CHAPTER 24

After the wagons left they looked at the building next to the alley to see what could be done. Mr. Mudd went in first and tested the floor as he went. Mrs. Mudd joined him and they hefted the fallen timbers out of the way. Joshua, Heathcliff, and Lucinda hauled the long boards and beams and made a pile of them on the side. Before long they’d cleared a path through the first floor. It had steady walls of grey stone and a raised stage at the far end. The floor was solid planks but they still cautiously tested it as they walked. When they looked up they saw the blue sky. Not a single beam or plank of the upper floors or the roof remained.

“What do we do if it rains?” asked Lucinda.

“We’ll worry about that when it happens,” Joshua answered. “Let’s get the rest of the boards out of here. Ollie and Rollie can turn them into benches and tables. We’ll need enough to seat a hundred. The rest of us will clean up and get the stores moved into the back.”

Joshua walked over to a thin board of wood nearly as long as he was tall. He hefted it up and felt its weight then headed back to the alley with it.

“Drag that kettle down here,” he said.

Heathcliff helped him pull it across alley floor. Joshua stood on a pile of bricks and with the long board stirred the empty kettle.

“This will do nicely.”

“Joshua!”

They all turned. Sophie ran down the street.

“Where did you get all this?” she asked.

“It just arrived this morning,” Joshua answered.

“Why are you here so early?” Lucinda asked.

“I had to tell you. That army of children I told you about the other night? They’ve gathered near the Charity Kitchen. They’re setting off. Searching for you.”

“I’m not ready yet,” Joshua said.

“How long till they get here?” asked Mr. Mudd.

“Tomorrow,” Sophie answered.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us. Mr. Mudd we’ll need your wife and daughters to help. Sophie, you too.”

They all worked feverishly in the alley and the adjoining building. Joshua, Heathcliff, and Mr. Mudd hauled the sacks of foodstuff into the back of the alley. Ollie and Rollie feverishly took twine and old boards and fashioned low benches and tables.

“These will hold up nicely,” huffed one twin as he tested the bench with his own rump.

“It won’t fall. Or at least it shouldn’t” puffed the other.

Joshua only nodded and hoped they were correct, otherwise everyone would be eating off the ground.

Sophie, Lucinda and Mrs. Mudd cleared the bits of broken roof from the floor. They saved the wooden pieces for the fire. Once they cleared away the debris they discovered a small door that opened out into the alley. Once they cleared the old boxes on the other side, they had a clear path from the grill to their new “dining hall.”

“Where did you get those kettles?” Sophie asked as they rested for a moment.

“I have no idea. They were just here this morning like the flour and lentils,” Joshua answered.

“Maybe it was the Great Children’s Underground.”

“Please don’t start that again,” Joshua complained.

“Can you think of a better explanation?” Sophie asked and she gave him a smug smile.

He couldn’t think of another answer. But he didn’t have time to waste pondering. He had his task in front of him and it was far from complete.

They worked. While Dina and the Mudd girls swept and dusted the floor with mops made of rags tied to sticks, the others hauled Ollie and Rollie’s newly knotted benches and tables into the hall. Then they placed the two kettles over the grill.

Afterwards they all collapsed with exhaustion except for Joshua who rolled them out flour dumplings for a hearty lunch.

“I can’t believe we did it,” Mrs. Mudd said.

But Joshua knew the task wasn’t over just yet.

“I still need a few items. And there’s plenty to do here. I hope they don’t arrive tonight.”

“They won’t. Not until tomorrow,” Sophie said.

“How can you be so sure of that?”

“Because I told them where to find you.”

“What?”

“It was the only way I knew to buy you more time,” she said.

“How does that buy us more time?”

Sophie sighed and explained slowly.

“Well if they just took off and looked everywhere, they’d find you pretty much right off. But I told them this wasn’t an ordinary kitchen. It was created by the Great Children’s Underground. Stop groaning. It’s a magic kitchen. A hidden kitchen. And they’d have to follow the clues to find it.”

“What clues?” Joshua asked suspiciously.

“I said start where the water runs black, where the old man died. Follow to where they took an innocent boy. Then follow his trail from there. I figure it’ll take them a while to track you down from that.”

“Why not just lead them off the wrong way?” asked Joshua.

“You can’t do that. Not with magic. If they found themselves at a dead end, they’d just go back to looking everywhere. And when they finally did find you, they’d be angry at being fooled. But if they follow the trail and it leads here, then the magic works and they’ll do whatever you say. At least for a little while.”

“That makes perfect sense me,” Heathcliff piped.

Joshua tried not to roll his eyes.

“That’s what has me worried.”

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