Around seven in the morning I left Black Sullivan’s saloon. I went back to the firehouse and fell into a death-like slumber. I roused for a short while in the afternoon and found a woman’s black silk glove in my hand. I couldn’t figure out where it had come from and tossed it out my third-story bedroom window. When I woke later on in the night, the glove had somehow made its way back into my hand…
It was so cold, I couldn’t fully wake or command my limbs to move. It was like I was encased in a block of ice.
My eyes cracked open as someone spoke, sounding mirthfully insane. I recognized his peculiar southern twang. “You’ve opened the door. Death herself, the darkest of angels, has given you her glove. It’s a sign, she will take you as her lover–”
With much effort, I lifted my head to see the outline of a man, or should I say demon. I tried to wipe the fog of sleep from my eyes. It was the demon who had accosted me inside Black Sullivan’s saloon. I thought he was holding a knife, yet as he came forward I saw it was his long index finger.
“–There is no mistaking it. Even now I can see her web drawing you into the River Styx. You won’t know you’re in the water. You won’t know you’re dead. No man does.” He thrust his index finger at my head, which did look like a knife. He whispered with glee. “After you’re dead, the real dying begins.”
“You’re not a man parleyvous, nor her lover,” I said, the icy air constricting my throat. I rolled the black silk glove violently between my palms for heat.
“Aha!” the demon chortled and leaned forward. I felt something weighty press upon my chest. “I am her messenger,” he said, his voice echoing. “But in her service… service… we all are her lovers… lovers… lovers…”
An inner whirlwind of misery came over me. It had me thinking I was about to die. I stretched the black silk glove between both my hands.
“Don’t you want to know my name?” the demon said.
Shooting up from the glove, hot spasms surged through my flesh. The cold was now more pronounced. My back arched off the bed. I knew better than to ask, yet the words slipped from my lips. “What is your name?”
“I am Toren the Bloody.”
“Toren the Bloody.”
“In your head I can see each and every one of your kills. Ha! You’ve only snuffed rats, scurrying through the night. I have 2000 years of blood, sweat, and tears, coursing through me.” He gave a gleeful gasp, and a mist of blood sprayed over my face. It was warm and iron-rich. “Get ready for me, demon slayer.” He tapped my chin with three hard and sharp fingernails. “Strike me down and you will only make me stronger. I shall never be ash, because what has never been, can never be!”
I jumped up, massaging my chin. Toren was gone! So was the blood. Beds sheets twisted through my arms, and old Dan Tucker was shaking me awake. But I had been awake!
A single candle burned on a bedside table. It was warm, and I was sweating profusely. Old Dan sat down in a chair he must have pulled next to my bed. He leaned in. I eyed his frighteningly large, hooked nose, then his wrinkled and mottled skin.
“The demon has you under his spell,” he quacked. “He has already begun to fight you.”
I took a deep breath and propped myself up on my elbows, rotating my lower jaw. My nightshirt was soaked with sweat and stuck to my skin. I wiped my face on a sheet. I looked at the glove crushed in my fist. It meant nothing to me. I wanted to throw it out the window one more time.
“Your demon won’t stop until you’re dead,” he said.
“I know his name,” I said, certain that it wasn’t just a mere dream I had had of Toren, it had been a living moment. Maybe I needed the glove?
Old Dan placed two fingers over his lips. “Toren the Bloody, no need repeating,” he whispered. “You’ve been sleeping all day. It’s near midnight. Come with me, before the night smothers you.”
“Get me some beer.”
“Sure, but you get up. Get dressed,” he said, then stood and headed for the door. He stopped and turned. “You spoke to Black Sullivan last night.”
I sighed. “I know, I remember.”
“What did he say?”
“You saw. He grabbed the farm girl and pulled her away.”
“‘This is mine,’ he said.”
“The girl is?”
“She’s his whore now,” I said and remembered how bewildered and dead-eyed the virginal girl had looked. It was a rough night for her, and also for her maidenhead. Within a few hours she had been brutally killed, then had risen from the dead, only to become a whore in a saloon. “The other girls in Black’s saloon might have suffered similar fates.”
