Darkness, Spreading Its Wings of Black Chapter III: Assistance UnlimitedA column article by: Barry Reese
An Adventure Starring
Lazarus Gray & The Rook
Written by Barry Reese
Morgan Watts was a former confidence man, a lackey for more crime bosses than he cared to remember. But his life had taken a change for the better when he’d met Lazarus Gray. He’d realized that the emptiness he’d carried inside him for so long was his sense of morality. It was an empty cup, waiting to be filled. And Lazarus Gray soaked it to overflowing.
Morgan was seated in the briefing room of Assistance Unlimited’s expansive headquarters. It was an old hotel that had been retrofitted to their purposes but some of the rooms retained the feeling of impermanence, as if no one was truly meant to call this place home. It was a building designed for fleeting visits.
Lazarus was standing in front of a flannel board upon which photos of the various suspects, along with the known victims of the killer, had been hung. “Morgan, you said that Phillips was at home at the time of the killing?”
“Apparently so. He returned home after the party at Groseclose’s and found a car in front of his house with a flat tire. He helped get them patched up – he even produced the name and address of the man he helped.”
“And you checked into that?”
“I did. Mr. Thomas Murphy of 1455 Hancock Street. Verifies everything Phillips said. Maybe a little too perfectly, to be honest. They both remember every detail in a way that doesn’t usually happen.”
Eun Jiwon, the young Korean member of the team, was seated between Morgan and Samantha. He leaned forward, staring hard at his employer’s impassive face. “I know Mr. Phillips, Chief. He’s a Grade A goon, just dressed up in a business suit. I don’t know if he could kill a woman, but I know he’s got a temper.”
“You mean you knew him before all this began?” Samantha asked.
Eun nodded. He was a handsome young man but after an awkward initial series of flirtations, Samantha had realized they weren’t really attracted to each other. In fact, Eun didn’t care for women sexually at all, though it took some time before he trusted everyone enough to confirm that. “When I first moved to Sovereign with my parents, they had to jump through hoops to get Phillips to sign off on the permits they needed to build their store. It was pretty obvious that he didn’t care for immigrants.”
Lazarus turned to the board, staring at the images of the men there: Groseclose, Davies, Melvin, Phillips, and Hansome were all men highly respected in their fields. He knew that sometimes respectability was just a veneer that hid a sociopath’s true nature, but he found it hard to believe any of these men were capable enough to have pulled off a series of murders like this. In the case of Phillips, he hadn’t even moved to the city when the first of them began.
“Whoever did this is skilled with a blade,” he said aloud, tapping his chin. “They also know enough about police work to know how to cover their tracks, washing away all the evidence that might implicate them.”
“I don’t think it’s Hansome,” Morgan stated. “The guy’s way too nervous to have pulled this off. The guy folds under the least bit of pressure.”
“Funny thing to say about a lawyer,” Eun said. “They lie for a living, don’t they?”
“Not the good ones,” Lazarus replied. “But I agree with Morgan. I think we can cross Hansome off our list, at least in terms of being the killer. Nothing in his background suggests that he would be capable of this. Having said that, he might be still be involved as an accomplice somehow.”
“Well,” Samantha said, leaning forward with interest, “if it’s not Hansome and it’s not Phillips – since he wasn’t in town when the murders began – that only leaves a couple of them as suspects, especially if you still believe that Max Davies isn’t one of them. We’re just left with Melvin and Groseclose.”
“That’s not quite true.”
All eyes turned to the doorway, where The Rook stood, his body outlined in silhouette. He moved into view, his blood splattered form drawing a gasp from Samantha.
Eun moved around the table, intending to attack this intruder, but Morgan caught him by the sleeve. “Hold off,” the older man warned. “I think I’ve heard of this guy.”
The Rook nodded at Morgan before fixing his eyes on Lazarus. “Sorry for not knocking on my way in.”
“How did you get past our locks and security devices?”
