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CHAPTER SEVEN: ONE OF OUR CENTIPEDES IS MISSING
I slept for a few hours, then got up and ran a couple of errands. When I returned to the office, I found Dana sitting behind her desk looking like a wet rag. I asked her if she needed some of the hair of the dog, and she gave me the finger. Fair enough. I made casual mention of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Dana denied any knowledge of or interest in them-- but she looked really uncomfortable. She's a very poor liar.
I sat down and told her about my latest batch of recovered memories. That perked her up a little bit.
"Okay," she said when I was done. "You and I and Vionna were here in Zenith during the Little Precious Crisis. We don't remember anything about it. That is to say, we have screen memories, and somebody put them there. I can't detect any evidence of tampering, but there are techniques that are undetectable even by someone like me. They require a great deal of power. Who has that kind of power?"
"I have no idea," I said. My head was hurting and I wanted a drink. I had a bottle in my desk, but I didn't want to go for it with Dana sitting right there. Not that she would object, but... But what? I didn't know. I just knew I didn't want to do it right in front of her.
I felt the need to do something, but I had no idea what. Glancing out the window, I got an idea.
Because there was the goddamn Overcoat again, skulking in the narrow space between the hardware store and the adjacent brownstone. Good Lord, I was seeing Overcoats everywhere now. I knew I might be coming unglued. But he sure looked real, and here was something I could actually do. I hopped up and dashed out of the office and across the street like I was trying to win a gold medal. Dana yelled something at me, but I wasn't listening.
I was on top of him before he knew what was happening. He turned and tried to start running, but I grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against the wall.
He looked to be about fifty, though his reddish hair had no gray in it that I could see. He had the kind of face people call "interesting," when they don't want to say what they're really thinking.
Under the coat, he was wearing a dreary seersucker suit. His necktie wasn't a clip-on, but that was about all it had going for it. On his feet were a pair of white sneakers, and on top of his head was perched the crappiest-looking little straw had I have ever seen, before or since.
"Okay," I snarled fearsomely, "You've dogged us all the way across the country and back. I want to know who the hell you are and what the hell you're up to!"
"What are you talking about?" he blustered back. "I haven't dogged anybody across any country!"
"Bullshit," I said, grabbing him by his tie and drawing back my fist. "You tried to kill me in San Francisco. If you don't talk..."
Actually, now that I got a good look at this guy, I didn't think he was the knife-thrower, and he may not have been the mysterious skulker from the other evening. But he was here for some reason.
"Jesus!" he said. "You don't have to be so rough. I'm trying to help you."
"Help me? By spying?"
"I was going to talk with you eventually, but I had to be as sure as I could."
"Sure of what?"
He looked right and left and lowered his voice. "That you hadn't been subverted."
"Subverted by who?"
"The ones behind all this."
"Behind all what?"
He glanced around some more and said, "Look, I don't want to talk about this out in the open. There are ears everywhere."
"You know... THEM. The government. The shadow government, I mean."
"Is that hat of yours lined with aluminum foil?" I asked.
"Certainly not!" he said indignantly. "What good would that do? It's lined with lead foil. Aluminum doesn't stop anything."
"Of course. Well, can you at least tell me who the hell you are?"
"My name's Garrison Knowles. My friends call me 'Grassy.'"
"I'll bet. Who are you working for?"
"Nobody. I'm a freelance journalist."
"Okay, Mister Freelance Journalist," I said. "If I were you, I'd go ahead and tell me why you're here, before I do something unpleasant."
"You already have," he said-- indignantly again. He was going to use up his whole supply on me.
"No, that was me being nice. You're about to see me being rude. If that fails to impress you, I can ratchet it up to hostile just like that." I snapped my fingers.
"That isn't necessary. I tell you, I'm not your enemy, but I think I know who might be. It's just that the information is very, uh... sensitive."
"So am I. Come on, let's you and me go inside where we can talk. The house is surveillance-proof, so you can even be polite and take your hat off once we're inside."
He didn't want to come with me, but lacked the will or the physical strength to resist me. I practically dragged him into the brownstone and tossed him onto a chair in the office. Dana, who hadn't bothered to follow me this time, watched impassively and did not speak. Our guest regarded her with fearful suspicion smeared all over his face.
"Here's the creep that's been spying on us," I announced. "Calls himself Assy Holes."
"Knowles is my name," he said archly. "Grassy Knowles. I told you that. You're just being childish."
"I was gonna dismember him out on the street," I said to Dana, "but I thought you might wanna watch."
"I might help," she said, smiling a nasty little smile and cracking her knuckles. Our guest was in for a little bit of our Bad Cop/Terrifyingly Psychotic Cop routine.
I could tell that she didn't think my new friend was the mysterious party who had thrown the knife at us. But, like me, she was eager to learn just what he was up to, and scare tactics were acceptable.
"Now that we're nice and cozy," I said to Knowles, "I have some questions for you. Why did you follow us to San Francisco?"
"I didn't! I told you that once already! I haven't been to San Francisco!"
I looked at Dana. She met my gaze and did a subtle little thing with her eyes that told me she thought Knowles was telling the truth. While she isn't an infallible human lie detector, she has good intuition.
Which is not to say I trusted Knowles. There was something strange about him. That wasn't intuition on my part, it was glaringly obvious. But what was it? It seemed to me that he had something he wanted to let out, but didn't dare.
"Okay," I said, sounding very calm and reasonable. "Tell us what you think is going on. This is about Little Precious. You know we're involved. How you know this, I can't imagine, but I won't insult whatever you use for intelligence by denying it. Do you want to tell us how you found out?"
"Not really. I mean, if it's okay, I'd rather just, you know, protect my sources and so forth."
