~ the raven chronicles ~ 51

10 Mar

Fr. Michael Leavell, OP.
Sacred Heart Church
Raven, Ohio

November 22, 1932

Does there come a time in each man’s life when he must choose between the lesser of two evils; a time when the black and white patterns of right and wrong overlap and form a hue of grey in which the borders of morality are obscured. My philosophy had never contained such a notion, for instilled in me at a young age was the belief that equivocation in matters of rectitude is nothing less than the Devil’s handiwork.

A knowledge that many in this world seem content to operate by a compromised set of values crept into my consciousness over the years, but never manifested itself as anything of consequence in my personal actions; it remained an aberration that my vocation required me to define as a weakness of spirit. Now that I sat in the front seat of a speeding automobile, hand in coat pocket, gripping a revolver and eager to deal death, a moral conundrum stared me in the face and mocked everything I had preached and thought I believed.

I wanted revenge for the outrageous barbarities inflicted on Sadie Faire, and my thirst for revenge tasted like righteousness. Had I become a changed man, or, like pentimento, had the surface of my soul been abraded by current events and the true nature of my hidden character called forth and made manifest as a vengeful Lazarus, ready to unleash Biblical reckoning upon mine enemies. The first time we met, Rhea Sinclair gave me a glimpse into the horrible darkness that lurks in my heart, and in so doing, taught me a lesson that I can never unlearn: when one stares into the abyss, one may see their own reflection staring back.

Such were my terrible thoughts as Wallace and I rode with Sheriff Blackwell to the Echo Lake Grand Hotel, where, out of what I suspected to be unfounded expectations, I hoped to find the key to understanding and extirpating the faithlessness gnawing at my soul.

Ness and his accomplices followed us in their big, black Packard 904. Blackwell kept glancing with a judgmental expression in the rearview mirror at the car behind us, until he could bear the racket of his own thoughts no longer.

Might fancy car for police work, he said; Guess that’s what comes of working for the Feds; I have a hard enough time just gettin’ the county to pay for my fuel. You should walk more, Wallace said; Spend less time on your duff. Blackwell’s expression darkened as he redirected his rear-view mirror gaze from the Ness car to Wallace; I intervened before he could get a word out.

Odd that Ness showed up all of a sudden, I said.
The Sheriff looked askance; What do you mean by that.
Somewhat after the fact, I replied; You have made it clear to me on several occasions that the case is considered closed.
Blackwell adopted a smug expression; The methodical gathering and evaluating of evidence takes time and diligence; That’s why police work must seem a mystery to a layman.
ouroborosPerhaps, I replied; Speaking of mysteries, are you familiar with the ouroboros.
Blackwell thought for a moment; You mean that Greek dish with spinach and cheese.
I restrained my mirth and continued; Have you ever been in the basement of the burned out church, the one at the old Spiritualist Camp.
Blackwell glanced at me and said, Don’t know a basement in that building.
Not surprising, the entrance is in the back, well hidden from view; Carved into the door is the symbol for the ouroboros, the mythical snake that devours its tail in a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.
Don’t care much for snakes, Blackwell replied; And what’s more Spiritualist mumbo-jumbo got to do with the job at hand.

When we spoke with Bloodworth, he laid bare Tavish’s real game; The seances were just a money-making scheme that funded his lavish lifestyle and the real work he was about.
Blackwell let out a snort. Never met a huckster that was about ‘real work’.
Tavish was no garden variety charlatan, I replied; As an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, he had been inculcated in the ways of the occult.
Crowley, Blackwell said; Heard some about him; None of it good.
The squandering of a fine mind, as far as I can tell; And I suspect the same can be said of Tavish.

Tavish was a criminal and got what he deserved, the Sheriff said.
As we all shall in the end, but the case is more complicated than retributive justice, I replied; And more complicated than a petty turf war between bootleggers.

So you would have me believe, Blackwell said.

Knowing is believing, I said; The ouroboros is an archetypal sign of regeneration and resurrection dating back to earliest antiquity, employed by the Egyptians and Greeks and Medieval alchemists; A fitting logo for Tavish’s nefarious schemes; He may very well have achieved one of his goals, and in so doing precipitated his own death.
Now I suppose you’re going to tell me he really raised the dead, Blackwell said, or some other variation of the far-fetched nonsense you’ve tried to foist on me since the night of the murders.

