You can try to escape from the mundane, or with the help of Paul Di Filippo, you can take a brief, meaningful break from it. In the vein of George Saunders or Michael Chabon, Di Filippo uses the tools of science fiction and the surreal to take a deep, richly felt look at humanity. His brand of funny, quirky, thoughtful, fast‑moving, heart‑warming, brain‑bending stories exists across the entire spectrum of the fantastic from hard science fiction to satire to fantasy and on to horror, delivering a riotously entertaining string of modern fables and stories from tomorrow, now and anytime. After you read Paul Di Filippo, you will no longer see everyday life quite the same.
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About the Author
Di Filippo is also a highly regarded critic and reviewer, appearing regularly in Asimov’s Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A recent publication, coedited with Damien Broderick, is Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010.
Read an Excerpt
The Jackdaw's Last Case
"Whatever advantage the future has in size, the past compensates for in weight. . . ."
--The Diaries of F. K.
Pale light the color of old straw trodden by uneasy cattle pooled from a lone streetlamp onto the greasy wet cobbles of the empty street. Feelers of fog like the live questing creepers of a hyperactive Amazonian vine twined around standards and down storm drains. The aged, petulant buildings lining the dismal thoroughfare wore the blank brick countenances of industrial castles. Some distance away, the bell of a final trolley sounded. A minute later, as if in delayed querulous counterpoint, a tower clock tolled midnight. A rat dashed in mad claw-clicking flight across the street.
Shortly after the tolling of the clock, a rivet-studded steel door opened in one of the factories, and a trickle of weary workers flowed out in spurts and ebbs, the graveyard shift going home. Without many words, and those few consisting of stale ritual phrases, the laborers apathetically trudged down the hard urban trail toward their shabby homes.
The path of many of the workers took them past the mouth of a dark alley separating two of the factories like a wedge in a log. None of the tired men and women took notice of two ominous figures crouched deep back in the alley's shadows like beasts of prey in the mouth of their burrow.
When it seemed the last worker had definitely passed, one of the gloom-cloistered lurkers whispered to the other. "Are you sure she's still coming?"
"Yeah, yeah, don't sweat it. She's always late for some reason. Maybe tossing the boss a quickie or something."
"You'd better be right, or our goose is cooked. We promised Madame Wu we'd bag her one last dame. And the boat for Shanghai leaves on the dot of two. And we still gotta get the baggage down to the clock."
"Don't get ants in your pants, fer chrissakes! Jesus, you'd think you'd never kidnapped a broad before! Ain't the white slavery racket a lot better'n second-story work?"
"I guess so. But I just got this creepy feeling tonight--"
"Well, keep it to yourself! You got the chloroform ready?"
"Sure, sure, I'm not gonna screw up. But there's something--"
"Quiet! I hear footsteps!"
Closer the lonely click-clack of a woman walking in heels sounded. A bare white arm and a skirted leg swung into the frame of the alley-mouth. Then the assailants were upon the unsuspecting woman, pinioning her arms, slapping an ether-drenched cloth to her face.
"OK, she's out! You get her legs, I'll take her arms. Once we're in the jalopy; we're good as there--"
Suddenly the night was split by an odd cry, half avian, half human, a spine-tingling ululation ripe with sardonic, caustic derision.
The kidnappers dropped their unconscious burden to the pavement and began to tremble.
"Oh, shit, no! Not him!"
"Where the hell is he! Quick!"
"There! I see him! Up on the roof!"
Standing in silhouette on a high parapet loomed the enigmatic and fearsome bane of evildoers everywhere, a heart-stopping icon of justice and fair play.
The figure was tall and cadaverous. On his head perched a wide-brimmed, split-crown felted hat. An ebony feathered cape, fastened around his neck, hung from his outstretched arms like wings. A cruel beaked raptor's mask hid the upper half of his face. From his uncovered mouth now burst again his piercing trademark cry; part caw, part madman's exultant defiance.
"Don't just stand there! Blast him!"
The frightened yeggs drew their pistols, took aim, and snapped off several shots.
But the Jackdaw was no longer there.
Facing outward, the forgotten woman behind their backs, and swiveling nervously about like malfunctioning automata on a Gothic town-square barometer, the kidnappers strained their ears for the slightest sound of movement. Only the drip, drip, drip of condensing fog broke the eerie stillness.
"We did it! We scared off the Jackdaw! He ain't such hot shit after all!"
"OK, quit bragging! We still gotta get this broad to the docks--"
"I think not, gentlemen."
The kidnappers swung violently around, teeth chattering. Bestriding the unconscious woman, the Jackdaw had twin pistols clutched in his yellow-gloved hands and trained on the quaking assailants. Before the thugs could react, the Jackdaw fired, his strange guns emitting not the flash and boom of gunpowder, but only a subtle phut, phut.
The kidnappers had time only to slap at the darts embedded in their necks before crumpling to the ground.
Within a trice, the Jackdaw had the men hogtied with stout cord unwrapped from around his waist. Picking up the girl and hoisting her in a fireman's carry over one shoulder, one gloved hand resting not unfamiliarly on her buttocks, the Jackdaw said, "A hospital bed will suit you better than a brothel's doss, liebchen. And I should still have time to meet that Shanghai-bound freighter. Altogether, this promises to be a most profitable night."
With this observation the Jackdaw plucked a signature feather from his cape and dropped it between the recumbent men. Then, with a repetition of his fierce cry, he was gone like the phantasm of a fevered brain.
When Mister Frank Kafka reached the office of his employer at 1926 Broadway on the morning of July 3, 1925, he found the entire staff transformed from their normally staid and placid selves into a milling, chattering mass resembling a covey of agitated rooks, or perhaps the inhabitants of an invaded, ax-split termite colony.
Hanging his dapper Homburg on the wooden coatrack that stood outside the door to his private office, Kafka winced at the loud voices before reluctantly approaching the noisy knot formed by his coworkers. The center of their interest and discussion appeared to be that morning's edition of the Graphic, a New York tabloid that was the newest addition to the stable of publications owned by the very individual for whom they too labored--that is, under normal conditions. All labor seemed suspended now.
The clot of humanity appeared an odd multilimbed organism composed of elements of male and female accoutrements starched detachable collars, arm garters, ruffled blouses, high-buttoned Shoes. Employing his above-average height to peer over the shoulders of the congregation, Kafka attempted to read the large headlines dominating the front page of the newspaper. Failing to discern their import, he turned to address an inquiry to a woman who resolved herself as an individual on the fringes of the group.
