Meyer Lansky wasn’t afraid of anything – even at eleven years old. He most certainly wasn’t afraid of the Italian kid staring down at him menacingly. The boy had his feet wide apart, his fists clenched by his sides, his lip curled in what Meyer could only describe as a snarl, and a mass of curls exploding over his head.
“What’s it gonna be, Jew boy? Gonna pay up or what?” the boy asked. He took a step towards Meyer, an attempt at intimidation.
Meyer just laughed. “I’m not paying you a fucking nickel, you dago fuck.”
“What the fuck did the kike just say?” one of the other boys yelled, lunging towards him, but the leader held out his hand to stop him.
Meyer braced himself for the inevitable blows. He was shorter and much younger than these Italians, but he was tough and could take a beating. But the blows never came. Instead, the boy just stared at him, confusion pulling his dark features together as he tilted his head.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“Youse got some balls, kid,” he said with a grin.
“Chutzpah, my Bubbe always said,” Meyer replied, relaxing slightly but not lowering his guard.
“Your boobie? What the fuck, are you some kind of broad underneath those trousers?” the boy sneered.
Meyer narrowed his eyes. “It’s Yiddish, you dumb fuck.”
The boy curled his fist again, but just muttered, “This is your lucky day, Jew boy.”
The Italian turned and walked away, his gang following him. Meyer watched them disappear around the corner.
Three guys jumped two Jewish kids up ahead of him, so Meyer tossed down the bread he’d bought for his mother and ran to help. The boys weren’t from around the neighborhood because he didn’t recognize them. The two smaller boys were curled up on the sidewalk, crying, so it was Meyer versus the three.
He planted his feet on the ground and held up his fists. They closed in around him from all sides, and he kicked and punched and held his own, although he knew he was getting his ass kicked. He fell backwards, the boys covering him like wild dogs, never pausing in their constant blows. He tasted the metallic sting of blood, and he ignored the pain coursing through the various parts of his body.
And then suddenly, the boy beside him was gone, and then the other, and it was Meyer versus one, and that he could handle. Mostly. The other guy was twice his size, after all. But he was fast and people underestimated him. Made it easy to get in some surprise punches, one which Meyer was pretty sure broke the nose of the boy above him.
“Wanna get stuck like a fucking pig?” someone said suddenly, and then Meyer swung and nobody was there because the boy had been yanked up and was now in the hands of that Italian kid, a makeshift shiv poised against his throat. “Whys don’t you take these other fucking pikers and get the fuck off my street.”
The three boys stumbled and tripped over their own feet as they ran away. The Italian leaned down, his hand outstretched. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Meyer answered, tentatively grasping the offered hand as the other boy helped him to his feet. Meyer dropped his hand and started to walk away, but found himself limping slightly.
“Whoa there.” The boy gently grabbed Meyer’s arm, more gently than he expected, and helped steady him.
They didn’t say anything as he began helping Meyer walk home; Meyer knew he should say something, but he was too embarrassed, and he couldn’t make it home alone. It put him, he realized, in a very awkward position.
“Why the fuck did you think you could take those three guys on all by yourself?”
Meyer shrugged, and instantly regretted it. “Better they beat on me than those other two.”
“What, you got some kind of death wish or something?”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t,” the boy muttered, “I’m just saying. Don’t be stupid.”
When they got to the end of Meyer’s street, he pulled free of the boy’s grasp. “I can take it from here.”
Meyer started hobbling down the street, but stopped and turned around. “Hey,” he called out to the other boy’s retreating back. He turned around. “What’s your name?”
“Luciano. Salvatore Luciano.”
Sal never made Meyer feel little like everyone else did. It didn’t seem to matter in his eyes that he was short. What mattered to Sal was that in a pinch, Meyer didn’t back down.
There was a day when three guys from an Irish gang jumped them. Apparently, Salvatore had deflowered one of the guys’ sisters. Sal just grinned and said, “She begged for it.”
Fists started flying and then some guy knocked Salvatore against the head with a plank of wood, and since they didn’t think of Meyer as much of a threat, they’d thought they’d won. Sal was on the pavement, knocked out, blood matted in his dark hair. Meyer found a discarded pipe on the ground, and he knocked out all three of those Mick bastards before they knew he’d even moved.
After that, Sal taught Meyer how to use a gun. “A pipe’s good in a pinch, but it ain’t no fucking good against a bullet.” They set up cans along a crate down at the abandoned shipping warehouse by the harbor, late at night when no one was around. The gun was heavy, and recoiled so fiercely that the first time Meyer pulled the trigger, he landed on his ass.
Sal just laughed and helped him up. “Kicks like a bitch. First time I shot it, I landed on my ass worse that you. You’re pretty solid for a twelve year old little Jewish prick.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” Meyer replied sarcastically.
“Trick’s in the squeeze and the breathing. Here.” Salvatore stood behind him, hand covering Meyer’s as he showed him how to inhale and squeeze the trigger.
It took Meyer weeks to get good, to get where the gun didn’t control him. The day that he shot all the cans, Sal ran to him, picked him up and twirled him around. The day that he shot the guy who had Sal cornered in an alley, he said, “Thank god for the Jews, yeah?”
