Story by Ike Keen/ Illustration by L.A. Spooner
He liked the darkness.
Liked the night. The shadows obscured their faces and his. Of course, he didn’t worry about being identified if they did see his face. They would be dead and the dead don’t talk. Or at least the ones he had worked on usually didn’t once he was done. This one wouldn’t. This one would be a messenger.
Now one might think he was a cold-blooded killer. The police did and were on the hunt for him even though he did their job for them in a way. Yes, his methods were crude and sometimes bloody but he always got what he wanted and what he wanted was to rid the world of men like this one. He smiled as he stood in the shadow and watched the man tied to the chair shift and jerk at every sound made. Intentional sounds like a knife sharpening on a stone. The clink of a chain. A hollow laugh. That was what terrified them the most. The hollow laugh that seemed to echo in the room, bounce off the walls and touch their ears again and again.
He stepped forward from the shadows. The man in the chair jerked his head up and tried to talk around the gag in his mouth. He leaned forward, his eyes even with those of the man. He chuckled softly and the man whimpered.
“Tell Taggard I am coming…soon!”
The last word was a hiss. The man’s eyes widened, his whole body shook. He stepped back; his hand appeared from under his long coat, a knife in it. The man’s eyes followed it up as the knife raised, the edge sparkling in the dim light. He brought the knife down; the edge of the blade whispering between cheek and gag. The gag fell away and the man groaned. The knife came up again, this time cutting the ropes binding the man to the chair almost in two.
The man swallowed a lump. The man’s eyes darted from the knife to him. He chuckled, the knife disappearing beneath the coat as he leaned down again, his eyes locked with the others.
“Tell him The Raven is coming.”
He straightened up, the sound of his laughter echoing in the darkness as he walked away. Disappearing into the darkness as if he had never been.
Taggard sat behind his desk and stared at Wallace. Wallace was scared and he had never seen Wallace scared. Shook up maybe but never scared. Wallace’s craggy face was pale, almost white. His lips tight across his face. His clothes were soaked in sweat and a red line crusted with blood ran down the side of his cheek. Heck, Wallace’s buddy had found him in the abandoned warehouse two streets over from where they were supposed to be. Heck had told Taggard that one minute Wallace was behind him then gone the next.
“It was like he had just vanished,” Heck told Taggard. “No yell, no grunt, no nothin’. He was tied to a chair but the ropes were cut almost in two. I guess he passed out before he could get free.”
Heck didn’t tell Taggard that Wallace had pissed himself. For him to do that, something or someone had scared the b-Jesus out of him. Now Wallace sat in front of his boss. His face still dripping sweat and the sound of The Raven’s laughter still echoing in his ears.
“So that was all you saw, a guy dressed in black and his eyes?” Taggard leaned on his desk as he asked.
“As God is my witness boss.” Wallace swallowed and nodded his head. “All I could see were his eyes. Amber eyes with gold flecks in them. They swirled around when he stared at you. Gave me the creeps and his voice…soft and hallow like he was talking in a barrel.”
“And he said he was coming to see me?” Taggard said in a low voice.
Wallace nodded and shivered.
“He said he was coming soon. The last word like the hiss of a snake.”
“And he called himself The Raven.”
Wallace nodded and then shook so hard the chair he was in rattled. Taggard leaned back and rubbed his lower lip with one finger. He had heard rumors there was a dark figure roaming the night in the city. Of course, there had been varying tales about his appearance. Some described him as Wallace did. A man dressed in black. Others told he was a black mist, swarming over them and appearing only when the fight began.
As to his name, this was the first time it had been told. Taggard dropped his hand and leaned forward again staring at Wallace.
“Go home and pull yourself together Wallace. Have a drink or two and put this Raven out of your mind.” Taggard glanced up at Buster, his second in command. Buster nodded back. Wallace would be just another casualty of this Raven. Least that would be what the cops thought.
