Who The Hell Are You?
February 19, 1896
"Who the hell are you?" Spot glared at the boy sitting in his place at the table.
"You must be Spot," the boy answered, not bothering to look up. "I'm not pleased to meet you."
"Got a smart mouth, don't you, kid?" Spot walked forward and smacked the cap off his head.
"That was a stupid thing to do," the boy said, setting down his cards and pushing back his chair.
"Sit down," Mouse growled, his eyes never leaving his cards. "You should know better than to go messing around with me friends, Spot. Especially with Racetrack here."
Spot blinked and fought to keep control of his temper. He'd never seen this Racetrack around before and so how was he supposed to know where he ranked? But then, that sort of comment was typical of Mouse. He made a game out of making a boy feel as stupid as possible. Still, Mouse was the boss and Spot didn't want to do anything to upset him.
He tamped down on a sarcastic comment and gave the new boy a good once over instead, making it clear how little he liked what he saw.
"Racetrack?" he said with a smirk. "What sort of a name is that?"
"Mine." Racetrack pushed a penny onto the table. "And I don't see how you can talk, seeing as how you go by Spot."
"Shut up, Spot," Mouse said and tossed down a coin.
Spot scowled and moved around the table, pulling up a chair on Mouse's right side. He didn't have the prize seat directly across from the boss, but he was still next to him and that wasn't too bad. He nodded at Rotter and Fagan, but gave Ginger a cold stare. Ginger owed him money and Spot was pretty sure he wasn't going to pay up. Something was going to have to be done there, but that could wait.
Spot's eyes drifted around the table and he wasn't surprised when both Butcher and Poole scowled at him. He smiled in response, wondering what the pair of them were doing at a game hosted by Mouse.
Finally letting his gaze return to the new kid, Spot asked, "You been on vacation or something?" with a smug expression as he laced his hands behind his head. Racetrack chewed on his cigar and didn't bother to reply. Spot leaned back in his chair. "Didn't you hear me?" he asked.
"You might say that," Racetrack said without looking at Spot.
"What sort of an answer is that?" Spot challenged.
"The only one you're going to get." Racetrack removed his cigar and blew out a perfect ring of blue smoke.
Mouse spoke up before Spot could reply. "Race is old, Spot. We respect old. You, you're new. No one cares about new."
"If he's old then why haven't I ever seen him before?" Spot asked as he picked at the dry skin around his nails. He glanced around the table and pulled out his money bag. He pretended to count his pennies while he debated the wisdom of joining the game.
Mouse chuckled. "That's a long story, ain't it, boys?"
Across the table, Racetrack looked up, his face dark with anger. "One that don't need repeating." He jutted his chin out defensively and glowered at Mouse.
Mouse shook his head, a wicked gleam in his bright blue eyes. "Race got himself into a bit of a tiff with Lefty a ways back and it was decided that it was for the best if he took himself off to other parts."
Spot rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He didn't like Lefty, and anything that put that bastard's nose out of joint was something he approved of. "If he's on the outs with Lefty, then why's he here?" Spot asked as casually as he could, hoping that Mouse wouldn't divine his interest.
"In case you didn't notice, Lefty's not in charge here. I am. So I got to thinking, why should I have to miss having me friend Race around just because Lefty doesn't like him?"
Now it made sense. Lefty was, for all intents and purposes, Mouse's right hand man. But neither of the boys liked each other and it was the world's worst kept secret that Lefty was going to make a play for power in Brooklyn whether Mouse liked it or not. And Mouse most certainly did not. Typical of Mouse to find a way of letting Lefty know who was in charge without directly confronting him.
Spot sucked on his teeth, eyeing the way Race's fingers seemed to glide over the cards. A gamester, that one. A good one, too, if the faces of the other players were anything to go by.
Spot pushed his cap back on his head and let a grin slide across his face. "Well now, ain't that interesting," he mused. Race eyes narrowed but he bit back down on his cigar and didn't say a word. "I want in on the next hand," Spot said and then closed his eyes and pretended to relax.
"Are you always this lucky?" Spot asked after losing his third consecutive hand to Race.
Race grinned. "Luck's got nothing to do with it."
"You're right about that," Ginger muttered and Race felt a rush of pride, which he did his best to hide.
He didn't want to be in Brooklyn. Not after what had happened. And he didn't trust Mouse not to throw him under the wheels if it suited his purposes to do so. He glanced across the table, trying to read the other boy's expression and winced inwardly when he saw the tick in Mouse's cheek. Time to start losing.
