Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Doctor Unknown Junior Begins

GET DOCTOR UNKNOWN JUNIOR ON AMAZON: http://www.amazon.com/Pro-Se-Presents-Chuck-Miller/dp/1479250651/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346849136&sr=8-1&keywords=pro+se+presents+blalock

This excerpt from my unpublished novel, "The Optimist Book One: You Don't Know Jack," introduces Doctor Dana Unknown, a/k/a Doctor Unknown Junior. A brand-new adventure, "The Abominable Myra Linsky Rises Again,"  is now available from Pro Se Press. This novel, like the new short story, is narrated by Dana's somewhat reluctant partner, Jack Christian, former boy sidekick to deceased superhero Captain Mercury. For more of the novel, start here: http://theblackcentipede.blogspot.com/2012/08/chapter-one-vionna-valis.html


Then there was the whole ghost thing. That stunk to high heaven. If the Centipede’s theory was correct, that I flushed him out of hiding so the “Moriarty” could have a crack at him, then I had been played in a most devious and bizarre fashion. Can a crime lord hire a ghost? Or forge one? It might have made sense, if it had made any sense.

I knew ghosts were real because I had encountered them before. The worst by far had been the spirit of Jack the Ripper.  In fact, it was one of the first cases Johnny and I worked after he took me on as his partner. It was a rough one. I may talk about it in greater detail later on, but only if I just cannot avoid it.

Anyhow, we thought we got rid of him, but he came back two more times before we teamed up with Doctor Unknown to cast him out of this plane of existence forever.

So, I could accept the ghost of Captain Mercury as a concept with no trouble. But even if I had seen a genuine ghost, it might not necessarily be who it said it was. There are some ghosts out there who are terrible liars and total assholes, and they’re liable to do anything, regardless of how shitty it is.

The Ripper, for example, had first gained reentry to our world by convincing a gullible spirit medium that he was actually Amelia Earhart. I swear to God. Spirits of the dead pretty much have to be deceptive because they can’t get back into our world without help from the living.

Most spirits don’t bother us, they find better things to do out in the fourth dimension or wherever they go.

But some, like the Ripper, figure they didn’t do enough damage when they were alive, and they want to come back for more.  If they went on ahead and ascended to a higher plane, they’d be just like everyone else there. But if they can manage to manifest back here on earth, they can be powerful, horrifying abominations, and lord their awfulness over the living so as to feel like big shots. Narcissism trumps cosmic good sense.

Not that I had ever made a special study of it. As a rule, Johnny and I didn’t mess with the supernatural stuff unless we just had to. I got all that info from Doc Unknown while we were working on evicting the Ripper.

I walked around pondering these things, then sat down on a bench and mulled them over for a while. I got all the way to musing about them before it dawned on me that since Doctor Unknown was an expert on ghosts, I should go talk to him.

Back in the day, he had an office in a converted brownstone downtown. The sorcery business is not very lucrative if you’re an honest and uncorrupted practitioner of white magic. You can do a real number on your karma if you use it to enrich yourself. So, it was as a certified public accountant that Doc Unknown had paid the bills. Accounting was, as he always said, his true passion. He had fallen ass-backward into the magic thing by being born the seventh son of a seventh son in a family of exceptionally powerful Druid mystics. That was on his father’s side. His mother was a mambo, or voodoo priestess, from New Orleans.

So, in spite of his best efforts, and an MBA from Harvard, Doc was unable to avoid going into the family business. Blood will tell, and the kind of blood he had just couldn’t shut up. The accounting was relegated to the status of day job.

“I could have been somebody,” I once heard him lament. “I could have won the Nobel Prize in economics, I just know it. I could have amounted to something!” (This, I should point out, was shortly after he had single-handedly prevented a coalition of demons and succubi, under the command of a 2000-year-old Black Witch, from flinging the earth into the heart of the sun, just for spite. Goddamn underachiever…)

I found the brownstone, right where it used to be. It looked a lot smaller than I remembered it. I went up the steps. There was a small plaque next to the door that said, simply, "Doctor Unknown." I pushed the doorbell button.

