Darkness, Spreading Its Wings of Black Chapter I: Birds of a FeatherA column article by: Barry Reese
An Adventure Starring
Lazarus Gray & The Rook
Written by Barry Reese
Birds of a Feather
Maurice Chapman opened a small white container and pushed a rubber-gloved finger into the white material it contained. He then smeared the grease under his nose, wincing slightly. He offered the container to the two people who were in the autopsy room with him: the dainty, beautiful Samantha Grace and her employer, the tall and thin Lazarus Gray. "You'll want some of this," Maurice said when neither of his guests took the container.
"We'll be fine," Gray answered, his mismatched eyes focused on the body that was hidden beneath a white sheet. The corpse's feet extended past the sheet and he could see that her toes had been painted red, probably a week or so before the murder. The paint was chipped in places and in need of a touch-up. The scent of medicinal products and cleansers was almost overwhelming, but it didn't come close to matching the odor of putrification that arose from the dead body.
Chapman resisted the urge to press the matter. He was sixty-two years old, born and raised in the cesspool that was Sovereign City. He'd seen burly cops enter his lab and turn away vomiting at the things he showed them. He knew false bravado when he saw it – and neither of these two were displaying it. Lazarus Gray looked like a man who had seen enough death to no longer be disturbed by it.
Chapman studied him for a moment, having read about the man in the newspapers but never having met him before. The head of Assistance Unlimited's hair was more gray than brown, making him look older than he was, though a close examination of his features revealed that he was in his late twenties. He was tall and slender, though with a rangy musculature that indicated he could more than hold himself in a fight.
The girl was another matter entirely and it was only because Chapman had known the girl during her youth that he knew she was more than she appeared. A stunning blonde whose parents were wealthy philanthropists, Samantha had grown up with every opportunity possible. She could speak five languages fluently, was a champion swimmer, and was a veritable encyclopedia on topics as varied as fashion, European history, and the socio-political climate of the Orient. Chapman would normally have balked at having a female in his lab, especially when he was about to show off a corpse in this state – but Samantha Grace was no mere slip of a girl, despite how she might look at first glance.
Chapman set the container aside and pulled the sheet away, revealing a body that had been horribly mutilated. The nude form was neatly bisected at the waist and the face had been slashed from the corners of the mouth to the ears, giving her a macabre parody of a smile.
The dead woman's black hair was matted and still bore traces of leaves and insect casings. Her body was that of a fit young woman and was admirably formed, but the unhealthy condition of the body was consistent with being exposed to the elements for several days before discovery.
"The victim was 24 years of age," Chapman began. "Her body was found in a vacant lot on the west side of South Page Avenue midway between West 42nd Street and Robeson Avenue."
Samantha exchanged a quick glance with Lazarus. "That's not far from our headquarters." She was obviously troubled to think that a woman could have been brutally assaulted so close to where she and her friends slept every night.
Gray nodded silently, urging Chapman to continue with a quick motion of his hand.
"The body was discovered by a local resident named Betty King who was walking with her four year old son earlier this morning. If you'll notice, the wounds are very clean. They were done with surgical instruments and the body was drained of blood. There are signs that the corpse was washed, probably in an attempt to remove traces of evidence. Furthermore, the body was posed with the left arm draped across the breasts and the right hand covering the pubis region."
"As if she were covering her nudity," Samantha observed and Chapman murmured an agreement. "So she wasn't killed at the scene? Someone dumped her there?"
Chapman spread his hands. "I'm no detective but in my opinion, that would be the case."
"Who was she?" Lazarus asked. Chapman found himself staring at the man's eyes: one was a dull brown and the other a glittering emerald.
"Her name was Claudia Schuller. A packet was sewn to the skin between her shoulder blades and it contained the items you see over there." Chapman gestured toward a nearby table upon which a number of papers had been arranged.
Gray moved toward them, slowly touching each one. Claudia's birth certificate was the first thing he lifted, but he also brushed his fingers across business cards, photographs, names written on pieces of paper, and an address book with the name Max Davies embossed on the cover.
"Has anyone contacted Mr. Davies?"
"Of course we have. We don't just sit around waiting on you to solve all the crimes for us."