With a sigh he tossed down the jack of spades as well as the ten, ruining his hand completely. He picked up two new cards, a two of hearts and a seven of clubs. Just grand. Now all he had was a pair of sevens. No way he would win now, not with the way these boys cheated. He put in two pennies, figuring he had better make a dent in the pile in front of him if he didn't want to have the same sort of trouble with Mouse that he had with Lefty.
Not that it was his fault.
Lefty thought he was a shark. Lefty thought he could hold his alcohol. How could Race be blamed for it if Lefty was wrong? He shifted in his seat, covertly looking at Spot. He was surprised to see Spot shooting the same sort of look at Mouse. That one has got something up his sleeve, he thought as he pushed another penny into the growing heap in the center of the table.
Race fought not to frown at his cards. He hated losing. Even when it was by choice. He bit down on his cigar, wished that Mouse's hospitality included something to drink, and wondered how much longer he would have to wait before leaving. Race really hadn't wanted to come. But Mouse had invited him and he wasn't fool enough to ignore it. He still had ties to Brooklyn, after all. Ties that he couldn't afford to lose.
He didn't want to come back and live in Brooklyn -- things were as sweet as they come where he was now -- but he did want to have free access to Sheepshead. And keeping on the good side of the leader was necessary, if unpleasant. So here Race was, purposely losing because Mouse didn't like to know that he wasn't the best, when he would much rather be playing a game for buttons with the boys back on Duane Street.
Race almost smiled when Mouse called and he got to toss aside his worthless hand. He was mildly surprised to see a hand shoot out, flipping over the two cards he had discarded earlier in the game. Following the hand back to its owner, Race gave a half shrug in response to Spot's uplifted eyebrows.
"You're not as stupid as you look," Spot said casually, mixing the cards in with the others.
Race sucked on the end of his cigar and blew a mouthful of smoke in Spot's direction. "That's funny, because you are."
"Cocky little bastard, aren't you?"
"Watch it, Spot," Mouse warned. He reached out and took the cards from Spot without so much as a by your leave and started to deal them. "I told you already, Race's me friend."
Spot shrugged. "Just making conversation," he replied as he picked up his cards.
"Race ain't much for conversation, Spot," Mouse said, flipping the ash from his cigarette onto Spot's shoes. "And I'm sick of hearing your mouth."
Race snorted. Mouse was a heavy-handed tyrant, but he had his moments. He scratched his chin and set about discarding anything that looked like it might have some promise. He gauged the shrinking pile of pennies in front of him and decided that two more hands would set him back far enough to appease Mouse and thereby earn him the right to leave without getting soaked.
Spot stared blankly down at the cards in his hand, trying not to show how sleepy he felt. It wasn't that long till sundown and he had spent most of his day tramping up and down Flatbush in a vain attempt to sell all of his copies of the late edition. He tapped a finger against the scarred surface of the table and shot a glance at Mouse. The older boy looked slightly irritated, but that was his normal facial expression, so Spot didn't learn anything from it.
Spot watched as Mouse pushed his grimy red hair back behind his ears and wondered where Lefty was. Must be having as hard a time as I was with those lousy headlines, Spot thought, shifting restlessly in his seat.
He glanced across the table and narrowed his eyes as he watched the way Racetrack's eyes darted around the room. It would not at all surprise him if Racetrack had a mental map of all the players' hands. Spot shifted again and stifled a yawn. He hated poker.
Spot stared at his cards and wished they were playing any other game. Gin, now that was his idea of fun. Or trumps. He always had a fine time playing trumps. It took more skill to win at those games. Poker, well you just had to have a bit of luck when the cards were dealt and a moderate ability to bluff. Not much skill in that.
Spot folded, and crossed his arms over his chest, tipping his chair back far enough that he could see the cards the boys on either side of him held. He frowned a little, and tapped the fingers of one hand against his bicep. How much longer is this night going to drag on?
He was a little surprised a few minutes later when Racetrack won again. Apparently, so was Racetrack. His eyes were a little too wide and his lips quirked downward -- not the typical reaction to having won a pot. Spot smirked at him and almost smiled at the frown that flashed across Racetrack's face.
Feeling much better than he had a second ago, Spot eagerly reached for the cards dealt to him and put more effort into the game then he had all night. Racetrack was trying to lose, but even when he was trying not to, he was still good enough win a few. That said something about his character. Either he thought all the players were as slick as he was or he anticipated that they would cheat. Spot was thinking it was the latter.
