Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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



You Don’t Know Jack

By Chuck Miller


Little To Win, But Nothing To Lose

Whatever it was, it was in costume. Or the ghost of a costume. It looked like Captain Mercury, but it wasn’t solid. I could see through it in places. It was like a reflection on a window pane at night—some lighted object in the room behind you, superimposed over the darkness outside, incomplete but distinct.
The  mother of all “someone just walked over my grave” chills snapped my whole body like a bullwhip. I was waiting for myself to shatter completely, to succumb to a fatal panic attack.
But I didn’t. Oddly, The panic receded and I found that I was utterly calm.
“You,” I said. “Damn. You know who you look like, right? I mean, are you him?” 
“I am his spirit,” it said in Johnny’s voice. It certainly sounded like him, though it was kind of tinny.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s cute. His spirit.” I looked at him. He looked at me. Silence. I studied his face. It was both translucent and masked, neither of which was conducive to making a positive ID. The inside of my head was empty. Or maybe it was too full, I dunno. Finally, I came up with the following:
“So talk to me,” I said. “I’m listening. I really need to know what you want. You just gonna stand there and gawk? Tell me some  kind of Oh, screw ing something, please.”
“Jack, I don’t have much time.”
All of a sudden, I was pissed off. And I knew why. I was surprised by it for a second, then I was surprised that I’d been surprised. Of course I was angry.
“Okay,” I said in the least warm-and-fuzzy voice I could produce, “then quit wasting what you have dicking around.”
“Do you doubt me?”
“Of course. You come in a very doubtful shape. And why are you here now? Twelve years is a long time. I could have used a visit a lot earlier than this. It might have made a difference. But you wait a dozen years to do this Ben Kenobi shit? Okay, fine, whatever.”
“Oh, if I were but permitted to tell you what lies beyond the grave, I could tell you things that would…”
“But you’re not, right? So tell me what you are permitted to tell me. I assume that’s why you’re here. You have something to say?”
I was angry. It surprised me. This was an anger I never realized I had until now. I did not think I had ever harbored feelings like this toward Johnny. After all, he couldn’t help what happened to him, right? Or what happened to me as a consequence.
“I want to tell you what really happened to me,” he said. “That I was murdered. Murder is always nasty, Jack, but mine was particularly foul.”
“Yes, well, I kind of already knew that. Having been right there and all. I had to wipe part of you off my face.”
All I could think of just then was that day 12 years before, that moment, the blast, and the moments and days and months and lifetimes that followed it. You want foul and strange, I could unfold a few tales of my own.
“No. You saw what there was to be seen. It was not the whole story, not nearly. Professor Ubik was not the prime mover, Jack.”
“What are you saying? He was right there. I saw him press the button on the  detonator. And then you both blew up.”
“True. But Ubik was a catspaw. Behind him, invisible, was the true serpent, the one who stung me dead that day.”
“What? What are you saying? Is that true?”
“It is. There was someone else at work that day. Someone I thought of as a friend. I knew he was smart, I knew he had so many gifts, so many abilities. I knew he had a dark side, but I trusted him. I never thought his darkness would turn against me.”
“Who? Who the hell  are you referring to? I mean, I don’t know if the bylaws of the afterlife require you to be cryptic and—let’s face it—really  irritating, but…”
“Jack.” He said it softly, but it was loud. “Jack. You have changed.”
“No shit. I could say the same of you, but I don’t like to belabor the obvious. I’ve had 12 years to be the way I am, and I did it without any help, thanks. You weren’t there. For good or ill, this is it. Now. Tell me who killed you, and I’ll go after him. That’s what this is about, right?”
“Jack, I…”
“The name. Give me the name. I’m not enjoying this. I don’t know what I thought it would be like if I ever saw you again, but I don’t like it. You… You should have… Ah, screw it. Whatever. Tell me who it was, then go. Okay? I’ll do the whole revenge thing, don’t worry. Why not? It’ll give me something to do.”
The ghost sighed. “It was the Black Centipede.”
I blinked. Then I blinked again. I hadn’t seen that one coming. “The Black Centipede? Why? Why would the Black Centipede want to kill you?”
“I thought you didn’t care, Jack. I thought you only wanted to hear the name. I gave it to you.”
“You’re right. Fair enough. I don’t think I even give a damn why. Thanks. I’ll get on that right away. The Black Centipede. I’ll be damned.”
I closed my eyes and started counting.
“You still there?”
“I am.”
“What for? I was counting. You messed me up.”
“I… I thought you might want to…”
