Monday, December 17, 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


... And what I was doing on that very strange day was the last thing I would have expected ever to be doing just a few short weeks earlier. In the very recent past, the Black Centipede had been a wanted man, sought on fourteen counts of first-degree murder arising from a rather rash raid I made on the secret headquarters of a super-criminal mastermind called Doctor Almanac. I had inadvertently blundered my way into a clash with the Doctor's army of well-armed, homicidal goons. I had thinned the herd considerably and rather too publicly, which resulted in a huge spot of bother for me.

So I was a little bemused, and extremely amused, on this beautiful Saturday to find myself the center of not merely attention, but mass adulation, as one of the honorees in a gala ticker-tape parade down the main street of the city of Zenith. My fortunes had taken an unexpected turn for the better. I had single-handedly saved the president elect, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from death at the hands of a maniacal assassin hired by the aforementioned Doctor Almanac-- or so everyone thought. It was actually a bit more complicated than that. The whole thing had been an illusion, you see, crafted by my execrable patron, William Randolph Hearst, with covert aid from my beloved arch-enemy Mary Jane Gallows.

But reality, as always, was of little importance.

Seated next to me in the honor car was my friend Stanley Bartowski, a newly-minted Detective Lieutenant with the Zenith Police Department's Unusual Crimes Division. Stanley had become a hero on the same day I did, though he came by it more honestly.

The parade was quite a production. Roosevelt regretted that he could not be present, but he had sent an emissary. This was no less a personage than Amelia Earhart. She was installed, along with the mayor and various other dignitaries, in a reviewing stand at the end of the parade route. I hoped Hearst was not among them. Our car was inching its way toward the stand, cheered by throngs of hysterical admirers, when things abruptly went south.

Rather abruptly, the sky began to darken, and something splattered on the hood of our car. "Stanley, is it raining?"

"Huh?" Something hit his cheek, and he wiped at it with his fingers. "Aw, cripes, Centipede! It's bird shit!"

I glanced up, my vision momentarily dazzled by the bright blue of the sky, so that I could not immediately identify the darkness that was rapidly gobbling it up. With the darkness came noise. Flapping, cawing, screeching.

A huge cloud of shrieking, clawing, defecating birds of all kinds and sizes, from sparrows to eagles, descended on the street, wreaking havoc upon the parade-goers.

That would have been enough, but fate seldom settles for the merely adequate where I am concerned. The icing on the cake came when two unnaturally large birds-- I have no idea what they were, though they bore a strong resemblance to condors-- swooped down to the reviewing stand. These monsters were each large enough to carry off a human being, which they proved by doing exactly that. One of them plucked the mayor from his seat, and the other snatched up Miss Earhart. They hauled the squirming figures up into the air and soared to the roof of a nondescript three-story building, atop which stood, we now saw, a bizarre figure wearing a white lab coat and a gas mask. This apparition was flanked by a cadre of goons toting Tommy guns. The figure raised an arm and spoke. His voice was amplified by a pair of loudspeakers that were probably connected to a microphone inside the gas mask.

"This is only a sample of what I can do to you if I choose. My control of these birds, and many others besides, is absolute. I shan't bother to make any demands, since you really have no choice but to capitulate to me. My first order of business will be to relieve you good people of as many of your valuables as my men can carry off. Your mayor and your aviatrix shall remain in my custody until this operation is complete. If there are no untoward incidents, they will be released unharmed. If there are any such incidents, they will still be released unharmed... but they will be released from such a height that they will remain unharmed only until they reach the pavement. DOCTOR SHRIKE HAS SPOKEN!!"

I rolled my eyes. "Where the hell is this jerk from?" I said to my friend. "Does he not realize that this parade is being held in honor of two of the most formidable men of action this town has ever seen?"

Stanley shrugged. "Why are they always doctors?" he asked, drawing his revolver from his shoulder holster.

"I wish I knew," I replied, similarly producing one of my trusty .45 automatics. "I suppose the Depression has affected the medical trade just like any other."

"How long you reckon this will take?" Stanley asked.

"I'll have him inside 20 minutes."

"Nope," he replied grimly. "It'll take longer than that. I just have a feeling."

"You wanna bet?"

"Sure. I never mind taking your money."

"You've never yet won a bet with me."

"When I do, I won't mind."

"It won't be today," I assured him, setting my jaw in grim determination. "Watch my dust, Stanley."

