Numb Like Her

Chapter 24

Medda transformed into a new person; ever since hearing about the dreadful Underground from Kid Blink, she was no longer an emotional wreck. She was determined now, more than ever, and the only thought in her head was Talia.

The boys stayed in her office while Spot's groups kept watch outside the theater and at the Rockefeller mansion. All they could do was wait for word from Medda's friend. Spot and Jack told some to go home and get some sleep but they stayed: as long as their leaders were here, so were they. Though as morning came, some reluctantly went to sell papes to keep up the charade.

The day passed slowly, dragging them through each hour as they waited for Toby to return. The Newsies' nervous eyes glanced to Jack throughout the day as morning turned into afternoon: he paced, sat, dropped his face into his hands, kicked the wall in a sudden burst of anger, disappeared into Medda's office, and repeated the cycle. They left him alone but could see the demons in his head, planting horrible images, tormenting him.

When the Newsies returned from selling, Toby came in behind them, sweating and breathing hard. They all watched him and stood up eagerly as he moved to the middle of the spacious room. Medda went to him with a glass of water and waited patiently, her eyes reading his face like a business woman, trying to see into his thoughts. Toby drank the glass dry and ran his fingers through his dark curly hair. His light eyes met Medda's; he almost looked afraid to tell her.

Jack came out of Medda's office and stood behind her with his arms crossed, his face empty.

"She's there," Toby gasped.

The boys were torn between relief and disappointment. Kid Blink hung his head and Specs patted his back.

"It's okay, Blink," Specs muttered.

"Where's Lawrence?" Medda asked evenly.

"In Queens; he's been keeping watch over the Underground for a decade now. It's changed since you and I last heard about it," he shook his head as if he wanted to shake away his thoughts. "He's working with some top guys, some bulls in Queens and in the Bronx who've been looking for missing girls... There's some nasty guys there, Medda. There's at least 3 houses, each with 'bout ten girls. And there've been reports of other Undergrounds, one in Harlem, another in New Jersey. The girls are bought traded from house to house... They're untraceable and no records being kept; once the girls are moved, it's impossible to find them."

"And Talia's in Queens?" Medda asked.

Toby nodded his head and then looked to Jack over Medda's shoulder, seeing his steely eyes.

"Lawrence saw her," Toby said carefully. "Said she's been there for a week."

Jack's jaw went tight. He didn't want to think about it.

Toby dropped his gaze and looked back to Medda, "What's the plan, boss?"

Medda nodded as she looked at Toby's sweet face, "The only way to get her out is to buy her…we'll use the emergency funds...as long as it's more than what Rockefeller got for her. We'll have to wear disguises."

Medda turned to Spot and the others, seeing their intense gazes.

"I want you boys to listen to me very carefully," she said, her eyes moving from boy to boy, seeing the fatigue and strain on their dirty handsome faces.

"I cannot begin to thank you, all of you, for what you have done for me…for Talia." As she spoke, she seemed to be thinking. Jack noticed she was avoiding his gaze.

"But I'm afraid the hard part has just begun. The Underground…is very dangerous. How we go about getting her out…we will need to be careful. It's best I go alone, with Toby."

"Tha hell you will," Jack said darkly.

Medda turned on him quickly; she had been expecting for him to object.

"Jack, I can't even imagine what you will do if you go with me. Darling, you're too close, too emotional."

"You expect me ta sit here while ya go inta some torture house with no protection?" he shouted.

The quiet conversations amongst the boys stopped and they all looked up at Jack. He had been almost completely silent all week and this was the first time in days that he had shown any kind of emotion other than stress. Mush and Kid Blink had tried to reach out to him but he had taken up the characteristics of a brick wall, holding everything in.

"We've been searchin' for a week, Medda, and I ain't about ta sit here and wait for somethin' ta happen ta you! She's there and I'm goin'!"

"Jack," she stressed, her eyes glinting, "Please, for once, listen to me. I know this place, you don't. I can handle these people. All you'll do is throw punches. And what will that do for Talia?"