A young woman opened the door.

She was quite attractive, though if you took her various features one at a time, you'd never think they'd add up that well. Her head was very round, her hair dark and bobbed short. She wore glasses with black frames.

"Um," I said. "Do I have the wrong place? I'm looking for Doctor Unknown."

She looked over at the plaque. "This isn't the wrong place," she said, pointing at it. "If it was, that would not say 'Doctor Unknown.'"

I had to bow to this logic. I said, "Okay. So now can I see Doctor Unknown?"

She put her hands on her hips. "You've been doing that since I opened the door."


"I'm Doctor Unknown."


Turns out she was the original Doctor's daughter, Dana. I remembered her as a gawky little kid. I identified myself and she remembered me. We went inside and sat on some chairs. I asked about her father.

“Dad got into some really weird mathemagical stuff. Science and magic do not mix, I tried to tell him. Science has very strict laws. Magic has a lot of laws, but those laws do not obey any ultimate law. It’s like with city councils all over the country. They have their own local laws, and in most instances they are not obligated to conform to any strict federal standard. It’s all very arbitrary. Yet very strict. That's why it's too dangerous for most people."

"I always thought magic and science were the same thing, on some level," I said.

"Well, they aren't," she replied with a dollop of vehemence. "Not at all. I just love how people always think things for which they have no proof. You've got no business thinking any such thing, and I advise you to cut it out."

She gave me a look, took off her glasses, cleaned them with the tail of her shirt, and put them back on.

"The best way I can explain science vs. magic," she continued, "is to say that science is strictly cause-and-effect. Magic, on the other hand, is effect-without-cause.

“Mixing the two… It’s like formulating algebra problems where every factor is an unknown variable. No, worse than that. Every variable is a chicken or a checkerboard or a can of lima beans or something else random and unthinkable. You try imposing incompatible systems on one another and weird stuff starts to happen. They reject one another like an interspecies transplant, and when they rupture it is always messy. At best you drive yourself nuts, at worst you warp reality in small, localized areas.

“He never let go of the belief that magic was, at some level, as organized a system as math. He became obsessed with Zeno’s Paradox. You know, the one that says you can never actually reach a destination because you are constantly covering half of the remaining distance.

“I told him Zeno’s Paradox was actually more like a sort of Zen riddle, not a genuine mathematical construct, but nooooo, he wasn’t having that. He thought he could break it down by creating his own system of what he called “subnumerical numbers.” Somehow, he was going to use this to build a perpetual motion machine. But the numbers just flat refused to crunch, so he went and pilfered some junk from the Necronumericon-- a little-known companion volume to the Necronomicon-- and plugged that into his equations, and that was pretty much all she wrote.

“He turned all this crap into an algorithm, then tried to run it on his computer. Long story short, the thing got out and infected the entire Internet. Google started giving quantum search results—responding to all queries with an infinite number of possible matches. Responding to an infinite number of queries each user might have asked, thinks like that. 

Hard drives everywhere did not just crash, they literally ceased ever to have existed. All the data in the Defense Department’s operating system spontaneously rewrote itself into a virtual clone of Cthulhu and seized control of the country's nuclear arsenal.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I felt obliged to say. “None whatsoever.”

“I know you don’t,” she snapped. “Nobody does. That’s why I never get a chance to vent. If you want me to help you with your ghost, you have to listen to me and pretend to be sympathetic. That’s my fee.”


“Okay. So, anyhow, the infection got into everything. The Internet itself shifted on its dimensional axis, so to speak, and tried to expand itself into 12 different fractal dimensions at once. The data stream became infinite, then tried to go beyond that. Bad news. The sheer weight of the data caused everything to collapse in on itself and created a singularity—a black hole. In a fraction of a nanosecond it consumed the earth and began swallowing the rest of the solar system.”