Wallace stood, still shaking a little as he did and started to leave, paused and looked over his shoulder, his eyes widened as he stared at the window behind Taggard. Wallace let out a whine and started to run, knocking over a chair as he raced for the door. Taggard whirled around in his chair and stared out the window. He was on the third floor and outside his window, a flagpole was mounted. Taggard muttered a curse at what he saw. A bird. Black as midnight was perched on the flagpole, its dark eyes flashing in the moonlight as it looked in at Taggard. Then it took off, its wings spread as it lifted from the flagpole, its eyes still on Taggard.
Before Taggard could draw his pistol and open the window to take a shot, the bird was gone. Only the swish of its wings could be faintly heard.
“Damned crows,” Taggard muttered. His second in command, who had been in the room during the questioning, shook his head.
“No crow boss; that was a Raven.”
Taggard closed the window and a cold chill suddenly ran down his back as the faint sound of hollow laughter drifted through the night air.
“Now let me get this straight,” Don Decker said leaning on the table across from Shorty Bass. “You were cracking a safe in old Steinbeck’s jewelry shop when your partner, Marion Cross. Suddenly grabbed your shoulder and jerked you around away from the safe.”
“Y-yeah,” Shorty answered in a shaky voice, “I almost had it open too but…”
“But what?” Decker asked.
Shorty swallowed and closed his eyes. Sweat had started to pop out on his face and his skin grew pale. Shorty was one of the best in the business. There wasn’t a safe he couldn’t crack given he had the time to work on them. Neither was he skittish. He’d been in tighter spots before and kept his nerves in check.”
His partner on the other hand was a wimp. Decker had questioned him first and all he would say was something about eyes. Swirling, amber eyes.
“But someone stopped you?” Decker said.
“Not someone, something. God in heaven! All you could see were its eyes. Amber eyes that burned into you. Sucked the very soul out of you.”
“The eyes, they told you to turn yourself in?”
Short bobbed his head up and down hard. “Damned right they did. Marion had fainted and I almost did too. He told me…”
“Wait a minute he spoke?”
Shorty bobbed his head again. “Yeah. His voice was soft but had a hollow sound to it, echoing. Like someone talking in a barrel.”
Decker grunted. Too many horror movies or too much whiskey. Decker believed the latter.
“His eyes drilled into mine and told me what would happen if we didn’t turn ourselves in.”
“And that was?”
“We’d disappear. Be flung into the darkness to never return.”
Shorty lowered his head and let out a low sob. He hadn’t lived a very good life. Been a crook most of it. Learned the safe cracking trade from a man he worked for when he was a teenager. Since then he had been caught only once. A safe he had tried to open was a little more complicated than he had expected and the store had one of those new alarm systems. The cops had showed up just as he was about to open it.
Six months he spent in the county jail. Now he would probably do more than six months.
Decker leaned back and shook his head. He had heard tales of a dark clothed figure scaring the shit out of the criminal element here in the city. Until now, he had not questioned anyone who had come face to face with the wraith.
“Anything else you can tell me about this guy?” Decker asked.
Shorty shook his head.
“All I know is I ain’t never been scared before. Never! It was like the old Grim Reaper was tellin’ me to get straight or suffer the consequences.”
Shorty began to sob then. Decker shook his head and grunted. He motioned to his partner, Boswell, to take Shorty away. As they left, shorty stopped and turned, his eyes red and wide.
“When he left, I could have swore he faded into a mist and the sound of hundreds of birds was heard flying away.”
Decker shook his head as his partner led Shorty away. That was another thing that was going around. Some whispered he could dissolve into a black mist. Others said he would walk into the darkness and just fade away. And the voice. A hallow whisper but well heard. His laugh a hollow echo.
Decker stood and slid the chair under the table. He smiled and shook his head.
“Probably some loon who knew a few magic tricks.” He walked to the door and exited the room. Maybe he would go see old Morris. He used to do things like that when he was in vaudeville. Decker smiled and made a mental note of that thought.
