Tuesday, July 9, 2013
THE RETURN OF DOCTOR REVERSO, Chapter Fifteen
"Have a care," Anonymoushka warbled from the back seat as I strode toward the figures in the road. "These are displaced persons, and they are somewhat fragile. They have nothing to do with the current business. This is our God moving in his mysterious and utterly arbitrary way-- what is known as the miracle of the teaser! Someone is sure to be roped in!"
I shook my head. I'd had just about enough of my faceless friend's foolishness. I resolved that, once this current crisis was over, I would force her to say something that made sense, even if I had to resort to torture.
Prudence had a hand on Stymie's shoulder and a look of intense concentration on her face. Stymie was speaking rapidly and uncertainly to the strange pair that had appeared in the road.
"Yes," I heard him say as I approached, "Miss Prudence here knows where you're from.. uh, and she... she knows you're confused about being here. She says not to, um, worry over it, because you'll be gone pretty soon, and... and you need to talk with the Black Centipede, because you can tell him things nobody else can. In a minute, uh, you'll remember what they are."
"What on earth could I say that would interest an arthropod?" Lovecraft wanted to know.
"The Black Centipede is a person," Stymie explained.
"Yeah," I said. "And here he is." Gently pushing Stymie and Prudence out of the way, I stepped up to confront the odd couple.
I studied their faces while they gawked at my mask. They certainly appeared to be the real McCoys. The light there under the trees was poor, but I thought Lizzie Borden looked much as she had the last time I saw her intact, just before she had been cut to ribbons by her "daughter," Mary Jane Gallows. As for Howard Lovecraft, with whom I had maintained a correspondence after I left Massachusetts in 1927-- I had last visited him the same day Lizzie died-- he was very much like the most recent photograph he had sent me, though he seemed to be older, thinner, and considerably less healthy.
"I'm wondering," I said, "if there would be any point at all in my asking if you two are who you appear to be."
Lizzie narrowed her eyes and said, "Just who in God's name are you?"
I started to say something, but it dawned on me that Lizzie-- if that's who this was-- had passed away years before I first donned my mask, and Howard had never learned that his young friend from Fall River was actually the mysterious and celebrated guardian of Zenith. I reached up and plucked off my hat and mask. It was impulsive, illogical, and probably foolish, but-- When in Rome...
Recognition dawned on both of their faces.
"William!" Lizzie exclaimed.
"Bill!" Howard said with a tentative smile, reaching out to shake my hand. "You're looking well. You've filled out since the last time I saw you. Are you going to a masquerade?"
Lizzie's eyes were brimming with tears. "I cannot believe this," she whispered, stepping closer to peer at my face. "How can you be here? The last time I saw you... My God, the last time I saw you, you were dead! You had been murdered by the tulpa, Mary Jane. Are you truly my William?"
I was greatly mystified by this, but I was irritated even more. My response reflected this.
I pointed the gun in my right hand at Howard and reached into my jacket for another one to cover Lizzie. Both of them shrank back.
"Let me tell you something," I said through clenched teeth. "For the past couple of days, I have been up to my neck in homicidal character actors, invisible mad scientists, deadly dirigibles, faceless Russian assassins who talk the most outlandish shit I've ever heard-- and now this. Well, I have had e-goddamn-nough. You're going to tell me what..."
I stopped talking because my little refugee from Our Gang was plucking at my sleeve and clearing his throat theatrically.
"Not now, Stymie," I hissed. "I'm busy at the moment, and..."
"This is important!" he insisted. "Miss Prudence says that these people are who they look like they are, and they're here to tell you something very important, and if you don't listen, you're gonna find yourself in some very deep... a word I'm not allowed to say."
I glanced over at Prudence and she nodded. What the hell, I thought, I guess that's good enough for me. I put the guns away and folded my arms across my chest.
"Lizzie," I said, calmly and reasonably, "I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you are dead. You're the one who was murdered by Mary Jane on the night of May 31, 1927. I'm quite certain about that. It's part of the reason I started wearing that mask.
"And Howard. While you are still among the living, there is no force on earth that could entice you so far away from your home in Providence. The last time I saw you in person was also on May 31, 1927-- almost seven years ago."
