LIFE during the Depression was hard. There wasn’t much to be happy about, to entertain us, so when Church “Chet” Chetwood, the renowned film director, returned from the South Seas with what he claimed was the most astounding find in ten thousand years… well, everyone wanted to see it.
No one expected a throwback to the Ice Age to suddenly appear on Manhattan Island, and people stormed the box office to buy tickets.
I’d wanted so badly to go see the creature that was supposed to be extinct, but I couldn’t afford it. Well, I could barely afford to eat.
For once God was on my side, although so many others weren’t as fortunate. I wasn’t there when “Chetwood’s Kitty” somehow managed to escape from the theater where it was being exhibited.
The buildings along Forty-Second Street still bore splatters of dried blood from the path the giant saber-toothed tiger had taken. It had torn apart dozens of homeward-bound workers. Bodies had been disemboweled, decapitated, literally torn limb from limb. Cars had swerved to get out of the path of the infuriated creature. They’d run over pedestrians and had crashed into buildings, into the beams of the el, into buses, into one another.
A few days later, while I was scrounging in an alley, I’d come across the torso of a woman that had been somehow overlooked in the cleanup. Razor-sharp claws had shredded the shirtwaist she’d worn and the flesh beneath it, and the expression on her face revealed her pain and terror. I’d wheeled around and thrown up, although there had been little in my stomach.
The sabertooth had escaped to Central Park, and for three days the city was under martial law. That hadn’t helped the people who lived in Hooverville, in the drained reservoir. Six of them had been slaughtered before the Army had tracked down the sabertooth and fired enough rounds into it to bring it down.
I followed the story whenever I came across a discarded newspaper. The Daily News, being just a step up from a scandal sheet, had the juiciest stories. Its reporters told in gory, minute detail all the carnage that had descended upon New York City in those three days.
The survivors, as well as those who had lost loved ones, were among the many suing Church Chetwood, along with the city, the state, and the federal government, which was out to get him for bringing an unlicensed animal onto American soil.
However, no one knew where Mr. Chetwood was.
IT was a damp, drizzly evening. The street lamps had just come on, a faint glow misting like an aura around the lights, dimming them. I hadn’t eaten anything since I’d slipped out of the men’s mission early that morning, having taken advantage of the coffee and sinkers, but escaping the sermon that went with them.
Too many days with too little to eat were taking their toll, and hunger was gnawing at my gut again. All the missions were filled, and I didn’t have the thirty cents for a room for the night.
I didn’t even have a nickel for a cup of coffee and three sinkers at a hash house.
As for the shantytown in the reservoir, no one was going there these days.
The Depression had caught me, as so many others, unawares—I’d only been sixteen in ’29—and now, four years later….
I grabbed up a discarded newssheet, folded it neatly, and stuffed it into my right shoe. The hole in the sole was getting larger and larger. Pretty soon I’d be walking on my uppers, and there’d be nothing I’d be able to do about it, not with winter coming on. The rain and snow would turn any makeshift patches to mush, and unless I was willing to roll a drunk—I hadn’t descended quite that far—scrounging up a decent pair of shoes would be impossible; everyone was holding on to them until they were in the same condition as mine.
It had been too long since my last honest job, and I found myself doing things I would never have thought, dreamed possible!
I eyed the doubtful haven of the saloon and ran a sleeve under my nose, mopping the blood that was still seeping from it. The last place I drifted into had not welcomed me. The bartender was a bruiser of a man, and when he realized what I was willing to trade for a meal and a roof over my head for the night, I’d been lucky to make it out of there with only a broken nose.
But I needed to get out of that November chill. My old overcoat was threadbare and missing buttons, so no matter how I hugged it to myself, I couldn’t prevent the night air from slicing through to me. I was at the mercy of the bitter cold. My hat was long gone, and while I’d found a cap after the sabertooth’s rampage, it was covered with blood and—something else—and I couldn’t stomach wearing it.
I hunched my shoulders, trying to keep my ears warm—my raised collar was no help at all—and shivered, as much from tension as the cold. I hated what I was about to do once again.
I slipped my hand into the pocket of my trousers and ran my fingers over the handle of my shiv, the automatic knife the headmaster of Phipps Academy had given me.
I’D been told to pack my belongings and report to the headmaster. I stood before him, my valise at my side and my overcoat over my arm.
“You’re one of my better students, Master Smith, and I regret I must turn you out.” Mr. Phipps knew I had no family. Neither of my parents had any living relatives; I had no doubt my father would have foisted me onto them otherwise. “However, your father has been remiss in paying your fees, and they are in arrears for almost a year.”
Even before he had jumped out the thirtieth-floor window of a downtown skyscraper on Black Tuesday? He must have used my trust fund to buy on margin.
“Do you have any money?”