The stage was set. The players, if they did what he told them, would tell Taggard what he had said and the man would be on the hunt. He would also be on his guard. He smiled and pulled the slouch hat from his head and then the black mask he wore over the lower part of his face. He pulled off the coat he wore. A special made job with pockets hidden inside. Under the coat was a double shoulder holster, two .45s nestled in each one. He slid out of them and laid them on his desk then stepped over to the big window behind his desk. In it, he could see the face he had dawned since he had started this mission.
If one wanted to call it a mission. His manservant called it that. Benton said it was their mission to try to thwart evil. He just wanted revenge. Dandridge Parsons had been a pillar of his community. A rich man who never looked at the poor as if they were a pest to be stomped on by the rich. He had built an import company that gave jobs to people who were down and out because of the Depression. Gave them a decent wage and sometimes a place to stay until they got on their feet.
His company brought imports from all over the world. Most of them came from Asia. China in fact. Beautiful treasures people in high society were willing to pay for. Expensive treasures that brought him money he used to help the poor. But that ended when the port authority seized a shipment. Porcelain vases packed with Heroin. Ten crates. He went to jail for smuggling. Five years. His business sold to a man by the name of Trent A.K.A Taggard.
Under his ownership (along with a few greased palms), the drugs continued to be smuggled in. The Port Authority looked the other way. Parsons had tried to get the goods on Taggard but the man was well covered. His connections with the police and the people in City Hall enough to stop any snooping around. The only thing that kept Parsons in his house and living comfortably was a trust his father had set up for him. In Benton’s name of course, but the money was his and Benton being loyal didn’t run off with it.
“This trash must be made to pay for what they’ve done to you,” Benton told him one night after Parsons had come back beaten to within an inch of his life for snooping. “If only you could be like one of those heroes in the magazines. A man of mystery who fights evil and vanquishes it.”
That was the beginning of The Raven.
He had been in the attic whiling away the time to keep boredom away when he ran across a trunk, his father’s initials engraved on the lid. He pulled it out and tried to open the lid, the old lock rusted and not budging. After a search, he came up with a screwdriver and pried the lock off. Inside were books on the occult and magic. Books by Houdini and Blackstone. Manuscripts yellowed and flaking telling the secrets of disappearing and making men see things they feared.
He had Benton help him take the trunk down to the study and for the rest of the night he delved into a world he never knew existed. It was then that he came up with the idea. Men like Taggard were always afraid of something they didn’t understand. Dark things that they couldn’t explain.
In the days that followed, Parsons studied the books, formed a mental picture of the character he would invent to make them fear him. It was Benton who came up with the idea of the makeup. He had told him what he intended to do and Benton only smiled. Benton told him he would need more than magic tricks and makeup to put fear in the criminal element.
Chan Lee was that more. He taught Parsons the way of the Chinese Vagabond. How to disappear in a cloud of smoke. How to fight and subdue a man with one hand and how to kill with the slightest touch. Months passed and Parsons learned his lessons well. It was Benton that devised the makeup he wore. A powder covered his face and made it pale as a sheet. His chin was molded with putty to make it long and pointed and his nose was done the same way. It was his eyes though that was the thing they would always remember.
Glass cups that fit over his real eyes, the irises amber with gold flecks in them, flecks that swirled and ebbed. Hypnotic. Chan deemed him ready but Parsons needed a name. Something that the criminals would remember. Something that matched the dark clothes he wore. He was still pondering on it when a book fell from the stack on his desk. The book falling to a picture of a Raven. He smiled, nodded his head and the Raven was born.
Over the weeks that followed, his training had come in handy. The element he was dealing with, a vicious bunch. Some took shots at him as he confronted them and if it hadn’t been for Chan’s teachings, he would have been dead. He needed more. Fight fire with fire so to speak. The .45s did nicely.
“How was your evening Mr. Parsons?” Benton asked as he stepped into the study. Dan turned and smiled.
“They have received their warning. I think they’ll be on the hunt now.” Dan grinned and sat down at his desk, pulled off his fake nose and chin and wiped some of pale makeup from his face. He stowed the nose and chin in a case that held his makeup and closed the lid. The moon came from behind a cloud and fell across the desk he was sitting at. A shadow darted across the top.
