Darkness, Spreading Its Wings of Black Chapter II: Men of PowerA column article by: Barry Reese
An Adventure Starring
Lazarus Gray & The Rook
Written by Barry Reese
Men of Power
The death of Claudia Schuller was front-page news on every paper in the city. The Gazette ran two photos, one depicting Claudia on the day of her high school graduation and the other a grainy crime scene image with a body draped by a police blanket. The grisly details were listed in explicit detail, bringing fresh pain to the victim’s family and friends.
Speculation was rife. Though the names of the men implicated were not revealed in the papers, rumors linked virtually every prominent businessman in the city with the young woman. Stories circulated that she had been of loose morals and had traded her beauty for monetary gifts from the men.
“Read about de slain beauty! Police officials baffled as investigation continues! All de details included here! Will the killer strike again?”
A newsboy’s cry caught the attention of two men who were riding down Main Street in a taxi. One of the men – an elderly, gray-haired gentleman in a tweed suit – turned to his young companion and asked, “What’s this about a murder, Smithson? I didn’t hear anything about such a thing when we were coming in on the train yesterday.”
“Young Miss Claudia Schuller was brutally murdered a few days ago,” Smithson answered. He was a handsome man with dark hair and eyes. “The papers are abuzz with the news. It was quite awful, from what I’ve heard.”
“I haven’t read any of today’s papers,” remarked the elderly man. “Such a violent city,” he added with a shake of his head.
Smithson waited for the question that he knew was inevitably going to come.
“Schuller, you say? Didn’t we meet her at the party thrown by Groseclose? Attractive young thing from his secretarial pool?”
Smithson nodded, his face drawn grave with concern. “We did, Mr. Melvin. She was quite generous in her praise of your revitalization efforts in the city’s East Side.”
Donald Melvin bit his lower lip, his eyes taking on a faraway state. “Awful. To be cut down in the prime of life like that. She could have made some man very happy, you know.”
Smithson said nothing, hoping that this turn of conversation wouldn’t ruin his employer’s mood. The meeting they were going to was an important one and Melvin sometimes lapsed into gloomy periods that impacted his decisions. Amalgamated Industries was Melvin’s pride and joy and it was currently involved in the removal of dozens of unsightly tenement buildings, replacing them with tremendous structures that towered over the landscape. In decades to come, people would point to Melvin’s work as a key part in the revitalization of Sovereign City.
Smithson and Melvin stepped from their cab and entered the lobby of The Amici Hotel, a massive building that occupied an entire block. One of the few new hotels to have opened since the Stock Market Crash of ’29, The Amici prided itself on an aristocratic atmosphere.
Within the gorgeous lobby, Smithson made an inquiry at the front desk and then informed Melvin that their meeting was being held on the twenty-fourth floor.
After traveling upward in an elevator, the two men stepped into a conference room where a small group was waiting for them. One by one, Smithson introduced Melvin to the men, even though in most cases, introductions were not truly necessary. It was a formality and one that the older men seemed to enjoy, as if it confirmed their importance in things.
Theodore Groseclose, publisher and chief editor of the Sovereign Gazette, was the first to shake Melvin’s hand. Groseclose was a tall, gray-haired man in a dark suit. He looked a bit unnerved and Melvin rightly assumed it was because of the death of the man’s secretary.
Also present was Robert Phillips, Chairman of the city’s Building Association. He was a bear-like man with a thick, bristled beard and piercing eyes.
The final man to whom Melvin was introduced was Merle Hansome, a wiry fellow with thinning hair and a nervous habit of licking his upper lip. One of the most prominent attorneys in the city, Hansome was very good at his job, despite not having the demeanor to put anyone at ease.
Phillips cleared his throat as everyone took a seat. He had a commanding presence and was obviously used to being in charge. “Let’s get this under way, shall we? You’ve looked over the papers we sent your way?”
Melvin nodded, waiting for Smithson to take out a pad and paper before continuing. “I have. Fifty million dollars is quite an investment. If I’m going to do as you ask, I have to receive certain assurances.”
Groseclose leaned forward, clasping his hands together on top of the table. “You know I’ll do what I can for you, Mr. Melvin. I’ve kept all the news stories about what you’re doing in a positive light. It’s going to be a little bit tougher with this new deal, but I can swing it.”
