Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Mary Jane Kelly R.I.P.

One hundred and twenty-eight years ago today, Mary Jane Kelly was murdered in her room at Number 13 Miller's Court in London. She is believed to have been the final victim of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.



We ran all the way from the cafe back to Baker Street, leaving Moriarty behind. When we got there, Mary was gone. She had left us a note, though:

"Joseph Barnett sent word that he wants to meet me back at my room. I feel a certain obligation toward him. I have no wish to marry, but he must be told that he is to be a father. I shall be back to Baker Street as soon as possible."

My heart sank. How long ago had Mary written this note? Had she already stuck it to our door when I went out to investigate the empty house? I had forgotten to take any kind of precautions at 221-B before I rushed off with Moriarty. Had Mary still been there then? Could I have prevented her from going to Miller's Court? Oh, gosh, how stupid could I be, anyhow? The Ripper was Joseph Barnett, or vice versa. That had to be it.

"Dear God, Valis!" Holmes cried. "We haven't a moment to lose. We must get to Miss Kelly immediately!"

We got a hansom cab, and Holmes made a total nuisance of himself, pestering the driver to go faster. I didn't blame him. I'd have done it myself if Holmes hadn't had it so totally covered. Anyhow, I was busy trying to convince myself that Mary Kelly was okay and I wasn't to blame for anything. 

"Vionna is the girl that won't be blamed for nothing." 

The sun had climbed well above the rooftops by the time we got to Miller's Court. Holmes literally threw a handful of money at the cab driver. 

We made our way Number 13. Holmes tried the door and found it locked. He banged on it for a few seconds, but that didn't accomplish anything. He went over to the little window and discovered that one of the panes was broken out. He put his hand in, pulled back the curtain, and peeked inside. He stayed that way, slightly crouched down with his eye to the opening, for a very long time. I began to notice a terrible smell coming from someplace. Holmes kept on not moving or speaking, and I could not make myself move from where I was standing, or make myself say anything, either. 

I knew what Holmes was looking at. I had a picture in my mind that came from somewhere else-- I couldn't explain it, but I knew it was for real. Poor Mary Kelly, lying dead in that room. And not just dead-- the Ripper had outdone himself this time. The mutilations he had inflicted went way beyond the stuff he had done before. I couldn't think of any words to describe it. I just stood there, crying, without making a sound.

Finally, after about a million years, Holmes turned around to face me.

It was too, too late. I could tell by the look in Holmes' eyes. I had never seen anything like it. He was trembling, and all the blood had drained out of his face. The terrible smell got worse and worse and I imagined all sorts of things, and I knew that none of them could be as bad as what Sherlock Holmes had seen.

I felt like my head had been hollowed out completely. I couldn't move. As Holmes stood there, looking at me, I thought I saw a very bright light shine through the thin fabric of the curtain for just a second. Then, a few moments later, it seemed to me that I could hear my own voice coming from inside the room. I shook my head. I was losing my grip.

"We... We should go, Valis," he said. 

"The police..?" I said.

Holmes closed his eyes. "To hell with the police," he said in someone else's voice. "And Her Majesty's government, too. To hell with sorcerers and vampires and all their bloody games. And, most of all, to hell with the brilliant Mister Sherlock Holmes."

I didn't like the sound of that. I knew I had just heard someone die, and I don't mean Mary Kelly.

Just then, a man came around a corner and started walking up the alleyway in our direction. I have no idea what he looked like. I couldn't really see anything just then. The man was tall or short or young or old or well-dressed or shabby. I hated him immediately, just because he was there.

"I don't imagine you know a Miss Mary Kelly that lives in that room there?" he said. I wanted to hit him.

"No, not really," Holmes replied dully.

The man gave us a curious look. I prayed that he would make a smart remark so I'd have an excuse to crack his head open. The nerve of him, standing there like that, running his mouth, while Mary Kelly...

"I've had the devil of a time pinning her down," the man was saying. "My name's Thomas Bowyer. I work for Mister M'Carthy, the landlord. Miss Kelly is seriously in arrears on her rent. In fact, it has reached the crisis point. If she comes up with one more tale about being skint..."

"I shouldn't worry about that," Holmes said in a hollow voice. "I shouldn't worry about that at all." He grabbed me by the wrist and led me away. Mister Thomas Bowyer stood scratching his stupid head.

We were almost three blocks away when we heard Thomas Bowyer scream. I hoped he would never, never, ever forget what he was seeing. I hoped his hair would turn white. 

Neither Holmes nor I said a single word. We just kept walking until we reached 221-B Baker Street. Everything we passed looked and smelled funny. The sky itself seemed to be smeared with blood-- it had soaked into the ragged little clouds, and the smell of it filled the whole world.

When we finally reached 221-B, we found an envelope stuck to the door, addressed to Mister Sherlock Holmes. The handwriting on the front of it was familiar. We both knew who it was from, and neither of us wanted to open it up. We plodded up the stairs, and Holmes tossed the envelope onto the floor. He slumped into his chair and refused to answer any questions, or to speak at all. I sat down in the basket chair. 

