Cauldron, page 1part #1 of Shadow Council Archives - Joe Mack Series
Shadow Council Archives - Joe Mack
Gail Z. Martin
Larry N. Martin
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July 1892– Homestead, Pennsylvania
I’d never been to war before.
Bullets whizzed past my head, and I ducked, trying to stay out of the firefight. All I had was a rock, and my aim had never been that good. I didn’t want to die tonight here on the riverbank, but I wasn’t a coward. I stood shoulder to shoulder with my fellow workers, determined not to let the Pinkertons reach the steel mill behind us.
Two men already lay dead: one of ours, and one of theirs. I knew the Pinkertons fired first, but later, they’d claim we did, if any of us survived. The agents kept up a barrage from their boat, firing blindly into the crowd. I heard men cry out in pain and fear. Women prayed, calling on God in Polish, Russian, Hungarian—all the languages of the mill. Boys too young to shave clamored for a spot on the front line, thinking it all great sport.
I knew better. This riverbank would be soaked in blood before dawn.
Someone spilled oil into the river and lit leftover fireworks from the parade along with a few sticks of dynamite, tossing them toward the Pinkerton boats, trying to make them go away.
My heart froze in my chest. Fighting the king’s men back in Hungary, or the hired guns of Carnegie and Frick, it was all the same. One side could afford an army of soldiers, and the other side offered up their own blood and sinew, all that they had, daring to demand pay enough to buy bread.
“Hey, Magarac. You think we’re gonna win this?” Piotr Kowalczyk, my best friend from the mill, stood next to me with his own pile of rocks.
“I hope so,” I replied, figuring a lie was better than the truth. Piotr crossed himself. I didn’t, and Piotr either didn’t see or didn’t mention it.
The Pinkertons kept firing. Higher up the hill, our side fired back. The whole town was out here—men, women, and children. I’d heard that the owner of the hardware store donated all his ammunition to the cause. Shots rang out around us. I saw the bullet strike Jakob Nowak in the chest, sending up a spray of blood. His arms flew out from his body, and his head snapped back, then he fell and didn’t move.
We screamed in fury. Those closest to the shore threw whatever they could get their hands on, pelting the Pinkerton boats. Flames rose in the night. Some of the workers lit a barge on fire and sent it toward the boat with the hired muscle. More dynamite went off, sending up a wall of water and nearly swamping the agents’ boats. Still, they fired on us. And I knew that come dawn, there’d be more of them.
All I’d wanted was a job. I’d come to America, to this little town outside of Pittsburgh, from my native Hungary with my wife and baby son to make a new start. We didn’t have enough to eat in the Old World. Work was scarce, and the police in my village were dishonest. My uncle Stanislaw left first, making his way across the ocean, and sent back for me. I brought my wife, Agata, and our baby son, Patryk, with me because I believed we would have a better life here.
Within a year, they were dead of a fever, and I was alone. I stopped praying to the Holy Mother the night I’d buried my family. If I prayed at all, which wasn’t often, I called on the Old Gods, the ones I’d heard my great-grandmother whisper about in the dark of night. Carnegie and Frick claimed Jesus and the Apostles. But the Old Gods weren’t beholden to the men who owned the mills and thought they owned our bodies and our lives. They were ancient and powerful, and they did as they pleased. Whether or not they cared about the likes of us, I wasn’t sure.
“Magarac! Look—the Pinkertons are leaving!” Piotr crowed, elbowing me. I looked down toward the dark waters of the Monongahela River. Sure enough, the barge was withdrawing. A cheer went up from our side, and voices shouted taunts in a dozen languages.
“We won!” Piotr cried out, lifting his arms in the air in victory. “We drove the sons of bitches back!”
I could not share his glee, or join in the celebration going on all around me. Good men were dead, and our “win” wouldn’t comfort their kin. I knew that men like the robber barons didn’t give up so easily, not to the likes of us. We stayed encamped around the mill, holding it prisoner, while the men who led our union went to Pittsburgh in good faith to negotiate terms. The camp had a holiday air about it, giddy with having driven back the hired guns. Women brought us food from town, and young boys ran through the strike camp, chasing each other with sticks for rifles and pinecones for rocks, acting out the victory. I forced a smile and stayed with my friends, but in my heart, I knew it wasn’t over.
Vengeance came swiftly. There had to have been thousands of armed soldiers.
We didn’t stand a chance.
Bullets flew, and bayonets flashed. Piotr died with a look of shock on his face, cut down when a slug took off part of his head. His blood and brains splattered my face and soaked my shirt. He’d raised his hands in surrender, and they didn’t care. “Fucking Polocks,” the soldier shouted, right before he fired.
I didn’t have a gun, but I screamed a curse in Hungarian and hurled a rock at the man who killed my friend, and clipped his shoulder. All around me, men fell as shots rang out.
The soldier didn’t bother to reload. He turned the rifle in his hands and slammed the stock into my head. I stumbled, and two of his buddies were on me, beating me with fists, kicking my ribs and groin with heavy boots, stomping down on my chest and face. I couldn’t see with blood running into my eyes. They kept beating me, kicking and punching, and my breath came with a wet rattle as I brought up blood. All the while, they cursed me, vile words against my homeland and my people, mocking my accent and telling me to go back where I came from.