I jumped out of the car and zigzagged through the crowd, bestowing on the panic-stricken citizens a benign and reassuring smile, forgetting for a moment that my face was hidden behind a grim, black mask emblazoned with a silver centipede that a casual observer would probably find more puzzling than reassuring.

I ducked between two buildings and disappeared. Four minutes later, I was on the roof with Doctor Shrike. He and his two machine-gun toting goons saw me, and they did pretty much what you'd expect. I did not. Rather than run away or duck for cover, I barreled straight toward them, dodging their fire in that uncanny way of mine.

The two bird-napped VIPs had been hastily trussed up with some kind of thin cord, and were sitting side by side on the tarpaper ten feet this side of Shrike and his men. The mayor's mouth had been taped up, which I could understand.

I would have time to free only one of the hostages. The mayor, an indifferent and ineffectual administrator, gave me a moist, pleading look. The celebrity guest, Miss Amelia Earhart, had cold fury in her eyes. It was plain which one would be of more use.

Ducking under the machine-gun fire, I rolled past the trussed-up dignitaries. With my left hand, I reached out and slashed away Miss Earhart's ropes with my butterfly knife. At the same time, with my right, I plucked a trim .38 revolver from an inner pocket and passed it to the liberated aviatrix.

By the time I sprang back to my feet, I had a .45 in each hand and a pissed-off Amelia Earhart at my side. Though I had never laid eyes on the woman before that day, I found that I trusted her without reservation. Sometimes I can read a person just that quickly. Of course, I had no idea at that moment what she would eventually come to mean to me. Perhaps I had a bit of a premonition.

At that moment, I had no idea of anything other than the swift downfall of the annoying Doctor Shrike. His two machine-gunners were making it impossible for me to express myself verbally, so I put them away very quickly and very permanently with two very precise gunshots.

Shrike suddenly had the look of a man who wished he hadn't sent all but two of his goons down to relieve the parade-goers of their valuables.

"Did you just kill those men?" Miss Earhart asked in a whisper.

"Of course not," I whispered back. "I 'creased' the tops of their heads with my bullets. They're only unconscious."

"Bullshit. For one thing, that's absurd. For another, they had blood spurting from holes between their eyes."

"Then why the devil did you bother to ask?" I gritted, leveling a gun at Doctor Shrike. "We have a bit of a situation here, you know."

The madman had regained a little of his composure, and was issuing threats, as his kind is wont to do in such situations. I was acting cocky, as is my wont in all situations, but I knew I was not yet out of the woods.

I had no idea how Shrike was controlling the birds. Since I saw no evidence of electronic equipment, it was possible he was using some kind of telepathy, or even magic. As I had learned from the case of the abominable Doctor Almanac, one could rule out nothing when dealing with these new super-criminals. Miss Earhart and I both had him covered, but I didn't know what might happen if he were suddenly terminated.

"Don't shoot him," I warned my new compatriot.

"Look who's talking!" she exclaimed.

I put my guns away and advanced on the madman. For his part, he was no longer arrogant. He held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Just a minute now! You got me. I give up." A tower of jello, he was.

My first order of business was to unmask him. I yanked away the gas mask, revealing a set of bland, undistinguished features I did not recognize. "How are you controlling those birds?" I demanded.

He chewed at his lower lip. "Well, ah, it's rather, um, complicated, you see..."

I slapped him across the face. Miss Earhart made a noise. "Is that really necessary?" she asked.

"Perhaps not," I admitted, "but I find it personally satisfying."

She tsk-tsked and Shrike said, "You're going to kill me, aren't you?"

I glanced at the aviatrix. "Well," I equivocated, "I don't know that it's strictly up to me at this point, but..." I grabbed him by the collar and hauled his face close to mine. "On the other hand, this is my territory and I have become accustomed to making the rules myself. And I see absolutely no percentage in letting you live."

His eyes filled rapidly with sheer terror, which only encouraged me in my diabolical performance. I was readying a truly spectacular threat for deployment when a change came over Shrike's face. Terror gave way to relief and near triumph as he caught sight of something over my left shoulder.

"Wilma!" he blurted out "Thank God!"

I gave vent to an exasperated "What the hell?" and followed Shrike's gaze.

I beheld the largest woman I had ever seen. She had to be at least six foot nine, with short, blonde hair, mad eyes, and a pistol held against the mayor's head. The poor man was having an awful day, and it showed on his face. I couldn't imagine why he didn't just go ahead and faint.