We sat there like that, totally silent, for a very long time. Hours, probably. I really can't be sure. I might even have nodded off for a while. At some point, I became aware that Holmes had gotten to his feet. He did not speak or even look at me as he moved over to the fireplace.

Sherlock Holmes took a bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and a hypodermic syringe from a neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction, and ... 

I stood up, too. I picked up the envelope that Jack the Ripper had affixed to our front door from the floor where Holmes had tossed it, and stuck it in my pocket. Then I just sort of wandered out into the street. I wanted to go someplace, but I didn't know where.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Blood of the Centipede: The Lost Chapter

A tale from between chapters of Blood of the Centipede
by Chuck Miller

Early Summer, 1933

I was in desperate straits. The past several days had not been kind to me. I had been set upon repeatedly by a bizarre creature in a rubber suit and a gas mask, a female horror that called herself the Black Centipede Eater. She had proven herself worthy of the name by biting off one of my fingers during our latest encounter.

And she wasn't the only fantastic fiend casting a pall over my life. It seemed to be open season on the Black Centipede, and the foulest of villains were crawling out of the California woodwork, seeking a piece of my hide. 


And now, on a studio lot in the rancid heart of darkest Hollywood, I found myself the object of a grim hunt. I have faced many lethal and horrifying opponents, but the creature from whom I now fled was one of the worst of an incredibly bad lot. I am normally brave and steadfast, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I was terrified by the prospect of being caught. I found this monster's presence loathsome and intolerable, and when I saw the fiend bearing down on me, I took to my heels.

I had come to California with the best of intentions, and had anticipated nothing like the trouble I found there. I was in Hollywood to act as a "consultant" on a motion picture that was being made by a studio controlled by media magnate William Randolph Hearst. My position carried no actual duties whatsoever, which was just as well, for two reasons. First, if it had, I would have refused to do them anyhow; and second, I was, as I mentioned earlier, up to my neck in grotesque and deadly villains.

It was the day after I had lost a pinkie to the Eater. I had spent more time than usual on the set that day, observing the chaotic filming, and dealing with a couple of loose ends that had been aggravating me. I had done well, was suitably proud of myself, and was ready to leave the studio to pursue certain investigations. 

I had slipped away from the assembled company unnoticed-- or so I imagined-- and was almost to my car when I heard, coming from behind me, a voice that turned they blood in my veins to ice water.

"You there! Centipede! Stop!"

Without even looking back-- not wanting to see what I knew was there-- I quickened my pace and slipped between a couple of large, hangar-like sound stages. I moved swiftly toward the opposite end of the alleyway. I had almost made it, when I heard brisk footsteps behind me and heard the bone-chilling voice once again:

"Come here! Stop!"

I emerged from the alley, only to find, to my horror, that the street to my left was blocked by a large herd of cattle-- for some Western picture, no doubt-- and to my right by a line of Roman chariots.

Retreat was not an option. I fancied I could feel my pursuer's hot breath on the back of my neck. Cannon to the left of me, cannon to the right of me. And dead ahead... the studio commissary.

I dashed for the door, a faint cry of "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" escaping my lips. 

Fortunately, the place was jammed when I burst through the door, it being suppertime for most of the movie-makers. I dived in and struggled against the human tide, inching my way toward the rear of the room. I knew I would never make it. The fiend would be in the building before I could get halfway there. 

I looked wildly around the room, seeking a straw of some kind-- any kind-- that I could grasp. All of the tables were occupied. It seemed that there wasn't a free seat in the house. Then I spotted a small table occupied by a lone man. He was drinking coffee and jotting things down in a notebook. Across from him was an empty chair. Desperately, I lunged forward and fell into it, slumping down and pulling my hat forward over the upper part of my mask.

"Don't want to bother you," I said to the man at the table, "but do you mind if I perch here for a second? I assure you, it's a matter of life and death."

"Not at all," he replied in a sonorous baritone. He seemed a little bemused, quite naturally. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Yes," I replied. "Hand me your newspaper."

"Very well. You ask for so little, how can I refuse?"

I leaned back against the wall, and opened the paper, holding it so that it was between me and the door. From this position of relative safety, I took a look at my rescuer.

He was a stocky, round-faced young man, very intense-looking, with the most remarkable dark brown eyes.

He took a look at my mask and said, "You're the Black Centipede, aren't you? You can't be Lancelot Cromwell, because you don't reek of liquor."

I laughed. "You know about him, I see. Yes, I'm the actual Black Centipede, idol of millions, in the heroic flesh."

"Nice to meet you. My name's Welles. Orson Welles."

The name meant nothing to me. As we shook hands, I searched my memory for something relevant.

All I could come up with was, "Are you any relation to H.G. Wells, the writer?"

He shook his head. "Not at all. I have an 'e' and he does not. Beyond that, I know next to nothing about him."

"Really? You've never read his work?"

"Not really. None of his fiction, at any rate. Doesn't he write that Buck Rogers type stuff?"

"Not at all. Wells is what is known as a Serious Writer, with capital letters. I suppose much of his work could be considered science fiction, but his stories are generally allegorical. Surely you've heard of  The War of the Worlds, his novel about a Martian invasion of earth?"