Jack looked away from her to hide his expression, his chest rising and falling rapidly as his anger boiled under his skin. He knew she was right. But he couldn't just stay here… he wasn't one for waiting.

Medda approached Jack and squeezed his arms, "Jack, I'll need you here… I don't know what state she'll be in. She'll need you. And I can't risk your emotional state and her safety. Her safety is the most important thing right now. And I can't waste time butting heads with you on this."

"We'll go with ya," Spot said proudly. "For protection."

Medda looked to Spot and smiled sadly, "You are very brave dear, and I am indebted to you for the rest of my life but I can't risk it. It's best Toby and I go."

"At least take someone," Mush pleaded. "Please, Medda?"

The boys muttered in agreement and some volunteered.

Medda read their eyes; there were more than thirty pairs staring at her, their mouths whispering to each other, planning and discussing.

They were just kids…

"Alright," she said reluctantly. "But I need someone who won't cause a fight…someone with a tough stomach."

"Davie," Racetrack said as he squeezed David's shoulder. "He keeps the rest of us from bein' stupid."

David looked at Medda and she instantly saw the fear in his eyes. But it disappeared quickly.

"Yeah, I'll go," said David, clutching his hat in his hands. He swallowed, "…for Talia."

The boys around him patted his back and murmured encouraging words to him. David met Jack's eyes and Jack nodded to him.

Medda nodded slowly, "Alright. We'll leave once it's dark."

She went into her office and closed the door.

Spot turned to face the Newsies and shouted, "Alright ya bums, I want fifteen on tha theater and five at the Rockefeller mansion; if he so much as steps outta that house I wanna know. Tha rest of ya…well, I know it's pointless ta tell ya ta go home so make yourselves comfortable."

The boys laughed unenthusiastically and began to spread out on the floor, the groups on watch vanishing out the door. Some played cards with Race and actually got into their game, passing around a few cigarettes, and they allowed themselves to laugh and relax a little. Some smoked outside on the roof with their pals on watch, others slept on the old dusty stage curtains in the far corner. Toby brought out his stock of candy and smiled when he saw the elevated looks on the boys' faces.

Jack rubbed his face and walked to a deserted part of the backstage, near the side entrance to the main stage. He remembered seeing Talia out there, dancing…it seemed so long ago, a part of a different story. His stomach felt sour and his hands were clammy. It didn't feel right. He needed to go with Medda. But she knew him better than he thought; he'd be like a firecracker in a place like that…

Kid Blink shuffled up to Jack, smiling halfheartedly. "'ey, Jack."

Jack looked up and huffed. He ran his fingers through his hair. He was restless, he had been ever since seeing her empty apartment, seeing the shattered mirror. He wanted to run until he couldn't feel his feet, wanted to jump into the coldest river until he was numb, wanted to roam the city until he found her…

But what then? Even the thought of seeing her made him cringe…he didn't know what to expect, didn't know what he would see…

Kid Blink didn't say much; he leaned against a pile of sandbags, watching Jack pace back and forth, huffing and rubbing his face. It was Jack's fifth day without sleep except for the two hour naps he took during the daytime. He looked terrible.

Jack tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "I don't want to see her."

Kid Blink's eyebrows furrowed, "What ya mean, Jack?"

Jack swallowed; his throat was dry. He thought about it, seeing her…

"I'm…anxious. I want…ta see her. But at the same time…I don't."

Jack opened his eyes and looked at his friend, his best friend.

"Ya know?" Jack asked quietly.

Kid Blink nodded. There had only been one other time he had ever seen fear in Jack Kelly's eyes. But he knew what he meant; they were all nervous to see Talia, broken and beaten once again by those who keep tearing her down once she's up.

Kid Blink stepped forward and clapped Jack on the back, pulling him into an embrace. Jack didn't return the gesture but he stood there and hung his head, resting it on Kid's shoulder. He was so tired.

