Tuesday, November 13, 2012





One of my most cherished mottos is, "When the going gets tough, get back to the Benway Building." That 71-story monstrosity, built by my grandfather during the last gasp of the Roaring Twenties, was my sanctum, my oasis. The top six stories housed my secret headquarters, hidden in plain sight behind the facade of the Unlimited Advantage Worldwide Corporation. The lowest of the six stories served as corporate headquarters. It was a suite of mostly-empty offices that occupied the entire floor.

We left the diner and went straight there. I circled the block once and saw nothing that prodded my danger sense. I drove down an alley at the rear of the building and pulled the Duesenberg into a short tunnel, which was hidden behind a camouflaged, radio-controlled sliding door
. The tunnel led directly to a secret freight elevator, which activated automatically and hauled the car up to my private garage on the 65th floor, the lowest of the six floors I occupied. (If you think you've spotted a discrepancy, you haven't. The top floor is officially the 70th, though the building actually has 71. This is because there are two 13th floors. Yes, there's an interesting story behind that, and no, I'm not going to tell it to you.)

Lately, the UAWC had diversified. Formerly an on-paper-only business entity, my corporation had recently made the jump into the real world. I had taken the first steps with the help of contacts referred to me by Frank Nitti, the Chicago mobster who was neither my friend nor my enemy. Frank owed me, and he always would. Fortunately for him, the Black Centipede is no Shylock, nor is he Charles Augustus Milverton. If what I did could be considered blackmail, my terms were not onerous. I could have shaken Frank down for plenty, with what I had on him, but that would have been bad business. I was already wealthy, for one thing, and for another, Frank was my mole inside the powerful Chicago Syndicate. I did not regard their activities as any business of mine, but they had such far-flung interests and connections all over the country that Frank was able to give me an occasional hand with one thing or another that I had chosen to make my business.

Anyhow, Frank had put me in touch with several self-professed "legitimate businessmen" of his acquaintance, and, with their assistance, I had transformed the empty shell of the UAWC into a valid business entity, with financial interests in a dozen or so more or less technically legal enterprises. (Nothing deplorable, I assure you.) This had worked out rather well, and it soon became more than I could handle by myself.

I parked the car, got out, and opened the passenger door for Stymie and the girls. They followed me down a short hall to the modest lobby of the Unlimited Advantage Worldwide Corporation.

At a reception desk in the center of the lobby sat a man. He was no longer young and not yet old, dressed in his morning coat, his collar mounting firmly to his chin. He wore a rich and modest necktie, asserted by a simple pin.

"Mister Centipede!" the man exclaimed-- not too loudly, though. His manner always seemed self-consciously subdued, as though he were afraid he might somehow disturb the universe if he accidentally became too raucous. "Good to see you, sir! You've brought guests, I see."

What with my expansion, I had to have some sort of a staff at "corporate headquarters." At this particular time, I had two employees. One-- the man at the reception desk-- was J. Alfred Prufrock, a clerkish, expatriate Briton who had arrived at the threshold of middle age without ever having accomplished anything. That's how he saw it, anyhow, and, after reviewing his curriculum vitae, I was forced to agree.

My friend Amelia Earhart, who had recently taken it upon herself to oversee certain aspects of my life, had encountered Prufrock on one of her sojourns abroad, and had recommended him for the position of office manager. I had immediately approved-- that being the wisest course when dealing with Amelia. She had caught him late one night, apparently making a halfhearted attempt to jump from a bridge into the Thames. Amelia-- remembering something she had read about a certain party who makes his home in New York City-- had informed him that she had saved his miserable life, so from that point on, he was beholden to her. She offered him a purposeful life of mystery and adventure as an agent of the awesome Black Centipede. (This was many years before the word "awesome" started making such a nuisance of itself.) Prufrock denied that he was suicidal, claiming he had only been trying to "hear a mermaid sing." However, he continued, he had heard of the Black Centipede, and he rather liked the idea of a purposeful life, but he wondered if perhaps there were some position open that didn't involve quite so much in the way of mystery and adventure.

