Wednesday, April 13, 2011

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



You Don’t Know Jack

By Chuck Miller


A Yardstick For Lunatics, One Point of View 

Why was I going to do this? I was of at least two minds about the Johnny’s ghost incident. I wasn’t very interested in revenge, to be honest. The way I felt about Johnny at that moment, I wouldn’t walk across the street to avenge him, much less hunt down one of the most mysterious and dangerous men in the world. But it was a challenge. I  found that I couldn’t resist it. I knew I could do it, but I had to prove it.
I explained the whole thing to Vionna. She listened with great enthusiasm and many questions.
"How do you find a guy like that?" she wanted to know. "You don't know anything about him at all, really. Where do you even start?"
"Nowhere," I replied. "I can't find him. It's totally impossible. An absurd idea."
"I said I can't find him. But if I give him a reason, I bet he can find me."
"Oh!" she said, her face brightening. "Hey, that's good. You just turn it around. That's kinda brilliant, really."
"No, it is incredibly brilliant. I am incredibly brilliant. A genius."
That, by the way, isn't bragging. It's quite true. I am, on paper, an actual genius, with a dozen or so IQ points left over. It isn't something I generally mention to people. Not unless I can find the remotest excuse to work it into a conversation.

"You are," she said, nodding energetically. "That's like something Sherlock Holmes would do."
"If he was as smart as me, he would," I amended.
"Right. So, how do we get him to find us?"
"We hunt him down."
"Uh… Okay, now I’m kinda confused..."
"We try to find him," I explained. "Or, rather, we make it look like we’re trying. And since we can't do it the right way, we do it the wrong way. The wrongest way possible. We go out and we do the worst, clumsiest, most unprofessional job of hunting him down that we can manage. We talk to as many people as we can, no matter who they are. We make threats, we utter slanderous comments about him, we announce our intention to lynch the bastard when we get our hands on him. We do it loud and proud and cocky, and we keep on doing it until it bears the inevitable fruit."
"Yeah. But what if he hears about it and just kills us?"
I shrugged. "I don't think the Centipede will forgo a confrontation. He won't just whack us with no questions asked. We'll make all sorts of hints and insinuations. We will imply that we possess secret knowledge, which is more or less true. We don't have to mention that it came from a ghost. He's gonna want to know what we know, and who else might know it."
"Will we break people's fingers?"
"We'll threaten to. As for carrying it out or not, we'll just play that by ear."
"Okay. But you said this Centipede is pretty clever, right? What if he knows what we're doing? You said we're gonna make it like way obvious. I mean, he's a professional, right? What if we don't fool him?"
"That will work just as well. Maybe better. He's gonna be curious. Either way, it won't be something he'll be inclined to ignore. And if that doesn't work, we can always rent a hall, hire some actors, and stage a play showing how the Black Centipede killed Captain Mercury. Depending on the reviews, he might..."
I stopped talking because Vionna was zoning out again. She got that twitchy, far-away look in her eyes. Her head moved back and forth, and her lips were working slightly and silently, either forming tiny words or not. After about half a minute of this, she blinked her eyes a few times and focused back on me. "Yeah," she said. Her voice was a little dreamy-sounding at first, but it sharpened up quick. "We need to talk to him. I don't think he did what that ghost said he did."
"Where do you get that?"
She shrugged. "I dunno. I just don't think it, is all. It came from wherever everything I know comes from. Except for the stuff I know just from being me."
“And you are always right.” I wasn’t being sarcastic.
Vionna shrugged and smiled a modest little smile. I reached over and tapped her lightly on top of the head with my fingertips.  “What have you GOT in there, girl?”
“I actually have, implanted in my brain, a telepathic computer from the year 3000.”
“Are you serious?”
“No. Did you almost believe me?”
“I don’t… Well, hell, I mean it’s as good a story as… It’s not all that far-fetched, compared to some things I’ve seen.”
So we made the rounds of what used to be underworld dives. Some of them still were. I even recognized a few faces from the past—minor crooks or members of some of the old supervillains’ gangs. Nobody recognized me, of course. I made quite a few threats and promises and got into one or two fights. I’m still in very good shape, in spite of my insalubrious habits. I still manage to get my exercise, and there’s also a certain genetic component involved. Physically, I am not… exactly like everyone else. My metabolism is incredibly efficient and my muscles do not atrophy with disuse. Both my brain and my liver are incredibly resilient. There’s a good story behind all that, but you’re not gonna get it from me.
We implemented our plan. It did not immediately bear fruit, which was what I had expected. On the third night, I got an idea.
Okay. I'll admit I didn't think at the time that this next thing was necessary. But, since I was spreading mayhem and confusion around, there was a guy I'd been wanting an excuse to mess with for a long time. I expected nothing to come of it apart from a bit of mean-spirited revenge on my part.
