Story by Ike Keen
Illustration by Luke Spooner
Collen let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. The man who usually came to watch over the building during the night had come in drunk. Collen had placed him on the cot in the back that he slept on while he was here. It was going to be a long night. Already he had to toss out two drunks yelling and cussing about not being able to bunk down at the mission. Collen thought he was going to have to call the cops but one of the men who, for the first time was sober, helped him hustle them out.
Since the crash, the homeless population had grown. There wasn’t a time when a family would come in, kids dirty, clothes ragged, down to their last dime and not a shred of hope left. Collen had been there. Had lost all confidence, had crawled into the bottle and hoped it would kill him. Then came Doris.
He had come staggering into the mission beat all to hell. He had tried to bum a few coins off a couple of men who turned out to be some of Taggard’s bunch. He was just drunk enough to give them some lip and they worked him over. As he came to the door, Doris spotted him, the man helping her did also. The man, Chet was his name, came in a fast walk toward him but when he got close, he slowed. He yelled at Doris and she came quick, led him to the back of the mission and set up a cot then laid him down on it. Doris questioned him and said they were going to call the police. Collen told them no then relayed what had happened to him.
Chet agreed with Collen. When they came they would take him downtown, toss him in a cell and forget about him since it was Taggard’s men who had beat him. That was the beginning of their relationship. One that grew and soon blossomed into love. They had married three years ago, Collen sober those three years.
It was on a night like this when he first met The Raven. The mission, silent except for the occasional snort and snore of some of the men. Collen was leaving out the back door when a voice spoke from the darkness to his right. Collen slowly turned, the pistol he carried gripped under his jacket.
“No need for the pistol,” the voice said in a shallow whisper. A figure stepped out of the darkness. Tall and dressed in black, a long trench coat that came almost to his feet covered his frame. A black mask covered the lower part of his face and a wide-brimmed hat covered his head. Between the two, his flesh showed a pale cast and his eyes were amber with gold flecks that swirled in them.
“I have no money,” Collen said in a soft voice. The Raven shook his head.
“It is not your money I want.” The Raven’s voice made a shiver run down Collen’s spine. He had heard tales of the mystery man. How he spoke in a hollow whisper that sounded as if he were speaking in a barrel. No wonder the criminal element was leery of him.
“Then what is it you want?”
“Knowledge.” The word hissed out and the eyes swirled faster. That was the beginning of their partnership. Collen had taught him how to escape from almost any type of bonds and he also taught him the mixture of making the smoke he used to disappear as black as the shadows around him. They also invented a device which, when The Raven disappeared, the sounds of many birds sounded. This mist, released through a nozzle, took the smoky shapes of birds. Collen never asked who he was, for he could feel in the man no evil. Just a thirst for justice, even if it meant taking a life.
A soft sound came from the short hallway outside the office. Collen opened the drawer of his desk and took out the gun. Even though he knew who it was, to be prepared meant to stay alive.
“Always the cautious one,” The Raven said with a chuckle. Collen relaxed his grip on the pistol.
“In these times one must be,” Collen said looking at the form in his doorway. Even in the light, there was a vagueness to The Raven’s shape. As if a dark mist hovered around him always.
“So true. I understand a Detective Decker came a calling?”
“He did, but he got nothing.”
The Raven’s head nodded.
“But there are rumors floating around,” Collen continued.
“That Taggard has partnered with Lo Tan.”
“Yes, I have heard.”
“It is also said Lo Tan has acquired the services of one who knows the secrets of the Vagabond, the dark secrets.”
The Raven stood silent for a moment then a low chuckle came from him. There were others who knew the Art of the Vagabond. The art, having two sides to it, the good and the bad. Then there was one that combined both. This was practiced by a different race but not as different as this race believed. The Raven knew it as Ninjutsu, the Japanese art of stealth fighting. Similar, but not the same.
“Interesting,” The Raven said. “I will be on guard. I’ve come to tell you not to send the boy anymore with messages until I can take care of some business.”
“Oh, was he caught and questioned?”
“No, his father caught him with the money we pay him for his services. His father is a drunk and when he caught the boy giving his mother the money, he beat them both severely.”
Collen’s eyes flashed. He knew of the boy’s father. The man was a vicious drunk and many were the times the boy had told him of having to call the doctor to treat his mother for one of his father’s beatings.
