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Nice Holystone Remains Unafraid to Throw Herself Into Explosive Situations

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1932: For Once, The Gandors Have Decided Not To Make A Wager On a Proposition

 

Since her reluctant indoctrination into the sleazy underbelly of society, Eve Genoard had begun to realize that the criminal underworld was a surprisingly small and gossipy place. Gangsters on opposite coasts kept better tabs on each other's business than nosy society matrons on the Upper West Side. A stone dropped in Chicago caused ripples to New York and back. Sometimes, of course, those ripples resulted in gunshots.

Then again, even Eve knew enough to understand that the arrest and subsequent sentencing of Chicago kingpin Al Capone was less a dropped stone and more a lit bomb.

“So you turned away that man from Chicago?”

“I had no reason to meet with him,” Eve said calmly. It was becoming easier and easier to sound as if she knew what she was doing, although it sometimes felt as if that never came any closer to being actually true. “He may have known my father, but the Genoard business is a respectable one these days – at least, I intend to make it so.”

“Certain unsavory associates aside.” Luck Gandor flipped a sardonic hand in his own direction, and Eve was annoyed to feel herself flush.

She strove to keep the same calm tone, as she said, “There's nothing unsavory in our business relationship.”

Luck raised an eyebrow. “You can get away with that because we're small fry. Your average Joe Straight-and-Narrow, he wouldn't know the name Gandor from a lobster. Capone – him they know.”

“Yes,” Eve said. “That's a factor. But you also haven't asked me to do anything against my principles. I don't want to be any more involved in all this than I have to be. So why would I--”

“That's very wise, Miss Genoard.” Luck's voice was dry, his face inscrutable, and she wondered if he'd heard the lie in her voice. She meant to stick to her principles and she meant to keep her hands clean. But her father had made connections, and her brother had made enemies, and she had inherited both. She could never cut all the filaments that tied her to this world, and something in her said that if this was so, she had better make sure she learned to pull some of the strings.

Of course, another part of her kept screaming that if she dropped to her knees and spent her life praying, starting right now, she might just pull herself back from the brink of damnation. Life was full of complicated choices.

Luck regarded her steadily. “So if you'd already decided how you were handling it, why did you want to see me?”

“I thought he might have reached out to you as well. I wanted to know what you—the Gandors were going to do.”

“They did reach out. That's a bad sign for them.” Luck lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. “We're real small, and they're real desperate, and there's lots of people – like the Russos – would be real happy to make sure the whole thing goes down the tubes. Capone's too big a fish, which makes the whole operation too big a risk for us. Let the Martillos or the Runorata blow their money on it. I'd be willing to lay odds that we'll all be glad we're well out of things in Chicago before this is over.”

She always found herself surprised by how open he was willing to be with her. Surely he shouldn't be telling her so much about the inner workings of the Gandor family operation. It wasn't an entirely comfortable feeling; she didn't want to owe him anything more.

“I'm glad you didn't agree to help them,” she said, impulsively. “Al Capone is a monster. He should go to jail.”

Luck looked sardonic again, but whatever he might be thinking about people who should or shouldn't stay locked up, he didn't say it. “Capone's a complicated monster,” he said instead. “Like all of us.” He tipped his hat in her direction. “Present company excepted, of course.”

Eve ducked her head, and wondered if he was making a joke at her expense, or letting her in on one.

 

1932: Eve Genoard Is Not Yet In On This Particular Joke

 

Sometimes, Nice worried about what was going to happen when the rich Genoard lady who owned the mansion in which they were currently residing uninvited got wise to them.

She didn't worry about it too much, though. Worries were Jacuzzi's job, and he'd probably get around to that one eventually. Right now he had other things on his mind, like the fact that the Rail Tracer was hanging out in the kitchen reading the paper over his shoulder.

To be honest, Nice was having a hard time not laughing. Jacuzzi didn't even read the paper usually – he'd just picked it up to try and cover up his hyperventilating fit from when Chane's fella waltzed through the front door with a bunch of flowers. Now he was trying so hard not to let his shoulderblades twitch that he looked like someone had shoved a hot poker up his back instead. Nice told herself loyally that it was good practice for Jacuzzi's social skills, and tried not to catch Nick or Donny's eye.

“So, uh, looks like Al Capone's going to jail after all, huh?” Jacuzzi said, weakly but valiantly trying to make conversation.

“Eh, that guy.” The Rail Tracer dismissed the most powerful gangster of the last decade with a shrug of his shoulders. “What a punk. Chicago don't have much to recommend it besides the El, anyway. I mean that's a hell of a train, though. The problem with Manhattan is that there's too much subway and there's not enough elevated. Not that underground don't have benefits of its own, but you kinda miss the romance of the breeze in your hair, and any connoisseur would notice that when you're hangin' a guy off the roof of one of the cars and lettin' the blood drip over the edge the screams just don't have that same quality to them without the three-story drop. Hey, Chane!” He looked up with a beaming smile for the girl who'd appeared in the doorway (while Jacuzzi took several deep breaths to stop himself from passing out). “What do you think, wanna hitch a train back to Chicago one of these days? Ride up on top the El all night, maybe kill a few of those white suit guys? They came from Chicago, yeah?”

“Yeah, you remember, they were Russos,” volunteered Nice, fiddling with the wires of the pipe bomb she was working on, and ignored Jacuzzi's vaguely reproachful look. After what they'd done, she would not personally mind seeing a few more Russos go the way those white suits had gone on the Pussyfoot. Nick was giving her a discreet thumbs-up, so he at least felt the same way.

Chane indicated, with a cock of her head, that they had a date planned now that did not take place in Chicago; perhaps they could talk about taking a trip to Chicago some other time. The Rail Tracer took this with another cheerful shrug, straightened (as Jacuzzi went surreptitiously limp), and sauntered over to hand Chane the flowers he'd brought her.

“Have a nice time, kids,” said Nick, and Donny waved them out the door. Nice looked down, trying not to let her smile go wistful. She was real happy for Chane. It had only been a month or two that she'd been walking out with this Rail Tracer guy, but you could tell he just lit her up or something; sure, a psycho serial killer wouldn't be Nice's type, but to each their own.

Meanwhile, Jacuzzi – well, there was what had happened on the Pussyfoot, and she'd figured things would be different after that. And maybe they were, but only in the way where suddenly there was all this – stuff that neither of them was saying, or doing, just thinking about all the time. Or Nice was, anyway, which maybe didn't make her what you'd call a nice girl, but that wasn't news. And it was easy for Nick to say they were just plain being stupid for not doing anything about it, but the thing was Jacuzzi was her best friend in the whole world, and there were not many things in the world that Nice wasn't willing to risk exploding, but this was one of them.

Nick jerked his head around suddenly towards the window, distracting Nice from her thoughts. “Hey–”

“You see that?” asked Donny, at the same time, and they both looked at Jacuzzi.

“Boss,” said Nick, “I think I just saw someone scuttling around out the window. It wasn't Chane's fella neither, they're already gone. You want I should --”

“Oh! Yeah,” said Jacuzzi, frowning. “Yeah, you probably should check it out, I guess. But be careful!”

Nick and Donny headed out the door, and Nice looked up, only to find Jacuzzi giving her those big wobbly brown wouldn't-hurt-a-fly eyes from across the room. “Do you really think it was a good idea to remind him about the Russos?” he asked, biting his lower lip. “I hate them too, but last time we tried it just got more people hurt and . . .”

“Don't be such a worrywart,” said Nice. “It ain't like we're going back to Chicago ever.”

Jacuzzi was quiet for a long moment, and then said, “I guess we're really not going back to Chicago, are we, Nice? Not really ever.”

It was the first time they'd said it aloud like it was serious. They'd all thought it; they'd all known that when they pissed off the Russos, and got on that train, it was a good bet they weren't ever going back to the place where they grew up. But there was always the chance that Capone would get his appeal, or someone would break him out of custody, and the Russos wouldn't be ruling the roost any more. The situation might change.

But the situation wasn't going to change.

“There's nothing for us there anymore,” said Nice, as firmly as she could manage. “Everything we need's here, right? They want booze and explosives in New York just like they do in Chicago. We got that, we got experience, and we got the gang, that's what counts.”