I have to face a truth about myself. I am angry. All the time, even when it’s hidden. Even when I’m hiding it from myself. I have been angry for so long, about so many things, that it all tends to blur. I have anger that is no longer specific to any single person or circumstance. I am angry at something that is too big for me to even reach, let alone hurt. I can’t even seem to get its attention. And that pisses me off. That burns me. It is like a physical ache at times. And it has no place to go, so anybody who crosses my path the wrong way can becomes a target.
And I can hang onto it for a LONG time…
At one point in my life, I had trusted Inspector Prine. I don’t think I ever liked him, but I thought he could be counted on to always act within certain established parameters. And when he stepped outside of those, it had a bad effect on me. Maybe I wanted to like him, but I was waiting to see if he was going to screw things up.
He did.
It had been 12 years ago, 12 years that now seemed like a century. He had revealed himself to me as an asshole of the first water. But that was par for the course with adults back then. Still, I was disappointed, hurt and very bitter. I thought I could count on him for just a little respect. He made me look and feel like a stupid kid in a stupid Halloween suit, and I never forgave him for that. This was only a few days before Johnny died. Two days, in fact, after Professor Ubik did whatever the hell he did to Commander Power and killed the anonymous boy. And this incident involved my finding out he was a dirty cop, and had been the whole time I knew him. I'd been turning it over in my mind for a couple of nights, wondering how to broach the subject with Johnny.
Instead, I broached it with Prine. I held out hope that I was mistaken, that I had misinterpreted what I’d seen. I went to him. And he laughed. I wanted him to explain so I could feel stupid and everything could go back to the way it was before. But the  sonofabitch simply did not respect me enough to tell me a lie. He laughed. The bastard laughed at me.
But a few days later, Johnny was dead and nothing mattered any more.
Or so I would have thought. But on the terrible night of that terrible day, Prine managed to do one more thing to me, and that thing mattered a lot. It is the thing I have not talked about, do not talk about, and will not talk about now. It's not what you probably think it is, but it's just as bad.
I had held onto that night and my secret knowledge for years, feeding it and feeding off of it from time to time. Usually at night. When I was trying to go to sleep, and the only comfort I could find was in being better than someone else and proving it by smearing them across the pavement in my head, over and over again, in a hundred different ways.
His house was out in West Side, almost in the suburbs. It was in that gray area where you’re not exactly in the city, but you’re not exactly anywhere else either. Lots of little strip malls and tiny parks. One, I noticed, was built on the very spot where Johnny and had finally managed to shut down one of Professor Ulysses Ubik’s stranger creations, a cybernetic rhinoceros into whose skull he had transplanted the brain of a mutant gorilla with human intelligence. I never could understand what brought that on. I mean, if it was me, the mutated gorilla would have been plenty just by itself.
Anyhow, I took a cab out there from my place because I didn’t feel like walking or screwing with the buses. The cab driver was an indifferently-put-together individual with a London accent. For reasons beyond my ken, he spun for me a meandering tale about various celebrities he had encountered in his professional life. These included Pablo Picasso and Bertrand Russell, along with a couple I had never heard of.
The subject matter of his disjointed  anecdote —something about Picasso painting pictures with appendages other than his hands—was beginning to make me uncomfortable. My discomfort increased when, peeking over the top of the passenger seat, I saw scattered on the floorboard what appeared to be four empty bottles of scotch. I was trying to decide whether or not I ought to say something, when, to my great relief, we arrived at our destination.
I paid my fare, along with a generous tip, which my chauffer to the stars seemed to appreciate. He grinned as he thumbed through the bills. "I shall eat well tonight," he told me. "I'll stop by the grocers and buy me a nice steak, some chips, and the makings for a banana fritter. You might not think it to look at me, but I am a wonderful cook." And with that, this font of unnecessary information gave me a little mock salute and off he went.
Former Inspector Prine’s house was not ostentatious, but I could tell it had probably cost more than a civil servant like Prine should have been able to afford. He lived alone. His wife had dumped him a long time ago, and nobody else had bothered to pick him up. He had burglar bars and an alarm system, but I could bypass stuff like that by the time I was nine. I disabled the alarm, then I went and knocked on the front door.
I knocked on it with my foot, actually, and kept on knocking until it popped open. I stepped into a foyer. It was quiet, but for a faint squeaking noise that came from the direction of the kitchen, at the end of the downstairs hallway. I was headed that way when Prine hove into view. He was propelling himself in a wheelchair.
“Do I know you?” he asked. I did not respond. He asked me again, and again answer came there none.