He discarded and managed not to flinch when he saw what the dealer gave him. That was it. This was his last hand. He didn't have enough money to spare to keep playing if he had no chance of winning. He looked down at the meager pile of pennies in front of him and decided he would lose five more before folding.
Three rounds later he was out.
"Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure," Race said and he pushed back from the table, his winnings secure in his bag. He'd lost half of what he had made, most of it to Mouse, and so he felt that no one could resent him if he left now. Plus, it was getting late and he didn't want to walk all the way to Manhattan in the dark with a pocket full of money.
"Going so soon?" Mouse raked his winnings towards him.
"It's gonna be dark soon," Race said lightly as he ground out his cigar. He put the remainder in his breast pocket for later.
Mouse tugged at his ear. "Can't have me friend wandering about by himself," he said with a gleam in his eye. "What if something happened to him? People might say that I don't know how to treat me friends. And I wouldn't want that, now would I?"
Race gave him a blank look, not sure where this conversation was headed. "I can take care of myself in a fight, if it comes to that," he said with a confidence he didn't feel. He could take care of himself, if the odds were even. But if Lefty did target him, the odds most definitely would not be even.
Mouse nodded his head agreeably. "That you can, Race. Still, it would be best if a couple of the boys went along with you. Sullivan, Poole and Conlon, you go with him. Make sure he makes it over the bridge with no trouble."
Race shrugged and walked towards the door, certain that the boys named would follow him. Conlon. That must be Spot. Sullivan was Butcher and Poole, well, Poole was Poole. Kind of the way Jack was Jack no matter how many times he tried to get Cowboy to stick. He turned his coat collar up as he stepped into the open air, shivering despite himself.
February, with snow on the ground and everything, and he was out walking about like it was the middle of July. Damn that Mouse and his invitations. He shoved his hands as far into his pockets and they would go and headed down Poplar, then turned onto Hicks, heading for the bridge.
Behind him he heard muffled swearing and he glanced over his shoulder in time to see Poole shoving Spot hard as he hurried to catch up. Spot stumbled but caught himself and gave Poole's back a look that ought to have laid the lanky boy out cold. Race saw Poole exchange a glance with Butcher and remembered too late that both of them had been friendly with Lefty back when Race still called Brooklyn his home.
He thought about the reasons that Mouse could have had for sending those two boys in particular. He thought for a second that Spot might have ties to Lefty as well, but considering the way Poole has pushed him and the dirty looks Butcher kept shooting him, that most likely wasn't the case.
He sighed and slowed down, figuring that he might as well walk alongside the others. At least that way he wouldn't have to worry about them coming at him from behind. "So," he said when they had caught up to him, "Anything interesting going on with you boys?"
Butcher snorted. "Not your business, is it?"
Race shrugged. "It's a long ways to go in silence, Butcher."
"It's a long ways to come and for nothing more then a poker game," Poole said slyly.
"Too long," Race said, keeping his voice neutral. "But Mouse, well he don't like hearing no."
Spot chuckled at that and Butcher jabbed him in the side. "Keep you mouth shut, Conlon."
"In trouble already are you, kid?" Race asked, sympathetic despite himself.
"Trouble," Poole said, glaring at Spot. "That's all he's been so far."
"Then we've got something in common," Race said with a smile. Spot lips twitched up into what would have been a reciprocal smile, if not for the nasty glint in his eyes.
"Not your kind of trouble," Butcher said shortly. "A body can tolerate that sort of trouble. No, Spot here is a different type all together. Thinks he's something, Spot does. Thinks he's got a right to just come around here and nudge his way into other people's places."
Spot's features tightened, but he made no response.
"He's new," Race said, not at all sure why he was defending the boy. "New kids can't help but step on a few toes."
"He's new, not stupid," Poole said.
"He's also standing right here," Spot said with a glare of his own.
Race gave him an appraising glance. "He's short and has an attitude, but I've seen shorter with a bigger one."
"What you think doesn't matter, Racetrack," Poole said with an edge that Race didn't like at all.
Race shrugged again. "Look, boys, I didn't want to come here any more then you wanted me to. I didn't ask for you to escort me out of Brooklyn, and I definitely didn't have anything to do with Spot joining the Brooklyn crew."
Butcher laughed and shook his head. "You weren't too bad, Racetrack. It's a pity you didn't know when to leave well enough alone."
Race smiled at that. "Well, my weakness is well known. I can't help myself when it comes to the cards." He gave an exaggerated sigh. "Next time, though, I won't fleece someone quite so big."
Poole laughed. "Don't worry about Lefty, Race. He's got more on his mind than you these days."