“Then how will I contact you?” Collen asked.
“I will come to you,” The Raven said and stepped back into the semi-dark hallway. His form suddenly misty and hard to see. Collen smiled and stood. He wished he could be there when The Raven confronted the boy’s father. Yes, he wished he could.
Decker had roamed the north half of the city for most of the day, cornered people he knew and had even paid a couple of snitches for whatever information they had on this Raven. Most of it was vague. Shadowed forms melting into the darkness. Stories of a black mist rolling like a cloud and a vague figure seen within it before the criminal met his end.
Then there was the mist appearing and the faint sight of birds seen in it, then the sounds of wings beating the air. Slim had told him about this one.
“Now dis comes from a guy I know who was working with one of Taggard’s crew. The guy is legit. Not a drunk or a doper.” Slim spoke in a low voice as he and Decker stood in the shadows of an alley. “He used to be a collector for one of Taggard’s loan sharks. They were collectin’ from a guy who had borrowed money and failed to make a couple of payments. They hadn’t planned to do anything to the guy, just rough him up a bit and maybe take a few things from his house as payment.
“But the guy got cute. Threatened him and the guy that was with him. The guy told them he would see them in hell before they took anything from him. The guy, they call him Tank, told him to not be such an asshole and started to walk toward the radio on a table by an easy chair. Next thing Jimmy, he was the one told me this, knew Tank staggered a step, grabbed his head and a trickle of blood came from between his fingers. The man had thrown a heavy, glass ashtray at Tank.
Tank lost it and before Jimmy could stop him, Tank had the guy by the shirtfront and hit him twice. Broke his jaw in two places. Tank then walked over and grabbed up the radio, yanked the cord out of the wall and told the man they’d be back tomorrow for the rest of the payment. Tank never made it back.”
“They found him in an alley a block from here, stiff as a board but alive. A small piece of paper was pinned to his coat, a Raven in black printed on the paper. The docs have been trying to diagnose what the hell is wrong with him but ain’t gittin’ anywhere. Old Kwan, Taggard’s man, says it’s the Dim Mak. The poison touch and there’s no hope for Tank.”
“Tank still in the hospital?” Decker asked.
“Nope, died a week ago. Even if he was, it wouldn’t do no good to go see him. He couldn’t even move his eyes to look at you.”
Decker grunted and started to pay Slim but he waved him off.
“I’m out of the snitch business too,” he said shaking his head, “I’m hopping a train and headed out of this city. No profit in it anymore.”
Decker shoved the money back in his pocket and turned to walk away. Slim was actually terrified of this man called Raven. Was it a good thing? Decker wondered. Slim had mentioned something about Dim Mak, the poison touch. He probably needed to make another trip to the mission and see if Collen knew what it was.
— ♦♦♦ —
Taggard sat behind his desk with a half-smoked cigar between his fingers. He had run out his second in command after Kwan and Lo Tan had left. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to get over the livid anger he was in after Lo Tan had told him what it would cost to find and get rid of The Raven. What was bad was the smug way he had told Taggard.
“Such a job comes at a high price,” Lo Tan said in a soft voice. “One-third of your drug trade profits will be turned over to me. The assassin will be paid two thousand dollars. Mr. Kwan will be in charge of taking care of this. Is this agreeable to you?”
Taggard had sat quietly for a moment. His eyes hooded and the cigar in his mouth clamped tight between his teeth. One-third would eat into the skim he took off the top of the profits.
“If not, then maybe you can find someone else to do what you want done.”
There was the rub. Only Tan’s people knew how to take care of the problem and he knew it. Taggard had asked around if it could be done any other way. A man who ran the opium den told him that a few had tried to take care of The Raven by other means. Everybody had died. Taggard grunted and stood. Maybe he was going about this the wrong way. Maybe after Tan got rid of The Raven, he could get rid of Lo Tan. He smiled and nodded as he walked to the door and called Buster into his office to see if they could come up with a plan.
— ♦♦♦ —
Chan sat in his office in the back of his business and stared wide-eyed at the corner of the room. He had retired here after a rather horrendous night. A couple of round eyes had come in and got out of hand. Almost tore up the place before they could be taken care of. Now there were bodies to be disposed of. Bad dreams from the pipe. Chan already had trouble with the law. One of his customers had died from the pipe and before they could dispose of the body, they came. They almost closed him down. If it had not been for Lo Tan, they would have.