Smithson dutifully took notes while the men conversed. He was skilled enough in his craft that he could let his mind wander while his pencil spun across the page, distilling the conversation into shorthand. The three other men had approached Melvin with the idea of spearheading a plan to purchase the grounds on which a hospital for the poor now resided. The sick people who currently received treatment for their infirmities were going to be kicked to the curb if the plan bore fruit, but none of these men considered that worthy of stopping their plans. The men, women, and children who frequented the place were too poor to afford treatment at standard facilities, probably resulting in dozens of deaths.
But if things went to plan, a high-rise apartment building would pop up in its place. The bottom floors would contain expensive offices while the upper rooms were rented or sold to the lucky few who could afford them. It was all part of a long-term revitalization project and one that had sparked grumbling amongst those who had been displaced. Thankfully, Hansome had made sure that all the legalities were covered, while Phillips took care of all the required permits. Groseclose then handled the media side of things, ensuring that the general populace didn’t focus too much on the negative.
Hansome stood up and began pacing, bringing the discussion to an abrupt halt.
“What the devil’s the matter with you?” Phillips demanded.
“Aren’t we going to talk about the murder?” the lawyer asked, his pink tongue darting out to wet his upper lip. “I mean, it’s the elephant in the room, if you ask me.”
Melvin blinked in surprise. “What are you talking about?”
“Schuller!” Hansome ejaculated. “Are you so dense that you don’t realize what danger we’re all in? That girl was cut to pieces and all of our names are associated with her! I heard from a source at the police department that Assistance Unlimited is working on the case, too!”
“I barely knew the girl,” Melvin said, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t fear an inquiry and neither should any of you. None of you killed her, did you?”
“Of course not,” Hansome muttered, though he cast a wary glance around the room. “But this could still derail our plans… the scandal!”
“There won’t be any scandal,” Groseclose said reassuringly. “Didn’t you notice that I made sure none of our names ended up in the paper today? I have enough favors owed to me by the other publishers in this town to make sure we’re not linked in any rival accounts, either.”
“Word will still get around,” Hansome protested.
Melvin loudly exhaled. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if we all knew her? And so what if there are questions to be asked? The law will prove us innocent, mark my words.”
Smithson cleared his throat and all eyes fell upon him. The handsome secretary rarely said anything during these meetings, preferring to share his views with his employer in private. “Miss Schuller was an attractive young woman but she was rather promiscuous. The rumors about that are already circulating, I believe. I think it goes without saying that several of the men in this room may have had… delicate relations… with her?” The silence that fell was answer enough - only Melvin seemed shocked by the suggestion and he was obviously about to say so when Smithson continued. “I think that Mr. Melvin is correct in saying that none of you have anything to fear. But just in case, perhaps Mr. Groseclose could have one of his journalists look into her background. Throw a bit of doubt upon her character, as it were.”
Groseclose looked uncomfortable. “She wasn’t a bad person. Not at all. I’d hate to make it appear that she was.”
“It was just a suggestion. I think that if people assumed that she was a bit of a tart, then they’d be less likely to focus their attentions on all of you.”
“Could be just the opposite,” Phillips muttered. “A pretty young girl, illicit sex, and a grisly murder… no, the more details they get, the more the people will chatter away. But I’m not worried about the police or the press – I have an alibi for the night she was murdered.”
Smithson looked around the room. “Who here doesn’t have an alibi, if I might ask?”
Groseclose lit a cigar. “Of course, I saw all of you at the party earlier in the evening. After that, I retired to my bed. My butler brought me some warm milk at half past midnight.”
“So it would have been possible for you to have left and done the deed,” Smithson pointed out.
Groseclose looked offended at the suggestion but said nothing. He’d already heard that same accusation from the Korean who worked for Assistance Unlimited. The young immigrant had pushed Groseclose hard on the matter, but the newspaperman didn’t plan to share that with anyone in this room. They were business partners but certainly not friends.
Hansome licked his lip again, a nervous habit that left his mouth perpetually chapped. “I don’t have one. I went to a movie and then to a bar for a drink. I didn’t return home until very late. I’m not sure I could find any of the men who might have seen me.”
Smithson tried not to smile. Hansome’s homosexuality was a poorly kept secret amongst the group. It made sense that he wouldn’t want to call upon any of his male companions to verify his story. Plus, given the fact that Schuller apparently wasn’t sexually assaulted might make Hansome all the more suspect if his secret came to light. Some would say that he would have struck at Schuller out of some deep-seated resentment of women.
“I think it’s all a lot of poppycock,” Melvin said. “We’re all good men. To think that any one of us could ever assault a woman… it’s preposterous!”
