Part One: 1822
"You killed her."
"Now, son, 'twas her own sin did that--"
But: "You killed my MA, you pigheap Irish shit-sack!" Bill screams,
and he's up the doctor's front like a rat on fire, his
sharp teeth sunk deep in the old man's quivering cheek; takes two of the reformers to pull him off, and he brings a
good deal of the bastard with him, when they do. Spits the result out high and wide and hot against the shed wall
and laughs to see the mark it makes, his mouth all pink and dripping.
'Cause it sure as hell wasn't the Widow Cutting's *sin* puts it filthy
hands up inside her and brung 'em out again all to
the elbows with blood, was it? Bogfucking motherless Mick potato-peeler--
When the reformers set him free from that 'formatory hole they toss
him into, with its barred-shut windows and the
big wooden cross on one wall--far too high up for him to tear off and stamp to pieces, more's the pity--it's three days
later and Bill's eyes are still blazing red, swole near to shut with furious weeping. He barks and snarls at their handling
like a rabid dog, 'till they let him alone at last; leave him to crouch in a corner of the kitchen, unmolested, choking
down the meat and bread they give him with both hands, as he tries in vain to stop his nose and throat from rattling
so shameful, snuffling liquid with each new breath he draws.
Some God-botherer comes back to prate at him of Heaven, eventually,
for all he's fair sure that this yammering jack
don't think his Ma's anywhere near thereabouts, by now. More like deep in the pauper's cemetery without even a
stone to mark her passage, with no one but Bill or her regulars left to even remember who she was...
Bill groans aloud at the thought, so harsh it makes the reformer jump
back a pace or two-- then slams his head full
against the wall, splitting his scalp wide, which really makes the soft-handed idiot scuttle. Blood in his eyes, in his
mouth from where he's bit his tongue without knowing it; familiar smell, familiar flare of pain, both equally welcome.
Like a touch of home in such alien surroundings.
And: "What are *you* starin' at, you hellspawn whore's bastard?" The
cook finally snaps, bridling under Bill's
constant glower. To which Bill thinks: *Take me for one of your own rat-brood, bitch? At least I know MY Pa's
Same as the one he bears, or so the Widow always told him. The dead
and sainted Widow Cutting in her weeds, with
his father's medal at her throat; Paradise Square's most atypically discreet dolly-mop, his own, his only Ma, Ma,
Bill puts his head down, between both knees, and covers his eyes and ears so tight that all he sees and hears is blood.
In Bill's ward at the 'formatory, nights, the dark is full of rat-claws
across the floor, knockings and thumpings and soft,
stifled cries and suchlike: A cave-full of boys living in dirt, hunger and enforced silence, where the strong use the weak
or (on occasion) each other to take their minds off their stomachs' griping. But Bill's for none of that, and no one's
yet tried to convince him different; not since he grabbed Sheeny Mike's parts hard that first night, and stretched 'em
'till they near tore free. Then howled, at the rest's gaping faces--
"Who's for it next?"
*Whoreson Billy's crazed,* they all whisper now, when they think he's
not listening. To which Bill just nods, grim:
Sure, and likes it that way. Mad like a biting cur, so *steer clear*, or know the Goddamned reason why.
Not like "whoreson"'s really much of an insult, anyways, here in the
Points; for most and worst usually simply
accurate, as according to season or need. So Bill don't tend to take offense, least not at *that*.
But there's other things, and plenty. Always.
And: "You're far too bright a lad to stay so *willfully* ignorant,"
the asylum-master complains, while Bill glares back at
him over yet another page of Biblical text he's failed to recopy into penmanshipped chicken-scratchings. Then
adding, with a distinct tone of implied threat: "We'll school you yet, though, young Master Cutting. Never fear."
Oh, and they do try, with all their quite considerable might. No doubt that-a-wise.
Plain fact is, Bill's never been an easy child, for anyone other than
his Ma. Before the doctor's knives, the Widow was
everything to him: Light and heat, food and refuge, life and breath. Her smell the smell of home, her stories of better
days still the only chapter and verse he's ever like to trust implicitly. He'd've killed for her gladly, if only he'd
known--yet--how capable he could be of it.
"Your Pa wanted to provide for us, Billy--never doubt that," he remembers her telling him, often enough. "It was
others cheated me of our due and proper. I never even got to see his grave before I was took to bed in labor, and
then--by the time I was well enough to fight 'em fair--the scavenging hordes'd already been and gone."
"Was it Irish, Ma?"
The usual response, all eager, like he knew she liked it. And oh, how
the Widow'd smile at that--grim and a bit glassy,
with that very particular look in her almost-black eyes: Eyes like slant sloes, like glittery jet jewels. Kind of look said
there'd be drink and dancing later on, both of the horizontal *and* the vertical sort.