She stopped for a moment and looked at me, daring me to say something. I did.

“Obviously,” I said, “I don’t need to point out to you that the earth is still here, and so, apparently, is the rest of the solar system.”

“That’s right. Remember what I said earlier, that this stuff could warp reality in a small area? Well, the area that got warped was our computer room. We were not quite in phase with the rest of the universe, so nothing happened to us. Dad and I wrote some code based on tachyon theory and fed it into our computer, which was still connected to an infinite number of identical computers in an infinite number of quantum realities. Long story short, our program, an inverted-algorithm tachyon virus, spread backward through time and infected AOL's billing database. Our internet access got cut off ten seconds before Dad ran that damn program of his.” 

"Well," I said, "I hope you realize you just destroyed your credibility completely."

"Well, that's the reaction I was expecting from you," she said sourly.

"I mean, who the hell uses AOL?"

She produced a very small smile.

“So," I continued, "then all that other stuff ended up never having actually happened? The world getting destroyed and that.”

“Sort of,” she said.

“And yet, you remember it.”

“I said ‘sort of.’ The other half of sort of is sort of not.”

“Okay. Believe it or not, I understand that. Sort of.  So, what happened to your dad then? He get sucked into some sidereal dimensional limbo or something?”

“In a way. He retired and moved to Florida. He drinks a lot.”

“I don’t blame him. I would too. Actually, I do, and my life isn’t nearly as Chinese interesting as that.”

“It’s all relative. Anyhow, I stick strictly to the occult in my practice. Which reminds me. You saw a ghost. Let’s have a look at that, shall we?”

I told her what had happened, what the ghost had said to me, what I had done, and how that turned out. She listened with her eyes closed and said nothing until I was finished.

“Wow,” she said, opening her eyes. “That’s pretty heavy. You’re hanging out with the Black Centipede now? He used to scare the crap out of me. Him and Dad were pretty good friends, I think. The Centipede claimed his grandfather invented the adding machine, so of course Dad was star-struck.

“However, about your ghost… While you were talking, I put myself into a mild trance. I’m not half bad at reading auras, if I do say so myself. Yours has picked up some interesting traces. You have definitely been in contact with something  unusual, and probably otherworldly.

“It is a spirit or a presence of some kind. It knows you and wants to talk to you. That’s kind of odd, since you say it already did, but I could be picking up some old signals there. I get a blurry picture of what appears to be a man in a cape, so that fits. But it feels like this whatever-it-is has been around you a lot recently. A brief contact like the one you describe would not leave such a deep impression.”

That was unsettling. “Do you think he’s following me?”

She shrugged. “Could be, I guess, but since it seems to have accomplished its purpose during your first encounter, I can’t understand why. You did in fact accomplish the mission it gave you. You found the Black Centipede. You say he’s innocent, and I will accept that, provisionally. And if that’s the case, this ‘ghost’ was either mistaken or lying. It still wants something.  There’s a… I dunno… A word or something. A name, maybe.”

She closed her eyes again. I glanced around the room, thinking I might see something, which I did not. “Is it here now?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It is not. But it is such a powerful presence, it has left profound traces on you. Nothing harmful, I don’t think. I’m not reading any curse or possession vibes. Very strange. I feel a sense of frustration, a… Hmmm… Seems like a question of identity. Something is lost.  I think this entity wants to reclaim something. A position or a title… A rank! I am getting a strong impression of a rank.”

“Is it Captain Mercury? Captain is a rank.”

“If I knew that, I certainly would have told you, wouldn’t I? I can’t tell. As I say, the sense of personal identity is shaky.”

I sat there for a few moments, mentally reviewing everything she had said, trying to come up with something that might fit. And finding nothing.  These things could apply to Johnny, maybe, if I stretched a couple of points, and allowed for the fact that I didn’t know shit about what a ghost might think or feel or do. I realized that there was no way I could eliminate anything, since the parameters of the thing could not be accurately established. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Sherlock Holmes’ favorite axiom had it. But I was in a place where nothing was impossible and everything was improbable.