You spoke of the methodical gathering of evidence, which is exactly what I have been doing these past weeks, I replied, and I have discovered that Tavish operated what amounts to a church of his own devise; His parishioners were, for the most part, wealthy women willing to fund and participate in his undertaking in hopes of reaping the rewards.
And just what were those rewards, Father?
Eternal life, or more precisely, cognizance of the eternal rebirth of the soul.

Blackwell smirked and said, Tell me more, Father, get it all out of your system.
During the services in his church, his acolytes willingly submitted themselves to violent ritual subordination in hopes of gaining knowledge of the doctrine that Tavish preached; Enlightenment through suffering.
That’s a bit wooly; You have proof.
In that basement of that charred ruin, there are various implements of torture, the most notable, a large wooden frame on which crucifixion can be performed; A torture both subtle and excruciating.
And women voluntarily participated, Blackwell said, his incredulity subsiding.
We discovered a dressing area, complete with privacy screens and lockers for clothing storage, a woman’s undergarment left behind in one of them.

What’s one to do with the other, Blackwell said, his frustration rekindling.
Bloodworth told us that Sykes came out from behind the walls during the seance, and what he saw in the subsequent carnage finally drove him to commit suicide; In some unexpected way, the seance propelled Tavish’s success in his endeavor, I said, and the results are what killed him, not a mobster’s contract.
The Sheriff shook his head and said, You should put it in a book, Father; They could file it in the library under fairy tales.

I glanced into the rear view mirror and met Wallace’s disgruntled gaze, then I stared back out onto the bleak landscape flying by. Though I have been entranced by Rhea Sinclair, seen the ghostly apparition of Saide Faire in the snow, and witnessed the aftermath of the grisly attack on Wallace’s farm last night, there is a voice in my head that shouts with a rejection of my fantastic notions as firmly as Blackwell. Yet, I know in my heart, that the Devil has been afoot here in Raven and left behind seeds of destruction and chaos that remain undiscovered. I must embrace all possibilities until the solution to this riddle takes a shape that can be grasped.

When we get to the hotel, Blackwell said, breaking my dark reverie, I intend to let Ness take the lead; He’s got the experience dealing with mobsters; The Sheriff again glanced into the rearview mirror at Wallace; And if there is to be gunplay, let him be the one to start it.

Wallace nodded in assent; Blackwell glanced at me; That seems appropriate, I replied.

Silence enveloped the cab of the Sheriff’s car for the remainder of our cold ride to the Echo Lake Grand Hotel.

*****

The remainder of the trip seemed interminable.  An undefinable glimmer swirled around my mind; The only certainty was that my conversation with Blackwell had ignited a spark that I knew must be nurtured in order to reach a full understanding of the current situation. I was anxious to get this business done with and resume my own pursuit of the case, because I knew that neither Blackwell or Ness would invest any great amount of confidence in my theories.

We finally turned off Echo Lake Road onto the private drive for the Grand Hotel. Frost still decorated the bare trees, and gnarled shrubbery lined the entrance road. We drove through the ornate iron gates into a gauntlet of tall hemlock spruce. Once we had breached the evergreen sentries, a desolate vista opened up before us. The bitter weather lent an eerie ambiance to the deserted midway, speaking that hell was in all probability not only a place of fire, but also a panopticon of ice.

We went left onto the wide unmarked asphalt path that leads to the front entry of the majestic building. At the sight of a plume of smoke swirling around a large oak in the front parking area, a cold dread, more bitter than the rime surrounding us, crawled up my spine. Blackwell made a guttural noise as we rounded the corner into the car park and spotted an automobile wedged against the massive tree; hood smashed, front axle broken and askew. The driver’s door stood ajar and a lifeless arm dangled within the opening. Blackwell pulled his car in perpendicular to the tree and set the hand brake.bloodworth crash -poster

I was out and to the wreckage before the Ness car came to a halt. I pulled the auto door further open and the body slumped behind the wheel tumbled akimbo and turned head down toward the pavement. It was Bloodworth, his wide open eyes rolled back into his skull, his mouth agape in a mute scream of a violent demise, his throat torn and bloody; the spitting image of Gareth Tavish, as I had found him in the chair in his seance room a fortnight and a half ago on Halloween.

Ness appeared at my elbow and said, Who is it.
Bloodworth, I replied.
Bloodworth; I’d hoped to find him alive
So did I; But for reasons much different than yours, I’m sure.
He looked at me, and tried to puzzle out my meaning.
I looked past him to the hotel porch, and nodded that direction; Shall we see if any other guests have checked out, I said
An appreciation for my unintended macabre turn of phrase rose from his features in the shape of a nearly imperceptible wry smile.
Indeed, Father, he replied, let us enter the lion’s den.