Lazarus turned his head to see that Inspector Cord of the Sovereign PD had entered the room. He was a whippet-thin man who had one eye that seemed to be perpetually narrowed. His disdain for Assistance Unlimited – and its founder, in particular – was well known. "Inspector. Just the man I was hoping to see."
"I doubt that." Cord reached up and removed his hat, bowing slightly to Samantha. "Afternoon, Miss."
Samantha gave him a cool smile in reply.
"You were saying that your men had contacted Mr. Davies?" Lazarus prompted.
"Oh, yes." Cord took out a cigarette and lit it, though he knew that Gray hated the smell. He moved closer to Gray, blowing out a long cloud of smoke that enveloped the taller man. "He's here in Sovereign, on business he says. Apparently, his father – Warren Davies, now dead – was a newspaperman back in Boston. One of the papers he owned at one time was The Sovereign Gazette. The younger Davies still has some stock in the paper, though he's a minority holder. Says he met Miss Schuller for the first time about a week ago at a dinner party thrown by the Gazette's current majority owner, Theodore Groseclose. Supposedly, they went out together for drinks two nights later and that was the last time he saw her. Coincidentally, it's the last time anybody's reported seeing her."
Samantha looked at Chapman. "How long ago did she die?"
"I'd estimate it was about five days ago, given the rate of decomposition."
Lazarus knew what his aide was getting at and so did Inspector Cord.
Five days ago would have been the same night she'd had dinner with Max Davies. "Where is Mr. Davies now?" Gray asked, confident he already knew the answer.
"He's coming in for questioning right now. I think we've got him dead to rights." Cord took a long drag on his cigarette, a look of confidence on his face. "Last man seen with her and there's his address book right there."
"Then who sewed this packet onto her back?" Gray asked, his words carefully neutral but his eyes betraying his dislike for the other man.
"What do you mean? He did, of course. Davies."
"Why would he include his own address book? And these business cards: Robert Phillips, Chairman of the city's Building Association; Merle Hansome, Attorney; Theodore Groseclose… all of them should be questioned but I don't think any of them are the killer." Lazarus looked back at the corpse of Claudia Schuller. He tried to imagine her in life, young and beautiful. It was difficult with her reduced to a bisected piece of meat. "Whoever did this horrible act wanted us to know these men's names. The question is: why?"
Cord looked like he'd bitten into something sour. "You're over thinking things, Gray. In order to kill like this, a man has to be insane. Once you establish that, none of his actions should be taken as a surprise. I've seen killers throw themselves into our grasp, explaining every gruesome detail of their acts. That's probably what happened here. Davies wants to be caught." Cord lowered his voice, doing a stage whisper that was easily overheard by Samantha. "Besides, this isn't the first time that Davies has come to the attention of the law."
Gray looked at him steadily, waiting for Cord to continue. When it became obvious that Gray wasn't going to say anything, Cord took several more puffs on his cigarette before uttering a sigh.
"Back in Boston, there were accusations that he might be related to a murderous vigilante known as The Rook. Nothing could ever be proven but get this: he's put his home up for sale. Rumor has it he's planning to head out west or maybe down south. Why would an innocent man flee the town he'd grown up in? Maybe because he's not so innocent?"
Gray turned away from Cord and caught Samantha's eye. Without a word to Cord and just a brief thanks to Chapman, the duo exited the room.
"Where to, Chief?" Samantha asked, the clicking of her heels on the tiled floor seeming very loud. Gray noticed she was wearing a new scent today and he found the perfume to be quite pleasing. He wasn't blind to her interest in him but for many reasons, he didn't think it wise to encourage it.
"We're going to speak to Max Davies."
Samantha smiled softly. "You're planning to get to him before Cord does, aren't you?"
A rare grin seemed to dance upon Gray's lips, but it vanished so quickly that Samantha wasn't sure if she had actually seen it. "No sense in allowing the Inspector to ruin a perfectly good investigation."
Max Davies was thirty-five years old, though he could have passed for a man ten years younger. He was stunningly handsome with wavy black hair and a slightly Olive complexion, which made Samantha think that he had Mediterranean ancestry. He wore a black suit, white shirt and red tie, looking like he'd stepped off the cover of a European fashion magazine.
