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... I read through the letter and was composing a reply in my head when Prufrock came bustling into my office.
"Mister Doiley has called here seventeen times, sir," he said, with unconcealed irritation. "I really think you should speak with him."
"I never should have given him that number," I groused. "I ought to disconnect it."
"You've had ample opportunity to do so," Proofy pointed out. "But you have not. I would, with all due respect, suggest that you either speak with him or go ahead and disconnect that line. To use a rather vulgar expression I have heard Miss Earhart employ, it is time to 'shit or get off the pot,' if you'll pardon my language, sir."
"Well," I said with considerable amusement, "the analogy is an apt one. A conversation with Percy has a lot in common with that particular bodily function, and the yield is just as predictable. But you're right, Proofy old son, you're absolutely right.
Percival Doiley, for those not in the know, was a young reporter for the Zenith Orator, a newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst. Percy was also the author of the outlandish stories that turned up every month in Tales of the Black Centipede, a pulp magazine also published by Hearst.
With a certain amount of reluctance, I picked up the phone and dialed the Orator newsroom.
"Well," said Percy tartly when I got him on the line, "your royal highness can spare a few minutes to talk to a peon like me, huh? Wow, I feel privileged."
"Never mind all that," I said. "I'm not in the mood for it. What the hell's going on with you that's so urgent?"
"What do you care?"
"Yeah, yeah. I can't talk to you right now, but you need to meet me at the Orator tomorrow. Can you do that, your majesty? Hearst has a big thing planned, so you'll have to see him, which I know you hate, but nobody gives a shit. You'll find out the whole thing then, and you can be a smartass or whatever you're gonna do. Will you be there?"
"I guess so."
"Swell!" he snapped. He named a time and slammed down the receiver without waiting for me to confirm it.
At the appointed hour, I met Percy in the lobby of the Zenith Orator building, and was surprised to see that he had a pair of thick-lensed glasses perched on his nose.
"What's with the cheaters, Percy?" I asked.
"Ah, my eyesight's been going downhill for a couple years now," he said sourly, blinking and fiddling with the specs. "It's my old man's fault. He's blind as a bat, practically, and I guess he passed it on to me, thank you very goddamn much."
"Well, they don't look half bad," I said with great insincerity. "They make you look intelligent. Like a college professor or something."
"Shit," he said, "that's all I need."
"Is that what you've been so upset about?"
We rode the elevator up to the top floor. Percy was miserable. I was, as always, inscrutable.
Entering the tastelessly-decorated office, the first thing I saw was my loathsome patron, the phlegmatic William Randolph Hearst-- publisher of the Orator and a few other newspapers around the country-- seated behind his expensive mahogany desk. Two of the other chairs held a couple of characters I'd never seen before.
"Mister Centipede!" Hearst boomed, his voice dripping with false bonhomie. "Wonderful to see you, sir! I have two gentlemen here who are very eager to meet you."
He ignored Percy.
"Mister Walter Gibson, Mister Lester Dent," he said grandly, "meet the Black Centipede!" He sounded like a carnival barker.
The two men stood up, but they didn't look very eager. Dent-- dapper and jaunty, with wire-rimmed spectacles and a small mustache waxed into two dangerous-looking points-- seemed to be trying to avoid eye contact. There was something vaguely seedy, not to say sinister, about him. Here was a man who had gone places and done things he might not want to talk about in mixed company. And I had a strong feeling that he knew I could see it.
"Goodameetcha," he muttered, gazing at a potted plant next to Hearst's desk.
Gibson, on the other hand, couldn't seem to take his eyes off me. He was practically gawking. He had dark hair, a clean-shaven, wedge-shaped face, and glasses similar to Dent's, though the lenses were much larger.
"Holy cow," he said as he pumped my hand. His voice and face were utterly wholesome, with no indication of any hidden guile. Of course, those are the ones you have to keep an eye on. He was nervous, but I did detect some of the eagerness Hearst had promised. I sensed that he wasn't nearly as worldly as Lester Dent, but he was the type that didn't need to be. He seemed to have the sort of robust innocence that jaded men strive for without realizing that's what they're doing.
And the man who should have been the king of this particular hill-- Percival J. Doiley, sole author of the nation's number one pulp adventure mag-- sat in a chair against the wall, crossing and uncrossing his legs, looking as though he were about to start crying. His head was on the chopping block, and kingmaker Hearst was sharpening the axe as he interviewed potential usurpers.
Once we were all seated, Hearst started his spiel.
"I have brought you all together," he said, clearly enjoying the sound of his own voice, "to discuss the future. The Black Centipede has proven a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry. A best-selling monthly magazine and a smash hit motion picture, and all of it in less than a year from the day he signed on with the Hearst Corporation.
"Young Mister Percival Doiley has done an... admirable job of chronicling the Black Centipede's true-life adventures in our publication, as well as on the big screen. But, as we all certainly know, there comes a time when a man must move on to bigger and better things. He has displayed an extraordinary talent for composing obituaries, and can produce extraordinarily riveting accounts of local flower shows. Also, our home delivery division could use another reliable carrier. You see, his potential is unlimited."
