Thursday, October 4, 2012



This and other sample chapters can be seen at Smashwords, where the book is available in a variety of e-formats:

by Chuck Miller

...I was deep in thought as I left police headquarters. The sun had just gone down.

The things Burwell said were bothering me. Or, rather, the things he couldn't say. Someone had set him up with a name, some capital, and a gimmick. It was sickeningly familiar. There was only one person I knew of who had ever been in the business of manufacturing crime lords for the Black Centipede's amusement, and the prospect did not sit well with me. I didn't think she'd do it again, but then, what did I really know about Bloody Mary Jane?

So, as I made my way to my car, I wasn't expecting anything. Which is unusual for me, because I'm always expecting something. But, as I say, I was distracted.

Even so, all my training, and all the physical upgrades I have accomplished by various means, operate as a sort of "Centipede sense" that alerts me to various kinds of immediate danger. Even today, you'd have a hell of a time trying to sneak up on me, and I'm 101 years old. In 1933, I was in my prime. What happened should not have been possible.

It went like this: I was walking down the alley behind police headquarters when I suddenly became aware that a large object had struck my shoulders from above. I should have become aware of it well before it hit. But whatever this was had somehow managed to pass unnoticed through cracks that should not have been there. I lost my footing and went down on my face in a most undignified manner. The object that had hit me rolled off of my back and became motionless a few feet away.

It was a woman, I was sure, covered from top to toe in a close-fitting rubber suit of some kind. The head was concealed in a strange, lightweight gas mask. I had no clue what to make of this. Emblazoned over one breast was a representation of a coiled scarlet snake. I didn't know what that might be about, but I did know that there was only one woman I'd ever met who could take me so completely off guard.

"Mary Jane," I said sternly. "Is that you?"

The figure stopped in its tracks. The head seemed to nod a bit. But it wasn't right. The hesitancy was uncharacteristic of my dearly beloved mortal foe. And though the general size and shape were right, the posture was all wrong, and there was something off about the way she moved. She was awkward and jerky, like she didn't quite know how to operate her body. There was, I realized, something otherworldly about this creature, and I had no idea what it was.

After that odd hesitation, she snapped back into motion, coming at me with astonishing speed for one so generally ungainly. The blow she delivered to my head was utterly without finesse, but it plowed right through my attempt to block it, and hit with the force of a pile driver. I hadn't felt anything like that since my fight with Baron Samedi. I managed to duck her next swing-- barely-- and punched her in the solar plexus. That should have been a crippling blow, but I wasn't too surprised when it didn't faze her. I had discarded any notions that this would be easy.

As we fought, I observed a number of interesting things about my opponent's body language. It was complete gibberish. She packed a wallop like a Teamster swinging a crowbar, but she moved like a rag doll. Her arms and legs bent in ways that no normal human skeleton could. Curiouser and curiouser. And as we slugged it out at close quarters, I became aware of a peculiar odor. It put me in mind of death, though it was not the odor of putrefaction. Rather, it was a dry, dusty tang. It took me a few moments to recall where I had smelled something similar-- in Guanajuato, Mexico, at El Museo de las Momias.

The Museum of Mummies.

It was an unsettling realization, and it implied things I wasn't eager to contemplate.

I needed to get the hell away from this thing, but I wanted to do something else first. Ducking another wild swing, I dug into a coat pocket for my little medical kit, and took out an empty syringe fitted with a hypodermic needle. I backed away from her while I prepared for my next move. I finally saw an opening and sprang forward, ducking under a couple of swings that would have turned my head into pulp if they had connected, and jabbed the needle through the rubber and into her neck. I very quickly thumbed back the plunger to draw a little blood. Or whatever might be in there. I didn't think I was going to subdue this creature, but I wanted to find out more about her.

Assuming I could stay alive long enough to get back to my lab with the stuff.

Jerking the needle back out, I hit the ground and rolled, expecting any moment to receive a crushing blow to the head or chest. What I hadn't expected was her reaction to the needle. She let out a shriek the likes of which I had never heard. I was totally deafened for a few seconds, and I swear I saw a crack appear in a nearby plate glass window. She clutched her neck and sprang backward a good twenty feet. I took a tentative step toward her as I stowed the hypodermic away in my jacket. My ears were still ringing, so I couldn't be sure, but I thought I heard her crying.