"Millie, good morning. What's this uproar about?"
Millie Jansen turned to fix her interlocutor with sparkling, mischievous eyes. A young woman in her early twenties with wavy dark hair parted down the middle, she exhibited a full face creased with deep laugh lines. Today she was clad in a black rayon blouse speckled with white dots and cuffed at the elbows, as well as a long black skirt belted with a wide leather cincture.
"Why, Frank, I swear you live in another world! Haven't you heard yet? The streets are just buzzing with the news! It's that mysterious vigilante, the Jackdaw--he struck again last night!"
Kafka yawned ostentatiously. "Oh, is that all? I'm afraid I can't be bothered keeping current with the doings of every Hans, Ernst, and Adolf who wants to take the law into his own hands. What did he accomplish this time? Perhaps he managed to foil the theft of an apple from a fruit-vendor's cart?"
"Oh, Frank!" Millie pouted prettily. "You're such a cynic! Why can't you show a little idealism now and then? If you really want to know, the Jackdaw broke up a white-slavery ring! Imagine--they were abducting helpless working girls just like me and shipping them to the Orient, where they would addict them to opium and force them into lewd, unnatural acts!"
Kafka smiled in a world-weary manner. "It all seems rather a short-sighted and unnecessary waste of time and effort on the part of these outlaw international entrepreneurs. Surely there are many women in town who would have volunteered for such a position. I counted a dozen on Broadway alone last night as I walked home."
Millie became serious. "You strike this pose all the time, Frank, but I know it's not the real you."
"Indeed, then, Millie, you know more about me than I do myself."
Kafka yawned again, and Millie studied him closely. "Didn't get much sleep last night, did you?"
"I fear not. I was working on my novel."
"Bohemia, isn't that the title? How's it going?"
"I draw the words as if out of the empty air. If I manage to capture one, then I have just this one alone and all the toil must begin anew for the next."
"Tough sledding, huh? Well, you can do it, Frank, I know it. Anybody who can write that lonely hearts column the way you do--well, you're just the bee's knees with words, if you get my drift." Millie laid a hand on the sleeve of Kafka's grey suitcoat. "Step aside, a minute, won't you, Frank? I--I've got a little something for you."
"As you wish. Although I can't imagine what it could be."
The pair walked across the large open room to Millie's desk. There, she opened a drawer and took out a small gaily wrapped package.
"Here, Frank. Happy birthday."
Kafka seemed truly touched, his self-composure disturbed for a moment. "Why, Millie, this is very generous. How did you know?"
"Oh, I happened to be rooting around in the personnel files the other day and a certain date and name just caught my eye. It's your forty-first, right?"
"Correct. Although I never imagined myself ever attaining this advanced age."
Millie smiled coyly. "You sure don't look that old, Frank."
"Even into my late twenties, I was still being mistaken for a teenager."
"Was that back in Prague?"
Kafka cocked his head alertly. "No. I left my native city in 1902, when I was only nineteen. That was the year my Uncle Lowy in Madrid took me under his wing and secured me a job with his employer, the Spanish railways."
"And that's what led to all those years of traveling the globe as a civil engineer, building railways?"
"Yes." Kafka fixed Millie with a piercing gaze. "Why this sudden inquisition, Miss Jansen? It seems purposeless and unwarranted."
"Oh, I don't know. I like you, I guess. I want to know more about you. Is that so strange? And you're so close-mouthed, it's a challenge. Even after two years of working almost side by side, I feel we hardly know each other. No, don't protest, it's true. Oh, I admit you contribute to the general office conversation, but never anything personal. Getting anything vital out of you is like pulling teeth."
Kafka seemed about to reply with some habitual rebuff, then hesitated as if summoning fresh words. "There is some veracity, to your perceptions, Millie. But you must rest assured that the fault lies with me, and not yourself. Due to my early warped upbringing, I have been generally unfitted for regular societal intercourse. Oh, I put up a good facade, but most of the time I feel clad in steel, as if my arm muscles, say, were an infinite distance away from myself. It is only when--well, at certain times I feel truly human. Then, I have a feeling of true happiness inside me. It is really something effervescent that fills me completely with a light, pleasant quiver and that persuades me of the existence of abilities of whose nonexistence I can convince myself with complete certainty any moment, even now."
Millie stood with jaw agape before saying, "Jiminy, Frank--that's deep! And see, it didn't hurt too much to share that with me, did it?"
Kafka sighed. "I suppose not, for whatever it accomplished. You must acknowledge that if I am not always agreeable, I strive at least to be bearable."
Millie threw her arms around Kafka, who stood rigid as a garden beanpole. "Don't worry, Frank! Everybody feels a little like a caged animal now and then!"
"Not as I do. Inside me is an alien being as distinctly and invisibly hidden as the face formed from elements of the landscape in a child's picture puzzle."
Releasing Kafka, Millie stepped back. "Gee, that is a weird way to feel, Frank. Well, anyhow, aren't you going to open your present?"
Discarding the colored paper and bow, Kafka delicately opened the box revealed. From within a nest of excelsior, he withdrew a small carving.
"Very nice, Millie. A figurine for my desk, I presume."
"Do you recognize it?"
Kafka twirled the object, showing no emotion. "A bird of some sort, obviously. A crow?"
"A jackdaw, actually. How do you say that in Czech?"
"Why; something tells me you already know, Millie. Back home we say, 'kavka.'"
Smiling as if she had just been awarded a trophy, Millie repeated, "'Kavka." Then, rather alarmingly, she flapped her arms, crowed softly, and winked.
Closing his office door gently behind him so as not to make a loud report that would disturb his acutely sensitive hearing, Kafka bestowed a long appraisal on his desk, where a Corona Model T typing machine reigned in midblotter like a machine-age deity. Wearily, he shook his head. Nothing good could be done on such a desk. There was so much lying about, it formed a disorder without proportion and without that compatability of disordered things which otherwise made every disorder bearable.
Kafka set about cleaning up the mess. Soon he had a stack of unopened mail, one of interoffice memos, and another of miscellaneous documents. Finally he could truly work.
However, just as soon as he had positioned himself behind the writing machine, ivory-handled letter opener in one hand and faintly perfumed envelope in another, a male shadow cast itself on the frosted glass of his door, followed by a tentative knock.