Jacuzzi didn't look any less anxious, but that was fine. It was Jacuzzi's job to worry about where they were going, and where they'd been. It was Nice's job to make sure that whatever they did, they did it with a bang.

 

1926: The Delinquents In the High-Class Neighborhood Are Revealed To Have A Typical Tragic Backstory

 

Jacuzzi cried for a full two days after Nice's father died. He was almost the last parent any of them had left, so it meant a lot to him. Nice cried, too – that was back before Jacuzzi had promised to do all her crying for her, and anyway somehow it came a lot easier when you had two working sets of tear ducts.

Nice's mom didn't cry after the first day. Her face just got drawn and white, and she started looking around at the house like she was calculating exactly how much every piece of furniture cost.

On the third day, Nice wiped her nose on her sleeve, punched Jacuzzi in the shoulder and said, “This ain't no good. We gotta figure something else out.”

Jacuzzi sniffled, and Nick mumbled, “Like what?”

“Well, I heard,” said Nice, who had been thinking while she cried, “that Capone, he's got some kinda soft spot for kids what their parents died or they got hurt in a raid. There was this kid, he got hit by flying glass in that same drive-by did for Dad, and Capone's even paying for his hospital bills. So he oughta have a soft spot for me, right?”

“I thought your mom said she wasn't ever gonna take charity from a gang of crooks like that,” muttered Nick. Nick had conflicted feelings about this point of ethics, given that Nice's parents' charity was mostly what had been feeding him recently. Nick had mostly spent the last three days keeping his head down and trying to fade into the background until somebody figured out what was happening next.

Jacuzzi scrubbed his eyes and said, valiantly, “She won't have to. I'll go ask for it, and give it to her, and then i-it'll be a present from me and she won't have to worry.”

That was such a Jacuzzi thing to say that Nice had to giggle, though it came out a little watery. “Yeah, and what'll you tell her when she asks where it came from? She'll figure you stole it from your uncle or somethin', that's no good either. So we ain't gonna ask for charity. But if Capone bought something off of me, that ain't charity, right? That's just business. The poor orphaned kid gambit is just to get me in the door.”

Jacuzzi got it first, and his eyes widened. “You're gonna sell your bombs, Nice?”

Better bombs,” said Nice. “Real good bombs.” Those little cherry bombs she'd been handling up until now, they weren't really doing it for her anymore anyway. If she felt a pang at the thought of making the perfect bombs, real big blowers, just to sell them away – well, starving felt worse than that any day. And she'd still get the fun of blowing the tests to make sure she'd gotten them just right. If there was anything guaranteed to cheer you up after a funeral, it was an explosion.

“So give me a few days to get some demos up,” she went on, “and I'll go see Capone, all right? And everything'll be fine again.”

“You're not going by yourself,” announced Jacuzzi, with Nick nodding along at his side. Nice knew Jacuzzi had been having nightmares about machine guns and massacres for the past three days. His voice squeaked, but he was wearing that determined look that meant that saying no to him was about as good as saying no to an oncoming El train.

“Okay then,” she said, and grinned over at him. You couldn't really say thanks to Jacuzzi; he'd spent his whole life throwing himself under the bus for other people, it just didn't have any effect anymore. “I guess I'm not.”

She thought it was a pretty good plan – and as luck would have it, by the time a few weeks had gone by, she had an impressive (and painful) set of fresh scars to go along with her sob story, which you'd think could only make this aspect of things easier. The one problem was that it seemed like, if Al Capone didn't know about your sob story, getting in to see the boss himself wasn't so easy as you might sound. Sure, everyone knew that the headquarters were at the Lexington Hotel, but none of the dour-looking men in fedoras who answered the door had any intention of letting a bunch of weird-looking kids into the heart of Capone's Castle.

“Look,” said one of them, kindly enough. “It ain't no good when bystanders get holed, we all know that. Someone'll bring it up with the boss, and we'll see if we can do something for your ma, but no one's buying any bottle rockets off a little girl, all right? And if you want my advice, you'll stop playing around before you blow off the other half your face. Now scram!”

“But if you'd just let me show you --” Nice began, but the door was already slamming in her face.

She swallowed the lump rising in her throat – she wasn't crying anymore, now, she reminded herself – and turned around to Nick and Jacuzzi, who were waiting right behind her.

“It's okay, Nice,” said Nick, shuffling from one foot to the other. “We'll think of something else.”

Jacuzzi's eyes were welling up. He blew his nose on his sleeve. “Y-you should just blow the door in,” he mumbled, cheeks white with anger – well, one of them was; the other was still red and sore-looking from the new tattoo. “That would sh-show him, all right. Wh-what kind of person says that about somebody –”

“Nah, it's okay,” said Nice. Blowing the doors was sure tempting, all right, but it probably wouldn't help too much in the long run – and anyway her depth perception wasn't that great anymore, and you had to aim something like that at the right angle for maximum impact. She kept her hand away from her face, and instead turned her lips up into a fierce grin, a bad-girl grin that went with her brand-new scars. “I got another idea.”

 

1932: The Capone Bodyguard Would Be Surprised To Learn That Business in Bottle Rockets is Booming

 

“I couldn't swear the guy was one of those Russos,” said Nick, “and I couldn't swear he wasn't, but he did look kinda familiar to me. He mighta been, and that's all I'm saying.”

Donny just shrugged. “He looked suspicious. That's all I know.”

Nice frowned. It had been months since the incidents, and a lot had happened in Chicago in those months; at this point, they should not have been all that high on the Russo priority list. “We gotta find out some more information,” she said, reluctantly. “If we're gonna start up the bootleg operations again, we can't afford to have that bounty still hangin' on our heads. You said you followed the guy to a Martillo speako, right?”

“Yeah. We didn't want to make any trouble in Martillo territory, so we beat it then and came back.”

“Th-that's good,” said Jacuzzi, pushing himself up from the chair with determination, and Nick and Donny gave each other dismayed looks. “You guys should stay here and watch the house, a-and I'll go talk to him. Maybe he just wants something we can help him with, or --”

“Or maybe not,” interrupted Nice. She pushed her glasses up on her nose, tossed her finished pipe bomb in the air – it was a beauty, too, if she did say so herself – caught it, and shoved it in a pocket for later. “You boys did the right thing. You stay here with the others to watch out for if he comes again, and Jacuzzi'n me'll go check out that speako. Maybe we'll learn something.”

“And anyway,” she said to Jacuzzi, once they were sitting on the Second Avenue Elevated, “even if we don't find anything about the guy the boys thought they saw, it can't hurt to scope out the competition, maybe even check out some places to start brewing.”

“Huh?” Jacuzzi had been staring up nervously out the window – possibly imagining someone dangling off the edge with blood dripping down. He shivered and turned to look at her, biting his lip. “Yeah, I was thinking that would be smart. I mean, if we're going to be staying here, and we got everyone to feed, and – not that you haven't been doing a great job of supporting everyone with those sales! But there are a lot of us, and . . .”

“And the money ain't gonna last forever. We all know that.” If there's one thing a group of kids like theirs knew, it's that money didn't last forever. “But who knows? Maybe we'll even make some new friends at this Martillo speako.” She grinned at him. “The business kind of friends.”

“Yeah.” Jacuzzi gave her one of those slightly wobbly, trusting smiles that made her want to pull him over and lay one on him right there. People always stared at them on the train anyway; why not really give them something to stare at? She pressed her hands down firmly against the seat instead, as Jacuzzi said, “Maybe we will.”

As it turned out, though, the first person they saw as the edged their awkward way into the smoky room wasn't a new friend at all, but an old one.

“Little Czes?” exclaimed Jacuzzi, his face lighting up, and then just as abruptly dropping as the boy directed an overwhelmingly blank look their way. “Oh, or – maybe you don't remember me. Which is really okay! I mean, we only met that once and it really wasn't important and . . .”

“Don't be stupid, of course he remembers you,” said Nice, and came over to lean her elbow on the table next to Czes. The kid looked exactly the same as he had all those months ago when they got off the train in New York, except of course for not being hollow-eyed or covered in blood. “Hey, how'd a little guy like you get in here? I'm betting the man at the bar don't serve milkshakes, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, miss,” Czes began, wide-eyed and high-pitched, and then Nice got a good look at the man he was sitting with, and forgot to pay attention.