"'Course it was," she'd say, petting his head with a rough, absent,
infinitely precious stroke. "Irish, British--Scots,
Welsh, whatever-you-have, it's all the God-damned same. Same as them drunk your Pa's blood to its last drop and
left me nothing but the hide, nothing but--"
A bleak whisper through broken teeth, with her eyes fixed steady on
nothing Bill could see: "Curse all immigrants to
this fair soil! Curse anyone what takes what they've not worked for! Curse 'em black and burnt, on Hell's own skillet! "
And Bill, hugging his mother's knees; Bill, rooting through clients'
clothes for *something* to pay her back for her
pains and them in kind. Playing the badger lay with a willing heart for her, though he's never been much good at that
type of sidelong sneak-thievery--not before, not then, not since.
"Not much here, Ma."
"No? Oh, but you're my good boy, Billy. You're my own, good boy."
So he won't write, won't barely read 'cept what strikes his fancy--*The
Lord is the dagger in my hand*--and the
other boys won't have him near 'em long enough to do anything needs more'n one set of hands. Which sends him
back to the kitchen again and again, 'till the one day cook and asylum-master are supervising a butcher's visit.
Bill watches with avid eyes, his fingers shaping themselves unconsciously:
Plunge, cut, thrust. The butcher nudges
the cook, who pulls the God-botherer's sleeve.
And all at once there's a blade in his hand, so thin and sharp and pig's-blood
red, arching up from his small fist like the
lone remaining wing of some broken angel.
"Seems you've a skill after all, Master Cutting."
The butcher holds its head while the pig makes a noise Bill's heard
grown men make, more than one or twice. And he
nods, solemn, sliding the knife in to its hilt with an effortless, unlearned grace--knowing, in one blind instant, just how
easy this could become, if only he lets it. While considering, also, exactly with what devil-borne rush of heat and force
he might *want* it to...
But not for long; not *too* much, on that. Bill pulls himself back bodily
from probing this particular abyss too deep,
knowing full well--in his guts, by hard experience, even at the "tender" age of ten and three-quarters--that just when
you want something most desperate-like, that's exactly when it's aptest to disappear.
Part Two: 1829
Malnutrition-small and adult-watchful 'till the age of twelve, Bill
suddenly starts to spurt upwards around his thirteenth
birthday: Becomes a boiled-down version of his future self, a hawkish six-foot scarecrow, all legs and squint and
sneer. His uncut brown hair flops in his eyes, so he plasters it back--uses water to begin with, then some sort of
pomade the cook (who takes an odd liking to him, as his eyes grow more level with her own) passes him that stinks
of a bloom the label calls V-I-O-L-E-T-S. Congratulates herself long and hard on the result, as well, which you'd think
would eventually shut her up about it--but no, the fat horror just keeps after him night and day to improve his
"technique", though suchlike foolishness bores Bill all but senseless.
"For your own betterment," she claims, as they cut the fat together.
"Looks like you still trim it with your knives, is
all...that can't be sanitary, Billy-boy."
Bill scowls, always his expression of first resort. "It'll *serve*, for shitting Jesus's sake."
A sharp cuff: "Enough of your blasphemy! Gals likes a man what's groomed.
And you'll care they do, too, soon
To which Bill just snorts; he hasn't even seen a gal since that Mick
doctor pulled his Ma's skirts down and closed her
eyes--not 'less the cook thinks *she* counts, on that score.
Freedom's soon, though: Fifteen, age of majority. So Bill keeps his
head down and a bridle on his tongue (mostwise),
much as it boils him; scowls but doesn't spit, 'least not where they can see him. Because he's determined to have his
day, to walk out those gates with tools in hand and right into a placement somewhere in the Points--these canting
Methodist bastards'll have no fresh complaints to keep him here with, not if Bill can help it. But once he's out...
Once he's out, Bill Cutting's no man's doxy, not never no more. He'll
do as he does and damn the consequences,
and anyone fool enough to get between him and his will just have to resign 'emselves--step back, step aside. Or pay
their due fare for a trip to the Hot Country.
In the 'formatory barn, Bill wrestles a pig out of its pen in a few
swift moves, like it *don't* outweigh him at least
twice; kicks it down and pins it with both knees over the trough, then slits its throat and drains it white. Nothing
wasted, no escape: Sharp and exact always, in all ways.
*This* is what will make his name in the world out there, what he can
do with a blade--what he's willing to do, that
others ain't. He knows it, to the very marrow, in every one of his gangly young bones.
On Monday, a waistcoat-busting old fool named Poole comes to negotiate
for his services with the asylum-master.
And by Thursday he's crossing Little Water for the first time in seven long years, blinking hard against the
light--snowflakes falling in a cold, grey sky, blurred to bright white sparks. Paradise Square up ahead, shining, like a
remembered dream of home.
And: *Ma,* Bill thinks. *Thank you again on bended knee for borning
me rightwise to this beautiful country, for givin'
me my Pa's sand and makin' me so's I could survive that Bible-punching shit-hole. So's I could win free at long last,
and live to see this place
"You'll sleep here," Poole tells him. "No sneakin' out of nights, either--I've
a community reputation to uphold, d'you
understand me? Can't have your filthy, Magdalene-got ways reflect on me and mine."