It snowed that winter, great big flakes that covered the streets on the lower East side in thick blankets. Meyer spent most of his time outside with the other neighborhood kids, throwing snowballs, building snowmen, and erecting snow forts. He hid on the streets and tossed large, densely packed snowballs at passersby. He pelted one guy with a snowball square in the back of the head, and when the guy spun around, he realized it was Sal.
“I’m gonna kill you little fucks!” he yelled, knuckles cracking as he made a fist. Meyer burst out laughing, which confused Sal until Meyer stepped from his hiding place. Sal’s anger morphed into annoyance. “The fuck, Meyer? I’ll still kick your ass.”
Meyer knew they were empty threats – Salvatore threatened to kick his ass every other day.
“Wanna join us in a snowball fight?” Meyer asked.
“Snowballs are for kids,” Sal replied. But minutes later, Sal joined him behind the stack of boxes and spent the rest of the day hitting people on the street. Midafternoon, Sal disappeared and returned quarter of an hour later with apples and pastries he’d lifted from the corner market and shared them with Meyer. While Meyer slowly ate his apple, still hidden behind the box, Sal sat beside him and made small makeshift snowmen in the snow on the sidewalk.
That night, they huddled on the stoop of Meyer’s apartment building, sharing a cigarette from frozen fingers. He’d recently picked up the habit from Sal, so Meyer still coughed when he inhaled, and Sal still laughed at him as he hit his back. And as Meyer climbed the rest of the steps into the building, he felt the impact of a large, wet object hit his back. He turned around and saw Sal walking down the street backwards, laughing around the cigarette dangling from his lips.
Meyer heard Salvatore got busted for peddling heroin and got sentenced to six months at Hampton Farms. It was weird, having him gone. After that fight, Sal’d become such a constant presence, not just in the neighborhood like he’d always been, but a presence around Meyer. Sometimes they walked to school together – well, Meyer walked to school. Salvatore just walked with Meyer. He seemed really surprised that Meyer had only been twelve, because most of the older kids he knew acted like bigger idiots than Meyer ever did. Meyer joked that it was because he was Jewish; Salvatore never made the connection that Meyer was really saying it was because they were all Italians.
It was Sal who taught Meyer how to gamble. He liked to play the dice games, but Meyer never had much patience for that. He thought it was too much luck and chance; Salvatore claimed it was skill. So, one day Sal took him to a card game held every Thursday in the back of a butcher’s shop. This, Meyer said, was more like it. Numbers and probability and discernible patterns – now that was something he could get behind. Sal just laughed and sat behind him, watching as he sucked on a Lucky Strike. Meyer won $300 that night, and Sal told him he’d just found a new card partner.
Sal was almost the complete opposite of Meyer. Meyer watched, calculated, tried to figure out the end before moving or speaking. Salvatore leapt without looking, decided to deal with the consequences afterwards.
Meyer liked to think he taught Sal a bit of reserve; he knew Sal taught him how to react without thinking. He knew it two months after he’d gone to that youth facility. Two kids from the Irish gang were beating up a Jewish kid from a few blocks away, Benny Siegel, he thought his name was. Benny was only nine, but the meanest fucking nine year old Meyer’d ever met. But still, he was only nine, and those two Irish guys were at least fifteen. Without hesitating, Meyer ran to Benny’s aid. Although he was only thirteen – and still hadn’t hit his fucking growth spurt – he beat them good, along with Benny’s help. Sal taught him a lot over the last year, like how to fight and how to gamble and how to use a gun. When the guys ran off, Meyer had busted knuckles, but one of the Irish pricks was missing a tooth.
The months were lonely, though Meyer never would have admitted it to anyone, least of all Sal. The stupid dago fuck had become his best friend sometime over the past year, and the neighborhood wasn’t the same without him.
So, the day that Salvatore got out of jail, Meyer ran to his house and knocked on the door.
“What the fuck, Meyer? Gonna break down my door or something?”
“Glad to see you, too, Sal,” Meyer said, grinning widely.
“It ain’t Sal no more,” he said, sucking on the end of a cigarette. Meyer stared at him in confusion as he exhaled smoke through his nose. “Name’s Charlie now.”
“What’s wrong with Salvatore?” Meyer asked. “Prison make you change it?”
“Sounds like some broad’s name. Charlie ain’t no broad.”
“Charlie, then,” Meyer said. “Charlie.” The name felt foreign in his mouth. Sal. Charlie. He repeated it in his mind, trying to make it stick. Different name, but same curls, same curled lip, same air of general pissed-off-ness.
“Come on,” Sal – Charlie – said, rushing down the steps and closing Meyer’s head in a headlock. “I need some booze, some broads, and some cards.”
Meyer didn’t even try to wrestle out of Charlie’s grip. Whatever the fuck his name was, he was back, and that was all Meyer cared about.
Meyer learned Italian a lot faster than Charlie learned Yiddish, mainly because Charlie never actually learned much Yiddish. He learned enough from Meyer and occasionally conversing with Meyer’s family, and from working for Max Goodman delivering hats (and selling drugs, but Charlie kept that part mostly quiet). But Charlie didn’t have the acumen or the patience to learn another language. Not that Charlie was stupid, but he had only completed the sixth grade and didn’t care as much about books and learning as Meyer did.
