"Take them all," she said impatiently.
He held out his little hand. It was weak. He couldn't make a fist. "Can't hold them all," he said. "Don't hold so good."
Damn. She was wasting perfectly good peanuts on a kid who was going to die anyway.
But she was going to try his idea. It was audacious, but it was the first plan she'd ever heard that offered any hope of making things better, of changing something about their miserable life without her having to put on girl clothes and going into business. And since it was his idea, the crew had to see that she treated him fair. That's how you stay crew boss, they always see you be fair.
So she kept holding her hand out while he ate all six peanuts, one at a time.
After he swallowed the last one, he looked her in the eye for another long moment, and then said, "You better be ready to kill him."
"I want him alive."
"Be ready to kill him if he ain't the right one." With that, Bean toddled back across the street to his garbage can and laboriously climbed on top again to watch.
"You ain't no four years old!" Sergeant shouted over to him.
"I'm four but I'm just little," he shouted back.
Poke hushed Sergeant up and they went looking for stones and bricks and cinderblocks. If they were going to have a little war, they'd best be armed.
Bean didn't like his new name, but it was a name, and having a name meant that somebody else knew who he was and needed something to call him, and that was a good thing. So were the six peanuts. His mouth hardly knew what to do with them. Chewing hurt.
So did watching as Poke screwed up the plan he gave her. Bean didn't choose her because she was the smartest crew boss in Rotterdam. Quite the opposite. Her crew barely survived because her judgment wasn't that good. And she was too compassionate. Didn't have the brains to make sure she got enough food herself to look well fed, so while her own crew knew she was nice and liked her, to strangers she didn't look prosperous. Didn't look good at her job.
But if she really was good at her job, she would never have listened to him. He never would have got close. Or if she did listen, and did like his idea, she would have got rid of him. That's the way it worked on the street. Nice kids died. Poke was almost too nice to stay alive. That's what Bean was counting on. But that's what he now feared.
All this time he invested in watching people while his body ate itself up, it would be wasted if she couldn't bring it off. Not that Bean hadn't wasted a lot of time himself. At first when he watched the way kids did things on the street, the way they were stealing from each other, at each other's throats, in each other's pockets, selling every part of themselves that they could sell, he saw how things could be better if somebody had any brains, but he didn't trust his own insight. He was sure there must be something else that he just didn't get. He struggled to learn more--of everything. To learn to read so he'd know what the signs said on trucks and stores and wagons and bins. To learn enough Dutch and enough I.F. Common to understand everything that was said around him. It didn't help that hunger constantly distracted him. He probably could have found more to eat if he hadn't spent so much time studying the people. But finally he realized: He already understood it. He had understood it from the start. There was no secret that Bean just didn't get yet because he was only little. The reason all these kids handled everything so stupidly was because they were stupid.
They were stupid and he was smart. So why was he starving to death while these kids were still alive? That was when he decided to act. That was when he picked Poke as his crew boss. And now he sat on a garbage can watching her blow it.
She chose the wrong bully, that's the first thing she did. She needed a guy who made it on size alone, intimidating people. She needed somebody big and dumb, brutal but controllable. Instead, she thinks she needs somebody small. No, stupid! Stupid! Bean wanted to scream at her as she saw her target coming, a bully who called himself Achilles after the comics hero. He was little and mean and smart and quick, but he had a gimp leg. So she thought she could take him down more easily. Stupid! The idea isn't just to take him down--you can take anybody down the first time because they won't expect it. You need somebody who will stay down.
But he said nothing. Couldn't get her mad at him. See what happens. See what Achilles is like when he's beat. She'll see--it won't work and she'll have to kill him and hide the body and try again with another bully before word gets out that there's a crew of little kids taking down bullies.
So up comes Achilles, swaggering--or maybe that was just the rolling gait that his bent leg forced on him--and Poke makes an exaggerated show of cowering and trying to get away. Bad job, thought Bean. Achilles gets it already. Something's wrong. You were supposed to act like you normally do! Stupid! So Achilles looks around a lot more. Wary. She tells him she's got something stashed--that part's normal--and she leads him into the trap in the alley. But look, he's holding back. Being careful. It isn't going to work.
But it does work, because of the gimp leg. Achilles can see the trap being sprung but he can't get away, a couple of little kids pile into the backs of his legs while Poke and Sergeant push him from the front and down he goes. Then there's a couple of bricks hitting his body and his bad leg and they're thrown hard--the little kids get it, they do their job, even if Poke is stupid--and yeah, that's good, Achilles is scared, he thinks he's going to die.
Bean was off his perch by now. Down the alley, watching, closer. Hard to see past the crowd. He pushes his way in, and the little kids--who are all bigger than he is--recognize him, they know he earned a view of this, they let him in. He stands right at Achilles' head. Poke stands above him, holding a big cinderblock, and she's talking.
"You get us into the food line at the shelter."
"Sure, right, I will, I promise."
Don't believe him. Look at his eyes, checking for weakness.
OK, now he was getting it. It was a good idea, and he wasn't stupid, so it made sense to him.
"If this is so smart, Poke, how come you didn't do this before now?"