"No one minds you being out at Sheepshead," Butcher said, much more amicable than he normally was. "It's too long a walk for most of us to bother with. Not when there are spots just as good, better even, without going half as far."
"I never really thought of it as being a good spot, you know," Race said thoughtfully. "I just go for the ponies."
"You telling me that you walk all the way to Sheepshead to sell?" The disbelief was clear in Spot's voice.
"What's it to you?" Race asked.
"No, from the moon," he sneered.
Spot shook his head. "I was wrong about you being smarter than you look."
"No one asked you," Poole said, aiming a punch at Spot's shoulder.
Spot dodged the swing easily and said, "No one has to."
"Ain't that the truth," Butcher muttered.
"Well look at that, we're here already," Race said with no attempt to conceal his eagerness to be free of his de facto escort.
Poole stopped walking and pushed his cap back on his head. "Come on, boys, let's get back to where it's warm."
Butcher turned to his back on Race and started going down the street in the opposite direction, but Spot stood his ground.
"This ain't Manhattan," he said.
Poole shrugged. "Mouse never said to cross the bridge with him and I sure ain't going to do it for the fun of the thing. It's freezing here on the street and will be even colder out over the river."
"Besides, Lefty ain't waiting at the midpoint to push him over," Butcher said over his shoulder.
"I'm not leaving till he's in Manhattan," Spot said stubbornly.
"Fine by me," Poole said dismissively. "I wasn't relishing the idea of walking back with you anyway."
Race didn't particularly want to spend any more time then he had to in Spot's company, but he kept his opinion to himself. He had a pretty good notion that Spot's insistence that he accompany Race all the way to Manhattan proper had less to do with him thinking it was his duty and more to do with the dark looks the other two boys kept shooting at him.
Without a word of farewell, Butcher and Poole left. Race stood, watching them. When they rounded the corner he started up the ramp to the bridge, ignoring Spot. He even went so far as to quicken his pace in hopes of ending their journey all the faster. Poole was right. It was colder up on the bridge and Race shivered as he pulled his coat tighter against his body.
"Why are you all but running?" Spot asked after a few moments of silence.
"It's cold and the night is coming on fast."
"So, just because I'm not in Brooklyn it doesn't mean that the streets are suddenly safe."
"Especially not with the wad of cash you've got tucked away in the bag of yours."
Race frowned. "Keep it down, would you?"
"What, you telling me you have enemies on this bridge?"
"Nothing like that. I learned my lesson. I know to stop before things get out of hand. Still, it ain't smart to go running your mouth about money when you're out where anyone could here you."
"Yeah, well it ain't smart to fleece a guy like Lefty, either."
Race gave Spot a filthy look. "What do you know about it? You weren't around back then." He pushed up his coat, shoving his hands deep into his pockets in an attempt to warm them up.
"You had to leave Brooklyn on account of it. Anyone with brains would know it didn't work out to your advantage," Spot replied smugly.
Race clenched his hands. "Seems I put a little too much faith in Mouse's loyalty to his friends. Something I won't do again."
"Mouse ain't so bad," Spot commented as he hitched up his britches.
Race gave him a long suffering sigh. "You're new. Talk to me after you've spent some time with the boys." Spot opened his mouth to reply but Race cut him off. "Listen to me, kid. You're what, twelve? Thirteen tops. You've got a while till you can't be lodging in the house any more. Mouse, he's nearly eighteen. In a year and a half, two years at the most, he'll be told to find somewhere else to stay. You can bet he'll leave before that happens. A fella as smart as Mouse will have something waiting in the wings. When he leaves, Lefty is going to take over. And you don't want to be on his bad side when that happens."
"I'm fifteen," Spot said petulantly.
Race raised his eyebrows. "You don't look it."
"I'm taller than you," Spot said as if that settled the matter.
Race rolled his eyes. "You and everyone else in this damn city. But if you say you're fifteen then I'll believe you. It doesn't change the facts any. Lefty will take charge of Brooklyn, and he'll make life hell for anyone he ain't sweet on. So take my advice and make nice with the bum."
"Maybe Lefty won't be boss in Brooklyn," Spot muttered.
Race laughed. "Who is going to stop him? You?"
Spot scowled. "I can handle myself."
"Oh, aye," Race said mockingly. "Wee but fierce, are ye?" Spot let out a loud burst of laughter, and Race wasn't sure if it was his words or the atrocious accent that caused it.
"Wait and see," Spot said, still chuckling. "Wait and see."