Read an Excerpt
THE ROOK--Volume Two by Barry Reese
The Gorgon Conspiracy
The Shambling Ones
A Timeline for the Rook Universe
An Adventure starring the Rook
Introducing Leonid Kaslov
October 31, 1937
Hank Wilbon chewed on the end of his cigar, standing in the middle of the largest cemetery in Atlanta. The man at his side was enormously fat, his suit bulging at the seams in a vain attempt to hold his body within its confines. Hank had worked for "Big Charlie" for over five bloody years now, five years in which Big Charlie had managed to gain a foothold in virtually every vice the city had to offer: prostitution, illegal drugs and a protection racket being amongst the least of his crimes.
"You put me in a difficult position," Charlie said, puffing away on his own smoke. They were expensive ones from Cuba and the fact that he'd offered one to Hank was either a sign of extreme good will or that very bad news would be forthcoming. "You know almost everything there is to know about my business."
Hank cleared his throat, glancing over at Tony and Mikey, the two goons who went everywhere with Charlie. They were leaning against the roadster that Charlie favored, both staring about with feigned disinterest. "You can trust me, Charlie. You know that."
"Is that about a dame? Is that why you want out?"
Hank forced himself to stay calm. He'd know it would come to this. "Sally and I ... we wanna get married. I'mgonna propose to her tonight."
Charlie looked at Hank with surprise, as if seeing him for the very first time. Sally was one of the star performers at a nightclub that Charlie owned, a songbird with a dazzling smile and terrific legs. It was rumored that Charlie himself fancied her but she and Hank had hit it off from the first. They had romanced each other in secret for quite some time, afraid of what might happen if others in the mob found out.
"You got a ring picked out?" Charlie asked, blowing out a long plume of smoke.
Hank found himself relaxing a bit. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold ring with a medium-sized diamond perched on top. "Sure do."
"Nice rock," Charlie replied, taking it from the other man and examining it. "You know, I have two concerns here, Hank. One: like I said, you know a lot. People don't normally retire from my employ. You know this."
"Two: I've had my eye on Sally for some time now. She's got the kind of gams a man can't help noticing, you know?"
Hank noticed that Tony and Mikey had moved closer now, each with their hands deep in their pockets. They walked past Hank and Charlie, coming to stop a short distance away, where an open grave lay. Hank felt a trickle of sweat run down the base of his spine. "We can leave the area, Charlie. Go someplace where nobody would even think about asking about you."
"And what about Sally? And me? You don't think a girl like that would give me the time of day? Eh?" Charlie dropped the ring into his own pocket and jabbed a finger against Hank's chest. "I know your kind, Hank ... always thinking you're better than you really are. You're nothing but a cold blooded killer, just like the rest of us. No, I take that back--you're less than the rest of us because at least we admit what we are."
"Charlie," Hank said, raising his hands in supplication. "It ain't like that. I promise. I just want to do something where I don't have to lie awake every night thinking some goon's gonna bust in my door and shoot me in the head!"
"You're right, Hank. It's time you stopped having to live that kind of life." Charlie snapped his fingers. "Boys, do your stuff."
Hank staggered back, fumbling for his own pistol, as both Mikey and Tony drew their own weapons. Before Hank could respond, Tony had fired. The bullet grazed Hank's temple and the world seemed to spin in a kaleidoscope of light in sound as Hank hit the ground. He tried to rise as Mikey came to stand above him, driving the bottom of his shoe down upon Hank's head.
"This is a nice ring," Hank heard Charlie saying. "In a little while--once Sally's gotten over being sad about you--I might give it to her myself."
"No," Hank murmured desperately. He felt his body being drug across the cemetery grounds by the two men who used to be his friends. A moment later he was tumbling down into the open grave, his mind's eye filled with visions of the woman he loved. The last thing he saw before his vision clouded forever was Big Charlie, looking down at him.
"Trick or treat," Charlie said with a laugh.
Hank cursed the world around him as he sank into oblivion. As his soul cried out for vengeance, something heard and responded. In the skies above, few took notice of a fiery ball that sped through the night, an ebony flame in its wake.
November 2, 1939
The flames from the fireplace danced and jumped, sending little sparks up into the air. The tall, thin man with the long scraggly beard stared into the fire for long moments, breathing so softly that the other man in the room could scarcely hear him. "The signs are there," the bearded man whispered, his words heavily accented thanks to his Russian origins. "This is our time."
