Benjamin and his gang kept running long after they left Dreamer’s Garden. They flew by the Charity Kitchen, their old poaching ground now starved of prey. They didn’t stop until they reached Rustington. They slowed and finally came to a halt. They were tired but they also stopped because if they traveled just a few blocks more they’d have to answer to their master.
“What do we tell Wormsworth?” asked Flick, the smallest of the boys. His voice cracked with fear.
Benjamin didn’t know what he’d tell his boss. But he had to think of something fast. They’d be at his lair in a matter of minutes.
Hodmedod ambled along the streets of the Old City towards the Red Hen. The restaurant remained open even after the discovery of Cippolini’s death. It even thrived. The grieving staff vowed to soldier on and uphold the standards of its fallen founder. Hodmedod thought he might enjoy a bite to eat before he stole into the back and investigated that hidden door Gorgette had mentioned.
He’d learned a little by observing the boy, Joshua. There was certainly something more at work in that decrepit alley than just flour and beans. Hopefully Cippolini’s papers would fill in the missing pieces. He wondered where the boy had gotten his supplies from. Perhaps the deliveries had been set up in advance by Cippolini. But why?
A voice behind him boomed.
“Have you eaten today?”
Hodmedod whirled around and saw Gorgette. The thin alley barely contained his bulging form. Hodmedod made a courteous bow. His presence here would be easy to explain. There was still nothing to report. The boy was just a boy. There was still no sign of Cippolini’s ring.
But then why was he following me?
Hodmedod felt cold and clammy inside. Fear? Nonsense he was afraid of nothing.
Gorgette stepped forward and droned on, “That is a greeting in the east. Instead of saying ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ they ask, have you eaten?”
What was Gorgette talking about? What did he expect Hodmedod to do with such information? He surely didn’t come all this way just to discuss greetings from the Orient. Hodmedod was about to speak but his voice was cut off by a sudden shooting pain.
He clutched his side and doubled over.
The fire inside rapidly spread from his stomach downwards. He tried to straighten up but couldn’t. The pain was deep in his gut.
Hodmedod collapsed and sprawled out on the cobblestones.
Gorgette leaned over him and fixed him with his cold blue eyes. “You’re asking yourself, ‘When? When did he do it?’ As well as where? And with what? And especially how? How did he poison me? Me, the great assassin?”
Gorgette turned his head and spat. The phlegm stuck against the brick wall.
“Assassin, bah. What do you know of poison? I know every edible substance in the world and how each one interacts with the body, the mind and even the soul. Compared to me, you are a child lost in the wilderness.”
The pain spread from Hodmedod’s gut to his entire body. His breath became shallow. Cold sweat covered him. Gorgette paced around his twitching form.
“You will not die. Never fear. You’ll be in great discomfort for another hour or so, then what you ingested will pass. Thankfully I’ll be long gone by then. But let this serve as a warning, never attempt to deceive me again. Bring this boy to me, now!”
Joshua finished serving the meal. He received a hundred “thanks you’s” and a thousand cheers.
“I just got it started. You finished it,” he promised.
Afterwards he and his friends crawled into the back of the alley and collapsed from exhaustion.
“That was a good meal. More exciting than the others,” Heathcliff said.
“For a moment I thought you were going to take your knife and gut the blighter,” Lucinda added.
For a moment I thought so too, Joshua said to himself.
“He wasn’t worth it.”
The twins laughed hysterically.
“Did you see them when they ran out of here?”
“They looked five scared mice.”
“Going to be hard to top this day,” Heathcliff said.
That got Joshua thinking about the next meal.
“Tomorrow’s coming all the same,” he muttered.
He stood up and went to check on the stores in back.
The flour and lentils sacks were lined up against the back wall. He counted. He set aside a bag of flour and a bag of lentils. That was for tomorrow’s meal.
And the one after that, Joshua thought. And the one after that.
He shook his head.
He counted again. They had enough to keep the kitchen running for at least thirty days. But what would happen after that? Would his unknown benefactor send another shipment? What if more people showed up tomorrow? What if it was a thousand?
“Stop it,” he said aloud.
He shouldn’t be so anxious. He had done a good thing today. And he’d do the same good thing tomorrow. But was that all? Was this the rest of his life?
The voice was right behind him. He hadn’t heard anyone approach. He’d been so wrapped up in thought. He turned around surprised.
It was Mr. Mudd.
“Hello,” Joshua said absently.
“Are you tired?” Mr. Mudd asked.
Of course I’m tired.
He wondered why Mr. Mudd asked him that. The man had worked alongside him the entire day. Of course he was tired. They were all tired.
“I’m tired but I don’t feel it,” Mr. Mudd said. “This is good work. It’s something a man could do the rest of his days and not regret it.”
Joshua remembered the first time he’d cooked for his friends. At the end he was tired but he didn’t mind. Now it wasn’t the same. He was tired and all he could think about was that he had to get up the next day and work just as hard.
Mrs. Mudd appeared and stood at her husband’s side.
Mr. Mudd continued, “A man could get used to this work. Someone who’s lived his life and tried his hand at a few jobs. Tried and failed. To come here after that failure, and be given a chance to do some good, he could make this his life. Now a boy who’s just beginning in life, this isn’t the place for him. He’s got more living to do still and that’s all right.”
Joshua understood what Mr. Mudd was telling him. It was all right for him to leave this hidden kitchen. The Mudds would take care of things once he showed them how.
“Thank you,” he croaked.
“It’s us that should thank you,” said Mrs. Mudd.
He gave them both sincere hugs.
It was like a great weight had been lifted. He’d be free to go his own way wherever that may take him. He wondered if it would take him back to a house in the country where a handmade army of soldiers still waited somewhere in the fields.
He looked back at his friends. Lucinda, Heathcliff, Sophie, Dina and the twins.
He thought, maybe I won’t end up back at the old house. Maybe I’ll end up some place just as good or even better.
THE END OF PART ONE