She had nothing to say to that. Instead, she glanced at Bean.
Just a momentary glance, but Achilles saw it. And Bean knew what he was thinking. It was so obvious.
"Kill him," said Bean.
"Don't be stupid," said Poke. "He's in."
"That's right," said Achilles. "I'm in. It's a good idea."
"Kill him," said Bean. "If you don't kill him now, he's going to kill you."
"You let this little walking turd get away with talking shit like this?" said Achilles.
"It's your life or his," said Bean. "Kill him and take the next guy."
"The next guy won't have my bad leg," said Achilles. "The next guy won't think he needs you. I know I do. I'm in. I'm the one you want. It makes sense."
Maybe Bean's warning made her more cautious. She didn't cave in quite yet. "You won't decide later that you're embarrassed to have a bunch of little kids in your crew?"
"It's your crew, not mine," said Achilles.
Liar, thought Bean. Don't you see that he's lying to you?
"What this is to me," said Achilles, "this is my family. These are my kid brothers and sisters. I got to look after my family, don't I?"
Bean saw at once that Achilles had won. Powerful bully, and he had called these kids his sisters, his brothers. Bean could see the hunger in their eyes. Not the regular hunger, for food, but the real hunger, the deep hunger, for family, for love, for belonging. They got a little of that by being in Poke's crew. But Achilles was promising more. He had just beaten Poke's best offer. Now it was too late to kill him.
Too late, but for a moment it looked as if Poke was so stupid she was going to go ahead
and kill him after all. She raised the cinderblock higher, to crash it down.
"No," said Bean. "You can't. He's family now."
She lowered the cinderblock to her waist. Slowly she turned to look at Bean. "You get the hell out of here," she said. "You no part of my crew. You get nothing here."
"No," said Achilles. "You better go ahead and kill me, you plan to treat him that way."
Oh, that sounded brave. But Bean knew Achilles wasn't brave. Just smart. He had already won. It meant nothing that he was lying there on the ground and Poke still had the cinderblock. It was his crew now. Poke was finished. It would be a while before anybody but Bean and Achilles understood that, but the test of authority was here and now, and Achilles was going to win it.
"This little kid," said Achilles, "he may not be part of your crew, but he's part of my family. You don't go telling my brother to get lost."
Poke hesitated. A moment. A moment longer.
Achilles sat up. He rubbed his bruises, he checked out his contusions. He looked in joking admiration to the little kids who had bricked him. "Damn, you bad!" They laughed--nervously, at first. Would he hurt them because they hurt him? "Don't worry," he said. "You showed me what you can do. We have to do this to more than a couple of bullies, you'll see. I had to know you could do it right. Good job. What's your name?"
One by one he learned their names. Learned them and remembered them, or when he missed one he'd make a big deal about it, apologize, visibly work at remembering. Fifteen minutes later, they loved him.
If he could do this, thought Bean, if he's this good at making people love him, why didn't he do it before?
Because these fools always look up for power. People above you, they never want to share power with you. Why you look to them? They give you nothing. People below you, you give them hope, you give them respect, they give you power, cause they don't think they have any, so they don't mind giving it up.
Achilles got to his feet, a little shaky, his bad leg more sore than usual. Everybody stood back, gave him some space. He could leave now, if he wanted. Get away, never come back. Or go get some more bullies, come back and punish the crew. But he stood there, then smiled, reached into his pocket, took out the most incredible thing. A bunch of raisins. A whole handful of them. They looked at his hand as if it bore the mark of a nail in the palm.
"Little brothers and sisters first," he said. "Littlest first." He looked at Bean. "You."
"Not him!" said the next littlest. "We don't even know him."
"Bean was the one wanted us to kill you," said another.
"Bean," said Achilles. "Bean, you were just looking out for my family, weren't you?"
"Yes," said Bean.
"You want a raisin?"
"You first. You the one brought us all together, OK?"
Either Achilles would kill him or he wouldn't. At this moment, all that mattered was the raisin. Bean took it. Put it in his mouth. Did not even bite down on it. Just let his saliva soak it, bringing out the flavor of it.
"You know," said Achilles, "no matter how long you hold it in your mouth, it never turns back into a grape."
"What's a grape?"
Achilles laughed at him, still not chewing. Then he gave out raisins to the other kids. Poke had never shared out so many raisins, because she had never had so many to share. But the little kids wouldn't understand that. They'd think, Poke gave us garbage, and Achilles gave us raisins. That's because they were stupid.
"I know you've already looked through this area, and you're probably almost done with Rotterdam, but something's been happening lately, since you visited, that . . . oh, I don't know if it's really anything, I shouldn't have called."
"Tell me, I'm listening."
"There's always been fighting in the line. We try to stop them, but we only have a few volunteers, and they're needed to keep order inside the dining room, that and serve the food. So we know that a lot of kids who should get a turn can't even get in the line, because they're pushed out. And if we do manage to stop the bullies and let one of the little ones in, then they get beaten up afterward. We never see them again. It's ugly."
"Survival of the fittest."
"Of the cruelest. Civilization is supposed to be the opposite of that."
