The Crimson Mask and the Medicine Man
The first shot at 3:43 a.m. was easily mistaken for a backfiring truck.
Patrolman Johnny “Potsy” O’Connor happened to be glancing down at his pocket watch when he heard it. The sound did not alarm him, but it made him stop in his tracks for a moment and cock an ear. Backfire it well may be, the twenty-two-year veteran of walking a beat knew, but in Little Italy, the home turf of too many mobsters and their little fiefdoms and rival “social clubs” it could just as easily be a gun. The Italians liked nothing better than settling their scores with bullets and brass knuckles, O’Connor thought. Not like the Irish, who at least had the courtesy to sit down for a drink before commencing to pummeling one another.
He listened for a full ten seconds and when there was no follow-up shots or screams or shouts, the officer nodded in satisfaction and resumed his solitary late night stroll down Mulberry Street. Potsy O’Connor knew he had been put on the graveyard shift as a punishment for mouthing off to the idiot young shift sergeant whose father had friends high places, but he had been surprised to discover he liked the quiet and solitude of the night. Sure, the shift had a few frantic hours, from midnight until the bars and clubs closed, but mostly it was a whole lot of nothing besides rattling doorknobs, rousting drunks and bums out of doorways, and the occasional domestic call. Every once in a while, some knucklehead burglarized a place, but unless he was caught in the act by the law, the victim was more likely to go to the neighborhood godfather to whom he paid regular protection money for help. The bosses would not only find the thief and recover the stolen goods, but also deliver an apology from the crook’s own bloodied lips.
Of course, such vigilantism, along with much else of what went on in the streets and alleyways of Little Italy being of questionable legality, O’Connor was often forced to look the other way to insure his continued tranquility. The bosses showed their appreciation for this courtesy in the form of a five dollar bill slipped to him every week in the locker room by the precinct bagman. O’Connor, husband and father to four youngsters still living under his roof, was in return grateful for the help in feeding his brood.
Whistling tunelessly and absently twirling his nightstick by its leather thing, O’Connor turned onto Grand Street. He glanced into darkened storefronts and stopped to test the locks on a few doors. Everything was exactly as it should be at the hour, locked up tight, dark, and quiet.
The second shot came more than a minute after the first.
It was also closer.
And it was no backfire.
Johnny O’Connor pulled his revolver from under his blue tunic and dug for the brass whistle in his breast pocket. More shots followed. Several guns. Handguns from the sounds of things.
O’Connor hesitated a fraction of a second. The nearest callbox was down the street to the east. The gunfire was coming from the west. He ran west, blowing his whistle in long, shrill blasts to call any other coppers in earshot to come running. As if the shooting wouldn’t have already attracted their attention.
By the time he reached the corner of Baxter Street, the whistle was clenched in his left fist, his service revolver in the right, and his breath coming in short, choppy gasps. Shots were still being fired, but less of them. Then they stopped altogether.
That’s when the screaming began.
It brought Potsy up short. These weren’t the screams of the wounded and pained; he had heard enough of those on the battlefields of France during the Great War to know. These were screams of horror. Of gut-wrenching fear. Sounds no sane man could possibly produce!
His heart beating like a drum, O’Connor forced himself forward, hugging the brick wall of the corner, his .38 thrust before him like a shield in a quivering fist.
Baxter Street looked deserted, a stretch of dead of night darkness slashed by the harsh glare of street lights, deepening the shadows and making them seem to shimmer and move. The screams were coming from those shadows...
O’Connor knew he had to do something. It sounded like men were being torn to bits by some silent creature in the dark. And help, he feared, was still too far away to make any difference to those poor bastards!
Gulping down his fear and offering up a prayer, Potsy O’Connor threw himself around the corner screaming “Stop! Police! Everybody freeze!” and fired a warning shot into the street.
He ran forward, still shouting commands he was sure couldn’t be heard over the screams. He wanted to keep firing his gun, to ward off whatever might be hiding in the shadows, but the rationale part of his brain kept his finger from tightening on the trigger. He was going to need those shots and there would be no time for reloading...
The screaming stopped as abruptly as it began. The sudden transition to silence was startling.
Ahead of him, an inky swirl of blackness started to pull away from the shadows in the deep doorway of a Chinese laundry.
The officer took aim.
“Police!” he shouted. He was surprised at how commanding he sounded.
The blackness broke off and became a shape, a man in a long dark overcoat. The shape moved slowly, deliberately, his arms held out from his sides. Something dangled from his hands, loose and floppy. Not a weapon. Nothing threatening.
But it made Johnson’s heart thump uncontrollably and his stomach churn.
“I...I said police! Stop right there!”
The man paid no attention to the orders. He moved from blackness to the gray haziness on the fringe of the streetlight’s glow. Details began to resolve themselves: a bald pate, spotted with age. One shoulder higher than the other. A limp in the slow, steady gait. A gaunt, wrinkled cheek slashed with scars and paint. A pale yellow eye that momentarily caught the light.
Raw, bleeding hunks of flesh hanging from withered, gnarled fingers!
“Father, son, and holy ghost,” gasped Johnson.
The old man raised his right hand into the circle of light and pointed a finger at the trembling police officer. Johnson’s eyes went wide.
Were those...human scalps?
“Give your prayers to the earth,” the old man said, his voice surprisingly young and strong.
Something punched Potsy Johnson hard in the chest.
He looked down. A long, slender shaft of wood with a feathered tail stuck straight out of the middle of the badge pinned to his tunic.
“For that is to be your next home,” the old man said, and turned to walk away even as the officer slumped to the pavement. His revolver dropped from numbed fingers and he thought, not without some surprise, that he was probably the first New York copper ever to be killed in the line of duty by an Indian with a bow and arrow.