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Authors: Kate Milford

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BOOK: The Broken Lands
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Sam lingered for a few more minutes, but that thing was happening where the adults in the room slowly began to forget he was there. It was what made him so good at dealing cards, that easy way people had of ignoring you when you were fifteen. You were old enough not to choke on popcorn, but too young to be considered part of a gathering of adults. You were either underfoot or invisible. Until you had their pocket money, of course. Underfoot, invisible, or a thief. Those were the options, basically.

He started for the door, trying not to feel annoyed. As he passed the piano, Walt glanced at him. “Chirk up, Sam.” The pianist's fingers didn't so much as stumble. “You did a good thing today.”

“Because I brought you somebody who'd heard some stupid song before, or because you got to own a saloon for thirty seconds thanks to me?”

“You allowed me to invent a brand-new insult,” Walt said, “and in return you get free use of it. That ain't nothing, you know.”

“Feels like it.”

“Most good things do,” Walt replied, his fingers weaving a pretty glissando. “Nothing feels like something till after everything's over.”

“Then what's the point?” Sam asked sourly.

The pianist nodded. “Hard to say.”

“Hey, there, Sam.” Tom disengaged himself from Ambrose and Jasper and crossed to where Sam stood in the crack of light from the open door. “Thanks for seeing me here. Figure I ought to have a tip for you, something like that—”

Sam shook his head and grinned. “I'll take it off a tourist once I get back to the cards.”

“Well, let's say it's a debt unpaid for the moment.” The old man held out his hand. “Hope to make good on it when I see you again.”

 

The sun was gone by the time Sam arrived back at the cramped house where he rented an attic room. The front door burst open before he'd managed to reach into his pocket for his key, and Mrs. Ponzi, gaunt and black-haired and severe, wagged her fin­ger, mock-scolding, at him from the front stoop. Sam closed his eyes briefly. He'd forgotten. It was Thursday.

“Saverio, you are late!” his landlady said. Sam submitted to a kiss on each cheek on his way into the parlor; Mrs. Ponzi might have looked like an old schoolteacher, but the second she spoke or smiled, the illusion was spoiled. Even now, though Sam was late for the only actual weekly obligation he had, his landlady couldn't manage a properly angry face.

Thursdays were dancing-lesson days. Mrs. Ponzi, after twenty years in New York, was still under the impression that her daughter, Ilana, had a decent shot at marrying a millionaire and would need to know how to waltz. Ilana Ponzi knew differently. Ilana was twelve, but she had been born and raised in Brooklyn before she and her mother had moved to West Brighton, and Brooklyn twelve was different from Old Country twelve. She knew being able to waltz more likely meant a job at a dance hall as soon as she could pass for sixteen, which probably wasn't that far off. She was tall and big-boned like her mother, and she'd also inherited a single dark gray lock in her black hair, which she wore tucked behind one ear and refused to darken with coloring rinse (discussions about this happened nearly every other week, and Sam had learned to be absent when they did, lest he be dragooned into the debate and asked to provide “a boy's opinion”).

Now the girl gave Sam an apologetic roll of her eyes. Sam grinned and shrugged. Dancing lessons were good for a few bits off his rent, and since Ilana was destined to marry an heir to the Astor fortune, he didn't have to worry about Mrs. Ponzi trying to play matchmaker with him.

“I offered to take your place, but evidently I'm too tall.” Constantine Liri leaned in from the passage to the dining room with a cup and saucer in his hand. He straightened and walked to one of the parlor's threadbare overstuffed chairs. He was seventeen, the Ponzis' other boarder, and an old friend of Sam's from back in the Brooklyn tenements of Smoky Hollow where the boys had both grown up.

The limp in his left leg, the result of the injury a year ago that had lost him his job working on the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, was barely noticeable today. His straw-colored hair was neatly combed and parted, and Sam recognized the trousers and shirt Constantine wore as his best outfit. He'd been out looking for work.

Sam gave him a questioning tilt of his eyebrow. Almost imperceptibly, his friend shook his head. No luck.

Sam and Constantine, Mrs. Ponzi and Ilana. Four transplants from Brooklyn made family by the strange phenomenon of boarding-house life.

