Saturday morning seemed to come quickly. Darm and I left early for our appointment with Kashuba. To avoid unwanted interest in our visit we travelled by road. I felt apprehensive as we got out of the vehicle and looked over towards the building.
“Are you ready?” Darm asked.
I took a deep breath, then blew it out again. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied.
We stepped through the hole in the chainlink fence and headed into the wasteland, accompanied by our escort. As we followed a well-worn path through weeds and long grass, I reflected on what it had taken to get to this point. I hoped it was worth it! Nearly two months had passed since I made the decision to find Kashuba.
We came to the portico.
My heart was beating so hard it felt like it would jump out of my chest. Even though I had spoken with Kashuba and he had agreed to meet us, I couldn’t help wondering if we were heading into a trap. Darm must have realised I was nervous. Giving me a warm smile he put an arm around my shoulder and squeezed.
Reassured, I climbed the steps to the big doors and rapped with my knuckles. Our escort stayed at the foot of the steps.
Someone must have been watching because there was an immediate response. “Name?”
“Echo and Darm,” I responded.
“Why are you here?”
“To meet with Kashuba.”
“Strictly Ballroom,” I said, managing to keep a chuckle out of my voice. Kashuba was apparently a fan of ancient movies.
The door opened. “Come in,” a female voice said.
We walked through and were immediately restrained. The door closed with a thud. “Please bear with us,” the same voice said. “We need to be sure that you are not concealing anything. Will you allow us to search you?”
Darm and I answered, “Yes,” at the same time.
We were freed and asked to strip naked. Two boys went through our pockets while two more looked over our bodies. It was embarrassing, but in a way it was a positive because it meant that they were taking us seriously. The worst part for me was that there was a girl present. They didn’t find anything because we had purposely dressed simply and had not carried anything. We did not want to be the source of any nasty surprises. Satisfied that we were clean they handed our clothes back and we dressed.
The girl, who had Asian facial features and whom I assumed was Masoko (somehow she had never turned up in our drone surveillance), seemed to be in charge of the group. “Please come with us,” she said, and walked through the building and into the courtyard. Darm and I followed her, with the boys behind us.
At the entrance to the wing where the group lived the girl knocked on the door and called out, “All clear!”
The door opened and Kashuba himself stepped out, followed by Rey. Kashuba was taller than he had seemed in the drone video feeds. He had a handsome, angular face with short black straight hair. He was clean-shaven and had no piercings. He looked good in a close-fitting, long-sleeved black leather top. His outfit was completed by a pair of black leather pants with a silver chain threaded through the belt loops. He oozed confidence and it was easy to see why he was a leader. He was rather stiff and formal, however, as if he felt that he would break into pieces if he relaxed. I learned later that he had inherited many of his mannerisms from his Japanese parents.
Kashuba thanked the four boys for their help and they disappeared inside. After introductions he led us to a table and chairs in the courtyard, a few metres from the doorway. We all sat.
So far, so good, I thought. While they were not exactly warm and welcoming, there was no hostility, either.
Looking straight at me, Kashuba spoke with the authority of someone used to being in control, “You requested this meeting. You start.”
I had given a lot of thought to how to conduct the discussion. I’d decided that it would be best to be direct and honest. All Kashuba knew was that I owned the property and that I wanted to discuss with him possible uses for it.
“First up, this will be your home for as long as you want it to be.”
I’d obviously taken them by surprise. The three looked at each other, then back to me.
“Go on,” Kashuba said.
“In the past my company caused a lot of problems for a lot of people, and I want to try to make amends for that. My father and mother intended to do that about ten years ago. Unfortunately they disappeared before they really got going. I’m really sorry that it has taken so long, but I am now able to continue what they began.”
I paused. The three were regarding me intently. Kashuba nodded.
“I wanted to start with you guys because I think it’s my company’s fault that you have to live the way you do.”
“How is that?” Kashuba asked.
“My company is DöhmCorp–”
I flinched when Rey stood suddenly, sending his chair flying backwards. “Those bastards!” he yelled. “They killed my family!” Rey began to move around the table. There was anger in his eyes and I thought he was ready to take revenge by killing me.