"You're civilized. They're not."
"Anyway, it's changed. All of a sudden. Just in the past few days. I don't know why. But I just--you said that anything unusual--and whoever's behind it--I mean, can civilization suddenly evolve all over again, in the middle of a jungle of children?"
"That's the only place it ever evolves. I'm through in Delft. There was nothing for us here. I already have enough blue plates."
Bean kept to the background during the weeks that followed. He had nothing to offer now--they already had his best idea. And he knew that gratitude wouldn't last long. He wasn't big and he didn't eat much, but if he was constantly underfoot, annoying people and chattering at them, it would soon become not only fun but popular to deny him food in hopes that he'd die or go away.
Even so, he often felt Achilles' eyes on him. He noticed this without fear. If Achilles killed him, so be it. He had been a few days from death anyway. It would just mean his plan didn't work so well after all, but since it was his only plan, it didn't matter if it turned out not to have been good. If Achilles remembered how Bean urged Poke to kill him--and of course he did remember--and if Achilles was planning how and when he would die, there was nothing Bean could do to prevent it.
Sucking up wouldn't help. That would just look like weakness, and Bean had seen for a long time how bullies--and Achilles was still a bully at heart--thrived on the terror of other children, how they treated people even worse when they showed their weakness. Nor would offering more clever ideas, first because Bean didn't have any, and second because Achilles would think it was an affront to his authority. And the other kids would resent it if Bean kept acting like he thought he was the only one with a brain. They already resented him for having thought of this plan that had changed their lives.
For the change was immediate. The very first morning, Achilles had Sergeant go stand in the line at Helga's Kitchen on Aert Van Nes Straat, because, he said, as long as we're going to get the crap beaten out of us anyway, we might as well try for the best free food in Rotterdam in case we get to eat before we die. He talked like that, but he had made them practice their moves till the last light of day the night before, so they worked together better and they didn't give themselves away so soon, the way they did when they were going after him. The practice gave them confidence. Achilles kept saying, "They'll expect this," and "They'll try that," and because he was a bully himself, they trusted him in a way they had never trusted Poke.
Poke, being stupid, kept trying to act as if she was in charge, as if she had only delegated their training to Achilles. Bean admired the way that Achilles did not argue with her, and did not change his plans or instructions in any way because of what she said. If she urged him to do what he was already doing, he'd keep doing it. There was no show of defiance. No struggle for power. Achilles acted as if he had already won, and because the other kids followed him, he had.
The line formed in front of Helga's early, and Achilles watched carefully as bullies who arrived later inserted themselves in line in a kind of hierarchy--the bullies knew which ones got pride of place. Bean tried to understand the principle Achilles used to pick which bully Sergeant should pick a fight with. It wasn't the weakest, but that was smart, since beating the weakest bully would only set them up for more fights every day. Nor was it the strongest. As Sergeant walked across the street, Bean tried to see what it was about the target bully that made Achilles pick him. And then Bean realized--this was the strongest bully who had no friends with him.
The target was big and he looked mean, so beating him would look like an important victory. But he talked to no one, greeted no one. He was ou
t of his territory, and several of the other bullies were casting resentful glances at him, sizing him up. There might have been a fight here today even if Achilles hadn't picked this soup line, this stranger.
Sergeant was cool as you please, slipping into place directly in front of the target. For a moment, the target just stood there looking at him, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Surely this little kid would realize his deadly mistake and run away. But Sergeant didn't even act as if he noticed the target was there.
"Hey!" said the target. He shoved Sergeant hard, and from the angle of the push, Sergeant should have been propelled away from the line. But, as Achilles had told him, he planted a foot right away and launched himself forward, hitting the bully in front of the target in line, even though that was not the direction in which the target had pushed him.
The bully in front turned around and snarled at Sergeant, who pleaded, "He pushed me."
"He hit you himself," said the target.
"Do I look that stupid?" said Sergeant.
The bully-in-front sized up the target. A stranger. Tough, but not unbeatable. "Watch yourself, skinny boy."
That was a dire insult among bullies, since it implied incompetence and weakness.
"Watch your own self."
During this exchange, Achilles led a picked group of younger kids toward Sergeant, who was risking life and limb by staying right up between the two bullies. Just before reaching them, two of the younger kids darted through the line to the other side, taking up posts against the wall just beyond the target's range of vision. Then Achilles started screaming.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, you turd-stained piece of toilet paper! I send my boy to hold my place in line and you shove him? You shove him into my friend here?"
Of course they weren't friends at all--Achilles was the lowest-status bully in this part of Rotterdam and he always took his place as the last of the bullies in line. But the target didn't know that, and he wouldn't have time to find out. For by the time the target was turned to face Achilles, the boys behind him were already leaping against his calves. There was no waiting for the usual exchange of shoves and brags before the fight began. Achilles began it and ended it with brutal swiftness. He pushed hard just as the younger boys hit, and the target hit the cobbled street hard. He lay there dazed, blinking. But already two other little kids were handing big loose cobblestones to Achilles, who smashed them down, one, two, on the target's chest. Bean could hear the ribs as they popped like twigs.