"Hello, Proofy," I said. "This young man, whose face may be familiar to you, is Stymie Beard. These two ladies are Patience and Prudence. I don't know if they have a last name, but you're welcome to ask them. Young Stymie has a task to perform. After I get him started, I'd like you to join me in the garage."

I picked up the phone and dialed a number Stymie had given me. I was soon speaking with the young actor's mother, Johnnie Mae Beard, who sounded incredibly relieved to learn that her son was unharmed. I left the poor lad to face the inevitable dressing-down on his own. Patience and Prudence, sensing a delicate situation, followed me out.

I led Prufrock back to the garage with me, where I opened the trunk of my car to reveal the slumbering form of Anonymoushka, the faceless assassin. I pulled off a glove and touched her neck. The pulse there was strong.

"Dear me, Mister Centipede," fretted Prufrock, "this poor woman seems not to have a face."

"Yes, I know. Nothing to get in a twist over. It's a family trait. You know, dominant and recessive genes. Her mother had no eyes, her father had no nose. Cruel Nature saw fit to visit both calamities on this poor girl."

He scratched his head. "I never know when you're being serious and when you're having me on, Mister Centipede."

"I'm always serious, Proofy. Just put her in the Unwelcome Guest Suite. She'll come to eventually."

The Unwelcome Guest Suite was a very tastefully, not to say opulently, furnished holding cell. It was pleasant, but utterly escape-proof. I had never had occasion to use it before, but I kept it ready, because one never knows.

"How shall I get her there? How should I begin?"

"Take her in your manly arms and carry her," I suggested. "She's rather svelte. Dancer's body. No more than 110 pounds."

Proofy was uncomfortable with the whole idea. "Well, sir, I don't... She looks rather heavier than... I mean, I might... I should get Gregor to help me, I think."

"Suit yourself, Proofy. 'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature not to want to inadvertently take liberties with an unconscious, faceless woman-- I suppose."

"I am not Prince Hamlet," he muttered.

"No," I agreed. "You aren't decisive enough. Summon Gregor if you must, then."

Proofy nodded and stepped over to the wall, where he pressed a button on the intercom unit and said, "Gregor, could you just step down to the garage for a moment?"

Gregor Samsa was the other half of my new office staff.

He's a bit difficult to explain.

As far as work history goes, he was a traveling salesman in Europe for many years, until the day he awoke to find that he had been transformed into a human-sized insect of some sort. That's the easiest way to describe him, though he does not really resemble any terrestrial insect I've ever seen. How and why this metamorphosis took place is unknown. I suspect some trick of quantum mechanics combined with Gregor's own overdeveloped sense of existential angst.

Whatever the case, the former salesman was now a six-foot-long crawling vermin of an undetermined-- possibly unprecedented-- species. During a recent trip to Prague, where I had gone in search of the elusive Mary Jane Gallows, I had discovered Gregor lying at the bottom of a rubbish heap, apparently dead. He had evidently been there for quite some time. Intrigued, I had dragged the bizarre, chitinous remains back to my hotel. During the course of my scientific examination, the thing revived and told me its story.

Gregor scampered into the garage. Patience and Prudence took him in, and exchanged an unfathomable glance. I bent down and patted him on the head. Though I knew he possessed human intellect, something in me saw him as an amiable, if hideous, domestic animal. Though he could speak, and had even learned English, Gregor generally preferred to remain mute. He said he didn't like to startle people. 

I mean, come on...

With assistance from the girls, Prufrock gingerly arranged the unconscious Anonymoushka on Gregor's back and they trundled her out of the garage and started off down the hallway toward the homey little cell. I followed them as far as the dining room, where I got on the phone to Percival Doiley. Prufrock had informed me that the dear boy had phoned the office several times while I was absent. Patience and Prudence remained in the hall outside the door.

"Hey, Centipede," Percy said when I identified myself. "How are you?"