Bill glances away, and catches some girl staring out the shop's back
window, frowning at the very sight of him, like
she can smell him coming even from there: Long black hair in ringlets, eyes like a doe. She's all pink and fresh and
curl-lipped, a flower blooming up through muck on a city dungheap--something to make a man's heart beat fast,
and don't she know it, the little cat. Don't she *just*.
"What're you lookin' at, charity-case?" She calls down, sweet as pie--so
quick it makes Bill gape long enough for
Poole to rap the back of his skull, and threaten:
"I'll thank you to keep your eyes off my daughter, too, while you're
at it: She's for better than the likes of you. Not
to mention how there's lots more back at the 'formatory might like this same job, who'd work just as cheap if I asked
"Yes sir, Mister Poole," Bill answers, automatic. But his eyes stay on the window.
The world outside the 'formatory's walls, Bill soon finds, is full of
women what have a softness to 'em that's addictive,
alchemical. Most-times, Bill can barely stand Polly Poole, with her sharp mouth and her needling, preening ways--she's
nails on glass at best, an incitement to casual violence at worst. Yet when his tongue's twined with hers and she's got
her grimy little hands in his hair, pulling so hard it brings tears, he's ill-put to think on anyplace he'd rather be.
From careful rememberance of his Ma at work, Bill's fairly sure whatever
he's done thus far with Polly ain't the actual
Act, as such--though simple lack of experience means he can't say for utter certain, either. Whatever it is, though,
it's potent: Ate his mind in that first instant and consumed him whole like some glass of fire, so's just one look her
way has him raring to go without a minute's back-thought--hard as the hilt of one of his own knives.
Under the skirt, her legs are soft with fine black hair, and that weeping
rose between her thighs is the cleanest thing
Bill's ever tasted: So hot, and salt, and sweet. Not to mention the way she squirms against him in the dark of the
feed-pens, guiding his crooked fingers into that slippery cleft at her belly's base...it's fair to make him spend in his
pants, as she seems suspiciously aware.
"You're quite the expert at this game," he notes one evening, hoarsely, a quarter-hour into their usual routine. To
which Polly replies, equally breathless--
"What're you saying?"
Bill snorts. "What's it sound like, gal? Either I'm some sort of livin'
miracle, or you done this before with others in your
Pa's employ--a couple times, maybe."
Polly blushes furiously, in the literal sense, and snaps back: "You
think a lot on yourself, for a hatchet-faced
skin-a-bones with a nose like a Jew."
"And what do you think *you* look like, all the time 'round me with your skirts in the air?"
"Like something too good--
"--for my likes, yeah, that's what your Pa says. But *are* you? That's the question most on *my* mind."
"He knew you spoke thus to me, my Pa'd--"
"What? Your Pa ain't like to turn me off just for *your* pleasure,
little girl. He can't hardly keep his own up as it is.
You ask him if he could do long without my skills, and see what he says."
To which Polly can think of no better reply, apparently, than to slap
Bill 'cross the face and flounce off, leaving him to
rub his cheek with a thin little grin. For it's true, and she knows it: Poole starts later every day--always five or so pigs
behind--and Bill snorts and heels the ground to see it, increasingly impatient, as he sharpens his knives outside the
shop's front door each morning.
His evenings, meanwhile, he spends stalking around Paradise in clear
and contemptuous violation of Poole's original
dictum: Scoping out the competition and trying to figure exactly where to start, what gang to join--because out
here, lone wolf or no, it don't do to be too obviously unaligned. Bill's got his eye on the Confederation of American
Natives, led by some man-mountain name of Marcus Goodge; likes their style, and has ever since (on a trip into
town, carrying the 'formatory cook's shopping basket) he once saw a raft of 'em strutting down the street to the
tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" while Independence Day fireworks set off above them, and pitch-dipped torches
burned infernal all around. They've got sand from what he hears, and better than that, they love their country well
enough to bleed for it--just the sort of boys his Ma would've liked best, and that's good enough for Bill.
Bill picks a mark for his upcoming "audition" with cool exactitude:
This particular idiot cull what always wears a tricolor
rosette on his stovepipe, someone big enough to impress the right people, yet disposable enough not to necessitate
a vendetta. And so his days, between shouldering the increasing lion's share of Poole's work, boil down pretty much
to sport with Polly (whenever she owns to feeling like it) and practice, practice, practice of his fine new tricks with all
the various tools of his trade--flipping the cleaver farther and more accurately every time, sharpening his blades for
fun as well as profit. Learning to always plant 'em where he *makes* 'em fly, where they'll do the most damage
Bill saves his pay for a month to buy a belt for his knives, meanwhile,
since he suspects one knife to a hand ain't
gonna make it, for this venture; the Native in question may be fast as well as dumb--and either way, Bill'd rather be
cautious than wrong. So he saves, and pays, and walks home whistling with a spry new jaunt to his stride: This feels
*right*, the weight and the clink of it, like a friendly arm around his waist. Like nothing could be better.