“That’s what I got you for,” Charlie always said, slinging an arm around Meyer’s neck. “You do all the learning for the both of us, yeah? Whats I got to learn numbers for? You wouldn’t let me near them even if did.”
Meyer couldn’t help but agree with him.
But Charlie learned enough to hold brief conversations, and it didn’t take Meyer long at all to become nearly fluent, despite his bad accent. Charlie and he used it to their advantage; no one suspected a little Jewish boy to understand Italian, and spying came in rather handy at times. People paid a lot of money for information.
At night, Meyer would sit in Charlie’s kitchen while Charlie cooked some Italian dish he learned from his mother – lasagna, spaghetti, manicotti, rigatoni, penne – it all tasted the same to Meyer, meat and cheese and sauce prepared in a different way. And Charlie would only speak in Italian, laughing when Meyer didn’t understand him or messed up his pronunciation.
“You fucking Jews, can’t speak right,” Charlie’d say, “What with your weird little nasal accent. Speak from your heart, Meyer, your soul, not from your nose.”
Meyer never understood what he meant, but he became fluent anyway.
“What’s this?” Meyer asked, holding the newspaper wrapped item Charlie had shoved into his hands.
“Nothing.” Charlie had his hands stuffed in his pockets, rocking nervously back and forth and looking anywhere but at Meyer. Meyer turned it over in his hands, confused. “It’s a fucking Christmas present, okay?”
Meyer glanced at him, and shook his head. “I’m Jewish.”
“Yeah, I know. So what?”
Meyer rolled his eyes. “I celebrate Hanukkah, you dago fuck.” But he laughed, holding the package carefully in his hands. No one aside from his family had ever given him a present. Charlie made to snatch it away, but Meyer jumped back. “You can’t take it back now, Indian giver.”
Charlie grunted. “Fine, happy fucking Hanukkah, or whatever.”
“Read ‘em and weep, boys,” Charlie said, tossing his cards down. The guys around the table – twice as old as Meyer, but half as sharp – groaned and muttered angrily under their breath. Meyer’s fingers closed around the handle of the gun at his hip, just in case. Cards tended to bring out the worst in people, and Meyer was always cautious. He was, after all, running a business.
“How the fuck does this dago always win?” One of the men yelled, flinging his hands angrily towards Charlie. “You must be the luckiest sonofabitch in alla New York.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it, gentlemen,” Meyer said, gathering the cards to shuffle.
“The fuck it ain’t,” the man responded. “Ain’t no other way he can win all the time, except unless he’s cheating.”
“The fuck you accusin’ me of?” Charlie yelled, standing up so violently he knocked the table, one of the tumblers full of whiskey falling over. Charlie lunged across the table and grabbed the man by his shirt. “You sayin’ I cheated, you fucking Mick?”
“Charlie,” Meyer warned, his hand placed firmly against Charlie’s shoulder. “I do not believe that is what this gentleman was implying,” he said, all peacefully calm in an attempt to diffuse the situation, and turned to the other man, whose face was terrified, “was it?”
“Course not,” he replied quickly. “Just lucky, that’s all.”
“’S what I thought,” Charlie said, shoving the man back into his chair. “Deal the fucking cards, Meyer.”
Meyer took a deep breath as he dealt another hand. He should be used to this now, Charlie’s violent outbursts, but he wasn’t. Every time Charlie went against someone, Meyer worried that this would be the one who’d shoot faster, pull a knife quicker, or knock him with a pipe first. And sometimes Meyer worried that if he kept getting in between Charlie and danger, one day it’d crush him.
Meyer never got drunk; he never wanted to yield control of his body or his mind. He wasn’t a teetotaler, but he knew his limits and never crossed them.
Charlie, however, drank like he did everything else – fast and loose and however he wanted. He’d start the night playing cards, then by the end he’d be drunk and violent and more unpredictable than usual. Meyer lost count of the fights Charlie’d gotten into because of liquor – some because they deserved it, others just because they had walked by him at the wrong moment.
But Charlie knew when to drink. He never compromised a job, never compromised the business (and somehow, even when drunk, he never compromised his gambling. Meyer decided it was a special skill only Charlie possessed). Regardless of how much Charlie liked women and liquor, he had goals and drive, and nothing was going to get in his way.
That still left those nights where Meyer had to nearly carry Charlie down the street from whichever of their gambling establishments they’d been at, Charlie’s weight and height sagging into him as he rambled in an incoherent mixture of English and Italian. It was nights like those when Meyer had to wait in an alley while Charlie threw up, and then make sure he got into bed without any problems.
It was nights like those when he understand that Charlie only got as drunk as he did because he knew Meyer would always be there to take care of him.
Charlie shuffled from foot to foot, his breath coming out in large puffs of white steam in the frigid night. Their jackets were thin – too thin for a night like this – and they’d been waiting for nearly twenty minutes.
“Where the fuck is this guy? I’m freezing my balls off out here,” Charlie managed to get out through chattering teeth.
“Such an eloquently spoken young man,” a calm voice said from behind them. Charlie and Meyer turned around.
“Yeah, who the fuck asked you?” Charlie snarled.
“Charlie,” Meyer said, placing a hand on his arm, “this is who I wanted you to meet. Charles Luciano, meet Arnold Rothstein.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Rothstein said, extending his hand. Charlie looked at it warily before grabbing it.