“Rey, let him have his say.” Masoko spoke quietly but her words stopped Rey in his tracks. He stared at the girl. She held his gaze. For perhaps thirty seconds Rey looked tense and defiant. Then his shoulders slumped and he gave in. He picked up his chair and sat down. He still wore an angry expression, but the danger had passed. I was to learn that despite his tough appearance and rough speech Rey had a sharp mind and a warm heart.
I let out the breath I had been holding, and relaxed. “I lost my family, too,” I said, and went on to explain how I believed the corrupt regional officials had eliminated my parents to protect their embezzlement scheme. “We think my parents were about to expose them, and that the corrupt guys murdered them. So, you see, some of the hardship and some of the deaths could have been prevented if my parents had lived to do what they intended. They realised that DöhmCorp had done the wrong thing and they wanted to fix that. They were stopped, but now I can try to do it for them.” I recounted the tale of my upbringing in the orphanage as Echo Menier, the kidnapping, and how I had discovered that I was actually Lucien Döhm and that I owned DöhmCorp.
“Okay, I’m listenin’. Dunno whether I believe you, but I’m listenin’,” Rey said. The heat had gone out of his voice now. “Heaps of people were affected by the takeovers and closures. If this corruption you’re talkin’ about actually existed it must have been everywhere, because people all over the federation were wasted.”
“It was,” I replied. “About 1500 regional officials, in all sectors of the federation, were arrested.”
“So, what are you planning to do?” Masoko asked, then added, “And why us?”
“Well, to answer your second question, from what I’m told scallies packs didn’t exist before the DöhmCorp takeovers. The federation poured money into social security to help people when the Döhm compensation ran out, but the corruption siphoned off most of that, leaving people destitute. What I’m trying to say is that you guys are here because of a chain of events that my company started, so it seemed logical to try to do something about your situation first. If you’re asking ‘why Breaker?’, well, that’s because someone I know from the orphanage used to live with you guys and he helped us to find you and contact you.”
“Who was that?” Kashuba asked.
Before I could answer, Masoko said, “Elk! It’s Elk, isn’t it?”
She smiled. She looked very pretty when she smiled, I decided. “Is he all right? We were worried about him. Tyras cried himself to sleep every night for a while because Elk was his friend. He was sure Elk had died.”
“Yes, he’s fine. He lives in the orphanage now. He was happy to help us to find you but he was scared you would beat him up if he came back.”
“What?” Kashuba looked very surprised. “Why would we do that?”
I told him how Elk had witnessed the beating of the boy who had inadvertently led the group of thugs to the Breaker hideout. “Elk thought you would beat him up because he was a sissy and deserted you.”
“Oh, man.” Kashuba said. “No one is supposed to see us handing out discipline. Rey and I do that ourselves, well away from here, and we only do it in extreme circumstances. Elk must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had no idea he saw that. As for being a sissy, well, we know this is a tough life. If someone cannot hack it we do not think any less of them. If they can find somewhere better they are free to go, and we do not hold that against them. We do take our safety and security seriously, though, and that kid almost caused us to lose this place through his carelessness. We needed to teach him a lesson—one that he learned, I might add.”
Masoko chuckled. “He was one of the boys who searched you today.”
Darm and I laughed.
“Well, I’m glad he smartened up,” I said. “I tried to tell Elk that you were responding to a serious situation, but he wasn’t convinced. I’ll make sure he knows.”
“Thank you,” Masoko said. “He’s welcome to come back to visit. Tyras would love to see him.”
“And Cris. He was worried, too,” Rey added.
“I give my word he will not be harmed,” Kashuba said.
Darm got us back on track. He looked at me. “You’d better tell them what you are hoping to do.”
I thought for a moment. “Well, I was kind of hoping you guys would help me work out a plan.” I looked around the table. Apart from Darm the others were looking surprised. “But, first I need to get some things straight in my mind. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
They looked at each other but no one seemed bothered. Kashuba nodded. “All right. You may ask but we might not give the answers you want.”
“That’s cool,” I replied. “I want to know what you think, not what I reckon you might be thinking.”
The three scallies nodded.
“Good. Okay, my first question is do you like living as you are at the moment?”
“Whoa!” Rey exclaimed.
