Born to Kill
(Brooklyn Heights – 1854, Cropped/Photoshopped by Joe)
The three of us ruffians sailed across the moonlit bay in a breathless huff. The two-masted brig suspected of transporting an Irish vampire gained rapidly on our sloop. We weren’t so much afraid as we were amazed. The craft’s arrival into NY Harbor seemed to trigger distant cries that we could not place and strange shadows off in the hills of Brooklyn. While on the brig’s aft deck was an uncanny, smoldering fire that sent a rosy plume against the wind, in the direction of the moon.
It was near three in the morning as we hastily pulled into Miller’s Landing, splitting thin ice and pushing aside chunks of ice. Waves splashed up the icy pilings, over the planking of the dock. The wind was gusting more and more. The brig was now east of Governors Island, seeming to fly up the East River toward our location near Fulton Ferry.
Twelve bearded men in long coats roused from an office upon our arrival. They straggled out to meet us on the slip that had been scorched by a fire, the scent of which hung in the air. Each had a bayonet fitted musket. A few men also brought along axes. Some exchanged waves or nods with Jack. None came too close or acknowledged the gorilla or myself.
Jack was about to leave us and sail across the East River to Manhattan, in case the brig made a try for the South Street wharves. More armed men waited there for his command.
The gorilla stepped onto the slip ahead of me. In his right hand was a bludgeon with two-inch nails that protruded from the fat of the barrel. Jack made a half-hearted attempt to pluck the Colt revolver holstered on my hip. “I always wanted one of these,” I lied, wincing, my cheeks burning from the cold. In my right hand was a long stave. One end was fitted with a razor sharp brand to mark the demon; a thin blade was affixed on the other end.
“Those men are paid to take care of the crew,” Jack said. “You go straight for the vampire or whatever demon you may find. It probably will look like a corpse, and may not even move. In any case, mark the skull; then if it puts up no fight, plunge the blade of the stave as many times as you can into the heart. If I’m not there by then, Gabe,” he said, referring to the gorilla, “will help you hack it into pieces.”
Jack headed across the river, aided by an upstream breeze. Gabe waved for the men to get down behind a row of upright barrels. All looked over six feet tall and very able-bodied. “The gun stays in the holster,” he said to me with a high-pitched shrill and lifted his bludgeon to my chest.
I raised the point of my stave near the bigger man’s throat. He tapped the nails of the bludgeon against my chest.
“If something happens to Jack, who’s gonna pay me?” I said. “You? Probably can’t count past ten–”
The gorilla, who had a limited attention span, lowered his weapon and looked to the brig. It was less than one thousand yards away.
“–I can get almost 25 dollars for the gun and holster. And with me craving a nice heavy porter.”
We both kneeled behind the barrels. Gabe saw I was carefully regarding the men. “They all are firemen, who’ll do their business well,” he said, his voice sounding very much like that of a woman. “Keep their mouths shut, too. We’ll do the important work.”
“Why do you suspect the ship will dock at this very slip?”
“This place has been cursed by demon acolytes. They set it afire, and then were able to cast a spell. Now Miller’s is like a window or welcoming place for evil souls to enter NY, and they do have to be welcomed. You’ll also learn that most demons are firebugs. They take great pleasure from the smell, as well as the heat. And if cornered, they love to start fires.”
“After such a long ocean voyage, will the demon be vicious?”
“They always are, though tonight, the one coming our way will only have safety and shelter on its mind. If it’s a vampire, it might be weak from the journey, though of that you can’t be certain, but be sure, it’s has fed. They rarely miss a meal.”
“They drink blood.”
“Vampires love warm human blood the best, but will also feed on the flesh of both man and beast.”
“Oh dear God,” I said, seeing the brig started to loom large, just a few hundred yards away.
Gabe pointed out that the brig flew a red flag with a blue cross outlined in white. We agreed it was the flag of Norway.
The brig started to turn as it came with 100 feet as if the captain had just seen the dock. Gabe held out a hand for us to steady. He grabbed my arm just as the ship careened broadside into the slip, pushing up through rows of charred planking, sending the barrels over some of the men and into the water.
One of our men clambered up a rope and went over the side of the brig. He unrolled a rope ladder that was quickly tied to the slip. There came the clattering of horse hooves on cobbles. Two large trucks came through Miller’s open iron gates. Each was fronted by four dray horses. They had most likely arrived to pick up the brig’s cargo.
The gorilla was first up, and I went next. Over the side, we saw only one man, who must have been piloting the craft as he was near the wheel of the helm. He staggered at us. His nose and cheeks were black with frostbite. There was no light of concern in his eyes, though more closely, he seemed entirely consumed. The man began to mutter. I bent closer to hear him.
“Just mark him!” Gabe cried, then yelled it louder as I hesitated.
