Friday, November 8, 2013


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Nineteen minutes later, Stanley and I stood in the gravel parking lot outside the prison. There was a gaping hole in the wall of the place. A bit of smoke was wafting from it, but the fire had already been extinguished.

"My God, Centipede," Stanley said, "I thought were were goners for sure."

"So did I," was my response. "I have never in my life been in a stickier situation. Never. When the tunnel collapsed and buried us under all that rubble, I sent up a heartfelt yet oddly insincere prayer for our souls. There may not be any atheists in foxholes, but a healthy skepticism can be preserved. I believe I'll write a little monograph on the subject. Perhaps the Christian Science Monitor would be interested."

I watched a swarm of masked, black-clad guards racing back and forth in front of the building. They were yelling at one another, but I couldn't understand anything they were saying.

"If you hadn't done what you did," Stanley said, grinning and shaking his head, "we would have been dead. How the hell did you manage that, anyhow?"

"Practice, my boy. Years and years of strict training and practice. I'll admit I never expected to be tested in quite that way, but I was ready for it just the same. Even so, It was the performance of a lifetime. I doubt I could repeat it. Split-second timing and good luck converged beautifully."

"Centipede, it was the single most thrilling, exciting experience I ever had," said my friend. "Even though it scared the hell out of me, there was something kinda beautiful about it. I mean, the way you handled it. I'm glad I witnessed it, that's all I can say."

"Stanley, you're minimizing your own role. You took my cues brilliantly. We acted in concert as a precision instrument. When I made that slight miscalculation, your improvisation was nothing short of genius."

"Aw, it was all in a day's work," he said modestly, shaking his head. "I just can't get over it, Centipede."

"It was absolutely extraordinary, all the way around," I said. "But, Stanley... You know nobody else will ever believe it, right?"

"They sure won't," he agreed sadly. "I'm certainly not putting any of it into a report."

I thought for a moment, then said, "I think we should agree, here and now, never to speak of it again. We'd only be asking for trouble."

"You're right," he said. "Okay, you got my word. My lips are sealed."

"Mine, too," I vowed. "It goes into my deepest vault, forevermore."

We shook on it.

I'd love to share the details with you, but, as you see, Stanley and I made a solemn pact. I know you wouldn't want me to dishonor it. Fear not, your touching hero-worship is not misplaced. The Black Centipede always keeps his word-- except, of course, for the not-infrequent occasions when he does not. But this isn't one of those. Thank you for understanding.

"Too bad Duranceville bought it," Stanley said, "even though I didn't like him much. He took a bullet from one of those commandos, eh?"

"Ah... Yes, yes, Stanley," I said-- somewhat convincingly, I thought. "I saw the whole thing. Just terrible. He was being menaced by one of the invaders. I thought I had a clear shot at his assailant, but I missed, curse the luck. The coward then gunned Duranceville down from behind. Of course, the impact from the shot turned poor Duranceville completely around, which is why the back of his head was actually turned toward me. I then returned fire and brought down the craven murderer. Now, one or two of my shots may have passed through Duranceville's already-dead body on the way to their target. It took the unfortunate man a while to fall down, you see. Probably one of those rare cases of instant rigor mortis-- there was a very interesting article about that in the New England Journal of Medicine, I think it was, or it may have been some European rag. Nothing you'd have seen. So, if any kind of ballistics report ever surfaces that makes it look like he was killed by a bullet from the gun I was using...Oh, poor Duranceville! I think he was really turning his life around, Stanley. Only to be cut down, right before my eyes! So senseless... So unfair." I shook my fists in impotent rage.

Stanley clapped me on the shoulder. "Nobody's blaming you," he said. "You worked miracles in there. You can't save them all, you know. Anyhow, I don't think we're gonna have to worry about any ballistics reports on this one."

I hung my head in apparent sorrow. It was all I could to not to burst out laughing. That moment completely justified my decision to wear a mask.

"Oh, my darling," cooed Anonymoushka, "you pizdeet kak Trotsky! A master prevaricator! You make me proud."

My faceless "fiancee," along with Prudence and Stymie, had gotten out of Stanley's car after the danger had passed. I was thankful they hadn't been anywhere near the line of fire. But they had witnessed the entire incident from the outside.

"Let's get in the car and get the hell out of here," I suggested. "You three can tell us what you saw."

We piled into the vehicle. Stanley started the engine, put the car in gear, and we were on our way.

Our three companions gave us their eyewitness report of the events they had observed. What had happened had happened very quickly. It had been another invisible dirigible attack, they said. They heard the thing pass over the car, then saw it become visible momentarily as it hovered over the building.

