I had such a good response to my free PDF file offer that I'm making it again. Just message me on Facebook and I'll send you one-- 136 pages of thrills, confusion, girls, monsters, Doctor Almanac, secret formulas, adventure, Doctor Unknown Senior, and a special celebrity guest: Our Gang's Stymie Beard. This serial is about halfway done now. It provides a bridge from "Blood of the Centipede" to "Black Centipede Confidential," and it introduces a major new character, la belle femme sans visage, Anonymoushka, the faceless Russian assassin who specializes in remarkably disjointed conversation and has taken it into her head that she is the future Mrs. Centipede. Also a fairly silly and absolutely inconsequential villain called Crusher Cranium. (They can't all be brilliant...)
"I have a certain amount of affection for you girls," I said to Prudence, "I honestly do. But you scare the hell out of me sometimes. You're plugged into something I don't understand. Your boss, too, come to think of it. I'm just glad you appear to be more or less on my side most of the time. If I ever look like I'm in danger of straying away from your good graces, please give me a warning."
Prudence responded by saying nothing (of course) and doing nothing. Her face was as still and unrevealing as an Easter Island statue, though I thought her left eye glittered a little bit-- but that might have been a reflection.
"Here we are," Stanley announced gruffly. "I was not looking forward to this, but after what just happened, I feel like I'm pulling up to the entrance of Coney Island. You and your friends, Centipede, I swear!"
We had reached our destination-- the prison without a name, run by people who didn't exist, on behalf of a division of the government that was just a figment of somebody's imagination.
"You're my friend, Stanley," I reminded him.
"I know, but I'm the only normal one you've got. You oughtta keep me separate from these others."
He braked the car to a stop in the gravel parking lot of the huge, square concrete building that squatted there in a clearing in the woods. The administration was careful not to draw the slightest bit of attention to the place. There was no fence, no guard towers, no signs, nothing to indicate that this was a correctional facility of the most extreme variety imaginable. The actual cells were deep underground, and all the security they needed lay behind those grim, grey walls. If anybody was able to get through that, no goddamn razor wire, chain-link, or machine-gun fire would be enough to slow them down. It was said that there had never been a successful escape in however many years the place had been in existence. Technically, Doctor Almanac had escaped-- or been hijacked-- before he had arrived here.
"Obviously," I said to the crew in the back seat, "Stymie will not be going inside, nor will either of you ladies. I hope I can trust you to sit here and amuse yourselves harmlessly, with a game of charades, perhaps. Try not to kill anybody or anything. And, for the love of God, don't summon any spirits from the great beyond."
Silence for a moment, then Stymie spoke:
"Miss Prudence says that those weren't spirits, and she didn't summon them. She just knew what they were when they appeared."
"Well," I said, "if any more like them show up, please don't encourage them."
"I shall read them the Riot Act," said Anonymoushka, "whatever that may be. I believe, however, that our eccentric creator has gotten the dei ex machinis out of his system for the time being. Anyhow, they weren't relevant to the plot of this particular slice of life. Just a dire warning of ghastly events to come-- more for the benefit of the audience than for you."
My normal friend and I walked around to the side of the building, where I knocked on an unmarked, nondescript door. Nothing happened for almost a minute, but I knew better than to knock again. Finally, a voice came from a small speaker grill set into the wall next to the door.
"Identification made: Bartowski, Stanley Aloysius; Black Centipede, the. When the door opens, please walk to the end of the corridor. Thank you."
I leaned toward Stanley and whispered, "Aloysius? Really?"
"Screw you," he grumbled.
We heard a click and the door swung inward.
The corridor was absolutely featureless-- no doors on either side, walls painted a dull grey, light provided by three or four bare 40-watt light bulbs hanging from the ceiling at intervals. We did as we had been instructed, traversing the thirty or so feet to the end of the hallway and stopping in front of the metal door we found there. It was the same color as the walls, and had neither doorknob nor visible hinges.
"Gentlemen," came the same voice we had heard before, "please prepare to surrender your weapons for the duration of your visit. Mister Bartowski, you are carrying a .38 revolver. Mister Centipede, you are carrying more ordnance than I have time to enumerate. Please hand everything to the guard. Thank you."
With that, the door slid sideways into the wall. In the opening stood a very large man dressed in jet black army fatigues. We couldn't see his face, because it was covered by a strange black mask, part of a helmet that covered his head completely. He stepped back several paces and gestured for us to enter.
We found ourselves in a small room that was almost as featureless as the hallway. The only furniture was a large metal desk, behind which sat a most curious individual. I recognized him immediately.
"Doctor Duranceville!" I exclaimed. "This is quite a surprise. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you were executed at Winnemac State Prison last month."
He eyed me coldly. Victor Duranceville was very thin and pale, with sunken, yellowish eyes in a bony, cross-shaped face. He had good reason to eye me coldly, since I was the one who had caught him and handed him over to the authorities after I put an end to his rampage of murder and robbery several months previously. He had, at one time, been warden of a small penitentiary in the Deep South, where he specialized in brutal, inhumane treatment of inmates. Then he had tried his hand at the slightly more honest vocation of armed robbery. That hadn't lasted long before he ran afoul of me.
"Obviously," he said, "I was not. After my sentencing and before my execution date, I was offered employment by the management of this facility. My specialized knowledge, they said, would be most helpful."
"You probably shouldn't have told me that," I said, sounding as bored as I was. "But I understand your compulsion to do so. The last laugh and all that. Okay, I'll admit it. You got me. You escaped justice. My faith in the system-- indeed, in mankind itself-- is shattered forever. Curse you, Duranceville!" I stifled a yawn.
Duranceville glared at me for ten seconds, then looked away.