Sighing, Kafka urged entrance in a mild voice.
Carl Ross, the office boy, was a freckled youth whose perpetually ink-smeared face bore a constant smile of impish goodwill. "Boss wants you, Mr. Frank."
"Very well. Did he say why?"
"Nope. He seemed a tad steamed though."
"Undoubtedly at me. Well, the fault is probably all mine. I shall not reproach myself, for shouted into this empty day it would have a disgusting echo. And after all, the office has a right to make the most definite and justified demands on me."
"Cripes, Mr. Frank, why do you want to go and beat up on yourself like that for, before you even get called on the carpet? Let the Boss do it if he's going to. Otherwise, you're just going to suffer twice!"
Kafka stood and advanced to lay a hand on Carl's tousled head. "Good advice, Carl. Perhaps we should trade jobs. Well, there's no point putting this off. Let's go."
At the end of a long, blank corridor was a door whose gilt lettering spelled out the name of Kafka's employer: Bernarr Macfadden. Kafka knocked and was admitted with a gruff "Come in!"
Bernarr Macfadden--that prolific author, self-promoter, notorious nudist and muscleman, publishing magnate, stager of beauty contests, inventor of Physical Culture and the Macfadden Dietary System--was upside down. His head was firmly ensconced on a thick scarlet pillow with gold-braid trim placed against one wall of his large office, against which vertical surface his inverted body was braced. In his expensive suit and polished shoes, his vibrant handsome mustachioed face suffused with blood, Macfadden reminded Kafka of some modern representation of the Hanged Man Tarot card, an evil omen one would not willingly encounter.
As if to reinforce Kafka's dire whimsy, Macfadden now bellowed, "Have a seat and hang in there, Frank! I'll be done in a couple of seconds!"
Kafka did as ordered. True to his words, in only a moment or two Macfadden broke his swami's pose, coiling forward in a deft somersault that brought him to his feet, breathing noisily.
"There! Now I can think clearly again! Sure wish I could get you to join in with me once in a while, Frank!"
"I appreciate your interest, sir. However, I have a nightly course of exercises of my own devising which keep me fit."
"Well, can't argue with success!" Macfadden snatched up a stoppered vacuum bottle from his desktop and gestured with it at Kafka. "Care for a glass of Cocomalt?"
"No, thank you, sir."
"No matter, I'll have one." Macfadden poured himself a glass of the chilled food-tonic. "Anyhow, I must confess you're looking mighty fit You're following my diet rules though, aren't you?"
"Good, good. You were on the road to goddamn ruin when you first applied for a job here. I can't believe you ever fell for Fletcherism! Chew every mouthful a dozen times! Hogwash! As long as you lay off the tobacco and booze, you'll be A-OK! Why, look at me!" Abruptly, Macfadden stripped off his coat, rolled back one sleeve, and flexed the bicep thus exposed. "I'm fifty-seven years young, and at the peak of health! A little grey at the temples, but that's just frost on the roof. The fire inside is still burning bright! You can expect the same, if you just stay the course!"
Kafka coughed in a diversionary manner. "As you say, sir. Uh, I believe you needed to speak to me about a work-related matter . . .?"
Macfadden grew solemn. He propped one lean buttock on the corner of his expansive desk. "That's right, son. It's about your column."
"So then. I assume that 'Ask Josephine' is losing popularity with the readers of True Story. Or perhaps you've had a specific complaint . . .?"
"No, no, no, nothing like that. Your copy's as popular as ever, and no one's complained. It's just that your advice to the readers is so--so eccentric! Always has been, but I just read the latest issue and, son--you're moving into some strange territory!"
"I'm afraid I don't see--"
"Don't see! Why, how do you justify this? 'Anxious in Akron' asks for your advice on whether she should have more than one child. Here's your reply in its entirety: 'The convulsive starting up of a lizard under our feet on a footpath in Italy delights us greatly, again and again we are moved to bow down, but if we see them at a dealer's by hundreds crawling over one another in confusion in the large bottles in which otherwise pickles are packed, then we don't know what to do.'"
"Very clear, I thought."
"Clear? It's positively lurid!"
Kafka smiled with his typical demure sardonicism. "A charge you yourself have frequently had leveled at your own writings, sir."
"Harumph! Well, yes, true. But hardly the same thing! What about this one? 'Pining in Pittsburgh' wants to know how she can get her reluctant beau to pop the question. Your counsel? 'The messenger is already on his way. A powerful, indefatigable man now pushing with his right arm, now with his left, he cleaves a way for himself through the throng. If he encounters resistance he points to his breast, where the symbol of the sun glitters. The way is made easier for him than it would be for any other man. But the multitudes between him and you are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly, and soon doubtless you would hear the welcome hammering of his fists on your door. But he is still only making his way through the inner courts of a palace infinite in extent. If at last he should burst through the outermost gate--but never, never can that happen--the whole imperial capital would lie before him, the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through there. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.'"
For a space of time Kafka was silent. Then he said, "It's best, I think, not to raise false hopes. . . ."
Macfadden slammed down the magazine from which he had been reading. "False hopes! My god, boy, that's hardly the issue here! With such mumbo jumbo, who can even tell if you're talking about this planet or another one! I know the motto of our magazine is 'Truth is stranger than fiction,' but this kind of malarkey really beats the band!"
Kafka seemed stung. "The readers appear to take adequate solace from my parables."
"I'll grant you that if someone's heartsick enough they can find comfort in any old gibberish. But that's not what we're about at Macfadden enterprises. The plain truth plainly told! No flinching from hard facts, no mincing or obfuscation, if you can only keep that in mind, Frank!"
Rising to his feet, Kafka said, "I will do my best, sir. Although my nature is not that of other men."
Macfadden got up also, and put an arm around Kafka's shoulders. "That brings me to another point, son. You know I like to keep a fatherly eye on my employees and their home lives. And it has risen to my attention that you're becoming something of a reclusive loner, a regular hermit bachelor type. Now, take this advice of mine to heart, both as a stylistic example and on a personal level. You cannot work for yourself alone, and rest content. You need a satisfying love life, and the home and children with which it is sanctified. It is the stimulus of love that makes service divine. To work for yourself alone is cold, selfish, and meaningless. You need a loved one with whom you can double your joys and divide your sorrows."
