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INTRODUCTION by Barry Reese
This collection of stories compiles the adventures of Max Davies, aka the Rook, who starred in the novellas "Lucifer's Cage" and "Kingdom of Blood". He's a modernized version of the classic pulp heroes whom I grew up reading about--a tragic figure whose tortured beginnings led him to dedicate his life to protecting the innocent. Like all pulp heroes, he's sometimes torn by self-doubt but in the end, he always finds a way to prevail, frequently after battling outlandish villains hell-bent on world domination.
"Lucifer's Cage" was my second novel to be published and marked a tremendous shift in my writing. Before this, I mainly focused on writing pastiches (deliberately mimicking the styles of other authors) but with "Lucifer's Cage" I began to let more of my personal style on to the page. To this day, I'm as proud of this first Rook story as anything I've written. It has action, some nice characterization and really starts the whole series off with a bang. I really grew to like the character of Evelyn and the relationship that develops between her and Max helps set the series apart from many other pulp tales, which usually feature a rotating cast of romantic interests.
"Kingdom of Blood" came not long after. I had promised myself I would take a break from the Rook after the first story but within a month I had an idea that just wouldn't take no for an answer. In some ways Kingdom suffers from "sequel-itis" in that some of the best things in the story are really just progressions from a prior tale. Nevertheless, the story proved popular with fans and introduced McKenzie to the series aswell as "Mr. Benson," who is a thinly veiled homage to a famous pulp character. If you recognize him, take a bow! If not, just know that he's one of my favorites and I just loved working him in somehow.
When I first started writing "The Gasping Death", the plans were for it to be the third novel in the series. As it progressed, I realized that it worked better as a short story. Since I had other ideas that also seemed better suited to the shorter style, the decision to do an entire collection was easy enough.
"The Gasping Death" features a team-up between the Rook and one of my favorite pulp heroes, the Moon Man.
The Moon Man appeared in a series of well-written adventures courtesy of Frederick C. Davis, who created a modern Robin Hood with one of the coolest visual designs of the era. I'd hoped to create something that felt true to both the Rook and the Moon Man--for those of you who have read the original stories, I hope you'll find that I did the Moon Man justice. All in all, I feel that "The Gasping Death" is actually the weakest entry in the Rook canon, but it certainly has its merits (I hope!).
"Abominations" gave me an opportunity to return the series to Atlanta (after the trips to Great City and abroad in the first two tales in this collection) and pit the Rook against one of the greatest villains of the pulp era. Of course, Sax Rohmer's creation is still a copyrighted figure so I've had to change the name of our villain but I'm sure the more pulp-minded of you can figure out who he is. I was really pleased with how this one turned and feel it's the strongest tale in this collection and possibly my favorite Rook tale, period.
"The Black Mass" features an idea that I came up with several years ago: a magical barrier surrounding the world that restores the old magic to the modern world. If you'd like to see more stories about the Rook of 2009, feel free to start the clamoring now.
Throughout the series, you'll also find references to the Grace family. Eobard Grace starred in "The Conquerors of Shadow" (my first novel) and one of his sons, Leopold, has been mentioned more than once in the Rook tales. "The Black Mass" introduces a descendant by the name of Fiona Grace, while another member of the extended family, Charlotte Grace, marries Felix in "The Great Work" story that appeared in the Thrilling Adventures published by 86th Floor Productions.
Will there be future Rook stories? Only time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime, sit down in a comfy chair and grab your favorite beverage. The pulp adventure is about to begin!
Chapter I--The Temple
The snow was blistering, whipping past the exposed portion of his face. He had no idea how far below freezing the temperature was, nor did he truly care. The horrors of the expedition lay far behind him now ... ahead lay the summit of his dreams, the culmination of years of study and research.
Inch by inch, he ascended the side of the mountain. His muscles ached from the exertion and there was a pounding in his ears that threatened to overwhelm him. "Just a little bit more," he whispered to himself. Those words had been a mantra for him, repeated over and over again over the last few days. They were the only words he'd spoken since the last of his expedition party had died screaming in the frozen wastes, torn apart by--
He pushed those thoughts away from his mind. There was no point in dwelling on those who had lost their way along the path; after all, he'd known it would come to this in the end.
Of all those who had undertaken the search for Lucifer's Cage, none had shared his dedication. This was far more than a mere archaeological quest; this was the end of a spiritual journey that had begun in his freshman year at the university. He'd found one particular professor who'd opened his eyes to the glories of the past, to the forgotten lore of the world. There was a secret history at play, one that was kept in the shadows by men who embraced science over spiritualism. Jacob Trench had found this secret world beguiling. He had devoured every text his professor could put before him and had then abandoned the university altogether, realizing that the kind of knowledge he sought would never be learned in a classroom setting. To the ends of the world he'd traveled, selling everything he'd ever owned, betraying his parents' good faith until they could no longer trust him with money.
