Thursday, May 30, 2013

CENTIPEDIA: Gregor Samsa

From "The Return of Doctor Reverso"

Gregor Samsa was the other half of my new office staff.

He's a bit difficult to explain.

As far as work history goes, he was a traveling salesman in Europe for many years, until the day he awoke to find that he had been transformed into a human-sized insect of some sort. That's the easiest way to describe him, though he does not really resemble any terrestrial insect I've ever seen. How and why this metamorphosis took place is unknown. I suspect some trick of quantum mechanics combined with Gregor's own overdeveloped sense of existential angst.

Whatever the case, the former salesman was now a six-foot-long crawling vermin of an undetermined-- possibly unprecedented-- species. During a recent trip to Prague, where I had gone in search of the elusive Mary Jane Gallows, I had discovered Gregor lying at the bottom of a rubbish heap, apparently dead. He had evidently been there for quite some time. Intrigued, I had dragged the bizarre, chitinous remains back to my hotel. During the course of my scientific examination, the thing revived and told me its story. (Interested readers may find a full account of this in "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka. How much truth there is in that version of the tale, I can't be sure, nor do I know how Kafka got the story. All I know is that Gregor Samsa was a giant, intelligent bug. How he got that way seemed almost immaterial.)

I had brought him back to the States with me and allowed him to live in one of the subcellars under the Benway Building, where he was charged with guarding the entrance to my secret tunnel. But Gregor, in spite of his social shortcomings, was not by nature a solitary creature. He had taken to crawling up one of the elevator shafts to the top six floors once or twice a day, in search of company. I often passed the time of day with him when I was not on a case, but he still spent most of his time alone. That had changed after Prufrock had been hired. The pair of them took to one another almost immediately, which I found a little surprising. But I suppose they had a lot in common, if you really got down to it.

Though I knew he possessed human intellect, something in me saw him as an amiable, if hideous, domestic animal. Though he could speak, and had even learned English, Gregor generally preferred to remain mute. He said he didn't like to startle people. 

I mean, come on...

--The Black Centipede


As told to Chuck Miller



"Do you say things just to be saying them?" I asked the faceless woman at my side.

"Of course," she replied. "Why does anybody say anything? Why did you just say what you just said? That is the function of language, or so I have always been led to believe."

"That isn't what I meant," I said.

We were on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, waiting for a break in the traffic so we could cross over to the Benway Building. 

"I cannot read your mind," said Anonymoushka, "and would not bother to even if I could. I imagine it's the sort of thing one would thumb through while seated on the commode."

I ignored that. "What I'm talking about," I said, "is that stuff you just told Percy back there, about you and I getting married. Where the hell did that come from?"

She shrugged. "Where the hell does anything come from? A man sits in a room somewhere tap-tap-tapping away on a keyboard. Sort of like a typewriter, but without type bars or carriage return or ribbon or platen or any of the things we take for granted-- nothing but the keyboard connected to a mysterious black box that whirs and clicks and beeps, and is, in its turn, connected to a very small motion picture screen. He is as confused as you are, but he sits and describes what you and I look like and what we are doing and so forth. He worries and fusses and changes the same insignificant line of dialogue a dozen times before he can be comfortable enough with it to go to sleep without having nightmares."

I shook my head. "I have no idea what you're talking about. And what is with this traffic? It's never this heavy in the middle of the day."

"The traffic," she said, "will let up as soon as we finish this discussion. It is much easier to write a conversation when the participants are not prancing about doing all manner of other things at the same time. Your problem, Centipede, is that your view of reality is too limited. You want to see beneath the surface of the world, but there is nothing there. I habitually see above the surface, and what I behold there is no better. I know everything-- including the all-important fact that I know nothing. There is a God, but he is not one that inspires anything like confidence. The fewer of us who know of his existence, the better. He is given to whims and strange fancies, and is much too lazy to be entrusted with the governance of a world-- but here we are,  just the same. The thing is, he is now aware that I am aware of him. Whether this confers upon me some advantage, or whether it proves to be my undoing, we shall just have to wait and see. The real question is, are we doing what he writes or is he writing what we do? And the answer is yes!"

