He was a giant in the BPD, yes, but he wore it lightly. Displays of vanity, after all, were the province of minor gods.

Danny, of course, refused to ride in a chauffeured car with him, so Thomas sent Marty on to the North End alone and he and Danny took the el back across the city. They had to get out at Batterymarch 538 Station because the trestle that had been destroyed in the molasses flood was still under repair.

As they walked back toward the rooming house, Thomas said, "How is he? Did he tell you anything?"

"Somebody banged him up a bit. He told me he got mugged." Danny lit a cigarette and held out the pack to his father. His father helped himself to one as they walked in the soft mist. "I don't know if I believe him, but what are you going to do? He's sticking to the story." Danny looked over at him. "He spent a couple nights sleeping on the streets. That'd rattle any kid."

They walked another block. Thomas said, "So you're quite the young Seneca. You cut a fi ne figure up there, if I do say so."

Danny gave him a wry smile. "Thanks."

"Affiliated with a national union now, are you?"

"Let's not."

"What?"

"Discuss this," Danny said.

"The AFL's left many a fledgling union hanging out to dry when the pressure got upped."

"Dad? I said let's leave it."

"Fine, fine," his father said.

"Thanks."

"Far be it from me to change your mind after such a triumphant night."

"Dad, I said quit it."

"What am I doing?" Thomas said.

"You know damn well."

"I don't, boy. Do tell me."

His son turned his head and his eyes were fi lled with an exasperation that gradually gave way to humor. Danny was the only one of his three sons who'd picked up his father's sense of irony. All three boys could be funny--it was a family trait that probably went back several generations--but Joe's humor was the humor of a smart-aleck boy and Connor's was broader and borderline vaudevillian on the rare occa--

sions he indulged it. Danny was capable of those kinds of humor as well, but more important, he shared Thomas's appreciation for the quietly absurd. He could, in effect, laugh at himself. Particularly in the most dire hours. And that was the bond between them that no difference of opinion could ever break. Thomas had often heard fathers or mothers over the years claim they didn't favor any of their children. What a load of bollocks. Pure bollocks. Your heart was your heart and it chose its loves regardless of your head. The son Thomas favored would surprise no one: Aiden. Of course. Because the boy understood him, to his core, and always had. Which wasn't always to Thomas's advantage, but then he'd always understood Aiden, and that kept the ledger balanced now, didn't it?

"I'd shoot you, old man, if I had my gun."

"You'd miss," Thomas said. "I've seen you shoot, boy."

For the second time in as many days, he found himself in the hostile presence of Nora. She didn't offer him a drink or a place to sit.

She and Danny went over to one corner of the room by themselves and Thomas crossed to his youngest son, who sat at the table by the window.

The boy watched him come, and Thomas was immediately shaken to see a new blankness in Joe's eyes, as if something had been hollowed out of him. He had a black eye and a dark scab over his right ear and, Thomas noted with no small regret, that his throat still bore a circle of red from Thomas's own hand and his lip was still swollen from Thomas's ring.

"Joseph," he said when he reached him.

Joe stared back at him.

Thomas went to one knee by his son and put his hands on his face and kissed his forehead and kissed his hair and pressed him to his chest. "Oh, Jesus, Joseph," he said and closed his eyes and felt all the fear he'd trapped behind his heart these last two days burst through his blood and his muscles and his bones. He tilted his lips to his son's ear and whispered, "I love you, Joe."

Joe stiffened in his arms.

Thomas released his grip and leaned back and ran his hands over his son's cheeks. "I've been worried sick."

Joe whispered, "Yes, sir."

Thomas searched for signs of the boy he'd always known, but a stranger stared back at him.

"What happened to you, boy? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, sir. I got mugged is all. Some boys near the rail yards."

The thought of his flesh and blood being pummeled spiked his rage for a moment, and Thomas almost slapped the boy for giving him such fright and lack of sleep these past few nights. But he caught himself, and the impulse passed.

"That's it? Mugged?"

"Yes, sir."

Jesus, the chill that came off the child! It was the chill of his mother during one of her "moods." The chill of Connor when things didn't go his way. It wasn't part of the Coughlin bloodline, that was for certain.

"Did you know any of the boys?"

Joe shook his head.

"And that's it? That's all that happened."

Joe nodded.

"I've come to take you home, Joseph."

"Yes, sir."

Joe stood and walked past him to the door. There was no child's self-pity, no sense of anguish or joy or emotion of any kind. Something's died in him.

Thomas felt the chill of his own son again and wondered if he was to blame, if this was what he did to those he loved--protected their bodies while deadening their hearts.

He gave Danny and Nora a confident smile. "Well, we'll be off then."

Nora shot him a look of such hatred and contempt, Thomas himself wouldn't have cast it on the worst jungle-bunny rapist in his precinct. It seared the organs in his body.

She smoothed Joe's face and hair and kissed his forehead. "Good- bye, Joey."

"Bye."

"Come on," Danny said softly. "I'll walk you both down."

When they reached the street, Marty Kenneally got out of the car and opened Thomas's door, and Joe climbed in. Danny stuck his head into the car and said good-bye and then stood on the sidewalk with Thomas. Thomas felt the soft night around them. Summer in the city and the streets smelled of this afternoon's rain. He loved that smell. He reached out his hand.

Danny shook it.

"They're going to come after you."

"Who?" Danny said.

"The ones you never see," his father said.

"Over the union?"

His father nodded. "What else?"

Danny dropped his hand and chuckled. "Let 'em come."

Thomas shook his head. "Don't ever say that. Don't ever tempt the gods like that. Ever, Aiden. Ever, boy."

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