And it had all led him here, to the snowy mountaintops of Tibet.
Jacob pulled himself over the edge of the mountain with a grunt, his hands feeling like two huge blocks of ice within their gloves. Rope was slung over one shoulder, a mountain axe held tightly in the fingers of his right hand. He felt naked as he rose to stand before the temple, as if he'd come unprepared to an important meeting. "Just a little bit more," he whispered, a smile making his frozen lips crack open.
Staggering, he pushed past the wooden door, not even noticing that it was open already, as if someone had been expecting him. Jacob felt heat radiate from within, warming the blood in his veins. The temple consisted of only one large room, with a series of mats along the outer sides of the room. These were for the monks whose task it was to guard the sacred relic housed here ... but there were no monks to be seen today. Jacob felt this was a good sign.
In the center of the room lay a single pallet, upon which rested a small wooden pedestal. Atop the pedestal was a crystalline object, about the size of a milk bottle. A fiery red glow emanated from the interior of the object and Jacob felt himself growing stiff in his trousers, his penis responding to some horrible lust for the thing before him. He could feel the touch of women all over him, could smell their sex and their perfume. A laugh rang through the room, like the beckoning call of a whore, summoning him into her bed.
Jacob fell to his knees, his legs unable to bear his weight any longer. His shaking hand reached out for the object, his dry tongue snaking out to lick at his cracked lips. An awful yearning made him whimper like a starving child, desperate for sustenance.
Just before his fingertips made contact with the crystal, a wooden staff came down hard on his hand, shattering his knuckles. Jacob howled in surprise and pain, twisting around to look at the source of the attack. There was a man there, dressed in black robes. The man's bald head was speckled with liver spots and his long white beard trailed down past his waist, curling at the end.
Jacob pushed himself backwards awkwardly, unable to stand. He fumbled in his clothing for the pistol he knew was there but he couldn't seem to find it and the old monk was fast approaching, staff raised high. His broken hand throbbed painfully and his other hand no longer seemed capable of functioning.
"Please," Jacob pleaded, his eyes fastened on the end of the staff. He could easily imagine it splitting his head open like a watermelon. "I've come so far...."
The old man paused, his lips parting in a leer. Rotten teeth were exposed to Jacob's eyes and a scent like spoiled meat seemed to pour forth from the man's mouth. "You think you have suffered?" he asked, his English thickly accented.
Jacob blinked in relief. If the man spoke English, he could be reasoned with. "I've come looking for Lucifer's Cage. I want it," he explained, knowing how foolish he must sound.
The old man nodded slowly, the staff still raised. "You are the first to make it so far in centuries. All those who have come before you since my master built this temple have died, either on the mountainside or just outside the temple. Many I have slain myself. Others have died by Yeti."
Jacob nodded, the fingers of his non-broken hand finally finding hold on the gun. He didn't draw it out, but he felt confident he could do so before the man struck again. "I saw them. They attacked us."
"But you fled, leaving your fellows to be eaten." It was not a question and Jacob didn't answer, though his eyes widened. The old man began to lower the staff. "You bankrupted your parents to fund your research, murdered your professor in cold blood so you could take his papers and now you have betrayed the fools who came with you in search of the great prize. Is all this true?"
"Yes, it is. How did you know?"
The old man laughed and it sounded like the cracking of dry leaves. "Because I have waited for you. You are the one." He gestured towards Jacob's wounded hand. "You have not yet begun to suffer. But in time, you will gain the favor of our master and you will free him from his prison. He slumbers, waiting for your voice to awaken him."
Jacob turned back to the crystal. Its glow once more reached into his soul and stirred him. "I'll do anything."
"Such passion," the old man chuckled. "It will serve you well in the days and weeks to come. Rise, Jacob Trench. I am K'ntu and I will prepare you."
Chapter II--A Man of Means
Atlanta, Georgia--June 1936
"This heat is simply unbearable." Max Davies swept his fan back and forth in quick little motions, doing little to generate a cooling wind on his sweat-covered face. He wore a white suit, one that was quickly growing stained by sweat and dust, and an expensive hat that served to keep the sun from his eyes. He was a handsome man, with a slightly olive complexion and dark green eyes. He was trim, with a swimmer's athletic build, and seemed exceptionally poised and collected, though the hot Georgia summer was testing his famous resolve.