“Or they could be in various states of possession–from mental to demonic. Yes, that is a possibility. All is possible. All is most definitely possible. Black is a very powerful man. But powerful in which way, we must learn. He could be a demon or just a brute. What else did he say?”
“He said ‘leave.'”
“But I didn’t.”
“No you didn’t.”
“I stopped drinking.”
“Was goin’ to fight him to the death or something.”
“You don’t know Black.”
“Best fighter in these parts.”
“You weren’t going to fight clean.”
“Black fights the fighter any way they want. Knife, gun, or fists, no one ever walks off after facing Black.”
“Guess a good beating is what I need. Help square up my head.”
“Get the beer,” I said, then laid back and dosed off.
I woke a few hours later, hearing Gabe the gorilla’s snores in the other bed across the room. Old Dan was gone. “Gabe,” I cried breathily. Slack-jawed and bleary-eyed, the big man lifted his head. He flopped over facedown.
There was a touch of blue light from the night sky in the open window. The air was cool. A growler filled with beer was on my bedside table. No cup in sight, I lifted the tin bucket and took a sip. The beer was flat but good. The old warehouse was alive with muffled voices. Two floors below the men were surely immersed in gambling and whoring. My mind was dull, though my hearing was inordinately acute. I paid closer attention to the sounds coming across the wharves and out in the harbor and from up the East River. A hammer clinked away upon metal. Horse hooves clapped on cobbled streets. There was a buzzing of many voices along with errant high-pitched screams and howls. I also heard what I imagined was an old war torn galleon, creaking and moaning its way up the East River. It was a nice night. I leaned forward and flung the black silk glove out the window.
I sat drinking for an hour or more, then fell in and out of sleep for the rest of the night.
Gabe was wheezing and snoring, but it wasn’t very loud. The gray haze of morning was in the window. Appearing at first like a giant bug in my weary eyes, a woman in a mourning dress slipped in under the sash. I reached for my pile of clothes on the floor, feeling around for my knife or holstered gun. But the woman was at my side before I could properly make search. Oily white powder covered her face. Her dark eyes were perfectly shaped and gave off only a glint of light. Her nose was thin and pointed, and her mouth was small. I knew she was the angel known as Death, the one Toren the Bloody had spoke of. I was certain because she gave off a pungent sweet scent, same as the black silk glove.
“Rest up, for your days will be nevermore,” she sang, moving around and under my bed somehow, peering at me from confounding angles. “Through me, in me, the darkest of your desires shall be fulfilled. Night, shall be eternal, and no sleep, will you ever have again. Tonight’s sunset will be the last you see of the light. Over you shall set eternal darkness and forever more you’ll be mine.”
“Yours,” I murmured.
“I am the coming of the night.”
“You will be vessel of the night… and its needs.”
She set the black silk glove into my right palm and closed my fingers over it. If she said another word, I couldn’t say, because I quickly fell into a deep sleep.
When I next awoke the sun was bright in the window. It was mid-morning. After so much rain of late, the light was welcoming. In bed for nearly twenty-two hours, it would take hours until I felt like my normal self. I had to get some coffee. If not for the black silk glove in my hand, the night I had met old Dan Tucker and went to Black Sullivan’s saloon, would seem a distant memory. The visits from Toren and Death, were terribly real, but part of me wanted to believe they were dreams. Yet undeniably, I could almost feel something on the periphery, creeping closer.
I dressed and went downstairs. The place smelled like tobacco and wood smoke. I remembered it was Saturday. Was I really going to die tonight…
First thing that caught my eye was a large and messy pile of smouldering ash in the painted white hearth; it seemed to tell the tale of the previous night’s festivities. About fifteen men sat at a long table by the high-arched and open front doors of the warehouse. Some wore stove pipe hats, though most wore brand new bowlers Jack had had given them. They were playing Faro. Barrels of beer and ale shadowed them from one end of the table. As usual, two cents bought a quart-sized mug. Yet the refreshments were free when loaded onto the pumper for all who helped pull it to the fires.
A whore in a dirty hoop dress stopped in the open doorway. She eyed the men and their stacks of chips. At perhaps thirty years of age, she seemed more hopeful than confident in her ability to pluck a man up from the table.
