It was New York in the middle of August, 1915. Europe was at war, but that was far away from the unlit streets in the Irish quarter. The darkness didn’t bother Gael any. He’d been up and down this street thousands of times, it seemed. Coming off a winning night, he had nearly twenty-five dollars in his pocket. One month past his eighteenth birthday, Galen Francis McNeil owned New York, owned the world. He had a new hat! It was cast off from Alfred, but it was a twenty dollar imported French hat, hand stitched, with an ace of hearts tucked inside the rim. It was the hat he was going to be buried in, someday. It’s not like Irish gangsters have long lives.
The street was dark, and quieter than normal, but not actually quiet. Gael hadn’t heard quiet since they’d gotten on the ship in Dublin. He didn’t really miss it, mostly. Sometimes though, his thoughts went to the world outside of Dublin, the village where his uncle lived and where everyone was Irish. He ducked into the darkened doorway of the building his family lived in.
There were eighteen rooms to a floor and one of them belonged to his family. Once inside the dark entryway, he toed off one of his shoes, and pulled off his grey silk sock while standing on one foot. The other shoe went the same path. Shoes in one hand, he held his precious hat in the other and ran up the stairs, his bare feet barely making a sound. Three steps at a time, humming music from the club in his mind, he dodged those sleeping on the stairs agilely and made it to the fourth floor. His family was in the back hall, third in. To be honest, they actually had two rooms, which they had made a door between. Alfred had paid for that. Alfred paid for a lot, which really meant Gael was paying.
Pulling the key from around his neck, he danced, bare feet still making little sound as he tapped, dancing to the music still in his head. Before he could turn the key in the lock, the door creaked open and wide blue eyes looked up at him. He slipped inside, shut the door, and put the key back around his neck as he picked Ian up in his arms. Finn took his shoes as Gael set his fancy hat on his little brother’s head. In a very hushed voice, barely audible, in Irish as natural as breath, he whispered, “Now there’s my fine gentleman, isn’t it?”
The little boy giggled without sound. Also without sound, their littlest sister wrapped her arms around Gael’s leg and he reached down to pet her slightly strawberry curls.
Finn, who had neatly folded Gael’s socks and tucked them into the shoes and then under the bed, out of sight, while carefully pulling out a wash bowl with water in it, looked up at Gael and made hand signs asking about food.
Gael winked at him as he carried the other two to the couch. It was a lovely couch, scrounged like all good things, out of Alfred’s cast offs. Once settled, Emily scrambled up into his lap and he gave her a hug, ruffling her hair, then like it was a magic trick, he pressed both hands together, wiggled his eyebrows, and with a flourish, he produced a wedge of cheese. Her fat little hands reached for it and he gave it a kiss before giving it over to her.
She scrambled off his lap, tucked up next to him like he was the safest place in all the world.
The two boys shuffled to get in front of him, and he pressed his hat back from his face, settling it on his head, slightly cocked and jaunty before he did another magic trick and produced two wedges of salami.
Finn took his with both hands, bowed as he imagined a prince might, then ran off to the corner where his blankets were. Ian waited until Gael kissed it and handed it back. Only then did he pull his blanket out from under the couch and cuddle up to eat his treat.
Suddenly tired, Gael sighed, leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment. The moment didn’t last long. Moment over, he hid his hat behind the couch, in the bag he’d long since tacked there to hide things in. He pulled his own blanket from behind the couch and laid down, bare feet propped up, Emily curled on his chest. He covered them both, whispered a bit of prayer at her almost like a lullaby, then was out before she’d finished gnawing her soft cheese.
Morning came, as it does with the sun, harsh, loud, and bright. The whole couch moved under him, but a couple hours was not nearly enough. He tightened his hold on Emily and rolled over. Sometimes it worked.
This morning wasn’t that day. His mother gave the couch another hard kick, flattening it against the wall, then grabbed a handful of his blond curls. “On your feet, you lazy bastard!”
Experience had him on his feet before he lost any curls and before he was well awake. “Ma!”
“Did you bring any money home for your family, you lazy tramp, or did you give it away for free again?”