I had never really trusted Percival Doiley, and recent events had made me even more cautious where he was concerned.

"What do you want, Percy?" I asked coldly.

"Uh, Mister DeMilby is here in Zenith. I just took him over to his hotel, the Grand. He's here, and if you want to, we could get started on my, you know, idea first thing in the morning." He sounded uncharacteristically sheepish. I imagined our last meeting was still fresh in his mind, and he was probably wondering how much I knew about how much he knew, however much that was and whatever it was-- or was not-- about. Good. Remaining in suspense would help build his character-- a truly herculean task, I figured, and one that could use whatever boosts I might give it.

"That's fine, Percy," I said in a neutral tone. "You just take care of the details. I have every confidence in your ability to stage manage my public persona."

I could tell he had no idea what to make of that. It might have been a genuine compliment. More likely, it was a veiled insinuation. I could practically hear him wondering about it, the gray matter sloshing around in his skull like malted milk.

"Um, okay, then, Centipede. I'll see you. Nice, uh, talking to you."

"Goodbye, Percy."

No sooner had I hung up the phone than my ears were assaulted by a shriek from down the hallway.

"By the love of the sweet infant Jesus!" came the voice of Anonymoushka, who had obviously chosen that very awkward moment to regain consciousness. "What manner of abomination is this that bears me away? That blasted Centipede has murdered me and I awaken in the pit of the Inferno!"

"Oh, no, no, my dear madame," J. Alfred Prufrock tried to reassure her. "Nothing of the sort."

"Feh! You cannot fool me, you slightly bald bacterium! Only the very Devil himself could appear as innocuous and impotent as you-- a wolf in snail's clothing! Now, watch thy greatness flicker, thou Prince of Lice!"

A gunshot all but drowned out Prufrock's shrill "Oh dear!" This time, the faceless mermaid was singing to him, and he didn't seem to care for it. I jumped up and raced into the hall, almost colliding with Patience and/or Prudence, chiding myself for failing to search that accursed woman for weapons. I had foolishly assumed that her little hammer and sickle had been the lot.

"I heard you tell this aberration to drag me into that bedchamber!" she yelled. "No doubt you entertained designs of raping me while I lay insensible!"

At least la femme sans visage had not shot to kill. Loopy though she most certainly was, she wouldn't kill anybody unless she was absolutely sure she had to. I needed to prevent the situation from going in that direction.

"That is not it," squawked Prufrock. "That is not it, at all."

"Anonymoushka!" I shouted. "This is no way to act! You're in my house!"

She turned and glared at me. Possibly. It felt like I was being glared at, anyhow. She had a gun in each hand. So did I. She leveled both of hers at me. I returned the consideration. We stood there for a few seconds. Gregor and Proofy were inching slowly away from her, heading in my direction.

"You think I shall allow you to bring that foul Doctor Almanac back from Hell?" the faceless woman said at last. "I know all about your plans, you and your brother, the White Centipede! You think raising the dead is all fun and games? A jolly good time, until someone gets an eye put out!"

Patience and Prudence gave me identical hard looks. I just shook my head. I didn't want them thinking I had anything to do with the hated Almanac. He was the one responsible for them having their tongues cut out. I'd be lucky to get off that easily if they got the idea I was in cahoots with the madman.

"The White Centipede was not my brother," I shouted, "and he's dead. Possibly, sort of. Well, he's buried, anyhow. (See Blood of the Centipede, by Chuck Miller, Pro Se Press, 2012.) And the last thing in the world I would do is raise Doctor Almanac from the grave. I didn't even know he was dead."

That was the truth. I had just assumed he was still alive following his bizarre and deadly removal from police custody. Nobody had any idea how it had been accomplished, or by whom. When Almanac was taken into custody in front of the Zenith Gold Exchange building, Doctor Unknown had advanced the hypothesis that the criminal overlord was deceased, but he couldn't be certain. Nor could anyone else who examined Almanac at the scene of  that very peculiar crime. (See Creeping Dawn: The Rise of the Black Centipede, by Chuck Miller, Pro Se Press, 2011)

"Fie on thee!" Anonymoushka shouted. "Your lying tongue would wither and perish if ever you spoke the truth with it!" She raised her gun and fired in my direction. The shot passed within six inches of my head and smacked into the wall.