"Seven years?" he repeated, sounding puzzled, and still nervously eyeing Lizzie. "Bill, that was almost ten years ago. I'm not the world's greatest mathematician, but I do know that 1937 minus 1927 is ten."
"That may well be," I said. "But it's 1933."
Lizzie let out a little gasp at that. It was then that I noticed something curious. She looked older than she should have-- older than she had ever lived to be.
"Oh, that can't be," Howard said. "I turned 46 back in August-- of 1936. I even had a birthday card from you. You suggested that we meet. I've been too ill to travel, I'm afraid, but you wanted to come to Providence to discuss a story idea you had. Something about a white centipede, now that I think of it."
I just shook my head. I tried to think, but I couldn't get any traction. I leaned closer to Lizzie and said, "Tell me, are you absolutely certain that you are Lizzie Borden?"
She thought about that for a minute. Meanwhile, at the mention of Lizzie's name, Howard's eyebrows had shot up and he had taken a couple steps away from her.
"I cannot be certain," Lizzie said after half a minute. "It feels like I am me. I am certain that I am Lizzie Borden. But I could be some other person or entity that believes itself to be Lizzie. If I've been brainwashed, I would hardly know the difference."
"If you've been what? Brainwashed? What does that mean?"
She looked puzzled. "Surely you cannot be unfamiliar with the term. It refers to a sort of mind control. The term originated during the Korean War, I believe."
"What Korean War? Who was Korea fighting?"
"Why, the United States and her allies, of course. Against Communist North Korea, that is. We supported South Korea, as did the rest of the United Nations."
I shook my head. "The United States has never fought a war against Korea."
"No. And what the hell is the United Nations? You must mean the League of Nations."
"Do I? No, that doesn't sound right. The League of Nations dissolved in..." Her voice trailed off and she closed her eyes. "Oh, my. The little boy was right. I know what has happened. I've been drawn here through time as well as space. Perhaps into an utterly different version of the world I know-- one where you survived Mary Jane's attack and were restored by the agent of the Order, while I... Well, none of that is relevant. The engine brought us here to give you a warning."
"What engine?" I asked sharply.
Lizzie shook her head. "I cannot go into all that. William, you will be at the very eye of a terrible storm that is coming. Almanac is not the one you should be concerned about. Neither is Mag DeMilby. They are just mosquitoes, something to irritate and distract you. Behind them, hiding in their wake, is another-- a true predator, a deadly threat to everything you care about."
"And behind him," said Howard, who seemed to have gotten over his Lizzie-phobia, "there is yet another monster-- the worst of them all. I remember it now. He lurks, distorted and disguised, in a place very close to your heart. You cannot defeat him on your own. You cannot even detect him on your own."
Howard had evidently shot his bolt, because he fell silent. Lizzie remained that way. So did I. I just couldn't think of anything sensible to say. I looked over at Prudence. The corners of her mouth had turned up a fraction of a millimeter-- a broad grin in her own peculiar body language. She nodded her head.
"That's it!" Stymie announced brightly.
I looked back at Lizzie and Howard. Or tried to, at any rate-- but there was nobody there to be looked back at.
I realized I had been expecting that.
"Okay," I said to Prudence and Stymie, replacing my mask and hat and rubbing my hands together. "I believe that more than meets my minimum daily requirement of cryptic, nonsensical flapdoodle. Anonymoushka herself would be hard-pressed to top what I just heard here. What say we get on with the slightly less bewildering errand that has brought us to this place?"
Prudence nodded. She took Stymie's hand and we walked back to the car together.
"Centipede," Stanley said as I slid onto the seat beside him, "I'm not going to ask you anything, and I do not want you to tell me anything. Is that clear?"
"As an unmuddied lake, Stanley," I said. "As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer."
"Welly welly well," came the voice of Anonymoushka from the back seat. "I heard the whole exchange, droogie, and my hat is off to old Bog in his heaven. He may run our world in a rather slipshod manner, but he knows how to foreshadow! I for one cannot wait to find out what that was all about! What a horrorshow tale it will be! Well worth the fifteen bucks!"
I closed my eyes and said, "Drive, Stanley."
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