Polly steps out of the shadows as he reaches the shed-door. "Where'd
you get that?" she demands, all pert, her
eyes on the belt. And: "What do you care?" Bill snaps back.
With a sly glance shopwards: "Pa'd care."
Bill gives her a narrow look. "That ain't gonna work forever."
"I know. So's I'd best take advantage while it still does."
"I ain't a one to be played with, Polly."
She smiles then, all rosy mouth and tiny white teeth, her black eyes
sparkling at the rise she's gotten from him: Ain't
nothin' whets her fancy quite so much, not that Bill's discovered. And says, softly: "But--don't you *want* me
playing with you, William?"
Maybe he does, at that.
Chops, tripe, giblets, stewbones. Bill spends the day humming, in fond
remembrance of Polly's weight in his lap, her
breath cut with his--of the way she kept him on the verge a full chime of the Paradise Square bells, with teasing,
milking strokes, while he pulled on her lower lip almost hard enough to bruise. Working himself up and making sure to
*stay* there, so's he can be at the absolute top of his game for later tonight.
And then it's evening once more, just outside the doorway to Satan's
Circus, where Goodge and his cronies normally
hold court to accept smaller thieves' tribute. Bill arranges himself against a wall 'til the one he wants finally makes his
appearance--then steps out, puts one hand to his cocked hip (just above his nearest knife's hilt), and raises the other
in an admirable, twirling gesture he picked up from last week's trip to the theater. Calling:
"Hey! Youse boys part of this famous 'Confederation' they're always talkin' up, hereabouts?"
The demonstration model strikes his own pose, glowering. "That's right,
pipecleaner. So keep a civil tongue in ya
"I only ask 'cause you don't look too much like no Native to me, as
a committed fellow American Patriot; more like
Irish, I had to put myself to guess. Like *Black* Irish, if you take my meaning."
Bill shows his teeth at that, voice deepening and raising dangerously,
so all his prospective audience can hear. "Don't
you never say *nothing* 'bout my mother, you house-size boarding-school nimenog."
The Native starts towards him, with a roar, so Bill puts a knife through
his neck at ten paces: Dead shot, straight-on,
right into the mainspring. Which pleases him, but ain't quite as effective as he'd hoped, since the bastard keeps right
on coming--to dumb to know how dead he is, mostlike. Upper-cuts Bill right to the side of the head, splitting his
eyebrow and pasting his Jew-nose westwards; *that*'ll sting, come morning.
Bill rocks back a step with the blow, coughing blood. He ducks under
the next haymaker, fast as a striking snake,
then pulls the knife out sidelong, freeing a mighty spurt. And whips another up between the Native's ribs at the same
time, finding the heart in one pure stroke: Just like this unlucky fuck was another sheep in the daily line, hung up in
Poole's back-room. Spits on him, too, as he goes down.
And it ain't much different from killing anything else Bill's already
killed--no more'n he thought it would be, really, but
on some level still a variety of surprise. His murder-cherry popped like a pig's bladder in less time than it takes to
sneeze, for all the 'formatory God-botherers' endless "do-as-you-would-be-done-by" cant.
Bill stands there panting, both knives red. 'Til a huge hand falls on
his shoulder, and he turns to find his right-hand
one suddenly at Marcus Goodge's own throat.
"Whoa, there--steady now." Goodge puts up his hands, eyes all deceptive-mild,
while nodding at his boys to do the
same. "You've some sand, son. Ain't you Butcher Poole's boy?"
"I'm William Cutting. Nobody's boy but my own kin's."
"And a fine way to put it too--'specially with a knife that fast in your hands. I'm Marcus Goodge."
Goodge smiles. "Suspected you might."
They end up inside Satan's Circus, where Bill's never been before--a
seat near the rat-pit, apparently kept reserved
for Goodge on some daily basis. Bill sips the gin Goodge bought him to clean his wounds with and watches the older
man, carefully, as he rambles on and on about everything from increasing immigration (bad, 'specially on account of
all the Micks flooding in, fleeing the Potato Famine) to the rising precedence of democratic societies (good on the
whole, since they make sure them same immigrants at least keep themselves useful, once they're here). Bill agrees
with the former, disagrees with the latter; keeps his mouth shut, either way. 'Cause that's probably the best tack to
take when you're still not sure whether or no you done something makes the giant in front of you want to reach
across the table and snap your skinny neck one-handed, like a burnt twig.
Not to mention how the alcohol--which Bill ain't exactly used to anymore,
after seven years away--burns going
down, lightening his head, making him want to laugh and dance and sing out loud. Twisting in his gut like a triumph
to be savored, 'long as you don't never get *too* comfortable with it.