“What can I say? I’m amazing.” The Rook flashed a crooked grin. “But I wanted to let you know that Hansome is missing. He was just kidnapped out from under my nose by a masked man calling himself Devil Face. I’m willing to bet that Devil Face is our killer… and he was far too fit and youthful seeming to be either Groseclose or Melvin.”
“Then we’re back to square one,” Samantha said with an air of disappointment.
“You’re forgetting about Smithson,” The Rook answered, sliding his weary form into one of the spare seats at the table. “Young and fit, if I recall correctly. Maybe he’s doing the dirty work on his employer’s behalf. Or maybe he’s flying solo on this.”
“Do you have any proof that it’s Smithson?” Samantha inquired.
“No. He’s just the only one not on that list.” The Rook noticed that Eun remained tense and he gave what he hoped would be a reassuring smile. “I’m not your enemy. I’m here for the same reasons you are: to help the innocent.”
Eun sneered. “Only you choose to do it while hiding behind a mask.”
“I have reasons for hiding my identity.”
“All I know,” Eun continued, “is that you’re wanted on charges of murder, assault, and resisting arrest.” The young Korean glanced at Lazarus, his entire body tense. “Tell me why we aren’t arresting him, Lazarus. Please.”
The Rook struck quickly, spinning the legs of his chair so that his body was now turned toward Eun. He drove the heel of one shoe hard into the younger man’s stomach but Eun recovered quickly, having been trained in the martial arts since childhood. He grabbed hold of The Rook’s ankle and drove an elbow down hard against it, nearly shattering the delicate bones.
The Rook gritted his teeth but continued with his planned moves. He had anticipated Eun’s reaction and knew that it was a gamble to expose his ankle to such an attack, but it left Eun completely exposed up top. The Rook reached into an inner pocket sewn into his jacket and produced a small capsule that snapped open between his fingers. A fine brown mist exploded into the air and The Rook leaned forward, blowing the mist straight into Eun’s face. The Korean dropped his hold on the vigilante’s foot and began coughing, his eyes watering so badly that he was virtually blind.
By now, Morgan and Samantha were on their feet. Morgan was reaching for his gun when The Rook held up a hand. “I didn’t come here to fight. I can give Eun an antidote for the dust I just sprayed him with – or he can wait an hour for it to clear up on its own. I just wanted to show you that there are multiple reasons for not trying to bring me in.”
Lazarus spoke up, having made no move to interfere during this entire exchange. Though the battle had taken only a few seconds, Lazarus was fast enough that he could have intervened. “I assume reason number one is that you’re innocent of all charges.”
“I only kill people who deserve it and who leave me no other choice.” The Rook retrieved a second capsule and shoved it into Eun’s hand. “Crack this open and wave it under your eyes and nose,” he directed.
Morgan, still glaring daggers at The Rook, released his hold on his pistol, leaving it holstered at his waist. “And what’s reason number two?”
“I would have thought that would have been obvious,” The Rook stated, a bit of arrogance
creeping into his voice. “None of you are capable of taking me down.”
Samantha crossed her arms over her chest. “If you’re so high-and-mighty, why do you need us at all, then? Is this Devil Face really so tough that you can’t handle him yourself?”
The Rook hesitated before lowering his shoulders. “I’m sorry. None of this is coming out the way I’d intended. I really do try to help people: that’s why I’m here in Sovereign and that’s why I went to visit Hansome earlier tonight. I wanted access to the private files he held on his clients. Like all of you, I assumed that one of the men whose names were in that packet was the murderer. But I don’t think that’s the case any longer. I can’t guarantee that it’s Smithson, but I think it bears looking into.”
Eun was blinking away tears now, having regained the ability to see after using the second capsule. “In a fair fight, I think I could take you,” he muttered.
“Maybe,” The Rook said, trying to make a peace offering. “But I’d rather not find out.”
Lazarus stepped around the table, his eyes flicking toward the clock mounted on the wall. It was late, nearing midnight, but he didn’t feel they had any time to waste. “Morgan, I want you and Eun to pay a visit to Mr. Melvin. I’m fairly certain that he’ll keep his secretary close to him at all times so they should be in adjoining rooms at their hotel. Samantha, please remain here to coordinate our efforts.”