"We'll accept that for now," I said for the sake of convenience and expediency. I figured he'd throw a fit if we pressed him. "We also know that someone besides you is keeping an eye on us. We know that someone is manipulating events from somewhere. I don't think it's Jessie Von Cosel. Do you think you know who it is?"
"I might," Knowles replied. "I believe it's one of the shadowiest of all the shadowy groups out there-- maybe the shadowiest."
"Who?" Dana said with a mild smirk. "The Knights Templar? The Freemasons? The Girl Scouts?"
Knowles shook his head. "Worse than any of those. Have you ever heard of the Cult of the White Centipede?"
Dana blinked and my eyebrows went up. Apart from that, we both did an admirable job of keeping our faces blank.
"No," Dana said. "That's a new one on me. What do you know about them?"
"The same thing most conspiracy researchers know. Two things, actually. One, they exist. Two, they do awful things."
Knowles shrugged. "Um... Actually, that's about it. They are super-secretive, of course. And ruthless. Very, very ruthless. Secret and ruthless, that sums them up. Awful things, done secretly and ruthlessly."
"Such as..?" Dana prompted.
"Well," he said with a bit of a quaver in his voice, "I've heard-- from very reliable sources-- that the White Centipede Cult may have been behind the whole Little Precious thing eleven years ago."
That was certainly interesting. We knew who the White Centipede was, more or less. He was the reason we'd been led by our noses to a cemetery in England a few weeks before by Dana's old schoolmate, Myra Linsky. But this was the first I'd heard of a cult.
"White Centipede Cult," Dana repeated.
"That's what I've heard. If it's true... My God, can you imagine how much power and influence would be necessary to achieve such a thing? That's why this whole thing is so difficult to peel open!"
He was babbling, and I had a feeling he was doing it on purpose. He knew something he didn't want to talk about. I had caught him off-guard and given him no time to prepare for this performance.
"Yes?" I prompted. "And..?"
"That's all I know," insisted Knowles.
"You have to know more," Dana insisted back. "Come on, now. You're not talking to a couple of children here."
"You must have made some connection between us and Little Precious, since that's what you've got on your mind," I added. "What gives?"
Knowles closed his eyes and didn't say anything for almost a minute.
"I don't think I should talk about it," he finally said. He opened his eyes and looked at me. Then he glanced at Dana. When he did that, I caught a tiny glint of fear in his eyes. It was unmistakable. He was afraid of Dana! Why? I mean, she can be pretty scary, but not if you don't know her.
Since he didn't seem as fearful of me, I figured a one-on-one might be more profitable.
I cocked my head and closed my eyes for a few seconds. Then I turned to Dana and said, "I just received a signal on my telepathic uplink. The Emperor of the Purple Goblin Dimension needs to consult with you, and he says it's urgent. You might want to go use the hyperfractal supercommunicator so you can be sure of getting a clear signal."
She picked up on what I was doing right away. That's one of the things I like about her.
"I'm on it," she said, nodding crisply. "The Dark Lord Pferdscheisse must be acting up again. I'll be back."
"Relax, Knowles," I said after Dana was gone. "I'm not going to hurt you, okay? I just want to know what this is all about."
"What it’s about is time," he finally said.
"What do you mean by that?"
"The White Centipede Cult seems to have an obsession with time. Temporal mechanics of all kinds, possibly even time travel."
"Okay," I said. "But what's it all about? You're not giving me that. Why are you here? And why now?"
He chewed his lips and wrung his hands and looked at me almost pleadingly.
"I'd like to trust you, but... I mean, you work with Dana Unknown, and the two of you are obviously close, and... I don't think she's up to anything, but she..."
"You're not making sense," I said. "Or maybe you are. If so, I don't like it. Are you suggesting that Dana Unknown is somehow involved in whatever is going on?"
"No, not her. I told you, I don't think she's... Oh, hell, just look at this."
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded magazine, which he handed to me.
"Here's a copy of a recent issue of National Watchdog Magazine. There's an article in it that I wrote. I want you to read it. That's all. See what you think."
I eyed the front cover coldly, then opened it to the contents page.
"Not right this minute," he whispered. "Don't let her see it. Listen, you aren't holding me here or anything, are you?"
"Of course not," I said. "I'm not the cops or the government. I can't arrest or detain people-- not legally."
"Then I need to go. Here, take this."
He gave me a card with his name and a phone number printed on it.
"That's my local number," he said. "I'm in and out a lot, but if you want to talk to me after you read what I gave you, keep trying, or leave a message."
I stared at him for thirty seconds. Oddly enough, I thought he was on the level-- or at least he believed he was. And I could see no advantage in keeping him there any longer.
"Right, then," I said. "Be on your way. I'm not saying I trust you, and if I find out you're bullshitting me, I will locate you and there will be a reckoning. Paranoid though you may be, I have resources you cannot imagine, and you won't be able to hide."
"That's fine," he said. "If you're part of it, I'm screwed anyhow. But I'll keep investigating and I won't avoid you if you want to get ahold of me."
A minute after Knowles left the brownstone, Dana came back into the office.
"How's things in the Purple Goblin Dimension?"
"Oh, the usual. How's things in this dimension?"
"I didn't learn anything illuminating from Knowles," I said, which was true. Perhaps I would when I read his article, but the magazine was in one of my desk drawers at the moment. I really hated lying to Dana, and I told myself I wasn't doing anything of the sort, I was keeping something from her because I thought it might be for her own good-- but it sounded like bullshit even to me, and I felt like a lousy little creep.
After we had a fruitless little discussion of Grassy Knowles and other things, Dana said she needed to go out for a while. I told her I needed to stay in for a while. She departed.