In the weeks since they fled in fear from Dreamer’s Garden, Benjamin Bastion and his gang lived as fugitives. They normally reported back every night with their “earnings” from the Charity Kitchen. They normally stopped by a tavern where a cross-eyed bag man would take Wormsworth’s cut. They didn’t dare show up empty handed and defeated.
They stayed away from the tavern and the cross eyed man. They stayed away from street markets where Wormsworth’s adult crews attended to Wormsworth’s adult “customers.” They stayed away from the small, dingy tenement they shared because it was owned by Wormsworth. They still had some pennies in their pockets, enough to buy meat pies from the street carts. At night they slept in the alleyways. One time while they were sleeping, a group of kids pelted them with stones. The children cursed them as they fled.
“I recognized those twerps,” said Flick. “They used to be our customers. The one with the chipped teeth? I chipped ‘em.”
“Word’s out we were beat,” said Benjamin. “Nobody’s afraid of us anymore.”
There were four of them besides Benjamin. There was Flick, who wasn’t very big but was always ready for a fight. Nutter stuttered whenever he spoke so he rarely did. Instead he just scowled most of the time. Dundee was nearly as tall as Benjamin and two years older, but his mind was slower than a snail. Smiley looked tough and mean, but he was always the last one to join a fight. He would only throw a punch after the others had already landed a half dozen of their own.
“No one’s afraid of us,” Benjamin repeated. “We’re useless as thugs.”
“So what do we do now?” Smiley asked.
Not one of them knew what to do or where to run. With no other options they stayed in the city. After a few days they thought maybe Wormsworth had forgotten all about them.
“We were always small. Why should he care about us?” said Flick
“Right, I bet he’s forgotten we ever worked for him,” said Smiley
“We wait much longer he won’t even remember what we look like. Maybe we can come back and work for him again,” said Dundee.
Nutter just scowled at them, still the pessimist.
The next day an old woman from their tenement found them. Her name was Esmeralda. She would sit near the front stoop of the tenement all day. When Benjamin and his gang strutted down the steps on their way to the Charity Kitchen, Esmeralda shook her head sadly.
“Wormsworth sent a man to the building yesterday,” she said. Her wrinkled mouth had only two teeth left in it. “He left this.”
She handed Benjamin a crumpled piece of parchment.
“Did he say anything?” Benjamin asked.
“Didn’t have to,” Esmeralda answered.
Her head did its usual sad shake and she waddled off.
“Crazy old bat,” Flick muttered.
Benjamin unfolded the paper.
“Come to the warehouse now,” it said.
Benjamin knew they couldn’t hide or run, they had to go. The others protested every step of the way. Benjamin brooked no rebellion. He pummeled each protestor into submission. By the time he dragged the four of them to the warehouse they whimpered worse than any of their former customers.
Rustington was a city of warehouses; warehouses stored the coal to fuel the furnaces, warehouses kept ore to be smelted by the furnaces, warehouses stored the finished goods that rolled out of the factories, and every spare part needed to keep the line going. There were even warehouses that stored the paperwork from all the other warehouses. The warehouse Benjamin Bastion and his gang stood before now looked like all the others in Rustington.
But it wasn’t like any of them.
This was the headquarters for Boss Hansen Wormsworth, chief of the cutthroats; the man who ruled all the City’s criminals through terror and violence. Only two groups of people came down to this warehouse; Wormsworth’s thugs and his victims.
“He’ll kill us,” Nutter blurted out clearly.
“Shut up,” Benjamin barked. “He won’t kill us.”
That’s when the Little Voice spoke inside Benjamin’s head.
Yes, he will.
The Little Voice always said things that troubled Benjamin. Like when he’d beat up kids for not paying the kitchen toll, Benjamin would tell himself that he hadn’t really hurt them.
The Little Voice would say, Yes, you did.
When Esmeralda would shake her head as he and his gang walked by, he’d tell himself she was just jealous of their success.
The Little Voice said, No, she’s sorry for you because she knows how this will end.
Benjamin Bastion had lived with the Little Voice his entire life.
He remembered his father saying, “You were born for greatness, Benjamin.”
The Little Voice would say, You were born to be average or worse, Benjamin.
His father said, “The Bastions come from a long and noble line. The prince himself doesn’t have better blood in his veins.”
We’re a family of day laborers, nothing more, countered the Little Voice.
“Someday you’ll prove the greatness of the Bastion name. Prove it to everyone,” promised his father.
Some day you’ll be as big a failure as him.
He’d tell the Little Voice to shut up. Sometimes he’d shout it out loud and people would look at him strangely.
When Benjamin was younger, his father would get a new job seemingly every month. With every new job he would declare that this would be the start of a grand new career; that this would make the family fortune. Within weeks or even days he would come home and curse his bosses loudly. A few weeks after that he would be unemployed again.
Always his father would drink. He’d talk about the grand history of the Bastion name as he drank. He’d drink until his words became slurred; then he’d laugh, then shout, then he would use his fists.
They found him dead one morning, an empty bottle in his hand.
That’s what you’re going to become, the Little Voice said.
His mother told him they would move in with her cousin’s family, a wife and five other children. He’d only met the family once and he could tell they all hated him.
He ran away that night and went straight to Wormsworth’s warehouse. He walked right up to the boss of the entire City and asked for a job. Wormsworth laughed heartily. Then he summoned the other boys and told them to go to the Charity Kitchen.
I’ve done it, Benjamin told himself. I’m on my way to fame and fortune.
You’re on your way to your doom, said the Little Voice.
Benjamin stood at the warehouse and stared at the door. He wondered and worried at what awaited them behind that door.
Doom, said Little Voice.