. They were treated with respect, and served the new order without reservation, and with a businesslike ruthlessness that could be chilling.

And now here they were, fawning over one of the stars of the "Our Gang" comedies. It was oddly touching-- but mainly just plain odd.

And then I noticed something strange. The girls had each bent stiffly at the waist, putting their faces on a level with the boy's, and appeared to be talking to him! There was no sound, but their mouths moved by turns, first one, then the other. And when both of them became still, Stymie whispered to them, as if in reply to their silent discourse.

Before I could ask about this, I noticed that we had attracted quite a bit of attention. I relaxed my mind fogging, so that everyone on the street could recognize me as their beloved hero, the Black Centipede.

"Nothing else to see here," I said briskly. "The woman in red is a dangerous assassin, and she has been subdued by me and my... associates here. She was hired by an insidious Chinese doctor to disrupt our democracy in ways I am not at liberty to discuss."

I casually strolled over to where Anonymoushka lay, and picked her up.

"Now," I said I to my public, "I shall take her to a secure location, where she can be interrogated by members of the Secret Service. I promise you, we will see the end of the Yellow Peril within our lifetime."

I moved toward my car, basking in the glow of the blank stares my announcement had elicited. The resounding chorus of dead silence was broken when one old man standing at the curb applauded feebly for five or ten seconds. Everyone else just shook their heads and went on about their business.

By this time, I had reached my vehicle, opened the trunk, and deposited the faceless assassin in a niche next to the spare tire. I didn't know what I was going to to with her, but she'd be secure in there until I could think of something.

"This young man and I were about to go get a bite to eat," I said to Patience and Prudence, who were still holding him by the hands. "You're welcome to join us. If you'd like to convey to me why you're here right now, we can do it a lot less publicly."

They nodded their assent and we all piled into the front of the car.

Once we were underway, I turned to Stymie. "I noticed you whispering to the girls earlier," I said. "I didn't know you were a lip-reader."

He looked puzzled. "Huh? What do you mean? I can't read lips."

I frowned behind my mask. "But it looked as though you were talking with them."

"I was," he said, scratching his head. "You mean you couldn't hear them? I sure could, loud and clear."

"Really?" I said, giving the two girls a long look. They just sat there, quiet and immobile, looking right back at me. I might have imagined the swift, ghostly smiles I thought I saw appear and disappear in a split-instant.

Nothing more was said. Three minutes later, we pulled up in front of a small, out-of-the-way diner, one that I patronized whenever I was of a mind to patronize a diner. Three or four times a month, perhaps. It was never crowded, and the employees never took notice of any oddities on the part of their customers-- things like black masks, firearms, child stars, and lethal color-inverted twins could pass without comment.

We installed ourselves in a booth in the rear. I ordered a Pepsi for myself and a large meatloaf sandwich and a glass of milk for Stymie. Patience and Prudence declined my offer to treat them to something. I wanted to find out why they had been at the station, what they had said to Stymie on the street, and how the hell they had managed to say it at all. But that could end up being as grueling a process as pulling teeth with a pair of tweezers, so I decided to hear what the "Our Gang" star had to say first. I let him polish off the sandwich before I asked him to enlighten me.

"Well," he said, wiping his mouth on a napkin, "like I said before, I overheard Mister DeMilby talking on the phone to somebody. They were talking about you. He told whoever it was that he was heading to Zenith on some kind of deal that involved you. Then he listened for a while, then he said, yeah, sure, he would be glad to kill you."

"Interesting," I said. "But, Stymie, you could have phoned me from California. I appreciate your concern, of course, but I believe I can handle Mag DeMilby."

"I know that," Stymie said. "I saw you in action before, remember? You can handle just about anybody, I guess. That's not what scared me. What scared me was the name he said just before he hung up. It was the name of somebody you told me a lot about when you were in Hollywood-- somebody you said was super dangerous, and even you had some trouble handling." I couldn't help noticing that he was becoming more agitated the closer he got to his revelation.

I had a strong feeling I wasn't going to like what I was about to hear. I didn't think Patience and Prudence were going to like it either, and I wondered if they already knew.

"What was the name, Stymie?" I asked gently.

He closed his eyes for a few seconds. Then he took a deep breath, opened them, and spoke:

"Doctor Almanac."

Oh shit.

Yep. Scary.