"Let go of him," Wilma demanded, in a surprisingly girlish voice, "or I will shoot a hole through the mayor's head." She seemed quite sincere, I thought. I glanced at Shrike, then at Amelia Earhart, who had shifted her pistol to cover the Amazon.

I glanced at my watch. It had been almost 16 minutes since I'd left Stanley down on the street. If I wanted to win our wager, I'd have to act fast.

"Go right ahead," I said. "The mayor has a strict policy of not negotiating with hostage-takers. I would not dishonor him by violating it." Hizzoner's eyes went wide and indignant noises filtered out from behind the tape across his mouth. "Don't worry, Mister Mayor," I said reassuringly. "I won't give in to this woman's demands, no matter what she does to you! Chin up, old boy!"

As I babbled, I was trying my best to communicate telepathically with Miss Earhart. I had no idea whether or not I could do it-- or, indeed, whether such a thing was even possible. But I was a more gifted psychic than I thought, or else Amelia had figured out what I was up to and acted accordingly. When Wilma was sufficiently distracted, and had momentarily moved her .45 a few inches away from the mayor's noggin, my new comrade-in-arms squeezed off a shot that knocked the automatic out of the big woman's hand. Wilma let out a yelp and shoved her gun hand into her armpit. "You goddamn ugly scarecrow!" she squawked. Amelia bounded over and gave her a knockout blow to the temple with the butt of the 38.

"The ugly scarecrow is still standing," she said archly.

"Bravo, Miss Earhart," I said, and turned my attention back to Shrike, who gave every indication that he was about to lose or relinquish control of his bodily functions. In this, he and the mayor appeared to be of one mind.

A swift interrogation revealed that the birds had been trained. No hocus-pocus, no telepathy. That didn't sound quite right to me. There had to be more to this than simple training. By this point most of the birds seemed to have lost interest in the proceedings and gone on to other business.

"Uh... Now what?" the doctor wanted to know.

"Now, Doctor Shrike," I said, "you get to take the express down to the sidewalk." I marched him, slowly and inexorably, toward the roof's edge.

Amelia Earhart grabbed me by the arm.

"No," she said. "Not this. Those two machine-gunners? Okay. But not him. Not this way. He is unarmed and helpless."

"Your point?"

She gave a sharp sigh. "My point is, if you murder this man, you're no better than he is."

I considered this for a moment, then said, "Okay. I can live with that." I pushed the whimpering Doctor Shrike closer to oblivion.

"Well, I can't," said Miss Earhart, with a touch of cold steel in her voice. "And you won't." She leveled the revolver at my head. "Back off."

I looked at her for a very long moment. She had begun to perspire. I could tell she had her doubts about whether or not she'd actually be able to pull that trigger. I, on the other hand, did not. I knew that if push came to shove, she had it in her. My admiration for her soared. I shrugged, released Shrike, and took a step backward. The truth was, I had already decided against sending Shrike to his just reward. I only wanted to shake him up a bit, in the hope that it would prompt him to give me the real story. I said nothing of this because, after all, I had a reputation to maintain. Also, I found the interpersonal dynamics of the situation fascinating.

The bad doctor let out a sickening whine of relief. He turned to Miss Earhart and began to gibber, "Oh, thank you, Miss, thank you! I assure you, I didn't..."

She turned a cold glare on Shrike. "I have heard more than enough out of you," she said. "You're going to sit down and shut up. You are not going to say another word while you are in my presence, do you understand me? No, don't say anything. Just nod."

He did. I didn't blame him.

Miss Earhart gave me another look, then flipped the pistol around and handed it back to me, butt-first.

"Here," she said. "Thanks for the rescue."

"No thanks are necessary," I replied, as I stowed the weapon away. "But they are appreciated. You've certainly got one hell of a story to tell your grandchildren some day."

"Uh-huh. So you're the big national hero, eh? Mister Roosevelt and his wife certainly can't sing your praises enough. In fact, a lot of people really admire the hell out of you."

"And you're not one of them?"

"I didn't say that." She studied me, her own features unreadable. "You're a strange creature. You seem to have the right idea, but it doesn't look like you have much of a moral compass. I've heard some disturbing stories about you that didn't make it into the papers. Frankly, someone needs to keep an eye on you."