Dan grabbed a .45 and dashed toward the window, opened one and vaulted out. A figure rounded the corner of the house so Dan sprinted toward it, paused and peeked around. A knife barely missed his nose as he ducked back, but didn’t turn away. Instead, he grabbed the arm, pulled on it and a man came stumbling out and fell to the ground. He was on his feet quick, the knife held at ready as he crouched.
Dan smiled and relaxed, his face still showing some of the white makeup he was removing. For a moment, the man hesitated then growled and lunged at him. Dan stepped to the side, the blade missing him by inches. Dan’s hand came up and then down, brushing the back of the man’s neck. He froze, then dropped face first onto the ground. His body rigid.
Dan knelt, turned him over and smiled at him. Enough of the makeup left to make the smile a ghastly sight. His hollow laugh echoing in the moon lit night.
“What the hell happened to him?” Taggard said as he looked the man over. Don Ferrell lay on a table, his face taut, his eyes wide and his mouth open.
“He called me and said he was following a lead. Didn’t say what it was before I could ask. Maybe he had a lead on this Raven guy. Maybe he followed him.” Buster, shrugged. “Next thing I know, I get a call from a couple of the girls who found him in an alley. Leaned up against the wall, stiff as a fence post.”
Taggard tried to lift Ferrell’s arm. It was like a slab of wood. Unbending.
“What the hell?” Taggard stepped back and scratched his head.
“One of the girls said she had heard a guy say it was some Chinese thing. Something to do with pressure and nerves.”
Taggard grunted and said, “Get Kwan in here. Maybe he’ll know what to do.”
Buster nodded and stepped out of the room. Taggard looked at Ferrell. His chest was slowly rising and falling. His eyes glassy. It was creepy. Taggard was still staring when Kwan came into the room. He was a small Chinaman. A little over five feet tall, he could kick butt better than some of his bigger men. Kwan looked at Ferrell and shook his head. He stepped closer and then stepped back, his mouth tight on his face.
“How long has he been like this?” Kwan asked.
“No idea. He was brought in an hour ago,” Taggard answered.
“Hummmm. He has been touched by one who knows the Vagabond arts.”
Kwan sighed. “In China there are men who know ways to make a man this way. Lock the muscles by pressing certain pressure points. This is what has happened to him.”
“So you can fix it right?” Taggard growled.
“Maybe, or I may kill him.”
“Explain,” Taggard said.
“What has been done is called a Death Touch. Certain pressure points are pressed to lock the muscles. One who has received this touch can only be released by touching the same points. If not touched at the right points…he dies”
Taggard groaned. Ferrell was one of his most trusted men like Buster was. He’d been with Taggard since the beginning and he was like a brother.
“Try,” Taggard said in a soft voice. Kwan nodded and stepped up beside Ferrell. He brushed his hand over Ferrell’s neck. Nothing. He did it again, this time with a little more pressure. Nothing happened. Kwan let out a sigh and did it again. This time Ferrell’s eyes blinked and he sat up. A whine came from his throat and his head turned slowly toward Taggard.
“Raven,” he said, his lips barely moving. “Raven.”
Then the whine increased, rose higher in volume until it was a high scream. Ferrell began to shake. His eyes rolled up in his head and he jerked so hard his bones cracked. Then he fell backwards, his head thumping the table, his eyes showing only the whites.
“What the hell…” Taggard said in a whisper.
“Only the one who administered the touch can undo it. I told you he would die.”
“Yeah, but he said Raven before he did,” Buster said in a soft voice.
Kwan nodded. “I have heard of this specter of the night. It is said he is like a ghost. Appearing and disappearing at will. I suspect he has been trained in the arts of the Chinese Vagabond.”
“The what?” Taggard said in a puzzled voice.
“As I said, he must be trained in what is called the Vagabond Arts. He can kill silently. Appear and disappear without a trace. Legend says it is the fathers of the Japanese art of Ninjutsu.”
