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Darkness, Spreading Its Wings of Black Chapter V: But For the Grace of God

A column article by: Barry Reese
Darkness, Spreading Its Wings of Black
An Adventure Starring
Lazarus Gray & The Rook
Written by Barry Reese

Chapter V
But For the Grace of God



Max Davies woke up at six in the morning and immediately indulged in his daily ritual. He had a cup of warm tea followed by an hour-long session of yoga and Tai chi chuan. When he was done with his exercises, he dressed in a casual suit and placed the beak-like mask of The Rook over the bridge of his nose. He'd spent the night in the headquarters of Assistance Unlimited, enjoying the comforts that the former hotel offered. He felt a bit silly continuing to hide his identity – Lazarus knew who he was and he trusted the man implicitly. The fact that Lazarus in turn trusted his aides should have meant that Max did as well… but it wasn't quite that simple. The dark stares The Rook continued to receive from Eun were evidence that he wasn't fully accepted by all.

The Rook wandered downstairs to the team's meeting room and found that everyone else was already there. Morgan and Samantha were seated beside each other, their voices lowered to mere whispers. Morgan said something that Samantha found funny and she coyly covered her mouth as she laughed. Eun was leaning against the wall, looking as surly as ever. Lazarus himself was standing with his hands clasped behind his mask. His impassive face was pointed toward the window and the ray of sunlight that fell upon it accentuated his strong chin.

"Any breaks in the case?" The Rook asked, ignoring the way Eun muttered under his breath in response.

Lazarus looked toward him and gave a brief nod. "Perhaps. Groseclose is holding a private meeting at this hour with Phillips and Melvin. I understand they attempted to get in contact with Max Davies, but he's not at his hotel."

The Rook paused, a smile on his lips. "I might be able to reach Max and convince him to go to this little party. It would help us to know what was going on."

"That would be quite useful," Lazarus admitted. "We'll be waiting to hear back from you."

***



Michael Groseclose was pulling out of the driveway just as the taxicab carrying Max Davies was coming to a stop in front of the house. Michael and Max locked eyes for a brief second before their travels carried them away from each other and Max was struck once more by how intelligent the young man seemed. They'd only met briefly at the party thrown by the elder Groseclose, but Max had felt a kinship to the youth.

Max was led into the house by a taciturn butler who looked almost as harried as Max felt. He wore on his lapel a miniscule listening device that would allow Lazarus to overhear every word that was said. Max was more impressed with Assistance Unlimited at every turn. The various skills of the aides were impressive enough, but combined with the various inventions and designs of their leader, they had become one of the most formidable organizations on earth.

Max found Groseclose in the sitting room, seated with his head hanging between his knees. Phillips, looking like an angry bear that had been roused from his winter's nap, was pacing in front of the fireplace. Melvin, looking older and frailer than Max could ever remember, sat pensively on a small couch, his eyes staring off into unfocused space.

Phillips stopped and stared, his mouth clamped into a thin line beneath his beard. "Davies. We were beginning to wonder if Devil Face had gotten to you."

"Devil Face?" Max asked, allowing a smile to appear on his face. He looked over at Groseclose, who had leaned back in his chair.

"According to a statement released by Assistance Unlimited, that's the name of the lunatic who's committing the murders," Groseclose said.

Max noticed that Melvin looked up sharply, his gaze shifting from Max to Phillips and back again. "You know about Smithson, don't you?" he asked. "They say Devil Face killed him, too, but he didn't mutilate him like he did the others."

Max knelt in front of Melvin and took the old man's hands. "I did hear and I'm sorry. I know he was like a son to you."

"He was. I don't know how I'm going to continue on without him. I'm not as young as I used to be."

Phillips growled like the animal he resembled. "I'm surprised the police don't have us all under protection. Two of the men whose names were on that dead girl's body have been murdered! We're important people, damn it!"

"Smithson's name wasn't in the packet," Max pointed out, drawing another dangerous stare from Phillips.

"I imagine they're planning to put us under protection," Groseclose said. "But I'm not sure that's going to be enough. Any man who could have evaded detection for as many years as this Devil Face has… I'm not sure he's human."

Melvin looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Just that there are a lot of awful things in this world and not all of them can be explained by men. I haven't run half the rumors I've heard about Assistance Unlimited and the kinds of jobs they take on: demons, devil-worshipping cults, women who can kill men just by looking at them."

"Poppycock!" Phillips bellowed, though Max thought he saw a shadow of doubt pass over the big man's face. "Sounds to me like you've been paying too much attention to Gray's own rumor mongering. It's all an attempt to stir up an air of mystery around the man so he can charge more for his services!"

Max stood up and adjusted the sleeves of his coat. "Do we have any sort of plan here? Or is this meeting simply to share our concerns?"

Melvin struggled to his feet. "I'm leaving town. I only came to finalize our plans for the project and I daresay that they're on hold for now. I need to return home and inform Smithson's family about what's happened. I'm sure they've heard the news, but I want to tell them what the papers may not have."

"You can't leave town," Groseclose said sadly. "The police want us all to stay in Sovereign. We're persons of interest in the investigation."

Phillips stormed over to the table that sat in front of Groseclose's chair. He plucked up the morning newspaper and stared at the front page. It showed an old photograph of Lazarus Gray and his aides, under the headline ASSISTANCE UNLIMITED HUNTS 'DEVIL FACE' KILLER!

"Glory hounds," Phillips whispered, his eyes lingering on the pretty face of Samantha Grace. His lips moved a few more times, as if he were continuing to mouth words, but none of the other men could hear what he said. He abruptly threw the paper back on the table and stepped back, his eyes wide. "I hope for the best for you gentlemen. I don't plan to wait for either you or the police to come up with a scheme to protect me, however. I'll handle that quite well on my own!"

Max put a hand on the big man's arm, preventing him from walking toward the door. "Don't go off half-cocked, Phillips. The last thing any of us need to do is go out and get ourselves into trouble."

Phillips glared at Max, pulling his arm free as he did so. "You will be well advised to never touch me again," he said in a menacing tone.

"I'm just trying to help," Max answered, refusing to wilt before the bigger man's gaze. As they stared each other down, Max felt a tremor of recognition pass through him. He'd been face-to-face with Phillips before and never realized it. He'd be willing to bet his last dollar that it had been Phillips behind the Devil Face mask when they'd squared off in Hansome's bedroom. At the same moment that Max realized whom his enemy truly was, Phillips narrowed his own eyes, having come to the same realization.

"I don't need your help," Phillips hissed. "Just stay out of my way."

Max stared at the man's back as he exited the room. A moment later and they all heard the loud slam of the front door.

"Just let him be," Groseclose said wearily. "He's always been an aggressive sort and I imagine all this just makes him feel helpless. Lord knows that's how I feel."

Max looked over at Melvin, who was still standing in place. "Do you still want to leave?"

Melvin shrugged, looking pained with every breath. "I'd love to but I don't think it's very wise, do you? I can't leave the city and I don't want to stay at the hotel. Smithson was killed there so I wouldn't feel safe." He chewed his bottom lip for a moment before saying, "Smithson didn't like Phillips. Said he was dangerous. He warned me not to be alone with him. But he said something very strange to me just a few hours before he died. I thought about mentioning it to that fellow from Assistance Unlimited but then thought better of it. It sounds so foolish."

"What was it?" Max did his best to avoid looking overeager.

"Smithson said that Phillips was the same kind of man as Jack the Ripper: that he looked at other people, particularly at women, as slabs of meat. Mr. Watts of Assistance Unlimited compared the killer to Jack the Ripper, too. It reminded me of what Smithson had said." Melvin looked at Max and shook his head with a sad smile. "But Phillips is a respected businessman, just like I am. We don't do such things. Do we?"

***



Michael Groseclose checked his appearance for the tenth time, ensuring that his top hat was perched just so atop his head and that his gloves were tugged on to a tight fit over his hands. He tried to ignore the feeling that he was a kid playing dress up as he strode toward the front door of Assistance Unlimited. He'd never worn the mask during the daytime hours before and it all felt a little silly in the light of day.

Before he'd reached the door, Eun Jiwon and Morgan Watts were waiting to greet him. Eun stood with fists clenched at his sides and Morgan's hand drifted close to the interior of his coat, where a gun obviously lay in wait.

The Dark Gentleman raised both hands and came to a halt. "Like I said last night, I'm on your side."

Eun raised his chin. "Then tell us why you're wearing that mask, Mr. Groseclose."

