Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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



BOOK ONE:

You Don’t Know Jack

By Chuck Miller



CHAPTER FIVE:


I was a little bit leery, but I got over it quick.
The Centipede's Lair was the stuff of legend. Nobody I knew of had ever been there. It was rumored to be absolutely impregnable. As for the location, that was anyone's guess. Some said it was in the mountains outside of Zenith, others said it was near the North Pole, a few seemed to actually entertain the possibility that it was on the moon.
Therefore, I was nonplussed when he drove us straight downtown and parked in a garage right across the street from City Hall. We exited the garage, walked down an alleyway, and found ourselves at the rear entrance to the Benway Building. This is an art deco nightmare of steel, white brick and blue glass that dates back to an era when people were both prosperous and arrogant and scoffed at the idea of restraint. The architecture was about as subtle as an Egyptian pharaoh's mausoleum, and almost as cheerful. It would have been right at home—though still uncomfortable-- in some hellish German expressionist film from the 1920s. It would have been considered an eyesore if people had any taste at all. Instead, it was a landmark. You can buy snow globes with tiny models of it inside them.

The thing pile is 70 stories tall, making it the tallest building in Zenith, and one with quite a history. Today, however, the first five floors are rented out to restaurants and questionable entrepreneurs of one kind and another, while the rest lays (or stands) fallow. Though technically almost derelict, the facade has been kept spotlessly clean and in excellent repair. I, like many other people, had always just assumed that the old pile was maintained by the city as a sort of icon. I had no idea who owned it.
I was to get an education that night.  I learned that there were twenty floors of empty "buffer" between the fifth story and the 25th. From there up, it belonged to the Black Centipede. Actually, the whole building did. He owned it under an assumed name, and you would have to work your way through six or eight dummy corporations to find even that. He was indeed a master of red herrings and blind alleys.
"Wow," I said, in wonder and admiration. "The storied Centipede's Lair does not float in the clouds like Asgard, nor does it huddle beneath the ocean like Atlantis. It is right across the street from City Hall!"
The Centipede laughed, a disconcerting sound. "I've got outstanding warrants going back to the 1960s," he said. "They don't dream they look right at my secret hideout every single day.”
“Sharp.”
“My grandfather built this building. Not with his own hands of course. You might not know this, but  the city hall building across the street was built at the same time. Grandpa did that, too. I have a complete set of blueprints here. Unlike the set filed with the building commission, mine contains all the secret passageways my illustrious ancestor—who was an old-time ward heeler and then some-- slipped into the design. He was not a man to give himself up to the caprices of the political winds. He always made sure he had a way to keep his bread buttered on both sides. There are also three access tunnels under the street from the Benway. Just like Granddad, I have the run of the place. Complete access to every room in the building. It’s come in handy more than once.”
I was truly in awe. This was chutzpah on a megalithic scale.


