Everybody calls me the Devil, and right now I wish I really was, because the only way I’m gonna save little 10-year-old Gracie Budd’s life is to stop a real Devil. Hard to believe, it being so quiet, green, and peaceful out here, but I ain’t got much time if I’m going to stop Albert Fish from killing and eating poor Gracie.
How the hell did I get myself in this mess? No, I didn’t do it. Maybe God did it. I don’t know. All I know is that I’m a 16-year-old printer’s devil named Timothy Patrick Quinn, and on April 13, 1928, I started hearing radio messages from the future.
One reason they call me “devil” is because that’s my job. I’m a printer’s devil, an apprentice in the print shop under old Shamus MacPherson at the New York Post. Been doing that since I was 12, mainly mixing tubs of ink and sorting metal type in the hellbox, putting those fit to be used again back in the job case, and melting down the broken bits.
Our foreman, Grady Owens brought a brand new All American Mohawk Lyric S50 radio right into the shop, saying it would help us boys pass the time a bit easier. Had to turn the sound way up on account of all the noise from the printers, but we got to hear berries tunes like “Cow Cow Blues,” “A Gay Caballero,” and “Sonny Boy.”
I could even hear it on the dock while having a smoke with the loaders and the colored Joes who swept up the place. Even the old truckers respected me on account of my bouts at Clancy’s Boxing Gym. I’ve always been big for my age, and ever since I was a tyke, I liked mixing it up with the guys.
I get over to Clancy’s whenever I can. He says I’ve got potential, says I fight hard enough to knock out the Devil himself, which is another reason they call me that. Turns out, though, I’d have to earn that name in a different way, even if it damn near killed me.
About seven weeks ago at the shop, I heard in a news spot that some airship named Italia crashed at the North Pole and I got suspicious, cause the news said Italia was supposed to crash a month from now.
On a hunch, I asked Ice Box Billy (because his hands were always freezing) what was on the radio right then. He looked at me like I was nuts, but I told him I had a head cold, and I couldn’t hear so well.
He said the news was on, which eased my mind some, that is, until he said some bum tried to blow up Mussolini with a bomb in Naples or Milan or someplace like that (he never could figure out foreign countries too much – found out later it was Milan).
So I asks him when that was supposed to have happened, and he tells me yesterday the 12th. Just my luck today’s April 13, that is Friday the 13th. Besides lousy luck, that means I’m the only one that can hear this different sort of radio.
I kept that to myself so the rest of the fellas wouldn’t vote to toss me in the loony bin. While turning all this over in my head, I must have slowed down, because Mr. Owens barked at me and said I should be sorting more hastily, as if saying things real fancy would make everyone forget he grew up in the Kitchen same as the rest of us.
Yeah, we’re all human, but some of them is more “humaner” than others, if you get what I mean.
Anyway, I keep listening to the news (after getting more “hastily”), and hear that next month, there’s another bombing, this time against the Italian consulate or whatever, in Buenos Aires (I swear, the Italians have the worst luck).
By the by, come late next June, a Swede aeroplane rescues those Italians, or what’s left of them, from that North Pole crash, and get this. Next October Glenn Miller marries Helen Burder right here in New York. What about that, huh? Talk about causing some havoc among all those other dames who’d just about die to even touch Miller’s hand or “bone.” Bet they’ll be lining up to belt down hemlock when they hear this.
Must have been less than an hour before quitting time when I heard a story that almost made me mess my shorts. Some guy named Albert Fish was done away with by electric chair in Sing Sing, but that wouldn’t happen until January 16, 1936, almost eight years from now. Then I hear the son of a bitch got his for kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old little girl name of Grace Budd on June 3, 1928.
June 3rd. That’s today.
I couldn’t get the whole story out of the radio right then last April. Only bits and pieces of it, like broken, metal type that has to get melted down and recast.
This didn’t happen with just Mr. Owens’ radio at the Post either. I started hearing the same future news at Tank Walsh’s place across the hall from where me and Ma live. It’s a filthy tenement in the Kitchen, but it’s all we can afford since Pa died.
Anyway, Tank, ’cause he’s built like one, and his missus let a bunch of us boys come over to his place to listen to his radio, none of our folks can afford one, so we can listen to “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “The Collier Hour,” and “House of Myths.” That’s when I started finding out more. Got smart enough to take notes, though Tank and the fellas thought I was nuts. Pretended I liked to write down the words, so I could spell better (which ain’t exactly a lie).
