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The Last Refuge for the Misfit

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During Kaz's childhood, Ketterdam held quite the reputation. The streets were rumoured to be crawling with mad drunks and homeless bums. Everybody knew somebody who got caught in the barrel after dark, only to pay for it with a mean mugging. Of all the neighbourhoods, East Stave was the worst one around and because of its sordid nature, the land came cheap. Of course this meant only seedy individuals like Per Haskell flocked down there to start up their new ventures. For him it took only a rigged card game and one foolish bet to become the new owner of a sleazy bar called The Crow Club. No one knew just what the hell the bastard was thinking when suddenly he decided to turn the bar into a restaurant. The fool lacked the kruge to renovate the place so bit by bit, the Crow Club morphed into a restaurant of sorts. The menu consisted of no more than eight items and the only clientele was barrel scum looking for a plate of something warm. Though much to everyone’s dismay, it did fairly well. 

Kaz was ten years old when he was thrust into the care of Per Haskell. The people in charge of the orphanage were grateful to get such a troubled child off their hands. Kaz could care less. He hated the orphanage as much as they hated him. However upon meeting Per Haskell, he quickly hated him too. Right off the bat he knew that this man would never care for him but that was fine. Kaz only needed a way out. 

He was told that his new home was located deep in the barrel. On the car ride home, Kaz entertained himself by counting the bums on the streets. After reaching twelve he quickly got bored. As they neared the Crow Club, Kaz had a hard time distinguishing it from the rest of the abandoned lots. The barrel was an eyesore compared to his old home. Down in Lij, the farmland was vast and lovely. Wildflowers from where the eye can see and trees as tall as buildings.

Per Haskell barked at him to get out the car, snapping Kaz out of his daze. He was led inside the Crow Club where the light was dim enough to hide just how grimey the place truly was. The wooden floorboards creaked under his weight and when Kaz ran his small hands across the wooden counters they felt sticky and cold. Kaz took one look at the peeling vinyl seats and felt the desperation begin to kick in. His frail mind could only conjure up one thought, I'm going to die here . If Per Haskell noticed the torment running through the child, he said nothing. Instead he guided Kaz through the kitchen where an elderly man waited. 

Between puffs of cigarette smoke he grunted out, "Kaz, this is Gijs. Listen to him and stay outta trouble. I'll be in my office." 

Gijs was in his late seventies. His back was beginning to curl like the candy canes Kaz eyed at the sweets shops. Wisps of silver stayed tucked under a cap that had seen better days. He smiled at Kaz and he noted that the old man was missing two teeth. 

"You hungry, Kaz?"

He said nothing but Gijs limped over to the stove anyway and stirred the lone pot. 

"You came at a good time. It's just about done."

Kaz gingerly neared the stove and asked, "What is it?

Gijs chucked. "My world famous hutspot .” He handed a bowl to Kaz. “Eat. Soon you’ll be learning how to make it.”

Begrudgingly, Kaz accepted the bowl of dull orange squares and mushy bits that looked like potatoes. Da grew these on the farm, he thought to himself. He allowed himself a small bite before shoving the bowl away. It tasted familiar, like something from home.

"I don't like it." grumbled Kaz.

"Is that so? Well, I betcha won't like washing the dishes either but you won't have a choice but to do 'em." 

On his first night, Gijs taught Kaz his new responsibilities. He was quick to learn that in the culinary world, new guys or greenies , Gijs said, always started at the bottom. Greenies washed the dishes, scrubbed grime off the walls, tossed the garbage out, restocked, mopped, swept, the list went on and on. By the end of the night, Kaz could barely stand. His legs were sore and his feet... saints. He was sure that he might never walk again. As he finished up mopping the kitchen tile, Per Haskell nudged him alongside the head. Kaz nearly hissed at the touch.

“Time for bed, boy. I’ve got people coming over and the last thing I need is for them to see a brat running around the kitchen.”

Had he not been so exhausted, Kaz would have spat in the bastard's face. Instead his feet yearned to give out so he silently followed Per Haskell up the stairs and into the attic.

The moonlight peered through the windows casting a dim light across the room. Piles of broken chairs lay on the furthest side of the room and across the other walls, thick cobwebs cluttered together. On the dusty floor lay a single bed roll and a threadbare blanket. Even if the bed had been made for a king, sleep would have never reached Kaz. It had nothing to do with the scratchy blanket, the spiders hiding in the attic, nor the drunks hollering songs into the dead of the night. He laid awake all night staring up at the wooden beams of the attic. To him they looked more like metal bars trapping him in.

Running away was out of the question. The barrel would eat him alive. The boy had a better chance of making it out of Ketterdam if he put up with Per Haskell for a couple of years. He would save up every cent. Buy a train ticket straight to Lij and start anew. It may have been a pipedream but it was enough to get him through the years.

Luckily for Kaz, he barely saw much of the old bastard anyway. Per Haskell spent most of his time drinking away with his buddies or sleeping off his hangover in his office. As long as Kaz kept his nose down and did his job, Per Haskell had no reason to bother him. Gijs on the other hand had his good and bad days. He too was fond of the bottle and on his bad days, he became cranky and scolded him for half-assing his tasks. However, on the good days he taught Kaz everything he knew. For an old drunk he remained very spry. Gijs wielded the knife like it was another limb on his body. With scent alone, he knew when the bread rolls were ready to be pulled out of the oven. His eyes were going bad but even so, the oil’s sizzle alone let him know when the meat was ready to be flipped. Once upon a time the old man served as the sous-chef at a luxurious restaurant up in the Zelvar District, or so he told Kaz. When Kaz questioned him as to why he was stuck working at a dump like the Crow Club, Gijs laughed wearily. The cook’s vice is his salvation as it is his ruin. Kaz had no idea what the hell the old geezer was talking about but he listened anyway. 