He held out his arms to the girl while his landlady wound her ancient music box, and another day in Coney Island came to a close.

 

Back on the beach, the black-eyed man stirred among the shadows beneath the pier. It was full sundown. In a few minutes the giant arc lights mounted on poles along the beach would flare to life. It was time.

He got to his feet, dusted himself off, and pulled his jacket back on. As he did, he kicked the clasp of the carpetbag open with the toe of one shoe. Then he bent, picked up the bag, and dumped the contents into the sand. And what fell there was a heap of ancient, crumbling bones.

From his vest the black-eyed man pulled out a battered silver pocket watch that he tossed carelessly in among the pile of remains. He took a look around him to be sure he and the mound of bones were alone. Then he rolled his head on his shoulders as if he was working loose a very unpleasant cramp, looked at the pile for a long moment, and sighed deeply.

“Rise up and shake yourselves, bloody bones,” he said at last. “High Walker is here!”

A wind kicked up along the beach, sending hats and skirts and blankets whirling. The man shoved his flying hair out of his face and stepped back. Where the pile of bones had been, a swirling mass of sand was collecting into a shape.

The shape spun like a little tornado, pulling sand and pebbles and stray bits of seaweed inward, collecting broken shells, snips of paper, and twigs of driftwood, creating a denser and denser cloud that hovered at about the level of the black-eyed man's knees. It began to throb, to shift and pulse and mold itself. Little by little, it began to take shape.

The wind flowing up and down the beach began to diminish. The dark shape, still indistinct and fuzzy at the edges, unbent itself. A tall man stood up.

“Walker,” he said, voice gritting. “What is . . .” The man-shape stopped speaking and spat. “Sand? Is this
sand,
you sick bastard?”

“It's what was to hand,” the black-eyed man called Walker said easily. He reached into the carpetbag and took out a long blue felt coat. “You want to yell at me for where we are, or you want to get dressed?”

“Where is the crossroads?” The other man extended a sand-colored arm, the hand and fingers still forming as they reached for the coat. “What day is it?”

Walker hesitated. The tall man swirled the garment around his shoulders and slipped the watch into an inside pocket. Then he paused as he buttoned the coat and stared at his companion with eyes the mottled pearl-and-gray color of oyster shells. “Walker?”

“It's Thursday,” Walker said slowly. “It's August.” He smiled, clenching his teeth together behind his lips. “We have three days, Bones. Jack arrives Sunday night.”

“Three days?” Bones interrupted coldly. “Why? I was under the impression that we would get here with at least two weeks to spare before Jack came.”

“There was—”

“We took a riverboat,” Bones interrupted again, dusty lids lowering dangerously over his oyster-shell eyes. “I could feel the motion of the water. Was there by any chance a
casino
on that riverboat? Possibly some kind of gambling tournament you should have known there was no time for?”

“We don't have time for
this,
” Walker snarled. “We need to deliver a city ready for the claiming when Jack gets here. Let's get to moving.” He picked up his wooden case and stalked toward the buildings of Culver Plaza.

Bones took the empty carpetbag and followed. “Did you at least win?” he asked in his cold, gritty voice.

Walker smiled thinly. “I always win, don't I?”

 

“So who dealt you the strawberry?”

Sam touched the bruise on his cheekbone, shrugged, leaned back against the sill of his attic window, and stretched his legs out across the second-floor roof. “Some sharper. Probably get to the beach tomorrow and find myself at the wrong end of a blackjack.”

Constantine held out his hand. Sam took a deck of cards from his jacket pocket and passed them to him. He watched Con's fingers as the older boy split the deck, spun the half in his left hand, and shuffled. Some days, usually the same days his limp was worst, Constantine had trouble with cards. Today wasn't one of them, though. The moonlight caught card after card in a perfect fluttering cascade.

“What's the game?” Con shuffled again. “Coteccio, picquet, rumstick, briscola?”

A pale, grasping hand appeared over the edge of the roof, accompanied by a hissing voice. “Sam! Constantine!”

The two boys dove for the edge. Constantine grabbed the hand's bony wrist. Sam leaned over and peered down at Ilana Ponzi, clad in a nightdress and a sweater, balancing on her windowsill and grasping the frame with her free hand. “We're going to have to build her a ladder,” he muttered. “Give me your other hand, Illy.”

