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Authors: Kate Milford

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BOOK: The Broken Lands
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He brushed the dust from his sleeve with fingers tipped with nails that had been filed to points. It had been about a week since the man had last used those nails to mark a hand of cards, though, so the points were dulling a bit.

With the handle of the bag in one fist and his slim wooden gambler's case under his other arm, he joined the stream of holidaymakers spilling onto the platform at the Sea Beach Palace and surveyed his surroundings. To the west, he knew, were the streets of Norton's Point, full of thieves and gamblers and criminals hiding from the law. A few miles to the east, wealthy guests lounged in the grand new hotels, where piers stretched like manicured fingers into the water. The expanse in between, the bright festal wilderness of West Brighton, was given over to bathers, garish painted banners, grifters, mugs of lager that were two-thirds froth, questionable intentions, and carousels.

Taken all together, this jumble of folks, rich and poor and working and thieving, was Coney Island, the notorious seaside town just south of Gravesend, Long Island.

The black-eyed man leaned on the rail watching, listening, and acclimating while he inhaled the brew of sea air and coal smoke. There was something else in the air, too; a deep note, buried far below the scents and sounds that stirred on the summer breeze. It would've been nearly impossible for anyone else to detect. Humans were notoriously blind to the simmer of violence—which always amused him, considering how like a drug it was to them.

The freckled and black-eyed man, not being human, could smell it as sharply as cologne. It was pervasive here, just like it was everyplace else he'd been in this country in the last twenty years, at least. Maybe more. It was easy to lose track of the passing time. He was far older than the flashy young fellow he appeared to be.

This year, though . . . this year it was
. It had been building through the long years of Reconstruction; it had kept on building during the years of depression; and this summer it was as if it had been incorporated into the very molecules of the air. In the rebuilding South, in the growing West, even here in the North where folks claimed to be so very civilized. Silty, flinty, stony, metallic, the scent was edged with the smell of human sweat . . . and yet sweet, like the perfume of overripe fruit just before it turned and began to rot.

He stood there until the platform cleared, and then he remained a few minutes longer. At last he sighed, picked up the carpetbag and the wooden case, and started in the direction of the beach.

There was still plenty of daylight left, but long shadows were stretching across the sand as he trudged toward the relative dark below the ferry pier, rolling his eyes at the squeals of girls in their woolen bathing costumes and little boys chasing each other through the surf.

In the gloom beside the pilings, the man dropped the carpetbag. He peeled off his suit jacket, draped it carefully over the bag, sat and leaned back against it as if it were a pillow. He removed glittering cuff links and rolled up his sleeves, folded freckled arms across his chest, and closed his eyes.

Then he winced and swore as a blow caught him between the shoulder blades. He sat up straight and punched the bag with his elbow. “Patience, you moldy old bastard,” he hissed. Then he sat back against the bag again, harder this time.

Nothing to be done until sunset.

Wooden Nickels at the Reverend Dram

sat on an alley between Mermaid Avenue and the beach, just a bit closer to the dodgy end of Coney Island than most visitors were comfortable with. Unless, of course, they had come to town to visit the rough parts. There were plenty of folks who came just to see why the Brooklyn newspapers liked to rant and rave about how indecent and wicked certain areas of Coney Island were.

Sooner or later, those folks usually wound up here in Mammon's Alley: a string of dancing halls, open-fronted saloons, gaming dens, shooting galleries, dubious hotels, catchpenny amusement stalls, and fakirs' booths all lined up, stacked one on top of the other, and jumbled together, with banners overhanging the lot. It was peopled by hootchy-kootchy dancers in see-through bloomers, short-skirted singers who pestered patrons to buy drinks for them between songs, and bronze-skinned fortunetellers and character readers whose complexions tended to rub off as the night wore on. Local color was provided by assorted confidence men, professional gamblers, hoisters, harlots, and sharpers. If visitors got bored with all this, there were barkers inviting them behind closed doors, and who knew what you might run into there. Nothing you'd want your mother to find you looking at, certainly.