“That’s a big question,” said Masoko.
There was a lengthy pause. “The answer is yes and no,” Kashuba said, eventually. “Yes, because it is great being our own bosses, not having to answer to anyone.”
“But no because it sucks!” said Rey, emphatically.
I nodded. “Would you give it away if you had an alternative?”
“Whoa!” said Rey, again. “You like the easy questions, don’t you?” He rolled his eyes. “It would depend on the alternative.”
I chuckled. I had almost expected that response. “How about if you could go on living here, still in charge of your lives, but with support so that you didn’t have to scrounge to survive?”
Masoko was thinking. “That might appeal, but there is a problem with that idea. At the moment we spend a lot of time scrounging, as you put it. What would we do with our time if we didn’t have to do that?”
“Good point,” I said. I had anticipated that this would come up. “How would you feel about working, or school?”
Kashuba gave a kind of strangled chuckle. “Ha! The last time I went to school was when I was eight. How do you think I could go back now? It is a bit late for that.”
“I agree,” I said. “You’ve managed on your own all this time without education. And I reckon you’ve probably learned more about life and survival than any of the people who work in those ivory towers.” I pointed out of the courtyard to where several of the city’s high-rise office complexes were visible over the roof of the building. “I would guarantee that you know more than me,” I added. “My life in the orphanage was pretty sheltered. I never had to worry about where my meals came from or whether someone was going to invade my home or rob me while I was asleep. And I’ve had a pretty good education because I’ve always been at school.” I paused to reflect. “And now I find I own one of the biggest corporations in the federation. I have more money than you can poke a stick at. I’ll never have to worry about finding a safe place to live, or think about how I’m going to get enough to eat.” My eyes watered. “My company caused a lot of suffering. I think it’s ultimately to blame for all of you being here.” I looked at each of them. “I’d like to help put that right if you’ll let me.”
I closed my eyes and felt a couple of tears squeeze out. We all sat in silence for probably a couple of minutes.
A hand touched my shoulder, and I heard Darm say, quietly, “Keep going. They’re listening.”
I opened my eyes and looked around the table. The three young people nodded. The atmosphere seemed to have changed. They now looked expectant rather than sceptical.
Kashuba spoke. “Yes, we would like to hear what you have in mind. I do not see how school is possible, but neither do I see how proper employment is possible without education. In this world everything seems to depend on education and we have all lost the opportunity for that.”
“I think there may be a way around that,” I said. “But, another question… how would you feel about working, and being paid for it? You would lose some of your freedom.”
Rey surprised me by speaking first. “Duh! That’s a no-brainer. I’m tired of havin’ to go out and find food. I’m tired of havin’ to be on the alert twenty-four hours a day in case someone raids our home. I’m even kinda tired of bein’ a nobody flyin’ under the radar.” He shook his head slowly. “Some days I look at those towers and wish I was one of the people up there.”
Masoko nodded. “Yes, freedom is a loose concept when you live as we do. Sure, we’re not answerable to anyone, we come and go as we please, and in some ways it’s good to be anonymous. At the same time, though, it’s stressful. You are always looking over your shoulder. Some of the boys have no way of proving who they are. The only thing that has kept me from going gaga is the way our group sticks together. We all watch out for each other and we help each other as much as we can. None of us has any family left, so the group has become our family.”
“What sort of work are you talking about?” Kashuba asked. “As I said, we are not qualified for anything.”
“Well, I think you guys are in a unique position,” I replied. “I need a way to get through to the other scallies packs. I’ve been told they look up to you and respect you, and I think you could be the channel for me to contact them and talk to them. I also need to work out a plan to help the scallies packs, assuming they would accept help. I need to know what they would like, and then how to provide it. I gave this a lot of thought before Darm and I came here today, but after hearing what you’ve said, I think I might have been on the wrong track. I had an idea that I thought might work, but now I’m thinking you might like to be more involved and more active in whatever we…” I indicated all of us around the table, “decide to do. I’m kind of thinking out loud here, but I reckon a consultative panel might work. I would meet with the panel and together we would throw around ideas and thrash out the best way to do things. I would need people to implement what the panel decided, too. Would you guys be interested in joining a panel, and perhaps doing some of the work yourselves?”
