There Ain’t No Bugs On Me
Duke floated down the street above the orange glow of the street lights. Skip raced along the rooftops, in a harried attempt to keep up. He came to a gap between the buildings, with an alley four stories below. He twirled his jury-rigged grappling hook and hurled it toward the neighboring roof. It landed with a clang. He yanked it and it caught on the ledge. Duke continued his flight. Skip stood on the edge of the roof shoring up his grip on the rope. He pulled the rope taut and looked down and panting.
“Here we go,” he said as he stepped off the side. He swung on the rope and dropped toward the wall of the next building. He grunted as he feet slapped against the side. He pulled himself up the rope, his feet treading the side of the building.
Duke had continued his flight and was almost out of sight.
“Keep up, Renfield,” Duke’s voice cracked through the walkie-talkie.
“Slow down, dude,” Skip gasped, as he hoisted himself onto the roof.
“The bad guys aren’t going to slow down because you’re out of breath.”
Skip was dressed in sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and a beanie, all black. A rifle and a duffle bag were slung over his back. He paused to cinch up the drawstring on his pants.
“Bro, when did you become such a hardass?” Skip said into the radio.
“When you wanted a piece of this action,” Duke replied.
“Well, I can’t fly. I’m using a piece of shit grappling hook I made while watching American Chopper.”
“You gonna make excuses all night?”
“I got something. Some thugs harassing a bodega clerk.”
“On my way.”
“Don’t take all night.”
Linc was browsing the aisles of a small North Philly convenience store. His vessels didn’t require food or water, but he found partaking in the routines of the living to be centering and cleared his mind. His first and only case was proving to a tough nut to crack. He had nothing to go on but the scant information Ms. Linden had given him and the 8 by 10.
“Wizard ninja,” he said to the Quaker Oats guy. “Where the hell do you find wizard ninjas?”
He held the canister of oatmeal to his nose and breathed deep. He sighed.
“I never thought I’d miss being able to smell,” he said. “Especially in this town.”
The bell above the bodega door rang hard as two large men wearing what looked like red and black karate gis, threw the door open and sauntered in. They had identical tattoos covering the right half of their faces; centipedes coiled to form a yin-yang shape. Linc tried to look casual as he watched them over the shelves. They approached the counter and banged on the bulletproof plexiglass, jostling the boxes of Tiparillos and Philly Blunts. The proprietor emerged from the back.
“Stop banging on the glass,” he said in broken English with an unplaceable accent.
“Time to pay up,” one of the tattooed men said.
“Pay what? Who the hell are you?”
“We’re the Feet of the Centipede.”
“What the hell is the centipede?”
“Our boss. He owns this block.”
Linc ducked down behind the shelves. He didn’t know what to make of them, but centipede yin yang tattoos seemed pretty wizard ninja to him.
“I’m not paying you jack,” the store owner said. “Get out, before I call the police.”
One of the men punched the plexiglass and it erupted in a spiderweb of cracks.
“That was your first and only warning,” one of the tattooed man said with a voice that sounded serene.
The owner pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at the men. They both punched at the glass and it broke into splinters. They grabbed the owner and pulled him out from behind the counter and slammed him against a shelf, toppling it. The owner tried to scramble to his feet in the piles of ramen noodles and hamburger mix, but one of the men lifted him by his neck. The other man lifted the cash register and tucked it under his arm.
“Put that back,” the owner said in a wheezing bark.
“Only Centipede gives us orders,” the squeezing his neck replied.
Linc popped up from behind the shelf. “Hey, guys,” he smiled.
The two men looked at each other and back at Linc.
“Leave,” one said to him. “Tell everyone you know about Centipede.”
“Who the hell is Centipede?” Linc asked.
“Centipede runs this neighborhood and soon the city. Nothing will go down without his say so.”
“Centipede, huh? Sounds ominous,” Linc said as he made his way to the door. As he started to pass them he threw a sudden haymaker that connected with the jaw of the man holding the cash register. It felt to Linc like he had just punched a brick wall. He felt the bones in his hand crack and splinter. “Hearty fellow, ain’t ya?” he threw another fist.
The man grabbed Linc’s arm and snapped it at the elbow.