"...you *were* a trifle harsh with my man back there, though," Goodge
suggests, of a sudden. "Don't you think,
Bill can't quite stop himself from bristling, at this last part. Nor from answering, perhaps a bit too brisk for policy--
"I love my country like I love my Ma, Mister Goodge. And I won't brook
nobody profaning neither within my earshot,
not when I got *these*"--he taps his belt, with three splayed fingers--"in reach."
Goodge nods, approving. "Like I said, a bene philosophy: Your Pa died
at the Battle of Bridgewater, was it? A true
Patriot's legacy. Well, since we're now short a man, and it's obvious you inherited his liking to brawl...think you got
the sand for a full-out rowdy?"
"When, where, who and who?"
"Tonight, down the docks. Us Natives versus those damn frog-rollers, the Forty Thieves."
"Last I looked, sure. Why?"
Bill looks up, finally, and lets his grin out once more: Wide and bone-colored,
like a shark's. Takes the rest of his gin
and swallows it whole, all in one gulp, like he's concluding his business here; rises, still smiling, eyes on Goodge's. Sees
Goodge start to grin himself, just that little bit, and *knows*, right there. *Knows*.
"Just point me the way, Mister Goodge," Bill says. "And God bless America."
Bill pays Polly a brief visit, before he reports for duty at this Mick-killing
hoy of Goodge's. "I need something blue," he
tells her, as they lurk behind the door out of Poole's view, just inside the shop's root-cellar. "To 'dentify myself as
Native, Goodge says."
And: "Did you really kill Chair-break Pete?" she asks, cutting
her eyes at him in a way Bill never saw before. It baffles
him, just a bit.
Bill snorts. "Was *that* his name? Jesus wept."
"So?" She keeps on staring. "Look, you got *some* blue somewheres up
them stairs, I'll bet. A ribbon?
Neckerchief?" And still she looks, so Bill snaps, impatient: "Aw, quit yer yammer. You polish the sheets with him, too?
He'd have done the exact same for me."
But: "You'll go to Hell, William," she says, finally. Making Bill snort
again, mainly at the sheer, stupid obviousness of the
statement. Asking back:
"Where'd you *think* I was goin', Polly?"
Born in sin, bound for the Hot Country--just like everybody else, 'round
here. Like Polly herself, probably, if she
stopped to think.
But one way or another, it's a question to which she has...naturally enough...
...no good answer.
Three hours later, the battle's over. Bill's first. Goodge finds him
stalking up and down between heaps of leg-broke,
moaning Micks, covered in blood and cursing aloud: "God damn, God *damnit*! Piss up a piece of Goddamn Popish
"What's the trouble, William?"
"Can't find my cleaver. Son-of-a-bitch cost me five fuckin' bucks!"
Goodge considers this a second, tapping the scalp-hung mattock he's
carrying against his boot in thought. "Saw it in
some fella's head back yonder, if I recall correct," he offers. "Maybe you should keep it closer, next-times."
"I'm gonna need it come morning, though; that's the thing..."
Goodge catches Bill by the sleeve. "No you won't. You really think you're
goin' back to Poole's, unless you want to?
Not too like, my young friend--I need you here by me, in the thick of all the 'federation's business. You found your
*true* calling here tonight, Bill the Butcher."
*...Bill. The Butcher.*
Bill pauses a moment, dazed by the sheer *sound* of it: A name, *his*
name, better by far than the one he was
born with. And his mind goes skittering back, unbidden, to those seconds just before Goodge gave the
challenge--standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a virtual sea of Natives and Native-adherents, all similarly hung with
blue at the waist, the throat, the bicep. More men than he'd ever seen in one same place, both in front and
behind--and all of 'em bigger than him, one way or another. Those Thieves across the way leering at him with
particular glee, too, makin' faces like they was looking forward to crunching his skinny bones between their gappy
But then the mattock had fallen, and Bill'd found himself *leaping*
to close the distance with a scream like some
carrion bird interrupted mid-tear at a nicely rotten corpus. Roaring straight into someone's face, as he cleavered out
their tripe: "Try 'n' shove *those* back in, ya Christ-chewin' ratfuck!"
And: *I didn't back down,* he thinks, with a pride so fierce and bitter
it almost feels--for an instant--like it belongs to
somebody else. *I stood up, just like my Pa. Stood up against the rising of the Goddamn Hibernian tide.*
"You're a born fury, young Bill," Goodge says. "They'll remember you,
all who were here tonight, and not without
fear--damned good way to make your reputation in these streets, 'specially when I think how you started out
today." Adding, with another of those surprisingly shrewd looks of his: "But then again, I'm also thinkin' that was
probably your intent; a well-planned plan, for all it cost me Chair-break. And luckily enough for us both, what you
done here tonight shows I'd rather have you."
"I ain't all *that* young, Mister Goodge."
Goodge laughs. "Ain't you? Come by Satan's Circus again tomorrow, then..."
(...and keep on proving it.)
Bill weaves home, still drunk with the rowdy's aftershocks; scrubs his
hands and knives clean in a heap of lightly fallen
snow, but forgets that one Thief's neck-splatter he took straight across the face. When he sees Poole waiting for him
by the shop-door, Bill feels his hands itch and a fresh surge of annoyance pull his lips back, revealing red-stained
teeth--then smiles, instead, as Poole wavers a bit himself at the sight, momentarily seeming more like to fall over
backwards in shock now he finally jimmies what his 'prentice must've been up to, all this time.
And: "Fine night, Mister Poole," Bill calls out, all mockingly "respectful".
"Wouldn't be waitin' up for deliveries, would
ya? 'Cause the pigs don't get here 'till four of the church clock, not usually..."
Poole's face turns almost as red as Bill's, though for different--and less satisfying, no doubt--reasons.
"What'd I tell you, Bill Cutting, you morals-less 'formatory imp? Break
faith with me and mine, break my daughter's
"Her *what*? I don't think she quite give you the whole of the tale, 'sir'--"
"She says you promised her marriage, else she'd never've looked at you twice. Do you deny it?"
Deny it, sure, and it wouldn't be too hard to, neither. But this last
part strikes Bill *so* foolish it makes him laugh right
out loud, which don't help Poole's disposition no-wise; the old man colors further, then quavers, shaking with rage:
"You shut your filthy mouth, hell-get, or give me one good reason not to see the crushers on you--just the one!
Why, I'll turn you off so quick--"
Bill draws himself up to his full height then, gaining every one of
the inches he's grown since he took up with Poole
and his sorry excuse for a meat-cuttery; allows a certain awful glamor to settle on him, like some presentiment of
things to come. And sneers back, without even the slightest pretense at politeness anymore:
"Oh? Think you might want to check with your local community leaders,
'fore you go *that* route--ask Marcus
Goodge, for example, down at Satan's Circus. Inquire of *him* if I'm to be turned off, Mister Poole, and see what
*he* says 'bout me bringin' down the neighborhood's tone."
"You're a heathen, gratitudeless, un-Christian piece of work..."
"Might be, probably am--just like *you*'re old and fat, and none too
clean in your business methods, neither. But I'm
a Native now, with every other Native behind me, so's you better draw it mild or come prepared to tussle." Bill
pauses. "Not to mention how, concerning your daughter, I ain't too like to marry no one, let alone her; gal's a
mewling alley-cat what thinks she pisses rose-water, and if she ain't a full-blown slut as well it's mainly for lacking the
"You bastard 'formatory boy--"
"Ask Polly how much a boy I am, whore-father. Now get outta my way--I
been doing *real* work all night in the
service of true Americans, and I need my sleep."
He pushes past Poole and back for the shed, his pallet, a slumber hopefully
both dreamless and undisturbed. But
Polly's already there, perched on that strong-smelling yet airtight patchwork blanket Bill's stitched together over the
year from scraps of uncured hide: Hair down around her face and shoulders, all red at the lids like she's been
weeping. She stares up at him with those coal-black eyes of hers, her flower-soft mouth set at a mournful angle, and
Bill realizes she must've been listening to him put the boots to her Pa--up to and including the part where he implied
she was a right stargazer.
Which, God knows, ain't *exactly* the truth. No more'n it's *exactly* a lie, if push came to shove...
He slips the belt off and stows it near to hand, though not within easy
reach of where she's sat; does it slow, to give
himself time to think. Then steps closer, a bit awkward, and begins:
"Look--your Pa got no call to talk thus to me, so's I let my tongue
run away for the moment. But...well, what I said
on you was untoward. And..."
He trails away there, though, 'cause she's still staring. Is it the
battle-cap, the thread holding his brow together, the
deep-purple bridge of his broken nose? Or the blood, same as for Poole himself--
"It ain't mine," he offers. But that must be even worse in her cosmology,
he guesses, given how wide her eyes go
*then*. And Bill feels the touch of that eerie power once more, all up and down his spine--like God's hand between his
shouldeblades, pushing him headfirst towards his own destiny.
"C'mere, you," he growls, voice deeping again, pulling her up to him. And Polly--comes. Just comes, without even a
peep of protest.
Ohhh, and Bill could get used to *this* with no trouble at all, to speak of. Most definitely.
He lays his still-gory hands full on Polly, then, without the barest
of by-your-leaves--unlaces her bodice and takes one
of her nipples between his sharp front teeth, smearing blood all down the curve of her cleavage as he roots his face
between her soft little breasts. And she just leans there, utterly pliant, chest heaving; her dark eyes open still, and
wider yet. Like she can't see her way clear to even trying to stop him, anymore.
And: *I'm the Butcher,* he thinks. *Everybody'll know that, now. So I can do...anything.*
Part Three: 1830
"You're like some savage what's been raised in a cave," Goodge says.