“Gra--” she exclaimed, and then clapped her hand to her mouth before she could say anything more. She didn't know what the game was, and they were on someone else's turf.

“Afternoon, Miz Holystone.” The man tipped his fedora in her direction. His name was Jimmy Graziano, and his face was well-known in Chicago among the Capones. “I should've known you and young Mr. Mayer here were acquainted, being in the same trade and all.”

Sometimes, when dealing with a powerful gangster, it was not the wisest course of action to admit that you had no idea what the hell they were talking about. “Oh, yeah,” Nice said, breezily. “We're pals.”

“Well, I won't stop you all from catching up.” Graziano rose, sliding a small envelope almost invisibly over to Czes in the process. “Pleasure doing business, Mr. Mayer. I assume the goods will be --”

“Delivered by tomorrow.” Nice tried not to gape at the sudden maturity in Czes' voice; that was the kind of trick that would have come in useful for one of her own team to have, instead of being a full gang of eternal baby-faces. She had to admit she was impressed. “Count on it.”

Graziano tipped his hat and headed for the door. Unnoticed by anybody, a long lean shadow that belonged to Leon Alexei of the Russo family dislodged itself from a table near the back and slid after him.

Meanwhile, Czes sighed and turned back to the two of them. He didn't sound anything like a little boy now. “Well,” he said, “at least you didn't disrupt things too much, I suppose. You're in explosives too?”

“The best in them,” said Nice, without batting an eyelash.

Czes snorted. “No, you're not. I am. I suppose I have to thank you, though – I wondered why they were so willing to do business with a kid. Too bad they won't be buying from you anymore now that they've got me.”

Nice laughed. The kid's bragging might be annoying, if he wasn't almost half her age. “Eh, you can have it. We're staying out of Chicago business now anyway.”

“But Czes,” Jacuzzi cut in anxiously, “is everything okay? I mean, you don't need the money bad or anything, right? You were by yourself on the Pussyfoot, and this isn't really a great place for a kid to be by himself, and – the family you were going to see, are they taking care of you okay? Do you need a place to stay or something? Because you'd be welcome to come stay with us at the Genoard place, if you need somewhere to go. There's lots of room, and you wouldn't have to be part of our gang or anything – I mean, you could if you wanted! But we wouldn't try to force you or anything, I promise!”

He really meant it all, of course. Jacuzzi always did. Nice leaned back to watch how the hard-boiled junior businessman who'd just calmly sold Graziano the means to break Capone out of jail would react to the patented Jacuzzi Splot sincerity.

All Czes did, for a moment, was blink. Finally, he shook his head and said, “You're a really clueless person, you know. Thanks. But no thanks.”

“I, I am?” said Jacuzzi, blinking, and pressed on. “But you've got someone to watch out for you? Because really, it's no good to be on your own.”

“Yeah,” said Czes, and – to Nice's surprise – even managed a faint smile that did not look like a shark's. “Don't worry. I actually do.”

 

1926: Jacuzzi Splot's Weeping and Apologizing Strategy Proves Itself Effective Yet Again

 

On the third day of the new plan, they found someone sitting on the steps in the alleyway they'd scoped out by Capone's Castle. He was twice any of their size, and unfriendly-looking. He glared at Nick, who glared back.

“This is our spot,” snarled Nick. “So scram.”

The boy's eyes shifted from Nick's scowl, to Nice's scars, to Jacuzzi's fearsome tattoo. He shuffled his seat to take up more of the steps, and muttered something in Spanish. It didn't sound accommodating.

Nick had apparently not planned beyond this point. He hesitated, and shot a glance at Nice for help. The problem was Nice didn't know what to do either. They could hardly expect to get respect from big-time gangsters if they let some lone kid, however big, walk all over them . . . but on the other hand, the kid was huge, and if they made enough of a stink here some grown-up might come along to kick them all out of the place.

While she hesitated, Jacuzzi took matters into his own hands. “Uh, hi,” he said, gulping. “I-is this your spot? I'm real sorry if we took it – see, there wasn't anyone here the past couple of days, and it's a great place to see everything from, but we didn't mean to intrude, honestly we didn't!” His voice started to break. “I'm really, really sorry for getting in your way!”

It turned out a nervous apology crossed language barriers better than almost anything else – and when a giant got confused and embarrassed, he looked a lot more like a kid, just like any of them. He aimed a helpless look over Jacuzzi's head at Nice and Nick, who shrugged.

“You get used to it,” Nick told him.

Nice decided to take advantage of the confusion and settle next to the giant on the steps. There was just enough room for her, and she was tired of standing, anyway. “He's Jacuzzi.” She waved a hand in the general direction of Jacuzzi; he was on her blind side now that she was turned around, but she could locate him easily by the sound of sniffling. “That's Nick, and I'm Nice. We won't get you in no trouble if you don't get us in none.”

“Wh-what's your name?” asked Jacuzzi.

The boy stared at them. He looked not at all sure how this had happened, and also as if he was not at all sure that he liked it. “Donato,” he mumbled, finally. He didn't move over to make more room for them, but he didn't try to throw them out of the corner that day.

He didn't try to throw them out when they showed up the next day, either. When they brought out their lunch – there wasn't much of it, some cheese and rolls from Nice's mom and a couple of apples Jacuzzi had snatched from his uncle – Jacuzzi offered Donato half his share. Donato eyed it like he was wary of poison, then devoured it with a hunger that clearly beat out any of theirs. It made sense; Nice figured a body that size had to take a lot of feeding.

They were almost to the steps on the third morning when Jacuzzi bumped hard into a grown-up in a fedora headed the other direction and fell over.

Jacuzzi was already mumbling panicked apologies as he picked himself up, but the man was one of those that didn't care whether you said sorry. “Goddamn delinquents!” he roared, and aimed a kick at Jacuzzi's side that sent him down to the ground again.

Nice hissed and reached down into her pocket for her latest, but before she could do anything Donato reared up from his spot on the steps.

He didn't say anything to the man. All he did was loom. The man stared; so did Nice and Nick, more surreptitiously. It was the first time they'd seen Donato at his full height.

“It's okay, Donny,” coughed Jacuzzi, getting to his feet and waving his hands in a panic. “It's okay! It was my fault and I'm sure he's a really nice man really!”

Meanwhile, the really nice man decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and hurried the rest of the way down the street to the Lexington Hotel.

Donny – he was officially Donny now, Nice guessed – said something to Jacuzzi in Spanish, and sat down again with a sigh. All they could pick out was the word americanos; if Nice had to bet on it, she'd wager it was some kind of comment on how bizarre they all clearly were. It was the sort of comment Jacuzzi got a lot.

“Thanks,” said Nick, rubbing his face. “Uh – gracias, yeah?”

Donny gave Nick a dubious look. The mangled Spanish accent, it was clear, did not impress him. Nick shrugged. “Well, thanks, anyway,” he said, and sat down on the step. Donny edged over a little to make room, and Nice figured that that pretty much meant he was part of the gang.

And it became clear, over the next few days, that somehow with the addition of Donny they suddenly were a gang. No one, seeing Jacuzzi's face and Nice's eyepatch and Donny's size all together, could ever assume anything else. They hadn't meant for it to work out that way, and Nice's mother would have a fit if she knew, but after tossing it around in her head Nice thought it probably suited her fine. The scars might have made it more certain than before, but when you thought about it, a girl who got all her kicks from watching things go boom hadn't ever been going to settle down to a life you would call normal.

Still, there was Jacuzzi. “You coulda picked somethin' less scary for the tattoo, you know,” she said to him, as they were walking home at the end of the week. Nick had decided to stay a little longer and teach Donny how to play jacks, so it left just the two of them for once. “Why'd you get something so tough? If you wanted you could've got a real job, like a delivery boy or something.”

