Darkness, Spreading Its Wings of Black Chapter IV: Angels & Demons

A column article by: Barry Reese

 

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

Chapter IV
Angels & Demons


"So that's how he did it!" Samantha sat back with a satisfied grin on her face. Ever since The Rook had interrupted their meeting, she'd wondered how he'd managed to bypass the security at Assistance Unlimited headquarters. It had taken a bit of digging through the archival footage to figure out what security flaw the masked man had uncovered but now she had it: he'd broken into one of the abandoned storefronts facing the old hotel that Assistance Unlimited used as their base. From there, he'd managed to travel through one of the underground tunnels that linked every building on the street. Everyone knew that Lazarus Gray had bought the entire block for purposes of secrecy but very few knew that they were all linked together, essentially transforming it into one giant headquarters.

Samantha still wasn't sure how The Rook had known about the underground tunnels, but at least she knew how he'd accessed the main building: he'd come in through the basement.

She was still marveling over the panache needed to break into their headquarters when Morgan and Eun entered the room. Eun looked pale, his shirtless body covered by bandages.

Samantha moved to fuss over his wounds but Eun waved her away and sat down heavily in a chair. "There's another masked man in town," he said. "Calls himself The Dark Gentleman."

Samantha straightened up. "That's odd. Sovereign's had its share of vigilantes in recent years, but most of them don't bother hiding their identities."

"Now we have two," Eun muttered, obviously still smarting from his wounded pride.

Morgan allowed the two younger members of the team to continue the discussion while he stepped into an adjacent room. He picked through some of the papers they'd accumulated on the various suspects. Something was bothering him, but he wasn't sure what… Obviously Melvin had thought about sharing something with them and then changed his mind. Was there some connection between Smithson and Hansome that they hadn't picked up on? And if so, how did it all play into the horrific murders of those girls?

He tapped a photo of Hansome and whispered, "I hope Lazarus can find you, shyster. I'm betting you have the answers we need."

***


The duo of Lazarus Gray and The Rook had traced the radioactive isotopes in Hansome's bloodstream, following the trail to a small rental property on the outskirts of town. A sign in the front yard indicated that the A-frame house was for rent by the owner and Lazarus noted that the painted phone number on the sign had peeled away, leaving only the first couple of digits.

"This is a front," The Rook said, standing outside the front door. There were no streetlights around and the interior of the house was dark, so both men held sterling silver penlights.

"What do you mean?"

"Nobody's really trying to rent this property. If they were, they would have repaired that sign. And the house itself is filthy… smells like something's died here. Recently."

Lazarus knew what his friend was implying and he moved forward, taking up position to the right of the door. The Rook took the left and they nodded at each other before Lazarus took a few steps back and lowered his shoulder. He crashed against the door, using all his impressive strength to shatter the barrier.

The interior was cloaked in an almost stygian darkness and the odor of death was far thicker than before. The Rook followed Lazarus into the house, using his penlight to locate a small lamp. He turned it on, bathing the living room in a dull yellow glow. What they saw was stomach churning and, even for men as used to the unusual as these two were, shocking.

There were human, dog, and cat skeletons nailed to the blood-red wallpaper, many of them arranged in obscene positions. In between the bones, the wallpaper had been covered with odd drawings of horned demons, acts of bestiality, and crying faces.

The skeleton of a human male, its bones held together by twine, dangled from the center of the ceiling. Large wings forged of leather and wood had been attached to the skeleton's back and goat horns had been glued to the top of the skull.

A long table was set against the back wall. It was waist-high and carved from some form of shiny blood-colored wood. Its bowed legs were carved to resemble great serpents, their fanged mouths reached upward. At each of the four corners was a black candle resting in bronze holder. The holders were shaped like skulls, the lower the jaw of each protruding out to hold the candle in place. A stone basin lay in the center of the table and as Lazarus approached it, he recognized the presence of human bones and dried blood.

The scene was disturbingly familiar to Lazarus. In his old life, he'd witnessed things like this as a member of The Illuminati. It had been horrors like this that had led him to turn against his friends, eventually bringing about his death and resurrection in Sovereign City.

The Rook allowed Lazarus to investigate the strange table and its horrible contents. He opened the other doors, finding a bedroom that looked like it had never been touched; a kitchen that was so filthy that it nearly caused him to retch; and a bathroom that contained a very nasty surprise.