“It’d be more of a pleasure if you’d have met us someplace warm,” Charlie replied.
“Meyer, I thought you were exaggerating about Mr. Luciano’s, ah, fiery spirit. I see now that you weren’t.” Rothstein smiled, and Charlie pulled back his lip, sneering.
“Mr. Rothstein is a business associate of mine,” Meyer explained quickly, before Charlie could open his mouth and get them both killed. “He oversees all of the Jewish gangs in the neighborhood.”
“Don’t be modest, Meyer. I oversee all the Jewish gangs in New York,” Rothstein said. “I took quite a shine to Mr. Lansky due to his business acumen and his rather expansive gambling institutions.”
“Yeah, so whats you want us for?” Charlie asked.
Rothstein shook his head, smiling. “You Italians, no patience for small talk or pleasantries. All passion and urgency.” He extended a hand and placed it on Meyer’s shoulder. “Meyer informed me that in addition to his chain of gambling establishments, you two offer other services. I was hoping to employ some of those services in the future.”
“Yeah?” Charlie asked.
“Yes, Mr. Luciano,” Rothstein said, nodding for emphasis. “When you begin working for me, you will learn I always say what I mean. And you will learn to listen.” Charlie looked murderous, but Rothstein continued, unfazed. “I believe you both will find the arrangement financially beneficial.”
Meyer watched and waited nervously while Charlie looked Rothstein over. Meyer knew he was deciding; his eyes had that calculating look they only got when Charlie was trying to decide whether or not someone was a friend or enemy, whether to lower the gun or pull the trigger.
“Yeah, okay.” Charlie stuck out his hand, Rothstein shook it, and Meyer sighed in relief.
“What are we going to do tonight?” Meyer asked, walking alongside Charlie down the darkening street. He had a handful of small stones, and he kept tossing them into the near-empty street. “We can sneak into the theater. I think there’s a new film playing.”
“I don’t think so,” Charlie said distractedly.
“Okay. We can go down to the river and watch the boats come in.” Charlie didn’t answer. “Or get some of the guys together and play bocce ball.”
Meyer looked up at Charlie expectantly, but he wasn’t paying attention. His eyes were trained somewhere else, and Meyer followed them and saw the source of Charlie’s distraction. Three girls in thin cotton summer dresses were sitting on the stoop of one of the apartment buildings. “You know those gals?”
“Oh yeah,” Charlie said, and Meyer could feel the sex oozing from just those two words. “The one in the middle, her name’s Mary.” He looked down at Meyer, lascivious grin on his face. “That’s what I’m doing tonight.”
“Ugh, Charlie. I thought we were gonna do something tonight,” Meyer said.
“Get Frank or Benny to babysit you,” Charlie snapped. “Just don’t come to the apartment unless you wanna hear how loud I can make Mary scream.” Charlie clapped Meyer on the back and jogged towards the girls on the stoop.
Meyer stood watching them, watching the way Charlie leaned into Mary, his fingers brushing lightly along the back of her neck, his lips ghosting against her ear when he whispered to her.
Meyer stormed down the street, going nowhere. He tried to ignore the pang of jealousy, blamed it on Charlie bailing out on him for some whore. It’s not like it was the first time Charlie blew him off for a girl – it happened two, maybe three times a week – but lately it’d really been getting to him. He also tried to ignore the thought of Charlie’s fingers, callused and long, and his lips, soft and wet and probably tasting of Lucky Strikes.
Benny was insane, Meyer was sure of it. But he was glad his insanity wasn’t shooting in his direction. This was supposed to be a simple robbery, easy as pie so to speak. But things went south real quick, and Meyer wasn’t so sure he was getting out of this one.
He was crouched behind a crate, and the crate wouldn’t hold off the gunfire for long. Benny was maniacally shooting, standing from behind the crate, but Meyer was more cautious. He was rather attached to all his body parts.
Glancing around the edge of the crate, he took a few well-aimed shots. Suddenly, Benny sprinted forward, still shooting, and Meyer called after him, all the while shooting and trying to keep Benny alive. But somehow, Benny killed them all, essentially saving both their lives. Meyer owed his life to a fucking twelve year old.
As Meyer and Benny ran through the alleys and away from the corpses, something came out of nowhere and shoved him up against the wall.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Charlie yelled in his face. “Benny, point that fucking gun away from my head before I carve an extra hole in your body.”
“You should know better than to surprise us,” Benny replied. “I coulda shot you and never know it’d be you.”
Charlie ignored Benny and pushed Meyer against the wall, grinding his shoulder blades into the rough brick. “Answer me! Are ya trying to get yourself killed?”
“We had it under control, Charlie,” Meyer said, his face stoic though Charlie’s hand was gripping him so tightly Meyer was afraid his bones might snap under the pressure.
“You call a shootout in an alley control? You been hanging around this crazy fuck too long,” Charlie said, flinging a hand towards Benny.
“Who you calling crazy?” Benny exclaimed.
“I can’t always be there to protect you, Meyer,” Charlie said through gritted teeth. Meyer stared at him, took in the intense, almost desperate look in his eyes, felt the pain coursing down his arm from Charlie’s vice-like grip on his shoulder, ignored the heat radiating from the body pressed so close against him.
