Numb Like Her

Chapter 23

The sky was gray above them as they walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, a jungle of brown buildings sprawling before them on the other side. The last time they had crossed this bridge was last summer, when they had come to recruit Spot Conlon and the Brooklyn Newsies into the strike. Jack had seen Spot since then; the Newsie Leaders kept in touch and reached out for help if needed. And now, Jack was going to Spot.

Brooklyn was quite different from Manhattan; it was muggy and had more character as far as nationalities went. The bridge that connected Brooklyn and the rest of New York seemed to stretch on forever as Jack, David, Racetrack, Mush and Kid Blink walked across it. The others had wanted to come too, to help Jack plead his case to Spot, but Jack told them to sell papes; it would've been too obvious if all the Newsies had gone to Brooklyn. Jack wanted to be careful, incase Rockefeller had eyes on him.

Spot was a hard guy to read. But Jack knew how he worked: Jack needed to convince him, needed to make Spot see why he should expend his resources all over New York to find Talia. But Jack and Spot had history; Jack had even gotten him out of trouble before. And they had been there for each other throughout the strike. Spot Conlon was the brother Jack never wanted to have but one he wouldn't trade for the world. He just wouldn't admit it to him.

But Jack needed him now; he was becoming more desperate and didn't know where else to turn. Each day with no sign of Talia was a year and a half for Jack and the guys.

They went down to the deserted docks where Spot and his Newsies spent their afternoons, swimming in the harbor and climbing the collection of crates and beams. The Brooklyn Newsies spotted Jack and his friends from a mile away, down the dock. They smiled and crooned at them, cracking jokes as they emerged from the water, wearing nothing but their shorts as they tried to intimidate Jack.

"Oh, Kelly's come ta grace us with his presence."

"Jackie Boy lost his way?"

"Come ta speak with real Newsies, Cowboy?"

They thought they were big shots, Kings of Brooklyn, but Jack knew there was only one Brooklyn Newsie worth his time. But he let the idiots think themselves important; his eyes stayed locked on Spot.

Spot was small for his stature but everyone revered him, just as the Manhattan Newsies revered Jack. Spot had an eye for deals, for scams, and for anything else that piqued his interest. He often made bets with Racetrack and though Race would never say it aloud, Race let him win. It was a truce between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Newsies: keep Brooklyn happy, and they'd stay on their side.

All Newsies were brothers, though, especially after the strike, but they had no problem turning on each other if a deal went sour. And then the leaders would step in and cool the steam.

Spot sat atop his usual perch, his signature cane in hand has he watched the docks across the harbor, watching the boats pass by. His piercing hazel eyes crinkled as he grinned wickedly down at Jack. He wore his usual checkered shirt and red suspenders, never stooping to the level of his boys by removing more than his news cap; he needed to stand apart from them, their leader.

"Jackie Boy," Spot sang as he jumped down from his perch to a sturdy crate, looking down on Jack and the others.

Spot's boys laughed and moved closer, eager to hear. They surrounded the Manhattans, sitting on crates and propped on the dock's ledge with their feet dangling in the water. The Brooks had numbers, numbers Jack needed.

"Spot," Jack greeted.

"What brings ya ta my neighborhood? Haven't seen ya since spring."

Jack looked to David. David licked his lips and stepped forward.

"Davie," Spot tilted his head. "Lookin' more like a Newsie every day."

More laughter from the Brooks.

"We need your help," David said.

The humor vanished from Spot's face; he saw the look in David's eyes, the fear. Something was up.

"The Manhattan Newsies…well, there's this friend of ours, she dances at Medda's. She was kidnapped four days ago."

Spot's dark eyebrows knitted together, "The Russian from tha brothel?"

Jack scuffed his feet on the wooden planks, his eyes casted down, "Yeah."

Spot studied Jack for a minute and huffed before saying: "I heard about her, heard she got close to you guys. She your girl, Jackie?"

"She's been everybody's girl," One of the Brooks muttered.

"Damn it," David said.

Before Racetrack and Mush could reach for Jack and before the Brooks' laughter reached Spot's ears, Jack struck and grabbed the Brook by the shoulders. Jack threw him up against the crate Spot was standing on and pressed his elbow to the Brook's throat. The Brooks shouted and yelled, outraged, but it was a rule: unless more of Jack's Newsies jumped in, the fight was between the offender and the offended.

"Say that one more time," Jack hissed into the Brook's tan face, his dark eyes vicious. "An' you'll be eatin' my fist."

Spot said nothing. He only watched Jack. His interest was piqued.

