Thursday, July 7, 2022

American Horror Story

February 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Fiction, Secrets of NYC, Stories

(Legendary Bowery Gang Leader, Mose Humphrey)

The deaths are three each day. This is in the parish of Tuosist. The people are buried without coffins, frequently in the next field. (There is) no noise or sign of grief for the dead; every thought is selfish and unfeeling…” – Irish official during potato famine, 1847.

The jagged mountain peaks and lush green hills of Kenmare surrounded me. Hunger was a distant memory. A silky-smooth sensation coursed through my soul. A chuisle, a chroí. My pulse, my heart. I was in heaven, and then I woke on the floor of a bar, that in my state, could have been anywhere across the seven seas. Someone had me by the arm and up I went. Soot clogged my nose and coated my mouth. I heard somber voices, the clink of glasses, and the crackle of damp wood in a fire. Through bleary eyes, I picked up the glow of gas lights and fading afternoon light in patched up windows. Men were hunched over drinks at the bar and playing stuss at the tables. A barman in a white shirt and leather skullcap was busy filling glasses from barrels stacked at torso height. Whores in dirty manhandled dresses were about, plying their trade.

The place was an all too familiar bar on Dock Street in Brooklyn. Filth and misery permeated my being. I needed a drink. I searched my damp undergarments and found three hidden dollars.

The same strong hand that had lifted me, grasped my shoulder. My joints were too stiff and my mind was too muddled for a proper response. All I could do was turn. I had to crane my neck to meet his gaze. It took a moment to realize he was the local ward boss, Jack Jefferies. It had been days since that first raid at Miller’s Landing, and in that time, he had grown a mustache that looked like the wings of a small black bird.

“I’m here to conduct a bit of business,” Jack said politely. “And it’s a funny thing that I almost stepped on you, because I could use a man with your certain ability.” He scanned the faces near us, then came back to me. ”It was meant to be I’d say. But we shall talk after I’m done.”

I gave a blank stare. Jack was not a normal man, of that I was certain. But it wasn’t something I cared to mull over. The money he paid me had been enough to forget about that nasty business at Miller’s. And I would soon need more, and Jack paid very well. “I want a drink,” I said. “I need it.” My hunger had long ceased to be a daily concern, but I could not sate my thirst for gin and ale. So no matter what his plans entailed, I was his man.

“Sure, but not here,” Jack said, his brown eyes aware of an encroaching figure.

Someone had peeled away from the bar and was stomping at us. He was a few inches shorter than myself with broad shoulders. “Well now, a crimp come to shanghai one of our boys,” he said with a Kerry brogue.

The Irish chap was talking about Jack, who wore a stove pipe hat and a long, black frock coat that was buttoned to his chin. He looked like a Bowery b’hoy brawler. It was best to dress like that only when you were with your gang.

“Do ya’ hear me crimp?” said the Irish fellow to Jack, who was at least six inches taller. “What’s your kind doing here with men that work for a living?”

“He’s gonna shanghai one of Erin’s finest!” cried another man, who also had a brogue. “Oh ho! We was goin’ to do it ourselves, an’ sell the tinker to the men of science.”

A glass mug soared by our heads and smashed into the plank wall. Not a second later, the front door opened and a man as big as Jack breezed in wearing a fine coat and top hat. He also wore a shirt that had a high upstanding collar and a square, four-in-hand necktie. He flashed a smile at Jack. He had a wild light in his eyes and long, thin teeth that made for a cheerily, psychotic grin. I recognized him as one of the gorillas from Miller’s Landing. It seemed certain there would be trouble.

(Section of 6th Ward, 1855 Brooklyn Fire Insurance Map)

“We don’t want a muss,” Jack said, removing two arm-length poles from his jacket. He snapped them together to make a wooden stave. He looked up like an owl. From his coat pocket, he removed a metal wedge that held interlocking razors, similar to the one he had used at Miller’s Landing. He looked back down as he attached the wedge to one end of the stave.