Then I had a thought that went through me like a dose of liquid nitrogen.

“Jesus, you don’t think it could be the Ripper, do you?”

She shook her head emphatically. “Oh hell no. If that abomination were anywhere near this plane of existence, his stench would be unbearable to me. Nope, Jack is still safely nestled in Fractal Dimension Ten to the Negative One Millionth Power. Which is just as bad as it sounds. You simply cannot get out of there.”

“Ten to the… Dana, that’s impossible. There is no such number.”

“I know. That’s why you can’t get out of it.”

Well, that was some kind of logic. But I was mollified enough that I didn’t bother to mention how many times I had seen people get out of things you simply could not get out of, including death.

Doctor Unknown Junior was staring into space, her fingers drumming on the table. “What we need to do,” she said, “is go to the place where Captain Mercury died.” Her eyes moved to catch mine. “You may have issues with that, but I think it needs to be done. If you want to figure out what’s going on here, we need to cover all the bases we can.”

I gave her a sour look. “Dana, I’m a big boy. I can take it, you know. Shit, it didn’t… It was a long time ago, and… Well, it happened, and I’m still here, right? If we’ve gotta do it, okay, that’s what it is. I mean, damn, you don’t have to…”

“I wasn’t impugning your manhood. I’m just saying I know it could be difficult.”

“It isn’t difficult. It’s just a thing. What’s difficult? No difficult. I don’t see where you get difficult. I can’t…”

“Whatever!” she said, throwing up her hands. “You have nerves of steel and ice water in your veins. I am in awe of you, I swear to God. The machismo rolls off of you in waves. In fact, I think I’m…”


She went silent and shot me a goofy little grin. Then she shrugged. “It won’t help anything for us to argue. It just bugs me that you seem to have such a stick up your ass. You didn’t used to be that way.”

“Uh-huh. Do you not know any people who used to be a particular way but aren’t that way any more?”

“Touché. And I sincerely apologize for expressing a view at odds with your own self-image. I know how aggravating that can be, especially since I am so obviously right.”

“If you’re waiting for me to argue some more, you’re doomed to disappointment. If that’s another part of your fee, we can just waive it and I’ll pay you in cash, which I will soon have quite a bit of.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Now you’re just insulting me. Were I a lesser woman, I’d take umbrage at that and probably send you on your way unfulfilled. However, it’s obvious that you are not exactly at the top of your game, and you’re probably letting the booze do the lion’s share of your talking. I’m helping you because you’re a friend, or used to be. Your money is of no consequence to me. Jack, I’m not only a Twelfth Level Magus, I am wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. I don’t do this kind of thing for a living. I do it because it needs to be done.”

I was pissed. I wasn’t sure at whom. I didn’t want to argue. I never really wanted to argue with anyone, but I almost always did, and I didn’t like it. It seemed like people were always forcing me to show parts of myself I didn’t want them to see. I had the whole thing set up. This is who I am, this is what you are permitted to perceive, and nothing else. I really need you to believe my truth, because what you see is what I am. Dana was getting too close, too familiar, and that is something I wanted to avoid. Also, I thought it was rude, her calling me out like that about nothing.

“Okay, you’re right, I’m sorry,” I said, with all the heartfelt insincerity I could muster.

“No you’re not. But at least you’re willing to pretend you are. That’s a start. Let’s go.”


And go we did, to the place I didn’t want to admit gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies, and made me feel cold and depressed, because it had been the setting for the final act of my life, the play I had not known was a tragedy. I insisted on dropping by a liquor store for fortifications. Dana looked askance at that, but made no comment, for which I was grateful. She remained similarly silent when I slammed back a manly-sized dose of the quart of whiskey I’d purchased, though I could see she was practically strangling on everything she wanted to say.