Sam felt a little self-conscious leading the old man named Tom into the alley—it wasn't as bad as, say, Norton's Point, but between the August heat and the drinkers that had been at it since late morning, it already smelled like warm garbage and stale beer; the talkers were already out trying to hustle customers into their dodgy places of business; and a few overpainted ladies propped up at saloon counters were calling out into the streets in search of their next drinks. “Sorry about—hey!” Sam sidestepped a lurching drunk and put out a hand to keep Tom from falling over the man as he sprawled headlong across their path. “Your friend sure picked a rough spot to meet. The Dram's okay, though.” Sam nodded up ahead to where a shingle over a relatively quiet doorway depicted a joyful nun dancing on a barrel, her habit hiked up over stocking-clad knees.

Inside, the saloon was not merely quiet; it was basically deserted. Besides the proprietor, the barman polishing the mahog­any counter, and the slouching piano player, there was exactly one customer, a bleary-eyed fellow who turned and eyed Tom as he followed Sam in out of the noise and sour reek of the street.

Sam stiffened. You could just tell when someone was about to say something all-fired stupid, and the sole patron didn't disappoint. “Since when did this turn into a watering hole for old buffaloes, Jasper?”

Jasper Wills, the proprietor, sat in a big old chair in the corner. He looked up from his newspaper, took in the situation with one glance, and shook his head with a look of disgust on his face. “I swear, this part of the business makes me sick. I allow a fellow can be forgiven for thinking I'll put up with anything and anyone for a few more nickels in the till, but I swear, for two bits I'll sell the place this minute and be done with the whole thing.” He turned to the pianist. “Walt, I'll sell you the place this minute for two bits.”

The pianist, craggy-faced and stubble-jawed under a battered old homburg, swiveled on the stool to survey the bar, the man who sat there, and Sam and Tom in the doorway. “Make it a nickel and you're on.”


The pianist turned to the barman. “Matty, you got a nickel I can borrow?”

“I think there's a couple nickels in the till,” the barman said. He pushed a button and the cash register popped open with a
. He tossed a coin to the pianist. “Here you go.”

“Here you go, Jasper.” The pianist tossed the coin to Wills.

“All yours, Walt.”

The pianist stood up, stretched, pushed his hat back on his brow, and straightened his suspenders. Then he faced the customer at the bar. “To answer your question, fella, it's a watering hole for anybody who isn't a complete ass-hat. Now, get out of my place.”

Sam snorted in an effort to hold in a shocked laugh.

The man at the bar about fell off his stool. “You can't be serious.”

“Mosey off,” Walt said, folding his arms and leaning against the piano. “Take your beer if you feel strongly about it. Won't even charge you for the glass.”

The customer did not, in the end, choose to take his glass of beer. He gathered his hat and coat and stalked past Sam and Tom, muttering under his breath about coons getting above themselves in this town. Sam restrained himself from aiming a kick at the man's backside.

“Come on in, mister,” Walt said. “Welcome to my fine establishment, and excuse the rabble. The previous owner was a little low-class about who he served.”

“Say, Walt.” Jasper examined the nickel. “This thing's wooden.”

“Hell,” Walt muttered. “Gotta add that to the list. Find a barkeep who can spot a wooden nickel.” He gave Tom a severe look. “You try to pay with any wooden nickels, mister, you're out on your tail, too. That's where I draw the line.”

“Guess that means it's still my place, actually,” Jasper said lazily, flipping the nickel over his knuckles. “Get back to the damn piano, Walt. Matty, get this gent a beer, would you? He's looking thirsty.”

“Ass-hat?” Sam asked the pianist.

“Made it up myself just now,” Walt said. “You like it, Sam? It's yours, anytime you want.”

“Used to have some guy who claimed to be a musician around here someplace,” Jasper mused from his chair.

Walt sighed, adjusted his battered hat, and turned back to the piano. As he began to play, the man named Tom paused in the act of unslinging the guitar from his shoulder and looked at him sharply.

“Something wrong?” Walt asked without looking up from the keys. Sam glanced from the pianist to the old man and back, trying to figure out how Walt had known his playing had gotten a reaction while he was sitting with his back to the bar.

“I like that song, is all,” Tom said slowly. “Didn't realize anybody else knew it.”