During this speech Macfadden had been escorting his subordinate to the exit. Now, opening the door, he slapped Kafka with hearty bonhomie on the back, sending the slighter man staggering forward a step or two.
"Have a yeast pill, son, and get back in the harness!"
Silently, Kafka accepted the offered tablet and departed.
Back in his office, Kafka deposited the yeast pill in a drawer containing scores of others. Then he picked up the envelope the slitting of which had been interrupted by his boss's summons and extracted its contents.
"Dear Josephine," the letter began. "I hardly know where to start! My sick, elderly parents are about to be evicted from our farm because they had a number of bad years and can't pay their loans, and my own job--our last hope of survival--could be in danger itself. It's my boss, you see. He has made improper advances toward me, advances I've modestly refused. Still, I get the impression that he won't respect my virtuous stand much longer, and I'll have to either bend to his will or be fired! I've made myself sick with worry about this, can't sleep, can't eat, etc., until I almost don't care about anything anymore, just wish I could escape from it all somehow. Does this make me a bad daughter? Please help!"
Kafka rolled a sheet of paper into his typing machine. Attempting to keep Macfadden's advice in mind, he moved his fingers delicately over the keys.
"Don't despair, not even over the fact that you don't despair. Just when everything seems over with, new forces come marching up, and precisely that means that you are alive." Kafka paushed, then added a codicil. "And if they don't, then everything is over with here, once and for all."
Seated in the study of his Fifth Avenue apartment at a desk that was the tidy twin to its office mate, with the dusk of another evening mantling his shoulders like a moleskin cape, Kafka composed with pen in their native German his weekly letter to his youngest and favorite sister, Ottla, now resident with her husband Joseph David in Berlin.
I am gratified to hear that you are finally feeling at ease in your new home and environs. The claws of our "little mother" Prague are indeed difficult to disengage from one's skin. Sometimes I envision all of Prague's more sensitive citizens as being metaphorically suspended from the city's towers and steeples on lines and flesh-piercing hooks, like Red Indians engaged in ritual excruciations. Although I myself have been a wandering expatriate for some two decades now, I still recall my initial disorientation, when Uncle Alfred took me under his wing and forcibly launched me on my globe-circling career. I think that my strong memories of Bohemia and my intense feelings for our natal city were what prevented me from settling down until recently Although, truth be told, I soon came to enjoy my peripatetic mode of existence. The lack of close and enduring ties with other people was not unappealing, neither were the frequent stimulating changes of scenery.
Of course, all that changed after "The Encounter," which I have expatiated about to you in, I fear, far too copious and boring detail. That meeting in the rarefied reaches of the Himalayas with the Master--hidden like a pearl of great worth in his alpine hermitage--and my subsequent revelatory year's tutelage under him has finally resulted in my settling down to pursue a definitive course of action, one calculated to make the best use of my talents. My adopted country, I feel confident in saying, is now Amerika, practically the last country unvisited by me in an official engineering capacity, yet one of which I have often dreamed--right down to spurious details such as a sword-wielding Statue of Liberty! It is here, at the dynamic new center of the century, that I have finally planted sustainable roots.
As for your new role as wife and mother, you must accept my sincerest congratulations. You know that I esteem parenthood most highly--despite having many reasons well known to you for the likely development of exactly the opposite opinion. Once I actually dared dream of such a role for myself. But such a happy circumstance was not to be. For although there have been many women in my, life, none seemed equal to my idiosyncratic needs. (Any regrets I may have once had regarding my eternal bachelorhood are long extinguished, of course.) Curiously enough, my employer, Herr Macfadden, saw fit to accost me on this very topic today. Perhaps I shall take his blunt advice to heart and resume courting the fair sex, if only for temporary amusement. Although the rigors of my curious manner of existence have grown, if anything, even more demanding than before. . . .
Fleshing out his letter with another page or two of trivial anecdotes and polite domestic and familial inquiries, Kafka paused at the closing endearment. After some thought, he finally inscribed it: "Give my regards to Mother--and Mother alone." Weighing the sealed letter with a small balance, he affixed the precisely requisite postage to it, then took the elevator down to the lobby of his building, where he left the missive with the concierge.
But then, instead of returning to his apartment or exiting onto the busy Manhattan street, Kafka moved to an innocuous door in a forlorn corner of the lobby. Looking about to ascertain whether anyone was observing him, he quickly insinuated himself through the portal.
A wanly lit flight of stairs led downward. Soon Kafka was in the basement. Crossing that nighted realm, Kafka reached another set of stairs. Within seconds, he was in a subcellar.
This underground kingdom seemed even darker than the level above, save for a distant flickering glow. Kafka moved toward this partially shielded light source.
Heat mounted. On the far side of a gap-slatted wooden partition, Kafka came face to face with an enormous, Moloch-like furnace. Its door was open, and from an enormous pile of coal a half-naked man Shoveled scoop after scoop of black lumps.
For some time Kafka watched the brawny sweating man work. He knew neither the man's name nor his history Kafka assumed he lived here, within reach of his fiery charge, for no matter when Kafka visited he found the stoker busy tending his demanding master.
The congruence with his own situation did not go unregarded by Kafka.
On the floor stood a pail of cinder-flecked water with a dipper in it. Kafka took up the dipper and raised it to the stoker's lips. Without stopping his shoveling, the laborer greedily drank the warm sooty liquid. After several repetitions of this beneficence, the man signaled by a grunt his satisfaction.
Feeling free now to tend to his own business, Kafka stepped around the bulk of the furnace. Behind this asbestos-clad monster was another door, seemingly placed without sense. Through this door Kafka stepped.
And into the Jackdaw's sanctum.
Strange machines and devices bulked in the shadows not entirely dispelled by several low-wattage bulbs. An exit leading who-knows-where could be vaguely discerned. Near the entrance door on a peg hung the famous feathered cape; on a table sat mask, hat and canary-colored gloves. In a glass case was a gun belt and sundry other portable gadgetry.
With lingering, almost fetishistic pleasure, Kafka donned his disguise. A transformative surge passed through him, rendering him somehow larger than life.
Emitting a mild sotto voce version of his shrill cry, the Jackdaw stepped to a ticker-tape device. Picking up the trailing paper, he began to scan its contents.