She must have sensed that I knew what it was, that I’d already heard it a thousand times from a hundred people. For my part, I never understood people’s need to belabor the obvious. I mean, were they under the impression that I thought excessive drinking day and night constituted a healthy regimen? That I was somehow unaware I was killing myself? Might that not be what I wanted, and did I not have the God-given right?

Well, actually, I didn’t  think in those exact terms. Killing myself., I mean Suicide would have been redundant. I had already been killed. My whole life had been ground into mulch and spewed all over the landscape. I was a golem. For just a moment, after I had encountered Johnny’s ghost and received my mission, I thought I had a purpose again. But it was turning out to be just another bunch of senseless, confusing bullcrap.  I was thinking maybe it was time to forget the whole thing, get my trust fund, and finish out my life’s work in relative peace.

We got into Dana's car and started off. We had what they call an uncomfortable silence going on, and I hate those, so I asked her a question, just to be saying something.

"So, is your family name really 'Unknown?' I've always wondered about that."

"No," she replied. "I mean, yeah it is now, but Dad had his name legally changed to that a long time ago. Before I was born. When he decided he wanted to be a superhero as well as a Magus and a CPA. He was a notary public, too. Anyhow, he wanted something that said 'superhero sorcerer.' He was big into marketing."

"That's what I figured. As superhero sorcerer names go, it isn't a bad one. It's a little awkward, but I suppose all the obvious ones were taken. So what was the original family name?"

"I'd rather not tell you."

"Why not?"

"You'd laugh."

"I would not."

"You would. I know you would."

"I won't, I swear to God. If I do, you can kill me. I won't laugh, Dana."

"Oh, okay, if you’ll shut up! The original family name was Macabre."

Of course, I immediately proved that Dana had been right about what I would do. I had to hand it to her. Fortunately, before any talk of retribution could commence, we arrived at our destination.

The place looked nothing like it had 12 years ago. If I hadn’t known, I never would have known.

Johnny had been killed on top of a 12-story building. The building was no longer there. Nothing was there. It was a vacant lot. Vacant, that is, but for piles of junk and weeds and other assorted squalid crap. Pretty much what you’d expect to find in a declining downtown area where gentrification never ventured. With one odd exception.

I saw none of the spoor one would expect to find left behind by the city’s homeless. No wine bottles, no cardboard shanties, no discarded clothing, nothing. The only alcoholic derelict in evidence was your humble narrator.

Dana stood still for a few seconds, her eyes screwed shut, biting her lower lip. “Crap,” she whispered. “This is like… Crap…”

“Yes,” I agreed, kicking at a little pile of dry white dog-doo. “It certainly is.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head in annoyance. She opened her eyes. “None of your flippancy, please. This patch of ground is… really, really effed up.”

“Well, see, that’s why you need a Twelfth Level Magus on these trips, so you can get all the technical terms for things.”

“You’re gonna want to quit being snarky,” she said distractedly. I didn’t know what “snarky” was, but I didn’t think I was being it. I had intended the remark as a good-natured jibe, almost a sort of peace offering. But she must have found a barb in it. People frequently do that with me.

I took another pull from my bottle. To my astonishment, Dana snatched it away from me and gulped down a healthy slug of her own. She wiped her lips with her sleeve and handed the bottle back.

“Maybe I’m too judgmental,” she said, gazing out over the lot. “Some stuff is a lot easier to take if you’ve got a bellyful of cleaning fluid.”

“That ‘cleaning fluid’ is 28 bucks a quart, Dana.”

“That’s unconscionable. Only a moron would put that shit into his body. I wouldn’t embalm a corpse with it.”

“You want some more?”

“Hell yeah.”

We walked slowly around the lot, Dana twisting her head this way and that, closing and opening her eyes, mumbling under her breath. When we came to the exact center, she looked straight up, jabbing a finger into the air.

“Right there. Something happened right there.”

“Yeah,” I said, distracted in my own way, feeling numb from something other than the booze.  “Twelve stories up, twelve years ago. There was a bomb.”