I wondered if she was implying something. I wondered if, perhaps, Roosevelt had sent her to Zenith with an ulterior motive. Only a fool would trust a masked, unknown man as implicitly as FDR seemed to trust me. He was much too prudent to risk backing someone who might prove to be a serious embarrassment to him and his administration. Indeed, he had already taken more chances than could be considered strictly rational, and may have taken some heat from someone.

Nobody outside of Roosevelt's inner circle knew the details of my visit to the White House two weeks earlier, during which I foiled a nefarious scheme by the diabolical Jeremiah Zodiac and once saved Roosevelt's life-- legitimately this time. This had convinced him beyond doubt that his trust was not misplaced. However, there were several reasons why the full details of the episode could go no further than they already had, so nobody beyond his extreme inner circle knew. In fact, the issues involved are so sensitive, that the details must remain unknown to the public even now, some 80 years after the fact.

But FDR was a far cry from the plastic, public relations homunculi our presidents are today. There were no handlers or spin doctors pulling his strings. He had backbone. But he wasn't stupid.

I gently prodded Shrike with the toe of my shoe, eliciting a small whimper from him, and gave vent to a world-weary sigh. "He'll only come back and do it again, you know. The recidivism rate among these kooks is appalling."

In the short time since my public apotheosis, I had taken on no fewer than four diabolical geniuses. The first two had escaped custody almost immediately, and continued their depredations. By the third go-around, I had decided to stop giving them chances. Still, it was nice to have something to keep me busy. Organized crime wasn't a pressing problem any longer, since Baron Samedi and the Stiff had toppled Doctor Almanac and taken over. Their style was considerably more low-key, and didn't involve any violence against the public. They concentrated mostly on vice-- dope, liquor, gambling, prostitution; things that did not call for my unique talents and proclivities. At this point, we were operating under an unspoken "live and let live" policy.

"Fine," said the aviatrix. "Then you'll stop him again."

"You aren't an efficiency expert, are you, Miss Earhart?"

She shook her head. "You might as well call me Amelia. "

Ah. So she expected to be seeing enough of me to warrant the use of her first name. I should have been irritated, but I found the prospect... not without a certain appeal.

"Very well," I said. "And you can call me Centipede." I gave her my most dazzling smile. This of course was a wasted effort due to the mask. Still, it must have communicated itself, because she smiled back. I was already starting to find her fascinating. She was a rather boyish-looking young woman with an honest, open face and tousled, reddish hair cut short. She wasn't pretty in a conventional sense, but that's not what it was about. She had some kind of power. Not like Lizzie Borden's Dark Power, but something very compelling just the same.

"Did FDR send you to keep an eye on me?" I asked gently. I didn't want her to think the prospect rankled.

She gave a sort-of nod. "In a way. He wants me to..." She glanced over her shoulder. A cadre of cops had by now made their way to the roof. "I'll tell you later," she said. "We'll meet up someplace when this is all sorted out, okay?"

A couple of the cops took Shrike in hand, three of them stood guard over the fallen Wilma, another handful tut-tutted over the dead goons. One of them-- obviously the man in charge, a beefy and florid individual in (very) plain clothes-- made a beeline for Amelia and me. I was overjoyed to see that it was my closest chum, Detective Sergeant Raymond Davies.

He strode briskly in my direction, stopping mere inches in front of me and thrusting his face to within a few millimeters of my mask.

"What the hell's going on up here?" he growled. "Did you kill those two men?"

"Raymond," I said affably, "while your nose is a very unfortunate-looking lump of tissue, I'm sure you don't want it torn off. But that will happen very soon if you don't get it the hell out of my goddamn mask." Davies and I had little in common apart from a deep mutual loathing and a firm conviction that the world would be a much better place if one of us would leave it.

He gave me a sneer, but backed off a bit before he spoke. "Never mind that crap. One of these days, I'm gonna give you an opportunity to try something, then we'll see what's what. But today isn't the day for it. Again, did you kill those men?"

"Certainly not," I said.

"Bullshit. You croaked them."

I shrugged. "In an existential sense, perhaps I did, but I would argue that they actually killed themselves. It wasn't me that led them into a life of crime. If they had been good, churchgoing boys, they never would have ended up in the paths of those bullets. I don't believe in blaming society. I'm surprised at you, Raymond. Are you one of these weak sisters that believes in mollycoddling criminals?"

He had started to boil. "It's Sergeant Davies," he said through gritted teeth. "That's how punks like you address me. You got that?"

I nodded. "I'll do my best, Raymond."

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