"Hmmm . . . The Mousehole Gang suspected in daring daylight bank robbery, but police on the case . . . Dogface Barton in prison break, but likely hideout believed known . . . The dirigible Shenendoah to make maiden flight . . . Ku Klux Klan to stage Washington rally. . . . Yes, yes, but nothing here for me--Wait, what's this? 'The Federal Bureau of Investigation under its new director Mr. Hoover is pursuing reports of an extortion attempt upon oil and steel magnate John D. Rockefeller by a hitherto unknown Zionist agent provocateur using the pseudonym of "The Black Beetle. . . ."' Ah, this has the Jackdaw's name writ large upon it!"
The door to Kafka's office opened and Millie Jensen entered, carrying a sheaf of papers. She stood quietly for a moment, regarding the affecting sight before her, which evoked a tender sigh from her sympathetic nature.
Kafka's face rested insensibly on a surface definitely not intended for such a purpose: the uncomfortable keys and platen of his Corona typing machine. Gentle snores issued from the sleeping columnist.
Millie tried awakening him by tapping her foot. When this method produced no effect, she began to cough, at first femininely, then with increasing violence, until her ultimate efforts resembled the paroxysms of a tuberculosis victim.
Her ploy worked at last, for Kafka jolted awake with a start, almost like a caged dangerous beast, taking in his situation with a single wild-eyed glance before his usual mask of calm fell into place.
"Ah, Miss Jensen, please excuse my inattention. I was inspecting the mechanism. Its performance was unsatisfactory--"
"Oh, you don't need to make excuses with me, Frank," said Millie, not unkindly. "I know you're exerting yourself night and day to accomplish--certain things."
"Yes, quite correct. My, um, novel is presenting me with certain intractable difficulties. Important lines of the plot refuse to resolve themselves--"
"Yeah, gotcha, kiddo." Millie regarded Kafka slyly and with a humorous glint in her green eyes. "Say, did you ever think that by relaxing a little, you might find an answer to your problems unconsciously?"
Kafka smiled. "Why, Millie, you sound positively like a disciple of Herr Freud."
"Oh, a girl likes to keep abreast of the latest fads. But I'm serious. You like the movies, don't you?"
"I believe that the cinema represents a valid new sensory experience akin to the exteriorization of one's dreams."
"And their popcorn generally ain't so bad either. Well, it's a Friday, and the new Chaplin is playing downtown. The Gold Rush. Wanna catch it with me tonight?"
Kafka deliberated momentarily before brightening and giving a surprisingly hearty and colloquial assent. "Millie, I'm your man!"
Turning to leave--or so that she could regard Kafka coquettishly over one shoulder--Millie replied, "That remains to be seen!"
Streaming out from the doors of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma--a popular begemmed movie palace owned by the most famous and successful son of that prairie state, the comedian Will Rogers--the happy moviegoers soon dispersed into the evening bustle of Manhattan. Left behind were a single man and woman; the pair seemed hesitant or unsure of their next destination, like moths deprived of their phototropism.
After a protracted silence, Millie chirpily asked Kafka, "So, Frank, whadda'd you think? What a riot, huh?"
Millie's date seemed lost in thought, his dark features enrapt in a fugue of consternation. "That scene where Chaplin is starving and forced to eat his own shoe made me feel so strange. . . . It corresponded exactly to an enervating emotion I myself have had on numerous occasions."
"Really? Gosh, I feel plenty bad for you, Frank. Look at you--you're wound up so tight you're ready to burst to pieces! What you need is a feminine presence in your life, someone to take care of you and nurture you. Don't you think that would be nice?"
"If you speak of marriage, Miss Jensen, I fear that such a normal mortal luxury is forever denied me. A formal union with a woman would result not only in the dissolution of the nothingness that I am, but doom also my poor wife."
"Holy cats, Frank, you've been reading the fake sob stories in our rag too much! Or maybe you've even been dipping into Weird Tales! Life just isn't as complex or melodramatic as you or those three-hankie writers make it out to be!" Millie linked her arm through Kafka's and leaned her head on his shoulder. "A man and a woman together--what could be simpler?"
Kafka did not disengage, but instead, seeming to take some small encouragement from the simple human contact, managed to pull himself together with a visible effort.
"I'm sorry to be such a wet blanket, Millie, when all you sought was a gay night out. Truthfully, I have not felt so melancholy for nearly twenty years. This black humor was something I thought I had left behind in the dank and dismal streets of Prague. The cosmopolitan, globe-trotting engineer known as Frank Kafka was a mature, vibrant, self-assured fellow. But it appears now that he was only a paper cutout that quickly withers in the flames of frustration."
Since Kafka was at least communicating again, Millie's natural exuberance reasserted itself. "Oh, bosh and piffle, Frank! Everyone gets a dose of the blues now and then. It'll pass, you'll see! All we have to do is spend an hour or two doing something pleasant. What do you really; really like to do? How about grabbing a coffee and some pastry? The Hotel Occidental has a great coffee shop. I bet their jelly donuts will make you think of Vienna!"
"That sounds fine, Millie. But if you'd really like to know what I enjoy--"
"Yes, yes, Frank--tell me!"
"I like to contemplate the Brooklyn Bridge. Mr. Roebling's masterpiece reminds me of some of the humbler constructions I myself was once responsible for. Sometimes those noble buttresses alone seem endurable and without shame to me, amidst all the city's charade. But I don't suppose--"
"Frank, I'd love bridge-watching with you! Let's go!"
With Millie forcefully tugging on her coworker's arm, the mismatched couple began to move up Broadway. Soon, they were within sight of City Hall and not far from the majestic span across the East River.
As they crossed the small park in front of City Hall, the shrill scream of a hysterical woman brought them to an abrupt halt. This initial call of alarm was quickly followed by a swelling chorus of indignation, fear, confusion, and outrage.
Kafka raced toward the source of the noise, Millie trailing behind.
A growing, growling, agitated crowd lifted its gaze skyward. Atop the very roof of City Hall stood an ominous figure. Diminuitive yet powerful, with the warped back and hypertrophied cranium of a Quasimodo, he was clad in a form-fitting black union suit that merged into face-concealing, antennae-topped headgear. From his back sprouted small, wire-stiffened cellophane wings; from his torso, parallel rows of artificial abdominal feelers. The creature could be none other than--
"The Black Beetle!" shouted an onlooker.
"Where're the cops?" yelled someone else.
"Where's the Jackdaw?" yelled another.
Kafka stood quivering beside Millie like a dog on a leash faced with an impudent raccoon or squirrel.
The Black Beetle began to harangue his audience in a slightly accented English, showering them with incomprehensible slogans and demands.
"Down with all anti-Semites! Up with Zionism! Palestine for the Jews! The Mufti of Jerusalem must die! America must support the Zionist cause! If she does not do so willingly, with guns and money, we shall compel her to! Take this as a sign of our seriousness!"
There was nothing equivocal or esoteric about the round bomb which the Black Beetle now produced from somewhere on his person. The sight of its sizzling fuse raised a loud inchoate cry from the crowd, and people began to scatter in all directions.
"Long live the Stern Gang!" shouted the Black Beetle as he hurled his explosive device.
Kafka knocked Millie to the ground and covered her body with his lanky form.
The bomb went off, filling their world with noise and the reek of gunpowder, hurtling shrapnel, flying cement chips, and clumps of sod.
Immediately after the detonation, Kafka leaped to his feet and surveyed the situation. By a miracle of Providence, it appeared that no person had been caught in the blast, the destruction confined to turf, sidewalk, and park benches.
As for the Black Beetle--in the confusion, he had made good his escape.
Kafka slumped in despair, muttering, "Useless, useless, all ambition. And yet what joy, imagining again the pleasure of a knife twisted in my heart. . . ."
Millie had regained her feet and was brushing her clothes clean. "Frank--are you OK?"
Kafka straightened. "Millie, our night together is over. I trust you can find your own way home? I have--I must be going."
"Why, sure, Frank. See you in the office."
Kafka hurriedly departed. Millie hung back until he turned a corner. Then she slipped after him, always keeping a shield of pedestrians between them.
She followed her quarry as far as Times Square. There, in a squalid doorway apart from the more wholesome foot-traffic, as Millie watched from concealment behind a shuttered kiosk, Kafka approached two gaudy women of obvious ill repute, leaving, after a slight dickering, with both of the overpainted floozies, plainly headed toward the entrance of a nearby fleabag hotel.
"Oh, Frank! Why?" Millie exclaimed, and began to weep.
I write to you today hoping to clarify my own thoughts on one particular matter, that being our shared ancestry and heritage. A disturbing incident of late has unleashed a savage pack of old feelings and recriminations I thought long tamed. I have always admired at a suitable distance your passionate embrace of an ultra-modern synthesis of our old family religion--perhaps strictly for its certitude--although I could never myself feel comfortable in its suffocating clutches. Perhaps your perspective will aid me in seeing my own status afresh.
We are Jews, of course. Jews by birth, an inescapable heritage of the blood. You have affirmed this ancient taint wholeheartedly, passionately enlisting in such causes as the rescue of the Ostjuden and the formation of a Jewish homeland in the Palestine protectorate. I, on the other hand, have violently abandoned any such affiliations and attitudes, a decision enforced not solely by my rational intellect and the study of comparative cultures enabled by my extensive travels, but equally by my gut.
How you ever maintained any religious feeling, raised in our household as you were, I cannot imagine. Dragged by him, we went to synagogue a bare four times a year, and it was a farce, a joke. No, not even a joke. I've never been so bored in my life, I believe, except later on at dance lessons. I did enjoy the small distractions, such as the opening of the Ark, which always reminded me of a shooting gallery where, when you hit a bull's-eye, a door flips open the same way, except that at the gallery something interesting popped out, while here it was always the same old dolls without heads.
Later, I saw things in a slightly less harsh light and realized what could lead you to believe. You had actually managed to salvage some scraps of Judaism from that small, ghettolike congregation. For me, it was not to be, and I firmly affixed a Solomonic seal to the whole stinking corpse of my incipient, puerile Judaism and buried it deep.
But now, this old specter has arisen again, lashed into an unnatural afterlife by the chance meeting with a Zionist demagogue.
What I humbly request from you, dearest sister, are two things. First, a well-marshalled explanation and defense of your own faith. Second, and perhaps more vitally, some information regarding the chief figures of the European Zionist scene, specifically any particulars concerning a certain crook-backed firebrand . . .
The door to Kafka's office was thrust open so violently that it swung through a full half-circle of arc to bang against the wall in which it was hung, making the inset glass pane quiver like a shaken quilt.
Kafka clapped his hands to his ears and winced. "Millie, was that strictly necessary?"
Millie snorted, then stomped across the room. "That's 'Miss Jensen' to you, Mr. Kafka!" She flung an armful of papers down on Kafka's desk and pivoted to leave.
Kafka stood and moved to her side. "Millie--or if you insist, Miss Jensen. I realize that our date did not end in a particularly satisfying fashion, and that perhaps your nerves are still abuzz from our shared brush with death. And yet, I fancied that until that unforeseen, inaesthetic climax we were enjoying ourselves much like any other couple."
Millie's jade eyes flared with anger. "Oh, sure, right till we nearly got blown up things were hunky-dory. But what came after was the real shocker!"
"After? I don't understand--No, surely you couldn't have--"
"But I did, Mr. Barn Veeve-ant, Filly-der-joy Kafka! And let me just tell you this, buster! Any guy who'd pass up some heavy petting with me in favor of two clapped-out, gussied-up old trollops is not someone who's ever going to learn if I wear my stockings rolled!"
And with that obscure assertion, Millie departed as noisily as she had come.
Kafka sat down at his desk and cradled his head in his hands. There came a polite knock, followed by the entrance of officeboy Carl.
Kafka looked up. "The Boss?"
Carl simply nodded, his expression and demeanor conveying the utmost solemn sympathy.
Once more Kafka stood before the forbidding door to Bernarr Macfadden's office. Disspiritedly he knocked, wearily entered when bidden.
Macfadden was employing an apparatus of steel springs and Bakelite grips in exercises intended to strengthen his upper body. Seated behind his massive desk, he stretched and released the resistant springs like a demented candymaker fighting recalcitrant taffy. Sweat dripped from his agressive mustache as, grunting, he nodded Kafka to a seat.
Watching in horrified fascination, Kafka sought within him for some last untapped resource of strength. A phrase of the Master's came back to him unbidden: "The axe that cleaves the frozen sea within us . . ." Why could he no longer lay his grip upon that once familiar haft?
Finally Kafka's superior finished his exertions. Dropping the device, he wiped his brow and then poured himself some brown sludge from his flask. That Kafka was not offered any of the drink, the advice columnist considered a bad omen.