Jacuzzi hunched his shoulders over. “I know I'm not really tough,” he said. “I'm real scared all the time. But I guess if I'm going to be real scared all the time, I, I might as well have a real reason to be, right? I want us all to be able to take care of each other, by ourselves, without the grown-ups, and, um, I guess that, I mean, if I'm going to be scared anyway, I might as well just be with you and, um, do the dangerous things that are actually scary. And – maybe this isn't making any sense, it's probably not making any sense, but . . .” He looked up and gave her one of those wobbly smiles that made her want to reach out and ruffle his hair. “I guess it's really just better if we're all together, right? – hey! Nice, stoppit!” He ducked and squirmed away, laughing, as Nice chased him down the street.

They might not have actually said outright, 'so we're really going to embark on a life of crime, then?' but all the same, that seemed to settle that.

 

1932: Leon Alexei Misjudges His Own Skills at Putting Together Jigsaw Puzzles

 

The underworld ran on rumor. Puzzle pieces slotted themselves together and built up pictures of interest. An immortal child went home and mentioned a strange encounter to the girl who wasn't his big sister, who mentioned it to the boy who wasn't her boyfriend, who thought it was worth passing on to the friend who wasn't a Camorrista, who considered it thoughtfully for a while, weighing probabilities, and then placed a call to the Genoard mansion in New Jersey.

". . . Mr. Gandor?"

"I know it's not really my business, Miss Genoard, but I hear you've picked up some squatters."

"In the New York mansion?" Eve's voice sounded both puzzled and stiff; it was not, indeed, any of his business, but the question was, why should he care? "They're friends of my cook."

"I hate to break it to you," said Luck Gandor, "but rumor has it they're a little more than that..."

Elsewhere, the pieces were coming together too.

Leon Alexei of the Russo family backed once more over the body of Jimmy Graziano, hearing the satisfying splurt of tires squashing internal organs. He hadn't gotten everything he wanted out of him – Graziano was stubborn, and had held his high position in the Capones for a reason – but there was more than enough to go on.

He had Graziano's list – all the people he'd approached in New York about the Capone heist – and he had the explosives, sitting nice and heavy in the back of his car, that had been slated to break Capone out of jail and get him back in charge of Chicago.

He had that little Holystone brat, the bomb freak who kept time with the Splot kid with all the dough on his head, meeting up with Graziano at the Martillo speako. Nice Holystone had worked with Capone before, and whatever else you could say about her, she was good at what she did. And those delinquents were staying at a mansion that belonged to the Genoards, who just happened to be high up on Graziano's list of possible allies.

He had the Gandors' pet assassin, the one who'd put Ladd Russo behind bars just a few months ago, hanging around the Genoard place too, chatting up the Splot kid as cozy as could be. And if you listened around, you heard that the Gandors were said to have some kind of an in with Eve Genoard – or maybe it was the other way around. They were tight with the Martillos, too.

It all added up to a nice pretty picture, and what it meant was someone needed to be taught a lesson. The New York gangs shouldn't go interfering in Chicago affairs. It wasn't healthy for them.

The Martillos were big, but the Gandors were small. The delinquents were smaller still. And Eve Genoard – she was just one little girl in way, way over her head.

Leon Alexei did not think he would have too much of a problem delivering the message.

 

1932: The Former Rail Tracer Pays No Attention to the Fact That This Isn't His Story

 

Jacuzzi knocked on the door to Chane's room. “Hey, Chane, you want to come downstaaarghle!”

Nice caught him as he fainted. “You couldn'ta just come in through the front door?” she complained, trying to pretend her face wasn't red. There was after all a shirtless man in the room, although Chane, who had opened the door, was fully clothed and holding her knives. They were flecked with blood, and so was the Rail Tracer.

“Sorry,” said the Rail Tracer, in the way that meant that he wasn't particularly. “We just got back.”

Chane pointed to the open window to demonstrate how they had. She looked faintly apologetic, but also faintly impatient.

“Look, he does great if he's got some warnin',” said Nice defensively. The Rail Tracer didn't bother her much, but the thing was, he might have – he might have scared her so bad she couldn't have think – if she didn't have Jacuzzi to be scared for her. That was how it worked.

But Jacuzzi was struggling awake now anyway. “S-sorry!” he stammered, using Nice's shoulder to lever himself straight. “I-I-I just wanted to—um—well, we're going to have a meeting about next steps for the gang over lunch, and, um, since you're part of the gang now y-you should be there.”

“Did you say there was gonna be food?” asked Chane's boyfriend.

“O-of course you're welcome to come if you want!” said Jacuzzi hastily. Nice could see him worrying that the Rail Tracer might be feeling excluded. “Fan's a great cook, and I'm, I'm sure your input would be very valuable! But you might want to, uh – well, there's kids here, and, uh, if you need one, I can, I can lend you a shirt . . .?”

Which is how the whole extended gang ended up sitting around the table fifteen minutes later -- twenty kids or more, so it was a good thing the Genoards had one of those big banquet tables -- with the Rail Tracer at the end, stuffing himself unconcernedly on soup dumplings. “Mmmm!” he announced, cheeks bulging, and gave an enormous thumbs-up.  His wrists stuck an inch out of his borrowed shirt.

Chane wasn't eating. She looked a little bashful, which Nice guessed made sense; between being invited into the group decision-making process and having her boyfriend there too, this was a lot of social dynamics for Chane to negotiate at once.

Jacuzzi had been waiting for everyone to get started eating, but now he cleared his throat and stood up. “All right,” he said, shifting his weight back and forth nervously. “Nice and I have been talking, and, um – well, there's a lot of us now, and we're starting to run through the money we got from selling all those explosives. We've been thinking that maybe we should start up the bootlegging operations again, but – this is a town with a lot of gangs, and we know it's dangerous! And after what happened last time, um, I didn't, I don't – I really don't want to put anybody in danger or get anybody in trouble again. If anything happened this time like what happened in Chicago, I'd . . .”

No one laughed or smiled when the tears started up this time. They all remembered what happened when the Russos went after them in Chicago. Nice reached her hand up to grip Jacuzzi's. Jim, Susie, Han, Shadow, Stitch, Kenny and Genevieve – they didn't talk about them or even think about them much, because you couldn't, or you'd go crazy. But they remembered, all right. One of two of the kids who'd joined them since then looked down, uncomfortable; Chane looked straight ahead, her face a perfect blank, as she waited for this moment that she couldn't join in to pass; the Rail Tracer, unbothered, kept eating.

Jacuzzi gulped, once, twice. “So – anyway,” he choked out, “before we – we gotta hear what everybody has to say. I don't really know much about the gangs here, the Martillos or the Gandors or the Runorata, but if they come after us . . . everyone's gotta say yes before we take that risk, okay?”

In the silence that followed, the Rail Tracer swallowed the last bite of his dumpling, noisily, and propped his elbows up on the table. “If you wanna know about the Gandors,” he announced, “I'll tell you one thing, Luck Gandor – he's soft. Great guy, I mean, real great guy, but he's really got a thing or two to learn about when it pays to be a nice guy and when it don't. There was this dame Edith who double-crossed them – well, even big brother Keith, he's a sucker for a sad story, you know what I'm saying? Honestly, if those guys didn't have me watchin' out for them in my world, I don't know what would happen to them, I really don't.”

Everyone stared at the Rail Tracer like he had two heads. This was a little different from the way everyone usually stared at the Rail Tracer, which was like he had two heads and both were filled with fangs and tipped with horns, and also covered in blood.

And then there was Jacuzzi, who was staring at the Rail Tracer like he had just offered hope of salvation. “Really?” he squeaked. “The Gandors, they're actually...they're nice guys?”

“Aw, yeah.” The Rail Tracer leaned back, shaking his head disapprovingly. “The Martillos too. I mean, you can't exactly picture Maiza Avaro appreciatin' the joy that comes out of cuttin' someone slowly to pieces and lickin' the blood off your fingers, can you? Well, I guess you guys don't know Maiza. But basically the guy's just a bookworm. Okay with a knife, not bad – he wouldn't last five seconds against me, but any of you guys besides Chane, you'd be toast – but there's no way he'd carve you open and pull out your guts or anything, I mean, it just wouldn't happen.”

Jacuzzi's face had been growing paler the more graphic the explanations got, but he rallied. “Well, uh, that – that doesn't sound too bad,” he said, looking out around the room hopefully. “What, what does everybody else think?”

Across the room, Nice caught Chane's eye. Chane glanced up at her boyfriend and then over at Jacuzzi, and cocked her head as she met Nice's gaze again.