"Lazarus," The Rook said, placing the back of a gloved hand over his nose and mouth. "I found Hansome."

Lazarus appeared almost instantly, looking past the masked man at the lumps of flesh that lay in the tub. The soapy water was filled with bleach, cleaning away much-needed evidence. Hansome's body had been neatly cut up into six pieces: his head, his torso, his arms, and his legs. Several large buckets filled with the man's blood lay outside the tub and plastic tubing rested on the counter top next to the sink.

"There goes any doubts about Hansome's kidnapper being related to the girls' killer," The Rook murmured. "Guess he's branching out to the other gender."

Lazarus knelt beside the tub, holding a handkerchief over his nose. His eyes watered from the strong bleach fumes that hung in the air, but he wanted to check on a suspicion he had. He grabbed hold of Hansome's head and lifted it from the bath, carrying it out of the room and setting it gently atop the bloodstained table in the living room. While The Rook watched in mounting curiosity, Lazarus pulled up a chair and sat facing the dead man's terror-stricken face. After pulling out a magnifying glass, he leaned so close to the decapitated head that their noses were almost touching.

"What are you doing?" The Rook asked, no longer able to contain himself.

"Are you familiar with the work of Willy Kühne, professor of physiology at Heidelberg?"

The Rook searched his memory and slowly nodded, beginning to see where his companion was going with this. "He studied retinal chemistry, didn't he?"

"Yes. He theorized that the retina behaves not only like a photographic plate but like an entire photographic workshop, in which the artist continually renews the plate by laying on new light-sensitive material, while simultaneously erasing the old image. By using the pigment epithelium, which bleaches in the light, he set out to prove that it might be possible to take a picture with the living eye. He called the process optography and its resulting products optograms."

The Rook found himself getting wrapped up in the science behind the matter. "And the rabbit's eyes held an image of the bars," he whispered to himself.

Kühne had created a famous optogram by using an albino rabbit, whose head had been fastened so that it faced a barred window. From this position the rabbit could only see out onto a cloudy sky. The rabbit's head had been alternately covered with a cloth, to allow its eyes to acclimate to the dark, and then exposed to bright light. After this, the rabbit was decapitated, with its eye removed and cut open along the equator. The rear half of the eyeball, containing the retina, was laid in a solution of alum to set. The next day, Kühne had seen printed upon the retina a picture of the window with the clear pattern of its bars. This had been repeated in other experiments, leading Kühne to state that the final image viewed before death would be fixed forever, like a photo. If death were to occur at a moment when the pupils of the eyes were hugely dilated – because of fear, anger, surprise, or some other strong emotion – the retinal optograms of the deceased would be even more detailed.

"Do you see anything," The Rook asked.

Lazarus nodded, his eyes staring into those of the dead man. Reflected there, as clear as day, was the face of the devil.

***



Theodore Groseclose couldn't sleep. He was sitting in his study, a glass of warm milk in his hand, unable to stop thinking about the events of the past few days. He'd liked Claudia. She was smart and pretty, the sort of combination he always enjoyed having around the office. It was hard for him to visualize her body having been violated in the ways he'd heard. What sort of monster could do that? Who could snuff out a beautiful girl's light like that?

Groseclose looked up as he heard the unmistakable sound of the front door being unlocked. He set down his milk and moved to the foyer, his eyes widening as his 24-year old son Michael entered the house, looking disheveled. Michael was blessed with his mother's good looks and his father's intellect… but there were whispers that he was squandering both since dropping out of college two years before. Since then, he'd lurked in the shadows, vanishing for days on end with no explanation.

"What the hell are you doing?" his father demanded, all the frustrations of the past few days finding a new target. "I swear to heaven, I don't think you care what the community thinks, do you?"

Michael's jaw clenched, as if he were barely able to hold back his own anger. "I was out on business."

"At this hour of the night? I don't believe you. I believe you were out drinking and whoring, that's what I think!"

Michael shook his head and stepped around his father. "I'm going to bed."

"The hell you are!" Theodore bellowed, grabbing hold of his son's arm and clenching it tight. "I've had enough of you. You're my son! And that means people are going to look at you differently than if you were some ragamuffin off the street!"

