“The Thanksgiving Ragamuffin” starts with the 19th century tradition of New York City children begging for treats on Thanksgiving morning. The first children to knock at opera star Ella Shane and her cousin Tommy Hurley’s Washington Square home are schoolkids playing poor. Then comes the second group:
“Anything for Thanksgiving?”
These voices were a bit rougher, and so were the kids. Newsboys, unless I missed my guess. Their faces were thinner, and the grime was real. And the worn clothes weren’t hand-me-downs roughed up for the occasion. They were all they had.
Some newsboys came from poor families, “doing their part in the house,” the way I’d once done with piecework, and Tommy had with odd jobs in the old neighborhood. Others had no one. The boys all knew the stories, but they’d never tell them to us. Over time and hot cocoa in the Holy Innocents rectory, Father Michael would find out and help where he could.
I didn’t feel the least bit guilty sending these fellows on their way with two pieces of penuche each instead of one. Honestly, I’d have given them the whole batch if they could have carried it.
“Did you recognize any of them?” I asked Tommy as I closed the door.
He shrugged. “I’ve seen a couple of them around Holy Innocents. The little one, with the dark hair and eyes, he’s new.”
Tommy’s gaze lingered on my face. He knew what I was thinking. The world saw opera diva Ella Shane, internationally acclaimed, or at least paid in several different currencies, for my performances in “trouser roles,” heroic men’s parts played by women. But inside was Ellen O’Shaughnessy, Irish-Jewish orphan made good, with more than a few scars from my childhood. Tommy knew better than most; we’d been looking out for each other since my mother died and his family took me in. Just eight, sad and scared, I’d attached myself to twelve-year-old Toms, even helping him fight the bullies who called him a “sissy.”
“I’m fine, Toms.” I took the basket from him and put it back on the small table by the door. “C’mon. Mrs. G left us some penuche.”
“That’s an excellent idea, Heller.” He rarely called me by anything but the nickname I’d earned during our street-fighting years, before he grew half a foot and became the star of his boxing gym, and I found my mentor and voice teacher Madame Lentini.
We had just turned for the stairs when the shouting came from the street.
“He’s dead! He’s dead and that rotten little newsboy killed him!”
“Let go of me, lady! I didn’t do anything!”
Tommy and I stepped outside to see the small dark-haired boy struggling with a sturdy woman, apparently next to the body of the victim. From across the street on a cloudy morning, though, the remains looked like nothing but an indistinct rounded shape lying near the entrance to Washington Square Park.
“I didn’t hurt anyone! Let me go!”
The child let out a shockingly loud howl, his face contorted with fear.
Even the officious, overdressed woman who’d accosted him looked stunned, dropping his collar and backing off in confusion.
I didn’t think about it. I just walked over to the little fellow and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at me with tear-filled, bottomless dark eyes.
“Come here, sweetheart. You’re safe now.” I pulled him to me, and he burrowed into my arms as my friends’ children sometimes will. As I rubbed his back, I noticed that his clothes, while grubby, were of good quality and relatively new. Maybe one of the luckier ones. “Call Father Michael, Toms.”
“And Cousin Andrew
the detective, too, I think,” Tommy added. Andrew Riley is actually Father
Michael’s cousin, not ours, but everyone calls him that, and there was no doubt
that we – and that poor boy – would need a friendly police detective.
“The Thanksgiving Ragamuffin” is just one of the many stories by the members of the NY/TriState Chapter of Sisters in Crime in the new anthology JUSTICE FOR ALL: MURDER NEW YORK STYLE 5, edited by D.M. Barr and Joseph R.G. DeMarco.
Kathleen Marple Kalb is the author of the Ella Shane historical mystery series for Kensington Books, and as Nikki Knight, the author of LIVE, LOCAL, AND DEAD, coming February 8, 2022 from Crooked Lane. She’s a weekend radio anchor in New York City and a weekday mom in suburban Connecticut.