I knew the only place I would go from here was the churchyard at St. Michal’s.
When the soldiers had their sport, they left me for dead among the corpses and rounded up the survivors, marching them back to town, perhaps to jail. From where I lay, I could see Piotr, his face pale, eyes staring.
Rage filled me, for Piotr and all the others, for the men dying around me amid the gun smoke and the fire. I drew a painful breath and called on the only being I trusted to hear my cry.
Krukis, god of blacksmiths.
I had seen his image in an icon my grandmother hid behind a likeness of St. Peter. I’d always been drawn more toward Krukis, with his bare chest and strong arms, striking iron on an anvil with a powerful hammer and a raging fire, than I had been by the serene man in white robes with a halo. My world had dirt and ash and flame, and Krukis wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
Through the smoke, I saw him, striding toward me like an ancient predator. Perhaps it was a vision brought on from being at death’s door. Krukis stood at least seven feet tall, broad-shouldered and thick-muscled from the forge. His black hair hung long around his stern, handsome face. Slate gray eyes surveyed the carnage, afraid of no one.
“Jozef Magarac. Why have you summoned me?”
The deep voice rang in my head. Maybe I was already dead, come to judgment day. No, not dead yet. The air still stank of blood and piss, and my mouth tasted of ash. I again wondered if this was delusion caused by the pain, but I decided it didn’t matter. If there was any chance, any chance at all…
“Give me justice, for the men killed today,” I begged. I wasn’t afraid to die. Life was a constant struggle. Death meant rest or peaceful oblivion. But I would not die like an animal, unavenged. “Make me the
Krukis’s laugh rumbled through the air like thunder. “Think yourself up to the task?”
“If not me, then who?” Clearly, being almost dead made me insanely brave to challenge a god.
Krukis stopped laughing. He regarded me with a gaze that seemed to see down to my bones, assessing my paltry courage and many failures. It took everything I had not to shrink beneath that scrutiny, but fury made me bold. I stared back, unflinching.
“Very well, Jozef Magarac. I will grant your prayer. To you, I give the strength of a mule team and the speed of a racehorse. You possess the heart of a warrior, but to that courage, I add magic, when you call on my name. Your bones will be steel, and magic can make your skin metal for a short time. You will not age and cannot die but by the hottest of fires. You will be my servant, meting out my justice, and I will be your god.”
“Agreed. By my blood and bone, make it thus.”
Lightning struck me, coursing through my veins, setting bone and skin and sinew on fire. I screamed, never having felt such agony before. Then, abruptly, the pain stopped. I drew in a breath, and nothing hurt. My blond hair was still matted with blood, but the gash on my forehead, the swollen eye, the split lip—all were healed.
I opened my eyes and found Krukis giving me an appraising look. “I will be watching, as will my companions. Expect to hear from us, now and again. I shall be quite interested to see what comes of this vengeance of yours. Do not forget the fires that forged you.”
With that, Krukis vanished, leaving me alone with the dead.
Ben Lavecchia ran the best blind tiger in Cleveland.
The Hathaway Theater hosted the top vaudeville show in the city, with a mix of traveling performers and an impressive cast of local talent that many people said put New York and Chicago to shame.
I’m pretty sure that the people who said that had never actually been to New York or Chicago, but it was a nice fiction that made Ben happy. Considering the guy was both a powerful strega and the youngest son of Vincent Lavecchia, Cleveland’s biggest crime boss, telling Ben what he wanted to hear was smart.
I’m smart, but I’m also an asshole. Ben puts up with me anyhow.
“You got any Caribbean tigers in there?” I asked when I bellied up to the huge mahogany bar. This being Prohibition and all, there were no bottles of distilled spirits on the backbar, although there were several oddly shaped containers of medicinal potions and elixirs, famed for their “curative” powers.
“Never sure what kind of tigers we have around,” Ben said with a shrug. He took my money, rapped on a wooden panel, and dropped the coins into a hidden drawer. A moment later, the drawer opened again, holding a glass filled with an amber liquid that looked a lot like rum.
“Might be your lucky day, Joe,” Ben said, handing me the glass. “Caribbean tigers are hard to come by.” I knocked back the shot and held out a couple more coins.
“I can’t say I got a good look at that tiger,” I said with a grin. “I’d like to try again. I’ll look real hard, this time.”
Ben rolled his eyes, repeated the trick with the hidden drawer, and handed off my rum. “Leave some for the other patrons tonight, will ya?” he added, but I knew he wasn’t pissed because he hadn’t racked his shotgun.
“I’m your best customer, Ben.” It was true. And thanks to my deal with an ancient Slavic god, I also couldn’t get more than mildly buzzed, no matter how much I drank.
“I try to keep everyone happy,” Ben replied, glancing around the smoky room. His gaze never missed anything, a habit that went with living on a knife-edge. Rumor had it that once upon a time, Ben and his big brother Tony never missed a party. Then Tony went to war and didn’t come back, and Ben’s party days were over.
