The man driving the wagon did not want to talk. After the second attempt, Jack had given up. New York was a strange place.He wasn’t sure he liked some parts of it, but overall it was an amazing place. Each neighborhood they passed seemed to have a bit of personality of its own. It was almost like a small world tour. Then they’d entered a very distinct neighborhood. Just as the docks had been well outside Jack’s experience, so too was this neighborhood, but in a wholly different direction.
The houses sat back from the road, all behind iron and stone gates with grand trees and private roads. Jack half imagined them the homes of saints and the road about to turn to gold at any moment. It was a fairytale kingdom.
Finally, the wagon stopped at what must have been a house, though Jack couldn’t tell the house from the forest-like park just a bit further on.
"Well, here you are. I don't recommend it. There are few good people in there. Are you sure you want me to leave you here?"
“Yes,” Jack said, half surprised that the man actually spoke English. Stepping down into the still warm afternoon air as he pulled his billfold from his coat. “Thank you very much.”
“Keep your money.” The man’s upper lip actually twitched as he looked up from Jack to the estate behind the fancy iron gate.
As the wagon pulled away, clattering over cobblestones, Jack stepped up to the gate. Hands on round iron bars, the house put him in mind of some gothic novels he’d read as a boy. Lamp light flickered in several of the rooms. He knew that it definitely wasn’t a setting for specters nor was it a tavern or boarding house. Somehow this was exactly the kind of place he expected to find Gael. This was a house for an errant prince.
His face and heart twisted as he stared through the bars. Perhaps Gael was in there kissing some other man. A rational man, a man of science, he did not peek into other men’s houses. He repeated that over and over to himself as he slipped through the bars and into some other man’s yard. Which, as it turned out, was an utterly unfortunate choice.
Gas lights hanging from iron posts lit the road up to the house. Beyond that lay shadows which gave home to the low and predatory growl of Cerberus. Jack liked dogs, but not dogs that looked like hell hounds! Not more than ten paces in, his stride shifted to a jog. Glancing over his shoulder, he found that Cerberus was half the height of a man, had great white teeth, and was quite fast. Regret is not nearly as motivational as pure terror.
Sweat in his eyes, his body stopped suddenly while his breath and spirit went on running. The great beast had his coat tails, jerking him nearly off his feet until he let his arms go limp and behind him, then he was running to catch up with his ghost which had left him behind in an effort to get away from the beast.
Still running for his life, he looked back over his shoulder. The beast froze. Their eyes locked. His life felt like it was slow motion, like he knew he was still running, but it didn’t feel like it. The nearest tree offered a branch he thought he could reach and he leapt for it from a running start, legs pulling up to wrap around the distal part of the branch just as those shining white teeth chomped the air where he’d been but a moment before.
“Baxter! Sit!” A deep, confident voice commanded.
Jack clung to the branch, eyes clenched tight. He was going to be arrested! He could hear himself fumbling through an explanation to an officer about how he’d been in search of a friend and was in no way a thief.
“You there in the tree! You can get your feet on the ground,” that confident voice said.
Jack opened his eyes, though held tightly to the branch no matter what the stranger said. A man of dark coffee complexion held an ornately etched shotgun in his direction. He did have a very nice tie, the man.
“Come on. Down now. Baxter won’t bite, but you run and I’ll put a hole in you sure as sunrise, my boy,” he spoke with a slightly English accent now that Jack had time to consider it.
Letting himself down, he kept his hands up. “Please don’t shoot me! I was only looking for a friend!”
“Then you got lost and up a tree,” the man said, not lowering the shotgun even a smidge.
“That is exactly what happened! I’m Dr. Jack Walker, well, I’m still a resident, but I’m a doctor, nonetheless.” Sweat stains and tree bark ruined his new shirt and his bowtie was more undone than he was. Without suspenders on, his trousers were sliding down one of his hips, leaving a poof of nice new shirt. “My cards are in my coat, just there!”
“I can have cards printed that say I’m the King of Persia, doesn’t make it so.”
At that point, a half a dozen other men arrived, all in fancy dress, black satin, tails, gold and black lacquer cigarette holders. In the center of the group was clearly the dark star, a man of elegant gravity. Black hair slicked back, he was silver at the temples with amused brown eyes. “Now then, Mr. Alexander, he didn’t lay claim to anything so illustrious.” A Chinese man in traditional looking Chinese silks held a gold tray out for him and the dark star took his new glass. Dark liquid swirled around what looked like granite marbles. Watching Jack squirm, he took a sip and smiled. “So then, Dr. Walker, what brings you to our very private gentlemen’s club?”
To speak requires the mouth to be less dry than the Sahara.
“Well, then,” the man urged.
“Of for heaven’s sake, Alfred,” said a high pitched voice whined. The slender man stepped forward, making a pose with his hand. He wore a tuxedo as well as any of them, polished elder gay, comfortable in Alfred's private gay preserve. “Give the man something to drink. He’s clearly terrified.”
“Of what,” Alfred the dark center of the night asked. “We won’t let the dog or Mr. Alexander at you. Come on now, explain yourself.”
“I think he came looking for me,” Gael said, stepping into view, his bow tie undone and his tux just looking somehow as if there wasn’t enough decorum in it to make him be polite. As he went over to get Jack’s coat and brushed it off on the way back, he said, “He is a doctor and he’s harmless.”
“I am most definitely not harmless!” Jack said, lifting his chin, fist ups like a fighter in a newspaper.
Gael handed Jack his dusted off coat and looked back over his shoulder to Alfred. “He’s harmless.”
Alfred stared at the two of them, not unlike one might study prize race horses. “Galen Francis McNeil, is this the boy you’ve got straight for, the one for whom you declined my marriage proposal and have forsaken my bed for?”
Gael’s lips went thin as he tried to look everywhere except anywhere. “Yeah. This is him.”
“Splendid!” Alfred said, finishing off his drink and setting it back on the suddenly available golden tray. “Mr. Lo, take our young doctor up to the baths and see that he’s cleaned up and given something decent to wear!” Smiling at Jack, he blinked, and said, “You will join us for dinner, will you not? We’ll all be delighted to wait for you.”
“Oh no, I won’t. I wouldn’t,” Jack said, dusting more at his torn coat, “I wouldn’t want to be any bother.”
“Nonsense,” Alfred cooed, “You climbed the wall and braved the dragon to find your sleeping beauty. The least we can do is bathe and feed you. The sun is down and it’s entirely too late for you to leave. You’ll have to spend the night with us, breakfast in the morning, and then I’ll send you back to wherever it is you wish to go.”
“I work at the hospital,” Jack said, “I work at Calvary Mission Hospital.”
“Yes, of course, you do,” Alfred said, making a sweeping motion with his arm. “You’re a lovely redheaded Protestant boy! No! No, you come with me, Galen, my boy. It’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride before his coming out or debut or whatever that nonsense is. Mr. Lo, see that our guest’s coat is repaired. Chop chop! We’re not holding dinner all night now!”
And then servants that Jack hadn’t seen before they swept him away, not even letting him make eye contact with a scowling and unhappy Gael.
When Jack was swept away, Alfred threw an arm around Gael's shoulder, pulled him close, squeezing just to the edge of pain. "I'm going to drown both of you in the fountain tonight, my dear. Was it worth it?"
"Please let him go," Gael whispered. "He doesn't deserve to be hurt."
"You're so adorable, my little whore. I'm very much going to miss you."