The Devil's Half Mile
Justy Flanagan leaned on the gunwale of the Netherleigh and watched two big men square up to each other on the wharf below. They were like a pair of cart horses, one black, the other white, their fellows in a half circle behind them, grim looks on their faces.
“How goes the negotiations?” Lars Hokkanssen leaned on the rail. He was a giant of a man, with a shaved head and a ragged red beard. Justy was six feet tall, which meant he saw over the heads of most men, but the Netherleigh’s first mate was nearly a foot taller, and wider. His build and his name came from his Norwegian father. His red hair, his Galway accent and his politics were all courtesy of his mother.
“Negotiations?” Justy asked.
Lars gave him an amused look. “How long is it you’ve been away?”
“A lot’s changed in that time. This isn’t the town you grew up in, I’ll tell you that. There’s a lot more free Negroes here, for one thing, and they all want to graft. They’re forming gangs and taking work, either by force or by selling their labor cheap. The Irish aren’t happy about it. There’s been a few small riots. Men killed, even.” He nodded at the two men, who were now circling each other, ready to come to blows. “This here’s the way they usually decide who gets to unload a ship.”
A shout went up from the other side of the wharf. The two fighters dropped their fists, and the crowd broke up as men rushed to the water’s edge.
One man called for a gaff. Then the crowd went quiet, and Justy knew it was a body. They pulled it up onto the huge granite blocks, and when they all stood still for a moment, their heads down and their caps off, he knew it was a woman.
Four men picked her up. Justy saw the head roll backwards as though it had detached from the body. One of the Negro longshoremen vomited, and there was a ripple through the small crowd as the men in front stepped back.
Two men carried the body to a cart beside the Netherleigh’s gangway. They heaved the corpse up and pulled a tarpaulin over it, but as they walked away the wind gusted and pulled the canvas loose, showing the dead woman’s legs, her dark skin turned gray by the seawater.
The Negro workers were arguing, and one of them, a short, wiry man in a peaked cap, climbed onto a crate and started haranguing his fellows. Justy couldn’t hear the words, but the white longshoremen began edging closer to one another, the gang closing in tight and facing outwards, like a squad of soldiers caught in an open field.
Stung by the words of the small man in the peaked cap, the black workers turned and started shouting at their rivals. The white workers shouted back, stoking themselves and their mates towards the point where they would hurl themselves across the narrowing gap between the two gangs.
“I’m glad I’m up here and not down there,” Lars muttered.
Business on the wharf had stopped. People knew the difference between a labor dispute and a fight. Shoppers were hurrying up the streets, away from the docks. Stall owners were hastily packing boxes and stowing their goods away. And the open space of the emptying wharf was filling with a trickle of men, both black and white, coming to join their fellows on the dock.
A long whistle blast made Justy look up towards the Broad Way. Another whistle, and then a half-dozen watchmen, dressed in their long dark coats and leather firemen’s hats, were pushing through the crowd of shoppers. The watchmen forced their way onto the dock and ran down between the two groups of men. They made a wall, some facing the Irish stevedores, the others facing their black rivals. The watchmen stood firm, slapping their long billy clubs into their palms, their eyes steady as the workers screamed abuse and spat.
A man in a red coat was pushing his way through the gang of white workers. The men parted way, until he was face-to-face with a white-haired man with a ruddy face and a knit cap perched on the back of his head. They spoke for a moment, and then the white-haired man nodded and shouted something to his fellows.
For a moment, nothing happened, and then the Irish gang began to move slowly away from the water. It was clear some men weren’t happy about leaving, but the white-haired man shouted again, and the protestors fell into line, unwilling to be left alone on the dock without their fellows. The black workers fell silent and watched as the Irish withdrew, followed by the watchmen.
When they reached the street, the white-haired man spoke a few words to his men. He took off his cap, and those who were wearing hats followed his lead. He turned towards the docks and nodded at the small, dark, wiry man who was still standing on the crate. And then he turned away and led his men into the town.
The wiry man stepped off the crate. The black crew went to work.
Lars exhaled loudly. He winked at Justy. “So, welcome back to New York, a chara. You glad to be home?”
Justy shrugged, and Lars laughed. “Glad to be three thousand miles away from the bloody English, though, eh?”
“There are plenty of English here.”
“Aye, but they don’t have bayonets fixed and artillery support.”
Justy said nothing.
“Jesus, look at the face on you!” Lars said. “You look like you’re about to stab someone. And speaking of which…”
He dug in his pocket and held out a small bundle of filthy linen. Justy unwrapped it carefully. It was a folding knife, a six-inch length of steel tucked into a handle made of a single piece of carved teak. Justy smiled at the weight and the feel of it, the warm, smooth wood and the cool, polished metal bands under his thumb. “You oiled it.”
“Only a couple of times. I was worried about rust.” Lars grinned. “Plus a good piece of steel needs to see the light of day every now and again.”
“So long as you didn’t shave with it. That beard of yours would blunt an executioner’s axe.” Justy tucked the knife into his boot. “And the other thing?”
Lars fumbled in the band of his breeches with both hands and pulled out a thick canvas belt. It was gray with dirt and sweat. He handed it over. “I stashed it in the galley, behind the hardtack. No one wants to steal that stuff, let alone eat it, so I figured it’d be safe there.”
Justy quickly strapped the money belt around his waist. “I hope you took a few coins for yourself.”
“The pleasure of being of service is payment enough.”