“Well I don’t. Whatever it is, I don’t want to. I don’t want to know anything else. I don’t care what he did. I don’t care about how strange it is that you couldn’t find him yourself.  I will find him. You know I can do it. I assume, of course, that he's still alive and in Zenith somewhere. That's why you came up with all this. You know I can do it, and you know I will do it, because I do what I say I will. That was the most important thing you could come up with to say to me. Fine. I get it.
“And if you want anything else, that’s tough. You told me the thing, and that’s plenty. I’ll find him. Then I’ll kill him or whatever. I promise. The thing is, I don’t want to see or hear you again. You don’t know how badly you just screwed up.
“So, I’m going to start counting again, and when I get to twenty I’m going to open my eyes, and you will not be here. If you are, then I’m leaving town. No Centipede, no trust fund, no nothing. By the way, thanks for the money. I mean, you probably planned that trust out before you died. So, what, you’ve been sitting around here with your thumb up your ectoplasm waiting for me to come back? Twelve years?”
“Jack,” he said softly. “Things… Things are never what they seem.
“Is that a fact? Well, in my view, things are EXACTLY what the they seem. Six, one thousand, seven, one thousand…”
“Jack, please just… Just remember me.”
“Fourteen, one thousand, fifteen one thousand... Oh, I’ll remember you.  I’ve done very little else for the past 12 years but remember you. I have no choice. I can’t forget. I don’t drink to forget. I drink to stay drunk. That way, remembering isn’t quite as bad. I remember you, and I remember me, too. We’re both dead, Johnny. Have a nice night.
I opened my eyes. Johnny was gone, leaving not a rack behind.  To the east, an insidious light was beginning to stain the dark sky. It was dawn. I hated dawn. I wished the sun would never come up. The sun, the light, the day… All lies. The world was a dark place. Always dark. For too many years I had been too much in the sun, not knowing it for what it was. The light is a con, a trap. The birds, the blue sky, the dew sparkling on the green grass, all that crap. The illusion of transparency. Knowing where you are, believing that life renews itself.
The birds and the grass are dead already. And so are you.
Only that which is eternal can be the truth. That black void up there, lousy with dead stars, was it. I knew it, and the void knew I knew it. We had a sort of accord. Likewise, the sun knew I was hip to its dirty charade. It dared not face me, and I was damned if I would bother facing it. Nothing hides from you in that darkness, because there’s no reason to. The things that really hide from you do it in broad daylight, smirking at you, cloaked in your self-made illusion that there is obviously nothing there.
Screwed up, ain’t it?
I wiggled my bottle out of my jacket pocket and took a deep drink from my little oasis, and kept on walking, away from the sun and into the truth.
I went right home, climbed into bed, and slept like a drowned man.
That afternoon, when I awoke, I found I had decided on something in my sleep. It was something I knew I had to do. I didn’t know why, exactly. It seemed not merely the right thing, but the only possible thing to do. I was still shaken up by that ghost crap. I needed something. Of course, Vionna had needed something yesterday, and I had withheld it. I’d just have to hope she was a better person than I was.
I found the scrap of paper on which I had jotted down Vionna’s phone number, called,  and asked her to meet me at the same bar as yesterday.
Here we were again, same place, same table, same endless supply of booze. It was as though I had returned to that very same night, to do it over.
“You know,” I said carefully, once we’d been served and settled back. “I’m sorry I… cut you off yesterday. I didn’t want to hurt you, but I… Ah  crap. Listen: There really isn’t any reason you couldn’t be my little sister now.  I always wanted one, and I always really liked you, back then.” I was not merely being kind. I was being as stupid as Vionna had been, because what I was saying was the truth.
Vionna’s face was a study in cautious optimism. Surely he will slap me down again, she probably thought; and, at the same time, Surely he won't slap me down again.
I wondered why I was doing it. Surely I had some repugnant ulterior motive. Perhaps I wanted to seduce her. That was, after all, the traditional approach to girls one met in bars. I sort of hoped that was the case, but knew in my heart that it was far worse. I cared. Out of nowhere, I  cared.
The thing is, I actually did have a sister once. She was long gone. The only thing I had left of her was a very sore spot on my soul. I had quite a few of those spots, and I feared that if I added another one, the sores might totally consume whatever was left of me.
Regardless, I wasn’t backing off. I was just sticking my foot further into the muck. “If we wanted to adopt each other, it would be totally legitimate.  I’m afraid of family shit, but at the same time I sort of crave it. Right now, I got nobody and nothing.”
“Neither do I, Jack. I told you. I’m so lonely.”
“Well,” I said, “you want a brother, I want a sister, and the fact that neither of us have either one is Screwed up and cruel and wrong. God isn’t going to do anything for us, so we have to fix it ourselves.”
She frowned a little. “God doesn’t listen.”
“I’m not waiting around on him,” I said. 
We were silent for a minute or two after that. Then Vionna spoke:
“I don’t have any parents either,” she said. “I don’t remember them. There’s lots of stuff I don’t remember.”
“I wish I didn’t remember anything at all.”
“Really, Jack? Not anything? Not your name or anything?”
I shrugged. “Ah, no, that’s stupid. I don’t guess it would help. It wouldn’t change anything. I suppose I’d still be the same person.”
“You would,” she said with conviction. “As many things as I don’t remember—and as many things as I do remember that never happened to me—I’m still the same person I’d be if all of that was different. I’m sure about that. The thing is, though…” She made a face. “The thing is, I don’t know where I begin and where I end.  It’s like… Oh, crap, I can’t describe it. I’m just very fuzzy around the edges.”
I laughed. “I can relate to that.”
She shook her head. “Not like this. I don’t think you can.”
She was very serious, and I took her very seriously.
And, at that point, I also took the opportunity to steer the conversation into other waters. I’d been  curious as to how Vionna supported herself, and she told me she received a monthly disability check. “I’m nutty,” She said, twirling an index finger next to her temple. “I get paid for it.” The smile through which she said this was more rueful than anything. How could it have been otherwise? I felt I was looking into a gender-bending mirror. Or at a family.
“I’m pretty sure I’m crazy,” I said. “Severely unbalanced. I never thought of trying to get paid for it, though.”
“Well it’s not making me rich.”
The evening wore on, and many drinks came and went. My new sister and I were plastered, though we both wore it well. Nobody would have suspected we were as screwed up as we actually were.
We went back to my apartment and talked and drank some more. Vionna fell asleep and I carried her into the bedroom and tucked her in, a dutiful brother.
So we set out to find the Black Centipede, Vionna and I. She was my sidekick now. I was a washed-out remnant of a superhero, and she was whatever she was. Loopy. Crazy. A sweet, sweet girl, but insane. Not Zelda Fitzgerald insane. Not overtly self-destructive. Just... weird. She had something going on in her head that I couldn't get a fix on, and neither could she. Which made her the perfect sister for me.
So, who is the Black Centipede, and why is everyone saying these awful things about him? Here's what I already knew:
 Keep in mind that the superhero community in Zenith had been a collection of serious oddballs at the best of times. At the worst, it was like an unsupervised psychiatric ward. And the Black Centipede managed to stand out even in that crowd. He was regarded as a dangerous eccentric by people who wore tights and masks and chased after criminals without being paid for it.
I had never met him. He was said to be cold and aloof. He did not suffer anyone—fools or sages—gladly. Or, indeed, at all. Nobody knew who he really was. Most people had the impression that there was nothing in him they wanted to know.
There were those who said the Centipede was a dangerous lunatic. A story went around that he had accidentally killed his wife years before. (Whenever anyone told it, the word “accidentally” was fitted out with quotation marks.) He was a dope addict and a madman, they said, and he was rumored to be an insatiable, predatory sodomite. Johnny often warned me against him in the strongest possible terms.
He had also once been, most people agreed, among the best minds of his generation. He was a genius, a brilliant tactician. He simply could not be outmaneuvered. But, as do all such prodigies, he had paid a price for all that. Nobody seemed to know exactly what that price was, but everyone agreed that it had been too steep.
As far as his profession, or avocation, went, the Centipede was cast more in the mold of the mysterious and daring do-gooders that flourished for a time during the 1930s than that of the modern superhero. In fact, it was said that he had actually started out during the Great Depression, though few people took that seriously. It was well-documented that someone called the Black Centipede was operating back then, but everybody figured the current Centipede was his son or grandson or nephew or totally unrelated. He never shared any of his personal history with anyone that I was aware of.
So, basically, every fact I knew about him was either true or it wasn’t, and there was no way of finding out.
If he was in fact still out there, he would have to be very cautious. He was wanted by any number of law enforcement agencies here and abroad. Vigilantism was illegal in most places around the country and the world. Back during the salad days in Zenith, these laws were almost never enforced. Once the superhero scene withered away, though, that changed. Well before that, however, the Centipede had abused even the wide latitude given by city officials to our kind. When the heroes faded out and the political climate changed, a number of indictments, both federal and state, were drawn up to be used against him should he ever be caught.
He never was.
He couldn’t be caught.
I was going to catch him.

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