Welles snorted. "What could be more absurd than that?" he scoffed.

"Perhaps," I said, "but it becomes more intriguing when you realize that the whole story is a metaphor for the British colonial experience in Africa."

He seemed interested in that. "Really? I had no idea."

"Yes, and for the less cerebral among us, it is still a damn fine adventure story. That's my opinion, anyhow. I doubt it could be made into a movie, but I imagine it could be dramatized in some other way."

"A stage play?"

I shook my head. "That would be worse than a movie. I don't know... Maybe a radio drama or something."

"Ah, yes, the theater of the imagination beats Hollywood special effects every time."

"That's my belief. Are you in the movie business?"

"Not quite. Currently, I am on tour with Katharine Cornell's touring company. We're doing The Barretts of Wimpole Street and a couple of other things. I'd like to get into the movies, though, one of these days. The company is in town, and I'm taking a couple of days to have a look around the place. So far, I find it singularly uninteresting. A shame, really. People could be doing so much more with motion pictures than they are. Most European directors are light years ahead of this pap. Von Stroheim is utterly wasted here."

As I chatted with Welles, I was glancing at the entrance every few seconds. So far, the horror that stalked me had not made an appearance. I was starting to think I was in the clear. Perhaps my pursuer had not seen me duck into here. I was beginning to unwind a bit, when a grim figure darkened the commissary doorway. I slumped down further in my seat and raised the newspaper higher. 

"Excuse me!" the Voice of Doom rang out, silencing the commissary patrons. "I'm looking for the Black Centipede! Has he been in here? Has anyone seen him?"

Silence. The crowd just stared at the new arrival, awestruck. I supposed that nobody, apart from Welles, had taken any notice of me, this being Hollywood and all. Tense seconds ticked by. After an eternity on pins and needles, I heard the dread voice once again:

"If any of you see him, tell him to return to the set and speak to me. His presence is required at a very important business meeting!"

And with that, William Randolph Hearst turned on his heel and strode briskly out of the commissary.

I heaved a sigh of relief and put the newspaper down.

"Mister Welles," I said, "you have saved me from a fate worse than death."

"Call me Orson. That was Hearst, wasn't it? I heard he's financing your picture. I take it you don't like him very much."

"You take it right, Orson."

"I don't think anybody likes him," he said.

"Marion Davies seems to."

"Yes, well." He just let that one lay there.

I don't know why I felt the need to unburden myself to this stranger-- perhaps because I was near exhaustion and my defenses were down. But there was something about him that I liked. 

"You should see this movie he's making about me," I said mournfully. "It's an absolute travesty. Complete nonsense. My real story would make one hell of a movie. Of course, I have no intention of sharing it with Hearst or anyone else, but still... He doesn't care what gets put out there with my name on it. He's a liar and a fabricator, and this goddamned movie reflects that. The sonofabitch wouldn't know the truth if it came up and bit him."

Welles shook his head in sympathy. "I would hate to be involved in a production of any kind that was beneath my dignity or ability."

"Well," I said, "that makes two of us, but I kind of got roped into it."

"Hearst seems a fascinating character," Orson said. " Do you know him well?"

"Better than he knows me," I said. 

My new friend looked puzzled, so I elaborated. "We're not remotely what you'd call friends. There is no closeness or fellow-feeling. In fact, I despise him, and the feeling is mutual. But I have made a study of him. A very thorough one, using sources public, private and felonious. The man is an abomination."

"Really? I know he has a shady reputation. A lot of his double-dealing is public knowledge, but he's just too big for anybody to take on."

"Oh, you couldn't possibly know the half of it! Master of the phony public image, that's Hearst for you. The corruption you know about is just the tip of a very rotten iceberg."

"Do tell," Orson said. 

"Oh, I'd love to tell. You know what? Somebody ought to make a movie about him. And just for the hell of it, they should tell the truth. Why, I could tell you stories about that man's dirty dealings that would curl your hair."

"Really?" Welles seemed powerfully intrigued. "I'd be very interested in hearing them. You know... this isn't a bad idea. Not a bad idea at all. A movie, I mean. Of course, if someone did it, they'd have to change the names, rearrange things a little. Replace details with allegory. But what a magnificent subject! Why, it could be a masterpiece, like Greed."

I smiled. "Yeah! Of course, the sonofabitch would raise Cain about it, but what could he do?"

"What indeed?" said Orson, leaning back in his chair, eyes closed. "This is food for thought... Would you be interested in discussing it further at some future time?"

"Oh, you bet I would!" I said, grinning wickedly behind my mask. "I would like that very much."

We exchanged contact information. By this time, I was sure the coast was clear, and I made ready to continue on my way. Then a thought struck me.

"Say," I said, lowering my voice, "I could sure use a drink, after that ordeal. Is it true that you can buy alcohol in here, under the table?"

"Yes," Orson said glumly, "but they only have wine. And they won't even sell you that until after 8 p.m. A curious restriction, considering that selling it at all is illegal until Repeal."

"I don't suppose they could be persuaded to make an exception?"

"No," Orson said, shaking his head. "I've tried. I'm afraid they will sell no wine before it's time."



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