Oh God, was he going to take it from me? “Just a fin. Five dollars, sir,” I corrected when he raised his eyebrows at my slang.
“Spend it wisely.”
I breathed out a sigh of relief and stooped to pick up my valise.
“I want you to have this.” He handed me a knife.
“But….” The handle was made of black pearl, and the blade was Toledo steel. The maker’s name was engraved just above the guard. A press of the button and the blade whipped out, silent and deadly.
“Its previous owner had no further use for it.” His smile was tight. “You may find it comes in handy. Make sure you keep the blade sharp.” He rested his hand on my shoulder. “I hope it keeps you safe.”
“Thank you, Mr. Phipps.”
“You’re welcome. Good-bye, Master Smith.”
“Good-bye, sir.” I put the knife in my pocket, tightened my hold on my valise, and walked out of the building that had been more my home than the house I’d been born in.
I’D had to learn to use the knife quickly, and it had protected me many nights after that, but now I rarely used it, since I willingly let those men—
Firming my resolve, I fumbled for the doorknob and let myself in.
Half a dozen pairs of eyes regarded me with feral interest, then dismissed my presence with cruel, casual disregard.
Wrong height, wrong sex, wrong everything.
They went back to talking about President Roosevelt’s election promises, which they all agreed were nothing but pie-in-the-sky dreams. I should have felt relieved. I should have, but… if no one here wanted me, what was I going to do?
There was the bowl of pickled eggs sitting on the bar. My mouth flooded with saliva, and my stomach twisted, protesting its empty state.
I knew I couldn’t stand there, hovering by the door, so I took a tentative step into the saloon.
The bartender gave me the fisheye, but just then a couple of men sitting at a table at the rear of the room called to him. “Hey, Knuckles, how’s about another round?”
“Sure t’ing. Two boilermakers comin’ right up.” Knuckles poured out shots of whiskey with glasses of beer as chasers, set them on a tray, then gave me a last glare before sauntering over to the men.
A lone man sat at the bar by the eggs. His clothes were good but starting to show wear; the cuffs had already been turned at least once. He nursed his drink and gazed absently into the flyspecked mirror, his mind obviously elsewhere.
This was my chance.
I sidled up to my goal and reached a tentative hand toward my only hope of a meal that night.
A fist the size of a ham settled over my wrist and began to squeeze. “Ya goddamned mucker! Whaddaya t’ink ya doin’?” The bartender must have been waiting for me to make a move.
The pain in my wrist was fogging my brain. “Nothing! I’m not doing anything,” I whispered through clenched teeth as my knees started to buckle. “Please! Let me go!”
“Now why would I wanna do dat?” He clearly enjoyed hurting me, and if I couldn’t get away from him, I knew how this night was going to unfold. By the time he was done using me, my jaws and throat would be sore, and I’d probably shit blood for a week.
“Maybe because it’s the Christian thing to do?” The man nearby didn’t even get up. He turned his head, tipped his hat back, and stared down the bartender. A dark, fathomless onyx, those eyes reflected the light, revealing nothing behind them. “Let the kid alone.”
He wasn’t a big man, but I wasn’t surprised when the bartender dropped my wrist and backed off. “Yeah, well he ain’t pinchin’ none o’ de eggs I got here! Dese are for payin’ customers, not for the likes o’ him!”
“Then I’ll pay for him.” The man reached into a pocket of the sweater he wore under his overcoat and pulled out a tattered dollar bill. He looked at it for the briefest moment before carelessly tossing it onto the bar. “You sure you want this, kid?”
I felt as if I was being tied in knots. If I accepted his largesse, I knew what I could be committing my body to, but with my stomach pleading for any food, even those eggs, I had no choice.
“Yes, please.” I gulped and surreptitiously tried to rub the soreness out of my wrist.
The bartender took the buck and went around the bar to get the change. He slammed six bits down in front of the man.
I couldn’t believe he would do this for me when that might well be his last dollar bill; I had held the last one I’d possessed in just the same way before reluctantly parting with it longer ago than I liked to remember.
“Whaddaya want?” The bartender sneered.
“A glass of water, please, and… one of those?” I nodded toward the eggs.
“You sure you don’t want a beer?”
“No, thank you, mister. It wouldn’t be a good idea with nothing in my stomach.”
“Say, you’re really in a bad way, aren’t you, kid?” The man watched with wry amusement as I stuffed one of the revolting eggs into my mouth, almost gagging on the sour taste of it. No wonder so many had been left in the bowl. I spit it out.
The bartender glowered at me, but with my champion beside me, he didn’t say anything.
“We’d better get out of here. Come on with me, kid.”