"Nothin' on your mind but the making of
others' misery. So me teaching you the ways of proper fashion's like giving alms to the lame and halt--can't help but
pave my way smooth to a nice, shady seat down below, once damnation's hour's finally come."
Bill twitches his split brow upwards, skeptical: "Wouldn't bet on it."
"'Course not, William, for you're not the gambling kind; yet another
character flaw we'll have to remedy, given time.
Have you never played whist? It's a gentleman's game."
"I ain't no gentleman, Marcus. Case you hadn't noticed."
"Not yet, Bill. Not yet."
By March, the Natives' Chancellor's already bought Bill so many hats,
shirts, sets of trousers and fine waistcoats that
Bill'd think he was maybe trying to get a leg over, if he hadn't already had so much more'n sufficient proof to the
contrary. Like now, sitting with Goodge and four--five?--fine whores, Chink and otherwise, in some room up top of
Sparrow's Pagoda, passing the hookah and washing the smoke down with gin. Goodge claps Bill on the shoulder and
smiles into his dazed eyes, fatherly-affectionate: *Look, boys, the Butcher's wrecked!* Then proceeds to give him
advice on Polly, as follows--
"Morts is somewhat mysterious by nature, William. Still, if she
was tight enough to hurt, at least you don't got to
worry about no Frenchification."
Bill coughs, chokes. Manages, finally: "What?"
"Ah, my young friend. So much to learn."
The next morning, his head still buzzing, Bill's somewhat amazed to
find Polly waiting on what used to be his bed
again. She ain't been 'round much since Goodge and he forced her Pa to give up his share in the shop, which he
supposes he can understand--Christ knows Poole was recalcitrant enough about it when they approached him, his
piggy eyes darting steadily back and forth between Bill's level glare, Goodge's looming grin and the close choke of
Natives hovering outside, weapons daringly obvious to hand.
"I knew you was trouble the minute I laid eyes on you," Poole'd told
Bill, who'd shrugged. And pointed out,
"Yeah, I don't doubt. Funny how that never mattered much when I was doin' all the work, though, ain't it?"
One last jump of fire, like a dead coal cracked in half: "You--"
But here Goodge'd interposed, no doubt thinking on Poole's own benefit.
"I was you, Mr. Poole," he'd suggested,
smoothly, "I'd cut my losses 'fore they're counted, and sell William here your shop while he was still apt to buy."
Three hundred dollars in notes and (some) gold, roughly, from Goodge's
pockets to Bill's palm and Poole's reluctant
hands, in turn. The old butcher'd turned up his nose at the new, sniffing: "Well, I give you a month at most, you
extortionate young thug; you'll run it into the ground and I'll be there to see, laughing."
And: "It's there already; won't be much of a journey," Bill'd replied,
surprising his ownself with how calm he sounded.
"But as for stayin' to see...I wouldn't. Would I, Marcus?"
"You, Bill? Probably not."
Poole's been gone a month at least since then, from the Points as well
as what now calls itself Wm. Cutting Meats
(Wm. Cutting, sole Proprietor). So Bill squints down at Polly like she's some ghost from former times, watching her
waver just a bit between the new-rose sun's bright blast and her own still-fresh charms, so atypical neat and tidy in
that demure navy-blue travelling habit she's wearing. She's done her hair up higher than he's ever seen it, looped
tight into braids like some Uptown schoolmistress; doesn't suit her at all, to his mind. Makes her look--pinched.
"Long time, Polly," he offers, at last. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Without preamble: "I'm caught short, Bill. What'm I to do?"
And: *Caught short'a what?* Bill thinks, at first. Then, realizing: *Ohhh...*
A month back and some, the night of that first rowdy, with the Paradise
Square church chiming one, then two. And
it was at that very moment that "it" must've finally happened, for both of 'em alike--grinding away on this same
abandoned pallet with Polly first atop Bill, then under, her skirts to the wind and her ankles knit in the small of his
straining back. Kissing like drowning sailors sharing air, like nothing'd ever be the same again...
...which, he supposes, it still won't--not now. Not if she ain't misrepresenting.
And oh, the heat and the slip and the friction, so terrible sharp and
sweet that neither of 'em quite knew what'd
elapsed 'till it was already well-over: Polly giving this thin, awful little cry like a bird, like something'd just been stuck
through her--something worse'n *him", anyroad. He remembers lying there slack, glued to her with his own spend
and her virgin-no-more blood; just lying there listening to her cry, not knowing exactly if he'd done wrong or no,
but wanting to forget it, either way. As soon as humanly possible.
So he did. 'Till now.
Bill keeps on considering at her a while, without much emotion he could easily name. Then says, at last--
"Tie your apron higher, I guess."
A near-electric flash, petal-soft black eyes to hard, slitted brown.
And next he knows, Polly's up and pounding on him
without preamble, bruising his chest with her hard little fists. Yelling like a fishwife, at the all-too-familiar top of her vocal
range: "Bastard! Bastard, bastard, bastard! Murdering, thieving whoreson gangster bastard!"