*****

Blackwell and Wallace got out of the Sheriff’s car; Wallace took a few steps then stopped and studied the surrounding area. The two agents gathered behind the Ness car, then emerged from the boot with Thompson guns. They joined us. Ness spoke a few quiet words to them, then we turned and walked across the car park toward the wide porch of the Echo Lake Grand Hotel. Ness and I strode side-by-side; the Federal men paced just behind Ness; Wallace and Sheriff Blackwell fell in behind and between. I glanced over our assault line and thought it rather odd that I should be in the vanguard of such an assemblage.

As we neared, it became evident that one of the tall wooden entryway doors of the hotel stood partially open. We all, to a man, stopped spontaneously and stared into the darkened entryway, attempting to divine what might await us inside. A gust of wind whipped past us up the porch and into the foyer; Like the hand of some giant phantasm, it came out with sheets of a newspaper in it’s grasp, scattered them across the porch, down the steps and over the yard. A section wrapped the leg of one of the agents and he grasped it as ‘twere a snake.

Ness drew a long-barreled revolver from inside his coat pocket and then checked the cylinder. I turned and saw Blackwell with gun in hand and Wallace chambering shells in his shotgun. So this is it, I thought, as I pulled my Smith and Wesson from my coat pocket.

We must have looked like we were headed for the OK Corral as we mounted the first wide step. The door creaked and opened further as another gust of wind passed by. We slowly climbed the stairs. Once arrayed on the porch, Ness signaled for us to wait and he approached the door. The agents aimed the Thompson guns at the facing windows, ready to unleash a barrage, if necessary

“We’re Federal Agents,” Ness called out, “fully armed and carrying a warrant. Show yourselves with your hands in the air, or we come in and give no quarter.”

The reply to his halloo was a foreboding silence from the void within and the swirl of winter wind in the pine trees above us. With a nod of his head, he stepped closer to the door. At the threshold, the sound of voices rose inside. Ness paused again, drew back the hammer of his revolver, and stepped inside. We all followed him into the foyer and discovered a soap commercial playing on the radio behind the check in desk. A pang of grief seared through me as I spotted the movie magazine Sadie had been reading the day we met, still laying on the counter.

One of the agents did a quick check of the parlor to our right, then stepped behind the desk and switched off the wireless. A dreadful silence enveloped us, and in that moment, I detected a scent that I’d encountered only one other time in my life, on that recent Halloween in the subterranean seance room in the yellow house; The foetor of fresh blood. I believe we all smelled it at the same moment, for the expression on the members of our party took on a cast of revulsion; the human senses realize death at hand before the mind comprehends.

Ness motioned with his revolver to follow him into the Grand Ballroom. Once our group did so and assembled in a cluster, mouths fell open and weapons lowered. The sight before us was one I could never have entertained in my imagination, and hope never to see the likes again before I die.

Three massive chandeliers adorned the arched ceiling of the ballroom; the height of which had to be at least 20 feet. And on the center chandelier, the bodies of three men, nearly stripped bare of clothing, gutted with entrails hanging, had been strung up like pigs in a slaughterhouse. A quantity of blood lay in a pool below each man. That my mind should function above and beyond the outrage and revulsion this tableaux aroused in me, astonishes as I write this account; but that is how I reacted, possibly through the function of an innate coping reflex. At any rate, I noticed that there was no blood anywhere else on the floor, indicating that these wretched souls had been mounted onto the wheel of lights while still alive, and then butchered in mid air. The impossibility of this still sends my mind reeling.

We all stood there stunned, immobile, attempting to build a framework around the abomination assaulting our senses. After a length of time which I could not enumerate if asked, one of the Federal men spoke up.

“What do we do now.”

Ness put his gun back inside his coat, brought out cigarettes, removed one from the pack, lit up, took a long draw and studied the suspended cadavers for a moment. I guess we figure out a way to get them down from there; He turned to Sheriff Blackwell; Got any ideas.

Blackwell swallowed and spoke in a broken voice. Call the fire department; They’re the only ones I know of with ladders and equipment for this.

Good idea to have them standing by, Ness replied; Call your county morgue while you’re at it and have them send a truck to cart these birds away after they touch down. Must be a phone out there at the desk.
Alright, Blackwell replied, I’ll call.
We need to look around and make sure this is it, Ness said; Bob, you check the back of the house down here; Tony, take our friend Wallace with you and search the rooms upstairs; And be careful.
Will do boss, Tony replied, then he said to Wallace, Let’s go.