“It was me they wanted,” the Centipede told me later. “This is the closest they’ve ever come to getting me.”
Vionna had calmed down and gone to take a nap in one of several bedrooms in the Lair.  The Centipede and I sat down in what might be described as the living room, for drinks and conversation.
“They who?”
“I don’t know. That is to say, I do know, but I don’t have a name to put to it. There is an organization in Zenith, a vast, undetected criminal enterprise, and it is controlled by what I call the ‘Moriarty.’”
“I see. You don’t consider yourself to be paranoid at all, do you?” I asked.
“I may very well be. Which does nothing to change the fact that your apartment was firebombed.”
“There is that,” I conceded. “There is most palpably that. So, what’s a Moriarty?”
“Are you illiterate? Professor Moriarty was Sherlock Holmes’ arch-foe.”
“I’m aware of that,” I said with some hauteur. “From ‘The Final Problem.’ I know my Conan Doyle by heart. What I mean is, what is a Moriarty in this context?”
“Exactly what the name implies. ‘For years past I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts -- forgery cases, robberies, murders -- I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it.’”
“That’s good,” I said, clapping softly. “You got it word-for-word. So, you have traced this organizing power, this Moriarty, and you have found…  what?”
“’He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.’”
“Okay. You're quoting, not answering. So, has anything happened? Has he confronted you in your private quarters and made snide remarks about your frontal development? By which I mean of course your forehead.”
He gave me a sour look, but I thought I detected a bit of humor in it, there under the surface. Was it possible that he was enjoying this verbal jousting? Then again, I have a vivid imagination...
“No. I’ve never seen him, nor do I know anything about him, personally.”
“So you don’t know his name.”
“I believe that would be covered by my not knowing anything about him.”
“Or where he is.”
“Not as yet.”
“Or whether or not he actually exists.”
He narrowed his eyes, his strange face a study in controlled aggravation. “In the strictest sense, in terms of admissible evidence, no. But I am sure that he does. My conviction may not be sufficient to persuade you, but that changes nothing. I don’t know who or where he is, but I will. I’ve been harassing him for years. Haven’t made any clear inroads, but he knows I’m out there, chipping away. He’d have taken me out long ago if not for the fact that I simply cannot be found.”
“I found you,” I pointed out in my helpful way.
“Don’t get cocky, boy,” he said. “You found me because I wanted you to find me.”
“Yeah, but you wanted me to find you because I made you want me to find you.”
“Technically,” he said, “I found you.”
“Whoopee,” I said. “Bully for you. That was about as difficult as finding Lincoln’s head on Mount Rushmore. So you can hit the broad side of a barn if you’re two feet away and it’s got a target painted on it. Face it, I was the prime mover. I played you. I made you want me to find you or you to find me or whoever the hell wanted to find who, or who actually did, notwithstanding.”
“Good God! You do insist on torturing the language, don’t you? Well, you had to make me want you to find me because you knew you couldn’t… Oh, let’s just drop it. We’re devolving into Abbot and Costello. And leave us also not forget that the whole damn thing nearly got us rendered into cat food. Perhaps I will give you the credit after all.”
”Sweet of you. But we don’t know for sure that’s what happened.”
“Oh, surely you can’t doubt it! You think it was a coincidence?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what I think. I don’t know enough to think anything. You were spouting Sherlock Holmes chapter and verse just now. You may remember something else he said: ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.’ We are abysmally short on data. We have a set of circumstances, but nothing concrete to link them.”
“Are you lecturing me on the science of deduction?”
“Apparently so. Hell of a note, ain’t it? Listen, you know perfectly well, I’m sure, that ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’  is a totally unacceptable bit of reasoning. I’m not saying I’m certain you’re wrong. In fact, I believe you’re onto something. But if the stakes are as high as they appear to be, we can’t afford to get sloppy, now can we? Tell me I’m wrong.”
He was silent for a whole bunch of heartbeats, and I wondered just what was going on behind that inscrutable face. Finally, he spoke:
“You’re… not wrong, Jack.”
“Thank you. Really. You probably aren’t either. I’m sorry I’m such a smartass, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I’ve only known you for a few hours, but I’m pretty sure I respect you. I don’t believe you had anything to do with Captain Mercury’s death. This is based on my own intuition, plus the fact that Vionna said she ‘knows’ you’re innocent.”
He almost sort of smiled in a way. “And what would the Great Detective have to say about that bit of reasoning?”
“Probably the same thing you’re dying to but won’t, because you respect me, too. But keep in mind that if it weren’t for Vionna’s remarkable intuition, we’d all be Tender Vittles right now, if there was even enough left to make a meal for a medium-sized cat. The Great Detective might have met his Waterloo in Miss Valis.”
There were some things I was hanging onto, though, that I didn’t want to discuss just yet. Like the possibility that I was set up by Johnny’s “ghost” to find the Centipede so he could be hit. That implied all kinds of deep, dark stuff that I couldn’t even imagine.  If that was in fact the setup, it was incredibly intricate, and absolutely terrifying. Maybe what I saw wasn’t a ghost, but it also wasn’t some jackass with a bed sheet pulled over his head. It had been a great special effect, enough to convince me, who had known him in life better than anyone else.
The Centipede had convinced me. I trusted him. That’s a failing of mine. I sometimes trust people. It never seems to get me anything, at least nothing concrete. I have a theory, though, that it does my insides good. My soul, or whatever is in there. I have no proof of that either, but it’s one of those things, like throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder when you knock the shaker over. You’re probably doing nothing nobler or wiser than wasting salt, but you just don’t dare defy the rule.

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