“I do not need a ladder!” came the indignant reply.

Together Sam and Constantine hauled Ilana up onto the roof, wincing at the sounds of her shoes scrabbling for toeholds. “Next time, leave your shoes off,” Sam suggested. “If your mother catches us up here—”

“Okay, okay.” Ilana crawled along the shingles until she could lean her back against the attic window, then began pulling wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches and cake slices from her sweater pockets. “What's the game?”

The Ponzi house faced northwest, away from West Brighton and toward Brooklyn and New York beyond that. Even now, in the summer, the house was fairly cool. Not like in Smoky Hollow, where as a boy Sam could tell when it was June because that was when the sunlight finally made its way into the room he and his father had shared. Back there, escaping to the rooftops had been just that—escape. You could cook to death on a hot day in one of the windowless back rooms, and most of those rooms held a whole family, sometimes more.

Here, though . . . here, there were only the two boys sharing the clean attic room with its two windows and plenty of ocean breezes to keep it cool. Still, old habits died hard, and the view from the roof was too good to pass up on a nice summer night. As long as they kept Ilana from falling off and breaking limbs, that is.

“What was that game Muhlhaus and his brothers used to play?” Constantine asked, picking through the pile of snacks Ilana had brought up.

“Tysiacha,” Sam recalled. “Yeah. You'll like this one, Illy. Take out all the cards lower than nine.”

Ilana frowned. “I want to learn one of your games, Sam.”


My
games?”
Oh, no.

Constantine slapped his forehead and shook his head. “Your mother's never going to forgive us if we turn you into a card sharp, Illy,” he said.

“But—”

“And did you happen to notice that someone nearly broke Sam's face today?” Constantine demanded.

Sam sat quietly and avoided looking at either of them while he picked the low cards out of the shuffled deck.

“I'm not going to start hustling cards,” Ilana protested.

“Not tonight you're not, anyway.” Con held out his hand for the pared-down deck. “We're going to play Tysiacha. You can play or not. Makes no difference to us.”

“Con, want to grab us something to keep score with?” Sam asked. “I'll deal.” Constantine nodded shortly and climbed back through the window without another word. Ilana watched with her arms folded and a scowl on her face. “He's just being protective,” Sam said quietly. He tapped his bruised cheekbone. “It's this he's bothered by. Not you. Not anything you did. Okay, Illy?”

She clutched her knees to her chest and nodded, but her face was red as a tomato.

Sam handed her the deck. “You deal. Three each, three in the pot, then one each until they're gone. Got it?”

“Yeah.”

“Back in a minute.”

He swung himself through the window into the attic, where Constantine stood over the desk the two of them shared, staring down at Sam's open gambling kit.

“Are you done?” Sam asked quietly. “There's a kid out there who thinks she just got yelled at.”

“So I teach another kid how to be a sharper, send her out so she can come back with a busted-up face while I sit in here with this stupid leg, this stupid arm—”

“Con, knock it off, it isn't your fault. I let my guard down. I know how to—”

“I'm not teaching her, and neither are you.” Constantine snatched a pencil off the desk and stalked past Sam to the window. “She can play with us, but no more stocks, no more palming cards, no more sharper tricks. No more talk from you about game logic or how to read a mark. Not until I'm well enough to keep an eye out for both of you. I can't stop you from playing, but I can stop her.”

Then he flinched, probably realizing how loud his voice had gotten. He scrambled for the window and went sprawling across the shingles as his foot slid out from under him on the piles of cards Ilana had dealt. Sam followed as quickly as he could, but by the time he was on the roof again, Illy was gone, disappeared over the edge and back through her bedroom window.

 

“So this is our crossroads, is it?” Bones mused.

He and Walker stood on a darkened street under the wooden walkway that formed the temporary spine of the bridge being constructed between the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Bones looked up at it, taking in the woven-steel cables and the giant stone arches catching the moonlight. Except for the oyster-shell eyes, he looked human now, although that same moonlight on his sallow face reflected just a bit unnaturally off its sandy surface.

BOOK: The Broken Lands
4.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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