“Oke.” I could have wept. There was still the piper to pay, and I hadn’t even gotten a decent meal out of it. But I was no welcher; I always made good on my debts. I pushed away from the bar. He waited for me to precede him out into the night. Already my ass was clenching. I knew the man was going to fuck me, or maybe put his cock in my mouth and make me suck him and swallow….
I squared my shoulders. I had gone into this with my eyes open.
This was what I had become: servicing one man if I was lucky, passed around from one to another if I wasn’t.
At least he was clean, and he didn’t smell of cabbage and stale sweat. I just wished the meal had been worth it. Maybe, though, if I was good enough, he’d give me two bits so I could have breakfast in the morning.
“Here.” He held out a handkerchief, and I stared at it dumbly. “Your nose is still bleeding a little.”
“Oh. Thank you. But—”
“Keep it, kid. I’ve got another one.”
I blew my nose, then dabbed at it.
“Oke, then let’s go.”
I tucked the handkerchief into my pocket and followed him down the silent side street. He turned a corner, and suddenly there was noise and light all around us. Forty-Second Street bustled, no matter the time of day or night. Not as much as before Chetwood’s Kitty caused all that destruction, but still there were people, going to a picture show, to dinner, or maybe just slumming.
The man led the way to a Horn and Hardart, and in exchange for the quarters the bartender had given him, the girl who sat at the change booth gave him a handful of nickels.
“Get a tray, oke, kid?”
Numbly, I trailed behind him as he fed the nickels into the slots and opened the glass doors, pulling out sandwiches, a slice of pie, an apple. I looked at them wistfully, but I knew better than to wish for what I couldn’t have. I’d made do on less.
“You want some soup?”
I nodded and put a few squirts of ketchup into a bowl and filled it with hot water. He was watching me, his hand raised to drop a nickel in the slot, and I gave him a lopsided grin. “Best tomato soup in town.”
“Uh….” He dropped his hand and moved past the small glass door, his grin just as lopsided. “Yeah.”
We filled our cups with coffee and found an empty table.
He took his hat off and propped it on the back of his chair, spread out his feast, and set the tray aside.
I stirred the “tomato soup” and took a sip. It needed a little something. I added salt and pepper and tried it again.
That was better.
The man grinned at me, then nodded toward the food in front of him. “Dig in, kid.”
I looked at him in awe. “This is for me?”
“Well, sure.” He took half the ham sandwich, but waited until I picked up the cheese sandwich before he started to eat. “But try not to eat too fast.”
I’d learned that from experience. I took a bite and chewed slowly, closing my eyes in pleasure; one of the best things about the Automat was that no matter what time of day it was, the food would be fresh.
But this sandwich could have been nine days old, the cheese curled and dry, and it still would have tasted like ambrosia to me.
“Mister, this is worth whatever it’s going to cost me,” I told him as I alternated a bite of sandwich with a swallow of soup.
“Have the rest of the ham sandwich.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice.
He washed down his half of the sandwich with the rest of his coffee, then took out a pipe and tobacco pouch. “What do you want, kid?”
“Yeah, you. Everyone wants something.”
“I—I could use a job.” And a warm bed for the night would be nice, too, but the odds of that were about as good as President Roosevelt putting me in charge of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.
His glance was amused. “I’m not in show business anymore. So don’t expect me to get you into moving pictures.” He put the tobacco in the pipe, struck a match against the seat of his chair, and held the flame to the bowl while he puffed.
“Huh? Oh no, mister. I can’t act.” I’d gone to the studio in Astoria shortly after I’d had to leave school, hoping for work as an extra, but the only thing the producer wanted was me spread out on his couch, so I’d stormed off in a huff. That was before I’d realized principles wouldn’t fill my stomach. “It’s just that… I know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or dinner, in this case. So whatever you want me to do for you, I’m your man.”
“Man?” He grinned wryly. “You’re little more than a boy!”
In fact, I’d be twenty-one in a few months, but…. I could feel myself blush and looked down. “I’ll be whatever age you want me to be.”
He inhaled wrong and started choking on the pipe smoke. “What?”
“You don’t look that young, kid!”
I gnawed on my lower lip. “Some men want me because I look younger than I am, and that’s what they prefer. That’s all I meant.” Obviously I had made a serious gaffe.
“You poor kid! Finish eating. I—just finish, oke?”
He wasn’t paying attention. The soup and sandwiches were gone, the slice of pie was nothing but a few crumbs, and there were only a couple of swallows of coffee left.
I ducked my head and reached for the apple. Through my lashes I could see he was staring into the smoke that rose from the bowl of his pipe. I tucked the apple into the pocket of my trousers and picked up my coffee cup.
“You don’t have to be nice to me, you know. I’ll let you do whatever you want to me anyway.”
“Isn’t anyone nice to you?” He sighed when I shook my head. “You don’t owe me a thing, kid.”
