Another Word For Living
I do not own these characters. And Martin Scorsese does not own American history. So please comment nicely!
Bill The Butcher was tired. No matter how many Irish he killed, more kept coming into the Five Points. Unlike Priest Vallon, most of them were cowards, so killing them brought no satisfaction. Half of them wouldn't even fight for the Union, for the government that let them steal the rights and freedom of honest Americans!
The Butcher was tired of killing cowards who wouldn't even fight back. As he pushed open the door to his private room, he decided to have a quick tumble with pretty blonde Jenny, his most skilled pickpocket and thief. With her quick wits and elegant looks the girl could have landed a husband and left the Five Points long since, but she wouldn't leave his side.
Bill admired loyalty like that.
So his anger skyrocketed even higher when he saw Jenny sneaking kisses with that little weakling Amsterdam!
"Boss! How ya doin? We got – we got lots of crimes done today. We stole some bread and milk they was takin' to the colored orphanage!" Amsterdam's hands were shaking as he dumped his daily tribute on the table. He didn't look anything like a street killer, more like a Fifth Avenue swell. Bill only kept him around because the boy somehow reminded him of Priest Vallon. The Priest was a warrior, who died a warrior's death. Unlike the whining, draft-dodging Irish scum of today, he would never have taken out his hatred on the colored.
"Get out." Bill didn't raise his voice, but the chopping sound of his meat cleaver smashing into the table made plenty of noise. So did Amsterdam's high-pitched scream as the blade neatly severed the last joint of his middle finger. The pretty blonde boy ran from the room faster than a black wench running from a whole mob of hate-crazed Irish.
"In the old days you would have taken his whole hand." Jenny's chest was heaving, but her eyes were calm and steady as she came close. "So what's my punishment? The kissing was my idea, Bill. Amsterdam didn't have the nerve."
"Or the heart." Bill lowered his lips to Jenny's as the young pickpocket pressed herself against him, her slim white arms winding around his neck. "I've got a job for you," he said.
"Huh?" Jenny looked up, her blue eyes misty with desire. Then her face fell. "Oh, you mean another common robbery."
"Not just a robbery," Bill told her. "A test of loyalty and skill. If you pull this job off, I'll know I can trust you. If you fail . . ." He gestured to the bloody cleaver still lodged in the table.
"I won't fail." The stunning blonde straightened her shoulders, looking Bill in the eye with a crooked half-smile. "I'm your number one girl, Bill. Your number one thief."
Jenny was up long before sunrise the next morning. It was going to be a sizzling hot summer day, and there was sure to be trouble in the streets if any more poor men got drafted. Jenny didn't like the war, but she didn't hold with slavery either. If only there was a way . . .
But she had to keep her mind on business. Last night Bill the Butcher had nearly frightened her out of her wits, and he'd done even worse to poor noble-hearted Amsterdam. Jenny blamed herself for making Bill jealous. It was just that she got so lonely sometimes. But if she couldn't pull off this robbery she was dead. And it wouldn't matter to Bill one bit.
The key thing was to get there before sunrise. The swells that lived in the old mansion would be out all night, drinking champagne and eating oysters at Delmonico's. They were entertaining some sort of countess from Europe, and she traveled with a fortune in jewels.
As always, an insider in the servants' hall had left the back door open for her. Jenny could move like a cat and she could memorize a floor plan with just a single glance. She floated up the stairs and eased her way into a darkened bedroom, already counting the sparkling jewels in her mind.
And then . . .
"If you're stealing jewelry, my dear, shouldn't you light the lamp? You'll want to see the valuables before you put them in your bag." The low voice was female, the accent cultured.
"I'm not stealing!" Jenny jumped a mile in the air, but she was used to making up lies in a hurry. "Me name's Betsy Flanagan, and they told me to come and dust."
"Why not admit the truth, dear. My good friend the Butcher sent you." The lady turned on the light, and Jenny gasped. Her face was beautiful, but it was whiter than snow in winter. Her shining black eyes seemed to see right into a person. She was hauntingly lovely, dressed all in black, yet Jenny had never seen a scarier sight, even in the Five Points.
"You know Bill the Butcher?" Jenny's hand flew to her throat, her voice a squeak. She wanted to run. But if she went home to Bill empty-handed she was dead. And if she stayed in this room she felt something terrible would happen to her.
"Of course I know him. He sent you to me. Sit down, please."
"I don't understand. Who are you?" A shaken Jenny sank down on the bed, unable to resist the older woman's imperious manner. Her ghostly face took some getting used to, but her voice was low and soothing.
"My name is Countess Maria Zaleska, dear. My father was Count Dracula, of Castle Dracula in Transylvania."