David placed his hands on Jack's shoulders and after a moment, Jack pushed the Brook away from him. Jack went back to David's side, staring at the water through the cracks in the dock.

After a long moment of silence, when the Brooks had calmed down, Spot spoke, "Who took her, Jack?"

"Rockefeller. Garrison Rockefeller."

The Brooks moaned, disapproving, and suddenly seemed nervous to listen to the rest of the conversation; "Rockefeller" wasn't a name to throw around.

"That's a strong accusation, Cowboy," Spot said. "Are ya sure?"

Jack looked up and met Spot's eyes. Something passed between them and Spot began to nod his head, thinking.

"Why should I help you? Why should I risk my boys for your girl?"

Jack swallowed, uncomfortable. This was the part he was dreading; Jack needed to say that one thing that would convince Spot, to make him see why Talia was important. In front of all these Newsies, including his own, if there was ever a time to admit his true feelings, it was now.

And he was desperate; Talia was out there, somewhere, and the distance between them was growing by the minute.

"Because I won't stop lookin' for her," he said roughly as he looked Spot in the eye. He thought about the other morning, on her bed, her face smiling down at him.

"I'll look for her whetha ya help or not. But I do need ya help, Spot; we've been lookin' for days and my boys are tired. Ya know this city betta than Rockefeller, betta than anybody. But even if ya don't help, she's out there somewhere an' she's countin' on us, on me, ta find her. An' I'm not about ta let her down."

"And we're not stoppin' either," said Mush, throwing his arms around Race and Kid Blink.

Spot considered them for what seemed like ten minutes.

"You an' I go way back, Jackie Boy," he finally said. He jumped down from his crate and stood in front of the Manhattans, looking them in the eyes. "We don't see eye to eye much, but I can see how much this girl means to ya. I've seen her before, down at the docks. Hell, if I had a girl like that, I'd tear this town apart, too."

The Brooks were silent, their ears attentive. Jack swallowed, trying to keep his hopes down.

"But Rockefeller has more than tha bulls in his pockets; he has the whole town, every part of tha stinkin' government, above all of us. Ya can't win, Jack, there's no way ta beat him at his own game."

Jack's stomach began to sink until Spot began to nod his head. "But I'll help ya. Any girl that catches my Jackie Boy's attention is worth my time."

Kid Blink and Mush smiled and Race shouted with excitement. The Brooks nodded in agreement: what Spot says is law.

Jack took a deep breath and exhaled sharply. He'd never been so indebted towards Spot.

He stuck out his hand, spat into his palm, and Spot did the same. They clasped hands and shook. Spot could feel Jack's gratitude in his handshake.

"Saddle up, boys," Spot shouted, smiling cleverly at Jack and his friends. "We got work to do."

….

They went to Medda's. Spot and thirty of his best and oldest boys went with Jack and his friends over the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. They stuck to the shadows, not wanting to draw attention, and some took different routes to get to the theater.

Night was beginning to fall and Jack knew his boys would be at the theater whether he brought back Spot or not. But when they entered through the backstage door and the Newsies saw Spot, the room erupted in cheers and greetings. The Brooks saw old friends in the Manhattan group and they shook hands and patted backs, like brothers.

Spot kissed Medda's hand and she smiled wirily at him, touching his cheek affectionately.

"Thank you, Spot," Medda said. Her eyes were drained of emotion, tired from sleepless nights.

Spot put his arm around Jack and looked at her with a reassuring expression, "We'll find her for ya, Medda. My boys won't let ya down."

Jack stepped back from leadership over the search; he was more than happy to turn it over to Spot. He was tired of thinking. For once, he wanted someone to tell him where to go, where to look. He needed orders, a distraction.

"Alright," Spot said loudly. The loud conversations died and all eyes were turned to him and Jack at the front of the large room.

"This is what's gonna happen: Two Manhattans will be paired with a Brooklyn. My boys know every corner of this island; I've made sure of that. I will tell ya where you'll be goin' each night until we find her. I want ten guys on the theater at all times, keeping watch; on the roof, the street, everywhere. See anything strange, you tell me. I want five guys on the Rockefeller Mansion every day and every night. If ya see Rockefeller, don't even think about approachin' 'im; you're invisible to everyone in that house. If ya see Talia, come back here and tell me. And we'll go from there. No one disobeys my orders or else I'll soak ya. Alright, Jack: tell us about her."

Jack shuffled his feet, thinking. His boys looked at him miserably; they understood the pain in his eyes that he fought to keep hidden.

"She's Russian," he said huskily. "She has long dark hair, blue eyes. She's about my height."