The Dark Gentleman flinched as if struck. His hands lowered immediately and he didn't even bother trying to hide his dismay. "You know who I am?"

"We have cameras mounted all over this entire block," Eun explained, triumph in his voice.

"While you parked down the street and started changing into your getup, I was looking to see who those licensed plates belonged to. If you're getting into the vigilante game, you need to learn the ropes."

"Damn." The Dark Gentleman shook his head, unsure how to continue past this point. He was saved the trouble when Morgan relaxed his stance and pulled the door open.

"Come on in, kid. Let's hear your story."

***



Samantha Grace had been charged with the task of watching the exterior of the Groseclose home during Max's meeting with the others. She had sat in a dark sedan across the street, listening in as the others back at Assistance Unlimited were doing. When Phillips had stormed out, she'd been forced to make a decision: should she wait where she was or should she follow the bearlike man who obviously had a temper? In the end, her female intuition told her to stick with Phillips, so she followed him at a distance as he drove back to his house. She drove past as she pulled into his driveway, circling back around the block and finally parking a few hundred feet from the front door. To her surprise, she saw that the entrance was standing wide open and that one of the potted plants just outside the steps had been overturned.

Never one to shy away from danger, Samantha was out of the car in a flash. Given the fact that both Smithson and Hansome were dead, it stood to reason that Phillips might be another target.

The petite blond hurried across the street, a small handgun clutched in her right hand. Her heels clicked on the asphalt and she was glad that she'd worn slacks today. She enjoyed the feeling of femininity that came with skirts and dresses, but they were difficult to fight in.

Samantha crept up the stairs toward the open door. "Mr. Phillips? Are you in there? I'm with Assistance Unlimited."

Stepping inside, Samantha noticed no signs of a struggle. She was about to raise her voice and identify herself again when she heard the creak of the door behind her. She whirled around to see Devil Face lunging for her, blade in hand. That it was Phillips was undeniable – the build and the fact that he still wore the same clothing made that quite clear. But the mask, with its distorted demon's features, was disconcerting.

Samantha pulled the trigger but her shot went wild, passing harmlessly over Devil Face's shoulder. Well versed in jujitsu, Samantha was able to quickly evade a swipe of the blade, but her position in the foyer didn't allow her much room to work with and Devil Face was so large that she was immediately pressed up against the wall.

"I'm going to help you," the killer said, speaking in a voice that was much higher-pitched than the one she had heard Phillips use earlier. "Don't be afraid."

If the situation hadn't been so terrifying, Samantha would have laughed. Was he really telling her not to be afraid, even as he was stabbing wildly at her with a sharpened blade? Men were always confusing to her but killers were the worst: the natural inclinations men had toward being dense were amplified by madness.

Samantha jammed her knee into the big man's crotch and she was rewarded with a squeal of pain from him. She drew up her pistol, pressing the barrel directly against the forehead of the mask but before she could fire, a white-hot pain sliced through her midsection. She felt rapidly spreading warmth spiral out from her stomach and she didn't have to look down to realize that the killer's knife was deep inside her.

If I die, I'm taking you with me, she thought, pulling hard on the trigger. Devil Face's head jerked back as the bullet struck his mask and he staggered back in shock. Samantha reached down and gripped the hilt of the knife, growing dizzy as she began to extract the blade from her stomach. She tossed the weapon down and blinked away the stars that were obscuring her vision. As she sagged to her knees, she realized that Devil Face had recovered and was standing over her. His mask had protected him from the full impact but it had split in two and the pieces now lay on the floor. Phillips was staring at her, a tiny dot of blood between his eyes. His hands continually opened and closed and he was breathing heavily, as if he were teetering on the verge of anger or tears.

"You bitch," he hissed. "You broke my face."

Samantha struggled to lift her gun again, but her strength was fading nearly as quickly as the blood was gushing from her midsection. She heard the sound of Devil Face's fist rushing through the air toward her head but she never saw it. The blow slammed her skull against the wall and rushed her into blessed darkness.

Phillips watched her for a moment before bending down and almost reverently picking up the broken pieces of his mask. "You have a lot of sins that are going to be washed away," he said, casting his gaze over Samantha's bloody form. "Just remember: pain is the crucible that will forge the perfect you."