The young bookkeeper named Harry Drake came down the stairs. I remembered seeing him at all hours of the day and night working in his second floor room. It seemed proper that he was always blinking as if from too much numbering and figuring.
He hardly considered the group of motley men, though blinked repeatedly at the whore. It brought to mind his sobriquet, “Drake the snake.” Upon hearing the name from one of the men weeks ago, I had wondered aloud if it meant he was devious. “Not when a whore gives you the name!” the man had said, and we both enjoyed a laugh.
Drake the snake made his way past the whore. Beams of sunlight seemed to drink him in.
He was one of many residents in the building, which when constructed nearly fifty years ago was a two-story warehouse. Jack rented out various parts of the upper floors, of which I couldn’t say if now there were four, five, or even six. Upstairs was a mishmash of stairways and rooms of odd sizes. It seemed Jack conducted the work of all nations out of the place, having a hand in everything from politics, he was local the ward boss, to importing and exporting, and to running the local fire brigade. Because of all the activity in the building and because it was home to the fire brigade, as we stored a hose reel rig and the pumper in the back by the stables, I liked to call the building “the firehouse.”
Throughout the week there was always someone coming by the firehouse to ask Jack for help. No mattered if they were widows, orphans, or men out of work, Jack was their man. Those close to him knew he had access to great wealth, which included an impossibly heavy chest in the basement wherein I had seen gold, jewelry, coins, paper money, and deeds. Yet if money was to be made, Jack worked as if he needed every last cent. Also, I first assumed that his enterprises helped disguise our work stamping out evil. But Jack was strange. His face displayed genuine empathy for those who sought his assistance. He seemed as if he truly wanted to do good by the Lord. Not me. I had got in it for the lucre. It was why I kept on with Jack at first. I had monies stashed here and there, and kept gold watches and jewelry in a box under a floorboard in my room. But the riches had lost meaning very quickly. For weeks I had been thinking I needed to hide all my wealth better. But of late, I’d been thinking about giving it all away.
I looked down to the glove in my hand, and thought how I deserved my way of life. There was no honor in me. Nor did I have even the smallest claim upon Divine Providence. If I was really going to die tonight, it would be a deathless death, for it seemed that I had yet to live or know love.
The captain of the fire brigade lighted upon me and hurried over. His name was Dexter O’Malley. He was a skinny blacksmith who ran fastest to the fires, and from his wife, it was said. “Jack’s-out-in-the-yard-wait’in-for-ya,” Dex said in a native accent, which sounded like all the words were one word.
Moving toward the open barn-type doors and the yard, I passed the hose reel rig which sat looking brand new on the cobbled floor. The fresh red paint had a waxy shine. Affixed to the big brass drum in the center carriage were three brass lanterns and two big brass bells. All the brass shined as if possessing inner light, especially the caps on the center of the wagon wheels. I looked up, passing two balding and gray-haired Irish brothers who were brushing the horses, six of which stood in splashes of yellow hay and manure. The brothers were tradesmen Jack kept on staff. They had tan faces and dark eyes and resembled those of Spanish descent. “Hey Joe,” they said in near unison. I grunted “hello” in return. I remembered their names rhymed together, but couldn’t recall them.
The cobbled floor of the warehouse funneled outside into a walkway, which cut the yard into rectangular sections where flowers, green herbs, and vegetable plants flourish. Jack and old Dan Tucker were way out in the yard under a leafy tree. They sat in close conversation on neatly-placed large stones. Jack was smoking a cigar, and old Dan leaned away from every puff of smoke. After I sat down along side them, they continued to speak for a few minutes before either addressed me. I was in no mood for conversation, let alone a lecture or new orders. My head was not quite right.
One of the old tradesmen brought me a mug of strong coffee with cream. I winked gratefully, but still couldn’t remember the man’s name.
Old Dan’s eyes momentarily stopped their flighty movement. He covered his mouth and spoke. “Toren the Bloody claims to have drunk the blood of the one born Joseph in Jerusalem, who was a partner to Paul the Apostle. You never believe the boasts of these monsters, but try to kill Toren and you will learn the undeniable truth. Your bones will tell you he has been favored by the darkest forces of the underworld. He may well be invincible.”
