Thursday, January 3, 2013





Since I had already died once, there was no real novelty value in it for me. It was nothing but a damned, stupid inconvenience. But I couldn't see any way around it at this point. Gravity was doing its job with great enthusiasm, and it would only be a matter of seconds before my body struck the pavement. I expected to be virtually liquefied on impact. I very much doubted that the mysterious black centipede that had restored me twice could do much with the puddle of bloody goo I saw in my immediate future.

I wanted to close my eyes, but morbid fascination wouldn't let me. The alley floor, coming closer and closer, was mesmerizing. To think, in just a very short time, all of my history, hopes and aspirations would go splat, right there on that spot I was looking at. A rather momentous occasion, really.

That was when I heard a voice in my ear.

"Bozhe moi, you canteloupe-brained throwback! How have you managed to live for more than five minutes? Go limp, idiot!"

I did. Then I felt a strong arm snake around my waist and get a firm hold on me. My descent slowed gradually, and I came to a stop approximately 55 stories above the ground.

Smiling behind my mask, I looked at my savior.

"Anonymoushka!" I exclaimed. "It's nice to see you. I was afraid I might have vaporized you when I blasted that invisible dirigible just now."

"It is no fault of yours that you did not," replied the faceless woman. "Viyebnutsa! You are reckless to the point of madness. Beyond madness, in fact. You seem bent on suicide, but the gods of the afterworld refuse to allow you passage into their realm. Very understandable. Ti durak!"

Overcome by gratitude and adrenaline, I threw my arms around her neck and told her I loved her. At that moment, I truly did.

She made a noise of disgust. "You may save that kind of trash," she said archly, "for your American flappers and suffragettes who thrive on empty male declarations. I would never consent to breed with an abnormal specimen like you. I'm sure your antecedents were appalling and listless gremlins with no common sense at all. I suppose you think that I, lacking a face, would be glad to settle for whatever I could get. "

As she lectured me, I looked up. I saw that Anonymoushka and I were dangling from a very long rope, the other end of which disappeared into the space where Gregor had seen the invisible balloon. We were bobbing gently up and down. The rope seemed to have considerable elasticity, which was incredibly fortunate. I wondered how that invisible balloon managed to remain absolutely stationary.

"That thought never entered my mind," I assured my rescuer. "Anyhow, I wasn't contemplating breeding. I just think you're very attractive. I've never been a stickler for details like eyes and noses, the way some men are. You have an inner beauty. It reminds me of something by Hieronymus Bosch."

"Close your mouth, ape, and stop trying to maul me," was her cold reply. "I will defend my honor to the death-- yours. Get your hands off my person and onto the rope, so you can start pulling your own weight. I have no intention of bearing you on my back like a degenerate papoose."

I did as she suggested and followed her back up to the roof. Never before had I been so glad to see it. I did not actually fall on my face and kiss it, but I lusted in my heart. Prufrock and Stymie descended upon me, patting my back and shaking my hand.

"You're okay," Stymie beamed.

"I am, indeed. Proofy, please take Stymie back to the office and remain there until i say different. This may not be over yet. Gregor, you stay here. I may need your eyes."

Prufrock needed very little encouragement. Holding Stymie by the hand, he scurried over to the doorway and down into the bowels of my sanctum sanctorum.

Then I realized something. I was still holding the cylinder that had prompted me to make my near-death dive.

"I don't suppose this is actually a bomb," I said to Anonymoushka, holding the thing up. "It was your hand that tossed it at us, I believe."

She nodded and said, "It is sad that you are so beset by paranoia. Do you think every object that moves in your direction is an explosive device?"

"Only when a disembodied arm and hand drop one out of an invisible aircraft."

She shrugged. "You are entitled to your mad conceits. You must count yourself fortunate, however, that I had that elastic rope close at hand and the presence of mind to use it as quickly and cleverly as I did. You could do worse than to emulate me. And be grateful that I have ways to circumvent the tyranny of gravity, so I could snag you in time. Your innards would have made a dreadfully ugly mosaic on the floor of that poor, innocent alleyway."

Slightly mesmerized by her bizarre diction, I shook my head vigorously and said, "Okay, fine. What is it then?"

She gave me a look. I know she didn't have anything to give a look with, but somehow she did, don't ask me to explain it. "It's a bomb," she said flatly.

"You just said it wasn't a bomb!"

"I said no such thing! Your brazen ignorance is a marvel of the modern world! I said you were paranoid, which is the truth. It didn't mean you were wrong. Don't worry, it won't go off unless it strikes something with great force. Or moderate force. Actually, a very slight bump would probably set it off."

I gingerly placed the cylinder on the roof at my feet. "Why the hell were you lobbing a bomb at us?"

"I wasn't," she said indignantly. "I was lobbing it at the creature who abducted me through your wall."

"It would have killed us, too!"

"What am I, a miracle worker? If you can't break some eggs, get out of the kitchen! Anyhow, we are not yet out of the woodwork, govniuk. The thing that nabbed me is not on that balloon. It's still up here."

"On this roof?" I said, looking wildly about.

"I'm wondering, Miss," said Gregor, who had sidled up to us, "if it is the same creature that is climbing up the mooring mast right now."

"What!" I exclaimed, looking up at the mast. It did seem to be swaying from side to side more than it ought to on such a windless day, and there was a faint creaking sound. "Jesus, Gregor, you should point out that kind of thing immediately."

"How was I to know it was relevant?" the bug asked.

I shook my head. "Gregor, I swear..."

"Don't berate this wretched freak," Anonymoushka scolded, bending to pat Gregor on the head. "The situation is less grave than you imagine. The thing on the mast seems to be paying us no mind. It is climbing up and ever upward, eyes fixed on the azure sky above."