Something had dropped from the gondola. It had looked like a bomb, both Stymie and Anonymoushka said, but it hadn't acted like one. There was a bright flash of light when it struck the roof, but it didn't make a sound. There was no explosion. Instead, something that looked like a tidal wave of frothy, purple liquid rose up and spilled over the edge of the roof, running down the side of the building. At this point, my witnesses heard a loud crackling noise and saw smoke or steam rising from the liquid. It soon became apparent that the glop was a very powerful acid of some sort, because every bit of concrete it touched rapidly melted away. By the time the stuff reached the ground, there was a gaping breach in the wall-- some twenty feet wide, from the top to the bottom. A few small fires had evidently been started inside, possibly by the unknown chemical.

Quite a few of the black-clad guards seemed to have been caught by the purple substance during its descent, because they scattered out onto the grounds, screaming as their uniforms-- and the flesh inside them-- dissolved.

That was when the commandos hit. They dropped down from the dirigible on elastic cords that stretched just enough to stop their plunges two or three feet above the ground. Then they cut the cords, dropped to the ground, brandished all manner of weaponry, and charged into the building, gunning down what was left of the guards as they ran.

According to my witnesses, there had been somewhere between six and a hundred and fifty of these shock troopers, more or less. Approximately. They wore gas masks and dark green fatigues without any patches, badges, or other identifying marks on them.

Exactly what they did once they were inside, nobody knew. Or if they did, they weren't talking. Not to us. By the time Stanley and I had made our miraculous escape from the collapsed tunnel, the whole thing was all but over. We emerged into a world of noise and chaos. Relieving a dead guard of his sidearm, I had opened fire on the marauders, who were now making haste to exit the building they had so rudely entered. Whatever they had come here to do had been done. Ever one to find the silver lining, I had taken the opportunity to finish a little bit of old business, and then it was over.

After that, the surviving guards couldn't get rid of Stanley and me fast enough. They refused to tell us what had happened. We were informed that if we told anyone about these events, we wouldn't be believed, because in a few hours, this building would be gone. Not only that, but it would never have been here. No such building had ever existed on this spot, we were very pointedly told, and anybody who said different would be nuts-- and would be treated accordingly.

I almost challenged them, but, for Stanley's sake, I let it go. We took our leave and joined our companions, and none of the guards paid us any further attention. We found Anonymoushka, Stymie and Prudence, who seemed relieved to see us.

And now, as we zoomed along the dirt road, headed for home, the witnesses wrapped up their tale, giving us the lowdown on what had happened while Stanley and I were indisposed underground.

Stymie, acting as spokesman for the group, said, "After the main bunch of guys stormed the place, three or four more came down from the dirigible. They didn't use the cords, they were lowered on some kind of a platform, and they had a big piece of equipment with them. I don't know what it was, but they carried it inside. It took four of them to do it. Then nothing happened for five or ten minutes. Finally, the four men came back out, carrying that thing with them. It had steam coming out of it. They put it on the platform and then they waited. Pretty soon, the rest of the men came back out, and they had somebody with them. I guess it was a man, but he was about fifty feet tall and he was purple."

"Were they carrying him?" I asked.

"No, he was walking with them. He got onto the platform, and so did a few of the other men. The platform was pulled back up, right into the gondola. The dirigible dipped down a little bit, and the rest of the men got hold of those cords and climbed back up. Then the thing turned invisible again, and that was that. A couple minutes later, you and Lieutenant Bartowski came back out and now here we are."

We were all silent for a few moments, then I asked, "Did you notice anything out of the ordinary? Aside from the obvious, I mean. Anything at all?"

"Well," Stymie said diffidently, "I did see something... I think I did, anyhow. I can't be sure about it, but... It looked to me like there was a picture of somebody painted on the side of the dirigible."

"Doctor Almanac?" I said.

Stymie shook his head. "No, not him. I didn't get too good of a look, but the shape of the head was a lot different. To me, it looked like... It looked like the guy from your movie. You know, Doctor Reverso. Mag DeMilby, Junior. But I could be wrong."

"Yes," I said. "Perhaps you were mistaken. I don't believe for one second that you were, of course, but we can take a sort of vain and fragile comfort in the possibility. It might last five or ten minutes. Because if you saw what you saw, this thing just got even more confusing than it already was."

Stanley used some language that he normally refrained from in the presence of women and children.

I heartily agreed. And I made up my mind to have a very frank chat with Percival Doiley as soon as I could get my hands on him...


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