Now though, there were two more bodies to be disposed of. Bodies that were from respected families. Bodies that would have to disappear completely. He was pondering this when he happened to glance at the corner. Happened to see that the shadow there was thicker than it had been. A cold chill touched his heart as the shadow suddenly shifted and took shape. Chan’s face paled as the head raised and the amber eyes locked with his.
“Ra-raven,” Chan stuttered, his eyes wide and his voice soft, “why are you here?”
“Not for what you think,” Raven said in his hollow whisper.
Chan swallowed and nodded his head. “Then what is it you wish?”
“Lo Tan and his assassin, where are they?”
Chan opened his mouth to speak but then closed it. He knew it would be no good to say he didn’t know. This part of the city was abuzz with the warrior who had come to rid them of The Raven.
“I have no idea. Lo Tan has many places he calls home. He could be at one or the other.”
The darkness moved from the corner. A mist started to fill the room. Dark mist. Blacker than a summer thundercloud. In the mist the eyes grew larger, the flecks swirling faster. A hollow laugh echoing in the small room.
“Many have died here,” the voice echoed, “many souls cry out from the lye pits they have been buried in. Do you hear them, Chan? Are they crying out for vengeance?”
Chan shuddered. Whispers were coming from the black mist. Whispers of anger and pain. Chan swallowed and let out a short cry, covered his ears and squeezed his eyes shut tight.
“Hear them, Chan? CAN YOU HEAR THEM!”
Chan muttered something in Chinese then opened his eyes, shaking so hard the table beside him rattled.
“On the west side,” Chan stuttered out, “just inside the city limits. Lo Tan has a house there. Many girls work there. He has his office in the back. He will be there tonight.”
Suddenly the room went pitch black. The mist almost solid then dissipating. Light slowly filled the room. Chan stood on shaky legs, stared about the room and lit another lamp, then another; trying to chase the shadows away. As he lit the last one, a soft, echoing laughter filled the room along with the beating of a thousand bird wings.
The house was located in a wooded area just inside the city limits of the town. A long gravel road led to the house, cars going in and out of the lane a few at a time. Lo Tan had bought the house from an old woman who was moving to California to live with her daughter. It was a little run down at the time but Tan gave her a good price for it and the old woman was happy.
After a renovation, Tan brought in a bevy of oriental girls, beauties shipped to him from his home country. Once they were settled, Tan opened for business and a good business it was. Many well-known people came here to sample the almond-eyed girls who knew many different ways to please a man’s lusts.
The house was hopping tonight. Many prestigious men had come to enjoy the delights and drink his booze. These westerners had no idea that he was keeping tabs on them. His men took pictures of them in bed with the girls. When the time was right and he needed something, he would take out the file marked for that person and use the pictures to persuade them to do his will.
Tan was in his office talking with Kwan, making plans to oust Taggard when the time was right. He was also planning the death of the warrior he had brought in.
“It must be done quickly,” Kwan said. “This man is versed in the ways of deceit and if he even suspects…”
“But you can do it?” Tan asked.
Kwan smiled. “I have studied the ways of the dark vagabonds. Have even used some of those Arts to do away with those who were a thorn in your side have I not?”
Tan nodded. What Kwan didn’t know was once the warrior was dead, so would be Kwan.
— ♦♦♦ —
Jimmy Lee lit another cigarette and drew deep on it. Standing guard wasn’t his cup of tea. Being with Sue Lin was. During their down-time, they had both talked of running away, going to California or maybe Chicago. Maybe even Arizona or someplace where Tan could not find them. They had fallen in love at first sight. Sue Lin was a small woman with high breasts and long legs. Jimmy hated it when she had to dress up in the silk robes and makeup. He liked her smooth, unblemished face devoid of powder and lipstick. She had blue eyes. Blue as the summer skies and when she smiled, they became even bluer.
Jimmy drew on the cigarette, his mind on images of Sue Lin, his eyes filled with her beauty. The dark shape that slipped past him he never saw, which was good. If he had, he would have been dead.
