“I’m not afraid,” Benjamin said aloud.
He strode towards the warehouse doors. His gang cowered behind him. Before he could knock, the doors opened and four burly men stepped outside.
“About time,” they growled.
The men quickly surrounded the five boys and prodded them inside. The doors slammed shut behind them.
The massive warehouse was one cavernous central room ringed with several small offices and side rooms. The main room was empty save for a few scattered crates. In the center was an iron grate that led directly to the sewer.
Boss Hansen Wormsworth sat at a table with a red checker board tablecloth over it. Wormsworth sawed into a ham steak with gravy, boiled potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. He washed it all down with a bottle of beer. Wormsworth’s body was almost perfectly round. His belly strained against his shirt and yellow tweed jacket. He had scraggy and untamed red hair and a mustache that covered his upper lip. He looked up from his meal and waved Benjamin and the other boys over.
Wormsworth said, “You’ve been gone awhile.”
“I’m sorry,” Benjamin offered.
“Are you now?”
Wormsworth wiped his mouth with a corner of the tablecloth and stood up.
Benjamin started to explain, “What happened was-“
Wormsworth cut him off with a raised hand.
“Benjamin, do you honestly think that after all this time that I wouldn’t know everything that happened back there?”
He whistled and his thugs grabbed the other four boys and hustled them against the far wall. They stood there struggling hard not to cry. Wormsworth walked deliberately towards them. He waved at Benjamin to walk beside him.
“Benjamin, remember when you first came to me. You wanted to be somebody. And I believed in you then. I still do. So I’m going to give you a chance.”
“What do you mean?”
Wormsworth pointed at the four boys who stood trembling against the wall.
“Choose one,” Wormsworth said.
“What happens to the one? “
“Choose!” Wormsworth shouted. His voice was like a slap in the face.
Benjamin walked forward. He looked into the faces, the sobbing red faces of Flick, Nutter, Dundee and Smiley.
I can’t, he said to himself. I can’t pick one of them. Wormsworth will understand.
No he won’t, said the Little Voice.
He turned back to the Boss of the Cutthroats.
“You can’t what?” Wormsworth demanded.
“I can’t choose.”
The fat man crossed his arms.
“You already have.”
Benjamin stood perplexed for a moment.
Then he turned back to his gang. The big thugs had withdrawn. The boys stopped blubbering. Wormsworth nodded at Benjamin.
“What are you waiting for?”
Flick came forward first, followed by Nutter. Dundee and Smiley stayed back for a moment.
Flick and Nutter rushed him.
“Wait!” Benjamin yelled.
But they crashed into him and took him to the floor. Dundee followed and landed right on top of him.
“No!” Benjamin cried.
Smiley came last and got a kick right in his face. His shoe smashed into Benjamin’s teeth. His front uppers broke off. Benjamin spit them out with the blood.
They were all around him now. They punched and kicked until he could no longer stand, until his whole body hurt as much as his mouth. Wormsworth stood over him after they’d finished.
It’s over, Benjamin told himself.
No it’s not, said the Little Voice.
Wormsworth nodded to his men. They removed the grate from the drain in the center of the floor.
After finishing with Benjamin, Wormsworth went back to work. He had a lot of responsibilities to attend to; aldermen to bribe, newspaper reporters to silence, and money, always money to be had. He had his fingers in everything from the secret gambling palaces across the river to the illegal gin bars surrounding Rustington. But he didn’t forget about the Hidden Kitchen or the boy who had defied him.
A few days later, after the more pressing problems had been decided, Wormsworth called his closest lieutenants together.
“We can’t have it,” Wormsworth declared. “Can’t have this little upstart make a fool out of me. I don’t care if it was just a pack of rugrats who got ruined. They were my rugrats. You strike a member of my gang, you strike me.”
“What will you do about it?” asked Razor Lip Hoskins who ran the smuggling operations in Vistamar. “They’re pretty small.”
But to Wormsworth, when an opponent was small, that was when you took out the largest club you had.
He walked to the rear entrance of the warehouse and stepped outside.
Behind the warehouse was a vacant lot strewn with rubble and weeds. In the lot a rough group of men played a rough game. One man hurled a brick at the other as hard as he could. Another man swung a crowbar with all his might. That was their game. Either the brick would hit the man or the crowbar would hit the brick. If the brick hit the man, he could stagger but he couldn’t fall down. Regardless of where the brick hit, he had to take the pain and still stand up. If the crowbar hit the brick it had to shatter. It couldn’t just break or crumble. It had to be reduced to powder and pebbles. If the man with the crowbar failed to produce either result, the penalty was a vicious beating. This was a special fraternity of thugs and standards were enforced at all times. Wormsworth called them his Brickbats and of all the cutthroats at his command, none were more terrifying.
“All right, listen up!. I’ve got a job for you!” Wormsworth bellowed.
The Brickbats stopped their game and crowded around their boss.
“There’s this place down in Dreamer’s Garden that thinks it can thumb its nose at your boss. You go down there and show them the folly of that idea.”
The Brickbats didn’t say anything. They rarely spoke. A few of them were incapable of speech. Wormsworth wasn’t interested in what they had to say anyway. They picked up their clubs, their knives and their lead saps and trudged off to spread destruction.
Meanwhile, the Charity Kitchen lay quiet and lifeless. No one came by anymore. The gruel lay in the pots uneaten. The dining area lay quiet and empty. The Grey Attendants went about their duties without comment; cooking for no one, serving no one, watching over no one. They were doing just that when a delegation arrived from Hightown Street.
These high minded gents and ladies had come down to see how their contributions were spent. Finding nothing but an empty establishment they tried to find someone in charge. Failing that, they cursed and threatened whomever they could.
“You think you can make fools of us? We’ll cut you all off. Not a penny more. You can go back to the streets!”
After the delegation left, the Grey Attendants gathered in the yard. Nothing was discussed. Not a word was spoken. But somehow they all came to the same silent decision.
They were in a predicament. They had no more hungry children to feed. The reason they had no more children to feed was that the children now got their food from someplace else. The solution to the problem was so obvious it really didn’t require anyone to say it out loud.
They moved sluggishly but with purpose. They picked up whatever was at hand, kitchen knives, cleavers, rolling pins, skillets, even soup pots so large they dwarfed the men carrying them. Thus armed they started off for Dreamer’s Garden to look for the Hidden Kitchen.