The year 1873...

All the hell went on in the Scollay Square section of Boston:

Opium dens, illegal saloons, backroom gambling, red-lit brothels. You name it, and Emmett Condon had seen it.

Most likely, he'd had a hand in it too. He had more than a passing acquaintance with every vice known to man...

Except he was only twelve and stood barely five feet.

Keeping his lice-ridden head bowed low, his filthy hands stuffed deep in his raggedy twill pockets and whistling tunelessly under his foul breath, he strutted along Endicott Street. He might have newsprint where his boot soles used to be, but he had not a fucking care in the whole goddamned world.

Because why?

Because he worked for himself. Always had. That way, he owed no one nuthin'. And that was the way he aimed to keep things.

While passing by the usual bawdy establishments and peg houses, he shuddered. Naive farm girls and trusting small town boys wound up in those sorts of places. After looking for respectable employment in the city and finding none, they sold themselves there rather than rot in some poorhouse beyond city limits.

Shit. If not for his street savvy and sticky fingers, he might have met the same fate. But trusting and naive? Those words never had described him. If he sold his arse on the street, he got one-hundred percent of the take. No one got a cut. That was just sound business. In this area of Boston, bands of whoremongers - mostly transient sailors with some homegrown gents thrown into the mix too and all of them hankering for a taste of fresh chicken - roamed the streets. To avoid their soliciting, Emmett ducked between two adjacent brick buildings. Both had seen better days. Then again, what had not in this blighted slice of hell?

Never mind all that, this half-block alley was his territory. His second home if ever he'd had a first. Rank with the sour stink of piss and vomit or not, this section of the city was all his. And no one but no one shouldered their way into his action and lived to tell the tale.

Emmett moseyed on over real quiet-like to a drunkard sprawled face-down in a clogged gutter. Still whistling, he toed him. Once. Again. When the rummy kept snoring away, insensible to petty thieves like him, Emmett glanced over his shoulder.

Looked like no one was around to catch him. No eye witnesses meant his luck was holding. Hallelujah.

A quick pat-down of his mark produced a standard money clip, bulging with bills. Emmett lightened its load. After staggering out the double-hung tavern doors, fumes of Old Nick whiskey following, the bum would never miss a stray greenback gone missing here or there. The evening's haul came to about a sawbuck, all-told. Plenty enough to keep Emmett's belly full for a week...if he went easy on the grub. By his low standards, he had done swell.

Even so, tonight felt different. Off somehow. A nose for trouble advised Emmet his evening of easy pick pocketing was about to draw to a premature end.

And son-of-a-gun, that was when he saw them.

Two no accounts, both thugs unknown to Emmett, sizing up a weaving fella up ahead, moving in on him too, as if to jump him. No doubt the pair was aiming to do a little filching on the sly.

Not in Emmett's alley, they were not.

Before either of them got wind of him on their tails, Emmett introduced the smaller of the two to his boot. A sharp jab to the stones. Squealing like a schoolgirl, the snot-nosed sissy ran off, his gait lopsided. Poor fuck.

One down, another to go.

Emmett knew how others saw him: A puny runt a puff of air would blow over. This next thug most likely viewed him the same, only doubly so, since the bastard towered Emmett by a foot.

No argument, starvation had delayed Emmett's growth spurt by a year or more. But he reckoned those postponed inches had pounded some extra toughness into him. The alleys of Scollay Square rid itself of weaklings faster than a hot knife through butter and Emmett had survived here on his own since he just turned eight.

As any mistreated mongrel pup would, Emmett bared his teeth and sprang for the second thug's throat.

The maneuver worked...until the thug whipped out a knife.

Flattened on the cobblestones with chirping birdies circling his head and a gash gushing red from his arm, Emmet looked over at the thug. Blade in hand, the victor was going back for the spoils - the weaving gent - maybe to finish him off.

Emmett stumbled to a stand. No fucking murders of tavern customers, not in his fucking territory. If this thug ended the weaving gent's life, ale house owners would complain about a possible loss of future revenue, and the coppers would patrol the alley. Nightly. This inconvenience that would put Emmett shit out of a job and it would back selling his arse on the street again for him.

Emmett turned the thug's knife back on himself, a sneak attack from the rear, a wound that was maybe survivable, then again, probably not, and all the same to Emmett...so long as he bled to death elsewhere. To ensure that happened, Emmett dragged the thug back out onto the street, leaving a trail of guts as he went, a common enough sight on the main thoroughfare and nothing to alarm police about the safety of his little alley.

With a sigh of relief, Emmett returned to the weaving gent. "Mister - you hurt?"

"Only my pride. My beloved wife died three years ago today in childbirth and I thought to drown my sorrows in cheap spirits. Instead, I nearly orphaned my little girl."

"The kid is alive and so are you. Go home to her, mister. I sure as hell would if I had me a place to go home to."

So as not to have wasted his time...or his blood...Emmett held out his hand, all sad and pathetic-like. More pity money came his way when he laid the misery on extra thick.

"You do now," said the gent, not weaving anymore.

"Huh? I do what now?" Emmett surveyed his empty palm. Was he losing his touch? Begging used to get him by in a pinch. Of course, he had been even smaller and a heap prettier back then, before he got his nose broke and all...

Still, where was this gent's gratitude?

"You have a home now. My home is your home, son."

Emmett's empty palm fell back to his side. "Ain't nobody's son, mister."

"You are now, son."

"Yeah, I heard that one before. Then some old geezer tells me to suck his cock for free."

"Nothing of the kind. I work as a private schoolmaster at Hodge Academy for Boys. I have a small abode there, right on campus. Come home with me. I insist. I owe you my life. Taking you in is the very least I can do."

Fuck. In Emmett's book, gratitude spelled money, not home-cooking. But the gent spoke fine, like a genuine British toff. Learning to talk all proper-like might help Emmett advance from pick-pocketing to swindling. This alley was getting a might risky...

Time to cut his losses.

Emmett cradled his hurt arm against his side. "Staying with you is out, mister. But I could come by every once in a while. How's about teaching me stuff? You know, talking good?"

"First, you need to see a physician. That wound is deep."

"No sawbones. The doc will report me to the fucking police and it will be the fucking poorhouse for me. I ain't going to that place. And I ain't selling my arse on the street anymore, neither."

"All right, son. I understand. Someone at my school will tend your wound, a former army surgeon who values discretion."

Christ, but the gent sounded all la-dee-da. If Emmett talked fancy like that, folks would believe every lying word that came out of his mouth. It was worth a shot, anyway.

Emmett double checked. "That there word 'discretion', mister, does that mean no questions asked?"

"Exactly, son. No questions asked."