"Beautiful," said Racetrack solemnly.

"She's spit-fire," Kid Blink said, smiling sadly.

"Greatest girl ya ever meet," Mush said, sniffing.

Everyone looked to Jack.

He nodded in agreement, keeping his eyes down. "Yeah…yeah."

Spot put his hand on Jack's shoulder and squeezed, "We'll find her. Alright boys, divvy up!"

Spot assigned each group an area and as soon as they received their orders, each group bounded out the door and disappeared. Spot, David and Jack stayed with Medda; Jack could tell she didn't want to be left alone.

"I would tell you boys to get some sleep," Medda said. "But I know I'd just waste my breath."

Jack and David nodded.

"So, Rockefeller," Spot said as they entered Medda's office. He lounged on the couch while the other three stood; they knew sitting down would only make them more tired and their nerves were on end, anticipating a Newsie to come back with news, good or bad.

"Why he got his eyes set on Talia?"

David told Spot about the night Talia had gone to Garrison's party and what had happened afterward. Spot listened carefully, his eyes dark.

"I'm surprised ya didn't kill him, Jackie Boy."

Jack crossed his arms, "Should've."

"Don't say that, Jack," Medda said uncomfortably.

"I think…" David looked at Jack carefully before continuing, "He's punishing her, for hurting his pride. But I don't know how…he could have her hidden anywhere."

Spot nodded, absorbing the information, "He'll have her hidden good; he knows you'll come lookin' for her. He's got scum all over the city. But he don't know who he's up against: Newsies don't back down."

They searched for three more days. Medda was drained by the third day, her eyes watering more than usual. She tried to hide it from Jack but he knew what she was doing when she disappeared into her office, could hear her sobs through the door.

But Spot refused to lose hope; each night he talked to the boys, he riled them up, made them angry that Rockefeller had crossed one of their brothers, taken one of their own. They searched hard each night and reported to Medda's at the same time each morning at sunrise.

On the third night, when some of the boys had returned back to the theater and the sun was beginning to rise, Kid Blink and Temper, one of the Brooklyn Newsies, came bounding through the door. They were sweaty and their eyes were bright.

They leaned over their knees, trying to catch their breath. They couldn't speak for two minutes and Jack's blood was pulsing and his hands were clammy as he watched his best friend, praying he'd say something good, anything. Medda was in the doorway to her office, biting her lip.

"We was down at the ship yards," Kid Blink gasped, looking up at Spot, Jack, and David. "We heard sailors talkin'-"

"Said something 'bout a Russian – a 'Russian beauty'," gasped Temper. "Said something about a place…a place in north Queens."

"Called it the 'Underground'," Kid Blink said eagerly.

From the doorway of her office, Medda's face drained of all color.

"What did you say?" she asked sharply.

Everyone turned to her and saw the pure fear in her eyes.

"The 'Underground'," Kid Blink said slowly, standing up straight, his good eye staring at Medda. "Ya heard of it, Medda?"

She swallowed and took a deep breath. Hatred filled her eyes, "Yes, I have."

She looked to Toby who was standing in the doorway to the street, "Find Lawrence. Tell him to find Talia. Tell him she's my girl."

Toby disappeared through the door and Jack stepped forward, taking Medda by the arms.

"Where is she?" he asked carefully. He had never seen so much anger and fear in her eyes.

She looked at Jack and then to David, Spot, Mush, Kid Blink and the others, all staring at her.

"She's been sold," she said evenly. She looked Jack in the eye, "It's a business. It started a few years ago, in Queens. Girls are stolen from brothels, sometimes their own homes, and they're taken to the Underground. It's…a neighborhood where men go and they won't be turned away, no matter how rough…and girls are forced to have sex with them. I've lost girls to it before. It's not like prostitution, Jack. It's slavery."

Jack's face went hard as stone as he listened to her. His heart thudded in his chest and he felt a knot rise in his throat. Everything was quiet and the boys couldn't quite comprehend what Medda had said; they didn't think such a place could be real.

When some of the boys began to trickle in from their searches, the boys at the door would explain the new development and they all looked to Jack who stood as still as a statue, in denial himself.

"And it's where Rockefeller has taken her," Medda said shakily. "It's all about money. I should've known…but I didn't think he knew about it. Not many do; it's protected better than the Rockefeller family itself."

"If she's there…how do we get her out?" Kid Blink asked.

Medda looked him in the eye, her face stern, "I'm hoping you're wrong, Kid Blink; I hope she's not there. But if she is, my friend Lawrence will find her. And if she is, I'll be damned if I don't get her out."


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