Well. Nice had been sort of figuring already that the Rail Tracer's definition of what was a nice guy and what was too soft might not exactly match up with what Jacuzzi was thinking. The Martillos, they were big, and you didn't get big by being nice – and the Gandors might be scrappy little guys, but they'd hung in there a while now, which meant their scrappiness probably came with teeth. Also, they were friends with the Rail Tracer.

Still, their gang had to survive on something. It was dangerous, but so was their whole life.

Nice shook her head, very slightly, and Chane settled back in her chair. There was no point in bringing it up. Jacuzzi would still be as scared of the Gandors and the Martillos as a normal person should be, anyway – just not any more scared.

The vote was unanimous, but Nice was pretty sure it would have been anyway.

 

1927: The Survival of the Delinquent Gang Up Until the Present is Finally Explained


By the time they had the chance to put the plan into action, they'd picked up John, Stitch and Susie – all kids their own age or a little older, all without much in the way of family, and all hanging around with the idea that the underworld was their last chance for a break. Not all the other delinquents they met wanted to play nice. Sometimes Nice or Donny had to scare them a little – or more than a little – to get them to go away and leave them alone. But the ones whose toughness faded away when Jacuzzi started apologizing, the ones who figured out they were happier to be with a gang of kids than keep pretending they were grown-ups already, they stuck around. Nice saw her mom less and less, but that was okay. Her mom was working double-time at the factory anyway to keep them afloat, and Nice was pretty sure she was happier not knowing what her little girl was up to, anyway.

So the gang got bigger, and the plan evolved with it. Susie knew how to make bathtub liquor, and John's cousin ran a speako. And it wasn't like bootlegging hurt anybody, not really. Jacuzzi's uncle was a whole lot nicer when he could get hold of some drink than when he couldn't, anyway. All they needed was the capital to get started, and for that, they could sell Nice's bombs.

Just as soon as they got Capone's attention.

And finally, in February – just when they were all starting to get really sick of sitting out in the cold every day, huddled together, waiting for a break – their chance came. A flashy white car was idling down a side street right by Capone's Castle. Stitch had been keeping his eye on it since it showed up.  It was full of shady characters, and not any of the usual ones they'd gotten used to seeing while hanging around the Lexington; with the way they were keeping a low profile, odds were good they weren't anybody the Capones would be happy to see. Then Capone came out, surrounded by his bodyguards, as usual, and got into his Cadillac, and the white car came rolling out in front of it, blocking its pathway. The windows started to scroll down.

Jacuzzi was shaking with fear, but he whistled twice, and Nick and Donny came running up. Nice was already on the go, pulling her new baby out from her pocket. She struck a match, feeling the laughter bubbling up in her chest, feeling bad, and sent the sizzling smoker spinning out onto the hood of the white car.

Three, two, one, she counted under her breath, and then shrieked with delight as it blew right on schedule, covering the area in clouds of thick, choking black smoke with a burning flame at its heart. For a moment that was all she could see, and all she could care about, too. When one of her bombs went off it was like every part of her exploded, tiny fires all over her body. There wasn't a thrill like it in the whole world.

But a second later she heard Donny shouting, and remembered herself, and jerked her attention over to the car. Nick and Donny were supposed to go into the smoke on either side of the car and drag the guns away from the assassins while they were still confused – it looked like Donny had managed to knock his guy out already, but she couldn't tell anything about Nick's side, and then a tommy gun started firing.

“Help Nick!” shouted Jacuzzi, already running towards Nick's side of the car, and Nice took off after, rummaging frantically in her pockets for another bomb. The smoke was already clearing in the chill Chicago wind. She could see Nick now, scraggly and terrified and refusing to give up in his tug-of-war over the machine gun, which went off again to the side, rat-tat-tat-tat, and now two more armed men were unfolding themselves from the back of the car, and they didn't look happy. Which bomb, she thought desperately, which bomb? Would another smoker help, or should she go for more firepower? And if she aimed for the guns in the back, would any of her friends get hurt in the blast? She'd never thrown a real exploder at a person before –

Bang. Bang.

The two men from the back of the car crumpled, unceremoniously, and fell still. The one Nick was struggling with went still, too.

“Well, kids,” said a voice on her blind side, “that was a hell of a stupid thing to do.”

Slowly, Nice turned around. She saw two bodyguards standing by the car, pistols half-lowered in their hands, and behind them –

“Yeah,” she said, standing straight. She shoved the bodies and the blood and pink blown flesh on the pavement as far out of her mind as they would possibly go – though they'd come rebounding back on her later that night, and she'd be sick, probably, but that was a problem for later – and thought instead about the explosion, the gorgeous smokebomb that had worked so exactly as she'd planned it should. She grinned wide, feeling the pull against the tightness of her scars. “But you have to admit, Mr. Capone, it was a beauty of a bomb.”

He didn't buy any of her explosives in the end – he already had a bombs expert, he said, although maybe he'd get back to her for the primary elections next year – but he'd give them the money they needed to start up their operation, in exchange for ten percent of the profits. Nice got the feeling that he didn't really expect any profits, but then, it wasn't exactly a lot of money he was giving them. It didn't matter. They might be making it small-time, but they were going to make it, and that was enough.

“You should know, by the way, that if you'd tried to start this operation without my blessing,” Capone said, smiling broadly, “we'd have squashed you like insects, children or not.” He handed her the cash, as she stared at him. “Come see me in three months to tell me how you're doing, and good luck.”

 

1932: Eve Genoard Discovers Herself To Have More in Common with Al Capone Than Previously Imagined

 

The plan for the afternoon was to go down to Little Italy to scope out some possible locations for a still. Just now, though, Donny was trying to talk Nick down from some kind of goatee crisis, which meant Nice and Jacuzzi were stuck waiting for them in the hallway with nothing better to do than shuffle through the mail the postman had left yesterday.

“Hope the Genoard dame doesn’t actually need any of this stuff,” Nice remarked. “Party invitation, someone askin’ for donations, some kinda charity function – boy, the life of the rich, huh?” She started to toss the pile aside, when Jacuzzi made a grab for it.

“Hey wait, Nice -- look at this one.” He held up an envelope addressed in a neat, delicate hand to Mr. Jacuzzi Splot, Miss Nice Holystone, and Party.

They stared at each other. Neither of them could remember the last time they’d gotten any mail – and it was for sure the first time anyone had addressed the gang as and Party.

“Well, go on,” said Nice, finally, and Jacuzzi tore it open. Inside was a sheet of stationary just as delicate and classy-looking as the writing on it. Dear Mr. Splot and Miss Holystone, said the note, politely, I hope that you have been enjoying your stay in my house and having a pleasant time in New York. The city is certainly lovely this time of year. However, I think it is possible there may have been some miscommunications regarding the terms of your stay. Unfortunately, business affairs make it inconvenient for me to make it into the city at this time, so I would very much appreciate it if a member of your party could arrange to meet me at my home in New Jersey to discuss the matter. I have arranged for a car to be waiting at Hoboken Terminal at 4 PM on the 16th and I look forward to the opportunity to meet in person.

Nice didn’t have any doubts that Eve Genoard’s signature on the note was real. You couldn’t fake handwriting like that.

“Well,” she said, with a sigh, “at least she ain’t called the cops on us.” John and Fan had said that Miss Genoard was a nicer girl than you’d expect, for such a rich broad. “Maybe she’ll give us a couple of days to clear out.”

“The sixteenth,” said Jacuzzi, frowning. “Th-that’s today, isn’t it? I guess – Nice, maybe you’d better go with Nick and Donny down to Little Italy, and I’ll –”

Nice shook her head. “No, switch that around.” There was a time and place for an hour straight of apologies, but to Nice’s mind, this was not it. They might not be able to stay in the mansion, but they could at least buy as much time as possible. “You boys do what you were planning to, and I’ll head out to Jersey and see what she’s gotta say. I guess we better not tell everyone till we know for sure how long we got. Don’t worry,” she added, as Jacuzzi’s forehead started to wrinkle up nervously. “What’s she gonna do, polite me to death?”

A few hours later, sitting in Eve Genoard’s sitting room and fiddling with the collar of her defiantly improper vest, she kind of wished she hadn’t been so flippant about the possibility.