I should have said something clever, but I wasn’t feeling too clever just then.  I was standing there still and silent, wanting to beat the living hell out of a 70-year-old man in a wheelchair. It was a visceral thing. I knew I wasn’t going to do it, but I kind of enjoyed the sensation of thinking I might. I made a great show—mostly for my own amusement-- of suppressing my rage with a Herculean effort of my iron will.
He knew nothing about the Black Centipede's current whereabouts. Of course, I hadn't imagined he would, but you never know. However, since my real objective was not to track the Centipede, it had probably been a waste of time, since my plan relied on the people I shook down telling other people about it. It was pretty plain that Prine was a thoroughly asocial animal.
Which was fine because I just wanted to put the boot into the old bastard.
“I wish you weren’t old,” I said. “I wish you were young and strong so I could destroy you and get some satisfaction from doing it. I wish you had enough common decency that I could hurt you by destroying your good name. I wish all kinds of stuff.”
He looked at me like he was trying to see something in my face, but he couldn’t quite make it out.
“You hate me,” he said. “You could kill me.” He wasn’t asking. He didn’t even seem curious as to why. He obviously had no clue who I was, and he didn’t even try to find out. I could only conclude that he had Screwed over so many people during his long life that he had expected something to come back and bite his head off some day. It could be any one of a thousand.
“I know how dirty you are, Prine, and while I doubt you have much of a conscience, I don’t think you like yourself very much, and I don’t think you have anything at all to look forward to but a painful decline. You can’t think I’d be heartless enough to rob you of THAT!”
I moved up so I could loom over him, because that seemed like the thing to do. I felt tall and somehow wiser and better than this little dried-up old cop. I was rolling.
“I thought about you for years,” I said, keeping my eyes open as wide as I could and maintaining my little crazy-smile. “And I bet you never once gave a thought to me, did you?  You forgot all about me, I bet. Well. Try to forget me now, old man. You won’t be able to. Try and remember just who I am and just what it was that you did to me. Think about it, rummage around in your memory. I’m in there someplace. I’ll come back one day soon and ask you if you remember. And I’ll keep coming back, just like this, in the middle of the night, until you do.”
Of course I had no intention of doing any such thing. No need to. I had just put him on paranoia autopilot. I could forget about this old turd of a man at last. Except that I wouldn't. And it might not bother him at all, or not for very long. Revenge is often a dish that needs to be shoved into the microwave now and then.  I left the way I had come.
Out on the street,  voice from somewhere in my head asked me if this was how a superhero behaved.
No, I replied.  But it’s the way I behave.
I just can’t resist an opportunity to be a smartass, even when I’m chatting with my conscience.
Then another voice from somewhere asked me, "Why are you looking for me?" Unlike the previous voice, it did not originate in my own head. It startled me, in fact, very badly, coming as it did from a dark alley just to my right. I jumped and made a noise I'd be embarrassed to describe here. (It didn’t exactly come out of my mouth.)
My plan had worked. I was found.
There was nothing for it but to take the corniest road available and say, "The Black Centipede, I presume."
And so it was. He was just a guy, not much taller or heavier than I am, wearing a dark overcoat, a dark hat and a black mask. One of those jobs that covers the whole face, not one of those domino kinds like I used to wear. Whole-face coverage, I had always believed, was superior in terms of maintaining a secret identity. But it was so god-awful hot and smothering, especially if you were in the middle of a real knock-down drag-out brawl. I was glad I didn’t have to worry about things like that any more.
"You should come with me," he said in a chillingly neutral tone. He was menacing me with something that looked like a spaceman's ray gun.
"I will," I said, "if you'll go where I'm going right now."
"We need to talk," he said. "I know who you are."
"I wish you'd tell me, then, because I am really confused on that point.”
“Look, I know you've been looking for me. You've blazed a trail a blind elephant could follow. I assume that was intentional, because I know you're smarter than that. You're Sparky, Captain Mercury's old ward."
"I prefer 'former' or even 'erstwhile' to 'old.' And I'd appreciate it if we could avoid the 'S' word. It's kind of embarrassing now that I've reached my majority."
From behind his mask came a short, sharp sigh. "You're a real joy, aren't you? "Is this how you are all the time?”
“More or less.”
“I want to know why you're looking for me."
"And I want to tell you. But not right out here on the street."
“Okay, okay,” he grumbled. “Come on.” He led me up half a block to an older model dark sedan parked at the curb. Actually, it looked both very old and disturbingly futuristic at the same time. I was sure it hadn’t rolled off of any conventional assembly line. He  unlocked the doors and we climbed in.
We went back to my place. Vionna was asleep.
He took off his mask. I was rather shocked by what I saw. His face is indescribable. Not in a Lovecraftian way, but because there was nothing in particular to describe. He had the most generic, unremarkable human face that I have ever seen. He had two eyes, a nose and a mouth. If you glanced away from him for five seconds, you completely forgot what he looked like.