"Transylvania?" Jenny had never heard of any such place. But her fear was starting to fade as the strikingly attractive countess sat down beside her on the bed. She was wearing perfume, and the spicy smell made Jenny feel light-headed.
"It's in Hungary. Wouldn't you like to tour Europe some day?"
Jenny nodded. "I'd absolutely love it. But I'm dead poor."
Countess Zaleska leaned closer, and patted Jenny on the knee. "My old friend Bill promised to help me raise some money by selling off my jewels. Of course I'll be reporting them as stolen, since they are heavily insured."
"That's an old Five Points scheme!" Jenny threw back her head and laughed, feeling safe and relaxed for the first time all day. But suddenly she felt a sharp bite of pain in her neck.
And then everything went black.
"Forward, Dead Rabbits! For our fathers and our families!" Amsterdam felt unbeatable as he led his newly-made army out into the street. This was the day he would avenge his father the Priest, and free the Five Points from the tyranny of Bill the Butcher. Of course Bill still terrified him, and his wounded hand still caused him enormous pain. But that pain was the source of his strength, combined with the loyalty of his comrades and the justice of his cause before heaven.
And the love of his woman.
Amsterdam hadn't seen Jenny since the Butcher cut off his finger, but he knew she would be his forever once he conquered the older man. Though she was fearless and a real high flyer, Jenny was sickened by violence and cruelty. After the Butcher was dead, the two of them would teach all the gangs of New York to live together in peace. He would be king, like his father. And Jenny would be his queen . . .
The fighting got rough almost immediately, with the usual street corner boys throwing rocks and bricks at his outfit. But Amsterdam kept the rabbit on a stick waving high over his head, until he heard a cry of pain from the man beside him.
"They're aiming at me!" cried tough Jimmy Spoils, the only black fighter in the gang. "Those mugs are out to get me!"
"They're out to get all of us," Amsterdam corrected, keeping his head up high like the Priest. "Keep marching, Jimmy my lad. We're the Dead Rabbits. All for one and one for all!"
The rocks kept getting worse, though. And though they were all aimed at Jimmy, they hit quite a few of the other boys too. Pretty soon there were little fistfights breaking out as mobs running around at random collided with the Dead Rabbits.
"Keep back there!" Amsterdam yelled. "Keep back!" He knew how to use a club, and a knife, and he cut down two or three rowdies that broke into his formation. But the formation kept shrinking. His boys kept going down. Many others were breaking off, mingling with their attackers, vanishing into a much larger mob that kept screaming things Amsterdam couldn't understand.
"Down with Lincoln! Down with the draft! Down with niggers!"
"What the hell is going on?" Amsterdam swung his club, smacking a twelve year old boy who stuck his knife into Jimmy's thigh. He heard the skull crack, and felt ashamed. Bill the Butcher enjoyed his work. But Amsterdam never thought he would have to fight his own to protect his own.
"Amsterdam, help me!" Jimmy screamed, and to his horror Amsterdam saw the young black go down. Instantly his body was covered with attackers, not only men, but women and children. One old Irish woman moved faster than the rest, and gouged out one of Jimmy's eyes with his own knife.
"Damn you!" Amsterdam swung his club with all his might, killing the old hag, scattering the rest. But the moment he looked at Jimmy's face, he knew it was all over for his friend.
"Don't fight no more," Jimmy whispered. "Run, Amsterdam. The Irish have done for me. Run before they kill you too."
"And they say the African apes lack human intelligence."
Still kneeling beside his friend, Amsterdam looked over his shoulder. The towering figure of Bill the Butcher loomed in the center of the street, outlined by the morning sun. He had a meat cleaver in each hand, and a butcher knife at his belt. His stovepipe hat made him look at least ten feet tall.
"I've come to kill you, Butcher," the young man said. He picked up Jimmy's knife, and his own club, and stood tall, knowing the Priest was looking down on him. His father's approval meant more to him than victory or life. All the other Dead Rabbits were gone, their proud heritage forgotten, their honor lost in hate-filled frenzy.
"You'll need an army to accomplish that task, my friend," Bill said pleasantly. "And the only army I saw was the band of Irish who just killed Jimmy Spoils. They've been hunting blacks all morning, your Hibernian friends. They won't fight for Lincoln, but that kind of killing they can manage."
"That kind of killing has nothing to do with you and me," Amsterdam said coldly. He began the dance of warriors, circling slowly and keeping his weapons ready. "We've got personal business. You killed my father. You killed the Monk. Now it's your turn, Bill. After you're gone, the city will belong to all the people. And Jenny will belong to me."
Bill the Butcher smiled, the promise of death in his pale face. "Don't be a fool, boy. The whore is dead. I sent her to the woman in black."