"You see it, too?" I said.

She nodded. "After a fashion. Without eyes. I know it's there, I know where it is, I know what it's doing. I know that it is big."

"Well, to hell with this," I spat, picking up the bazooka and shoving another projectile into the rear orifice. With as much machismo as I could muster, I yelled, "I'll show that sonofabitch what it means to trifle with the Black Centipede!"

"Stay your hand, blockhead!" Anonymoushka barked, grabbing my arm. "All you will do is blow the god darn steeple off the roof and it will plunge to the street, no doubt impaling a bus full of nuns or some such thing. If you can't get over the idea that violence is the only way to solve things, I shall beat you to death! I'll go up after it. I have a score to settle with that zjelob."

She scrambled up to the top of the cupola, ranting and raving furiously, and began to climb the mast. "I'm coming for you, thou eater of thine own excrement!" she shouted. "A world of hurt is headed your way, stinker!"

I was fairly certain nothing I said would make any difference, so I just stood there. There was no telling how this was going to play out. I held on to the bazooka.

I watched the faceless woman ascend. Much to my complete lack of surprise, Patience and Prudence were right behind her. I felt a little sorry for the invisible nightmare.

What happened next-- the battle that ensued-- I cannot describe. It is very difficult to follow the action when one of the combatants is invisible. Anonymoushka, Patience and Prudence flipped and flopped around in an incredibly confusing manner, hanging in midair and throwing jabs at something I could not see. The air was filled with the sound of blows and Anonymoushka's inventive curses. I figured she had her arms wrapped around the creature's neck; she appeared to be hovering in midair about four feet to the right of the mast.

I just stood still, bazooka at the ready, just in case a situation developed that could be improved by my firing an explosive projectile at it.

"I have the miserable beast!" Anonymoushka yelled, after four or five minutes of flailing chaos. "One of you girls get up here and strike it repeatedly. There is, I think, a nerve cluster under my left hand, but I've got no leverage. You must ride to the rescue! I'll guide you!"

The girls swarmed up the invisible body and began chopping and poking with their hands, accompanied by Anonymoushka's running commentary.

"Almost, ebony-hued girl, you are almost there. Hold it now! Get a good grip! Ivory-hued girl, jab hard, right above where your companion's hand is. Yes, there! Again! Harder! Oh, for the love of Christ, you accursed monstrosity, stop struggling and let this girl kill you!"

Anonymoushka tightened her grip on whatever she had her arms wrapped around-- the creature's head, most likely. Patience and Prudence were hammering away at the unseen fiend.

There was a nasty sound, a sort of wet pop-- the kind of noise that causes great distress when you hear a human body make it, if the body belongs to an ally and not an enemy. Patience's head snapped back. Blood was streaming out of her nose and she lost her grip and tumbled down over the cupola and onto the roof , where she lay still. Prudence looked stricken. This lasted for half a second, then she turned back to her task, delivering a vicious blow to the invisible abomination. Something-- presumably the creature-- screamed. Anonymoushka let out a war whoop and jumped onto the mooring mast.

I was on my way to help Patience when I felt the displacement of a large volume of air, and heard a loud thud as something landed on the roof. It was a very loud thud. The roof shook. It knocked me off my feet. Fortunately, the thing had landed several yards away from the prone Patience. I got upright and headed her way.

Prudence beat me to it, shoving me aside and dropping to her knees beside her "sister." She touched a couple of pulse points, then placed her ear against Patience's chest. After a few seconds, she looked up at me and shrugged. I thought I saw a tiny trace of fear in her eyes. That made me shudder. Patience was very still, but her chest was rising and falling, which was a bit of a relief.

"Get her downstairs," I said. "If she needs medical attention, I've got hospital facilities. Proofy will help you."

Nodding, Prudence scooped Patience up in her arms and headed back into the building. I wondered if it was possible to bond with those two. The Stiff seemed to have done it. I was mildly surprised by how concerned I was about Patience. Evidently, I genuinely liked those two strange young women.

In fact, it seemed to me that I was liking and caring about entirely too many people lately. That had never been my way. I put it down to the insidious influence of Amelia Earhart. She seemed hell-bent on making a compassionate human being out of me. I needed to have to have a serious talk with her one day soon...

Turning from the doorway, I saw that Anonymoushka had climbed back down to the roof and was standing next to Gregor. The two of them were contemplating the spot where the creature had landed.

"What have we got here?" I asked as I joined the odd pair.

"This is the most peculiar creature I have ever seen," said the man who had awakened one morning to find that he been inexplicably transformed into a gigantic insect of some unknown kind.

"It is a beast," Anonymoushka declared. "A thing from the worst passages of the Bible. A grotesque abomination spawned in the most flatulent sewage of perdition."

I could hear the grotesque abomination breathing. I stretched out a hand until it met unseen resistance. It felt like severely dehydrated human flesh, and it was warm. I stepped back.

"Describe it for me, please," I said.

"Certainly," said Gregor. As he spoke, he crawled slowly around the spot occupied by the whatever-it-was, poking at it with his feelers, turning his head this way and that. "It is about... oh, I'd say three meters tall. That is, it would be three meters tall if it were standing upright. Human in shape, more or less, but very bulky. Muscular, but subtly malformed. Over and above the unnatural size, I mean. The limbs are somewhat asymmetrical, but I cannot... Oh, here's something interesting. Well, I'll be."

"What is it?" I very badly wanted to know.

"The face," Gregor said. "It looks just like the photographs I have seen of this Doctor Almanac you've been speaking of."

I could have done without that.



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