Here was Hearst the Sadistic Sonofabitch in full flower. Poor Percy had chewed the fingernail off of his right index finger, and was now trying to gnaw his way down to the bone. What had the young reporter/pulp writer done or failed to do to arouse his master's ire?
"And now," said Hearst with a nasty smile, "it is, perhaps, time to free Mister Doiley from the grind of pounding out a complete novel each and every month. I feel that his brilliance and youthful vigor might be put to better use elsewhere.
"And that, Mister Gibson and Mister Dent, is why I have asked you to come here today. You are two of the finest creators in the adventure magazine field. Either of you would be a feather in any publisher's cap."
Dent was scowling. "Hell, Mister Hearst, I'm doing okay, and so is Walter. We're fine just where we are. Would you like to know how much Street and Smith is paying me?"
The magazine Dent wrote for had just taken off in a big way. The first issue had hit the stands in February of 1933. Six months later, it was among the largest selling pulp adventure magazines in the country, second only to Tales of the Black Centipede.
Gibson wasn't doing too badly, either. His magazine had been around longer-- since 1931-- and, sales-wise, he was usually neck-and-neck with the upstart Dent.
"I already do," Hearst said, smiling like a degenerate Buddha. "I took the liberty of inquiring. You, too, Mister Gibson. I know how much both of you make. And it is impressive, especially in the depths of this Depression. However... I am willing to double the amount you earn, should you happen to become associated with me."
Dent and Gibson looked at each other. Percy had given up on his finger and was now trying to chew off his bottom lip.
"I'd like to hear more," said Dent.
"So would I," said Gibson.
Hearst nodded, looking very pleased with himself. "Let me ask you gentlemen a few questions. Mister Gibson, how does your arrangement with your... ah, client work? What sort of contact do you have with the man whose adventures you chronicle?"
"Well," said Gibson, "he sends me all of his personal case notes, and between that and newspaper accounts, I work up a story. I have a sort of rapport with him, even though we've never met personally. He's very clever, very tricky. I guess we sort of have that in common. My hobby is magic. Illusions, I mean, not actual sorcery-- stage magic, sleight of hand, that kind of thing. So I can get into his head a little bit. And I strive to be as accurate as I can."
Percy broke his silence in order to clutch at a straw. "Amazing!" he chimed in, his voice taut with desperation. "That's how I do it, too!"
This was, of course, a lie. I had never given Percy so much as a scribbled-on napkin. He made everything up out of whole cloth-- when he wasn't "borrowing" plots and characters from writers who were too dead to sue him.
"Wow," Percy continued. "Great minds and all that, huh, fellas?"
The sound of chirping crickets would not have been out of place in the silence that followed.
"And you, Mister Dent," Hearst said, ostentatiously ignoring Percy. "How do you do your work?"
"Generally speaking," said Dent, "my guy is a little more forthcoming than Walter's is. I go up to his headquarters once or twice a month, shoot the breeze with him and his aides. I get most of my dope from personal interviews, though I have gone along on a couple of their cases. I don't write myself into the action, though. I think, as a writer, you should keep a little distance between you and your subjects."
"That's my philosophy, too!" Percy offered. "I help the Centipede out all the time! We're great friends, he tells me everything. But, you know, I don't make a big deal out of my contributions, even though..."
"You know," said Gibson, addressing Dent, "I kind of envy you. My guy is a little too mysterious. I'm a magician, a sleight-of-hand artist, and I can figure out some of his tricks, but not all of them. And I've never been anywhere near an actual case. I don't think I'd want to, frankly."
"I don't make a habit of it," said Dent. "It can get pretty hairy. I don't run from danger, but some of the stuff those guys get into..."
"It just so happens," Percy gamely put in, completely ignoring the fact that he was being completely ignored, "I once captured Professor Necrosis almost single-handed, practically. He was about to blow up Saint Margo's Children's Hospital, and he had the Centipede all trussed up and was about to use the Cadaver Beam on him, so I sort of..."
"The fact is, Walter," Dent was saying, "I sometimes envy you. I like my guy well enough, I'm used to him, but yours... He's more of a maverick, isn't he? A real lone wolf. To me, that's appealing. My guy is a little too predictable. Hell, I've even worked out a sort of story formula based on the way his cases usually go. There aren't many surprises. And I like to be surprised sometimes."
He probably believed that was true.
It was time for Hearst to dip his oar back in. "I think you gentlemen will find that, as a story subject, the Black Centipede embodies the best of both worlds. He is very public-- known, respected, even loved by the masses. Nobody knows who he is, but everybody knows that he is here with us. He's got what it takes. I don't believe either of you would be disappointed with him."
This went on for quite some time. Frankly, I was not taking the whole thing very seriously, and was giving it very little attention. I had vampires and bank robbers on my mind. When the thing finally wound down and stopped, I took my leave of the group, promising to give thought to something or other and get back in touch with Hearst very soon.
Five minutes later, I had forgotten the whole thing.