The Raven slipped into what the people around here call a mudroom, a place to dispose of dirty shoes and soiled clothes. His eyes scanned the floor, looking for alarms that might give him away. He saw nothing and walked to the switch box by the wall. Carefully he opened it, looked over the insides then smiled. He reached inside and gripped one of the wires, took a deep breath and jerked. A bright flash followed and then darkness. The sounds of muffled screams and curses came from inside the house.
He waited. The sound of footsteps came from behind the door next to the box. Voices in Chinese telling someone with them to go back and reassure the people that it was probably a fuse. The door opened and a flashlight beam split the darkness, started to point at the fuse box then fell to the floor, the man holding the flashlight following. The Raven chuckled then stepped into the room the other had come from, the sounds of people moving in the house along with a few giggles came to his ears. In the darkness, he could see the outline of a door to his left.
He moved toward it, listening for footsteps coming near the room he was in. He stopped at the door, listening intently. He smiled, gripped the doorknob and turned it, then dropped flat on the floor. The sounds of metal cutting the air above him sounded. Just as Raven threw the door open, the door to the mudroom flew open and Jimmy came barreling in, another man behind him. Grunts sounded from them as they swatted at the air, jumping and jerking as the pieces of metal slammed into them.
The Raven stood and pulled one of the pieces of metal from the door frame. He chuckled and slipped it into the pocket of his coat. An old trick. Chinese throwing stars backed by a small explosion. Effective if not known about, the star’s pin cushioning a man in minutes. A stairway led upward. He mounted it and slowly walked up, his eyes watching for trip wires. Nothing stopped his advance and as he reached the top of the stairs, he pulled a .45 from beneath his coat. He started to kick in the door but it suddenly slammed open, a leg lanced out and kicked the gun from his hand. The bright light from the open door momentarily blinded him but he could make out a figure dressed in black reaching for him.
Before he could knock the arms away, hands grabbed his coat and jerked him backward. The figure fell to the floor, its feet came up under him and propelled him up and over. The Raven curled into a ball, landed and rolled, coming to his feet and started to turn. Again the figure was on him, a foot kicking out. The Raven sidestepped it, locked it in the crook of his arm and started to press a pressure point in the thigh.
Before he could the figure jumped up, the opposite leg sweeping toward his head and connecting. He dropped the leg and staggered, catching his balance but not quick enough. A fist caught him in the jaw, another hand chopped his neck and another slammed an uppercut to his chin. The room swirled. The Raven took one step then fell as the darkness overcame him.
Decker grunted and shifted in his car seat. He was five hundred yards from Lo Tan’s house of ill repute. Lights blazing and cars coming and going. A squad of uniforms was positioned at various points in the woods facing the house. Some as close as a hundred feet away. All because of a note that had been delivered to him by a Chinamen. Decker grunted and shook his head. The note specified that if he wished to apprehend the one called Raven, to be outside the house around dark.
It also stated that no action was to be taken against the patrons inside the house, or its owner. There would be a signal when Decker and his men could come in. If this were agreed to then Decker would have The Raven once he was captured. The Chinaman was waiting patiently while Decker read the note. Decker glanced up at the man and the Chinaman smiled. Decker told him to wait a minute, picked up a phone and dialed a number. After a brief conversation with the Chief of Police, Decker hung up, turned to the Chinaman and told him they would be there.
Two hours had passed. Decker debated to crawl out of his car and go to one of the men staked out to wait. He grunted and shook his head. His nerves were on edge. He needed a smoke. He needed a drink but that might complicate things. He muttered a curse and started to get out. The hell with this. If in the next five minutes something didn’t happen he would raid the house, the hell with the bargain he had made.
He had enough guns to take The Raven, dead if he had to. He grabbed the door handle and started to open the door. Suddenly there was a flash in the back of the house. The ground shook a little and then people came boiling out the front door. Flames licked up at the sky from the back. If this was the signal it was a doozy.
— ♦♦♦ —
When consciousness came back to The Raven, he was in a basement. The smell of dirt, dust and human waste touched his nose. His hat and mask had been pulled off, his makeup remained. On the far wall, he saw cages of lumber and chicken wire. Shapes were huddled in the cages, small shapes that looked from the shadows with pained eyes. The basement was lit by electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling, which cast very little light. He was tied to an X mounted on a central pillar mounted in the dirt floor. Ropes had been tied tight around his wrists and ankles, his coat had been removed and the various gadgets he used taken out and placed on a table under one of the lights.