Any other fighter would have been fooled, or distracted. Amsterdam didn't know the woman in black. But he knew the Butcher. "You didn't kill her. You want her alive to see me dead. But this time you will die, and Priest Vallon's boy will win. The Priest was my father."
If Bill was shocked by the true identity of his protegee, he didn't show it. "One last chance, boy. Turn and run. Join your friends, and take your hatred out on women and children. Be a true Irish-American."
"You see this blade, butcher?" Amsterdam nearly snapped, but smiled as he held up the bloody knife. "This was Jimmy's knife. Now it's going into your guts, stained by black blood, driven by an Irish hand. The blood stays on the blade."
Bill the Butcher charged, but with amazing quickness Amsterdam spun and struck. The two men fought, and all around them the city burned and hatred triumphed.
"Jenny, dear. It's time to wake up. Wake up, my love. Wake up!"
Opening her eyes in total darkness, Jenny had a strange sense that she could see everything around her. She was lying in a burial vault deep underground. Yet she felt well, her body singing with life and power.
"What have you done to me?" When she confronted the ghostly woman in black, Jenny felt no anger, just curiosity. "Did you kill me? Is this hell?"
"Yes to one, and no to the other." The countess smiled and offered the younger woman her hand. "Come with me, child. It's time you had your first taste of living."
The two of them left the crypt and walked the midnight streets together. Not only was Jenny feeling more alive than ever before, but all her senses seemed immeasurably heightened. She could smell the burning flesh and hear the screams of the dying long before they saw the first bodies.
Not all the victims were black, but most of them were. Jenny saw charred corpses hanging from lamp posts, and children without eyes lying in doorways. Finally they came upon a woman who was still alive, though her breasts had been hacked off and her entrails torn out.
"Please," the woman whispered. "Please."
"You know what to do," the countess said. "This is how we live." In the flickering light of the still-burning city her face was as cold and hard as Bill the Butcher's.
Jenny had never killed anyone before. She bent over the woman, meaning to offer a squeeze of the hand, a prayer of comfort. But with the kindness done, instinct took over. Her teeth fastened on the woman's throat and she drank deeply, not stopping till satisfaction and pleasure glowed inside her.
"Oh, well done. My father would have been very pleased." Dracula's daughter smiled and offered Jenny a perfumed handkerchief. "Wipe your lips, dear. You're a lady now."
"They kill, we live." Jenny clung to the older woman's arm as they walked along the street of horrors. Yet the pleasure of her first feeding did not diminish in the least. "It's like we've become angels who feed on human misery."
"We bring peace to the good. We punish the wicked. There's honor in being a vampire."
"Ah," Jenny said. "So that's what we are." She thought of Bill's code of honor. Vampire was just another word for killer.
When they reached the main avenue they found order at last. Police and soldiers were standing guard and there was a long line of dead bodies laid out neatly for identification. Each corpse held a lighted candle in his lifeless hands.
"Say a last farewell to your friends," the countess said quietly. "A ship for Europe awaits."
"Yes." Jenny accepted that she was now the older woman's property. Her new thirst made her vulnerable. She needed guidance and protection. Yet she couldn't help shedding a few last human tears when she located Bill and Amsterdam.
The two of them were laid out side by side, eyes peacefully closed, as close together in death as they had been in life. Their last battle must have been over very fast. Jenny leaned closer, looking for knife wounds, but couldn't find any. A passing copper offered a few words of explanation.
"It was them navy ships, miss. They let loose and killed a score of people before they realized the riot had moved on."
Jenny laughed softly, grateful to have escaped the horror of this violent new world. "Poor Bill missed the chance to kill poor Amsterdam. I guess killing is all men really care about."
"Bill the Butcher cared about you," the countess said softly.
"You mean because he served me up to you like a fresh steak?"
"Don't be a fool. The Butcher sent you to me, but it was out of love, not hate. Bill Cutting served my father honorably, like his father before him. Both the Cutting men were able to help our kind to find fresh victims, when necessity forced us to leave our native land."
"That's just what I expected." Jenny bit her lip, and turned away. She leaned her cheek on a lamppost, tears flowing.
The countess reached out for her. "You don't understand, dear. Bill wanted me to drain you just a little, enough to make you sleep and keep you safe till the trouble was over. He didn't know I'd lose control and turn you permanently."
"I grew up in the Five Points," Jenny said bitterly, staring off into the fires of the dying city. "I know a lie when I hear one."
"He didn't know, my sweet." The countess chuckled. "Neither did I."
When Jenny turned around, she saw the firelight gleaming in the eyes of Dracula's daughter.
This world was hell, all right.
But hell was just another word for living.