The Rook caught a nod from Lazarus, who was heading toward the door. Falling into step alongside the enigmatic founder of Assistance Unlimited, The Rook lowered his voice and asked, “Where are we going?”
Lazarus led the masked man toward an elevator at the end of the hall. “Our first stop will be the medical lab downstairs. I don’t think your wounds warrant calling in a physician but you need some patching up. It should take no more than five minutes. I hate to waste even that amount of time, but we may need to be at full strength.”
“Then we’re going to look for Mr. Hansome.”
“I don’t have any clue where Devil Face has taken him!” The Rook muttered. “What are you proposing? That we drive around town in hopes of spotting them somewhere?”
“Not quite,” Lazarus answered. “All of my aides regularly ingest a radioactive isotope that allows me to easily trace them should they vanish while performing their duties. It’s quite harmless. Earlier today, I took action to ensure that all of the men on our list of suspects ingested those same isotopes.”
The Rook stopped just inside the fully stocked medical lab. “Including me?”
“How in the world--?”
“It was different for each of you – but for you, I slipped it into the scotch you poured back at your hotel room. You barely sipped any of it, but you still managed to swallow enough for me to trace you.”
The Rook’s lips spread into a grin. “I just realized you just tricked me into revealing my identity.”
“It wasn’t hard to figure out,” Lazarus said in all honesty, leading The Rook toward a chair. After the vigilante was seated and Lazarus had begun treating his injuries, he continued,
“The authorities in Boston have nearly uncovered your dual identities on several occasions. You’ve been so sloppy that it almost seems like you want to be caught.”
The Rook winced as Lazarus dabbed antiseptic into his knife wound. “Yeah, I’ve been told that before. It’s just so hard to balance a personal life with my private war… Considering how my father was killed because his enemies knew who he was, I thought it was important to keep my own identity secret. But when push has come to shove, I’ve erred on the side of catching bad guys, even when it meant that my identity might be compromised.”
“I understand about the nature of dual lives,” Lazarus admitted. He was normally a taciturn individual, but he sensed that Max Davies was someone who could fully understand the difficulties he faced. “Not long ago, I was a man named Richard Winthrop. I was a member of an international cartel with their fingers in every occult conspiracy you can think of. When I turned against them, I was killed… but here in Sovereign City, I was reborn. Now I find elements of my old life encroaching upon the new with disturbing regularity.”
The Rook seemed to sense that he was being honored with this show of familiarity. He reached out and squeezed the other man’s arm. “Maybe we can help each other. You can give me advice when it looks like I’m skating on thin ice with my secret identity… and I can offer you assistance in dealing with those old friends of yours.”
Lazarus pulled away, reaching under a counter where he retrieved a gauze bandage. “I just might take you up on that.”
“I don’t like him,” Eun said for about the fifteenth time. He glanced over at Morgan, who was leading the way down the hotel lobby. They had used their status as members of Assistance Unlimited to convince the desk clerk downstairs to tell them what rooms belonged to Mr. Melvin and his secretary. To Morgan’s surprise, Melvin wasn’t in the penthouse – rather, he was in one of the rooms on the fourth floor. Smithson, as Lazarus had surmised, was in an adjoining suite.
Morgan reached up and rubbed his fingertips over the slicked pencil-thin moustache that covered his upper lip. “Eun, give it a rest. The Rook is on our side.”
“He’s wanted for murder.”
“I’ve killed more men than I care to remember,” Morgan pointed out. “Most of them were back in my criminal days but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a murderer. At least The Rook supposedly hasn’t offed anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
Eun didn’t bother responding but from the sour look on his face, there was no need to. Morgan knew he was smarting more from his hurt pride than anything else. Hoping that the younger man would get past his distrust of The Rook, Morgan stopped outside Melvin’s door and gave it a hard rap.