The Raven smiled as he saw what they had done. They might have gotten all the mechanical things he used but they didn’t get those he had secreted on his body. Three men stood just beyond the light. Voices talking in hushed whispers, one looking over at him from time to time. He smiled and ran his tongue across his teeth then let out a low chuckle.
The men broke up, one of them, a tall man with well-tailored clothes and a cigarette holder between his fingers, walked into the light. Lo Tan smiled and flicked ash from the cigarette.
“The famous Raven, the one my men say is a demon in human form. They will be glad to know you are not as you seem.” Tan drew on his cigarette and blew smoke in The Raven’s face. “Quite a bag of tricks you have. I especially like the one which makes the sound of many birds flapping their wings. I must learn how you amplified it to make it sound as loud as it does.”
Tan walked over to the table and picked up a small box, pressed a button on the side and the sound of wings filled the room. The figures in the cages gasped and whimpered.
“Yes, very effective.” Tan glanced back at the cages, a smile crossing his face. All the while he talked, The Raven worked on a tooth in his mouth. A back molar, the tooth coming loose a bit at a time.
Tan turned and drew on his cigarette again. “But now it is time for you to see what tricks we have planned for you and once done, our guest Orochi, an outcast from the clan he belonged too, will also show you how the Japanese treat prisoners.”
Tan stepped back into the shadows and a small Japanese man stepped into the light, his face etched in shadows, his eyes flashing as he stood silent.
“We are one of a kind Raven, only you have been taught from both sides of the Vagabond arts. I have only studied the darker aspects of them. Our people having improved upon them, so that one’s death comes slowly and pain is indescribable.”
He stepped back and Kwan took his place, the smile on his face one of true evil.
“Shall we begin?” Kwan said stepping closer.
Raven popped the tooth loose and positioned it close to the front of his mouth, his tongue behind it. He smiled, opened his mouth to speak and then flicked the tooth from his mouth. It hit Kwan in the face and bounced to the floor. Kwan stepped back and looked down at it, picked it up and chuckled. Suddenly, the tooth burst. A black smoke boiled out of it and Kwan’s face went lax. Kwan staggered back, gasping for breath, clawing at his face and trying to scream.
The smoke had also boiled around The Raven. He instantly twisted his arms around at the wrists then let them go back. Three tries and one hand slipped from the ropes. What Tan didn’t know was Raven had been straining against the ropes, then relaxing. All that time enough slack had been reached and with the last twist, his hand came free.
From his belt, he pulled a knife concealed as a buckle. He slashed the ropes which held his other hand, and then the ropes that held his feet. When he bent, the sound of metal hitting wood sounded above him. He grinned and stepped away from the cross, the black smoke dissipating; the shadowed figure of Tan’s assassin vaguely outlined. Raven let out a laugh, the sound echoing in the basement as he moved toward the table.
On it was also the .45 that had been kicked from his hand. Raven grabbed it up just as a sword slammed down on the table, the blade missing him by inches. Not hesitating, Raven pointed the pistol and fired. The man grunted and staggered back, a slight, metallic clang sounding. The assassin smiled and came at him again. Raven fired again, this time the bullet knocking the assassin back. His head jerked back and then forward. His eyes wide, and the blade dropping from his hands as he fell.
Kwan lay on the floor gasping for breath. His face seared and blackened. Tan was nowhere to be seen. Grabbing up the blade dropped by the assassin and the things from his coat, he donned the coat and placed them in it, one in particular. Raven searched the basement for a hidden door. He noticed one of the cages was empty and the door was open. Raven stepped inside and felt along the wall then pushed. A section of the wall slid open and a set of steps led up. Raven mounted these and went up. At the top, he spied a button and pushed it then quickly went back down the stairs a few feet.
The door slid open and in the opening stood a man with a Tommy gun. He sprayed the opening, the bullets hitting the ceiling above Raven. Raven held the sword like a spear, drew back and tossed it, the blade flashing through the air and hitting the man with the gun square in the chest. He staggered back, screamed and the gun fell from his hands.
Raven was on the move before he hit the floor, vaulted from the stairwell and dove to the floor in front of the gunman. He rolled to the right and came to his feet. Tan was standing behind his desk, a small ball of metal in his hand, his thumb hovering over a button on top of it.