The thing was that John and Fan had been absolutely right: Eve Genoard was completely, one hundred percent a nice girl. Her hair was all brushed and shiny and she dressed like a ten-year-old at a birthday party, and she’d smiled and said how very pleased she was that Nice could make it, in an accent that placed her way out of the stratosphere of anyone Nice had ever dealt with. Capone had been a big shot, but he was the kind of big shot that had his feet on the same ground Nice walked on; you knew he knew about fighting for street corners and not having enough money for shoes. For just a moment, Nice wondered if maybe Jacuzzi would have been the better person for this job, after all. He could have talked to Eve Genoard just the way he talked to everyone else. Sure, it would have been with a whole lot of apologizing and nervous stammering, but at least it wouldn’t have been class-related nervous stammering.

But she was Nice Holystone, she reminded herself, and she didn’t get nervous. She had Jacuzzi for that. Let Eve Genoard be nervous about the delinquent with the tough-looking scars hanging out in her sitting room. She straightened her back, reminded herself of the comforting weight of the extra bomb in her eye socket, and accepted the teacup being handed to her.

“Thank you for coming all this way,” said Eve Genoard. She offered another small, social smile, and Nice braced herself for an offer of scones or cookies. “I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you in New York,” Eve Genoard went on, “but to be honest, I thought it probably wasn’t a good idea to come into the middle of an armed gang of bootleggers. I want to be fair to you, but I don’t want to put myself in danger stupidly either.”

Nice blinked at her.

Eve Genoard sipped her tea.

Well – if the Genoard dame could put her cards on the table, then so could Nice. “Look,” she said, leaning forward, and then put the teacup down hastily before she spilled it. “I know we weren’t exactly square with you, and I’m sorry about that. I really am. But you ought to know we ain’t exactly Bugs Moran, you know? We wouldn’t have hurt you or anything.”

“That’s reassuring,” said Miss Genoard, seriously.

Nice thought she was beginning to get something of a grip now on what that politeness of Eve Genoard’s covered, and it wasn’t quite what she had thought. Still, she pressed on; it was worth a try, anyway. “It’s not all that different from what John and Fan told you in the first place. We’re friends of theirs that need a place to stay, that’s all. And we don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Eve Genoard nodded. “I do understand that – and I really am sorry.” She sounded it; her voice was soft and high. “It’s not that I need the house – really, I don’t – and it’s not that I mind someone else using it, but you see, the trouble is that what happens in my house becomes my responsibility.”

A real grown-up probably would have thought she looked ridiculous saying that, sitting there in that pink dress and those ruffles. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, tops – too young to take responsibility for anything.

But Nice wasn’t exactly what you’d call a real grown-up yet either, and she knew for sure that sixteen was plenty old enough. Fourteen was plenty old enough. Twelve was plenty old enough, too, to take responsibility for your own life.

“I could offer you money,” she said, ruefully, “but it probably wouldn’t be enough for a mansion, anyway.”

“I don’t like money very much, in any case,” said Eve Genoard.

Well. Nice had known it was probably a lost cause from the start, but that’s why there was a Plan B, after all. “You can’t expect us to just up and move right away, though, right? We’ve got to find a place to go first, and there's the kids –”

“I wouldn’t kick you out on the street!” exclaimed Eve Genoard, genuinely horrified, and something moved in the hallway behind her. “Of course you’ll have time to find—”

“Watch out!” Nice launched herself across the table. Hot tea splashed over her arm, scalding the unscarred areas. She grabbed the Genoard girl and pulled her down to the ground, and felt the breeze of flying bullets just over her head as the rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of a tommy gun blasted in the air where they'd just been.

“What --”

“Someone's shooting at you!” hissed Nice. “Why would someone be shooting at you?”

“It isn't your friends?” gasped Eve. They were both on the floor now, huddled against the base of the sofa where Eve had been sitting.

“I told you, we wouldn't! We're not that kinda gang! Anyway, they wouldn't hurt me, and that round sure would have!”

“If he's hurt Benjamin and Samantha,” snapped Eve, her face white and tense, “there will be a reckoning.” And then, to Nice's massive astonishment, she popped up to her feet and shouted, “Who are you! And what do you want!”

This was a practically Jacuzzi-esque level of stupidity. “Get down!” yelled Nice, and, for lack of a better notion, grabbed Eve's legs to send her tumbling down to the ground again, just in time to avoid another bout of machine fire. “Whoever this is, he's not playing around,” she hissed, in Eve's startled ear. “Machine guns don't fire warning shots, and the fellas holding them don't answer questions. This guy wants you dead, Miss Genoard.”

They could hear footsteps now, walking slowly into the room. “Time to come out,” crooned a lazy voice. “Time to learn what happens when little girls play with fire.”

Nice and Eve looked at each other. Well, thought Nice, if you were going to die, it was nice to know it was in the company of someone who was just as annoyed by being called a little girl as you were.

Still, it would be a whole lot better not to die at all.

And just as she thought that, her chance came; more footsteps came running from further away, and someone shouted “Miss Eve!” The assassin paused – probably he was turning towards the door – and Nice took advantage of the covering sound to strike a match. Eve's eyes tracked the flame; Nice grinned at her, slid a smokebomb out of her pocket, lit it, and tossed it over the other side of the couch.

A second later the machine gun blasted its way back around in her direction, but Nice was already rolling towards the other corner. Three, two, one, she counted silently, and felt the familiar surge of delirious excitement as the room exploded in a smoky haze that left the assassin coughing and gasping for breath.

If Donny was here, he could just crush the guy's hand around his gun and that would be that. But Donny wasn't here, and Nice knew neither she nor Eve was exactly up to wrestling the kind of guy someone was likely to send to take out the head of the Genoards. She lit a match and darted towards the sound of the coughing. Timing was the key here, and she didn't have a knife on her, which would have made this easier, but she'd manage because there wasn't another choice. Light the fuse of the bomb, count three, keep your eye closed because you can't see anything anyway and run straight forward like Jacuzzi on the Flying Pussyfoot and count two and shove more than throw the bomb straight towards the wheezing and fling yourself backwards as fast you can with your arms over your head and count one and hope to hell that Eve Genoard had the sense to keep down because there it goes.

She felt the blast burning and shook her hair hastily to dislodge any embers that might catch and start a proper fire. Her ends would be singed anyway, no help for that, and she might have a few new scar-specks on her forearms; hard to tell, the pain never kicked in until after the euphoria wore off. Normally she'd take a few moments to enjoy it, but she couldn't afford the time right now. She lowered her arms and squinted cautiously through sooty glasses. If she'd missed, the machine-gun blast would be coming right through her any time now –

But she hadn't missed. In fact, she'd aimed better than she knew; she must have gotten the bomb right in the guy's mouth or something, or at least pretty close to it, because there was only one thing she could tell for sure about the assassin right now and that was that he didn't have a head.

A side effect to this was a whole lot of a – well, mess was probably the politest word – scattered around the place. Nice winced. Maybe she should tell Eve not to get up until she'd had a chance to clean the worst of it away –

“I think,” said a small, pinched voice from behind her, “that his pockets still should be intact, which is, I suppose, a kind of miracle.” Nice took off her glasses and rubbed them to clear them, and saw vaguely through her good eye Eve Genoard picking her way through the debris of what had once been a very elegant sitting room. Her lips had the bitten look that said that she was trying hard not to scream, and Nice sort of wished she would let it out for both of them. But she didn't; she just kept going, one small, careful step after another, and then knelt down by the body. “Thank you,” Eve added. “Very much.”

“He was trying to kill me too,” said Nice weakly, and came over to stand beside Eve, shoving her slightly cleaner glasses back onto her face.

“Miss Eve!” The voices that had been calling from outside were extremely loud now, and within moments a pair of people that Nice recognized as the Genoard maid and butler were shoving their way into the room. “What have you done here?” demanded the butler, advancing towards Nice.

“Saved my life,” said Eve, looking up, before Nice had a chance to say anything. She had found a piece of paper, and she held it up to look at it. “Genoard,” she read out, “Gandor, Martillo – oh, I see.”