Sitting next to him on the porch of the grand house that Max had recently purchased was his personal banker and close friend, Samuel Kincaid. Samuel was a large-framed man with a belly that was slowly crossing the line from pudginess to fat.
"You're the one who moved down here, Max. It's not too late to sell this property and move back to Boston, you know." He cast an appraising eye over the land, watching as the numerous farmhands tilled the soil and took care of the livestock. The house had once been part of the largest plantation in Georgia, but much of it had been sold off after the Civil War. Now it consisted of a lovely house that whispered of the antebellum days and enough land to make Max Davies a prominent member of the local community but nothing more.
"It's like going back in time. Up north it seems like the War Between the States was forever and a day ago. Down here ... Hell, you'd almost think it never ended. The Negroes are still treated like slaves, aren't they?"
"Hmm," Max said in careful thought. He raised a glass of iced tea to his lips and sipped it slowly. "There's still many who don't think of them as equal to whites, that's true enough. But it's better than it was ... and the ones who live here with me are paid just as handsomely as any white worker."
Sam glanced at his own glass of tea, which sat untouched on a small table situated between his chair and Max's. "Why the hell do they ruin a perfectly good batch of tea by putting ice in it?"
"Because it's hotter than the devil's backside down here?" Max offered. Both men laughed at the ribald comment but their serious natures returned in seconds. "Why are you really here, Sam? You could have telephoned if all you really wanted to do was check on my health and state of mind."
Sam leaned forward in his seat, a large sweat stain becoming visible on the back of his own shirt. His jacket had long since been discarded and his sleeves rolled up soon after, but it had done little to stem the effects of the heat.
"Commissioner Croft says you've been cleared of all suspicion. There's no reason for you not to come back." Sam took a deep breath before adding "There hasn't even been one trace of the Rook in the last six months. He's gone. Kaput."
Max twirled the dwindling pieces of ice in his glass of tea.
"And what happens if I return ... and the Rook starts up his vigilante activities again? The cloud of suspicion would be much worse this time. No, Sam, I think I'll stay here. A fresh start."
Sam hesitated. "Croft also told me that there'd been a murder down here, took place a couple of weeks ago. You know anything about it?"
"Are you an amateur detective now, Sam? A modern Mr. Holmes?"
"I'm being serious. What if that nutcase followed you here?"
Max sighed, setting his glass down on the table. He rose, somehow managing to look good even covered in sweat and grime. Sam envied him and always had. Max was the sort of man who could enter a room and steal the heart of your best, most faithful girl, without even trying. Not that Max would have encouraged such things. In all the time Sam had known him, he'd never seen Max take a fancy to any woman.
"Sam ... I'm not afraid of this Rook fellow. He kills some men who have escaped the law through duplicity and graft. He leaves behind a business card with the image of a bird upon it."
Max shrugged. "He's never struck out at anyone like me. I made my money legitimately."
"The last three men he killed were at that gala you threw on New Year's Eve, Max! He was in your penthouse, for God's sake! And when you went skiing, he was there to knock off Boss Zucko, who just happened to be staying at the same resort. Is it any wonder Croft thought you might actually be the guy? If I didn't know you myself, I might have wondered...."
Max turned and smiled. "Maybe Croft was right. They say you never truly know what lurks in the heart of another man. For all you know, I might dress up in black, skulk about in the shadows and kill criminals. All in my spare time, of course."
Sam snorted, leaning back. "Right. I'd say the Rook is a man of passion and anger. You're neither. You're a businessman at heart, my friend. You look at the final balance and make your decisions based on the ledger sheet."
"Perhaps the Rook does, as well. He tallies up the positives and negatives in a man's life and decides whether or not his continued presence adds or subtracts from the good of society."
"So what are you saying, then? That you are the Rook?"
"No. That's not what I'm saying, Sam." Max pushed his hands in his pockets and laughed. "I'm just being difficult."
"Ah. The same as usual, then? You're more hardheaded than my wife."
"How long are you staying?" Max asked, not allowing the playful insults to degenerate any further.
"I'm leaving in the morning. You think I'm going to condemn myself to any more time in this heat than necessary? I came because I was worried about you ... and I want you to come home."
"I'm touched. I really am. But this is my home now. Go back and monitor my investments for me and maybe I'll be up for a bit of skiing when winter comes."
Sam rose, dusting himself off. "That man who was shot a few weeks back," Sam whispered, keeping his voice low, lest a servant might overhear. "Croft says he heard there was a card left behind. The Rook's signature. Now, I don't believe you're a killer, but it might mean that this guy has a thing for you. An obsession. Could be he's followed you down South."
"I'll be careful, Sam. You have my word."