“Jesus, you took that much?” Justy smiled at his friend. “Don’t spend it all in the one tavern, will you?”
The big sailor frowned. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”
“The truth cuts like a sharp blade, a mhac,” Justy said.
Shaking hands with Lars Hokkanssen was like getting to grips with a bear. They stood for a moment, hands clasped, not saying any of the things they were thinking.
Justy was the first to let go. “Thanks for finding a place for me.”
“A small thing, after what you did.”
“You don’t owe me.”
“You’ll let me be the judge of that.”
Justy nodded farewell to his friend and went to the top of the Netherleigh’s gangway. He pushed his face into the gust of wind that carried the smell of the city down the hill to the docks. Woodsmoke from a thousand hearth fires, urine from the tanners’ shops, horse shit from the streets, sewage from the septic tanks, fresh blood from the abattoirs, rotting meat and produce from the tips. Bad breath, sour beer, raw spirits, stale sweat. It was like a pungent cloud rolling down the Broad Way to the water, a slap in the face of every newcomer who arrived in the city.
Justy smiled. It was the smell of home.
And then he remembered why he had made the long trip back from Ireland. He thought about what he had to do and his mouth set into a thin line.
The cart that held the woman’s body was at the bottom of the gangplank. Her head was wedged against a pile of sacks, so that her chin was touching her right shoulder, but as Justy came down the gangplank he could still see the ragged purple wound in her neck. Close up, her skin looked darker, and there was a cut on her right cheek. She looked as though she was barely thirteen years old.
A man wearing the gorget of an accountant of the harbormaster’s office pushed past to look at the corpse. The man was bald, with skin the milky color of a dead fish. He sniggered and wiped his nose. “I’d say she was a pretty one, for a Negro bobtail.”
“She wasn’t a whore.”
“She was surely,” the man said. “Look at the mark on her face.”
“That cut’s fresh. Someone did that to make fools like you think she was a whore. Or they did it for spite.”
The accountant leaned over to peer at her face. “Maybe,” he said. He reached for the tarpaulin. “I wonder if he cut her up some more.”
The man shrank back. “I was only going to cover her up.”
“She doesn’t need help from the likes of you. Get away from here.”
The man ducked his head and slunk away.
Justy took one more look at the dead girl. A young man was leaning against a stack of crates, watching him. He was dressed in a black coat and breeches, with cheap peg-soled shoes and a white shirt that was grubby at the collar. He looked like any apprentice, but his dark green caubeen hat was unusual. The caubeen was a kind of oversized beret, popular with the old-timers who came over on the boats from Ireland but rarely worn by anyone so young.
The man grinned. His teeth were white in his tanned face, and Justy felt a prickle of recognition.
“He was only wondering what the rest of us are wanting to know,” the young man said.
“Why, whether it’s the same man going about killing Negro girls. That’s the third in less than a week.”
Justy looked back at the body. He felt the skin prickle at the back of his neck.
“Were they all killed the same way?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean did they all have their throats cut like this? And were they marked like that? The cut on the cheek?”
The man looked at Justy thoughtfully. “New in town, are you?”
“I’ve been away.”
“I’d say you have, indeed.” The grin flashed.
Justy looked down at his stained breeches and threadbare coat. He had worn the same clothes for nearly a month. His spares had been chewed to ribbons by rats on the voyage, and he had thrown them over the side. At least his boots looked like the sort of thing a gentleman might wear.
The man held up his hands. “No offense.” He tapped two fingers to the brim of his hat.
“I’ll see you,” he said, and slipped into the crowd of tradesmen and shoppers. Justy stood for a moment, watching him go, struck by the feeling that he knew the man from somewhere.
He shook his head. He had traveled for months, and now that he had arrived, back in New York, he wasn’t about to dawdle. There was work to do, and still a full half day to do it in. He would not waste the time searching his memory for half-forgotten faces.
He set off up the hill.
The sun was high in the sky, and the streets were crowded with gigs and horses. Coachmen and riders cursed and shouted as they tried to navigate around one another. The air was heavy with the smell of horse manure, and the cobbled streets were slippery with it, despite the piles of straw thrown onto the ground.
The sidewalks were equally busy. Shoppers and passersby competed for space with a crush of handsellers and their carts: chive fencers selling cutlery, swell fencers touting the sharpness of their sewing needles, flying stationers flogging their penny ballads and histories, crack fencers offering bags of nuts, and everywhere the cakey pannam fencers, whose trolleys were piled with pies, sweet bowlas tarts and savory chonkeys, the minced-meat pasties that no true New Yorker could resist.
Justy was at the top of the hill, crossing Wall Street across from Trinity Church, when he saw the young man in the green hat again. He was striding across the Broad Way, dodging carriages and carts, but as he stepped up onto the sidewalk he stumbled, staggering into a man dressed in ivory breeches, an immaculately cut sky-blue coat and an old-fashioned powdered wig that slipped over his forehead.
“God damn it, you fool!” the bewigged man shouted, groping at the horsehair.
“Sorry, sir!” The young man bowed. “I slipped in some horse shit. There’s just too many carriages on the road. My apologies.”
The gentleman brushed him aside. “Out of my way!”
Clutching his wig to his head, he puffed past Justy, clearing a way through the crowd with his cane. Justy turned to watch him go, and when he looked back up the hill the young man had disappeared again.
Copyright © 2018 by Patrick Hirsh