“Damn, man, this was a brand new body,” Linc said and swung with his other arm.
The man grabbed it and yanked it from its socket. Linc droved his forehead into the man’s nose, but his head bounced backward. Linc was dazed as he stumbled back, shaking his head.
“Alright, punks,” Duke growled from the doorway. “Time to dance with death.”
“That’s some corny shit, Duke,” Linc said.
Duke found it curious that this strange man in a suit knew who he was and regarded him for a moment. The man holding the store owner dropped him and rushed toward Duke surprising him with a blow to the cheek. Duke responded with a strike of his own. The man was staggered by the unexpected force of the hit. The engaged Duke in a battle of fists.
Skip was lying on his stomach on the rooftop across the street, looking through the scope on his rifle, his finger poised on the trigger. All he could see was the back of Duke.
“C’mon, dude,” he whispered to himself. “You’re like a barn door. Get them between us.”
He watched as Duke traded blows with the tattooed men and the curious man in the dress shirt and blazer with the floppy arms who was flailing them like they were weights at the ends of chains.
“Who the hell is this guy?” Skip thought. “Fucker broke both his arms and he’s still swinging like he doesn’t even feel it.”
Skip tried in vain to line up the crosshairs on either of Duke’s assailants. They were bobbing and weaving too fast and Duke continued to block his shot. One struck Duke with a falling strike that dropped him to one knee. Skip seized the opportunity and squeezed the trigger. His dart stuck one of the men in the neck.
The man who struck Duke to his knee felt a sting in his neck. He grabbed at the pain and began to wobble, losing his feet. Linc clubbed him on the head with a two litter of ginger ale. The man fell to his knees and collapsed to the floor.
“Yeah, son of a bitch,” Linc yelled. “How do you like that?”
The other man grabbed the cash register and hit Duke on the head with it and ran off. Duke tried to snatch him by the ankle, but his bell was rung too hard for him to maintain his balance and he fell on his back. Linc ran over and crouched beside him.
“See that?” Linc said. “I got him.”
“You didn’t get shit,” Skip said trotting into the store. “I shot him up with curare. You okay, Duke?”
“Yeah,” he groaned, rubbing his chin. “Those dudes were strong.”
“We should figure out what we’re going to do with his guy before he comes to,” Linc said.
“Who’s we?” Duke said. “You’re going to the ER. You got two broken arms.”
“One’s broke. The other’s just out of the socket. Here, pop it in for me.”
“What the hell?” Skip said. “I’m calling you an ambulance.”
“No ambulance. No doctors. Duke, it’s me. Linc.”
“Oh hey, man, how you been?” Duke said, holding out his hand.
Linc looked at Duke’s offered hand and wiggled around, letting his broken arms swing.
“This is my ward Renfield,” Duke said.
“Dude, c’mon with that shit,” Skip said as he kneeled beside the drugged man, recovering his dart, “Nice tat. A centipede. On the face is a little extreme. Who is this guy?”
“As far as I’m concerned he’s a lead,” Linc said.
“A lead for what?” Duke asked.
“A case I’m working on.”
“I got into the PI biz. This is my first and only. I’m looking for a wizard ninja or some such. This guy looks like he fits the bill better than anything I’ve seen so far.”
“So what’s your story?” Skip asked. “You don’t feel pain or something?”
“I inhabit corpses.”
“Wait,” Skip sprung to his feet. “Are you that Corpse Guy I keep reading about on Reddit? I thought that was just creepypasta or something.”
“God I hate that stupid name.”
“I know the feeling,” Skip glared at Duke.
Duke leaned back in his bed reading a book; Slaughterhouse Five. At the end of his nose was perched a pair of bulking reading glasses he bought at the supermarket. Before he turned each page he gave his finger a lick. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Not as much of a slaughter as I thought there’d be,” he muttered to himself. “The time travel kind of makes up for it.” He was caught in the eyes by a ray of sunlight gleaming through his window, “Almost noon. Time for some shut eye.”