For the next few years, a love for the culinary arts grew in Kaz. Even though his teacher was a has-been and his school was a shitty kitchen, Kaz picked up everything. Nothing in his life was within his control but the plate of food before him was. The boy found solace in the kitchen and he wouldn't let anything take that away from him. Even when he and Per Haskell got into screaming matches and the son of a bitch kicked him to the curb, Kaz would come back. The kitchen was his new home.

When Kaz was fourteen, Gijs finally threw up the towel. The long nights and strenuous work were taking a toll on his body. He claimed that he had enough kruge saved up for him to stop working and blissfully drink his days away. On his last day, he presented Kaz with a breathtaking knife.

“I bought this almost fifty years ago at a shop in Zierfoort. Their goods are imported from all over the world, but this knife is Shu Han made. You know they use all kinds of fancy metals and whatnot. I still remember when the shopkeeper warned me about the blade. ‘ One bad slice and off comes your finger ’, she said. That was the only reason that I bought the damn knife!"

There was a slight twinkle to his eyes as a weak laugh escaped him. Gijs turned to Kaz, “I want you to buy it from me.”

He scoffed, “I can’t afford something like that.”

“I didn’t tell you how much I was charging for it, boy.” Gijs said with a smile.

“Fine. How much are you selling it for?” 

"Hmm..a blade as pretty as this one...To you I'll sell it for one penny."

Kaz rolled his eyes. "Old age has hit you hard, Gijs. How much do you really want for it?"

The old man said nothing. Instead he pressed a single coin into Kaz's hand.

The realization finally hit him. "You're crazy, Gijs. I'm not taking it."

"Kaz. You've got more talent in your pinky than the lot of the barrel. You’re worthy of a knife like this, I made damn sure of it. Now take it. A pretty knife won’t serve me any good anymore.”

Kaz slid the coin back to Gijs who in turn handed him the knife. An onyx handle with a double-edged blade. The metallic design on the blade reminded Kaz of calm ocean waves. 

"Put it to good use, boy. Get yourself a better job over there in the Zelvar district. Leave this dump before it's too late."

Or else I'll end up like you .

Three years later Kaz felt a shift in the air. When he peered out the cracked windows of the Crow Club, he noticed it. The first day, there was a group of construction workers filling in the pot holes. The group spent their lunch break in the Crow Club and Kaz listened in on their conversations. The next week he spotted two men dressed in impeccable suits entering Bram's second-hand shop. Later when Bram stopped by for his usual, he heard him speak excitedly on the phone and Kaz knew it was time.

The coast was clear and Kaz threw his towel up on his shoulder.

“Call me if you need me, Rotty.” He said.

From across the kitchen, Rotty waved him off. “Doubt I’ll need you, boss.” 

Kaz smirked. Per Haskell may have been the one to sign their cheques, but everyone knew Kaz was the reason the Crow Club stayed afloat.

He made his way up the stairs and noted that the office’s blinds were all down. Typical. He knocked lightly on the door, the last thing he needed was to get him in a bad mood.

“Come in.” a voice drawled.

Kaz entered and the sight of his boss drooling on his desk welcomed him. 

“What do you want, Brekker?”
“Bad night?” he taunted. 

Per Haskell growled. “Bad game. I swear that damn Jakkob’s got some tricks up his sleeves. The son of a bitch left me nearly a hundred kruge short. Trick cards I bet...Now, what the hell do you want?”

Kaz lifted the window’s blinds and spoke. “They're paving the streets.”

“So what? You want me to bring them some lemonade?”

“Two weeks ago, the city came to fill up the pot holes. A week later some investors went to Bram’s shop asking for him to sell. Do you know what that means?”

“Means that if you have time to snoop around and put yer nose in Bram’s business, you’ve got time to do yer job.”

Kaz tried his best not to roll his eyes. Instead, he took a deep breath and kept his voice level. “It means, sir , that the council of Ketterdam is gentrifying East Stave.”

Per Haskell leaned back in his chair. “Sounds like good news to me. I can finally get this shit show off my hands.”

Just as he predicted. Kaz knew that the greedy old bastard would want to sell the Crow Club, but Kaz’s had other plans. 

“You won’t get much for it.” he rasped out.

“Excuse me?”

"What I mean, sir, is that these rich investors won't pay much for this lot."

"They will if I decide not to sell." he snarled.

"At most you'll get a meager price. Maybe a couple thousand kruge more than Bram or Jakkob. You could make more if you decided to rebrand."

A croaky laugh filled the room. 

“Yer full of it, boy!” Per Haskell bellowed. “Now why the hell would I ever do that?”

"Because right now the only clients we’re serving are canal rats like you and me, but once the rich pigeons come flashing their kruge , they’re going to want to spend it. Why not here? Why not make this a restaurant for the wealthy to spend their coin? I bet that you could make more money in a year here than you would if you sold the Crow Club."

Per Haskell may have been a stubborn, stingy mule, but he was far from stupid. 

“Tell you what, Brekker. You can slap new tiles on the floor, paint the walls any damn colour, or hell, you can even change the menu, but if the restaurant flops, it’s all coming out of your pocket! Am I clear, boy?”

“Crystal clear, sir .” Kaz said with a smug smile.