The other man, a slick-looking American with reddish-brown hair and an athletic build, pushed his hands deeper into his pockets. He was chewing gum, occasionally smacking it loudly, and tapping one foot. He was a man of action and the long periods in which his employer spent his time in contemplation grated on him. Donald Roberts fought to keep his face neutral as he spoke. "The men believe in you but they need more than prophecy."
"I do not want mercenaries in my service. They must follow me because they believe in my power and my destiny."
"That's asking for a lot," Donald replied. He spit his gum into the palm of his hand and tossed it into the fire. "You're asking us to basically invade another nation. That's not something to be done lightly."
The bearded man took a deep breath and drew himself up to his full height. He was well over six feet in height but was so slender that his bones seemed to jut forth from beneath his taut skin. His eyes were sunken and so dark that they were almost black. His hair was oily and long, with scraggly ends that were so ragged they appeared to have been gnawed on by rats. His clothing was equally tattered and worn, the bottoms of his robes scraping across the floor with little swooshing sounds. All in all, he gave off the impression of a man who had once been at home in high society but for whom times had gone seriously downwards. He now looked like someone who belonged in the sewers, among the dregs of humanity. Despite this, he had an aura of impressiveness that stemmed from the burning madness in his eyes.
"Do you think there will be many who will balk at what I'm asking of them?"
"I don't understand what you mean," Donald answered, beginning to feel uncomfortable as the bearded man moved closer, an air of menace beginning to swirl about him.
"Do you have doubts?"
"A few," the American admitted. "But I trust you to know what you're doing."
"How can you say you trust me ... and yet have doubts?" The bearded man's hand shot out with astonishing speed, locking his bony fingers around the American's neck. He squeezed with almost inhuman strength, baring his teeth. "I cannot have one of the leaders in my army suffering from a lack of faith!"
"No, please," Donald hissed, his eyes beginning to bulge from their sockets as he struggled to free himself.
"I am the walking death," the bearded man whispered with malevolent glee. "I am the vessel for the unholy darkness that lurks just outside the veil of humanity. And I do not suffer the indignities of doubters lightly...."
Eldritch energy traveled invisibly down the bearded man's arm, finally entering the body of the suffering American through his fingers. There it sparked into the visible spectrum, appearing as blue-black flame that engulfed Donald's head. The magical flame burned the flesh away from the screaming man's head in seconds, leaving behind only smoldering bone.
As the acrid smoke washed over the bearded man, he began to laugh. "I shall see you again in Hell, my friend."
The tall man was of Russian descent, with close-cropped silver-blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He wore a well-tailored black suit, a white handkerchief perched dashingly out of his breast pocket and a golden ring set with a pale red stone shone on the little finger of his right hand. His teeth were shocking white and very regular, helping give the impression of a man who came from impressive stock.
Leonid Kaslov moved through the crowded streets of New York City, eyes never wavering from his goal: a small office set in between two large clothing distributors, each of whom had a steady stream of affluent-looking clientèle coming and going from within. The office seemed to blend into the background and none of the women in their high hats or the men in their fashionable suits even seemed to take notice of it.
It was a cold day, with a harsh wind that made the already bustling New York pedestrians hurry all the more. Kaslov barely noticed the strong gusts, however. He had spent more than a few years in the desolation that was Siberia, where the average yearly temperature was only 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Compared to those harsh environs, a wintry day in Manhattan was almost like a vacation to the handsome Russian.
Kaslov nodded politely to a pert young blonde who was admiring a fur coat through a department store window and received an appealing blush in return. Kaslov was a handsome man with a washboard stomach and remarkable grace, making him an easy target for the wandering eyes of women. Though he appreciated the interest, he rarely returned it with any real fervor. He was dedicated to his work and he found that romance had a way of distracting him from the things to which he had dedicated his life: namely, the betterment of mankind and the exploration of the unknown.
In pursuit of those two goals, Kaslov had spent years honing his body into physical perfection and had mastered numerous sciences. Newsworld magazine had named him Man of the Year twice in the last decade, making him one of the most famous men in the nation. His most recent award had come just last year, in the waning days of 1933.
