Click HERE to go to Chapter ONE
Somewhere in or near the city of Zenith
"I see," said the cadaverously thin and pale old man. "And how did we manage to bungle such a perfect setup?"
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Always, Jennings, always."
"She is an absolute hellcat."
The Professor laughed, a dry and mirthless sound. "I should certainly hope so," he said with genuine delight. "She takes after her father more than she does her uncles, and then she takes it several steps further. I cannot help but wish, at times, that she were easier to control... However, if that were the case, she would hardly be worth the effort, eh? Tell me exactly what happened at the Benway, Jennings. And please cease oscillating back and forth like that. It is very disconcerting."
"Yes, sir," said Jennings, becoming stock-still and planting his feet a bit further apart. He wondered if the Professor appreciated the irony in what he had just said. "Almanac began the assault on the building. We aren't sure how he got inside, but once he was there, he removed Anonymoushka from the room she was being held in, then smashed a hole in the outer wall. One of his invisible dirigibles was waiting, and he began his ascent via a cable-- also invisible-- that had been lowered.
"We intercepted him with the invisible balloon. We altered the electrochemical mixture as you ordered, sir, and it worked. The balloon was undetectable by Almanac and his crew. That enabled us to act as quickly as we did. So we know for sure that works, anyhow."
"That, at least, is a victory," said the Professor, his head swaying gently back and forth, as it always did.
"Yes, sir. Our team knocked Almanac off the cable and onto the roof of the building, and we took Anonymoushka on board. And that's the point where things began to... go awry."
"Tell it, Jennings. It may be painful for you, as it is for me-- to a certain degree. But my discomfort is tempered by a certain feeling of pride."
"Yes, sir. Understandable, sir. Once we had her on board, the pilot attempted to explain what was going on, but she seemed uninterested. She subdued the entire crew of five in slightly less than one minute. Then she broke into the weapon locker and lobbed a grenade at Almanac, whom she could apparently see. That was when this Black Centipede intervened. He had appeared on the roof with a few of his cohorts just before Anonymoushka tossed the explosive."
"He interests me," said the Professor. "I might have to eliminate him, but I would rather not. I know he will interfere with my operations, but... He does not present the kind of threat that Almanac does, and I do not believe him to be a selfless do-gooder-- not entirely, at any rate. He might be open to some sort of agreement with us. Either way, like a certain other 'champion of justice'-- now sadly decrepit and fading fast, from what we have learned-- the world is a more interesting place with him in it."
"Well, Anonymoushka evidently feels the same way, sir. It looked as though the Centipede had taken a leap into certain death to protect his friends from the blast. She attached one of the very strong elastic cords we had on board the balloon-- for use as tethers-- to her ankles, and jumped after him. How she knew what the cord was and what she could do with it is a mystery. She had been on board for less than two minutes, sir."
"Indeed," said the Professor. "I myself have never worked out her limits. She seems to have a remarkable, if unpredictable, gift for precognition. She has always been that way, even before..." His voice trailed off and his thoughts, whatever they were, remained unspoken.
"We got our balloon out of there during the melee that followed the rescue, managing in the process to inflict severe damage on Almanac's flagship," Jennings continued. "Further, we believe the Centipede may now have Almanac under wraps somewhere."
"Just so," said the Professor. "We should stay out of this entirely, Jennings. However it turns out, our plans will continue. If this Black Centipede can destroy Almanac-- with or without the assistance of our young friend, who knows only so much of my business and no more-- so much the better. We can conserve our resources for what comes after. Let's just keep an eye on everyone involved. I should like to see how this Hollywood business plays out, and if Herbert West is involved, I want to speak with him. If Anonymoushka's life is in serious danger-- and the Centipede's, too, I suppose-- we shall intervene. If not, we let events take their course. Both of them are quite competent-- insanely so."
"As you say, sir," Jennings replied. He sensed that this interview was now over, so he made a small bow and left the Professor's chamber. He was relieved to be out of his employer's presence. The Professor's manner was not fierce or menacing-- he was unfailingly polite, even genteel. He had never given Jennings the slightest cause for fear. He was generous when it came to pay and benefits, though finances had been tight in recent weeks, since the Professor had started purchasing a great deal of expensive electrical equipment. That could be taken care of with a few high-yield "fund raising" operations, of course.
But the Professor made him very uncomfortable. Not because of anything he did. There were other factors involved, strange circumstances and peculiar impressions.
For one thing, the Professor-- as far as Jennings could determine-- had never been seen during the daytime by any of his employees. Not the rank and file, and not even the upper echelon, the so-called Sunless Circle-- a bizarre collection of freaks and misfits, as far as Jennings was concerned. All of them were insane, and most of them were wanted by the police. Jennings assumed that the Professor planned for them to ply their particular trade when the time was right.
Of course, this was not, in itself, any cause for alarm.
But, when coupled with the fact that the Professor had what appeared to be two-inch fangs instead of ordinary canine teeth, it raised certain unsettling questions, ones that Jennings was not eager to have answered...