“Pardon the observation,” I said, “but you’re awfully friendly and relaxed with somebody who’s been hunting you for reasons you know nothing about.”
He stuffed his mask into a jacket pocket. “Would you prefer hysterics and violence? I’ve been in this game for a very long time, and I assure you that if you  proved to be a threat, I could neutralize you thoroughly, and with very little trouble.”
“Well, that’s a threat against me.”
“Of course. But it’s a very conditional one. I’m just curious as to what you think you’re after.”
“You took  your mask off.”
“I was uncomfortable. Do you know who I am? Will seeing my face give you any advantage over me?”
I admitted that it would not. He asked me again what I wanted. Which was fair enough, so I told him.
“I think I’m supposed to kill you,” I said. “The ghost of Captain Mercury more or less told me to.”
Incredibly, he seemed to take this statement at face value.
“That’s very interesting,” he said. He has an odd voice, at once creepy and endearing. It is a nasal drawl, somewhat patrician-sounding, with a distinct resonance of old money and good schools. But it also has a sharp edge to it, just below the crust, that speaks of dangerous thoughts, appalling practices, and a long life lived apart from damn near everything.
“Did the ghost,” he continued, “tell you why this consummation is so devoutly to be wished?”
“Yeah, he said it was really you that killed him 12 years ago.”
“Hm.” He became thoughtful for a moment and I looked him over thoroughly. I have no idea how old he really is, but he looks to be somewhere between 25 and 80. He is lanky without being all that tall, which is strange.
“Actually,” I added, “he said you had it done, that you commissioned or managed it.”
“Ah. A hit. And a most palpable one, too. That little shindig blew out windows all over town.  A thing like that lacks my characteristic subtlety.”
“Yes, but you’re smart enough to realize that, and to know that other people realize it too.”
“There’s the rub. Well, did the ghost tell you why I did it?”
“No. All in all, he was not very informative. To be fair, though, I got pretty snotty with him and wouldn’t listen.” 
“I can’t imagine that.  Well, I had nothing to do with Captain Mercury’s death. I barely knew the man, in fact. But I don’t suppose I can talk you out of the notion. So, what do you plan to do now? If you’ll permit me a personal observation, you don’t seem like the hell-bent-on-vengeance type.”
I smiled ruefully and shrugged. “I don’t, do I? Nor do you strike me as the type who'd sit there and allow me to kill you. I know this sounds horrible, but I’m not even sure I care at all. That’s funny. I’ve always regarded the death of Captain Mercury as the single worst event in my life, and I blame it for all the shit that followed. But. You either killed him or you didn’t. I have no way of knowing. I have your word against that of a possible ghost. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Either way, he’s dead and I am what I am 12 years later. What’s gonna change any of that?”
“Very existential of you. You are either extremely pragmatic or deeply fatalistic.”
“No reason not to be both. Plus which, I have no doubt that I am mentally ill. However, I think that what I really am is colossally indifferent.  I’ve been thinking about the whole thing for days now. Wondering why I should care.
“Actually, now that I think about it, he didn’t actually say to kill you. I just assumed it. God, what does that say about me?”
We would never find out, because, just then, Vionna came busting out of the bedroom, eyes wide, arms waving madly. “We’ve got to get out of here!” she yelled. “Right now!”
She grabbed the Centipede and me by the arms and pulled us toward the door. The Centipede started to squawk, but I already had a healthy respect for Vionna’s “intuitions,” and I helped her hustle him down the stairs, saying, “You better do what she says.”
We tumbled out of my little ground-floor doorway, and dashed across the lot to a fence a few dozen yards away.
“Now what in the name of…” the Centipede began, once we reached the fence, but he was very rudely interrupted by what happened next.
I lost my damage deposit in a truly spectacular way.
My apartment exploded. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d heard a faint whistling sound and possibly seen some small object streaking through the air toward my living room window.
Then a couple of goons rushed us from the alley. Both of them were armed with small-caliber pistols. The Centipede and I basically beat the hell out of them, and pretty quickly, too. Whatever they’d been expecting, it wasn’t what we gave them. I was quite pleased at my own ability to disarm my thug and give him a swift but decisive ass-whipping. The Centipede, too, performed exceedingly well for a man of whatever age and in whatever condition he was. Vionna stood watching, her face blank. Her lips were moving in that eerie way they did when she was having a particularly profound “spell.”
The two creeps, in spite of the hurting we had heaped upon them, got away from us and dashed off through a gateway to the street. We heard a car start. The Centipede and I gave chase, but those assholes could run a lot better than they could fight.
I never got a good look at either of them, and they never said a word, but they nevertheless struck me as familiar. I had encountered them somewhere before, I was sure.
As their car pulled away, we saw a third man behind the wheel.
After that, the Centipede insisted we accompany him to his secret headquarters.

No comments:

Post a Comment