“This will be your end,” Tan said motioning with the ball, “while I slip away to become a hero among my organization.”
Raven laughed. The laugh echoed in the room, building until it seemed to fill every nook and cranny. Tan pressed the button then raised to throw the ball. He suddenly screamed. A flash of metal and his hand went numb, the Chinese throwing star protruding from his wrist, the ball dropping from his nerveless fingers.
Raven dove back down the stairwell just as the ball exploded. Flame and pieces of wood followed him. Part of the floor fell in, the part over the cages. He shook his head and bolted up the stairs again, flames licking at the curtains on the windows and walls. He stepped over to where Tan lay. The ball had done its work. Raven stepped over him, the door Tan had expected to escape by blown open. He slipped through it, went down a flight of steps to another door and opened it.
The smell of the night came to him as he melted with the darkness, a low laugh sounding in the stillness.
— ♦♦♦ —
Instead of a raid, Decker and his men helped the people inside the house escape the flames. Many of the men he knew and grouped them away from the girls. The house was an inferno within a few minutes, flames eating away at the old house in record time. Most of it had fallen in by the time the fire department arrived. The uniforms were taking statements. Some of the men, reputable men, declined and asked for their lawyers.
Fire Chief Olson stood behind Decker and shook his head.
“We’ll know if everyone got out once we get the fire out,” Olson said.
“Not all did. Tan and a few of his men didn’t make it. Listen, if you find a man in there that looks unusual, call me okay?”
“You’ll know when you see him.” Decker walked away and took a cigarette out of his pocket, lit it and knew that The Raven wouldn’t be found in the remains of the house, but Decker had to know for sure. He crawled into his car and reached for the key to start it. On the steering wheel was a folded note. He took it and slowly unfolded it. His eyes widened and he cursed under his breath. The shape of a black Raven was stamped on the paper.
Decker dropped it on the seat beside him and started his car. Swearing that if it was the last thing he did, he would capture The Raven. He backed up and tossed the car into first, the soft sound of hollow laughter sounding in the night as he pulled away.
“Damned kid,” Morris said as he walked down the street toward his home. “Wonder how long his mommy and the little bastard have been holding out on me.”
He raised the bottle in his hand and took a long pull from it. After their beating, Morris had made her tell where she was hiding money. Told her if she didn’t tell him he would crack the boy’s head open. She told him and he brained the kid anyway. Not enough to bust his skull but enough to make him afraid to hold out on him again. Maybe he would give them another beating when he got home just in case there was more money hid in the dump they lived in. Morris chuckled and raised the bottle again. It was halfway to his lips when it suddenly burst into a shower of glass and whiskey.
Morris froze, his eyes burning from the whiskey that had gotten in them as he lowered the neck still gripped in his hand.
“Son of a…” Then he heard the laugh. Low at first then building, filling the night air with a hollow sound.
“Okay asshole, show yourself.” Morris dropped the neck of the bottle on the sidewalk and looked around. “Come out so I can beat the shit out of you for busting my bottle.”
“You’ve been a bad boy Morris.” The voice was behind him. He spun, raised a fist then froze, his eyes wide and his mouth dropping open. A dark mist rolled like a cloud behind him. A pair of amber eyes with flecks swirling in them glared at him.
“Sweet Jesus, what…” Morris staggered back and the mist followed.
“I am Death Morris. The Reaper who will come for you if you harm your son and his mother again. When I come you will experience pain unimaginable.”
The eyes drew back. The mist began to fade. Morris shook his head and chuckled.
“Next thing I’ll be seeing pink elephants.”
“Next thing you will see is hell,” the voice whispered in his ear. Morris screamed and took off in a run, hollow laughter echoing in the night around him.
— ♦♦♦ —
Marius and the Scorpion’s Nest. By Jamie Mason, Art by Dan Mckinnon
Marius was “retired”. He wasn’t a soldier or even a soldier of fortune anymore. But one call from Kathleen about his friend Jerry changed that. Now he’s on a quest to rescue Jerry. It’ll take him through some of the most hostile country, dealing with some of the most nefarious persons. Eventually it’ll lead him right into the heart of The Scorpion’s Nest. What HAD Jerry gotten himself into this time? Find out next week!