There was movement from within and the door opened and revealed Melvin, dressed in a smoking jacket and slippers. He seemed alert, despite the hour. “Yes?” he asked.
“My name’s Morgan Watts. I work for Assistance Unlimited. You’ve heard of us?”
“Of course. Who hasn’t?” Understanding seemed to dawn in the old man’s eyes and he stepped back, allowing them entrance. “This is about that horrible murder, isn’t it? The Schuller girl?”
Morgan stepped inside but Eun hung back. “My friend’s going to speak to your secretary. He’s next door?”
“Yes. But I can access his room with our adjoining door.”
“We’d rather speak to each of you separately.” Morgan nodded at Eun, who moved toward Smithson’s room. Morgan took the door from Melvin and shut it. “You’re right about us being here about the murder. I wanted to ask you how well you know Mr. Smithson.”
“I’d trust him with my life. If you’re going to accuse him of some wrongdoing, you’re just going to end up with egg on your face. He’s morally upstanding.” Melvin took several steps toward a table where a half empty bottle of vodka sat next to an empty glass. Morgan had thought he’d detected the smell of alcohol on Melvin’s breath and now he knew his senses had been correct. “Can I get you a drink?” Melvin asked, sitting down with creaking knees.
“Normally, I’d like nothing better, but I can’t afford that right now. I’m working.” Morgan sat down across from Melvin, his eyes flicking toward the door that led into the adjoining room. If The Rook was correct and Smithson was the murderer, Eun might be in grave danger. At the first sign of danger, Morgan would burst into that room, guns blazing.
“What makes you think that Smithson is the murderer?” Melvin asked, pouring himself a glass. He tilted the bottle until the liquid reached the lip of the glass, threatening to overflow.
“We’re not accusing anyone,” Morgan said. “As a matter of fact, Smithson’s name wasn’t one of those found on the dead girl’s body. But most of the others either have alibis or have other elements to their lives that preclude them from being part of the killings.”
“Killings?” Melvin asked, his eyes shining. “There’s been more than one?”
“Yes. The press and the local police don’t seem to have noticed, but Schuller wasn’t the first girl to be killed. There have been several over the past few years, mostly prostitutes and the like. We think we’re dealing with a modern day Jack the Ripper.”
“Oh, my,” Melvin whispered, the color draining from his face.
Melvin suddenly seemed very fragile. “I think I might know something about all of this, after all…”
Morgan leaned forward with interest. It was at that moment that the sounds of gunfire rang out from Smithson’s apartment.
Eun knew that he was being wrongheaded but he couldn’t bring himself to change his opinion with regards to The Rook. The man was trouble with a capital T as far as Eun was concerned. He was still pondering this as Morgan shut the door to Melvin’s room and Eun began to knock on Smithson’s. There was no answer and Eun repeated the procedure, applying a bit more force to the knocking this time.
When Smithson still did not appear, Eun reached down and tried the doorknob. It was locked and Eun pondered for a moment what to do. He could enter Melvin’s room and try to cross over through the adjoining door, but he didn’t want to expose the old man to any danger if Smithson was the killer.
According to the clerk, both Smithson and Melvin were supposedly in their rooms but only one of them was answering – and while it would have made sense for the elderly Melvin to be hard of hearing, it defied logic for Smithson to be the same.
Eun took a step back and raised his right foot. He drove it hard against the door, repeating the blow twice more before the barrier cracked and swung open. Eun heard movement from within and he hurried inside, saying, “Mr. Smithson? Don’t be alarmed.”
The first thing that Eun noticed was that the room was illuminated by a single lamp, which sat next to the bed. Lying on top of the sheets was Smithson, but any hopes that he might shed some light on the murders was smashed when Eun spotted the pool of crimson that lay beneath him. A bullet hole over his heart was the source from which the blood had flowed and Eun knew immediately that Smithson was dead and had been for at least an hour.