He tossed the book on the floor and rolled to his side. As he drifted into slumber he heard the sound of footsteps in the gravel outside his trailer. He wondered if it was Skip come to put on another display of his marksmanship. ‘He already got the job,’ he thought. ‘What more could he possibly show me?’ A Duke listened, he noticed it was more than one set of feet disturbing the loose scree that surrounded his home. It was several sets and they were surrounding him. He peeled back the curtain and peered out. Several people in the same red and black gis, with identical centipede tattoos as the men in the bodega the night before had lined up alongside the trailer. They placed their hands on it and with the slightest motion delivered an explosive blow that sent the trailer rolling.
Duke was tossed about in tumbling trailer as it rolled and rocked to a stop on its side. He found himself pinned under the bed. Flat on his back, he could see the door above him get torn away and a centipede soldier drop through and land on the bed. Duke grunted from the impact. The centipede hopped off the bed and jerked Duke out from under it and tossed him up through the door, leaping out behind him. Duke tried to fly but found a whip had slapped his ankle and wrapped around it. Another centipede, a woman wearing a black bandana around her face, yanked on the whip, slamming Duke to the ground. The rest of the centipedes descended on him beating him with fists and kicks. One pulled a wooden stake as the others held him down. As he raised the stake, ready to drive it into Duke’s chest he was struck on the neck with a dart. One by one the centipedes found themselves the recipients of similar darts. Duke felt them weaken enough to be able to throw the centipedes holding his arms into the one holding the stake. He grabbed another by the neck and drove him into the ground and struck him several times in the head, knocking him unconscious. Two more leaped on his arms, struggling to drag him to the ground. He flung them off, sending them hurling into his trailer. As the stake-wielding centipede charged toward Duke ready to drive it through his back, he found the butt of a rifle kissing the side of his head, knocking him off balance. Duke whirled around and drove his fist into his gut sending him several feet through the air. The centipedes gathered themselves and fled. Duke tried to give chase but found himself too battered to maintain flight and dropped to the ground sliding across the gravel on his knees.
“Dude,” Skip called, running toward him. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Duke said, rising to his feet, dusting himself off.
“Good thing you had backup, right?”
“What do want? A medal?”
“That guy tried to stake you. Are you vulnerable to wooden stakes through the heart?”
“Fair enough. Those guys are running off with the last of my curare in their veins.”
“Can you get any more?”
“What I had I got from my cousin, but he’s doing a dime in Frackville.”
“I’ll make some calls.”
Linc stared at a computer screen, tapping at the keyboard with her long fingernails. She sighed and rubbed her eyes. She pulled a thick, old book from the top of a pile of other, similar books that surrounded her and crowded the space on her desk. Mr. Hare appeared in the doorway glowering.
“A strange woman has wandered into my establishment,” Hare said. “I should call the authorities.”
“Ain’t a damn thing on all the internet about this centipede,” Linc sighed. “Just a bunch of nasty pictures of bugs.”
“Not my concern. What is, however, is the karate tournament that’s begun gathering on my front lawn. I assume it must have something to do with you.”
“Are they dressed in red and black?”
“How did you guess?”
“Tattoo on the face.”
“Your type of people.”
“Well they can’t possibly recognize this body, right?”
“How should I know?”
“I’ll see if I can get them to leave.”
“Please do. There’s a viewing in an hour and don’t need my clients becoming dismayed.”
“You got that part covered all on your own.”
Linc walked out of Hare’s funeral home smoothing out the jacket on his pantsuit and reacquainting himself with walking in heels. One of the centipedes began to approach him.
“Can I help you with something?” Linc asked.
“Lincoln Otis,” the centipede said.
“I’m not familiar with that name. Are you sure his viewing is being held here?”
“Your current vessel must have been a terrible liar. We know who you are and what you can do.”
“Look, guys, we have a thing in an hour so if you could just clear off the lawn…”
The centipede stepped closer and put his hand on Linc’s shoulder.
“Bad touch,” Linc said.
“This is a gift from Centipede,” he said and stuck Linc in the neck with a needle attached to the end of his finger. “It will put an end to your torment.”
“Very bad touch,” Linc rubbed her neck.
“Know peace now, Lincoln Otis.”
The centipedes began to file off, in a slow, quiet procession.
Linc watched them askance, as they wandered away.