He held up both hands to the slender, grey haired woman who held him by the hair still. “Ma! I have money and I got ya four wallets,” he said in English, with the least Irish accent that he could, because he knew it bothered her.
He was right. She gave him a good smack on the face, leaving a red handprint. “Irish in this house, you bugger!” She had her hand out for the wallets and the money.
“Yeah, yeah, I just didn’t want to wake you,” he said, sweet as mead, as he handed her ten dollars and the four wallets, in which there was another four dollars and seventy-eight cents. “I bring you everything, Ma, just like I always have.”
She slapped the back of his head lightly, but let him go. “Liar. Don’t you be bringing Kate-Marie anymore of those books neither. She won’t do a damn thing until she’s finished reading it. She’s old enough to be working now. You get back out there now, do a good job. If you want to sleep, you better make it home earlier.”
“Yes, Ma,” he said, pulling the couch out from the wall so he could fish his hat out. He spent a moment unflattening it and telling himself it had more character now. As soon as she went back into the other room, he pulled three small wrapped caramels from his pocket and gave one to each of the little kids watching him. “It’s going to be alright,” he promised. “Everything is going to be alright.”
Those little candies were gone, wrappers all given back to Gael before he could even start washing his feet. Feet had to be washed before shoes could be put back on.
His fifteen-year-old sister, Kate-Marie, her hair done up in ringlets and a new dress, a touch of blush on her cheeks, stepped into the room.
“Galen will take care of you now,” Ma said, patting the girl on the shoulder.
“Yes, Ma,” she said with a swallow.
Gael gave her a wink, put his hat on a little tighter, then held out his arm to her. “Come my love! Let us go milk the cow of the morning.”
By the time they got downstairs, the handprint on Gael’s face was barely visible. There were things he needed to say to Kate-Marie, but he hadn’t figured out how to say them yet. ‘It’s going to be alright’ wasn’t going to be enough, but he was going to make sure that things were going to be alright. That’s what big brothers do.
The light of the sun hurt though as he stepped out of the building. If there was a good god, there’d be no sun. Then his eyes adjusted and there was his favorite thing in the world. Red metal and chrome, the windshield folded down and a polished oak steering wheel. Tiredness forgotten; he was up on the running board with a grin on his face. “Jeffery! What’s this? Something going on?”
An older man, at least thirty, lifted his hat and eyed Gael. “Already? I thought you’d sleep at least another couple of hours. You’ve ruined my nap.”
“Our mother doesn’t approve of laziness,” Kate-Marie said as if that were the female point-of-view and she didn’t approve either.
“Shitty,” Jeffery said, hat now on his head. “The old man said you were fabulous last night and wanted you to have the car for the day. The tank’s full and there’s another canister at the back. He would like your company for dinner.”
“Of course,” Gael said, holding the door open for his sister to get in the back, “His table has the best food in town.”
Gael wanted to be behind the wheel, but he knew how to be polite. He went to the front and gave it a good crank, then laid a hand on the bonnet to feel the engine humming to life. Even in the passenger seat, as slow as one had to go behind horse carriages and servants out about a day’s work, everything was fine. Soon enough they were flying a bit faster in the more well-to-do areas.
“Where are we going,” Kate-Marie asked, on the edge of the back seat, right in the center as the breeze blew out her curls.
“You guys are dropping me off at the estate.”
The estate had more front yard than the footprint of a block of the Irish quarter. It amused Gael to see his sister’s eyes go wide, even if he loved the car much better than the house. When Jeffery finally let him have the steering wheel, he still hadn’t figured what to say to Katie.
Once they got out of that neighborhood though, where people might know them, he pulled over and pulled out his handkerchief. With a bit of spit and some small resistance, he cleaned away the rouge from her cheeks. “I work hard so you can have a different life, Katie.
“Ma will beat us both!” She said, near tears.
“I’ll cover for you,” he said in a soft Irish promise. “I’ll take care of it.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed. I’m a woman now. I can help you.”
“You’re not a woman. You can get a job in a shop and I’ll never stop bringing you books, Katie. . I’ll take care of Ma.”