I whipped my arms and planted the razor sharp brand square in the man’s forehead. There was hardly a trickle of blood from the wound that had surely gone straight through the bone into the brain. He dropped flat on his back.
“He’s not our demon,” Gabe said, taking a deep whiff. There was a rancid odor coming from below deck. “Whatever carcasses we find, they’ll all have to be marked.”
The gorilla lit a torch and handed it to one of the firemen, but followed close behind with his bludgeon cocked at the ready. We stepped down into the ship. It reeked of rotting flesh and blood, almost as bad as a slaughterhouse. The first level we came to was stripped down to the support beams, leaving the whole gloomy space exposed for sight. There were fifteen-to-twenty long wooden crates.
I held the collar of my coat over my nose. The gorilla yanked my hand. “Smell it, smell it good. Soon it won’t bother you.”
The tops of the crates were mostly laid in place. Of the few that were nailed shut, our men pried them open with the bayonets. As suspected, most had coffins inside that held human remains. Colored grey and sallow, the dead were all gaunt. Gouges of flesh had been torn from many faces and other exposed areas. One man said they must have been famine victims, dead for at least a month or two. In one of the coffins were three children. A boy’s skeletal hand clung to the stringy hair of a girl’s. His face was almost entirely “eaten” away.
I gripped the stave. My eyes shifted about in search of the creature that had feasted on these people.
“Poor shits,” Gabe said. “All were probably dead before the journey. Stinking thing must be a vampire.”
The man with the light walked beyond the coffins. He illuminated a mound of dirt. Arms and legs pushed out of the soil.
“There are our sailors,” Gabe said and turned to me. “Ok, let’s get to work. Mark the forehead of every single person and stab ’em once through the heart. Kids too. And be ready, one may be our vampire, or have gotten a dose of the demon blood, to keep it alive for the vampire’s sick pleasure. In that case, they will squirm or motion after you strike.”
First I went to the coffins with adult remains. For each one, I stamped the razored brand against the forehead, flipped the stave, and then sunk the blade into the heart. One fireman stayed by my side. He held an axe in both hands. He used it to point out where I should stab to get to the heart. I made myself look at the faces of the children as I did the deed.
Gabe carefully watched me. “Believe me, I never liked doing kids,” he said, his voice almost kind, “but if that demon blood wakes them, you’re doing the work of the Lord.”
Our men dragged the bodies of the sailors out of the dirt for me to mark. Then they hefted the bodies out of the coffins. They used axes to hack off the heads. It was mostly bloodless work, even the sailors who’d been killed over the course of the journey hardly bled when beheaded. Gabe culled a few men and lead the way to a lower deck.
“Knockout drops!” someone cried.
“The air is fowl!” another cried. “Laudanum and whale oil!”
It was then I noticed a bitter taste in my mouth of what could have been laudanum; and mixed in with the scent of death was the rancid odor of whale oil.
“Watch for fire!” one man said, pointing to the floorboards overhead. Handfuls of hay were strung above, around the entire room. Before another word could be said, there came the sound of mass combustion.
Fire spread out in every direction overhead. The entire ceiling was ablaze in seconds. Balls of fire began to fall. The coffins and parts of the floor were burning. The firemen ran for the stairs. The gorilla and myself held back.
Eyes filled will fire, I thought of the dead children missing chunks of flesh. I suddenly had a singular purpose: to kill the demon. It had set the fire and had to be near. I clenched my stave in anger. It was as if I was alive for the first time in ages, reclaiming the life forced that had been corrupted by alcoholism.
The fire was too hot. I ran for the stairs behind the gorilla. Gasping for air, once I set foot onto the open deck, I almost knew I was about to come face to face with the demon. I began to whip my arms and strike at the thin air. Sure enough, a half-second later a figure seemed to jump up from below. I plunged the brand with all my might into the person’s brow, driving the razored end in so deep, the stave snapped when I tried to yank it free.
My target was an emaciated woman with emerald-green eyes. Jet black hair fell over her shoulders. Her cheeks were sunken and hollow. She wore a gown soiled by dirt and dried blood. I flipped the stave and drove the blade deep, just below her left breast bone. I stabbed her two more times in the heart, before the gorilla bounded past me, swinging the spiked bludgeon. He cracked the vampire in the head, then jerked the weapon back, having to wiggle and pry it free. He laughed as he performed the task, which sent the vampire spinning. She stumbled back and went over the side of the brig. She splashed into the water.
Half mad, I jumped after her. Yet Gabe clamped onto my forearm. He was still laughing, seeming happy as a lark. “That’s enough boy,” he said, eyes brilliantly alight as we watched the vampire sink. “You did a fine job.” He faced me. “Well done, my friend!”
(Brooklyn Heights drawing, 1854)
Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Thirty-Eight