Black Sullivan And His Girls
(“At The Brothel,” circa 1850 – Photoshopped by Joe – Orig. below)
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4
Having just awoken, I threw open the window and looked over the garden two stories below. The sun was warm on my face and blurred my vision. An easy spring breeze curled through me, to my bones. It was nearly three in the afternoon. I used one hand to water the grass in the yard below, while in my other hand I held a women’s black silk glove. I was almost sure it had come into my possession last night. I lifted it to my nose. It smelled both sweet and musty. I wondered, whose it was…
Brooklyn Heights – Spring 1854
No one could manage such a place except for Black. He wasn’t as tall as Jack or Gabe the gorilla, but he was a big, big man. He was as gentle as a dove, until you did one of his girls wrong. Then he spoke with his fists. One shot to the jaw was all it usually took. His saloon was where society met, nose-to-fist in some cases. On most nights it was filled with gold-finders all scrubbed and thinking they were dandies along with a fare share of rich men looking to shed some skin. There were card and dice games, any kind of gambling really, and it seemed like there were two women for every man.
Besides the women and gambling, men went there for the saloon’s underworld appeal. Yet they didn’t have too worry much about wild rogues. Most were afraid of Black’s wrath. While the pickpockets and prigs knew they chanced loosing a finger or two if they were caught. And of those that challenged Black, his thing was to knock them into a bloody pulp with his ham hock fists, then drag them the half block to the wharves and toss ’em in the bay. Best thing was to let him take the finger. Or when he said you had enough of the drink or pulled you off one of his girls: you left. His violence was extraordinary. Any time that I was there and a man lost his senses and danced toward those troubled waters, I always thought it was ‘cause the girls were so pretty. Yet there was more to the place, and even Black himself. I guess I was too focused on pleasure and never opened my eyes to what was really going on.
On the night I had met old Dan Tucker, when the farm girl had been killed, he had wanted to meet Jack Jefferies. On the way back to the firehouse to find Jack, we scooted into Black Sullivan’s because I wanted a good time. Jack and Gabe the gorilla showed up by chance an hour or two after us. It was the first time I had ever seen them at Black’s.
I was pie-faced by then, and old Dan had the lot at the bar rioting with song and laughter. If he wasn’t singing he was telling jokes. Or the songs were jokes. Hard to tell with this minstrel. The drinks were flying off the bar. My head was in the clouds. I couldn’t say if Dan and Jack properly spoke or not.
Maybe in another bar they would have sat and chatted. But inside Black’s you were absorbed in the place like the drink into sawdust on the floor. It was the lure of the night, as it always seemed to be heading for a magical zenith.
That night there was the usual drinking crowd at the bar, which was in the rear. It was raised up a step and gave a view over the whole place where oil lamps hung over an array of gambling tables and cast a gloomy glow upon a menagerie of clientele chomping on cigars, sucking down drinks, staring down cards as eagerly as the women who floated freely about with the tobacco smoke. With a big pink face dotted by freckles and brow the size of a brick, Black Sullivan stood like a pillar, lumbering here and there, watching over all with his withdrawn, lightless gaze. So distant and seemingly brainless, newcomers were shocked by his outbursts of violence. Most men weren’t aware Black was onto their skullduggery until they woke in the street with a broken face.
I did catch Black’s head turned once or twice to old Dan. But he never stepped our way. While Dan on the other hand seemed set on harassing me. He would be singing and intermittently poke me and then quack into my ear. Besides Dan’s horrible lisping voice, the place was bursting with noise and vibrancy. I was too drunk to know what he was saying. I nodded a lot. I remembered Dan pointing with his big nose to a tall man, who wore a suit tailored tight to bring attention to his frame. He was a lean spartan with sinewy muscles. He looked to be able to go all day and night.