She pushed herself upright once more, and went over to hug the maid and the butler, which is not something that Nice had imagined rich folk did. “I'm glad you're both all right,” she murmured. She looked more like a little kid with her parents than anything else, and Nice concentrated on cleaning her glasses again.

“I suppose,” said the butler, after a moment, “we'll need to call someone to take care of – all this.” Both he and the maid seemed more used to this kind of thing than Eve was. Well, Nice supposed she'd heard rumors about old man Genoard.

“Yes.” Eve stepped away and seemed to regain – well, Nice thought, generously, at least two years in doing so. “Soon. But first --” She looked at Nice. Nice blinked back at her. She'd sort of figured now that she was back with her people, Eve would have forgotten she was there. “Miss Holystone, you'll probably want to wash your face, won't you? And I—I'd like to change. If you'll come upstairs with me --”

Nice would not have thought that face-washing and clothes-changing would be the first order of business after a thwarted assassination, but on the other hand, it probably would be a bad idea to hop the train back to Manhattan looking like she'd just come out of a mine. “Uh – sure, I guess.”

She followed Eve up the stairs and into her vast expanse of a bedroom, feeling, if possible, more self-conscious than ever. Presumably the washroom was somewhere through the other door, but Eve didn't point her to it; instead, she half-sat, half-collapsed on the bed and rubbed her face with her hands. “I'm really very tired,” she said, her voice shaking, “of people deciding that I'm playing in a game without consulting me about it.”

“Playing with fire was what he said,” pointed out Nice, who had reason to remember, and tried to find somewhere to stand where she wouldn't get soot on anything.

“Well, I haven't been playing with anything.” Eve looked up again. Her voice was still shaking, but her delicate chin stuck out stubbornly. “I'm starting to think that's been a mistake. If everyone else is playing around me, that just makes me a pawn, doesn't it?”

Nice shrugged. “If you're gonna get all metaphorical on it, sure.”

“I don't think I am,” said Eve. She looked up, finally, and met Nice's eye. “I'm in the middle of this game, and I don't have any pieces. Miss Holystone, I'll let you – all of you – stay in my house, and pretend I don't take anything. I won't need any money – I couldn't take money from you anyway – and if you get in trouble, I'll do what I can to help. Saving my life was more than I can repay anyway. But in exchange, if I need your gang to – to help me with anything in the future – may I ask you? I hope,” she added hastily, taking Nice's stunned silence for objection, “it will never be anything that's against your conscience. I don't mean to do anything against mine. And you won't ever have to say yes. But I would like to be able to ask.”

Nice held Eve's gaze, and tried to think beyond the ringing of leftover adrenaline in her ears. Basically, it seemed like Eve Genoard was offering her the kind of patronage Capone had given them, except Eve Genoard didn't know what she was doing, and didn't know what she'd be asking, either. She wished Jacuzzi were here; this was the kind of decision that she didn't want to be making on her own.

But then, she knew the way Jacuzzi would see it, right? Look at this whole thing another way: Eve Genoard was a kid like them, a kid with not much family and a tough world to live in. She could have hooked up with anybody she wanted; there wasn't a gang in town wouldn't be happy to have the Genoards as their banker. But instead she'd decided that she'd rather partner with another bunch of kids who didn't know all that much more than she did.

None of the kids in their gang had ever brought a mansion to the table before when they joined up, that was the big difference.

Nice felt her face crease in a wide grin that pulled on the tightness of her scars. “Okay, Miss Genoard,” she said. “We gotta work on the details, sure, but I guess we can work out a deal.”

 

1925: The Russos Have Never Actually Been Aware That The Delinquents Got In the First Blow


Nice and Jacuzzi were playing who-can-kick-a-stone-further-along-the-street when Nice first heard the bawling, and, for once, it wasn't coming from Jacuzzi.

Of course, by the time Nice had turned to say “Hey, you hear that?” Jacuzzi was already off and running. Nice sighed, picked up the biggest kicking stone, and then took off after him. She could run faster than he could any day, so it wasn't hard to catch him up.

She reached him as he was peering around a corner into an alley. There were two boys there. The one who was on the ground looked a year or two older than they were. The one who was jumping gleefully up and down on him was another year or two older than that, and well-fed, and big.

“Ha!” laughed the bigger boy. “Ha! You really thought you could steal something right in front of my eyes and completely get away with it! You've probably been stealing for years and years and gotten away with it every time! You probably thought you would get away with it forever! What you didn't know is those are the people that I love to hurt the most! Not,” he added, his expression changing abruptly, “that you're even interesting enough to be worth taking the time anymore.” He hopped off the boy suddenly, one foot planted to either side, and jumped carefully over his arms like a kid on a hop-scotch drawing. His tone switched to cajoling. “I mean, can't you even put up the tiniest little smidgen of an iota of a fight? For me? Please?”

The boy on the ground didn't look like he was going to answer, but someone else did.

“AAAAAAAAGH!” shrieked Jacuzzi, bawling his eyes out, and charged, headfirst, straight into the bigger boy. Between the age difference and general scrawniness, he was only about half his size, but nonetheless he managed to shove him back a few inches, apparently by sheer force of determination. “Stop it!” he screamed, headbutting the boy over and over again. “Stop it! Stop it!”

“What?” The boy picked up Jacuzzi by the scruff of his shirt collar, apparently without effort – Jacuzzi's feet flailed a foot above the ground – and squinted at him.  Nice tensed and braced herself to attack, from where she was kneeling next to the boy on the ground.  “Huh,” he said, and a big beaming grin spread across his face. “I thought maybe you were the kind of person who's so stupid he thinks he can't possibly get hurt, but you're actually completely terrified! That makes me so happy! You really think you're gonna die, don't you – agh!

Jacuzzi's flailing feet had finally managed to connect with something that really hurt.

The big boy dropped Jacuzzi and crumpled around his injured parts, and Nice let out a whooping cheer.  Surprisingly, the boy on the ground managed a weak cheer too.

“Great,” said Nice, “you're still awake,” and hauled him up to his feet. “Because now's probably a good time to run, if you can.”

“Uh . . . I don't think I can,” said the boy.

He was leaning against her heavily, and she figured he was probably right. “Well, okay then,” she said. She hefted the rock they'd been playing with, wishing it was a cherry bomb, but her dad had told her that if he caught her carrying around one of those things one more time he'd make sure she didn't carry anything else for a week. Too bad, dad; after today, she wouldn't let herself get caught without one again. Still, the rock would do for now. She threw it at the bully, as hard as she could, and had the satisfaction of seeing him yelp as it clopped his head.

“Hit him while he's down, Jacuzzi!” she shouted. Jacuzzi didn't care about fair fights; he never fought at all unless he was really mad, and when he was really mad, nothing else mattered. He grabbed up the rock and delivered a hard blow to the top of the big boy's head.

Then, of course, he just stood there, clutching the rock and breathing hard. The tears had dried up already, but it was going to take him a little while to get back to normal.

“Come on!” shrieked Nice. “We gotta get this kid outta here before that guy gets back up!” Reminding Jacuzzi of someone else always jolted him upright. He spun around and came running back to grab up the kid's other arm.

Between the two of them, they managed to haul him at a relatively speedy clip down a complicated enough maze of side streets that they figured they could stop and take a break. They were, all three, gasping for air.

“So-so-sorry,” gasped Jacuzzi. “About pulling you. I—I really hope we didn't hurt you!”

The boy they'd rescued slid down the wall, and stared up at them like he couldn't decide if they were angels, or hallucinatory pink elephants. “Who the hell are you guys?”

“I'm Nice,” said Nice. “He's Jacuzzi.”

Jacuzzi?

“Yeah,” said Nice, daring him to make something of it, but that probably wasn't exactly fair; it wasn't like the kid had enough energy to make something out of anything at this point.

He let his chin flop forward, conceding defeat. “Okay,” he said. “Uh, I'm Nick. Um. Thanks.”

“Nick?” said Jacuzzi. “Um, the boy back there said, um – do you, d-do you steal stuff? I don't mean that that's bad!” he added, hastily, as Nick's gaze swung towards him. “I mean, if you're hungry and that's how to get food, that's really fine! What I just meant to say was, um, if you're hungry, then, uh...”

Nick's face was set in a scowl now. “Yeah,” he said. “I steal stuff.”