Ness and and I stood alone in silence until he turned to me; This what you expected to find.
No, I said, not at all; Halloween in the basement of that yellow house was the last time I could have ever imagined encountering this type of carnage.
Scum like this are depraved, Ness replied; Can’t say they got what they deserved, nobody deserves this, but they set themselves up for it.
But how did it happen, I asked; It seems impossible.
I don’t know, he said, then took another puff on his cigarette; We’ll have to work on that; Maybe those chandeliers are strung on ropes hidden in the walls, that bring them to the floor.

Once again, Ness provided a prosaic explanation to what on the surface appeared to be a mystery; I wondered if all my conjecture about supernatural causes since Halloween had been anything more than addle-headed daydreaming.
That makes sense, I replied, there must be a mechanical device to lower them for maintenance.

Ness looked at me with an expression of agreement, then took a last puff, dropped the butt to the floor and twisted it with his shoe. Quite a mess, though, any way you look at it, he said.
Sir, Bob called from the doorway, you better come see this.

Ness and I followed his man out of the room and down the narrow hall past the wide staircase; We pushed our way through the swinging kitchen door. Halfway across the room, Bob stopped, pointed to a closed door and said, They’re in there.

Ness stepped forward and pushed the door open; I joined him at the threshold.
whores in the sculleryTo one side of the narrow scullery, on a shallow table in front of a wall wainscoted with large ornate, colorful tiles, sat two women in a state of near total undress, save for stockings and heeled shoes and a slip tucked under the exposed breasts that covered the midriff of one of them. They stared at us with serpent-like languor, unconcerned and unashamed. The derisive contempt on their faces seemed to be a demeanor all out of keeping with the tableaux we had just encountered in the ballroom.

How long have you ladies been in here, Ness inquired.

They made no verbal reply, or stirred on their perch, or made any attempt at modesty; Each one scanned the faces of we three men, starting with the Federal agent, then Ness, then myself. After their appraisal, they turned their faces upon each other, shared a knowing look, then redirected their joint gazes at me.

Ness took note of their actions, looked at me, and said, You know them, Father?
No, I replied, I’ve not seen them before.

The two women shared another silent, communicative glance, then stared at me again; As I encountered the icy gaze of the woman nearest to me, she opened her legs wide, totally exposing her sex, arched herself toward me in an uninhibited, lustful invitation, and spoke softly; She said you would be here; She told us you would come.

While keeping his eyes fixed on the pair, Ness said, What the hell is she talking about.
I’ve no idea, I replied; As soon as the words left my lips, I recalled Peter’s denial to the servant girl.
Bob, Ness said, see if you can find some clothes or blankets to cover these creatures with; We’re going to have to carry them back to the Sheriff’s Office when we leave.
His words had no effect on the women; they remained seated, voluptuous and uninhibited in their carnal postures.

Let’s give the ladies some privacy till then, Ness said. We stepped out of the threshold and he let the swinging door ease closed. Bob went off, and as Ness and I stood alone in the kitchen, he said, Father, if you’ve something more to tell me, you should do it now; Those two have come awfully close to implicating you in some type of involvement with this operation out here, and if they name you as a familiar under interrogation, there will be nothing I can do to smooth things over.

I bristled at his suggestion and said, I know neither of them; I have never laid eyes on them before.
Even though their words, and body language, imply otherwise, he said; Who do you think it was that ‘told them’ you would come.
Now it was my turn to construct a plausible explanation for implausible events, in order to conceal what I truly believed; It must have been Saide Faire, I replied; Though why she would say such a thing to anyone out here makes no sense; She was afraid, afraid to even mention Tavish’s name when I spoke to her at the counter out front the day we confronted Bloodworth.
And that’s the only time you ever spoke with her.
No; She stopped by the rectory on her way to the train station yesterday, told me that she was bound for a better life and thanked me for my encouragement and support; She feared for her safety and I don’t believe she would have trusted anyone at this hotel enough to share secrets.
Then what the hell were those two talking about, Ness said; And acting like they were expecting you.
I have absolutely no idea, I replied; But it is certainly not the strangest thing I have been witness to these past few days.
Ness pulled out cigarettes again, offered me the pack, and I took him up. After we both had a puff or two and ruminated, he spoke; Well it’s a mystery then, nothing to do but try to sort it all out.

Yes, I replied, a mystery beyond my comprehension.

©2015 j.edwardfitzgerald all rights reserved

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