Bill gets hold of her wrists and squeezes, hopefully not hard enough
to hurt; pins her fast against him, feeling her
heave and strain. Replying, at last--
"All that, all those, but one--and that one's for your own get, now,
Poll. So don't you *never* bet nothing you can't
afford to lose, not never again."
It's something he had to learn, long past, and never regretted the knowledge,
no matter how painful a price it come
at. Something everyone should, one way or another, 'specially in this shit-heap world...
Polly's crying now, of course; hot breath and salt wet seeping through
his shirt, as she rolls her face against him and
shakes from top to tail. So he pats her knotted hair with one clumsy paw, and counsels: "Marry someone, Polly.
Before you start to show. You could do it--some jack with the fawney, who'll never know you made him a Joseph."
Trying to be kind, knowing he's failing--miserably, too, if he had to
rate it. Yet catching hismelf thinking, at the same
*I mean, Jesus...you don't even *like* me, Polly. Do ya?*
Slowly, Polly regains her composure; rears back from him, eyes cold,
lips white. Looks him full in the face, then follows
that with spit. And states, coldly, as Bill wipes at his cheek:
"Sure I can. Just like you can go straight to Hell like you want and
rot there for all eternity, Mister Bill the bloody
Butcher. I'll dance on your Goddamn grave, if I ever get the chance."
All his better impulses drained away in this one instant, Bill feels
his blood rise, and lets it. Bares his teeth at her,
half-dreaming on how much more impressive that gesture'll look once he starts growing a handlebar to out-match
Goodge's; meets her hateful gaze with a scornful, raging glance of his own, and lets his split brow hike in sections to
accentuate the insult.
"Whatever suits your fancy, you bughouse pigeon," he grates back. "Same's
I'll think of you a few months on from
now, when your whoreson's whoreson's almost due."
And: Polly turns her back without another word, without even a parting
slap. Just marches off out the shed door,
slamming it behind, like the Devil himself was nipping at her heels.
Bill knows he'll never see her again, nor her babe--his get, his blood,
his own first-born, could be boy or girl, but he'll
never know now. Not never.
To Hell with it, though. He's *got* his family, ain't he? Got his Pa's
ghost to live up to, his Ma's words to live by. His
gang to follow for the nonce, and someday--when Goodge's grown tired being at the head of the pack, maybe,
palying target for every other brawler what wants to up his juice or make his name--
*Why not,* Bill thinks, with a sudden surge of certainty that tells
him there's little on earth he'll ever be denied, 'long
as he's willing to spill or shed blood for it. *Why not reign down here in the Hot, you can't 'spire any higher?*
There's no law against ambition, after all; neither one could be enforced
on such as him nor one he'd fear to break
without the slightest fore-thought, he ever took a mind.
Polly's nothing but an ache now, meanwhile--a fading bruise what won't
even leave a scar, he reckons. And besides
*The one *I*'ll love ain't been born yet,* Bill the Butcher thinks,
as he roots amongst the shed's shelves for a fresh
flint to sharpen his knives with. Not knowing, and way or t'other--nor could he, truly, being yet so young--
--just how right he is.
Part Four: 1859
"My Ma always said yez were the Devil himself," Jenny Everdeane tells
Bill, sleepily--an interesting little quirk that she
gets all the more Irish when she's in her cups, though never to the point where it's put the Butcher off. Not with her
lying sprawled front-down across his lap with her firey hair all astream 'round her creamy shoulders, her corset
abandoned in a corner like some summer ladybird's shucked carapace--oh, she's a tasty, skillful piece, is his
Apprentice. And Bill has only to look at her the once, when she stretches her spine like that, to know why he spends
so God-awful much time these days taking full advantage of the pleasure of her company.
But: Bill grins wide at this proffered image, repeating, albeit a trifle likewise rough with gin and sex's aftermath--"the
Devil, gal? That's some kind'a flattery. I've killed worse men'n me, Lord God Almighty well knows, since first I started
down this particular path..."
(Far worse, all told--and better, too. Far better.)
Lots of the former, but only one of the latter.
Downstairs in the Circus proper, Finbar and his band have finally turned
themselves to a song Bill starts to recognize:
Soft, sweet, sad, sentimental. A lament for times past, unconstant lovers and unfulfilled promises.
"Oh, a blacksmith courted me, nine months and better;
He fairly won my heart, he wrote me a letter.
With his hammer in his hand, he looked so clever...
and if I was with my love, I'd live forever."
"My Ma used to sing that tune," Bill says, slowly, like it just occurred to him. Which maybe it just did.
Jenny yawns, eyes closed. "Oh. And what was her name, your Ma?"
To which Bill almost answers, before he stops himself--
*--the Widow Cutting.*
He pauses, thinks. Takes a long breath. Thinks again, frowning. Then says, at last:
"...I don't rightly recall."