“I can take care of myself,” Meyer said quietly. Charlie laughed, and let him go.
“When you get yourself killed, I’m not going to your fucking funeral.”
“You need a broad,” Charlie said one day. Meyer was going over the books for the last month and counting the cash he’d gathered to distribute among Charlie, Frank, Benny, and himself. Like usual, he dutifully ignored Charlie and continued his work. “You gonna sit there and ignore me, then?”
“I’m not ignoring you,” Meyer replied, placing bills into four precisely stacked piles. “I’m choosing not to respond.”
“Look,” Charlie pulled out a chair and straddled it, then tipped it forward close to Meyer, “you’re seventeen now. It just ain’t natural you ain’t done it yet.”
Meyer sighed and looked up at Charlie. He dressed differently now, since Rothstein had noticed them and pulled them both under his wing. He took a shine to Charlie especially, made it his personal mission Meyer thought to polish Charlie into a respectable member of society. He’d taught them both how to dress like success, instead of hoodlums off the street, and he’d taken on the almost impossible task of teaching Charlie how to speak eloquently. Charlie did well in mixed company, more from his natural charm than from any refined speech; Meyer thought the most Rothstein had been able to do was teach Charlie the value of holding his tongue – most of the time.
Charlie rocked the chair back and forth, always moving Meyer knew, unable to just sit and listen to the radio or read a book like Meyer liked to. Sometimes, Meyer read to Charlie, but he bored of that quickly and fidgeted until Meyer would snap the book shut and do whatever it was Charlie wanted. Meyer liked those nights though, in Charlie’s apartment, reading quietly on one end of the sofa, Charlie on the other, his attention focused on Meyer, a cigarette at his fingertips and his hair messy and free like it had been before he’d started wearing suits and using pomade every day. Now, sitting across from him, a few curls were spilling across his forehead from the sleeked back pomade, his vest and jacket hanging on the coat rack by the door, just Charlie in suspenders and rolled shirtsleeves.
“Not all of us can have your rap sheet, can we? I prefer to stay Chlamydia-free,” Meyer responded. It was an old, stale conversation.
“Hey,” Charlie exclaimed, pointing his finger, “you knows I did that to get out of the war.”
“That’s your story,” Meyer said, going back to his money.
“Fuck you, you limp-dicked kike.”
Meyer chose not to take the bait, partially because he was busy, but also to irritate Charlie. Judging by Charlie’s frustrated grunt and his sudden body movements, he succeeded. But the longer that Charlie sat there fidgeting, the more it got on Meyer’s nerves.
He slammed down the stack of bills and looked imploringly at Charlie. “Why is this so important to you? It’s not your dick in question.”
Charlie shifted, then answered, “I don’t know. It just ain’t right, Meyer.”
Meyer studied Charlie for a few moments before returning to his work. He thought he knew why it bothered Charlie, even if Charlie didn’t want to admit it to himself. He knew neither of them wanted to admit it, and Charlie’s reaction was to get Meyer a woman. Meyer, instead, was just going to wait.
“That was too close,” Meyer said, slamming the door to the apartment shut. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Charlie answered, disappearing into the kitchen and opening the icebox. He returned with two cloths filled with ice, and dropped beside Meyer on the sofa. “Here.”
Meyer pressed it against his forehead, where a well aimed fist had landed minutes earlier. Charlie had gotten it worse than Meyer, a black eye and some other abrasions underneath his clothes. With one hand, Charlie held the icepack to his eye, and with the other, he tried to take off his jacket, but found it too difficult.
“Next time I see those guys, I’m gonna fucking kill them.”
“Here, let me help,” Meyer said, placing his own icepack aside and kneeling in front of Charlie.
“Fuck off, I can handle it,” Charlie said, but he didn’t move away when Meyer pushed his jacket down his arms and off. Charlie replaced the ice as Meyer began unbuttoning his vest and shirt.
“Did you break anything?” Meyer asked. Charlie held out his arms as Meyer slid the garments away.
“Don’t think so.” Charlie set the icepack aside and lifted his arms as Meyer tugged his undershirt over his head. Meyer tossed it aside absently as his fingers lightly grazed over Charlie’s skin, lingering over spots where bruises were beginning to darken. Meyer traced the outline of a large bruise along Charlie’s ribcage, then inspected his right arm and shoulder, which had some nasty cuts on them.
Meyer stood up and found the iodine in the bathroom. He returned and sat on the table in front of the sofa.
“You’re making too much of a fuss. It’s fine,” Charlie said when Meyer poured iodine on some cotton.
“It may be fine now, but if we leave this too long, it won’t be fine.” Charlie grunted when Meyer spread the cotton over his wounds. After he finished, he continued looking Charlie over, his fingers lingering just a moment too long on Charlie’s warm skin. He shrugged it off, blamed it on adrenaline and concern, and yes, that place on Charlie’s side needed to be touched, just to make sure.
“Meyer,” Charlie croaked out, his voice low and husky, “I think I’m okay now.”
Meyer looked up, reluctantly met Charlie’s eyes, and hadn’t prepared himself for what he saw there. Raw emotion, desperate need, and a touch of lust. At some point, while he stared at Charlie in surprise, he realized his fingers were still on Charlie’s side, and now were rubbing the soft skin repeatedly.