Ben’s “blind tiger” speakeasy operated out of a private room in the basement of the theater, which conveniently had several exits, hidden and not. It was a sanctuary that catered to a strange mix of people, myself included. Theater folks came down after their performances, often still in costume, and mixed with the bankers, socialites, well-off wastrel sons, card sharps, and Mob gentry. Hank, the piano player, was as blind as the fictitious tiger, with a perfect memory and a keen ear for voices. There wasn’t anything worth knowing in this town that Hank hadn’t overheard.
“You ever get anyone who actually thinks you’ve got a real tiger?” I asked, sipping my second rum.
“Now and again,” Ben replied. “Vito, one of my boys, brought one of the new guys in last week. Big fellow, but young and green as grass. You’d have thought someone kicked his puppy when he found out there weren’t no tigers.”
I don’t know who came up with the idea of charging patrons for a “special exhibit” of seeing an exotic blind tiger, then giving them “free” alcohol with their ticket in order to get around the law, but the name stuck. Then again, no cop with two brains to rub together would try to close down Benny Lavecchia’s place. That is, if he didn’t want to find himself fired and dead, not necessarily in that order. Not that Ben himself would have anything to do with it. Ben had gone as straight as his circumstances would allow. Didn’t stop his overprotective papa and big brothers from making sure no harm came to their youngest.
Not to mention that Ben was a powerful strega. Even Capone knew not to mess with a witch.
“Hey, Mack.” A beautiful dark-skinned woman with bobbed, wavy hair and a sultry voice leaned against the bar next to me. Her beaded dress clung to her curves like liquid silver.
Most people said that when they were speaking to a stranger, but I knew Millie meant me. I’d gone by “Joe Mack” for close to sixteen years now, ever since I’d been in Cleveland. The thing about immortality is, after a while, people notice you don’t age. I’d probably look thirty-one forever. In a few years, I’d need a new name and a new city, but for now, I liked where I was.
“How’d your show go?” I asked, as Millie slipped coins to Ben and he passed her a tiger that smelled a lot like gin.
“Almost a full house. Tried out a couple of new songs. They went over real good.” Millie had a voice like a fallen angel, and when she sang a torch song, she smoldered. I could read in her eyes that she’d lived the blues she sang about. The Deep South drawl made it clear she wasn’t from around here.
“You could sing my grocery list and get a standing ovation.” I wasn’t flirting; it was the truth.
“You, sir, are a silver-tongued devil,” Millie said, wagging a finger at me with a grin. “But keep talking. I like what you’re selling.”
“Just telling it like I see it,” I replied. I liked the fact that Millie and I knew where we stood with each other. There hadn’t been anyone for me since Agata died all those years ago, and there wouldn’t be, ever again. Wouldn’t be fair to them, what with me not aging. And I couldn’t stand watching someone I loved age and die. As for Millie, she sang enough “done me wrong” songs that I believed her when she said she had sworn off on men. I believed her even more when she slipped an arm around Nicolette, the show’s French contortionist.
“Sure is jumpin’ down here tonight,” Millie drawled.
“You’d think Lucky Lindy had dropped by,” I replied, glancing around to make sure Lindbergh hadn’t actually done just that. You never knew who might show up at Ben’s. He knew everyone and the dirt on them, as insurance.
Millie gave an unladylike snort. “I wouldn’t be here talking to the likes of you if Charles Lindbergh was here. Be over asking for an autograph.”
“You don’t need a man to fly,” Nicolette murmured, quietly enough I wouldn’t have heard her if I’d still been mortal.
I rolled my eyes and returned my attention to the crowd. I liked Ben’s speakeasy because people mixed here when they couldn’t other places. Everybody played nice, or they got bounced with a warning to forget what they’d seen, or else. Millie was royalty here, and so were some of the show’s more unusual performers. Samson,
Grace McAllen Harringworth caught my eye and winked, one of my frequent partners in crime. She looked like she had just stepped out of a bandbox, gussied up in a dress that probably came from New York, or maybe Paris. I wasn’t surprised to see her on the arm of Frank Shilling, Cleveland’s golden boy. Shilling had flown in the Great War, gone up against the Red Baron and lived to tell about it. He had an impressive number of kills to his record, though the fame and his good looks—not to mention family money—seemed to have gone to his head. I wondered if Grace was really sleeping with the bloke, or just pumping him for information. Maybe both.
Over in the back corner near the piano, Georgina, the bearded lady, was their fabulous self, holding court with admirers, dressed in a gown that was a peacock splendor of blue and green silk. Miroslav, Georgina’s besotted lover, watched from a distance, content to let Georgina have the limelight.
My gaze lingered on Miro a tad longer than usual. He seemed worried, but I doubted jealousy had anything to do with his mood. Rumor had it that Georgina had killed to protect him, long ago in another city. I knew he’d come mighty close to killing a theater-goer who spoke ill of Georgina. They were blood bound. No, it had to be something else. Miro looked up, noticing me and realizing I’d been staring. He headed my direction.
“Hello, Miro. Something on your mind?”
by Gail Z. Martin have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes