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markwardo

February 2014

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newsies - kings, thieves, and exiles (part 1/3)

additional tags and/or warnings, if you're into that sort of thing:

i hope you like politics, seriously i hope you like politics, the gritty reboot as directed by Martin Scorsese, violence murder and betrayal, these nicknames are ridiculous, casual racism by white people against other white people, protip: they weren't terribly nice to women in the 1800s, fact checked to death and still broken, speaking of broken: third person omniscience is hard, the more you know: brooklyn was its own city until 1898, this is important, "the king of new york" being an embarrassingly literal title now





Chapter 1: Jack, Racetrack

The night Spot Conlon took over Brooklyn was the night Racetrack turned up off the street in Manhattan. Of course, at the time, no one knew it yet. Murmurs had been circling for some time that changes were fomenting across the bridge, but they'd all been brushed off by all but the most daring speculators. Over there, Roacher Weiss was king: had been the guy in charge for so long, even Jack Kelly didn't remember otherwise, and Jack had been around forever. It was a fact of life, sure as shooting, safe as houses. But then Racetrack showed up.

The Manhattan newsies liked Racetrack just fine – sure he was Brooklyn, born and raised, but he never took off anyone more money than they could afford to lose, and he'd yet to show anyone the back of his hand. Sometimes, he came by with other Brooklyn guys – tough-headed thug types or weaseling cheats – but that just threw him into more contrast. Racetrack was good Brooklyn, the only one: one of the guys, always handy with a full deck of cards and a good yarn, and sometimes even a bit of booze.

It was eight-thirty, going on lights out. A summer thunderstorm rumbled lazily outside, supplying dramatic emphasis to the show Dutchy and Specs were putting on, re-enacting the tale of that one time they nearly saw a girl's ankles. Boots was proctoring over a leisurely game of dominoes, and Crutchy was critiquing one of the new boys on the persuasiveness of his fake limp when they heard Kloppman's agitated mumble, rising up from down the stairs.

"Jack," said Itey, and Jack looked up from the pages of his dime-novel. Kloppman's voice was getting louder; it sounded like the old man was arguing with someone else. Jack kicked his feet off his bunk and absently shouldered one suspender over his arm.

"Hey, Mush," Jack called. Mush and Blink were sleeping closest to the stairs that night, but Blink couldn't see too good, especially after dark. "Wanna go see what's going on?"

Mush did a spritely little leap off the top bunk and over to the door without being told twice. There was a candleglow moving up the narrow staircase, and two sets of footsteps. "They're coming up," he reported. "Kloppman's talking, but whoever the heck else is there ain't saying a word."

Jack made an impatient twist with his mouth. "Yeah, Mushy, I can hear that, but what's he saying?"

Now, Kloppman was an old bat. So old, it was practically inconceivable that he'd ever been anything other than ninety-seven or however many years he actually was. He spoke with a broken, whisky slur out of one side of his mouth, like the other side had stuck sometime in the 20s and hadn't been oiled since. Mush wasn't the only newsie at the lodging house who usually just nodded along with whatever Kloppman was saying on account of being too polite to tell him he wasn't making a word of sense.

"Beats me, Jack," Mush said diplomatically, but there wasn't much time to explain, because two seconds later, the door burst in and there was Racetrack – wet to the bone, hunched into himself with his cap pulled low over his eyes, but it was definitely him.

"Ja', kait'ry' do 'ell 'im t'er 'asn'to mo' 'oom," Kloppman said with an exasperated tone of defeat.

Jack shook back his mussed hair and smiled. "That's okay, Mr Kloppman, Race is just visiting, ain't he?" The smile changed steadily to bared teeth as Kloppman retreated, grumbling curses to himself, and limping back down the stairs.

Racetrack nodded, the shallow dip of chin of the self-preserving. You didn't just show up at another city's house without invitation, even if they pretty much liked you most of the time and thought you were an okay guy. He could feel a hush spread across the room like a chill, with himself at the epicenter.

"Hey." That was Boots, fetching a towel from someone's rack and handing it to Racetrack as he walked past him to stand with the other Manhattan newsies. Racetrack took the towel with a muttered thanks. He looked to Jack for any objections, but Jack wasn't about to deny a fella a towel, even if he was being rude, so there was no protest as Race peeled the cap from his hair and dried himself off.

Jack cleared his throat. "So, Race." His voice had a deliberate nonchalance to it. "It's a bit late for a card game, don't you think?" The others chorused in agreement, though their confused quiet was taking on an edge of caution as Race wordlessly continued to squeeze water out of his narrow sleeves.

Blink was still sitting cross-legged in his bunk, Mush squeezed in next to him. The two of them were the closest to where Racetrack stood, and they were close enough to see the quavering jumpiness in the hands that rung at his vest and shirtsleeves. Blink darted a look over at Mush to see if he'd noticed it too; Mush met his gaze long enough to confirm that he had, before the both of them fixed a stare over at Jack. Jack wasn't looking over at them, though; you could see the gears grinding in his brain as he tried to work out Race. There was a tendon tightening in the line of muscle leading up to his jaw. Cowboy Jack was getting angry.

"You here for something?" Jack tried. No answer. "You got something to say? You here on business? You get lost? What?"

Still nothing.

"Hey now, look," Jack said finally. He rose to his feet, and even in his socks, he had a good six inches on Racetrack and at least thirty pounds. He stepped towards Race and the quiet in the room became silence. "Kloppman's already told you, we ain't got an empty bed for the likes of you, so if you ain't got no good reason to be here, why don't you get the hell back to Brooklyn?"

"Roacher Weiss is dead."

A buzz of thunder outside, distant, but it might as well have been right in the room with them for how airless everything suddenly was. Racetrack had looked up at all of them at last. Washed out pale from the cold and the rain, his dark eyes were like wounds in his face.

"You're shittin' me." That was Skittery.

Racetrack looked at him. "I ain't shittin' no one," he replied.

Pie Eater chimed in. "How did he die?"

Race's eyes tracked across the room. "He was killed," he responded.

"Who killed him?" And that was Jack, ten feet away, half-dressed with his arms over his chest but getting right to the point, because that was his job.

Racetrack met Jack's glare and the cold intractability of it broke his scattered stare. He blinked several times in rapid succession, and when he looked up again, his expression seemed much more present.

"We don't– it–" Race flinched, took a breath. "Spot did," he said. "Spot Conlon."

Mutters went up all around the room at that, but Racetrack kept his eyes on Jack.

"Who's Spot Conlon?" came a shout over the low din, and one by one, everyone shut up to wait for Racetrack's answer.

Race's head jerked up. "Spot? He's– I mean, he–" he sputtered. He looked to Jack, but Jack just frowned and shook his head. Race blinked back, astounded.

"Two months ago – I brought him – do you really not–?" A small ocean of blank stares. Incredulity stuttered his voice as Race prompted, "I, I brought him round. We, he's been here at least, at least three, four times. He –" Race paused and closed his eyes in one long blink to collect himself.

"Remember that kid who shows up with me, sometimes?" he said with a jerky unsteadiness. "He don't play cards, or dice, but he'd come, like, to watch, you know?" He looked up and found Boots in the crowd, who seemed to be nodding slowly, uncertainly.

"Yeah, he," Racetrack huffed like the back end of a laugh. "He don't like to talk much. He'd sit behind me – kind of small, remember?" He put a hand up around his ear. "About this tall. Blond hair, blue eyes, looks a bit like – Jack," he interjected urgently, rounding to face him, "he talked to you that one time, you remember, you shook his hand–"

"How old is he?" Jack interrupted, his eyes burning into Race's face for answers.

Racetrack did laugh this time, though with the lowering of his chin and the way his hand came up to cover his eyes, the wetness of it was suspicious. "Fourteen," he replied. "He's just turned fourteen."

The bewilderment of unexpected news turned to the discomfort of unpracticed sympathy as Race's shoulders began to shake. The boys looked to each other, but every face returned only clumsy helplessness at this display.

Jack stepped in, then, closed their distance with ease. He was their leader for a reason.

"Come on Race, it ain't all that bad," he said with a cheer so bright it had to be crafted. He clapped Racetrack across the shoulder with a friendly hand, then pulled at him a little bit; let him lean into the line of his body. "It's too late for you to go back to Brooklyn. I think we oughta keep you here tonight, whaddya say?"

---

It wasn't that Brooklyn was tougher than any other place; you'd be hard pressed to find any newsie in the state of New York who didn't have at least two or three fighting scars, broken bones, or chipped teeth trophied on their person. But while everyone knew that you weren't a real newsie till you'd scrapped your way out of a fight, Brooklyn was the only place where the way you earned your stripes was by starting fights and winning them.

By lunchtime the next day, it had become perfectly clear how Spot Conlon had not only gotten himself his stripes, but the entirety of Brooklyn City all in one sweep.

The stories varied, of course, but the basic facts emerged as this: Roacher Weiss had been pushing twenty by the time Spot had gotten to him. That wasn't exactly unheard of, but lodging houses only took kids in till their eighteenth birthday, so Roacher was getting to be less and less of a newsie and more of a grown-up doing grown-up things and running a bit of newsie stuff on the side. Problem was – and this is where the details got dicey – one of those grown-up things Roacher may or may not have been doing was mob business.

No names were getting named yet, but Crutchy heard it from a guy whose cousin knew a guy who lived up in Five Points who said that Roacher was getting jobs from the Hebrews, and some of those jobs – according to Specs who'd heard it from a guy who had a brother whose friend worked on the Fulton Ferry – Roacher was passing on to his newsies.

They pestered and pleaded and even brought him half a salt-beef sandwich as a bribe, but Racetrack refused to neither confirm nor deny nor even comment on the talk. His eyes were red and ringed all day, like he hadn't slept the night, but even when cajoled late into the evening of the next day, he kept so schtum about it, they were calling him Dumbshow Higgins, by the end, just to try and get him to say anything, just anything. Finally, on the third night, under the promise they'd shut the hell up and let him get some peace, Race revealed with great reluctance that Roacher was a lousy dirtbag and he wasn't sorry to see him gone, not one bit.

It was hardly anything, but it was something, and a newsie could take something and make it into just about anything. By the time Pie Eater burst in through the door at the end of the week, jabbering excitedly about what he'd heard from a buddy in the Bronx, the story was that Roacher was running a brothel, a dog fighting ring, and plotting the assassination of the mayor. Snoddy said he'd heard that all the boys who'd cooperated with him were paid in half-dollar coins, and all the ones who wouldn't he'd had sunk to the bottom of the pier.

Nothing emerged from the other side of the bridge, however. Not a single boy went in or out of Brooklyn, after Racetrack. Jack was keeping up with Oddball Schumann, who was said to lead the newsies in Queens, so much as the newsies in Queens were of the disposition to be led, but Oddball had nothing either. Not a single word passed out of the city. It was as if Brooklyn had drawn the curtains and closed up shop.

"Roacher was on top for a long time," Jack said to Racetrack. Racetrack nodded. "He had deals going with all the neighborhoods." Racetrack agreed this was true. "If he's really dead, the next guy's gonna have to work it out with all of us, or the deals are off."

Racetrack shifted his papes under his arm, chewed on the butt end of his cigarette, and didn't say nothing to that. He'd stopped going to Sheepshead since the bridge had metaphorically gone up in Brooklyn. No one'd asked him about it yet, but he could feel the question glittering on the tip of everyone's tongue. Like a refugee in a sympathetic country, he wasn't unwelcome, but there was the question of whether or not he'd be going home. And if he wasn't, well, where was he going to sell? There were other Brooklyn outcasts living in New York, but they lived in New York now, and never went back: you had to have permission to sell in another city’s territory, and you'd never get permission if they didn't like you where you were trying to sell. It didn't make much sense to be "Racetrack" if he wasn't going to be pushing papers at the track anymore.

Of course, Jack had to be the one to come closest to straight out asking. "So why'd you leave in the first place?" he drawled, the real question being, "When are you going back?"

On the street, a chimney sweep boy touched his cap at Jack as he walked past their alleyway. Jack waved back, familiar-like, but that was Jack for you: master to none, but friend to the friendless, the great champion to all the street boys in Manhattan, without regard to race, creed or profession. Or origin.

It was great currency to be liked; that's just how they did things here. Racetrack had moved freely between cities, mostly by that merit. He'd worked hard to cultivate it, treated it as if it were his trade, and so they'd shared bread with him, let him stay nights sometimes, when he'd stayed out too late to head back. But at the end of the day, there'd been no question: he'd always gone home to Brooklyn. And there, they didn't always like him, and, there, they didn't always treat him right, but that was where he belonged. Where he'd always belong. Not even the boy king could change that.

Race shrugged, his expression flatly unconcerned, and answered the question as it was asked. "Me and the boys had something of a disagreement."

Jack hummed. "The boys or Spot Conlon?"

Race's mouth grimaced around his cigarette. Jack Kelly had always been too sharp for his own good. If he'd been born on the other side of the bridge, that sharpness might've been used to draw blood; if he'd played his cards right, they might've made him king.

"Maybe one more than the other," he admitted diffidently.

Satisfied for the moment, Jack leaned back against the wall. He had his suspicions about the depth of Racetrack's loyalty to Brooklyn City. He had a lot of suspicions about Racetrack Higgins, a lot of misgivings about a guy who kept his real name a secret, who had been turning sixteen for a couple years now, and who could lie to your face in the same breath as a laugh. Racetrack was smarter and harder than he passed himself off to be, and Jack didn't know if he wanted someone like that in his city. They had one of those already.

Jack could kick him out, if he wanted to. Send him on to Harlem or Midtown or the Bowery. He'd be fine there; he'd be fine anywhere; he had friends any place he'd care to go. But that was why he had to keep Racetrack here; a guy who could go anywhere, get along anywhere, the most politic guy in the state, and he'd landed on Jack's doorstep

He took one last drag of his cigarette before he ground the stub out with his toe. "Think they'll come lookin' for you?" Jack asked, keeping his pronouns deliberately plural.

Race shrugged and did the same: "Not unless someone tells 'em where I am."

Jack nodded non-committally as if being agreeable. Race had his reasons for choosing the Lower East Side, and Jack wasn't about to kill the golden goose with excessive curiosity or caution. So he cleared his throat and asked instead, "How well do you know this Spot fella, anyway?"

Racetrack pinched out the end of his smoke and pocketed it thoughtfully. Business on the streets was a completely different animal to the crowd and hustle of the Bay, and by different, he meant it was absolute garbage. Race knew how to play up a story to a jockey's interests, knew how to sweet-talk a gambler into parting with a penny for a paper, but he hadn't sold on street corners since he'd first started out. And even then, he hadn't been at it alone.

"Well enough," he replied.

Jack peered at him, trying to catch his eyes from under the low brim of his cap. "Yeah?" he asked.

Race hoisted his papers up onto his shoulder and adjusted his vest. "Yeah," he said.

"So what's he like then?"

Race gestured evasively. "He's a kid."

Jack snorted. "Yeah, he's a kid who took down Roacher Weiss and took over Brooklyn before anybody'd ever even heard his name. If he's just a kid, I'm a goddamn Rockefeller."

Race kicked at the cobblestones.

Jack counted forwards to ten and then back again. This stubborn, sullen reticence was for other Brooklynites; Race was supposed to be better than this. Jack made an impatient noise and hawked up a spit. "You friends with him then?"

A man came up and bought a paper off of Jack, and conversation stopped long enough for the transaction to happen. Race didn't think too hard about how to figure the question. His gut told him the answer even when the circumstances of his self-exile made bold proclamations otherwise. "Yeah," he conceded quietly when Jack's attention turned back to him. "We're friends."

"Good," Jack said, pocketing his money. "Cos Oddball tells me your friend's about to get some serious shit out of Queens."

Race's introspection jerked suddenly outwards. "What?"

Jack nodded and kept his eyes scanning the cluttered horizon. He didn't need to look to know what sort of shock was crawling across Racetrack's face, nor did he particularly care to see it, so he continued, "Since you know him, I figure you might help me out by telling me what you know. Queens is one thing." He glanced down at Race from above the crest of his cheekbone. "If he's gonna want to sort business here in New York, there's gonna be a lot of us in line."

Race's stunned silence remained for a moment longer before breaking. "He really did have a plan," he muttered under his breath. "Didn't think he was serious. Goddamn."

Jack took note of this. "He's on the move." There was something grudgingly admiring in his voice. "He's gotta group up fast if he's gonna keep what he's killed."

The look of plaintive fury that surfaced on Race's face was probably an accident, but while he'd schooled down his expression by the time he spoke, it still lingered in his voice. "And what if I tell you I've got no interest in any of this?"

Jack hummed. "You know," he remarked lightly, "you ain't never did tell us why you ran from Brooklyn that night. Suppose that'd make a good story to share?"

Racetrack stopped dead in the street. Jack stopped just a step ahead, but turned around in time to watch him scrub a hand over his face and into his hairline. "Jesus," Race blasphemed. "And I thought you Manhattan boys were supposed to be soft."

"Aw, Racetrack." Jack grinned. He slug an arm over Racetrack's shoulder and pulled him into an ungainly walk. "We ain't soft; we just ain't a bunch of bloodthirsty Fenian by-blows neither."

---

Queens was the first to test the boy king, of course. A vast tract of land without any real city center, Queens was home to just over five hundred newsies in a good year, divided into riotous neighborhoods united only by their common resentment of Brooklyn. Oddball Schumann was their leader only insomuch as Crabs Dekker was their leader, and Spitshine Meehan and Cheeseface Levine. Oddball was just the one Jack was most familiar with, and who he kept up better relations with than the rest.

Business in Queens was sporadic at best; it wasn't that the folks living in Queens didn't need the news, it was just that a whole lot of them didn't read it in English. Spillover from Brooklyn ended up over the border: kids who weren't high up enough along the hierarchy to get a bed in one of Brooklyn's overcrowded lodging houses, kids who were from Queens but didn't have enough business to make a living there – and if you didn't sleep in Brooklyn, you couldn't sell in Brooklyn, not without a price.

Roacher had set it at ten cents a hundred, and the newsies in Queens had long been crying that he was milking them dry. But Roacher Weiss was a scary bastard: nearly six feet and bulging with the muscle he put on from the work he did at the shipyard in winter. His lieutenants were all other industrial types: boys who dabbled in machinery, shipping, construction, and while none of them had been particularly clever, they'd had enough brain to know how to quell the complaints with their fists.

So now there was a new king in Brooklyn, and he was barely fourteen and scrawny and a complete unknown to boot. He'd done away with all of Roacher's boys who wouldn't pledge allegiance (which had been a lot of them), and brought in his own: still big, still dumb, but how bloody could they be without Roacher Weiss as their man and master?

Jack's Manhattan newsies waited in whispers and tenterhooks. Queens wasn't a particularly violent bunch, but they could put up a fight when necessary. Racetrack would've been the one they'd go to for taking bets on the bloodshed, but given the intimacy of the situation to him, the others did it quietly on their own on account of bad taste.

Nearly a week passed with no word of battle until finally, Oddball sent word. Spot had shown up in Long Island City on a Sunday afternoon with only one other boy in tow – muscle-headed, dull as paint – even though rules said he was allowed two. Oddball reported him quiet and unsettling, but even-handed: Roacher's selling fees, he'd agreed, were much too high, and Spot was willing to see them reduced down to eight cents a hundred if Queens would agree to move all their major card and dice games over into Brooklyn.

"Oh, that's clever," Racetrack muttered when Jack told him. "He don't need the money for the bulls if he's moving the gambling out to the suburbs, and this keeps the punks on the border happy." Roacher had come up in Bushwick, and they were less than happy that their boy had been supplanted by some Coney Island mick.

Queens grumbled in the way Queens was always going to grumble, but the conflict subsided and business resumed. But then, Queens was always going to be the easiest to keep happy, backwater that it was. It made good sense to check that box first; an easy victory under the belt was still a victory, and with all the neighborhoods of New York City sizing up his every move, Spot needed to build firm ground before stepping off Long Island. He had, as Racetrack explained it, a great deal to prove to everyone.

Midtown kept, perhaps, the closest interest in the proceedings. Ike Donnelly was no great friend to Brooklyn, nor was he a particular pal to Roacher Weiss, but separate Roacher from his shipyard palace and put him in on a rooftop in Hell's Kitchen, and you basically had Ike Donnelly.

Ike ran Midtown with a crowbar and the worldview that problems were just things he hadn't yet hit into submission. He had a habit for drink and another separate one for girls, and the highest circulation rates in Manhattan. The story of his rise to power was crowned with the legend that he'd had his predecessor framed for trying to rob a US congressman, and anything less than perfect loyalty from his boys was punishable with fists. For the most part, though, Midtown newsies were glad to call him their leader. Scummy or not, he took care of his boys when they needed taking care of: made sure the younger ones weren't bullied too often, made sure the older ones didn't get caught stealing, made sure everyone had a place to go in winter. As far as leaders went, that put him a cut above most.

It didn't hurt that Midtown had always enjoyed an element of prestige amongst the newsies, being the easiest place in the city to shift papers and lift wallets and be home just in time for supper.

(You didn't invite Midtown newsies around for craps unless you wanted to go to bed a few nickels short. Bastards had the quickest hands this side of the Hudson.)

And Ike might've been able to keep his little kingdom of thievery running forever, but for the rumors that he'd been looking more and more his age these days, his fat, round babyface steadily losing its camouflage. However well you did for yourself, selling papes was a kid's work. The older you looked, the harder it was to compete; the newsboy was always half nuisance, half charity-case. A kid was a newsie because he had no one taking care of him at home. A man was a newsie because he wasn't good enough to make anything else of himself. No one was gonna buy a paper off a grown-ass man, no matter how good the headlines were. And Grandpa Ike, as they called him out of earshot, was starting to be young only in the ages of expensive booze.

So it made some sort of sense when Dutchy scampered back to Duane Street that Tuesday after the Queens deal, grinning with gossip and bull. "He said, 'Kid's calling himself king when he's still leaking milk out of the corner of his mouth'," he recited gleefully at dinner. "He said if Spot Conlon was so tough, he'd come around Midtown and go a round in the ring with him. Also that 'Roacher was a pantywaist and a nance, and probably sucked on the other tit.'"

A circle of "oooh"s went around the room, then rounded expectantly on Race. He put down his soup spoon and fastidiously straightened it in his bowl, before he said, "Probably would've gone for 'windbag four-flusher' myself," and the "oooh"s went another round like a church basket.

"He's just lookin' for a way out," Jack hypothesized, when he and Race were alone, outside on the corner for a smoke. "If his own boys put him down, he's got no ghost of a chance. Get an outsider to knock him out, and he could just go quietly, disappear."

Racetrack's eyebrows rose into his hairline. "You kill your kings in Manhattan?" His skepticism so heavy it was nearly disdainful.

Jack snorted. "Not usually. We're not barbarians."

Racetrack laughed, though not very hard or for very long, and Jack grinned back at him. There was something to be said about being an old newsboy; it wasn't easy and it wasn't fun. There weren't many of them around for a reason. You knew how the world worked by then, if you hadn't figured it out already, but you had to swallow it, every day, or it'd show in your face or crack through your voice and – one sniff of it – and the punters would go elsewhere. Jack wasn't quite there yet; he had another two, three years in him before all the shaving in the world wasn't going to be enough to smooth away the worldliness in his face. He didn't know how old Race was, but it was older than he looked, and it came through in moments like this.

"Ike's an idiot if he thinks he's coming out on top of this," Race said, sighing. Weariness had started to drop his gaze, nowadays, like it was simply too heavy to lift. "He's no bare-knuckler, from what I hear, and Spot's not exactly the kinda guy to pull punches out of respect for his elders, you know what I'm sayin'?"

Jack nodded. "Yeah, but is he gonna take him up on it?"

"Hasn't turned down a fight that I know of yet." Racetrack peered up at him warily. "Why? You wanna go watch?"

Jack shrugged. "Might be useful to see how he fights," he pointed out. "Who knows, I might finally get to meet the guy." But it wasn't meant to be.

Spot Conlon crossed the bridge Wednesday evening so quietly even Jack didn't hear about it till him and Race stepped foot into the lodging house and found the usual Central Park crowd up on their feet in a swarm around them.

"He just walked right in, on his own. Said he'd left his boys out on the street round the corner, and it wasn't like he needed 'em anyway, with just Ike and his sissies around," Dutchy said, a bit breathless from running too many sentences together. "He had this cane with him, like this –" he gestured about an arm's span apart "– stuck in his suspenders, like a sword. Then he was all, 'I hear Grandpa Ike wants words with Brooklyn, and –"

"We thought Ike was gonna get his head beat in," interjected Skittery. "Cos Spot Conlon, like, he just kept tapping his stick on the floor, like tap tap, tap tap tap and like, Ike came up and –"

"He's not as short as you said he was, Race," Boots added, aside, then looked Racetrack head to toe and reconsidered, "well, maybe he was, but Ike was tiny, next to him. Came up to only about here," he gestured to about nose height.

"– but Ike had all his boys round him, see, only no one really knew what to do, so then Ike starts talking –"

"– calling him names, and like –"

"– and it just kept getting quieter and quieter –"

"– and Spot's just standing there, still tapping his stick, just like –"

"– tap tap, tap tap tap –"

"Whoa," said Jack, holding up his hands like a surrender. Racetrack stood, frozen, next to him, his lips so thin they'd disappeared into his mouth. Jack considered gauging what that meant, but decided on, "Just tell me the important bits. What happened to Ike?"

Dutchy shook his head so violently his cap twisted. "No, see, that's the thing –"

"– so Ike goes all red in the face, like –"

"Hey, am I tellin' this story or are you shitheads?" Dutchy demanded, and glared at Boots and Skittery till they went muttery and quiet. He rounded back to Jack. "So Ike's goin' on and on right? Calls his mom a whore, says his dad's a pimp, says all sorts of nasty things about his sister–"

"He's got a sister?" Jack asked.

Dutchy waved his hands. "Who knows? Don't stop Ike from calling her a two-bob cunt though."

Some boys twittered nervously, but were quickly shushed. Dutchy went on, "So he finally stops, and he's breathing all hard, like, but Spot ain't saying anything, and so then Ike just shouts, 'Well?!'

"And Spot keeps tapping, for, like, a half a minute more, and then he stops. And then he says, cool as you like –" Dutchy pulled up his chin and looked down his nose in an expression that made Race wince "– 'Brooklyn says "hi"'. And then he leaves. No fight, nothing, he didn't even do nothin', not even –"

"Oh, he did something," Racetrack muttered, but Jack was distracted by his boys, and only glanced back at him for a half-second of partial comprehension before being swamped into the group.

Ike didn't last out the year, but no one could know that yet. For now, there was just the story – passed from whisper to whisper, ear to ear, making its way all throughout the city, the words changing, the details, the myth – and the image, conjured with no great accuracy, of Ike Donnelly, standing bereft and abandoned in the middle of a lodging house room, watching as his best chance for freedom walked out the door and left him in his place.

---

It was going on two weeks after Grandpa Ike got his visit, and things had seemed to finally quiet down. Roosevelt was kicking up support for a war with the Dagoes, papers were selling good, and every second conversation wasn't about Spot Conlon. Race was still around, sure, but no one minded too much anymore. He seemed at last to be falling back into his old self again, and the Manhattan newsies liked that guy. Racetrack had always been the guy who'd talk your ear off and the guy next to you's, for good measure. Stories, anecdotes, bad advice for the tracks, and dumb jokes that had even the bairns rolling their eyes: never the same thing twice, his adenoidal Brooklyn patter just under the permanent laugh in his voice.

But then the Bronx started up. They also wanted words with Brooklyn – had for some time – but like Queens, hadn't had the gall or opportunity, in Roacher's time. When this got around to Jack, he tried to stop it, tried to pass on that on no uncertain terms should they try to challenge Brooklyn City on this matter, no matter how diplomatically-minded their new king seemed. But when the Bronx had sent back that Manhattan should keep its goddamned nose out of other people's business, Race had sworn a streak so blue he nearly got himself kicked out of the lodging house.

The beef was this: a year ago last summer, a knife fight had broken out just outside Eastern Park between a couple of Bronx kids and a group of Brooklyn boys. Things went as things always went, and one of the Bronx kids got stabbed in the face. He was okay now, minus an eye, but the Bronx wanted blood. Eye for an eye, they said. It was only fair.

"Since when has Brooklyn cared about 'fair'?" Racetrack said, jittering around his cigarette like he was coming down with a cold. "Since when did Jimmy McNulty care about 'fair'? And why ain't Injun Jeff talking him out of it?"

"Injun's only got the East Bronx and Jimmy's been itchin' for a fight ever since his kid brother got knifed," Jack told him lowly.

Racetrack hissed in disgust and nearly dropped his smoke, trying to flick off the ash. "This is why Brooklyn thinks you're a joke," he spat. "Great City of New York, and you dumbasses can't even get your own goddamn neighborhoods in line, it's goddamn pathetic, it's a goddamn–"

The other boys were scattered around the lodging room, staring fixedly at their playing cards and lacing up their boots with great intensity. Jack's mouth pinched flat across his face and he pulled Racetrack to his feet, dragged him downstairs for a walk around the corner.

Outside the house, Race was still edgy and full of nerves, but better. "This ain't gonna be pretty, Cowboy," he said, stopping to fumble for his matchbook. "You get it, right? He's gotta show them that he looks after his boys."

Jack stopped with him and leaned back against a crumbly brick wall. The space between tenements was strung thick with laundry waving limply in the sticky summer evening, but through the gaps in the sheets and shirts and underpants, you could almost see the sun. Jack liked to imagine that there's a place somewhere on earth where you could just look up anywhere and see all the colors of the sunset spread across the sky. Somewhere where the stink and the noise and the glare of New York couldn't block out the horizon.

A couple dollars, a couple years, a couple hundred miles would do it, and he'd be gone. No more boys looking to him for answers, no more newsprint staining his hands. No more pennies dropped into sewer grates, no more boy kings posturing for power. Just him alone, as he was meant to be, no one asking a thing of him. Free.

"Yeah, Race," he said quietly. "I get it."

Racetrack looked up at him. The expression on his face was hunted and pained. "We gotta stop this, Jack. Someone's gonna get hurt."

Privately, Jack took one last look at his dreams, and then he put them away, like shutting a door. This wasn't the life for dreaming, anyway. "This Spot Conlon," he said, taking a breath, "he'd kill again?"

"Yes," Race answered savagely. He knew Jack didn't believe him entirely and Race didn't blame him: he wasn't one of his, and Race wouldn't believe him either, in Jack's shoes. But when Racetrack had said he knew Spot Conlon, he knew him: straight from the start, through thick and thin, through shit and through shitter, all the way up until that day, that moment when he didn't any more.

Jack blinked, astonished at the ferocity of Racetrack's certainty. Plenty of guys talked about killing, but it was always just that, just talk. If Spot Conlon killed Roacher Weiss, no one believed it. Half of Jack's boys were still holding out for proof, while the other half juggled conspiracies that Roacher had run off the join the circus, or the vaudeville circuit, or had been eaten by a shark. But there was something about the stillness of Racetrack's shoulders, the bloodlessness in the line of his mouth that spoke of truth, and Jack believed him.

"All right," he said. "I'll see what we can do." Carefully, he laid a palm along the back of Racetrack's neck, and Race flinched, but didn't recoil.

---

The Lower East Side wasn't the biggest territory on the map, nor the most populous, but it had Jack Kelly, and Jack Kelly had clout. So when Jack Kelly said that Jimmy McNulty's band of Bronx newsies were barred from crossing the bridge into Brooklyn, Jimmy McNulty was barred. At least for a while.

"If I got you across the bridge, do you think you could talk him down?" Jack asked Racetrack. "I can hold Jimmy off for a couple days, maybe even till the weekend, if Jimmy's feelin' respectful, but that's it."

"We gotta make sure he gets word of it first," Race told him. "Can't just march in there out of nowhere, half-cocked. If he don't know we're comin', there ain't no way he's gonna see us."

"Yeah, all right," Jack assented, "how do we do that?"

Racetrack tipped his head and looked out onto the street. During the day, it all seemed so distant; to all the people who saw them, they were just boys, all of them, hawking headlines, persistently obnoxious, occasionally barefoot, and interchangeably grubby. But the truth of the matter, the real intricacies of their lives, was never far out of sight, if only they knew where to look. There, sure enough, on the corner, was a bootblack with his box, leaning against a post, holding terribly still and quiet.

"Here, hold these," Race said and handed Jack his papes.

Jack watched as Racetrack walked over to the boy, watched him clap him on the shoulder with a friendly hand that turned swiftly into a fist when the boy tried to run. Racetrack said something quickly and the boy stopped struggling, wide-eyed, as Race smoothed down his shirt in a reassuring sort of motion. The boy looked wary, his body half-turned, but he nodded as Racetrack spoke and, when Race eventually let him go, he fled without a glance back.

"Who was that?" Jack asked when Racetrack came back and collected his papers.

Race smiled, and it was only a little bit mean. "A little birdie," he said.

The next day, the boy was back on the corner, and when Race walked back over to talk to him, he relayed a short message with only a modicum of twitching, and then he picked up his box and left.

"He's expecting us," Race told Jack. "We can cross over tonight."

They only sold fifty papes between them that day – Jack distracted by Manhattan's potentially bruised friendship with the Bronx and Racetrack with the idea of going home for the first time in just over a month – but it was enough to tide them over till the next day, so that was all that mattered.

When afternoon came and the sun began to sink over the rooftops, Jack left Racetrack outside the lodging house while he went up to tell his boys where he was going and what he'd be doing.

"You're going into Brooklyn with just Racetrack?" Boots asked, taken aback.

"You want one of us to come with you, Jack?" Mush said, his brow twisted with concern.

"Don't think this is a good idea," Skittery added, and then appended, "I mean, Racetrack's good people, and all, but he ain't exactly one of us, you know."

Jack frowned. "Hey, what is this?" he demanded. His eyes swept around the room, and everyone who was looking at him now suddenly looked away. It wasn't that they didn't feel for Racetrack; exile was a lot for anyone, even if it was self-imposed. And it might've been easier to trust him if he was one of them now, but he wasn't, and now he was going back: it was as if he was never their problem in the first place.

Jack wasn't so easy to placate though. "The guy's been staying with us for a month now, and he ain't stolen anything, he's started no fights, he's paid his own rent and sold his own papes. Specs, for chrissake," he turned and waved, incredulous, "he bunked with you. And Dutchy, he let you bum his smokes."

"He's an all right guy," Crutchy emphasized, hobbling over to stand next to Jack. "But Jack, we've only seen him here on our side of the bridge. You sure you know what he's like when he's at home?"

Jack laughed, a sudden burst of sound. "He's not gonna stab me as soon as we cross the bridge, Crutch, he don't even own a knife. He's our friend," he said. "He needs our help."

Crutchy raised his eyebrows. "Is he askin'?"

Jack shook his head. "No, Crutch, I am."

"Well if he ain't askin', we ain't helpin'," Crutchy said with a firm and resolute nod. "Brooklyn ain't gonna owe us nothing if we help one o' theirs and they don't ask."

Jack looked out at his boys, that familiar collection of small, dark, unwashed faces, and tried to muster words for them, some cajoling rouse to friendship or camaraderie, of solidarity toward their fellow man, but they all rang hollow, even in his own ears. They weren't men. These were kids. They couldn't feel the weight of responsibility because it hadn't dawned on them that they had any. They didn't understand the worth of a life because they were still only playing at theirs. Their little lives, their little concerns, and the familiar streets of Lower Manhattan were a big enough world for them.

It was quick and it was sudden, but Jack was struck, then, by the pointlessness of it all. What was he involving them for anyway? Jack ran things for them; they let him. That was the extent of their participation. The whole world out there, and they didn't want to look past their own doorstep.

Coolly, he told them, "You guys're better than this."

The uncomfortable quiet shifted to a stony silence. Crutchy raised his chin to him. "Maybe," he said, waving his crutch dismissively. "But it ain't our business." He turned away, but added, over his shoulder, "Good luck to ya then, Cowboy. Can't say we didn't warn ya."

The others murmured in agreement. Jack set his mouth. "Yeah, and your mother's," he muttered and left.

---

It was a mile walk over Brooklyn Bridge. It took half an hour if you took your time, but with Jack reluctant to leave his city and with Racetrack inexplicably dragging his heels, it took just under an hour. By the time they got there, the sun was burning red and low over the horizon.

"Roacher did his business on the docks," Race told Jack distractedly as they walked down towards the water. The line of tension in his spine had stiffened steadily as they walked, and now, as they approached the river, he stood ramrod straight, like he was being led by bayonets.

But there was no one to meet them, not even when they passed through Fulton Landing, and the dusty, anonymous streets of Vinegar Hill let them slip through unchallenged. Without eyes to watch them, they were just two more faces in the crowd, ducking their heads past the coppers on their horses, stepping between factory workers and night shifters. There wasn't a single street boy or newsie in sight.

When they got to the docks, they found them, too, deserted, except for some shipyard men lounged atop of a cluster of barrels, and a group of kids stripped down to their long johns, swimming.

Racetrack's steps had quickened as they walked, but now he slowed and stopped. "I don't get it, if he's not here –" Racetrack's bewilderment froze on his face when one of the boys, hearing their approach, turned to face him.

"Higgins?" he called. "That you?"

Racetrack smiled, but slowly, in increments, like he was piecing it together as he went along. "Hiya Sweets," he said, and waved a little.

"Shit, it is you." Sweets flung an arm out over the end of the pier and hoisted himself up. "Race, where you been?" He pattered over across the planks in wet footsteps, his dark hair dripping into his eyes. Race waited as Sweets tried to dry his hand on his wet pants, and then they spat on their palms and shook. "You just' disappeared," Sweets said good-naturedly. "We thought maybe you'd died."

Racetrack shrugged. "Had to get out of the city for a while," he intoned. "It was getting a bit heavy."

Sweets looked taken aback. "Heavy? For you? What're you talking about, it was you and Spot, wasn't it? You guys went in together and –"

"Hey, yeah, speakin' of Spot," Racetrack said quickly. He could see Jack looking at him in his peripheral vision, the look on his face intent. "Figured he'd be down here, but apparently he ain't. You know where he does business these days?"

"Yeah, sure," Sweets said, but the tone of his voice had turned suspicious. "He's up by the warehouses, where you guys used to hustle cards. Who's this?" He gestured at Jack with his chin and a watchful glare.

"Kelly," Jack said, spitting and holding out his hand. "Jack Kelly. Spot invited me."

Sweets took his hand and squeezed a couple measures harder than strictly necessary. "Jack Kelly," he said. He eyed him with a predator's intent. "Kelly," he repeated. "Yeah, I heard of you. You're the one who tried to keep Jimmy McNulty from crossing the bridge."

Jack's fist clenched. Sweets hissed in pain, but Racetrack ignored him. "Wait," he demanded, pushing past Jack. "Whaddya mean, 'tried to'? You mean McNulty's here?"

Sweets yanked his hand back and flexed it gingerly. "Yeah, Jesus," he said, fully wary now. "Got here about an hour ago. Had about six too many guys with him, but Spot said to let 'em pass. They got the welcome party and everything."

Racetrack grabbed Jack's elbow. "We gotta get to the warehouses," he said. His face had gone pale beneath his sun-baked complexion, and his eyes were round as coins. "That stupid punk kid McNulty's gonna get himself killed."

They saved their breath for running, but Race could feel Jack's questions burning holes in the back of his head. Race didn't have anything to say to him, any explanations he wanted to hear. Jack wasn't from around here; he didn't have any stake in how things turned out. Jack could always go home. And if he wasn't Race's friend anymore at the end of the day, then so be it. More important, though, was that Spot had lied to them and tricked them, and Racetrack wasn't even sore about it, just afraid.

The shouting rang out a full industrial block away from the fight, and once his ears picked up on it, Race picked up the pace, sprinting as if it was his life on the line, not McNulty's.

"Hey, Racetrack!" one of the lookouts called.

"He's alive?"

"Racetrack, buddy, you can't–" Someone grabbed him by the vest and held on, even when Race's forehead collided with his chin in the struggle.

"Jack!" Race shouted, and Jack – with his six inch, thirty pound advantage – tore them apart and Race made a break for the warehouse.

Brooklyn newsies were school-circled around in rings of whooping raucousness, a thrashing mass of pumping fists and shouted obscenities. When Race tried to push past them, they barely noticed.

"Yeah, kill 'im!" someone shouted. There was a yell of pain that cut through the cacophony, and the crowd roared. Race's efforts redoubled, his heart like a living thing in his throat, choking his breath.

"Lemme through!" he yelled, crushed between the press of bodies closing in around him. "Chrissake!" He dug his elbow into someone's kidney and that cleared enough space to get him a good grab at the back of another boy's shirt. Pulling on him to lever himself, and in one last shove, Race burst to the front of the crowd with a stumble.

There was McNulty, his white shirt streaked red with blood, knife in hand. He looked like he'd taken a couple of punches to the face: his eyelid drooped and his lip was bleeding, and he swung in wide, disjointed arcs like a drunkard. But then there was Spot, his hat discarded but otherwise pristine, standing there, swaying, not ten feet away from where Race had barged through the line. His own knife he held loose in one hand one moment and then the other in the next.

"Come on!" Spot would taunt when he'd backed up against the wall of bodies, and McNulty would lunge, miss, and get clipped in shallow slices as Spot dodged around him with alaudine ease.

Spot had always fought with an economy of motion that made him difficult not to watch. He had a certain surety in bearing that made it seem like he knew what you were doing before you did. It started with a creeping in the eyes that took over his face, focused his movement until he was one fine edge, knife-like. Race didn't know where he'd learnt it, or if he'd learnt it at all; it was a skill he'd acquired before they'd ever met, but it was the easiest thing to admire about him and the first thing Race had learnt to despise.

"Stop it!" Race shouted, but his voice was lost in the calls for "Get on with it!" and the agreements of "Yeah!" "Let him have it!" that followed.

Race cupped his fingers around his mouth, even as Spot carved a new line of blood down McNulty's forearm. "Spot!"

Spot looked up and around, his straw-colored hair loose around his ears and stringy with sweat. For a moment, it seemed as if he'd heard Racetrack through the din, but in the next, Spot stepped past McNulty's knife and punched him square in the chest with one balled fist. McNulty reeled, and the crowd jeered.

"Kill 'im!" came the cry again. Spot spun his knife.

"No!" Racetrack screamed. "Spot! No!" and Spot looked over, scanned the crowd, met Racetrack dead in the eye –

That's when the whistles sounded. "Police! Stay where you are! Hands where we can see them!"

The crowd leapt apart as one.

"Shit, it's the bulls!"

"Go! Go! Leg it!"

Bodies pressed towards the exits, dipping and diving through cracks and broken wall-slats. The whistles shrieked in discordant unity and boys screamed and hollered and Spot just stood there looking at Race, eyes pale and bare and unblinking, and Race just looked back.

But then McNulty swayed to his feet, slurring, "You slimy boggy bastard," punch drunk and bleeding from a dozen-and-a-half places but still rushing forward, knife raised, ready to strike.

Racetrack's body reacted on instinct faster than his mind did. "Watch out!" he shouted, and threw himself at McNulty's side. McNulty yelped and twisted and Race felt metal cut through his shirt and skid across his shoulderblade in one blind moment of panic and pain.

"What the hell?" McNulty growled. He shoved his hand under Race's chin.

"Don't you fucking touch him!" came a snarl, and there were fists yanking at McNulty, smashing into his face, gathering Racetrack to his feet, gripping his forearms in five-point vices. "Did he get you?" Spot demanded, shaking him a little, his face suddenly much too close.

Racetrack shook his head but said nothing except, "We gotta go, Spot, they're gonna catch us, we gotta go," because it was never any use lying to Spot anyway, and he didn't have time to waste. He just dug his fingertips into Spot's arms and held on.

Spot nodded, kicked McNulty once more for good measure. Then he took Race's hand. "Let's go," he said, and they ran.

---

next


Here's an experiment not meant to offend anyone: if you like this fic, rec it to your friends, because I'll post the next chapter

a) upon 100 pageviews (I'll keep count for everyone since I'll be x-post spamming this to, like, 3 different platforms)
b) upon receiving 300 (cumulative) words in comments which I hope isn't being unreasonable
c) in the most plausible circumstance, in exactly 1 month (July 30th) since I sincerely doubt this'll draw enough traffic for either a) or b)

Because goddamnit, I'm a feedback whore, I want attention, and I totally apologise for that, sorry.

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