***



The Dark Gentleman tried to maintain his composure but it was hard to, seated as he was in the headquarters of the famous Assistance Unlimited, with no less than Lazarus Gray himself facing him across the table. Morgan and Eun stood behind their employer, wearing very different expressions. Morgan looked bemused while Eun seemed to grow more annoyed by the minute. The face of Lazarus was so impassive that the Dark Gentleman had no idea what the man was thinking.

"So I'm here because I want to help. I'm not looking to join Assistance Unlimited, but I thought that we could pool our resources."

Eun barked out a laugh. "What resources do you have that we don't?"

"Enough," Lazarus said and Eun fell silent. "Michael, I admire your desire to help this city. It takes a special kind of man to put his life on the line for strangers. Nevertheless, it's foolhardy to go into situations like this without proper training and know-how."

"I've done the best I could," Michael retorted. "It's not like there's a vigilante school where I could enroll."

"Understandable," Lazarus admitted. "But you're just as likely to get yourself killed or get an innocent killed… if you'll permit me, I'd be willing to tutor you in various skills."

Michael couldn't hide the pleasure he felt. "I'd be honored."

Just then, a phone rang in the next room and Morgan went to answer it. He returned in less than a minute. "That was Davies. He says that the meeting's broken up at Groseclose's. But get this: Samantha's gone, car and all. He thinks she went off after Phillips."

Eun glanced up at the clock. "She should have reported in by now."

All of them had overheard Melvin's words at the meeting and understood what they meant. But the arrival of The Dark Gentleman had prevented them from going off in pursuit of Phillips for questioning.

Now Gray was in motion and it was a terrible thing to behold. His emerald-colored eye shone like a gem while the brown one seemed to smolder. His normally impassive face was now set in grim determination and from the way his jaw continually clenched and released, it was obvious that a cauldron of emotion was now at play. He stood up and began barking orders that were impossible to ignore.

"Morgan, bring the car around. Eun, tell Max to meet us at Phillips' house. Michael, you're with us."

The Dark Gentleman tried -- and failed -- to keep from grinning. "I'm ready."

"We'll see if you are," Gray responded.

***



The Rook didn't need to be told where to go. He was already in flight before Eun ever made it to the telephone. He borrowed Groseclose's car without asking and burned rubber through the rain-slicked city streets. Before arriving in Sovereign, Max had heard the jokes about how often it rained here, but he'd quickly learned that it wasn't hyperbole. It was as if God himself were constantly shedding tears for what had become of Sovereign.

The Rook tried to ignore the pounding in his head, but it was strong enough to force him to grit his teeth. His vision was swimming as the world around him intermingled with possible futures. The visions of future crimes that he often saw were far more of a curse than a boon and he'd prayed numerous times to be rid of them. He was forced to pull over to the curb, knowing that he had to ride it out before he could safely continue on his way.

The vision became clearer, obliterating everything else. The Rook saw a dark basement, the walls stained with gore. There were barrels or canisters of some kind, filled with the blood of Devil Face's victims. Samantha was there, her nude body dangling from the ceiling, her arms stretched above her head. Devil Face was preparing his blades but he wasn't alone, there was another in the shadows, nearly invisible. The Rook, who routinely walked along the dark and narrow passage that lay between the sane world and the supernatural, felt like he recognized this figure: he knew she was female and that her stench had been a constant companion to him over the years.

With a shiver that rocked his spine, The Rook realized that Lady Death herself was there in that room. She was no simple manifestation of Phillips' madness, this was the dark lady herself, the one who kissed all men at the end of their days.

Lady Death stepped into view, her body hidden by her robes. She moved forward until she dominated The Rook's vision and he could see the curve of her jaw beneath her hood. She opened her mouth and spoke, her voice sounding so seductive that Max nearly forgot what an awful thing she was: he had spent his whole life fighting to avoid her and to save others from her embrace but now, he realized how easy it would be to fall into her arms. "Max," she whispered, "come to me. It's time."

A rapping on the driver's side window of his car snapped The Rook out of his reverie. He turned his head to see a police officer standing there, obviously having come to check on him. When the officer saw that The Rook wore a mask, his eyes widened. Before anything else could happen, The Rook floored the accelerator and left a trail of burning rubber in his wake. There was no time to waste now: Samantha Grace was in the presence of Death herself.

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