Having booked the penthouse at Sovereign City's most expensive hotel, Davies was reclining in relative luxury when Lazarus and Samantha arrived to speak with him. The room looked barely lived in, despite the fact he'd been staying there for over a week.
Davies was sitting now, his legs crossed before him. He held a small glass of scotch in one hand though Gray was positive the man was merely swirling it about in his glass for effect. Twice he'd brought it to his lips without actually taking a sip.
"You two just caught me," Davies was saying, gesturing for both of his guests to take a seat. "I was just walking out the door."
"We appreciate you taking the time to speak to us," Samantha said, smoothing her skirt over her long legs. She noticed that Max's eyes dipped down to watch the gesture and she smiled. Though she was the equal of any man when it came to a fight, she wasn't above using her beauty to her advantage. After all, it was one more weapon in her arsenal.
"How could I refuse an invitation from someone so attractive?" Max smoothly replied. With a twinkle in his eye, he added, "And might I say, Miss Grace, that you're quite a looker as well."
Samantha stared at him for a moment before the joke hit her. She looked over at Lazarus and saw that he wasn't quite as charmed as she was.
"Mr. Davies, perhaps you don't understand the severity of this situation," Lazarus said, his voice betraying absolutely no emotion. "You're the last person known to have seen Claudia Schuller alive. And an address book bearing your name was found on her person."
"Along with the business cards of other men, isn't that right?"
"How did you know that?" Lazarus asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Inspector Cord told me when he phoned earlier."
Samantha could see Lazarus visibly composing himself. He didn't care much for Cord's methods, which bordered on the incompetent at times. "You're still considered the prime suspect. Could you tell us the nature of your relationship with Miss Schuller?"
"She was at a party I attended. Apparently, she works in the newspaper secretarial pool. She was alone at the soiree and so was I. We struck up a conversation and I invited her to have dinner with me. She agreed to do and a couple of nights later, we went out and ate at O'Malley's. Afterward, we came back here."
Max glanced quickly at Samantha, who was the very picture of decorum. "Miss Schuller remained here for several hours and left my residence just past midnight."
"Did the two of you have sexual relations?" Lazarus asked.
"No. Not if you mean intercourse, anyway."
Samantha felt a flush rise to her cheeks and she smoothed out her skirt once more.
"And everything that happened here was consensual?" Lazarus didn't seem shocked by Max's intimations and Samantha remembered that in his old life, the one he'd had before arriving in Sovereign City, Lazarus had lived in Europe and traveled a great deal. He'd been exposed to things that weren't openly discussed in polite company.
As Max answered in the affirmative, Samantha found herself studying her employer. Not quite two years ago, Lazarus Gray had literally washed up on the shores of the city with no memory of who he really was. In his possession had been a small medallion depicting a nude male figure with the head of a lion. The words 'Lazarus Gray' had been printed below the image and he'd taken the name as his own. It wasn't until after founding Assistance Unlimited, a group dedicated to helping those in need, regardless of their ability to pay, that Lazarus had learned the truth: that once he'd been Richard Davenport, a member of a ruthless International organization known as The Illuminati. He'd turned against them and had nearly lost his life in the process. Now, he fought against his old allies, standing up to the forces of darkness with only his three aides at his side: Samantha, the young Korean Eun Jiwon, and former confidence man Morgan Watts.
Max set down his glass and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. "I assure you, Mr. Gray, that I'm not the kind of man who would have done those things to a woman. To anyone, really."
Something passed over the man's face that caught Samantha's attention – it was like a veil had fallen over his eyes. "I saw my father gunned down by criminals when I was eight years old. He was a good man and he taught me to stand up for those in need. I've tried to do that all my life. The kind of killer who did this… that's the kind of man who should be brought to justice."
Lazarus said nothing in response for a long moment, though it was obvious that his mind was running through everything that Max had just said. "I believe you, Mr. Davies. But it doesn't change the fact that a young woman is dead and that someone, for whatever reason, wanted your name thrown into the mix. Do you have any idea how your address book came to be with her body?"
"No. Someone obviously broke into my hotel room at some point but I never saw any sign of it and when I asked the clerk downstairs, he assured me that no one other than the cleaning staff had been here in my absence."