"Are you feeling okay?" I asked. "Do you need any medication or anything?"

"I do not doubt it," she said, "but that is hardly relevant to what I am telling you. I cannot answer your questions,because the answers have not yet been written. You will certainly have to wait for one of the novels to find out anything truly significant about me. What we are engaged in now is just a giveaway. All you'll get here is some bullshit designed to keep the readers interested until the next opportunity arises to separate them from a bit of money. 

"And that is all I have to say on the subject-- we may now cross the street."

She was right. The traffic seemed to have vanished completely. There was nothing on the street now but a mangy little Scottish terrier, relieving himself against the curb. I envied him deeply. As we crossed the street, I kept a close eye on Anonymoushka. She seemed less stable than usual, and I wanted to be as ready as I could in case there was an eruption.

Instead of entering by way of the lobby, we ducked into an alley. Soon, we had made use of one of my hidden entrances and were on our way up in my private elevator. As we stepped out into the lobby of the Unlimited Advantage Worldwide Corporation, J. Alfred Prufrock rose from his chair at the reception desk.

Gregor Samsa scampered out of the conference room and headed straight for Anonymoushka, stopping at her feet and bouncing up and down like a huge, insect-like puppy dog.

"Ah, my favorite perversion of nature!" the faceless woman exclaimed with delight, squatting to stroke Gregor's grotesque little head. "We shall get along infamously when I am the lady of this ghastly household!"

"Sir," said Prufrock, "Doctor Unknown has arrived. I gave him permission to cast some sort of spell on the creature at the bottom of the elevator shaft. I hope that was the right thing to do."

"Absolutely," I said. "You can trust him as much as you trust me, Proofy, old son. Quite a bit more, as a matter of fact, since he is morally superior to me."

Proofy gave me a look. "Perhaps," he said wryly, "I should inquire as to whether he has any openings on his staff."

"Absolutely not," I declared. "I am a jealous master, Proofy, and I deal harshly with any subordinates who attempt to jump ship. You know too much about me, old sport."

"I can never tell when you're joshing me," he said. "Just out of curiosity, sir, what would you do? Kill me?"

"Good heavens, no! Am I a barbarian? There is a way to excise sensitive information from your brain, should the need arise."

"Well, that's a relief, sir."

I nodded. "Yes, and it is my understanding that you would have an 80 percent chance of surviving the procedure. Those aren't bad odds."

He just shook his head at that. He didn't think I was being serious, and neither did I, but who the hell really knew?

"You are safe, Mister Prufrock," Anonymoushka said. "God is quite pleased with you. How many Public Domain characters ever get rescued from poetry, after all? Of course, if he ever gets into one of his sour moods, the whole supporting cast would do well to tread lightly."

Proofy looked puzzled and started to speak, but I cut him off. "Never mind her. Where is Doc Unknown now?"

"He is in the infirmary with Miss Patience. He isn't really a physician, he said, but he gave me to understand that he could spare a bit of white magic to help the poor girl recuperate. Her injuries are serious, he said, but nothing that cannot be overcome by Miss Patience's extraordinarily robust constitution, aided by his own modest contribution."

"Capital!" I said. "Come, let us pay our respects to the darling invalid."

We found Patience propped up in bed, eating soup from a cup. The blank expression on her face was encouraging. Prudence stood at her right side, Stymie Beard at her left. Doctor Unknown was at the foot of the bed, making notations on a clipboard.

He looked up when we entered. "Centipede!" he said. "Good to see you." He put down the clipboard and we shook hands.

In person, Raoul Deveraux Unknown was a rather unassuming character. He looked like he'd be only slightly less timid than J. Alfred Prufrock. His face was round, smooth, and apparently without guile. His hair, worn a bit longer than was fashionable, was reddish-blonde and he was clean-shaven. His wide blue eyes peered out from behind a pair of tortoise-shell glasses. 

"It's mutual, Doc," I said. "I guess I'd like you to meet Anonymoushka. She's... difficult to explain."

"It is nice to meet you, sir," she said, taking his proffered hand. "I have heard a great deal about you. You're the one who has had his name filched, I believe? Copyright law is a stone cold bastard, eh? No more fairness in it than gravity or motion or any of those other intractables. You had best start putting forth some effort if you do not wish to find yourself eclipsed."

Doc looked confused. "I'm sorry, Miss, I..."

"Nothing to apologize for! Just try to be a bit more active in the future, yes? Your daughter cannot be expected to defend the name all on her lonesome, you know."

"Daughter? I don't have..."

"Oh! Not yet, of course! My apologies. It becomes rather throny when one tries to tell tales from two or more different eras at once. Don't worry about a thing. God loves you, Doc Unknown! Of course, he did just cut and paste-- as the process is known in the Land of the Gods-- your description from an unpublished work, but that is hardly tantamount to a condemnation. Just mind your punts and quarks from here on in."

Unknown had the same look on his face that anyone would after hearing all that. There was no point in my trying to explain it to the poor man, so I did the only thing I could think of. I very forcefully changed the subject.

"Anonymoushka," I said in as commanding a tone as I could summon up, "please go and display some affection toward Patience. Doctor Unknown and I have matters to discuss, and they do not require your unique input."

I pulled Unknown out into the hall.

"First," I said, "pay no attention to anything she might say. I think she's borderline schizophrenic."


I shrugged. "It isn't a very well-secured border. Now, what's up with that thing in the elevator shaft? Is it Doctor Almanac?"

He nodded. "Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. I can't tell exactly what he's done to himself. I've never seen anything like it. Some kind of biological mutation seems to have taken place. I had a look at that blood sample of yours, and it is downright frightening. Not only are traces of the Jekyll formula present, there's also a cocktail of at least three other very volatile compounds. I agree with your preliminary conclusions there-- the Griffin formula, Crusher Cranium's serum, and Herbert West's abominable reagent." He shook his head. "All that stuff mixed together would be instantly lethal to any living organism-- the other three should have damaged his system beyond the ability of the West compound to re-animate it. But he isn't dead."

"How did he manage it?" I asked.

"His system is infused with a Dark Energy I've never encountered before. It goes beyond any form of conventional Black Magic I'm familiar with. I doubt that it originates in this universe. And my spell is not going to hold him down there much longer. I can boost it some, but he is going to be free within the next 48 hours, no matter what I do."

I frowned. "So we have a deadline, then. We need to find out what's he has done and how we can undo it-- in less than two days."

"That pretty much sums it up," Doc agreed.

Anonymoushka's voice drifted out from the sickroom into the hallway.

"You sound in need of a deus ex machina," she chirped, "but your friend the cop lieutenant will have to do."

The phone on Proofy's desk rang and he answered it. "Yes," he said into the receiver, "he's right here, sir." He handed it over to me.

It was Stanley.

"You ready to go see that lunatic Crusher Cranium?" he asked, sounding like a man inviting a treasured chum to his own execution.

"As ready as I'll ever be," I said. "See you in five minutes."

Stepping to the infirmary door, I got Anonymoushka's attention and said, "I want you with me."

"Of course you do," she said delightedly, clapping her hands together. "Here's where it gets really good!"


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Centipedia: Mayor Carlton "Spuds" Dietrich

Carlton "Spuds" Dietrich served two terms as mayor of the city of Zenith during the 1930s. He was every bit as corrupt as he was inept, making him the preferred candidate among the movers and shakers in the city's criminal underworld. Dietrich was first elected in 1931, shortly after his release from Winnemac State Prison, where he had served a three-year term for fraud and price fixing while he was a member of the city council. 