“So how do we find this Raven?” Taggard asked.
“It will be hard, but I know some people who will help if you will agree to pay them,” Kwan said.
Taggard gave him a hard look. He knew who Kwan was talking about and dealing with their leader was like dealing with the devil. Lo Tan, of the Tong here in the city. Taggard had dealings with them once before. Drug smuggling dealings. When things got sticky Lo Tan pulled out leaving Taggard’s crew to take the fall. For a while Taggard kept an eye on Lo Tan but the man stayed clear of his organization. Taggard grunted and nodded.
“Make the arrangements.”
Kwan turned and walked toward the door, a slight smile crossed his face. Yes, he would make arrangements, but not the kind Taggard expected.
Collen Trask had been a star in his day. He had toured the circuit in vaudeville, his name the main attraction on the marquee. For a short time, Houdini had been his hero. Trask, or Collen the Mystic, did a few escapes during his act. The crowds didn’t react as well as they did when Houdini did them but they clapped. Collen wanted to hear the crowd cheer when he did the impossible. He almost did.
He liked the milk can escape his hero did but Collen wanted to add an even more dangerous element to the escape. He devised it by escaping the can before a ton block of cement could drop, the rope frayed and set on fire. The escape was one he had done many times but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the rope, getting it to burn slowly enough to let him get away.
They finally came up with soaking the rope for over two hours then fraying it very little, wet fibers from another rope attached to make it look as if it were near breaking. They timed it over and over, the time it took to burn through way more than it took him to get out of the can. His first time was his last. Either the rope dried out too fast or wasn’t soaked enough. Either way he had barely escaped before the rope parted. Collen was out of the can when the concrete block fell, but not out enough. One foot didn’t make it, well, one foot and his ankle.
Crushed beyond repair the doctors told him. He’d never be able to walk again and if he did, he wouldn’t be able to perform again. They were right. He had scoffed at them. He learned to walk, but when some of his tricks required his joints to be flexible, his ankle wasn’t. Collen dropped out of sight for a while. Took to the bottle and nearly died. Then he became born again. His fight with the demon rum overcome by a woman who ran a mission over on 81st street. She dried him out. Gave him new hope and he even went back to doing sleight of hand tricks around the mission.
Decker knew if anyone could tell him how a fellow could disappear like this Raven did, he could. The mission was between meals, the lunch and dinner meals. Decker stepped in and looked around. Lots of fellows were milling around. Out of work men. Hobos who had drifted up from the rail yards and some families, their kids cold and hungry. Collen was entertaining them.
Decker watched for a few minutes. Collen’s hands as fast as they were in his prime. The coins appearing and disappearing as if they actually had faded into thin air. When he was done, Collen turned and saw Decker, nodded and walked back toward the small office he and his wife shared. It was more of a large closet than an office. A small desk and chair sat against one wall. A file cabinet in the northeast corner and a shelf with various pictures on it above the desk.
Collen smiled, motioned to the chair and then sat down in the one in front of the desk. He crossed his leg and rubbed his bad ankle.
“Fall is coming soon,” he said. “My ankle tells me so. What can I do for you detective?”
“I need to know some of your secrets to catch a vigilante.”
“My guess is it is the fellow called the Raven?” He smiled.
“So you’ve heard about him?” Decker said.
“Who hasn’t? He’s considered a hero among the ones who have been beat down by the criminals who haunt this city. Especially Taggard.”
“Okay, so he is a hero to the underprivileged. Doesn’t mean he can take the law into his own hands.”
“Has he killed anyone yet?” Collen asked this question with a slight smile on his face. Decker grunted.
“Only a matter of time,” Decker said, “If he has no one is talking.”
Collen shrugged and said, “So will those he does away with be missed?”
“Look, I didn’t come here to play twenty questions with you Collen. All I want to know is how he can disappear like he does.”
“And I might tell you if I weren’t bound by a code.”