"Go back to the office," I barked to the girls. "Make sure Stymie is safe!"

They whirled around and headed back in that direction.

Anonymoushka and I traded a couple more shots, while Gregor scuttled down the hall in my direction, Prufrock clinging to his back. They passed me and I jumped in between them and the faceless assassin, keeping her covered until they reached safety.

Then it was a standoff. I moved slowly in her direction, and she moved slowly in mine. Our guns never wavered. The eyes behind my mask never left her face, and her-- whatever the hell she saw with-- never left mine. Soon, we were no more than a foot apart.

"What do you know about Almanac?" I asked. "Why do you think he's involved with the White Centipede?"

"Bah!" she said. "You and your crap! Tell me you don't know anything about the Order of the Centipede, you meandering jackass!"

"Actually," I said, "I don't!"

This seemed to enrage her. She fired at me again, and this time she meant it. I barely avoided a bullet that was meant to go through my forehead.

"You think I am stupid!" she shrieked. "You run about Tonsiltown with a High Priestess and you tell me you know nothing of the Order! Damned arrogant bastard screwball man! The Ripper has been at work there! And you were right behind him each time!"

She fired again. She managed to wing me in the right arm. The shot I had fired at the same moment went wide and missed her completely. When my right arm spasmed, her left foot lashed out and caught my wrist, sending that gun sailing through the air down the hallway.

I leveled my remaining automatic at her blank face. I hesitated to take the shot. I knew I should kill her while I had the chance, because she still had two guns, and had proved she didn't share my hesitancy about using them. But something kept my finger from squeezing the trigger. We circled one another warily.

"The Ripper's dead," I said. "I saw him die. I was right behind him because I was trying to stop him. And I still don't know who or what the White Centipede really was."

This had an effect on Anonymoushka. I couldn't tell what it was. It was just an impression. I wondered if she knew how to play poker.

"Are you telling me the truth?" she asked in a whisper. "I had a feeling... How can I know you do not lie? I was trained by the Order. But you are, perhaps, not what I thought. I have been given information. The White Centipede may be the..." She stopped talking and shook her head. 

"May be what?" I prompted. "What do you know about him?"

"If you are lying to me, beast," she said, "I shall make it not worth your while. How can I know?"

This was a moment of truth. I gave in to the spirit of restraint that had gripped me.

I dropped my gun.

My opponent relaxed, just a little bit.

And then, something that looked for all the world like a water balloon came sailing through the air and burst against Anonymoushka's head, drenching her in a clear liquid. It wasn't water, though. I could smell it from where I stood. Raw ether.

Anonymoushka's eyes would have rolled back in their sockets, if she'd had eyes. Or sockets. She tottered back and forth a time or two, her mouth formed a lower-case "o," she uttered a little squeak, and she fell to the floor. Holding my breath, I bent down, grabbed her by the collar, and dragged her away from the pool of ether, to prevent her being burned or suffocated. I needed her alive, to find out what she knew about the Order and whatever the hell was going on right now.

A little way down the hall stood Stymie Beard, J. Alfred Prufrock, and Patience and Prudence. All of them were smiling.  I nodded at them as I wiped ether from Anonymoushka's face with the tail of her jacket.

"I got the ether from your medical supply closet," Proofy said. "The balloons were Master Stymie's idea. He's an excellent shot, isn't he? He told me we'd only need the one, but I made three, just in case."

"Well, hang on to them," I said, lifting the once-again-unconscious Anonymoushka in my arms and carrying her toward the Unwelcome Guest Suite. "God only knows what will be visited on us next, but they may come in handy. Bring me a towel and some water so I can wash the rest of the ether off of her."


The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:


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