Macfadden began to lecture, on a topic of seemingly small relevance.
"I'm not one of your hypocritical, church-going, priest-worshipping, narrow-minded Babbits, Frank. Far from it! Open-minded toleration and clear-sighted experimentation has always been my game plan. I'll endorse any mode of living that honors the body and the mind and the soul. But I draw the line at one thing. Do you know what that is?
"No, sir. What?"
"Blasphemy!" thundered Macfadden. "Blasphemy of the sort contained in these galleys of yours, which I took the precaution of securing a look at before they reached print! And thank the Lord I did! I can't imagine the magnitude of the hue and cry that would have followed the publication of this corker!"
"Sir, to what are you referring . . .?"
'This answer of yours to 'Doubting in Denver.' 'If we were possessed by only a single devil, one who had a calm, untroubled view of our whole nature, and freedom to dispose of us at any moment, then that devil would also have enough power to hold us for the length, of a human life high above the spirit of God in us, and even swing us to and fro so that we should never get to see a glimmer of it and therefore should not be troubled from that quarter.'"
Weakly, Kafka replied, "You misconstrue my meanings--"
Macfadden crumpled the galleys savagely. "Misconstrue, hell! It's the most blatant decadent Satanism I've ever seen! That poor girl! I hate to imagine how her life could have been ruined by these abberant Nietzschean gutter-sweepings of yours! No, Frank, you've had your chance. You had a good job, but you threw it away. I want you to clean out your desk right now, collect your last wages, and be off."
Kafka said nothing in his own defense. He knew that all he could say would appear quite incomprehensible to Macfadden, and that whether a good or bad construction was to be put on his actions had all along depended solely on Macfadden's judgmental spirit. And besides, the summed weight of all the misunderstandings he was the center of now sat upon his shoulders like a sack of coal on a stevedore's back, robbing him of speech. A flickering, cool little flame had taken up residence in the left side of his head, and a tension over his left eye had settled down and made itself at home. Coming to his feet, Kafka turned to go.
Now that he had vented his spleen, Macfadden softened somewhat toward his ex-employee, to the point of offering advice. "Maybe you should try something that doesn't involve contact with the public so much, Frank. Go back to the railroads. Or you could always try the insurance industry. Lots of call for analysts and writers there."
Kafka left without a word.
On his way from the building, he was forced to thread an unwelcome, albeit generally friendly gauntlet of his ex-coworkers. Most of them uttered sympathetic farewells and useful advice, all of which pelted Kafka like hailstones.
The ultimate face in the series belonged to Millie. Seemingly genuine tears of sorrow had snailed her cheeks.
"Oh, Frank, I had no idea--"
Kafka came alert, straightening his back. "Millie, I regret anything I have done to cause you distress. For a time, I acted like a lost sheep in the night and in the mountains. Or rather, like a sheep which is running after this sheep. But now my course is clear."
"What's that, Frank?" sniffled Millie.
"To let my own devil fully possess me."
And with that, Kafka walked with what he hoped was a passably erect carriage through the door.
A wrinkled, disintegrating newspaper, half soaking in the wet gutter, half draped over the granite curb, bore large headlines just legible under the wan buttercup-colored glow of a streetlamp:
JACKDAW TERRORIZES UNDERWORLD!
POLICE HARD PUT TO JAIL ALL MALEFACTORS DELIVERED TO THEIR DOOR!
"WHAT IS HE AFTER?" ASKS PUBLIC
COMMISSIONER O'HALLORAN SPECULATES:
"IT SEEMS HE HAS A GRUDGE AGAINST THE BLACK BEETLE"
A booted foot ground down upon the discarded tabloid, pulping its substance. The foot moved on, followed by its mate, carrying their owner with determined stealth across the sidewalk and up to the very wall of a derelict building. There the boots halted.
The Jackdaw studied the structure before him. His keen eyes caught sight of a line of ornamental carvings above the second-story windows. Deftly the masked avenger uncoiled a grapple and cord from around his waist. In mere seconds he was standing on a ledge some dozen feet above the ground. From there he progressed rapidly up the side of the seemingly abandoned building until he crouched before the lighted panes of a sixth-floor window.
Inside, men clustered around a table on which bomb-making materials were scattered. Consulting a plan and arguing among themselves, they were oblivious to their watcher.
Chuckling softly to himself, the Jackdaw stood. Tugging the rope secured above him to test its stability, he next leaned backward into sheer space at an angle to the wall, supported by his yellow-gloved grip on the rope. With a kick, he propelled himself away from the wall. At the end of his short arc into darkness, he was aimed feet first for the glass and moving at some speed.
As he hit, glass and wood exploding inward, the Jackdaw emitted his nerve-shattering cry.
It was enough. The bombmakers fell cowering to the floor, failing even to reach for their weapons.
"We give up! Don't kill us! Please!"
The Jackdaw picked up one of the spineless hirelings of the Black Beetle with maniacal force. "Where is he! The Black Beetle! Talk!"
"Lower East Side! In the basement of Schnitzler's Market on Delancey Street! That's his headquarters! Honest!"
"Very well! Now, you gentlemen look as if you could use a little nap before your ride in the Black Maria--"
The pick in the lock of the rear door to Schnitzler's Market tickled the tumblers as delicately as a virgin toying with the strap of her camisole in some Weimar brothel. Within seconds, the Jackdaw had gained entrance. Tiptoeing across the shadowy storage room thus revealed the Jackdaw spied what was patently the basement door.
As he twisted its handle, there came a noise from above of rattling chains.
With a tremendous crash a large cage fell, trapping the Jackdaw!
Gas hissed out from hidden nozzles.
Consciousness departed from the Jackdaw like an offended customer offered inferior goods huffily exiting a carriage-trade establishment.
When he awoke, the Jackdaw found himself lying belly down on some kind of padded platform, secured at wrists, waist, and ankles, and stripped of his mask and cape. His chin was cupped in a kind of trough, and a leather strap went around his brow, forcing him to bend his neck at a strained angle. The sole sight before his eyes was a brick wall with flaking grey paint and blooming excrescences of niter.
Into the Jackdaw's view now walked a man.
The Black Beetle, bent of back, bulging of skull.
"So, we meet again after so long, Franz Kafka!"
Even in extremis, his careful deliberation of speech had not deserted Kafka. Far from blurting out a plea for mercy or a useless threat, Kafka now uttered a simple, "Again?"