I just stood there. The creature staggered around like a juiced-up daddy longlegs for a few seconds, then fell to her knees. She curled up into a ball and lay there sobbing. I had no idea what to do next. Had I been a wiser man, I'd have taken to my heels, offering thanks to whatever gods there were for my deliverance. Instead, I approached the creature. I'm just stupid that way. I was very, very curious.

On an impulse, remembering her odd reaction earlier, I said, "Mary Jane?" Of course this was not my diabolical darling Miss Gallows, but "Mary Jane" is hardly an uncommon name. Maybe I'd lucked into something useful.

She swiveled her head in my direction, regarding me with whatever visual apparatus lay behind the dark lenses of the gas mask.

And she spoke.

"You know?"

How can I describe that voice? Imagine a thousand crystal chandeliers on the Titanic, all shattering at once as the great ship cracks in half and slides down through the water to the bottom of the sea. Imagine an arctic wind cold and sharp enough to flay a man alive in a matter of seconds. Imagine a platoon of drunken Cossacks stomping kittens to death by the thousands. Imagine whatever you like. It won't even come close.

"Yes," I said, nodding sagely, though I had no idea what kind of knowledge I was claiming. "I know everything, Mary Jane."

"What he did? You know?"

"Of course," I said, in a voice I hoped sounded soothing. "It was horrible, what he did, wasn't it?"

She nodded. It looked as though her head might fall off if she kept it up. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

"So you understand why, then?" she asked, rather plaintively I thought.

"Ah... yes, of course I do."

"Good... that's good." She got to her feet, and I stood back. "It's good that you understand." She reached up and pulled the gas mask back to expose the lower part of her face. The mummy smell instantly got stronger and I found myself staring down the barrel of a very unattractive mouth, filled with more teeth than a human should have. All of them were filed to sharp points. I chided myself for not leaving when I had the chance. She lunged at me, jaws wide, intent unmistakable. This creature was going to take a bite out of me!

But this time-- unlike the initial attack-- she did not take the Black Centipede off guard. I steeled myself and reached into a jacket pocket, whipping out a little gray cylinder. I thumbed a small lever on the side and thrust it right into the creature's mouth, wedging it in upright between her jaws. This surprised her and she stopped in her tracks. I jumped back, hit the ground, and rolled.

When the blackout grenade went off, it filled the immediate area with dense black smoke. I heard the creature thrash around and utter a strangled cry or two. I stood up, moved outside the cloud and drew a pair of automatics from their holsters. My opponent fell silent. I kept my distance, guns trained on the spot in the cloud I thought was her likeliest position. I didn't fire any shots, I just kept moving backwards.

After a few minutes, the dark cloud dispersed, its remnants blowing away on the warm breeze. I was alone in the alley.

My attacker had vanished, leaving not a rack behind, apart from the ichor I had managed to suck out of her with my syringe.


I put the material on ice once I was back home in the upper reaches of the Benway Building. One look at it told me that it wasn't blood, and failed to give me any hint what the hell it was. I decided to pack it up and take it with me to the Sunshine State, or whatever California called itself. I didn't have the time I figured I'd need to devote to it just now.

I pondered recent events and got nowhere. I didn't believe my beloved arch-enemy was involved in any of this, but that was more wishful thinking than firm conviction.

I had once again lost track of Mary Jane Gallows. I had seen neither hide nor hair of her since that day at the Zenith School Book Warehouse when I had "saved" President-elect Roosevelt. But I had a never-sleeping eye peeled for her.

For the most part, if her antics put her in a position where she had to give a name, she used her own. The demands of a colossal ego. Not always the surname, but almost invariably the first two. (A recent exception being "Veronika CuiBono.") Therefore, I had made arrangements with several news clipping services around the world, to inform me if they ran across any bizarre crime news involving anyone named Mary Jane.

Looking through that day's batch, I found nothing that smelled of her. A woman named Mary Jane Galliard had been arrested in New Jersey after she poisoned her sixth husband with arsenic. The prosecutor intended to seek the death penalty in this case, which only meant that the first five were free. Miss Mary Jane Engel, head cashier at a Woolworth's in San Francisco, had been beaten to death by a jilted suitor. His weapon of choice had been a large, frozen ham, for reasons which were not revealed, more's the pity. In Leytonstone, a suburb of London, England, grave robbers had snatched the body of one Mary Jane Kelly from Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery. None of these incidents bore any telltale signs of my arch-enemy.

I sighed, filed the clippings away, and got ready for my dinner date.

Now BUY it already!

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