“Yeah? I make bombs,” said Nice. “Jacuzzi cries all the time, especially when he's doing something stupid to help someone. So now we're all introduced. You got somewhere to go?”

Nick looked, for a second, like he wanted to bluster something about how he totally had a fantastic place waiting for him, but the moment passed, and it became obvious he was hurting too much to lie. “No,” he muttered, and dropped his gaze again.

“Okay,” Nice said. “'cause what Jacuzzi was saying is, if you don't, I guess you better come home with one of us for now and get something to eat.”

She didn't have to look at Jacuzzi to know she'd gotten it right.

 

1932: Most Likely, Reality Still Fails To Live Up To Nick's Imagination

 

The Second Avenue El jammed up when Nice was heading home; she got stuck for an hour, and by the time she got back it was after midnight. Jacuzzi, Nick and Donny had gotten back long before. “The boss is in bed, Boss, but I bet he's still awake,” said Nick, and then added, with a broad smirk, “He's been worrying about ya.”

“Aw, shut it,” said Nice, without malice – Nick had been like this ever since the Flying Pussyfoot – and paused to kick off her boots before heading down the hallway towards Jacuzzi's room. She knocked on the door, and took a breath – even now, the rush of the explosion wasn't entirely gone. “Hey, Jacuzzi, you up?”

“Nice!”

She pushed open the door and saw him sitting up in bed, in his nightshirt, none of the telltale signs of sleep-rumpling in his hair. Of course he'd been sitting up worrying about her, even though as far as he knew the only thing she'd done was go up to the classy part of town to talk with some harmless doll. It was such a Jacuzzi thing to do that she felt her cheeks grow warm.

“Hey,” she said, smiling stupidly, and leaned back against the door, folding her arms – and then straightened again, impatient with herself.

So Jacuzzi was in bed. So they hadn't done – well, anything – well, ever – except for on the Flying Pussyfoot, and that's what you could call an exceptional circumstance if there ever was one. So what? She'd gotten close enough to an assassin to drop a bomb in his mouth tonight; there was no reason she had to stay a virtuous four feet away from the guy she'd spent her whole life with even if he was in his jammies.

It wasn't really any riskier than playing catch with a lit bomb, she told herself reassuringly, even if making the first move felt a whole lot scarier, and walked over to the bed. Jacuzzi was blinking at her. She flicked him in the arm. “If we're gonna talk, scoot over,” she ordered. “My feet are cold.”

“N-Nice?” Jacuzzi clutched his blanket up to his chest like a nervous grandma, but scooted obediently backwards, his eyes round and startled. Nice had a hard time not laughing at the face he was making, which had the unexpected but useful side effect of making her feel less self-conscious.

She sat down on the bed and slid her legs under the part of the blanket he wasn't clutching, wriggling her toes. Her hip bumped against his, and he jumped. “These millionaire houses,” she said casually, “you'd think they'd get some insulation or something. We're gonna have to get used to it though, be-cause . . .” She drew out the word, turning her head all the way round to grin at him so his face wouldn't be in her blind spot. “. . . we're gonna be able to stay.”

“We . . . can stay?” Jacuzzi stared at her, so startled he forgot to hold onto the blanket. “We've – how? How did you --”

“Eh --” She waved a hand out airily out the side of the bed, and saw Jacuzzi's eyes focus, startled, on the new speckled burn marks that crossed her skin. “You know, the usual. Stopped some guy who was trying to kill Miss Genoard, that's all. Killin' two birds with one stone, too, since the guy turned out to be workin' for the Russos, so I don't think that bunch of --”

She was interrupted at this point by an arm flinging itself tightly across her, as Jacuzzi buried his head in her shoulder. Dampness trickled into her skin. “Nice,” sniffled Jacuzzi, “you're amazing. You're really, really amazing! You're the most amazing person in the whole world! I dunno how we, how I--”

Nice rubbed his shoulder fondly, then moved her hand up to his chin and lifted it. He let her do it, tears still sliding down his cheeks. She scooted down the bed a little so her face was directly underneath his. “Yeah,” she said, “I pretty much am, yeah,” and leaned up, and kissed him.

Jacuzzi gasped a little, but he didn't freeze up and didn't start crying more than he already was, either, which was probably a good sign. Then he pulled back and took a deep breath. His face was bright red, but his hand had lost its death-grip on her shoulder and his fingers were tracing hesitantly up over her collar. Nice, who was in a great position to watch his face, saw whatever moment-of-truth switch lived in his head that turned off the apologies and turned on the reckless courage go flip.

It turned out, actually, that there maybe was a thrill that could sort of compete with setting off a bomb, after all.

 

1932: After All the Excitement Is Over, Somebody Still Has to Do the Dishes

 

Normally, Eve Genoard would not answer the door for a caller who arrived after Benjamin and Samantha were already in bed. Normally, in fact, she would be in bed herself – but then, it had been an extremely unusual day. She slid her feet into her slippers, and slipped on her bedjacket, and went to open the door. It might, after all, be the police. Alternately, it might be another assassin, and then she could show it the remains of his or her comrade still lying on the sitting room floor.

As it turned out, it was Luck Gandor.

He looked extremely tired, but a kind of tension in his face seemed to relax when he saw her. “I really apologize for coming so late,” he said, “but nobody was answering the phone earlier.”

Eve stared at him. “Um – I'm afraid we've been in disarray today,” she explained, wondering inside her head how she could possibly have just used those words to explain what today had been like. “Would you – ah – like to come in?” A part of her was thinking desperately about where she could possibly take him for a social call, now the sitting room was out of the question.

“I can't stay,” said Luck. “You might not be able to either. I wanted to make sure you were aware – someone seems to have given the Russos a false tip-off about us giving the Capones a hand. If their information's that bad, you might be a target, too. You should take all security precautions, Miss Genoard. If you'd like, I can help you and your people move until the problem's been settled --”

Eve stared at him, feeling a ridiculous urge to laugh. “Actually, Mr. Gandor,” she said, dreamily, “I was meaning to call you tomorrow for advice on a problem.”

“. . . ah?”

“I thought you would know,” said Eve, “what's the best way to, to get rid of a body? Ah, if you would prefer the police weren't involved.”

Luck stared at her. “I guess maybe,” he said, slowly, “I should come inside after all.”

When he came into the light of the hallway, she saw that he was not looking quite as dapper as usual. “Mr. Gandor,” she said, coming back to herself with a vengeance, “those holes in your jacket --”

“I did tell you we were a target,” said Luck, with a faint shrug, and Eve thought, yes, but – and this suited, again, the surreality of the whole day – the thing she was finding truly peculiar, at this time, was not that he had been riddled with bullets earlier that day and was now moving around like a perfectly whole man, but that he had come all the way out to New Jersey without taking the time to change into a fresh suit.

“It's – it's a little messy,” she said, feeling bizarrely apologetic, as she showed him in, and then looked away. She'd seen more than enough of the remains of Leon Alexei by now, and felt no need to gawk at him again.

Luck went in and came out a moment later. If he'd been shaken by the sight he showed no sign of it. “It's certainly messy,” he agreed.

“We probably ought to have dealt with it as soon as it happened,” said Eve, “but you see, the police would have too many questions. But I don't think you'll need to worry about another attack.” She was glad, she realized. She didn't like to think of the Gandors being riddled with bullets, however little it harmed them in the long run.

“Given that,” said Luck, “I think it's only fair that we help with the cleanup.” He wore no expression, but behind the words Eve could sense a faint question. Luck Gandor very badly wanted to know what had happened here, and why she had not simply called the police, as a girl like her might be expected to.

But he was far too polite to ask, and Eve decided, almost to her own surprise, that she was not going to tell. She'd made a pact, earlier that night, with the brave, blunt girl who'd saved her life. We'll pretend we never talked to you, Nice had said, and you can pretend the same about us. It'll make it easier on both. But when trouble comes, we'll be there for you, if you be there for us. That's how the gang works.

She would keep her promise, and her secret, and her ace in the hole. She found that she was enjoying standing next to Luck Gandor on her own two feet, and feeling, for once, like she did not owe him something for today.

She smiled up at him, and saw him startle. “That's very kind,” she said, and meant it.