Kid Blink squeezed Jack once, muttering, "'s gonna be ok, Jack."

Jack sniffed and pulled away from his friend. After looking away for a moment, he turned back to Kid Blink and began walking back to the others with him.

Medda came out of her office once the clock on her desk struck seven o'clock. She was dressed in one of her best costumes, an elitist: a black velvet waist coat and a long black skirt that swept the floor behind her. She was wearing a dark hair wig with a small black netted veil in her hair, partially blocking her eyes.

"Look's convincing ta me," Spot said, crossing his arms.

"As long as I have money, they won't care who I walk out with," she said.

The boys looked at her nervously. If this was a place where they tortured girls and forced them…they didn't allow their thoughts to go down that path. Medda had Toby and David; hopefully they would be enough.

David was dressed as a coachman and Toby in a dark suit, Medda's "houseman". David approached mush, Kid Blink, Race, Spot and Jack and he grinned slightly, his eyes anxious.

"Bring her back, man," Kid Blink sighed.

The boys nodded and each patted David's shoulders. He looked up and smiled encouragingly at Jack.

"I'll try my best."

Medda had called on a friend who drove owned a coach and he had brought it to the backstage entrance, the horse shifting uncomfortably in the dark narrow alleyway.

Medda's friend tilted his hat and talked with her for a few minutes before he walked away and disappeared around the corner. Medda turned and smiled to the boys at the door. They were watching her nervously.

She smiled sadly, "We shouldn't be long."

David took his seat on the coach and Medda and Toby climbed into the cab. David looked at Jack and Spot at the door, grinning weakly.

Jack wanted to jump on with him. He didn't want to stay here; he dreaded the next few hours or however long it would take…he felt the madness creeping up on him already.

He looked David in the eye and called out, "Be careful, Dave."

David nodded and flicked the reins. The boys at the door watched the coach disappear around the corner, the hoof clips fading away, and they patted Jack's back as they went back inside. Jack stayed outside, staring and listening. The boys on the roof kept their eyes on the coach for as long as they could before it went out of sight.

….

The smell was unbearable. David coughed into the sleeve of his coat, his eyes watering. It smelled like—he couldn't describe it. The neighborhood looked like it was rotting away: the buildings were dark and abandoned and looked to be crumbling away. The streets were thick with darkness and strange noises came from the shadows between buildings.

David listened to the deep voice that would call out to him softly from inside the coach. David felt alone sitting in the coachman's seat, exposed to the nightmarish neighborhood. But when he heard Toby's voice, he felt calmer; they would be driving back soon. David planned to push the horse as hard as he could on the way back; he was anxious to leave this place.

Toby led David to the back entrance of a five story brick building. Its windows were boarded up but high above, David could see light shining through the cracks.

"Wait here, David," Medda said as she stepped out of the carriage. Toby took her hand and assumed the role of her "houseman". In his pocket was a thick envelope. David wondered how much money they had brought.

Toby knocked on the alleyway door, the sound echoing down the alley. David's throat went dry and he felt his palms clam up. He could hear faint screaming…

The steel door creaked open and a burly man was on the other side. He was dressed in suit pants and a button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He was sweaty and there were dark stains on his shirt. His eyes sized up Toby before glancing at Medda. He studied her face then looked back to Toby.

"You Karl?" The man grunted.

Toby nodded solemnly. David listened closely from his seat on the coach; Medda had been thorough, sending word that she would be coming. David felt his heartbeat quicken; maybe this wouldn't be as hard as they thought. And Medda and Toby were believable: Medda held her nose up, looking at the man as if he was the mud under her boots, and Toby frowned at the man, towering next to Medda.

"Madame Kane," Toby said, gesturing to the dark woman next to him.

She stepped forward and pulled at the middle finger of her left glove, smiling at him with an arrogant disposition.

"Lawrence tells me you have girls of my taste," she said haughtily. "I've been all over, to Harlem, to New Jersey: I can't seem to find anything good. He referred me here to…you."