“I know about the bomb. I remember.” Dana was feeling something, a nasty something judging by the look on her face. I didn’t know if it was an echo of what I was feeling, or something else entirely.

“I was eight years old,” she said, standing stock still, rigid forefinger pointing up at nothing. No, not nothing. A day. A moment. A bad one. “I heard about it on the radio. Professor Ulysses Ubik.”

Professor Ubik. The thought of that man still made my flesh crawl.

“He’d been out of jail for two hours,” I said.

Ubik had been jailed the previous week for the awful thing he had done. They had him locked down tight while the police and the district attorney tried to figure out exactly what that awful thing was, and what he should ultimately be charged with. They had him on murder one for shooting the boy, but nobody knew who the boy was. Commander Power had been at the scene shortly before that happened, but eyewitness testimony had been vague and confused.

Ubik had taken a young girl hostage and dragged her up to the roof of the Zenith Opera House of all places. He then threatened to pitch her off that roof unless his demand was met. Just one demand. That Commander Power come there alone. When the demand was broadcast, Commander Power showed up. He and Ubik had exchanged words. No one knew what had been said.

Then there was an explosion.

Then Commander Power was gone, and the boy was there.

Then Ulysses Ubik, scientific genius, mad doctor, inventor of a dozen different death rays and arcane weapons of mass destruction, pulled out a chillingly mundane .38 caliber pistol and shot the boy dead, for no reason anyone could find. The girl hostage managed to squirm out of his grip then and hauled ass to the trapdoor from which they had emerged onto the roof. Ubik himself had not spoken a single word since the incident. Not a burp. He took his right to remain silent very seriously.

After that day, Commander Power was never seen again.

Which was distressing, because Power was one of the big guns. He could fly, he was insanely strong, bullets bounced off him, the works. He was right up there with Tomorrow-Man.

Nobody had known anything about him. Who he really was, where he got his powers. And now he was gone. The whole thing scared the hell out of a lot of people, myself included.

Anyhow, Ubik broke out on a Monday morning. Nobody knew how. By Monday afternoon, Johnny and I had tracked him down.  We found him right up there where Dana was pointing. Johnny told me to stay back. I begged him not to go up there. I knew something bad was going to happen. But up he went.

And then…

Dana finally let her arm drop and said, “Jack, I don’t know what I’m seeing here.” She shook her head rapidly, as though trying to clear it of something. “I’ve never… I don’t know what this is, but it isn’t death. Not specifically, anyhow. There is treachery. There is pain. There is hate. It just hangs there like a stain. And somebody… something… made a hole. Right up there.” She pointed again. “And something passed through the hole. I don’t know what. I don’t even know whether it came in or went out.

“I need some things. I’m gonna need a copy of the Crowley Grimoire, to begin with. Dammit. I don’t like messing around with that thing. Damn if I know how, but this may…” She shook her head. “No, it just isn’t possible.”

I had no idea what to say. I just stood there waiting for her to continue when I heard a noise. Nothing that would ordinarily give me pause, but it stood out against the eerie silence. Something like paper rustling, or maybe lots of little feet shuffling around in a pile of leaves. I looked around and almost didn’t see anything. But a spot… no, two spots… two bright red spots, barely visible among the overgrown weeds at the edge of the lot. They were bobbing ever so slightly up and down. I couldn’t see what, if anything, they were attached to.

I looked back at Dana. Her head was tipped back and she was motionless, like every bit of her attention had been snagged by that invisible stain in the air.

I looked back at the clump of weeds and I couldn’t tell if the red spots were still there or not. I kind of thought I saw them, but I also kind of thought I didn’t. Then I heard another sound, like metal scraping on metal. I couldn’t tell where it came from.

I was feeling very, very uncomfortable and I turned toward Dana to tell her so and to suggest that we go someplace else for a while. She was standing there, just as she had been seconds before.  No, not exactly. Something was wrong. Then I saw it. A rather minor difference, visually, especially in the dark.

There appeared to be a small steel scalpel embedded in her neck. Only the handle was visible.

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