Most observers attributed Dietrich's victory to the unique touch of his campaign manager, Frenchy Donovan. One of Zenith's most prominent racketeers, Donovan took time off from his duties in order to work full-time for the candidate. During a press conference held to kick off Dietrich's campaign, Donovan announced that he had "found the Lord," and was "turning over a new leaf." 

Interestingly, Dietrich received 104 percent of the popular vote. When confronted by the press after it was learned that many of the voters listed in the rolls had in fact passed away weeks or months prior to the election, Donovan made reference to the Biblical miracle of Lazarus and thanked the Lord for His good work.

Dietrich's opponent, Morton Beltrane, demanded a recount and vowed to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. He was on his way to the federal courthouse to file the paperwork when he was accidentally run over by an unidentified man driving a car with no license plates. Four times. 

One of Dietrich's first acts upon taking office was to officially designate February 9 - 15, 1931, as "Beltrane Memorial Automobile Safety Awareness Week."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

FROM PULP MACHINE, Tuesday, April 26, 2011

THE OPTIMIST BOOK ONE: You Don’t Know Jack By Chuck Miller - Chapter Six 



You Don’t Know Jack

By Chuck Miller


Then there was the whole ghost thing. That stunk to high heaven. If the Centipede’s theory was correct, that I flushed him out of hiding so the “Moriarty” could have a crack at him, then I had been played in a most devious and bizarre fashion. Can a crime lord hire a ghost? Or forge one? It might have made sense, if it had made any sense.

I knew ghosts were real because I had encountered them before. The worst by far had been the spirit of Jack the Ripper.  In fact, it was one of the first cases Johnny and I worked after he took me on as his partner. It was a rough one. I may talk about it in greater detail later on, but only if I just cannot avoid it.

Anyhow, we thought we got rid of him, but he came back two more times before we teamed up with Doctor Unknown to cast him out of this plane of existence forever.

So, I could accept the ghost of Captain Mercury as a concept with no trouble. But even if I had seen a genuine ghost, it might not necessarily be who it said it was. There are some ghosts out there who are terrible liars and total assholes, and they’re liable to do anything, regardless of how shitty it is.

The Ripper, for example, had first gained reentry to our world by convincing a gullible spirit medium that he was actually Amelia Earhart. I swear to God. Spirits of the dead pretty much have to be deceptive because they can’t get back into our world without help from the living.

Most spirits don’t bother us, they find better things to do out in the fourth dimension or wherever they go.

But some, like the Ripper, figure they didn’t do enough damage when they were alive, and they want to come back for more.  If they went on ahead and ascended to a higher plane, they’d be just like everyone else there. But if they can manage to manifest back here on earth, they can be powerful, horrifying abominations, and lord their awfulness over the living so as to feel like big shots. Narcissism trumps cosmic good sense.

Not that I had ever made a special study of it. As a rule, Johnny and I didn’t mess with the supernatural stuff unless we just had to. I got all that info from Doc Unknown while we were working on evicting the Ripper.

I walked around pondering these things, then sat down on a bench and mulled them over for a while. I got all the way to musing about them before it dawned on me that since Doctor Unknown was an expert on ghosts, I should go talk to him.

Back in the day, he had an office in a converted brownstone downtown. The sorcery business is not very lucrative if you’re an honest and uncorrupted practitioner of white magic. You can do a real number on your karma if you use it to enrich yourself. So, it was as a certified public accountant that Doc Unknown had paid the bills. Accounting was, as he always said, his true passion. He had fallen ass-backward into the magic thing by being born the seventh son of a seventh son in a family of exceptionally powerful Druid mystics. That was on his father’s side. His mother was a mambo, or voodoo priestess, from New Orleans.

So, in spite of his best efforts, and an MBA from Harvard, Doc was unable to avoid going into the family business. Blood will tell, and the kind of blood he had just couldn’t shut up. The accounting was relegated to the status of day job.