“Did you write it?” Walt asked casually.

“Nope,” Tom answered. “Just sorta picked it up somewheres not too long ago.”

“Didn't you figure somebody had to have written it?”

“You saying you did?”

“Nope. Sorta picked it up myself ages back. But I figured somebody had to have made it up, and that there was always the possibility I might run into somebody who'd at least heard it before.”

“Well, now you have.”

Walt turned to peer over his shoulder, eyes bright under the brim of his hat. “You play?”

Tom nodded at the guitar. “Yep.”

Walt looked him over. The moment stretched and threatened to become awkward. Then Walt nodded once and turned back to the keys. “Sometime we should play together, you think?”

Tom smiled with a quick flash of teeth. “Could do,” he agreed. “Tom Guyot.”

“Walter Mapp.” The pianist and the old man shook hands, and whatever it might've been, the awkward moment became companionable instead.

Matty straightened and tried to look like he hadn't been listening. “What'll make you happy, sir?”

“Sure would like a whiskey and quinine.”

“Then today's your lucky day.”

While Matty poured the drink, Sam slid onto the stool next to Tom. “You said you were meeting somebody, sir?”

“That's right.” Tom paused to accept his glass of whiskey and tonic from the bartender. “Ice and all! You're mighty kind, now.” He sipped and closed his eyes. “Tastes so much better these days than it used to.”

“When?” Sam realized the bartender was giving him a forbidding look. “What?” Matty reached across the bar and smacked him in the forehead.

Tom laughed. “That's all right, I don't mind. In the war, Sam. We took quinine against disease. The whiskey made the medicine go down a little easier, and some of us just got a taste for the two together.”

“You fought?” Sam tried to keep the skepticism out of his voice. Tom was
. Even twelve years ago he would've had to have been the oldest man on the battlefield.

“That's right. Served an officer till I was allowed to enlist with the United States Colored Troops, but by then I'd already been fighting a goodly time. I was at Shiloh alongside the fellow I'm meeting, then at Resaca; all of that before I was even offi­cially a soldier.”

Sam didn't know that much about the War Between the States, but it seemed to him that he'd heard of the battle of Shiloh, which meant it had to have been one of the more bloody ones.

“So, yes, I'm meeting a fellow. If he ever shows up, that is.” Tom took another sip from his glass. “Gentleman by the name of Ambrose. Coming out from California, I believe.”

“Which is,” a voice in the doorway snapped, “a decently long trip to make. One would imagine there would be some forgiveness if a fellow turned up fifteen minutes late after such a jaunt.”

Walt played a little fanfare on the piano while the newcomer, a blond man somewhere in his thirties, dropped a pair of valises and crossed the room to embrace Tom at the bar. “You,” he said, holding the older man at arm's length, “haven't changed a bit.”

“That ain't so.” Tom grinned. “Just, when you get to be my age, nobody can tell how old you are anyhow.”

“But it's been ages,” Ambrose protested, vague surprise in his voice. “Don't take this the wrong way, Tom, but I was shocked to find out you were still alive.”

Walt's fanfare transitioned smoothly into the song he'd been playing earlier. Sam saw the black man's eyes flick briefly toward the pianist. Then he grinned at Ambrose and shook his head. “After what we survived, you thought I'd give up the ghost that quick? Something wrong with you?” He turned to the barman. “Say there, how about a drink for my friend?”

“Same thing?” Matty inquired.


Jasper Wills ambled to the bar, reached across without looking, and produced a dusty bottle and a glass for himself. “You in town for the bridge, like everybody else?”

“No, for a reunion.” Ambrose raised his glass to clink Tom's. “Veterans of Resaca, over at the Broken Land Hotel.”

“No fooling. I would've pegged you for a newspaperman.”

Ambrose frowned into his glass, sighed, and drained it. “Well, you're not wrong about that,” he said bitterly. “What gave me away?”

“Are you kidding? I can smell a newspaperman a mile away,” Jasper said. “Used to be one. Then I got the idea that I'd like to run a saloon for my retiracy. You see where that got me.”

BOOK: The Broken Lands
10.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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