Phillips nodded in agreement. “To get us back on track here… Are you in for more money or not, Melvin? This new project could become the centerpiece for the revitalization effort and make us all very rich men in the process.” Phillips chuckled. “Or, in Melvin’s case, richer.”
Melvin smiled in reply. “I am very excited about this, gentlemen. Very excited, indeed.”
Night fell quickly in Sovereign City and the few residents who might be called innocents hurried for the relative safety of their homes, leaving the streets to those with darker intent.
A moving patch of darkness passed along the sidewalk beneath the glare of a street lamp. The long streak of darkness ended in a perfect silhouette. The man who cast this shadow was tall and well-built with an olive-complexion and wavy dark hair. He wore a long overcoat, a suit and tie but it was the adornment on his face that set him apart from every other man in the city: he wore a tiny domino-style mask over his eyes and on the bridge of his nose rested a tiny beak-like protrusion. This was The Rook, a being whom the underworld had come to greatly fear in recent years. Having left bullet-ridden bodies in his wake throughout the Northeast, The Rook was like a one-man police force, bringing the guilty to their final judgment, even when the Law could not touch them.
Just up ahead lay the private residence of Merle Hansome. It was a modest home, but it was light-years beyond the residences that were being torn down to make way for Melvin’s new high-rises. The Rook calmly approached the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the property and expertly scaled the barrier, dropping easily down to the grass on the other side. He approached the front door and lightly tried the knob. It was locked, which drove him around back. The rear entrance opened easily and The Rook felt a small smile form on his lips. Even in a roach’s den like Sovereign, there were men who felt themselves safe and sound in their own home. It was all like a fallacy, of course, but it made The Rook’s job that much easier.
Very few people in the world knew that Max Davies led a double life and even fewer still understood why he did it. An armchair psychiatrist would have zeroed in on the events that occurred when Max was eight years old and while those would have helped filled in the gaps, they would not have told the entire tale. Max’s father, Warren Davies, had run a newspaper campaign against mobsters who threatened to take over the city. When he refused to knuckle under the pressure they were putting on him, Warren found himself the target of a hired assassin. He was gunned down in front of his son and Max had the memory of his father’s final bloodstained memories imprinted into his memory.
But it was what happened later that truly set Max Davies down the path of vigilantism. A series of painful visions began to plague him, ones of crimes yet to be committed. He discovered that if he took steps to prevent them or to bring their perpetrators to justice, the painful visions would recede. Compelled by the knowledge that he would continue to suffer unless he found a way to help others, Max embarked on a years-long trek around the globe in his teens. He learned every form of martial arts known to man, studied philosophy in the Mountains of Tibet, and mastered most known sciences. On the day he first created the identity of The Rook, Max Davies felt a sense of liberation take hold. It was as if he were a bird taking flight for the first time.
And those who slithered in darkness found a new enemy, one who would never stop until every innocent could sleep safely in their own bed.
Hansome sat on the edge of his bed, dressed in a white dressing gown and slippers. His hands were shaking badly enough that the cup of warm milk he was holding threatened to spill. His tongue darted out, wetting his upper lip. He didn’t understand why the others weren’t taking this more seriously – even though he hadn’t done the horrible deed, he had more than enough secrets that could be exposed by an investigation.
Even more troubling was the nagging question that resided in the back of Hansome’s mind: What if one of the others was the murderer? He didn’t think that Groseclose would do such a thing and Melvin was too old and feeble to have overpowered a healthy young girl… but what about Phillips? The man was brawny and had a temper. Maybe Phillips had tried to force himself on the girl and, when she refused, he’d gotten so angry that he’d cut her to pieces. Phillips had claimed to have an alibi, but Hansome knew those could be faked. Lots of things could be faked, which was something that both Hansome and Phillips knew well.
The lawyer drank the last of the milk and stood up, preparing to set the empty container on the nightstand and crawl into bed. He froze in place as the door to his bedroom unexpectedly open and a masked figure stepped into the room, a handgun held in his right hand. Hansome dropped the glass, jumping when it shattered on the floor.
“Merle Hansome,” The Rook said, taking several steps closer to the nervous attorney. “Men call me The Rook. Have you heard of me?”
“Yes,” Hansome answered, his voice barely above a whisper. “You’re that vigilante who kills people.”
“I kill bad people. Are you a bad person, Mr. Hansome?”
“Then you have nothing to fear from me.” The Rook made a show of lowering his weapon and placing it inside a holster under his right arm. “I want to talk to you about the death of Claudia Schuller.”
“I have sex with men.” Hansome’s hands flew up over his mouth and his eyes opened wide. He wasn’t sure why he’d said that. It was like his nervousness had somehow caused him to admit his deepest secret in the hopes that it would somehow protect him.
The Rook seemed unfazed by the comment. “I know. And I know that you’re not the killer. I’m not here to investigate you. I want you to help me investigate them.”
Hansome relaxed somewhat though it wasn’t in his nature to completely be at ease. “Are you talking about my business partners? Because if you are, the man you need to be looking at is Robert Phillips. I’d bet my last dollar that it’s him.”
“I don’t think it is – at the very least, if he is involved, he wasn’t involved in all the murders. He didn’t move to the city until after the first girl was killed.”
Hansome looked confused. “First girl? Are you saying that Schuller wasn’t the first to die?” As he asked these questions, Hansome seemed to grow even more nervous. He seemed on the verge of sharing something with The Rook but was obviously hesitant to do so.
The Rook nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. What I want from you is access to their personal information – you handle all of them as clients, don’t you?”
“Well, Mr. Melvin has his own lawyers so I only assist with the Sovereign affairs that he has. But for the others, yes.” Hansome’s tongue darted out, touching his upper lip. “But there’s a matter of confidentiality. I can’t just open their records to you.”
“Not even if innocent women are dying?” Hansome hesitated and the Rook continued, “And what about if a prolonged investigation ends up revealing a lot of your dirty laundry? We wouldn’t want that, would we?”
Hansome exhaled. “All right. What do you need to know?”
The Rook was about to provide a list of files that he wanted to see when the distinctive sound of footsteps moving stealthily up the stairs gave him pause. The Rook knew from the look on Hansome’s face that the man wasn’t expecting any company. He held a finger to his lips, indicating that Hansome should remain quiet, and drew his pistol once more.
The gun looked like a common automatic but it was actually proof of The Rook’s remarkable scientific acumen. The chamber had been specially modified so that it could hold dozens of miniaturized bullets. It was whispered in the Underworld that The Rook’s guns never ran out of bullets but that wasn’t quite true – it was simply that each gun held so many shells that few ever saw him reload. The small size of the bullets said nothing about their power, however. Each one packed enough punch to send a large man tumbling backward, meaning that he rarely needed to hit a target more than once.
The Rook crept to the bedroom door and grasped the handle with his free hand. He yanked it open and came face-to-face with a man dressed all in black, save for a crimson mask. The mask was carved of wood and painted with vibrant red. It was a devil’s leering face, a tongue jutting forth in a mockery of laughter. In the man’s right hand was a long, curving dagger that gleamed in the light. The terrible sight was made all the more terrifying because of the man’s great size: he was a veritable bear.
The Rook squeezed the trigger of his automatic, but the first blast went awry as the devil-faced man swung out with his knife, forcing The Rook to back away from the blow. The Rook was well versed in fighting but the man he was now facing was quick and quite skilled in the use of a blade. The Rook found himself ducking under another swipe of the blade and then hurrying to throw up an arm to prevent another. The sharp edge of the knife dug through flesh on the underside of The Rook’s arm and blood began to drip onto the floor.
The Rook responded with a karate chop to the stranger’s throat, causing the other man to squawk in pain and stagger back. The Rook then grabbed hold of the arm that held the dagger, applying enough pressure to the wrist that the masked man dropped the knife.
“Who are you?” The Rook demanded, driving an elbow into the side of the man’s head.
“Call me Devil Face,” the man answered, using a peculiar high-pitched voice that was obviously disguised. “And I’m not here for you. I just want the faggoty man. Give him to me and I’ll let you live.”
The Rook slammed a knee into Devil Face’s midsection and for a moment, he thought he’d won the day. The masked man appeared to nearly lose his footing and The Rook made the mistake of letting up on his assault. It was then that Devil Face reached down to his right ankle and freed a second blade that he’d hidden in his sock. Devil Face sprang upward, stabbing The Rook in the left shoulder. Devil Face pushed on, using all his strength to slam the vigilante against the wall. The back of The Rook’s head cracked against the wall and his vision began to swim. He slid to the floor, his eyes fluttering. Over the throbbing in his head, he heard the sounds of a scuffle, followed by a piercing cry. The Rook struggled to rise but he found himself unable to find his footing. He lost consciousness, the last sight he saw being that of Devil Face dragging Hansome’s limp form out of the room.