First report I heard about Albert Fish was the day he was, or will be, executed at Sing Sing. Got the chair for killing and eating little Gracie, though she weren’t the first boy or girl he did it to. Makes me want to puke just thinking about it.
The bastard saw an ad in the Post, my paper, put in there by an 18-year-old fella name of Edward Budd, Grace’s older brother, saying he wanted to move out of Manhattan and get a job in the country. Fish answered it, saying he was a farmer called Frank Howard. He secretly planned to tie Edward up, mutilate him, and leave him to bleed to death, or so he later confessed. Then Fish saw Grace and changed his mind.
I didn’t find out where the Budd’s lived until I caught up with the future and read the ad myself last May 25th, hardly 10 days ago. I went to the Budd’s place before Fish got there. Tried to warn them. They thought I was crazy or drunk. Threatened to call the coppers on me. I only wanted to help. The old man, Albert Budd, ran me off before I could even tell them what name Fish was gonna be using, and that he was going to steal Grace.
I caught a glimpse of her for a second, hiding behind her Mama’s skirts. Cute little thing, dark hair cut in a bob, sweet face. I kept thinking how Fish confessed he choked her to death, then cut her up to cook her, said her ass was sweet and tender, and he wasn’t just saying to look at.
I took off running. Mrs. Budd must have really called the law, because I could hear police whistles coming my way from up the street. But you don’t grow up in the Kitchen and not know how to ditch the cops.
Wasn’t until last night that I heard on the shop radio that Fish spied himself an abandoned house in Westchester. News fella gave the address and everything, which I wrote down, even though Mr. Owens thought I was goldbrickin’. Took longer than I thought to boost MacPherson’s Ford Sedan. Sweet little ride, and I sure was glad old man Tank taught me something about driving, so I could do some delivery work for him on the side. He did some tailoring work for a bunch of big wigs in midtown.
Left MacPherson’s fliver on the side of the road, and now I’m creeping up to the side of the house after crossing over a creek. Shoes and trouser legs cold and wet, but I can’t let that bother me.
I can hear Grace in the front of the house, singing while picking wildflowers. Fish already went upstairs and stripped naked. Didn’t want to get any of Grace’s blood on his duds. In a minute or so, he was going to call her from the upstairs window. Then he’d hide in the closet until she walked into the room. He’s pop out all of a sudden. She’d scream and cry and try to run. She yelled, and scratched, and bit while he strangled her.
Well, I’m not going to give him the chance.
“Gracie, dear. You can come on up now.”
Oh shit. I’m too late. That’s him calling out to her from upstairs and I’m still a baseball pitch away from her.
“I’ll be right up, Uncle Frank.” She sounds all cheerful, cause she really thinks she’s going to his niece’s birthday party.
“No,” I yell, but it’s too late. She’s already gone inside and he’s not up in the window anymore. I’m running my legs off trying to get to her before she gets up to him.
My foot hits the first step as I hear her scream above me. I’m taking them two and three at a time. Fish has got to hear my feet pounding like an elephant’s. I don’t even remember breaking down the bedroom door, but I feel my blood turn to ice in my veins seeing him with his knee on her chest, evil harpy claws around her slender white neck, her face turning blue.
“Who the fuck are…”
I don’t let him finish spouting off his filthy mouth as I hit him square in the forehead with a haymaker. Damn, it feels like I almost broke my hand. He rolls off of her, but I didn’t put him down for the count like I’d planned.
“Run, Grace! Get out of here!” I don’t look, but I hear her little feet tip-tapping back down the stairs behind me. It still distracts me enough that I don’t see Fish getting to his feet, naked as a satyr, and grinning like the Devil himself.
“I don’t know you who are, boy, but you cost me a lot of time and effort letting her get away. Guess I’ll just have to settle for a piece of your ass.”
On all them radio dramas, the villain always talks the hero to death before actually trying to kill him, but I didn’t think it would happen that way in real life. I tense to spring at him, but he lunges for me first.
I’ve fought big men in my time at Clancy’s. Took my fair share of hits, but I gave back as good as I got. Fish don’t look like much, but he fought as hard as any ten men. I mean, I was a head or more taller and had maybe twenty pounds on him, but damn, if he really was the Devil. I only called myself that.
He had me pressed backward against the window sill, a two-floor drop to the ground, strong hands around my throat. I tensed my muscles trying to keep him from getting a good squeeze on. I’m fighting for my life and still he’s shoving me out that window an inch at a time. I’d have been a goner if we both didn’t hear police whistles and a voice of some big bruiser yelling at the top of his lungs, “Halt in the name of the law.”