Samantha spoke up, voicing a thought that had come to her repeatedly since they'd left the morgue. "Maybe they just wanted to waste everyone's time, forcing the police down fruitless paths, while the real killer escapes town."
"That's possible," said Max, standing up and quickly crossing to a small briefcase that lay on a nearby table. He opened it as he continued to talk. "But unlikely. The killer's still here in Sovereign."
Gray watched as Max returned with several newspaper clippings in his grasp. Gray took them and his eyes quickly scanned the words, drinking in their meaning. "This wasn't the first murder," Gray murmured.
Max nodded, noting the look of surprise on Samantha's face. "Three years ago, a prostitute was found with her hands and feet removed. The body had been bled dry and washed. Six months later, a fourteen year old runaway girl was found, beheaded and with one leg missing. Again – surgical cuts, the body was dry and had been washed. Last fall, a third one was found: a Chinese immigrant who made a living washing clothes for others. Her breasts had been surgically removed but the other aspects matched perfectly: the body had not a drop of blood left in it and the murder occurred elsewhere with the body having been cleaned afterward."
Samantha shook her head in amazement. "That doesn't make sense. Why didn't Cord mention that?"
"Because he doesn't know," Lazarus answered. "Miss Schuller is the first victim who would be considered of any importance. Prostitutes and immigrants aren't high priorities. There aren't many family members to press for an investigation. They're simply forgotten."
Max nodded. "That's right. It's actually the real reason why I'm here. I sometimes comb through old crime reports, looking for story ideas that I can feed to the editors of the papers I still have a stake in. I came here to talk to Mr. Groseclose about these murders and to see if the Gazette could look into them."
Lazarus took a deep breath before speaking. "May I take these clippings with me?"
Lazarus collected them and nodded to Samantha. She understood the gesture and stood up. They were leaving, as Lazarus had evidently gotten everything he thought he needed from Max Davies.
Lazarus placed a hand on Max's shoulder. "I'm sorry to say that you'll still be expected to visit the police station and file a formal statement. I think you should heed my advice: don't mention these clippings or the other murders. To a man like Cord, your knowledge of such things might only increase the likelihood of your involvement."
"You believe me, though?"
"Yes. I do. You're much more than you appear to be, I'm sure of that… but you're not the man we're looking for."
Samantha wondered at those words, but said nothing until they were outside in the car. "I'm not sure I believe all that," she said at last.
Lazarus started the car and began smoothly gliding it down the perpetually rain-slicked streets of the city. "You mean that he came here in response to the murders?"
"Well, yes. I mean, it seems terribly convenient, doesn't it? He comes here because he knows women are being murdered. They're all vagabonds or street people so nobody cares about them. Then he meets a girl who doesn't fit that pattern – but sure enough, the killer takes an interest in her anyway."
Lazarus glanced toward her and that faint hint of a smile that he sometimes got reasserted itself before vanishing, like a thin wisp of smoke. "I'd wager that we only saw the real Max Davies at the end of that conversation. The moment he shared with us the details about those other murders, his demeanor changed. Before that, the bored playboy routine, the overly flirtatious act – it was just that. An act."
"So you think he might be the killer?"
"Oh, no. I don't think that at all. I think he's someone with genuine concern about these women but for some reason, he doesn't want the world to know it. I'll look into his background when I get the chance but for now, I don't think we should waste our time focusing on him."
"What about the other men whose names were found with her body?"
"As we were leaving the station, I stopped to call the Assistance Unlimited HQ. Eun and Morgan have been looking into the other men who have been implicated in this."
Samantha nodded, looking out the passenger side window. She saw one gray-colored building after another. It looked like the entire city was slowly falling under a haze of decay. "That poor girl. No one should die like that. And to think that more women have died over the years, with no one missing them… It makes me wonder if we can ever really save this place. My grandparents used to tell me that Sovereign wasn't always like this but nowadays it's hard to believe that. There's something rotten at the core of the city, Lazarus. It's breeding murder, corruption and despair."
Samantha felt her employer's hand settle on hers. He gave it a firm squeeze and when he spoke, there was unusual emotion in his words. "You're right. The heart of Sovereign is spoiled. That's why we've got to find the source of the evil and carve it out."