“Can hear the dogs laughing at that one,” I said, scrunching the glove in my fist. I gulped the last of the coffee and looked into the empty mug. I lifted my eyes to old Dan. He had one leg folded back over the other. “Your man is a rag carrier. All I got is on it.”
Old Dan scrunched his lips and turned away, waving at the cigar smoke.
“You’re going to lead the way on this one,” Jack said, and forced a smile with the cigar in his mouth. “Marshall as many men as needed to kill this monster. Tell them he is a killer of woman and children, from the frontier.”
Old Dan leaned forward, flapping open both hands. “I will offer my service as a lure, as a hen to a rooster, in this grave matter,” he said, spittle bubbling on his lips. “This monster speaks to me. He has no fear of me and uses me in ungodly ways.” He turned to Jack. “He chooses his victims from the audience at my shows. If I didn’t perform, he would still kill.” The minstrel’s eyes jumped about the yard searchingly. “I have tried to kill Toren with a gun, but he is too fast for gunfire and too strong to be met hand-to-hand by me. But I’ll have you know, I have killed some of his offspring in the past. But Toren has the strength of many.”
I looked off to the old tradesman who had served us. On his way back to the warehouse, he had detoured through the garden to pull out weeds. I waved to the man when he next lift his head. I wanted more coffee and rum. He came plodding back over with green weeds bunched in his fists. Like his brother, he was a small hunched thing of perhaps sixty-plus years of age.
Jack spoke before I could. “More coffee for all of us, a bottle of rum, and see to some food.”
Twenty minutes later, after some small talk about Dan’s minstrel show success and tales of Toren the Bloody killing women and children, I was happy to see the old tradesman return with a tray of coffee in mugs, a bottle of rum, bread, bangers, and a wedge of cheese. I went right for the cheese and cut off a chuck. It was so smelly, it made my eyes water. But it seemed to rouse my memory as the brothers’ names came to me. They were Devin and Kevin O’Keefe from County Kerry.
“Good man, there you are ‘evin,” I called after the man as he retreated, not knowing if he was Devin or Kevin. I tossed the whole chuck of cheese in my mouth and chewed hungrily.
“We need highly skilled assassins to kill this monster,” old Dan said. “We must also have a crafty plan, or else many foot wobblers will die. He is unlike other demons. When he is near, you will hear voices cry out for him from the netherworld. They sing praises of his mastery of the three worlds.”
“Three?” I wondered, still swallowing the last bits of cheese.
“Living, dead, and undead,” old Dan said.
Jack leveled his gaze at me.
I lifted the black silk glove hidden in my palm. I took a deep whiffed of its musky aroma. It was stronger than the cheese scent on my fingers. “Tonight’s as good a night as any to kill this old gooseberry.”
“Prepare the men,” Jack said.
“It will only take me,” I said and inhaled again. I could just see the angel named Death, dressed in a long black dress. In my head I heard her whisper, “Kill Toren the Bloody, he stands in the doorway to my eternal love. Strike him down and come freely into the kingdom of darkness.”
“Why do you think this?” Jack asked.
“Toren believes in his own invincibility, and in his legend. Vainglory will be his downfall.”
Old Dan made clucking noises of disapproval.
“I was born to kill,” I said. “I was born to kill these monsters.”
Jack tightened his eyes. He knew I liked the drink, but trusted my skills and instinct when duly applied.
“Black sent his man by yesterday,” Jack said. “He doesn’t want any of us in his saloon.”
“Even better,” I said. “Let Black try and throw us out. We’ll destroy the place. A big fight will provide cover.”
“I will be there as will Gabriel,” Jack said.
“Good,” I said. “More men the better. Be sure it’s off the hooks, and then they’ll be needing the two of you after I kill Toren.”
“What’s going to happen if you kill Toren?” old Dan quacked.
I opened my palm and looked at the glove.
“Why do you need Jack and Gabe?” Dan asked.
“To kill me proper,” I said.
To be continued in Episode Forty-Four…