That’s when I remembered that some beat cop gave me a funny look as I drove through White Plains, just ten miles or so from here. Must have made the car as stolen. Just my luck, but better, good luck for Grace.
I was at a bad angle, but because Fish was caught off guard, I got an arm free and snapped a palm at his nose and up. He wailed, putting both hands up on the bleeder, tears in his eyes. That’s when I saw his Johnson was a high, hard one. Sick bastard. Must like killing better than women. I think he even jizzed.
I stood, got my breath back, and laid a right cross on the side of his head that would have sent Gene Tunney to the canvas.
I hear a whole bunch of men running up the stairs. Half a dozen coppers clamor inside, their heaters drawn on both of us. I lift up my arms before they even have a chance to say, “Reach.” Guess they figured a “Mick” from the Kitchen was some big time outlaw and they sent a whole posse after me. Good thing.
God bless Grace, she told the law everything, saying how Fish was trying to kill her and how I was her rescuer.
I didn’t have a good reason for explaining why I had to steal Mr. MacPherson’s car, or how I knew about Fish and his plans for Grace. I spent some time in the Tombs, but Albert Budd remembered me, remembered what I’d tried to tell him, and now as he looks back on it all, what I said didn’t sound so crazy. He put up my bail. Heck, MacPherson even paid out of his own stingy pocket for my mouthpiece. My lawyer figured that he could use examples of men like Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote those Sherlock Holmes stories, to say that some folks have “the gift,” like he called it, dreams and such from the other world warning living folks about misfortune.
The Judge wasn’t having any of it, but neither he or the DA had anything better to offer. They couldn’t tie me in with Fish to say I was an accomplice who turned on him, and I had risked my life to save a little girl I didn’t even know, so they let me off with time served.
Fish still went to Sing Sing cause he confessed to doing in the 8-year-old McDonnell boy back in ’24, and 4-year-old Billy Gaffney nearly two years ago. Coppers think there’s more, maybe a lot more, but Fish ain’t telling.
Mr. Budd’s been looking over Ma and me. Offered Ma a job doing secretary work at his “Assurance Society” which beats the tar out of cleaning toilets. I got my own promotion working on the printing press. Still got hands black with ink, but it pays better, and MacPherson says he’ll keep an eye on me for other opportunities as long as I keep working hard and don’t steal his car no more. He laughed at that last part and so did I, but it still made me feel a little nervous.
I take practice bouts at Clancy’s whenever I can. Even the contenders look at me with respect. I got a chance to spar with Jake “the Kid” Bergman (he’s one tough Hebe) who’s favored to be champ come next year, though he laid me out like an old mattress in the third round. He says I’ve got heart, but what I think he and the other palookas really mean is that they fight for the prize money and the chance to be champ, but I fought to save someone’s life with no cheers and no glory.
Clancy even put up my picture along side the other contenders, though Ma says she’ll whoop me black and blue if I even think of going pro. Written underneath my photo, big and proud, Clancy done wrote, Timothy ‘The Devil’ Quinn.”
Pretty close to Christmas, as Ma is humming hymns while letting out my trouser hems again, I’m over at Tank’s with the boys (who all now look up to me) listening to the radio. Everybody else is hearing how those bums in Congress approved building something called Boulder Dam, but I’m listening to something different. Carl Panzram was, or will be, hung to death for rape and murder at Leavenworth on September 5, 1930. I still have a chance to save his last victim, a 14-year-old newsie named Alexander Luszock. It’s time to give Panzram the devil’s due.
I wrote this for the Thursday Photo Prompt: Calm #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to use one of Sue’s original photos as a prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or other creative work.
I leveraged a wee tale I wrote a few days ago called Seven Weeks of the Devil which I wrote for a different challenge. It got a favorable reception, with several people asking me to write more of the story.
I hesitated, because it would take a ton of research to authentically create New York of ninety years ago, however, Sue’s photo reminded me of how I pictured the climax of my adventure.
The slang is a little dodgy, but I tried to keep all of the details (cars, names, places) consistent with the historic and geographic context.
Yes, Albert Fish really existed, and his story is horrific, even by modern standards. Sadly, there was no rescuer for 10-year-old Grace Budd and she died a terrible death.
There was also a Carl Panzram, but I had to fudge history a bit here, since he murdered 14-year-old Alexander Luszock on or about August 20, 1928. I figured given that Timothy was arrested in early June and incarcerated in the Tombs for some time, he wouldn’t have been available to save Alex from Panzram as history records events.
However, I did leave things open for future adventures of “the Devil.”