“I could have been somebody,” I once heard him lament. “I could have won the Nobel Prize in economics, I just know it. I could have amounted to something!” (This, I should point out, was shortly after he had single-handedly prevented a coalition of demons and succubi, under the command of a 2000-year-old Black Witch, from flinging the earth into the heart of the sun, just for spite. Goddamn underachiever…)

I found the brownstone, right where it used to be. It looked a lot smaller than I remembered it. I went up the steps. There was a small plaque next to the door that said, simply, "Doctor Unknown." I pushed the doorbell button.

A young woman opened the door.

She was quite attractive, though if you took her various features one at a time, you'd never think they'd add up that well. Her head was very round, her hair dark and bobbed short. She wore glasses with black frames.

"Um," I said. "Do I have the wrong place? I'm looking for Doctor Unknown."

She looked over at the plaque. "This isn't the wrong place," she said, pointing at it. "If it was, that would not say 'Doctor Unknown.'"

I had to bow to this logic. I said, "Okay. So now can I see Doctor Unknown?"

She put her hands on her hips. "You've been doing that since I opened the door."


"I'm Doctor Unknown."


Turns out she was the original Doctor's daughter, Dana. I remembered her as a gawky little kid. I identified myself and she remembered me. We went inside and sat on some chairs. I asked about her father.

“Dad got into some really weird mathemagical stuff. Science and magic do not mix, I tried to tell him. Science has very strict laws. Magic has a lot of laws, but those laws do not obey any ultimate law. It’s like with city councils all over the country. They have their own local laws, and in most instances they are not obligated to conform to any strict federal standard. It’s all very arbitrary."

"I always thought magic and science were the same thing, on some level," I said.

"Well, they aren't," she replied with a dollop of vehemence. "Not at all. The best way I can explain it is to say that science is strictly cause-and-effect. Magic, on the other hand, is effect-without-cause.

“Mixing the two… It’s like formulating algebra problems where every factor is an unknown variable. No, worse than that. Every variable is a chicken or a checkerboard or a can of lima beans or something else random and unthinkable. You try imposing incompatible systems on one another and weird stuff starts to happen. They reject one another like an interspecies transplant, and when they rupture it is always messy. At best you drive yourself nuts, at worst you warp reality in small, localized areas.

“He never let go of the belief that magic was, at some level, as organized a system as math. He became obsessed with Zeno’s Paradox. You know, the one that says you can never actually reach a destination because you are constantly covering half of the remaining distance.

“I told him Zeno’s Paradox was actually more like a sort of Zen riddle, not a genuine mathematical construct, but nooooo, he wasn’t having that. He thought he could break it down by creating his own system of what he called “subnumerical numbers.” Somehow, he was going to use this to build a perpetual motion machine. But the numbers just flat refused to crunch, so he went and pilfered some junk from the Necronumericon-- a little-known companion volume to the Necronomicon-- and plugged that into his equations, and that was pretty much all she wrote.

“He turned all this crap into an algorithm, then tried to run it on his computer. Long story short, the thing got out and infected the entire Internet. Google started giving quantum search results—responding to all queries with an infinite number of possible matches, responding to an infinite number of queries each user might have asked. Hard drives everywhere did not merely crash, they literally ceased ever to have existed. All the data in the Defense Department’s operating system spontaneously rewrote itself into a virtual clone of Cthulhu, forcibly uploaded itself into every military computer system on earth, and took control of every nuclear arsenal in the world.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I felt obliged to say. “None whatsoever.”

“I know you don’t,” she snapped. “Nobody does. That’s why I never get a chance to vent. If you want me to help you with your ghost, you have to listen to me and pretend to be sympathetic. That’s my fee.”


“Okay. So, anyhow, the infection got into everything. The Internet itself shifted on its dimensional axis, so to speak, and tried to expand itself into 12 different fractal dimensions at once. The data stream became infinite, then tried to go beyond that. Bad news. The sheer etheric weight of the data, which increased exponentially to a factor of ten to the infinite power-- yes, I know that's impossible, but it happened-- caused everything to collapse in on itself and created a singularity—a black hole. In a fraction of a nanosecond it consumed the earth and began swallowing the rest of the solar system.”

She stopped for a moment and looked at me, daring me to say something. I did.

“Obviously,” I said, “I don’t need to point out to you that the earth is still here, and so, apparently, is the rest of the solar system.”

“That’s right. Remember what I said earlier, that this stuff could warp reality in a small area? Well, the area that got warped was our computer room. We were not quite in phase with the rest of the universe, so nothing happened to us. Dad and I wrote some code based on tachyon theory and fed it into our computer, which was still connected to an infinite number of identical computers in an infinite number of quantum realities. Long story short, our program, an inverted-algorithm tachyon virus, spread backward through time and infected AOL's billing database. Our internet access got cut off ten seconds before Dad ran that damn program of his.”

“So then all that other stuff ended up never having actually happened. The world getting destroyed and that.”

“Sort of.”

“And yet, you remember it.”

“I said ‘sort of.’ The other half of sort of is sort of not.”

“Okay. Believe it or not, I understand that. Sort of.  So, what happened to your dad then? He get sucked into some sidereal dimensional limbo or something?”

“In a way. He retired and moved to Florida. He drinks a lot.”

“I don’t blame him. I would too. Actually, I do, and my life isn’t nearly as Chinese interesting as that.”

“It’s all relative. Anyhow, I stick strictly to the occult in my practice. Which reminds me. You saw a ghost. Let’s have a look at that, shall we?”

I told her what had happened, what the ghost had said to me, what I had done, and how that turned out. She listened with her eyes closed and said nothing until I was finished.

“Wow,” she said, opening her eyes. “That’s pretty heavy. You’re hanging out with the Black Centipede now? He used to scare the crap out of me. Him and Dad were pretty good friends, I think. The Centipede claimed his grandfather invented the adding machine, so of course Dad was star-struck.

“However, about your ghost… While you were talking, I put myself into a mild trance. I’m not half bad at reading auras, if I do say so myself. Yours has picked up some interesting traces. You have definitely been in contact with something  unusual, and probably otherworldly.

“It is a spirit or a presence of some kind. It knows you and wants to talk to you. That’s kind of odd, since you say it already did, but I could be picking up some old signals there. I get a blurry picture of what appears to be a man in a cape, so that fits. But it feels like this whatever-it-is has been around you a lot recently. A brief contact like the one you describe would not leave such a deep impression.”

That was unsettling. “Do you think he’s following me?”

She shrugged. “Could be, I guess, but since it seems to have accomplished its purpose during your first encounter, I can’t understand why. You did in fact accomplish the mission it gave you. You found the Black Centipede. You say he’s innocent, and I will accept that, provisionally. And if that’s the case, this ‘ghost’ was either mistaken or lying. It still wants something.  There’s a… I dunno… A word or something. A name, maybe.”

She closed her eyes again. I glanced around the room, thinking I might see something, which I did not. “Is it here now?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It is not. But it is such a powerful presence, it has left profound traces on you. Nothing harmful, I don’t think. I’m not reading any curse or possession vibes. Very strange. I feel a sense of frustration, a… Hmmm… Seems like a question of identity. Something is lost.  I think this entity wants to reclaim something. A position or a title… A rank! I am getting a strong impression of a rank.”

“Is it Captain Mercury? Captain is a rank.”

“If I knew that, I certainly would have told you, wouldn’t I? I can’t tell. As I say, the sense of personal identity is shaky.”

I sat there for a few moments, mentally reviewing everything she had said, trying to come up with something that might fit. And finding nothing.  These things could apply to Johnny, maybe, if I stretched a couple of points, and allowed for the fact that I didn’t know shit about what a ghost might think or feel or do. I realized that there was no way I could eliminate anything, since the parameters of the thing could not be accurately established. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Sherlock Holmes’ favorite axiom had it. But I was in a place where nothing was impossible and everything was improbable.

Then I had a thought that went through me like a dose of liquid nitrogen.

“Jesus, you don’t think it could be the Ripper, do you?”

She shook her head emphatically. “Oh hell no. If that abomination were anywhere near this plane of existence, his stench would be unbearable to me. Nope, Jack is still safely nestled in Fractal Dimension Ten to the Negative One Millionth Power. Which is just as bad as it sounds. You simply cannot get out of there.”

“Ten to the… Dana, that’s impossible. There is no such number.”

“I know. That’s why you can’t get out of it.”

Well, that was some kind of logic. But I was mollified enough that I didn’t bother to mention how many times I had seen people get out of things you simply could not get out of, including death.

Doctor Unknown Junior was staring into space, her fingers drumming on the table. “What we need to do,” she said, “is go to the place where Captain Mercury died.” Her eyes moved to catch mine. “You may have issues with that, but I think it needs to be done. If you want to figure out what’s going on here, we need to cover all the bases we can.”

I gave her a sour look. “Dana, I’m a big boy. I can take it, you know. Shit, it didn’t… It was a long time ago, and… Well, it happened, and I’m still here, right? If we’ve gotta do it, okay, that’s what it is. I mean, damn, you don’t have to…”

“I wasn’t impugning your manhood. I’m just saying I know it could be difficult.”

“It isn’t difficult. It’s just a thing. What’s difficult? No difficult. I don’t see where you get difficult. I can’t…”

“Whatever!” she said, throwing up her hands. “You have nerves of steel and ice water in your veins. I am in awe of you, I swear to God. The machismo rolls off of you in waves. In fact, I think I’m…”


She went silent and shot me a goofy little grin. Then she shrugged. “It won’t help anything for us to argue. It just bugs me that you seem to have such a stick up your ass. You didn’t used to be that way.”

“Uh-huh. Do you not know any people who used to be a particular way but aren’t that way any more?”

“Touché. And I sincerely apologize for expressing a view at odds with your own self-image. I know how aggravating that can be, especially since I am so obviously right.”

“If you’re waiting for me to argue some more, you’re doomed to disappointment. If that’s another part of your fee, we can just waive it and I’ll pay you in cash, which I will soon have quite a bit of.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Now you’re just insulting me. Were I a lesser woman, I’d take umbrage at that and probably send you on your way unfulfilled. However, it’s obvious that you are not exactly at the top of your game, and you’re probably letting the booze do the lion’s share of your talking. I’m helping you because you’re a friend, or used to be. Your money is of no consequence to me. Jack, I’m not only a Twelfth Level Magus, I am wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. I don’t do this kind of thing for a living. I do it because it needs to be done.”

I was pissed. I wasn’t sure at whom. I didn’t want to argue. I never really wanted to argue with anyone, but I almost always did, and I didn’t like it. It seemed like people were always forcing me to show parts of myself I didn’t want them to see. I had the whole thing set up. This is who I am, this is what you are permitted to perceive, and nothing else. I really need you to believe my truth, because what you see is what I am. Dana was getting too close, too familiar, and that is something I wanted to avoid. Also, I thought it was rude, her calling me out like that about nothing.

“Okay, you’re right, I’m sorry,” I said, with all the heartfelt insincerity I could muster.

“No you’re not. But at least you’re willing to pretend you are. That’s a start. Let’s go.”

FROM PULP MACHINE, Tuesday, April 26, 2011

DOCTOR UNKNOWN'S first appearance in print, from SEPTEMBER 2011

Published September 15, 2011


“So there I am. Big chunks of the Gold Exchange building scattered all over the place. The one truck still burning a little bit. Dead German hoods strewn all over the landscape. It’s like I’m king of the hill, but there ain’t nobody left to play with.

“Then I remember something. Almanac.

“He’s still laying in the middle of the street, where I put him with that slug. I go over and poke at him. I can’t tell if he’s alive or not, but there he is, the man himself. Most wanted guy in Zenith, apart from you. I start thinking maybe this could be good.

“That’s when this kid picks his way through all the junk scattered everywhere. Says he’s a reporter, comes up with the name Percival Doiley, if you can believe that. Tells me he was on his way to catch the el when the front of the Gold Exchange came down. So he hid himself in an alley and watched. Saw the whole thing, and got pictures to boot. He wants to interview me, says I‘m the hero of the day. I talk with him a few more minutes, totally forgetting that I ought to be calling this in.

“But I guess someone else did. Eventually, a small army of cops arrive. The Commissioner himself shows up, and so does the Chief. I get pulled over to one side, and the Commissioner starts asking me questions.

“The first thing they do is draw up a cordon around the section of the street where Almanac’s body is lying. Nobody goes near it until this limo pulls up. Two guys get out of the back and I notice one of them is a priest and the other is a rabbi. Weird. Then a third guy gets out, and it turns weirder still.

“I recognize this mug because I saw him perform at a show in Middle Park a couple years ago. It’s that magician, Doctor Unknown! He had a lousy stage show, no wonder he didn’t last long. Then he got on the radio for a while, which also didn’t do anything for anybody. Why the hell would you have a magician on the damn radio, anyhow? Finally, I heard he started up a CPA firm somewhere, and I guess he must have found his whattayacallit,  niche. But here he was, and I later find out it’s by order of the mayor. Myself, I can’t see any call for either an accountant or a crummy magic show in the present circumstance, y’know?

“Anyhow, the cops let this third-rate Houdini and his holy pals pass through. He gets down on his knees and gives Almanac the once-over. Then he looks up and nods and the priest and the rabbi both whip out their holy books and start jabbering away, in Latin and I guess Hebrew. My first thought is that they’re giving Almanac the last rites, which I know doesn’t make any sense. Unknown stands up and waves to a couple of cops standing by the limo. They reach into the backseat and come out with their arms full of all kinds of junk, which they carry over to Unknown.

“He unfolds this straitjacket with all kinds of weird symbols painted all over it. They lift Almanac up and put it on him and strap it up tight. When this is done, Unknown pulls a hypodermic out of his pocket and draws some blood outta Almanac’s neck. Then come the chains and shackles. They wind about five miles of iron all around Almanac’s body. It takes nine guys to lift him up and schlep him over to what looks like a hearse. In he goes, and the hearse pulls out, with four squad cars escorting it.

“And, of course, you know what happened after that.”

I did indeed. Doctor Unknown had been unable to determine whether or not Almanac was still alive. Unknown, in spite of his shortcomings as a performer, was a very genuine and very skilled practitioner of the mystic arts, regarded very highly in certain arcane circles. It was plain that Almanac had been throwing some pretty heavy magic around that day, so they didn’t want to take any chances. Somebody somewhere must have seen the fight and understood what they were looking at. Word got to police headquarters pretty fast, then to the mayor’s office. The mayor addressed the situation with uncharacteristic alacrity. He called in Doctor Unknown.

The cops and the doctor wrapped up the corpus and sealed it with umpteen different mystical signs and sigils, and transported it to an undisclosed secure location.

At least, that was how it was supposed to have happened.

There were conflicting stories about what, exactly, happened en route to that not-so-secure location. But the bottom line was the same; Almanac was alive, and he got away. For him, it was a clean getaway. For his escorts, not so much. Doctor Unknown was in a coma. The priest and the rabbi were dead. Eighteen cops had apparently ceased to exist. Everyone else was in a blind panic that would last for a week.

Twelve pounds of miscellaneous unidentifiable human biological material scattered over a square quarter-mile was all they found afterward. There were no bones and no blood that could be typed. Whether the badly-damaged tissue belonged to any or all of the cops could not be determined.