Meyer made to move away, but Charlie kissed him instead. It was different than anything Meyer had ever experienced, none of the feminine propriety or shyness or delicateness. Charlie was bold and sure, his tongue heavy and warm in Meyer’s mouth. Meyer’s fingers instinctually found their way around the nape of Charlie’s neck and sinking into Charlie’s messy curls. Somewhere, deep inside Meyer, he worried that this was a mistake. But it was Charlie, his Charlie, and Meyer finally admitted to himself that he’d been waiting for this to happen for a very long time.
Charlie gripped Meyer’s arms tightly and tugged him up, hurting himself in the process. He broke the kiss with a hiss of pain.
“You alright?” Meyer asked, halfway in Charlie’s lap.
Charlie gripped the back of Meyer’s head roughly. “Stop your kvetsching and fucking kiss me.”
Charlie’s mouth felt familiar, his tongue soft and his teeth nipping. Meyer ran his fingers through Charlie’s hair, twisting them into soft curls, just like he’d wanted to for so long. Charlie shifted, settled Meyer more comfortably on his lap, his fingers digging into the flesh of his hips. Meyer was pretty sure he’d have bruises, and not all of them would be from the earlier altercation. Charlie’s mouth tasted of Lucky Strikes and whiskey, and his skin smelled like the cologne Meyer was so fond of.
Meyer made a surprised noise when Charlie’s hand went to the fly of his pants, which caused Charlie to chuckle deeply in his chest, the vibration rolling out of him and into Meyer’s mouth and down to the tips of his toes. Meyer was nervous, but he’d never tell Charlie that.
He’d had women; eventually Charlie had worn him down and persuaded him to go to one of his whores, though it really hadn’t taken a lot of convincing if Meyer was honest. Then there’d been other girls, a few nice Jewish girls he’d known his whole life who were sweet and quiet and kissed him softly, and some Italian girls who’d screamed his name and left scratches down his back. He liked them all for different reasons, but he didn’t lay with them all that often. He did whenever there was time – when there were no numbers, no business for Rothstein, no Charlie.
Charlie’s fingers around his cock made him gasp, and he liked the way Charlie kissed along his neck and murmured Italian against his skin. Then Charlie bit his neck, hard enough for Meyer to moan in pleasure, low enough for his collar to cover it in the daylight. Charlie’s tongue laved over the mark as his hand stroked his cock. His grip was sure and strong, his thumb pressed just underneath the head, and Meyer arched back, and Charlie licked the line of his throat as he came.
Meyer slumped against him, his entire body boneless and spent. His brain couldn’t quite process everything that had happened, was happening, as Charlie placed light kisses against his hair and ear.
“Not done yet, are you, Meyer?” Charlie said in his ear. The gravelly sound of his voice sent a shock through Meyer and he lifted his head just as Charlie gripped him around the waist with his good arm and flipped them around. Meyer was stretched out on the couch, Charlie on top of him. And Charlie was grinding against him, his face buried in the crook of Meyer’s neck, and Meyer wasn’t sure what to do, so he ran his hands along the wide expanse of Charlie’s back. He could feel Charlie’s hardness against his leg, could hear the soft sounds coming from him.
He lowered one of his hands and slid it in between their bodies as he tried to blindly find the button on Charlie’s pants. Charlie raised his hips slightly as he kissed Meyer again, open-mouthed and wet. Meyer almost forgot about Charlie’s cock in favor of his mouth until he urgently bucked against his hand. Meyer shoved his hand inside Charlie’s slacks and wrapped his fingers around his hot length. It felt odd to Meyer, holding Charlie’s cock in his hand, and he tentatively moved his hand since he didn’t know what to do. Charlie didn’t seem to mind; he rocked his hips into Meyer’s hand as he kissed him, and Meyer jumped, startled, when Charlie came over his hand.
Charlie settled on top of Meyer, his hand slid underneath Meyer’s shirt and pressed firmly against his skin. He didn’t say a word. Meyer was okay with that. He could hear the city on the other side of the windows, but it didn’t matter what was out there. He concentrated on Charlie’s slow breathing, his fingers lost in his soft curls.
“Meyer, I have a job for you,” Rothstein said. Meyer sat across from him at his desk, and Charlie was to his side, leaning against the small wall table smoking a cigarette. “I need you to go to this address in Atlantic City.”
Meyer took the slip of paper and looked at it curiously.
“Nucky Thompson?” Charlie asked.
“Let’s just say, Mr. Thompson and I do not see eye to eye. And you boys are going to fix that for me.” Rothstein lifted his teacup to his lips and took a measured sip. “Are you familiar with Chalky White?” Meyer shook his head. “He’s a business associate of Mr. Thompson, oversees the Negro operation in Atlantic City. I want you to, ah, test his loyalty for me.”
“When do we leave?” Charlie sucked on the end of his cigarette, then exhaled quickly.
“Not we. Just Meyer.”
“You’re fucking joking?” Charlie yelled.
“Do you usually take me for the joking type?” Rothstein replied. “This requires discretion.”
Charlie shot up from the table, pointed at himself. “You sayin’ I ain’t got discretion?”
Rothstein sighed and folded his hands on his desk. “Charlie, you are a man of many talents. Discretion, however, is definitely not one of them.”
