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Free From Pro Se-Chuck Miller

"REVENGE OF THE CENTIPEDE"

A tale from between chapters of Blood of the Centipede

by Chuck Miller

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA

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

Literally.

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 a second '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 travelling around the country 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. It has an illegally high alcohol content and it tastes like kerosene. 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."

CUT

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