The masked behemoth collected Stanley's revolver, then proceeded to search me. That took a while, and it took even longer for him to write down an inventory of the items he found. It was rather amusing, especially in light of the fact that I still had four weapons on me that he hadn't found, and wouldn't have discovered in a thousand years.
Duranceville made some notes in a ledger, then nodded to the guard. He didn't look at me or speak to me again. The guard-- who was toting a Thompson submachine gun-- led Stanley and me to a wide double door in the wall opposite the entrance we'd used. He pressed a button and the two halves of the door slid into the wall. We stepped into the elevator.
"Jesus," Stanley said as the cage descended, "I thought that guy was gonna croak us on the spot after you mouthed off to him like that. You gotta work on your conversational skills. How come you've always got to needle people?"
"Stanley," I said, "you remind me of the archetypal nagging wife. 'Oh, Centipede, you should talk nice to the murderous psychopaths! Oh, Centipede, killing criminals in cold blood is murder!' Your pacifistic nit-picking would get on even Mohondas Ghandi's nerves. I knew it was a mistake to let Duranceville live after I caught him-- and that was a direct result of your badgering, if you recall. I hope you're proud of yourself."
The elevator jolted to a stop and the doors slid open. We had descended at least ten stories down into the earth, by my reckoning. We stepped out into a corridor that was more like a tunnel, bored into the subterranean rock. The floor was made of concrete, but everything else was rough striated rock. It was cold down here, and poorly lit. We followed the guard to a massive iron door set into the stone wall at the end of the tunnel. It looked like it belonged on a bank vault.
This was the home of the hapless mad scientist turned experiment gone awry, Doctor Robert Bruce Bodog.
The guard worked a combination dial in the center of the door, which opened a panel about four feet square. Behind this was a barred window, and behind that was the incredible creature we had come to see.
"You can't go in there," the guard said, his voice muffled by his mask, "and he can't come out here."
"Fine by me," said Stanley.
Crusher Cranium, as Bodog was now called, was a mere slip of a lad, no more than nine feet tall and weighing less than three-quarters of a ton. He looked up when the panel swung open. He was completely hairless, with dark blue or light purple skin. He peered at us through the thick lenses of his specially-made tortoiseshell spectacles. If any of the speculation about him was even remotely accurate, he was both the most intelligent and the most physically powerful single organism on the planet. In a truly Darwinian society, he would have been king.
"What is this?" he said irritably. "I have calculated pi to the two-hundred-billionth decimal point today, and I think I have detected a repeating pattern. How am I to get anything done with all this banging around?"
He stood up and moved toward the barred window. I stepped up and gave him a friendly little wave.
"Hello, Crusher," I said jovially. "How's it hanging?"
"Sweet Jesus," he said, "it's the goddamn Black Centipede! You've come to taunt me? I should have pinched your head off when I had the chance."
"Don't flatter yourself," I said. "You never had a chance. Not even close. You may be a couple of geniuses smarter than I am, and you're certainly stronger, but I've got something you don't."
"And what is that?"
"You don't think I'm going to tell you?"
At this point, Stanley made his presence known, edging me out of what was, admittedly, an unproductive line of conversation.
"I'll make it quick, Bodog," he said, shoving me aside and putting his face close to the window. "Somebody has been using your formula. We want to know if you've got any idea who that might be."
"Impossible," scoffed the prisoner. "My formula won't work on anybody but me."
Stanley shook his head. "Sorry, but it will and it did."
"Who?" Crusher demanded.
Stanley couldn't answer that question because I had not told him about Doctor Almanac. He had no choice but to hand the conversational reins back to me.
"Somebody you don't like," I said. "And somebody who obviously thinks he's smarter than you are. And, if he's managed to duplicate your formula, he might be right."
"I don't believe you," said the giant.
"Yes, you do," I said.
He sneered at me. "If you think you're going to gull me into giving you information by playing to my vanity..."
"...then I am absolutely right," I finished for him. "And I'll tell you why. Because you can't be sure, can you? Somewhere along the line, someone may have gained access to your formula. You may not know who that someone is, but I'll bet you could come up with some contenders. I may be spinning you a tale-- for no conceivable reason-- but I'm probably playing straight. Somebody is fiddling around with your work, and they may be doing a better job than you. If I turn and walk out of here right now, how long will it be before it eats its way into your core and you're shouting for an audience with the Black Centipede? Just give me a day and time, and I'll come back."
Crusher Cranium was seething. The look he was giving me would have terrified a lesser man. Possibly even a greater one. Me, I just avoided eye contact.
He bounced it around in that vast cranium of his and made quite a show of weighing the pros and cons, but we both knew the conclusion was already foregone.
"Okay," he finally said. "There is a... possibility. While I was still working on the formula, long before I thought of experimenting with it, I was approached by someone who represented a mysterious criminal cabal. They wanted to buy everything I had done so far and hire me to complete the work for them. They made a very attractive cash offer, and it was with a hint of genuine regret that I told them where they could stick it."
"I can imagine. And what was the name of this organization?"
He eyed me skeptically and said, "I'm wondering if you don't know already. Have you never heard of the Cult of the White Centipede?"
I was about to confess my ignorance when I was interrupted by the harsh blare of a siren.
"Holy shit!" barked the guard. "That's an alpha-level threat alert! This facility is under attack!" He slammed the panel shut, twirled the dial, and told me and Stanley to stay behind him as he crept back toward the elevator, submachine gun at the ready.
We were almost halfway to the double doors when there was a deafening explosion and part of the tunnel caved in.
Which part, you may ask? In front of us? Behind us? Or maybe right on top of us?
Well, there's the rub...
The answer is: All of the above.
And I do mean above...
click here for chapter seventeen