"Price?" the man grunted.

Medda's eyes laughed at him; she knew it was about nothing but money here.

"Price is not my concern; I'm only interested in quality."

The man at the door looked at Medda for a long moment and then he glanced down to the envelope in Toby's pocket, clearly sticking out to catch his eye.

The man's irritable attitude changed and he grinned at Medda, motioning inside.

"Right this way, Madame Kane."

Medda stepped inside followed closely by Toby. The man glanced at David before shutting the heavy steel door, leaving him alone outside.

His eyes glanced upwards when he heard more screaming.

"Hurry, Medda," he muttered.

Inside the smell was choking Medda like a thick haze. She fought her urge to gag. She followed the burly man through narrow hallways and dim staircases. She told him her interests: tall, dark hair and foreign. She could hear moaning and cries of pain from each floor they passed on the stairwell. She ignored them as best she could; her character was used to this, this dirty life of buying and selling humans for pleasure. They put the money in her pockets. Sickening.

"Where's your house?" the man asked as he led them upstairs.

"Brooklyn. We chose it for location," she said conversationally. "It's more of a…private business. I took over for my husband. He was terrible at it, poor Richard; he didn't have a…woman's touch. We had a break out of Syphilis last month and they were all useless. They're so weak nowadays… I'm trying to rebuild inventory. And I've been told the foreign girls are much sturdier…"

She looked at the dirty walls, her face disgusted as she pulled her hand away from the railing: "I don't suppose you turn away the infected…"

The man chuckled, "The only requirement is that they pay."

They reached the third floor and the man took out a loop of keys, thumbing each other until he saw the one he wanted.

"We drug them to make them submit," the man said. "So, we apologize if they look a bit…tired."

Medda scowled at the back of the man's head. Toby glanced down at her and saw her hands tighten on her clutch.

The man unlocked the third door on the left and Medda stepped inside confidently even though the sight that met her eyes made her want to vomit.

"Ukrainian," the man said.

The girl on the bed was naked and half dead, skinnier than anyone Medda had ever seen. The room was lit by a dying candle near the boarded window and the light cast sickly shadow's over the girl's body. Medda allowed the fear to show in her eyes when the man could not see her. But when she turned to him, she made a face of displeasure and shook her head.

"I need more curves," she barked. "This one's a bone; I need a woman."

The man smiled at her and closed the door behind her, "I think I've got the one."

He took her to four more rooms, each one worse than the last. But Medda kept her strength and shook her head as she looked at the dirty brunette, hanging from her tightly tied wrists.

"Either you have want I'm looking for," Medda said, turning slowly to the man's ugly sweaty face, "Or you don't."

The man looked unsure for a moment but then gave in: "Alright, I'm not supposed to sell her but I have one more. She's been quite popular."

Medda's heart thumped so violently in her chest she thought the man would surely hear it as they walked down the hallway. He led her to the last door on the left and took what felt like twenty minutes to find the correct key.

"Brought in about a week ago; prettiest one here and our most expensive. Clean. Though she's caused us some trouble…had to drug her more than the others because she kept biting customers."

He unlocked the door and when Medda stepped inside, she had to use all of her strength from every corner of her body to stop the tears that flooded her eyes and the cry in her throat. The dark ugly room was enough to make her cry but the body on the filthy bed made her want to scream. She wanted to run to her, to caress her face and hold her, to let her know she was here to take her away. So many marks and bruises shaped like men's hands covered her naked body. Her long dark hair was matted and the skin around the ropes on her wrists was raw.

But she had found her.

The girl on the bed did not look up. Medda wondered in horror if she was even alive. But she saw her chest move and heard the ragged breathing.

Medda turned around, her clear eyes glinting with pleasure. Though her stomach was churning and she was ready to bolt for the exit door, Medda breathed evenly as she stared at the man's face. She fought to make her lips turn up into an effortless smile.

"Perfect," she purred.


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