Charlie mumbled something in Italian, and Meyer glared at him, glad AR didn’t speak Italian, too.
Meyer thought he had displayed dignity and decorum worthy of AR while Nucky Thompson, Chalky White, and Darmody had him on his knees. He didn’t cry like the D’Alessio brother beside him, or mouth off like the other one. He liked to think that it was the way he handled himself that kept Nucky from killing him. Though, when Nucky walked behind him to untie his restraints, there was a moment when Meyer thought, this is finally it, executed by fucking Nucky Thompson in a warehouse in this shithole by the sea.
He also thought he’d walked with a great deal of self-respect as he left the warehouse, not looking back, not even once. And that was difficult. Meyer liked to know what he was facing, see all the odds, have all the possibilities. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing straight up, bristling with each movement the other men made, waiting for the inevitable slug in his back. But it never came. And as soon as he was out of eyesight of the warehouse, he decided there was no loss of dignity in taking off running through the woods.
It was a long, exhausting trip back to New York. He’d driven with the D’Alessio brothers from the train station, and so he wandered in the woods until he found the road, then walked down the dark road on trembling legs until he finally hitched a ride into town. By the time he’d caught a train and returned home, it was almost dawn.
“Where the fuck you been?” Charlie yelled before Meyer even had the door opened all the way. Meyer’s head was pounding, his feet killing him, and he just wanted to go to bed.
“Atlantic City.” Meyer closed the door carefully, then walked into the bedroom. Charlie followed him, not content with that answer.
“I know that. It’s almost dawn. AR said you met with that Chalky guy, shouldn’ta taken ya more than a few hours.” He leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. He glared at Meyer, but Meyer knew that face well enough to know it wasn’t anger that pinched his features, but worry.
Slowly, Meyer removed his shoes, socks, jacket, tie, and vest. He started to unbutton his shirt, but his hands began shaking so badly that he had to stop. He dropped his head into his palms and focused on his breathing.
“Sos, you gonna tell me what happened or what?” Charlie asked again, voice softening. Meyer looked up at him, tired and defeated.
“Darmody shot Lucien in the head. The Negro choked Matteo. Thompson let me go.” Meyer wiped a hand across his face.
“What?” Charlie yelled, coming into the room and dropping on the bed beside Meyer.
“I really thought I was going to die this time, Charlie,” he said, voice shaken and barely a whisper. He absently rubbed his wrists, and Charlie picked them up and looked at them.
“They tie you up?”
“It’s no big deal,” Meyer said, trying to take his hands back, but Charlie held firm.
“What you mean, no big deal?” He raked his thumb across the rope burn on Meyer’s wrist. “I’m gonna kill that Mick fuck. I’m gonna kill ‘em myself.”
“No, you aren’t. AR said to have patience.”
“Fuck AR. That was before he tried to execute you,” Charlie growled.
“He didn’t try,” Meyer replied. “If he’d wanted me dead, I’d be dead.”
Later, with the sheets pooled around their waists, windows flung open to let in the night chill and city sounds, Meyer had his head in Charlie’s lap, fingers curled into Charlie’s hip. Charlie was sucking on a cigarette, his fingers slowly combing through Meyer’s hair.
Charlie didn’t speak, didn’t ask too many questions, didn’t even rage about how much he wanted to kill, well, everyone. He’d held Meyer close and kissed him and undressed him and fucked him until Meyer stopped trembling, and somewhere in between Meyer had murmured over and over that he loved him, and Meyer had just blamed it on the shock until Charlie had whispered it back. But later, in daylight and fedoras and speakeasies, they wouldn’t admit they’d said it. And it didn’t matter how many times Meyer told Charlie they hadn’t hurt him - Irish fucks can’t be trusted, I have to make sure with my own eyes - Charlie had checked every inch of Meyer’s body for bullet holes, bruises, making sure he wasn’t broken, his fingers brushing across Meyer’s bare skin gently, almost reverently. Meyer watched him curiously, Charlie’s eyes sweeping over him like he’d never see him again, like he was afraid Meyer was just a dream.
Meyer’s eyes drifted shut as the sun rose, Charlie’s fingers a comforting presence. “I’m going to get Nucky Thompson one day for this,” Charlie said quietly, “no matter what AR says.”
“Forget about Nucky Thompson, and AR, and their stupid feuds. They won’t matter soon enough. We’ll be bigger than them one day,” Meyer murmured. “You’ll be bigger than them.”
Charlie didn’t respond, just continued running his hand through Meyer’s hair.
Meyer laughed and looked down at Charlie, lying flat on his back in the bed. He was unabashedly naked, the sheets kicked to the foot of the bed in the hot summer afternoon. His face was relaxed, free from the lines and angry pinched look it had so often, and his curls were free and splayed on the pillow.
“What?” Charlie asked when Meyer had been staring too long.
“What’s so funny about me, huh?” Charlie reached onto the bedside table and grabbed Meyer’s cigarette case and stole a cigarette from it. When he couldn’t find a lighter, Meyer handed him his own cigarette.
“You’re not funny,” Meyer explained as Charlie held the lighted tip to his unlit one and sucked. “I just haven’t seen you this relaxed in awhile.”
“Yeah?” Charlie rolled onto his side, slinging an arm around Meyer’s waist and placing a kiss to his hip. “I think you mighta had something to do with it.”