A rustle of fabric drew Eun’s attention away from the body. Standing in front of the open sliding glass door that led to the balcony was a dark figure. Eun remembered The Rook’s description of Devil Face and quickly realized that this man did not match that look at all. This man wore a white shirt covered by a gray vest, black tie, and an ebony jacket. Over all of this was slung a dark opera-style cape that was clasped about his neck. With black slacks and shoes, as well as leather gloves and a top hat, the figure looked like he might be on his way to a fancy ball. But the presence of an automatic in his right hand and a large domino-style mask made it quite clear to Eun that the man’s presence was a sinister one.
“I know how this looks,” the man began, “but it’s not quite what you think.”
Eun grinned and sprang toward the man, eager to redeem his earlier defeat against The Rook. He moved so quickly that the well-dressed man was unprepared for the first blow that came: Eun caught him flat on the side of the skull with a closed fist. The younger Korean followed with a knee to the man’s midsection that knocked the air from the man’s lungs.
Eun felt a sense of elation, realizing that he might be about to singlehandedly solve the entire case. If this man was the killer, then perhaps he was working with Devil Face – or, just as likely, The Rook had made up the whole thing and was working with this man.
The well-dressed man recovered faster than Eun would have thought possible. He raised his pistol and squeezed off two quick shots. The first whistled past the Korean’s ear and passed through the sheet rock behind him. The second stuck Eun in the left thigh and caused him to grit his teeth in pain.
Eun had taken bullets before and refused to give in. He was about to strike back when the masked man pistol-whipped him, cracking Eun’s lip and sending a spray of blood against the wall.
“I’m not the killer,” the masked man said. “I came here for the same reasons you did: to talk to that man. I found him like that just minutes before you showed up.”
“I don’t believe you,” Eun hissed. “I’ve had it up to here with masked men telling me lies.”
“Not sure what you’re talking about, friend, but I’m called The Dark Gentleman. And I’m working to clean up the cesspool that Sovereign City’s become.”
At that moment, the adjoining door to Melvin’s room burst open. Morgan sprinted through, throwing himself into a rolling ball. He popped up next to the bed and, with barely a glance at the corpse in the bed, opened fire at The Dark Gentleman.
The masked man cried out in surprise, hurling himself backwards. He landed against the balcony railing and quickly twisted so that his legs were up and over it. He dropped out of sight, leaving Eun and Morgan to rush forward in hopes of catching a glimpse of his fate.
Down below, the city streets were empty. It was a three-story drop but there was no sign of The Dark Gentleman.
Morgan took note of his friend’s bleeding shoulder and mouth. “What the hell happened?”
“That guy in the mask that you just shot at – he calls himself The Dark Gentleman. I’m starting to think that those names on that girl’s body weren’t suspects… they were targets. Hansome missing, Melvin’s secretary killed… maybe these men know something and that’s why they’re being bumped off now.”
“Something that’s tied to the murders of all those girls?”
Eun shrugged. He turned back toward the bed, where Melvin was now standing. The old man was staring at the body of his confidante. Melvin looked horrified and one liver-spotted hand came up to cover his own mouth, as if he wanted to stifle a scream.
“Mr. Melvin, we’re going to summon the police,” Eun said. “Can you remain here and wait for them?”
Numbly, Melvin nodded. He turned away from the corpse and seemed to regain some of his strength now that he wasn’t faced with his secretary’s body. “He was a good man, almost like a son to me.”
Morgan caught Eun by the sleeve. “How about making that call and then staying here with Melvin? I can go looking for that guy without you.”
“No,” Eun answered firmly. “I’m not being left behind.”
Morgan sighed and nodded. He was pretty sure that The Dark Gentleman hadn’t left them any kind of trail worth mentioning, but they had to make sure. He was about to step out into the hall with Eun when he remembered that Melvin had been about to say something to him before the shooting began. He hesitated a moment, gesturing for Eun to go on without him.
“Mr. Melvin… You were about to tell me that you might know something about these murders?”
Melvin didn’t bother looking at Morgan. He simply shook his head and whispered, “Nothing. I have nothing to say.”