Kashuba exhaled with a loud whoosh. “Let me get this right,” he said. “You want to help us, but you are willing to let us decide what form that aid will take and then you will let us do some of the work ourselves? Am I hearing you right?” His last question ended with an incredulous inflection.
“Yes, that’s pretty much what I’m saying.” I thought for a moment. “And I think we should cover it all in a legal agreement. That way I can’t back out, and both sides will be clear as to what is expected of them.”
“What happens if we back out?” Rey asked.
“I think we need to leave it open for you to do that. I don’t want to lock you into something that might turn out to be unsuitable. I would be disappointed if you did pull out, but I’m realistic enough to know that’s a possibility. I hope you wouldn’t pull the plug leaving something half-built, though.”
We had what might be called a full and frank discussion. As the time passed we were increasingly relaxed in each other’s company, and I was gratified that all three scallies made valuable contributions. I was impressed with their knowledge of the city and the federation, as well as current affairs, and I was moved by their remarkably positive outlook on life, especially given the knocks it had paid out. I expected that they would want to report on our visit to the other pack members so I was not surprised when they asked that we put further discussion on hold until they had a chance to do that.
I was amazed to find that Breaker was remarkably organised. Some of the kids had bank accounts, albeit with very small balances, and most of them had Medicare cards. They didn’t have mail delivery (they were squatting in an abandoned factory, after all) but they did have a private box at the nearest post office, which was the ‘official’ address for everyone who needed one. Some of the older ones picked up a few hours’ paid work here and there, and pooled their earnings for the sake of the group. Generally, they obtained clothes from op shops, either by purchase or by bartering. They had a roster for daily food runs. They were often able to pick up discarded food from restaurants, and out-of-date or damaged containers of food from stores and greengrocers. Only as a last resort, they assured me, did they actively steal.
After hearing all that, I was only mildly surprised to learn that Kashuba and Masoko spent a couple of hours in the city library every week. They used the library’s computers to read news so they could keep up to date with the world, and both had electronic addresses.
Before Darm and I left, Kashuba introduced us to the rest of the boys (Masoko was still the only girl in the pack), and made sure that we brought Cris and Tyras up to date on Elk’s whereabouts. Both boys were tickled pink to find that he was alive and well. Tyras wanted to go and see him right away. Since Elk had made Darm and me promise to report on the meeting as soon as we left the hideout, we agreed to take him with us. Kashuba insisted that someone else went so that Tyras was not alone on the return trip, so Cris volunteered. He was pretty cool about it but I suspected he was as keen to see his cousin as Tyras was. Both were a bit awed to have an armed escort, but the guys talked and joked with them and they soon relaxed.
Elk had been like a cat on a hot tin roof all afternoon, the orphanage staff told us when we arrived. Although it was a few months since I had lived there, the staff always made Darm and me welcome when we visited Elk. Fortunately they treated both of us as ordinary kids, although they knew Darm was the crown prince and that I owned DöhmCorp. They didn’t bat an eyelid when we turned up on this occasion with two rather rough-looking boys, perhaps because I had previously talked to them about my plans. They told us to wait in the visitors’ room, then called for Elk. He came bounding into the room, and stopped dead. His mouth fell open and for once he was speechless.
“Tyras!” he shouted, after a few seconds. “Cris!”
Tyras gave Elk a huge hug. Cris, still playing it cool, shook Elk’s hand. Darm and I let them talk. Elk hadn’t seen the others for nearly a year, so they had a lot of catching up to do. Eventually they wound down and Elk demanded his debriefing on our meeting. We gave him a quick rundown of the discussions, including Masoko’s invitation to visit the hideout, and Kashuba’s promise that he would not be beaten. He was sceptical until Cris and Tyras backed us up. They even offered to collect him so he didn’t have to make the trip alone. The look on his face was priceless. While Elk had made some good friends at the orphanage and considered it home now, he had told me several times that he missed the Breaker kids. I had not realised how fearful he had been of going anywhere near the hideout, but his relief at finding that he was welcome there was obvious.
Darm and I said our goodbyes and returned to the palace. Cris and Tyras were still with Elk, talking up a storm, when we left.
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