CHAPTER 38

When this affair started weeks ago, Wormsworth was mildly annoyed. Then he was perturbed. Now he was downright angry and he was not used to being angry.

He’d worked long and hard to obtain his position. He’d started as a pickpocket at age eight. He had formed his first gang by age ten. He stole swag from rich houses by the time he was twelve. By the time he was fourteen he collected protection money for the old boss of the city. In those early days, Wormsworth endured a multitude of slights, insults, slaps on the cheek, boots in the rear, and spittle in the eye. He endured them because he was on the bottom and the insulters were on the top. He knew that if he was ever going to improve his lot, he had to endure and stifle his outrage. Endure it until the day came when he was the one on top and nobody would dare insult him. That day finally came and it had been years since anyone, even the highest born dared to make him angry.

Now after all that time, the insults came one after another. First there was this cooking boy who thwarted one of his rackets and beat up his soldiers. Never mind that it was a small racket for small soldiers, it was still an affront. Then Benjamin of all people decided to wrong him by failing to report his failure. As if Wormsworth were someone you ignore like a school teacher or a constable. Now he had sent his best soldiers out on a simple task, brush away this ramshackle kitchen and bring the insolent pup that runs it to him. Certainly that would put an end to the funny business, these challenges to his authority. Wormsworth had expected a quick victory and opted for an early dinner. He thought he’d hear from his Brickbats just as he sat down to eat. But as they laid out the meal, noodles with sauce, baked beans with brown bread, lung stew, roast chicken, creamed spinach and cold bottled beer, no word came.

Finally a messenger arrived at the warehouse just as Wormsworth started on his lung stew. He spat out a chunk of it when he heard the report.

Instead of destroying the kitchen the Brickbats had gotten themselves in a brawl with some other gang.

Shortly after that another messenger came and said the brawl had turned into battle royal and that the Stick Squad had been summoned.

Wormsworth hurled a plate of baked beans in anger.

What was happening?

He’d sent his Brickbats on a simple mission. What were they doing brawling in the streets? Would there be any of them left after tangling with the Stick Squad?

Wormsworth caught himself.

What if they were all arrested?

He imagined what it would be like without his best soldiers to strike fear in his rivals.

It was a disaster. It was a debacle.

It’s another insult.

Wormsworth paced around the empty warehouse with a bottle of beer in his hand.

This had gone on long enough. Someone had to pay. Someone had to take the blame for these last few days. He wasn’t some punk of twelve anymore. He was Wormsworth. He didn’t suffer indignities, he made other people suffer.

Another messenger ran inside.

“Well?” Wormsworth demanded.

The shaking man could barely speak.

“It’s a massacre. The Stick Squad came in and rolled over everybody. The dragged the Brickbats into the wagons and hauled them to jail.”

“All of them?” Wormsworth asked.

“There’s a few left. They’re on their way back here.”

Wormsworth growled. A handful of his Brickbats were left. His rivals would pounce at an opportunity like this. He was in deep trouble.

The man quickly added, “They’ve got the boy. The one who cooks.”

Well he thought, at least I’ll have a little satisfaction today. Poor Benjamin will have some company in… wherever he is now.

He sat down and ate a little bit more of his meal. He spat out some chicken that had too much salt.

Maybe wouldn’t toss this boy into the drains, if he could cook as well as they said.

Wormsworth ate and pondered his next move. His rivals would strike him as soon as they heard the news. The only thing he could do was strike them before they were ready.

The warehouse doors opened and the remaining Brickbats trudged in. They were a sorry looking bunch. Their clothes were torn, their faces were bloodied. They looked the worst for their adventure. They carried a figure between them.

Wormsworth looked at the figure. It was not the boy. Instead his Brickbats brought him a long, spindly man with his arms and legs bound.

Another insult.

“What is this?”

His Brickbats were unable to look him in the eye.

“This is not a boy. I don’t know what this is, but clearly it’s not a boy.”

Wormsworth looked at the man’s singularly ugly face. He had one glass eye. The other eye was open but unfocused. Wormsworth slapped the man across his face.

“You! Who are you? Speak up!”

The man looked at him groggily. He shook his head and woke from his daze. The man scanned his surroundings with his one red eye then gazed up at Wormsworth.

“I’ll make you a deal. Release me now,” the thin man hissed.

“And what do I get in return?” Wormsworth asked. The way this day had gone, what were a few words with a soon to be dead man?

The man smiled with his crooked, yellow teeth. He said in a cold dead voice, “You get to finish that beer. You get scratch your nose. You get to go to the toilet.”

Wormsworth scoffed.

“I can do all that right now.”

The thin man aimed his one eye right at Wormsworth. The stare sent a chill through the gangster’s body.

“You don’t let me go right now you’ll never do any of that, or anything else, ever again.”

For a moment Wormsworth felt a chilling fear unlike any he’d felt before. Not since he was twelve and Fishhook McGee threatened to cut him open with a cleaver. This thin man was so sincere in his threat, so certain that it rattled Wormsworth badly. But his anger quickly took over.

That was too much. What was the city coming to? His minions get run out by a soup swilling rugrat. His Brickbats get pummeled by the Stick Squad. His remaining men apparently couldn’t tell the difference between a young boy and a fully grown oddity. Now this same oddity had the gall to insult him in his own fortress.

He’d get his back on this twig of a man.

He bellowed, “Put him away for now. I have to think of something horrible enough to do with him.”

The thin man laughed.

“You need to think of ‘something horrible enough?’ That’s a problem I never have. Horrible just comes natural to me. It’s always close at hand.”

He laughed as the Brickbats dragged him away.

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