An ooze of false sincerity and hollow bonhomie dripped from the Black Beetle's voice. "Ah, but of course! I am still masked. How discourteous! Allow me. . . ." The Black Beetle doffed his headgear, so that the attached piece of his suit with its antennae hung down his back like an improperly molted skin. Kafka saw the gnomish face of a stranger his own age, in no way familiar.
"I see you are still puzzled by my identity," continued the Black Beetle. "Naturally, there is no reason for you to remember such a nonentity as Max Brod!"
"Max Brod? Weren't you at the Altstadter Gymnasium with me as a youth? But that was over two decades ago, and we hardly ever spoke a single word to each other even then!"
"Of course we never spoke! Who would bother to seek out conversation with a crippled, graceless overachiever such as I was then? Not the haughty, handsome Franz Kafka, by any means! Oh, no, he never had time to see the pitiful, adoring youngster who idolized him, who hung on the fringes of his precious little circle--Pollack, Pribam, Baum, that whole bunch!--desperately hoping for some little crumb of attention! And then, when you left me behind in Prague, the agonies of severed affection I suffered! The sleepless nights in a sweat-soaked bed, writhing under the lash of your image! The long hikes and swims intended to burn away your memory, but which only succeeded in somewhat alleviating my childhood bodily afflictions. Even your absence became a kind of presence, for the glorious figure of Engineer Kafka and his faraway glorious deeds were forever thrust before my eyes by all and sundry in the small world of Jewish Prague society."
The strain on Kafka's neck was beginning to nauseate him. "And--and have you tracked me down then only to sate your unnatural obsessions and take revenge?"
Brod laughed sourly. "Even now you cast all events with yourself at the center! Far from it, Mr. Vaunted Jackdaw! This victory is merely a sweet lagniappe. You see, the only way I was able to forget about you and recover my wits and energies was to plunge myself into a cause larger than myself. Zionism was the flame that reignited me!
"At first, I allied myself with one of your old buddies, Weltsch, and his journal Selbstwehr. But he proved too meek and mild for my tastes, and I soon found more radical companions. Willingly, to spite all those who see the Jew as the cockroach of civilization, I adopted this disguise. Now I and my comrades wage a worldwide campaign of terror and coercion with the aim of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. You in your foolish crimefighting role stood in the way of my goals here in America, so I simply chose to stomp on you. The wonderful irony of our early connection was merely a token that Yahweh continues to smile on me."
"And now what will you do with me?"
From somewhere on his person, Brod produced a crisp crimson apple. After polishing it on his sleeve, he began to crunch it, chewing avidly, as if to mock his captive. "I shall enlist you in a scientific experiment. You are secured, you see, to the bed of a unique apparatus intended to convince the enemies of Zionism of their folly. Above you is an adjustable clockwork mechanism which can be set to reproduce certain movements in what we call 'the Harrow,' to which it is connected by various subtle motors.
"The Harrow features two kinds of needles arranged in multiple patterns. Each long needle has a short one beside it. The long needle does a kind of inkless tattoo writing directly into your flesh, and the shorter needle sprays a jet of water to wash away the blood and keep the inscription clear. Blood and water are then conducted here through small runnels into this main runnel and down a waste pipe."
"I see. And what text have you chosen to inscribe on my flesh?"
"A portion of the Talmud dealing with traitors to the Jewish race!"
Discarding the core of his apple, Brod moved out of Kafka's view. In the next second, Kafka felt his garments being slit open to expose his back.
"I am sorry you will not survive your reeducation, my dear Franz. But the process, to be effective, must be repeated hundreds of times over many hours!"
Kafka waited tensely for the start of the physical torture. But what came next was the last thing he expected.
"By the way," said Brod with fiendish glee, "your beloved father sends his usual sentiments!"
Kafka swooned straight away.
When he regained consciousness, the reeducation machine was already in action.
What felt like a bed of nails now touched Kafka's back, and he was instantly reminded of enduring a similar sensation under the Master's tutelage. Yet even those lessons in self-mastery were bound to disintegrate under repetitive assaults of the Harrow, especially when his psyche was weakened by the Black Beetle's psychological thrust.
Kafka strained against his bonds, to no avail.
"Perhaps you'd care to vent that ridiculous cry of yours once more? No, I thought not. Very well, prepare yourself--"
Suddenly a loud crash sounded from above them, followed by the clamor of urgent gruff voices.
"Damnation! Well, I see I must leave my fun. But not before witnessing the first prick!"
Dozens of dancing needles pierced Kafka as if he were Saint Sebastian, and he swore his skin could interpret the agonizing shapes of the Hebrew letters. It took all his Oriental training not to scream.
Footsteps galloped down a flight of wooden stairs. The needles continued their cruel and arcane tarantella. Shots rang out Kafka lost his senses.
He swam up out of blackness apparently only moments later, and felt that his bleeding form was freed from the Harrow and cradled in a soft embrace. The tearful face of Millie Jensen regarded him from above.
Oh, Frank! Tell me you're going to make it!"
Kafka groaned. "The palimpsest of my hide still has room for a few more passages . . ."
Millie bent to kiss him. "Thank God! I was sure we'd be too late! I've been haunting the police since the day you were fired, trying to convince them I knew who the Jackdaw was, trying to stop you for your own good! When those bombmakers finally came around and the police beat some information out of them, I tagged along! Everything's fine now, Frank!"
A certain lifelong tension inherent in his very sinews and musculature seemed to have been drained from Kafka along with his blood. Momentarily, he thought to ask whether the Black Beetle had escaped, then realized he didn't care. Max Brod's fanaticism would lead to his own undoing sooner or later, much as Kafka's had nearly led to his.
"Have you ever considered what marriage to me might entail?"
Millie kissed him again. "Well, you're nothing to crow about--"
Kafka winced. "Millie, please, my writer's sensibilities have not been extinguished--"
"But you'd be a feather in any girl's cap!"
Table of Contents
- The Jackdaw’s Last Case
- The Happy Valley at the End of the World
- Mairzy Doats
- Campbell’s World
- World Wars III
- Linda and Phil
- Alice, Alfie, Ted, and the Aliens
What People are Saying About This
His skill with both words and concepts rivals that of Michael Jordan with a basketball.
Di Filippo is the spin doctor of SF -- and it's a powerful medicine he brews.