“If—if you don’t want me like that, why did you help me?”
“Let’s just say you remind me of someone I once knew. She was blonde and blue-eyed, just like you, and she needed rescuing in the worst way. From me, more than anyone else, as it turned out. I got her into a jam so bad it took a case of gas grenades to get her out of it!”
I stared at him blankly.
“You have no idea who I am, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Did you ever hear of Chetwood’s Kitty?”
“Of course! Church Chetwood brought a saber-toothed tiger back from Iwi Po’o Island in the South Seas. It got loose just a few blocks from here and ran amok. And then it wound up in Central Park.”
“She, kid. We didn’t learn until we had her on board the August Moon and were steaming home that we’d captured a momma. And let me tell you, she wasn’t happy we took her away from her babies. I was sorry about that, because it was my idea to bring her to civilization and show her off, but we couldn’t turn back. The tide was against us, and the natives—Well, we couldn’t bring her back.”
“You were there?” I was dazzled. To have sailed to the South Seas with Church Chetwood—
He grinned wryly. “I’m him, kid!”
My jaw dropped. This was the man whose exploits I’d followed religiously, whose travelogues I would sneak into movie theaters to see when I could no longer afford the price of admission?
I wanted to ask him about Iwi Po’o and what kind of creatures he had found there, but how could I after all that had happened?
He bore little resemblance to the cocky, self-assured entrepreneur whose face had been plastered on the front page of every newspaper in town just a couple of months ago.
“I guess it’s a good thing you couldn’t recognize me. I’m wanted.”
“I wouldn’t turn you in!” But I didn’t think he’d heard me.
“It was all my fault.” No wonder why his eyes were so bleak and emotionless. “I’d make it up to them if I could, kid, but how do you bring the dead back?”
“But you couldn’t have known what would happen!”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m the one responsible. There are eleven lawsuits against me, and I’m about to be indicted by a grand jury.”
“What will you do?”
“If Captain Johansen can’t get me out of town within the next twenty-four hours, I’ll go to jail for the next ten years.”
“You’re going to sail with the captain of the August Moon? Are you going back to that island, Mr. Chetwood? Because if you are, I’ll go with you.”
“Are you out of your mind?” He was clearly shocked. “Do you know how dangerous Iwi Po’o was? We lost twelve sailors on that trip!”
“I—it doesn’t matter! I’ll do anything.” I knew what I was promising, but winter was coming, and I’d do whatever I had to do to survive. “Please give me a try!”
Nonplussed, he stared at me for a long minute. Then he took another puff of his pipe and said, “You know, ki—say, what’s your name?”
I must have looked scared, because he reached across the table and gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. His hand was warm, and I liked it.
“John,” I whispered. “My name is John….” He raised an eyebrow, and I surrendered. “Smith.”
From the look he gave me, I could see he didn’t believe me. I hadn’t meant to mislead him; my name really was John Smith. Since I’d been out on the streets, though, I’d learned how to lie without lying. Twist a phrase, hesitate, refuse to make eye contact. It was easy.
“Hey!” A man standing at the counter having a perpendicular meal peered at us intently. “Ain’t you that Chetwood yahoo?”
“No!” I snapped at him. “This is my uncle, and his name isn’t Chetwood!”
“No!” I repeated.
“They’re offerin’ fifty bucks for Chetwood’s whereabouts!”
“This isn’t him. Are you done eating, Uncle Woody? Then c’mon. Used to be you could enjoy a meal in peace here!”
“You just stay put, you two! I’m gettin’ a copper! Oh boy! Fifty bucks!”
“Yeah? And your old man wears a brassiere!” I snarled, not caring whether it made any sense or not. I wasn’t going to let him see how scared I was. I’d had a run in with a cop whose beat was down by the East River, and it hadn’t been a pleasant experience.
“I think we’d better leave, nephew.” How could Mr. Chetwood laugh at a time like this? He put his hat on his head, tipped it forward over his eyes, and sauntered out, whistling some jaunty tune I didn’t recognize.
I stalked out of the Automat after him with all the dignity I could muster in my tattered coat.
“We’ve gotta get out of here!” I whispered.
“I’ve got no beef with that, kid.” He tapped the ashes out of his pipe and tucked it in his pocket. “This way.”
Even after a month, there weren’t a lot of people on the side streets, so there was no way we could disappear into a crowd. I followed him around the corner, hurried to the end of the block, and then turned another corner. We could hear the cop’s whistle, but it was fading behind us.
“Phew! That was a close one! Is it like that all the time for you?”
“Well, John Smith, now you see where things stand with me.” He looked around, then closed his fingers over my shoulder and pulled me along. “Do you need a place to stay for the night? What am I saying? Of course you do! Let’s see if we can get into my rooming house without being spotted by anyone.”