“One that is as old as time.” Collen smiled and let his leg down on the floor. “Are you going to take me downtown?”
“For what, not telling me magicians’ secrets?” Decker stood and took a couple of steps toward the door. “But if I find out you’re helping him…”
Decker turned and walked out shaking his head. He’d put a watch on Collen and the mission. If Collen was helping this Raven, well…
Collen watched as Decker walked out of the mission and across the street. He then went into the back room of the mission, wrote a note and called to one of the boys who were playing behind the mission.
“Take this to my friend.” He gave the boy two bits and the boy took off. He had done this before and was always glad when Mr. Collen chose him to deliver the messages to his friend. Not only would Collen pay him two bits but the friend would give him a whole five dollars. A month’s worth of food for his brothers, sisters and his mother during these hard times. He just hoped his old man didn’t find out about it. There would be hell to pay.
Lo Tan bowed slightly as Kwan introduced him to Taggard. Really there was no need. It was more of a curtesy than anything. He straightened, smiled slightly and Taggard motioned him to one of the two chairs sitting in front of his desk. Lo Tan didn’t look like the typical Chinese man. No, Lo Tan had abandoned the silk robes and ballooned pants they wore for a dark three-pieced suit tailor cut to his frame. A silk tie of the same color circled his neck. His shirt was a little lighter than the tie and a stickpin mounted with a small ruby was centered on the tie. His cuff links also had small rubies mounted on them. All three caught the light and looked like drops of blood.
He had the features of his race but his face was a little darker. Probably a little Mongol blood raced in his veins. His hair was coal black but not slicked down as some of the others did theirs. A pencil thin mustache covered his upper lip and the ends were long and fell down past his chin. He held a cigarette in a long, black holder. His face was emotionless.
Kwan stood behind Lo Tan, his face as emotionless as the man seated in front of him. Lo Tan lit his cigarette and puffed it, his eyes looking Taggard over. It gave Taggard the creeps. He walked behind his desk and sat down. Lo Tan smiled and motioned to the desk. It was a teakwood desk, images of dragons and mountains carved into the wood.
“This is a beautiful desk. May I inquire as to where you purchased it?” Lo Tan said; his voice a deep baritone.
“A man I know in New York. He’s an importer.”
“You must give me his name so I can see if he can acquire me one also.” Tan smiled and a shiver ran up Tagger’s back. He nodded.
“Now, I understand you are having a problem as of late?”
Taggard nodded again and said, “Yeah, I suppose you have heard of a man called The Raven?”
Tan’s eyes narrowed a moment and he nodded.
“We have heard of the round eye who disappears like the mist. He has interfered with some of our people also. He is feared by many of my associates. They say he is a demon in human form. I believe he is but a man who has mastered the art of the Chinese Vagabond.”
“Yeah, Kwan told me all about them. Sounds like a bunch of hooey to me. Nothing a gun can’t fix.”
Tan smiled and leaned forward, the smoke drifting around his head in slow circles.
“If one can find them to shoot them. I have heard tales of these Vagabonds being cornered and arrows shot at them but the arrows passed right through when they faded into a mist only to appear and slay all that had tried to kill them. No, guns will not do here. Another will have to be brought in to handle this Vagabond. One who is versed in his way of fighting. But his price will be high as will mine.”
Taggard flinched. He knew it would come to this and he swallowed back a lump and asked, “How much?”
Lo Tan smiled and leaned back in his chair. Kwan chuckled silently behind him.
— ♦♦♦ —
In The Newspaper Part 2. By Bruce Harris, Art by Cesar Valtierra
Next week we’ll be offering the second installment of Bruce Harris’s “In the Newspaper”. If you haven’t already done so; or you need a refresher, read the first part published on February 12, 2017. This complex story has got everything; lying, cheating, corruption, blackmail and more! Find out why the newspaper business can be murder. Cesar Valtierra’s illustration for this story really packs a punch. Don’t miss it. Over the course of the year, we’ll be publishing the other three installments so be sure to keep a look out.