Kaslov pushed into the small office, the smell of sweet perfume hanging heavy in the air. Several words were etched onto the establishment's door:
Elizabeth "Libby" Raines was seated behind the desk in the lobby, her blonde curls hanging in ringlets around her shoulders. She looked up with a smile, her blue eyes twinkling as she took him in. Kaslov knew that she had strong feelings for him but he'd strained to make it clear--in the nicest possible fashion--that they were co-workers and could never be anything else.
Despite this, he couldn't help but notice the lovely dress she wore and the way it displayed her ample charms. "Good morning, Miss Raines," Kaslov said, his faint Russian accent coming through. "Anything of note?"
"A gentleman named Benjamin Flynn is waiting for you, sir. He was outside the door when I arrived this morning, seeming very frantic."
Kaslov nodded tersely. Flynn was one of his agents who spanned the globe, keeping track of the Russian's interests. He was a dashing figure with a well-deserved reputation for being an adventurer. In all the years he'd been in Kaslov's service, he had never once come to visit. "Is he in the main meeting room?"
Libby made a motion of assent and allowed her eyes to follow Kaslov's broad shoulders down the hall, until he disappeared around the corner. With a wistful sigh, she returned to her filing work, wondering why in the world such a handsome man was still single.
Kaslov, meanwhile, entered the meeting room, his eyes taking in Flynn's trim form. The other man rose from his seat, eyes widening at Kaslov's approach. Flynn was shorter than the Russian, standing at just over six feet tall, and was of a swarthy complexion. A small white scar was on his right cheek, marring what was otherwise a handsome face. "Leo!" Flyn exclaimed, offering a hand. "Damned good to see you!"
"Agreed," Kaslov answered, shaking the man's hand heartily. He then moved around the table and took a seat, immediately taking on a professional air. "What brings you here, Ben? I thought you were somewhere in Canada."
"I was. Did you hear about the unusual light show that went on near Loggieville?"
The Russian leaned back in his seat, steepling his fingers together before him and closing his eyes. It was his custom to eliminate as much as possible from his sensory organs when listening intently, allowing his mind to fashion together a tapestry of ideas and thoughts. "I saw it mentioned briefly in several of the more thorough newspapers. A fireball fell to earth, greatly alarming the citizenry. Authorities have secured the debris but said there was little left of it."
"Not quite true," Flynn answered. "I was there, Leo. It fell around seven in the evening. I was having a light dinner with a most genial lady when the table began to rattle so hard that a tea kettle crashed to the floor. I ran to the window and saw a blazing ebon flame cutting a swath through the sky. Interspersed amongst the dark contours of the flame were pockets of red and yellow flame. As the thing neared the ground it began to sound like a freight train smashing its way through a crowded station. My ears popped from the change in the air pressure and I felt like my heart was fit to burst from my chest!" Flynn looked away as Kaslov's eyes opened again, surprised by the emotion in the adventurer's voice. Flynn was scared. "It crashed in the hills outside town with a monstrous explosion that lit up the sky for miles around ... I threw on my coat and went out to investigate but found myself unable to get near the crater."
"What stopped you?" the Russian pressed.
"A group of men arrived, wearing dark military style uniforms. They came in large trucks and were armed. The local constable tried to come and say something to them but he was taken away and hasn't been heard from since. The town's under martial law, Leo ... and I don't think the Canadian government is even aware of it!"
"How do you know they don't work for the government?"
"Call it a hunch," Flynn answered. "But I don't think they're legit."
Kaslov pushed his chair towards a nearby shelf and picked up a massive atlas of the world. He flipped through the section on Canada, allowing his fingers to settle on Loggieville. Located in New Brunswick, it was situated where the estuary of the Miramichi River broadened out to form Miramichi Bay. Kaslov knew that fishing was the most prominent industry in the area and he'd heard tales that the town was quite picturesque with a forest of tall hardwoods nearby.
"They're good people in Loggieville," Flynn was saying. "Mostly Scottish and English."
"Don't worry, Ben. I plan to help them." the Russian said, looking over his shoulder at his old friend.
"It won't be easy getting back in," Flynn remarked, shaking his head. "They've blocked off the town, sealed everyone in. I barely got out and had to get my hands a little dirty to do it!"
Kaslov's handsome face took on a thoughtful expression. "Go and fetch Miss Raines, if you don't mind. I have a little idea about how we can get back into Loggieville ... and she's going to play an important part."