“It’s more than that. We haven’t just sat here and laughed in a long time.”
“It’s cause you’re a Jew. Fucking kikes, you never laugh.” Meyer slid his fingers into Charlie’s hair, Charlie leaning into Meyer’s touch. “Things are looking up, Meyer,” Charlie said. “The heroin business will take off, with or without Darmody and Capone. Then we won’t be, what’s that word you use, schlepping piss for AR or no-fucking-body. It’ll be me and you, kings who don’t answer to nobody.”
“The numbers do look promising,” Meyer agreed.
“Promising, my ass.” Charlie lunged up, knocking Meyer back on the pillow. He kissed him eagerly as Meyer took both their cigarettes and placed them in the tray on the bedside table before Charlie set the whole complex on fire.
“Charlie, what the fuck are you doing?” Meyer asked slowly. They were in Rothstein’s billiard room while he was in a meeting. Charlie was behind Meyer, kissing his neck, his hands groping him through his slacks.
“What, you gone stupid all of a sudden?” Charlie murmured against his ear, then bit it harshly. Meyer’s cock jumped to attention, and Charlie snickered. He cupped Meyer fully, kneading his palm into Meyer’s hardening cock.
“You do realize that anyone, including AR, could walk in any second?”
“That’s what makes it fun. Live a little, Meyer. Won’t kill you.”
Meyer knew that no one was scheduled to see Rothstein this evening, and he rarely had visitors this late; besides, his meeting would take at least another couple of hours. So, he spun around in Charlie’s arms and kissed him. Enthused by Meyer’s acquiescence, Charlie kissed him eagerly, and before he knew it, his legs hit something solid.
“Oh no,” Meyer said, pulling his mouth away. Charlie just latched his lips onto Meyer’s neck.
“Yes.” Charlie punctuated it with a bite, then grabbed Meyer by the shoulders and pushed him over the pool table. Meyer braced himself on the table as Charlie yanked down his trousers. Meyer’s brain screamed that he should stop, but Charlie was very convincing as his hands worked their way over his ass and cock. When Charlie thrust inside him, he clawed at the felt, scattering AR’s perfectly aligned billiard balls. He gripped the edge of the table as Charlie fucked him, rough and hard and louder than they should with a meeting on the other side of the door.
“You might,” Meyer started, trying to speak between the bitten back moans and heavy exhalations, “want to be careful.”
“Shut up, you fucking love this,” Charlie whispered against his ear, proving it by grabbing Meyer’s chin and tilting his head to kiss him. Each swipe of Charlie’s tongue against his own shot sensation straight to his cock. His hips were grinding painfully into the hard edge of the pool table with each of Charlie’s thrusts, and Charlie’s fingers were digging so roughly into his hips that he’d have matching bruises on each side.
“What if AR catches us?” Meyer muttered, biting his lip to keep from moaning aloud when Charlie shifted his angle.
“Sick fuck would probably join us,” he answered.
Meyer chuckled. “Or watch us. If he hasn’t already.” Sensation was pooling low in his belly, and a thought suddenly occurred to him. “Fuck, I can’t come on AR’s pool table.”
“Then don’t come,” Charlie said as he quickened his pace. Meyer planted his feet wider, bracing himself and trying to maintain control as Charlie continued to fuck him. Then, he felt Charlie still and come inside him. He held Meyer around the waist, buried deep inside, his irregular breathing damp against Meyer’s ear.
When Charlie pulled out, he dropped to his knees and guided Meyer around, his back against the pool table. Meyer supported himself on the edge of the table as Charlie slid his lips around his cock. His eyes closed as his head fell back, his hips involuntarily jerking as Charlie took him deeper. Charlie knew exactly what to do with his mouth, so it only took a few moments for Meyer to come.
An hour later, Rothstein showed his two guests out. Meyer was sitting in a chair reading a book, his suit perfectly together, while Charlie leaned against the fireplace mantle, smoking a cigarette.
Meyer didn’t speak to Charlie the entire way home. Even when they went into the apartment, Meyer remained quiet. Charlie didn’t say anything either. Most of the time, Meyer was thankful when Charlie shut his fucking mouth. But now, now it made him uneasy. Charlie just looked broken.
Meyer wanted to be mad at him, yell and curse and beat him until he made him understand what a fucking stupid move it’d been to go through with the deal – especially after Meyer told him to let it go. If he was honest with himself, he’d been a bit shaken ever since Nucky’s Irishman ended up in that box; he was afraid that next it’d be him, or worse, Charlie. He wanted to blame it all on Charlie – losing the heroin business, Rothstein taking over and essentially screwing them in a way they’d never been screwed before. Meyer knew that after everything that had happened, it was that moment, the moment when he realized that Rothstein had betrayed him. That was the moment when Charlie crumbled.
Standing in the middle of the living room, Charlie on the sofa, head in his hands, Meyer tried to figure out what to do. He just couldn’t be mad at Charlie, not right now. There’d be time for fighting later. There’d be time for yelling and anger and revenge and rebuilding. But now, Meyer sat on the sofa beside Charlie and wrapped his arms around him. Charlie curled into his embrace, and Meyer kissed his head softly.
There’d be time for everything else tomorrow, but tonight there was just Charlie.