The Irish fellow raised his bare knuckles and stepped forward. Jack flipped the stave to me, then took a quick step and swung with abandon, cracking the Irishman’s jaw with a hammer-heavy blow. The man hit the floor as if he was thrown down. Then another man jumped into the fray, wielding a hatchet. Of all the patrons, he had previously caught my eye. A penetrating look of evil set him apart.

“That’s the one, Jack!” the gorilla cried with an exuberant grin, pointing to the man with the hatchet.

In a seamless motion, Jack plucked the stave from my hands and popped the assailant in the forehead with the wedge. Blood running down his face, the man dropped the hatchet as he went wheeling back into the crowd, only to be pushed back at us. The gorilla, who was tall as Jack, though as thick as a barrel, was already swinging a bludgeon at him. Whoosh! Wump! The fat of the barrel sunk into the side of the man’s head and he went crashing to the floor.

The gorilla turned to me with a joyously sick smile. “I got him good, eh’ sailor boy!” he said in a high-pitched voice.

I nodded with a wide-open mouth.

“You think you can come into our place and get away with this,” said a burly man with a bushy mustache. He raised a bowie knife. Others came forward pressed shoulder to shoulder, brandishing knives, shivs, and brickbats. They seemed ready to devour us.

“We’re done here, and be leaving if you like,” Jack said, and pointed to the dead man. “That bastard’s a firebug, and a flighty one at that.” He lowered his voice, turning to me. “He started a fire at Miller’s, when his ship came in. It’s how he got away. Did the same thing on Fulton by Hicks Street the other night.”

“What’s this about a fire on Fulton and Hicks?” the man with the bowie knife asked.

“It was last Tuesday night.”

“That’s my fire company’s territory. There was no fire there that night.”

“It was the devil’s fire, and if you don’t know what I mean, you best stay out of it,” Jack said, leaning forward, meeting the man’s gaze. “Stay out of it.”

Something seemed to register in the fireman’s eyes, and he backed into the crowd.

Then someone at the bar cried, “Send them both into the street, flat on their backs!” Jeers of agreement followed.

“That’s fine,” Jack said. “We’ll take on the whole lot of ya’. There’s no one here who doesn’t have it coming, except maybe…” He took in the many faces, and he pointed to a girl no older than twelve, who sat on a card player’s lap. “The child can get out. She don’t deserve to die with this lot.”

The gorilla turned to me. “Now who else should live?” he asked with a feverish look.

I wiped me eyes. There was another young whore, and also a plain-faced serving girl. With pretty much ease I could pick out the evil ones, but spotting purity in a person was difficult.

The “dead man” who had wielded the hatchet, miraculously started to stir. It seemed impossible that he was still alive.

The gorilla gave a fey laugh. “Plain as day who should die but won’t.”

Someone yowled as one of the card players stood and reached out with a pistol. But quick as lightning, Jack pulled a knife from his boot and launched it with deadly accuracy. The blade sunk deep in the man’s chest. The gun fired and a bullet whizzed by us. Then four men lunged forward with knives in hand, while others flung brickbats. Jack jabbed at them with the pointed end of the stave, while the gorilla swung so often and hard, I froze in dreaded fear that I would get hit by the barrel.

In the melee, the man with the bashed-in head, deftly scurried on all fours like a rat. He was out the door in seconds.

When they stopped fighting, six men lay in pools of blood, and the remaining patrons had all backed off. Both Jack and the gorilla retrieved their hats, which had fallen from their heads. There had been a whore in a nearby chair, who had buried her face in her hands. She looked up. The top of her head and the pleats of her dress were swathed in blood.

“Now let’s see you put her out of this misery,” the gorilla said to me with a smile of pure glee. He held out his blood-soaked bludgeon.

The whore met my gaze with fearful blue eyes, then she looked at Jack and the gorilla. She had pretty blonde curls. I darted to the bar. Jack and the gorilla laughed.

“We was just joking,” the gorilla said to the girl.

I found the barman, standing stiffly in the shadows. “Gin, gin, gin,” I cried. The barman hesitated, until Jack spoke.

“A round for the house,” he said and pulled out a roll of bills.

The door banged shut as the whore fled into the street. The gorilla lifted his glass of gin, looked at me, and then to Jack. “This man needs work, lots of work.”

Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Thirty-Eight

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