Michael whirled around, bringing his face close to his father's. Had Theodore not been so wrapped up in his anger, he would have realized that there was not a trace of alcohol on his son's breath. "You know what, Dad? I've had enough of you, too. You sit in your office and you print your stories but what do you really know about life in this city? Have you walked its streets? Have you seen all the joy and happiness sucked out of its people because they can't believe in the system anymore? Do you know that there are dozens of mobs out there, all vying for power? And that the men in charge turn a blind eye to it because they're too scared or to crooked to do what's right?" Michael yanked his arm free. "Oh, but you would know about that last part, wouldn't you? You're the one helping make sure good people are being put out on the street so your buddies can build their high-rises."

Theodore's mouth moved silently for a moment before his anger gave him new voice. "How dare you?"

"I know a lot more about this town than you give me credit for. And I'm actually doing something about it." Michael spun on his heels and jogged upstairs, regretting the anger he'd shown his father, but refusing to back down. He slammed the door to his room shut and then sagged down onto his bed. He needed to get his own place if he wanted to really make a difference. Sneaking in and out of his own house was just one more headache that he didn't need.

Michael had trained for months, preparing to take to the streets as The Dark Gentleman… but what had happened on his first night out? He'd run into not one, but two members of Assistance Unlimited, both of whom now thought he was a murderer. He'd meant to question Smithson about the men whose names were linked to Claudia's death… but whoever had killed him had come and gone before Michael had arrived.

Claudia had been a lovely girl and one that would have normally attracted Michael's intense interest. But he'd been so single-minded as of late that he'd never bothered approaching her.

Michael stood up quickly and began pacing. He wanted to do something, wanted to prove that the past few weeks hadn't been some pointless lark. He could help Sovereign City, he was sure of it.

He suddenly realized that he needed to clear the air with Assistance Unlimited. Right now, they were probably wasting valuable time hunting him down when they could be going after the real killer.

Michael forced himself to stop. He had to get some rest. In the morning, he could go down to Robeson Avenue and make peace with them. Maybe they'd even agree to let him assist them in the case.

A smile suddenly blossomed on his lips. Michael realized he was beginning to feel like a kid hoping to fall in with the popular crowd at school. He needed to rest before he did anything reckless – more reckless than putting on a top hat and mask.

***



Devil Face stared in the mirror, marveling at the beauty of his visage. This was the true expression of his inner self, come to life in the form of a wooden depiction of Satan himself. The leering mouth, the jutting tongue, the crimson tint… They were everything that he so desperately wanted to be. They were far truer than the face he wore every day to the office, where he pretended to be so much less than he truly was.

It had been years since he'd moved to Sovereign City, this cesspool of immorality. The place had called to him and he'd recognized it as home. He had felt it in his blood and in the dark little corner of his mind where the Devil resided. At first, he'd tried to be good, tried to silence the voices that screamed for bloody murder… and he'd almost succeeded. But then he'd seen those whores, all made up like pretty dollies – they'd forced him to do what he'd done. He'd punished them for their sins, for using their breasts and their buttocks to tantalize and tease. Who knew how many boys they'd corrupted with their offers of love? He'd killed them and washed them, not to remove traces of his identity as the police had assumed: but to cleanse them of their filth.

Claudia had been different than the rest and she was the cause of all of Devil Face's current problems. She'd been so sweet and desirable, nothing like those tarts he'd killed in the past. Claudia was a good girl. She'd sobbed to him in the end, begging him to spare her. She claimed she was a virgin and Devil Face almost believed her – he'd wanted so badly to believe her. But he knew she'd gone to Max's apartment and they'd done things… dirty things that caused butterflies to swim about in his stomach when he imagined them. This made him realize that even if she wasn't a whore yet, she was well on her way. So he'd punished her for the sins she'd yet to commit.

And then had come the guilt, so quick that it had surprised him. He'd borrowed Max's address book during a brief visit to the other man's hotel room. At the time, he'd merely wanted to find out more about Davies, who had seemed to be more than he claimed to be. Davies had this way of looking at everyone as if he could see through him or her. It was almost as if he was looking at Devil's Face's real features, which had been both exciting and infuriating.

After Claudia's death, though, the idea of leaving the address book on her body had seemed the proper way to assuage his guilt. A part of him wanted the world to know who he really was and this dangerous game of leaving clues to his identity served his need for self-punishment.

But after her body had been discovered, the Devil had taken hold and a sense of self-preservation had emerged. Hansome knew his real identity, which meant he'd had to die. Hansome's sexual interests had forced Devil Face to give him the same treatment he usually reserved for the whores: after all, Hansome probably would have offered his body if he'd thought it would have saved him. It was sickening, what Hansome would have done if given the chance….

Smithson was another problem. Too smart for his own good, Smithson had discovered Devil Face's secret and actually sought to blackmail him. Devil Face didn't think that Melvin knew the truth, but he couldn't be sure. Smithson and the old man were very close. Since Smithson wasn't a sex fiend like Hansome or the girls, Devil Face had killed him like an animal. It was the first time he'd ever killed without using the precious ritual – the ceremonial cutting, the washing of the flesh, reducing the body to chunks of flesh.

Devil Face turned away from the mirror, reaching up to peel away his mask. He hated to look at the face he showed the world on a regular basis. It was so ugly, with every crease and line containing a litany of sins. It was only when his true face was on display that he felt truly confident.

After placing the devil mask in a box under his bed, he headed downstairs to have a drink. Killing those men hadn't left him as ecstatic as cleansing the whores usually did. Normally he would have been humming a song to himself and feeling like he was on top of the world: instead, he felt tense and paranoid. How long before Smithson's body was discovered? Would they find the gun he'd discarded in the trash bin outside the hotel? Could it be linked back to him? And what about Hansome? His body was still in one of Devil Face's many safe houses but with Assistance Unlimited on the prowl, who could say that it wouldn't be discovered?

He paused as the phone in the study began to ring. He looked up at the clock and realized that it was nearly dawn. Where had the night gone?

Walking quickly to pluck up the receiver, the killer took a moment to make sure he used the proper voice. His day-to-day voice was deeper than the one he used when wearing the Devil Face mask. "Hello?"

Theodore Groseclose sounded on edge. "You need to come over to my house. Immediately."

"What's wrong?" he asked, though he knew what the answer would be. How could he not?

"Smithson and Hansome… they're both dead. Melvin's already here and I'm about to call Max. We could all be in danger – what if the killer's planning to kill everyone associated with Schuller?"

"Calm down," he soothed. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and paused. His hair and beard looked unkempt and his eyes were wild. He didn't look much like Robert Phillips at the moment: he'd have to clean himself up before he went over to Groseclose's. "I'll be there soon."

Devil Face hung up the phone and reached up to smooth his hair. Had Smithson told Melvin about what he'd learned? If he had, then the old man would have to die, too… and then there was Groseclose. The man was a journalist and he might start digging on his own. If he found out that Phillips had moved to Sovereign and adopted a new identity for himself with Hansome's help, then all the dirty secrets might come out.

Phillips hurriedly bathed and dressed in fresh clothing, creeping down the stairs to the locked basement door before leaving for Groseclose's. He entered the finished basement, the coppery smell of blood filling his nostrils as he opened the door. Inside were 13 canisters filled with the blood of the women he'd killed over the years, dating back to before he'd come to Sovereign and adopted his current identity. He needed to kill only one more and then he'd be ready to leave this prison of flesh behind.

"Something troubles you, my love?"

The soft, purring voice of Lady Death echoed in his head. The temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees or more and his breath suddenly became visible in tiny cloudbursts that escaped his mouth. He turned to face the woman of his dreams, the only one who was pure in all things. He was the only one who could see her, the only one who heard her voice.

She was a few inches over five feet in height, her lush curves shifting beneath a hooded black robe. Her skin was a milky white that always reminded him of moonlight on water. Her ruby red lips and the lower half of her face was all that could be seen beneath the darkness of her hood, but he had seen her naked beauty before. The upper half of her skull was exposed, her eyes nothing more than two deep sockets of shadow that seemed to suck him right into their depths.

"My enemies are closing in on us," Devil Face answered, using the higher-pitched voice he normally saved for when he was masked. "I'm worried that they might stop me before I've accomplished my goal."

Lady Death reached out and touched his face, her icy grip making him shiver. "I am proud of you. You have done so much in my name… and now you only have to find one more whore, one more woman who needs to have her sins washed away. And then you'll be mine, in body and soul."

Devil Face leaned into her hand, his face lighting up like an excited puppy's. "I can go find another girl tonight!"

"No. You'll know her when you see her. There are only certain ones who fit our needs."

Lady Death pulled away, vanishing into the dark shadows of the basement. Devil Face reached after her, desperate to touch her skin once more but there was nothing there any longer.

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