She sighed and settled back to watching the world go by from where she leaned on the car door. “Ma’s not as easy as a car you know.”
“I’ll take care of it, Kate.” Two hours of sleep wasn’t so bad. Not with the wind against his face. He’d been thinking about what to do about his little brothers and sisters for a while. They were going to have a better life than he’d had.
“I know, Gaely. You always have.”
“I love you, Katie,” Gael said, a huge smile on his face, his fancy hat pushed back into shape and just slightly crooked on his face.
“I bet you want me to sit in the car, don’t you,” she said, arms across her chest.
“I’ll take care of his chore and someone has to watch the car,” she glared at him, arms across her chest.
“Someone’s got to watch over Alfred’s car,” Gael said, straightening his hat.
“You should have shaved.”
His blue eyes rolled. “In good time. It’s better to look like a traveler for this chore. Just watch the car, okay?”
He wasn’t really listening to her complaints as he walked away.
He wanted to get in and out of the pocketbook shop, otherwise known as Grand Central Station, as quickly as he could. He was three up when the world absolutely stopped. The man in his sights was slender, but his suit hung on him like he was firm in all the right places. His hair was red enough to be sunset, but Gael rather fancied the fires of Hell instead. His new little devil had green eyes and soft looking pink lips, and this adorably confused look about him. He was innocence incarnate, decorated with a bit of Hellfire.
Gael side-stepped in front of him, not even thinking about how he’d crossed a quarter of the station without coming to any serious decision about what he was going to say or do. It wasn’t the man’s wallet that Gael wanted. “Hello,” he said in his very best English, not so much as a fog of Irish anywhere.
“Hello,” this sweet red headed Cupid said back, his accent very different from New York, an entirely new kind of English for Gael.
Gael held out a hand.
The man looked down at the hand, back up at Gael, judging, sizing. He took Gael’s hand in a medium grip shake, polite, but not domineering, welcoming.
Gael’s heart beat faster, his mouth going a bit dry. “I’m Galen McNeil, but my friends all call me Gael. And who might you be?” So a bit more Irish slipped in there, rising the tide of Gael’s emotions.
“I’m Dr. Jack Walker. I’ve just come to New York to complete my residency.”
“Welcome to New York,” Gael said, maybe holding Dr. Walker’s hand just a touch longer than he should have. “You’ve got a lot of bags there. Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“I plan to walk,” Jack said, “but I could stand some directions.” He set down the black doctor’s bag he was carrying to pull out a notepad made of plain brown reused wrapping paper. “Do you know where this is?”
“Oh,” Gael said, feeling like this was indeed his lucky day, “That’s in Brooklyn. That’s too far to walk. I’ll give you a ride.”
“I really should walk, rather than paying, but thank you.”
“No charge. It’s good to welcome you to New York.”
“I had heard people weren’t friendly here.”
“Well, they also told you that place was in New York, now didn’t they?”
The shadow that fell over them was quickly followed by a gruff, “Excuse me, sir. Is this fellow bothering you?”
“Oh, not at all,” Jack said cheerfully, such innocent exuberance in him that Gael wasn’t sure he could breathe while this guy was talking. “We’re friends. He’s just about to give me a ride to the boarding house where I’ll be staying while I’m in New York.”
The police officer tapped his baton against the palm of his hand as Jack spoke, his cap shading his eyes as they narrowed. He couldn’t seem to disagree with Jack either though, so he gave Gael a stern look. “Be good, McNeil.”
“Always,” Gael said with a wink and a grin.
As soon as the officer walked away, Jack gently took his notebook back from Gael. The touch of their fingers caught and held Gael’s attention. Lips parted, he thought his skin had turned to photographic paper and Jack was made of the most splendid light, marking him forever.
“Are you a criminal,” Jack asked seriously, those pretty green eyes searching Gael’s face.
“No,” Gael said, and he meant it. He checked over his words in his mind, looking for loopholes and back up plans, but his Cupid had asked if he WAS a criminal, not if had been a criminal. Those were entirely different things, if he wanted to put too fine of a line on it and he really did. He wasn’t a criminal. He’d be anything he needed to have that gentle hand touch him again. “I’m not a criminal.”