This stranger wasn’t handsome. His face was too narrow. His eyes seemed to shoot arrows. Very piercing. As bung-eyed as I was, I kept watch, hoping to make some sense of him. The man didn’t have a drink or a smoke or any interest in gambling or women. He just stood there. His airs were those of a man that didn’t need anyone. He really was “the gambler” that night. I kept waiting for Black to approach him.
Not long after Jack and Gabe the gorilla came in, a young girl seemed to drop down upon the stranger like a ferocious bug, pawing at his jacket and trying to clasp his hands. Yet he never once looked at her or gesticulated in her direction. He didn’t even talk to her from what I could see, maybe a word here or there. But she kept at him.
I went out in the yard to relieve myself. On the way back inside past the gambling tables, my eyes drifted to the hands, cards, chips and tumbling dice. Someone gripped my skull like it was a tomato they were looking to crush. I feared the worst, that it was Black. I couldn’t turn properly though glimpsed a man’s dark tail coat and wiry frame. It was the spartan. He wore a rich-scented cologne that was so poignant, it clogged my airway.
The grip left me feeling helpless for the first time in my life. There was nothing I could do to free myself or stop him from doing what he pleased. The grip was inhuman. And then I caught close sight of the girl who’d been pawing at him. With her youthful lips and soft lines of her face and still yet to lose all baby fat, oddly, the look in her eye was that of a person who had lived ten lives and wanted no more. She was the farm girl! Only then did I realize old Dan had tried to tell me it was her. And the spartan squeezing my head–he was her killer!
Just hours ago old Dan and I had found the farm girl after she had been savagely murdered. Her long dress had been soaked with blood. We each took a hand and dragged her body through a grassy field into an old barn. Her neck hung loosely like a torn rag doll’s. We were going to properly bury her, but old Dan had went out for a look and saw the demon was still near. Madly, old Dan flew off, taking leaping strides, heels stamping into the dirt road. He led with his big nose like he was sniffing his way.
It took a minute or two to catch up to old Dan. He ran bow-legged, as if he had coins in his pockets that he didn’t want to fall out.
“I bet he’s so gorged with her blood, he’s probably burping it up,” he quacked.
“If we can’t kill it now, why are we following?”
“I want you to see his face,” he said, galloping along with spittle flying from his lips.
Old Dan’s brow tightened as he quacked on. “When the time is right, you’re going to be the one to try and kill him, or be killed by him.”
“That’s the job,” I said, knowing my usual fate.
We came down to the bottom of a nobby hill and continued along a street of closed shops and slowed at the next street where warehouses loomed black and mountainous. The tang of sea water was in the air. Old Dan said he had lost sight of the demon, though I hadn’t seen the fleeing monster since soon after we started our pursuit. It was then that we set out to find Jack, and then detoured into Black’s place.
The demon looked upon me affectionately, yet with an air of distance as one would an object like a piece of jewelry or a gold watch. He slipped his hand down over the nape of my neck. “Old Dan said you are going to try and kill me. I’ll give you the chance, soon. But beware, my evil has command over flesh, bones, and spirit. If you succeed, the blackest of black will pass through you. If even for a moment you try to embrace this darkness, you will open a door to a room, where awaits the playful Death herself. In her hands, no misery is too great, no death is too painful.” The demon chortled and loosened his grip. “Go to work, Lizbeth.” he said to the pretty farm girl.
As dead as the look in her eyes, she managed to conjure up a spark of light and tenderness as she gazed at the monster.
“Go to work,” he said.
“But I want your sweet kisses.”
“Go to work. Your Black’s girl now.”
The monster let go my neck. A strong breeze full of his cologne came over me. I shrugged as I turned. The monster had vanished. The farm girl dropped her head into her bare hands and began to softly weep. I gazed over the gambling men with the whores at their sides and looked as best I could into the women’s faces, seeing a similar lifelessness of which I had seen in the farm girl. From the other end of the bar I caught Black Sullivan glaring at me.
(“At The Brothel,” circa 1850 – Constantin Guys)
Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Forty-Three
To be continued in Episode Forty-Four…