In defiance of all architectural logic, the secret basement extended out for at least the length of a football field. We stood at one end of the room, less than a foot away from the back wall, staring out in mute shock at the horde of children assembled in front of us.
There were too many to count. Even the most extravagant estimate fell woefully short of this reality. Boys and girls milled restlessly around; children who couldn’t have been older than seven years old stood or crouched near hulking teenagers who must have been pushing up against the age of majority; fearful and belligerent eyes, in equal measure, fixed on the four of us. Of the older children, there was a contingent of stocky boys who held onto bludgeoning instruments – crowbars, lengths of rebar with concrete chunks still attached at one end, rusted wrenches – with death grips. They practically gnashed their teeth at us, but something kept them from attacking and dragging us down through sheer force of numbers.
“Well,” Devlin muttered, “we don’t have to worry about sneaking anymore.”
Mila drove an elbow into his side. “This isn’t a gang,” she said. “It’s a damn army.”
Depsite their makeshift weapons and half-fed bodies; ignoring the fact that half of the children assembled were too young or small to do any real damage; discounting the possibility that no one in the basement, save Mila, was accustomed to real violence…I had to admit that she was right. We hadn’t infiltrated the base of a group of street rats and pickpockets.
We’d walked ourselves directly into the base of an occupying army.
The children shifted, murmuring among themselves in at least three different languages, and then split so that a path through their ranks appeared. In response, Mila slipped a hand under her shirt, no doubt readying her knife, but no attack came. Cautiously, she took a step forward, then another. Devlin, Michel, and I followed in her wake, staying as close to her as we could without getting in her way.
No one tried to stop us.
At the other end of the basement, atop a small dais constructed from scrap metal and spare lumber, there was an oversized chair. It wasn’t a very pretty chair, as chairs went, but attempts had been made to decorate it. Splashes of mishmashed color were visible on the arms and back. Bits of rubbish were pinned at various spots. None of the rubbish seemed to have an identifying theme. Gold coins, silver half-dollars, expensive watches, and the occasional necklace or ring were all given equal attention on the chair. The effect was…offputting, in a way, but also impressive. It gave the appearance of affluence without actually possessing any of the necessary elegance.
Seated on that chair was a boy – really, more of a young man – with a weak chin and thinning blonde hair. Four other children, two on each side, stood atop the dais with him. Three of those Urchins were older boys. They had real knives, instead of the makeshift weapons held by some of the others, and danger radiated so palpably from them that I could feel it even from a distance.
Of those three, one boy seemed particularly aggressive. He was at least six feet tall, if not larger, with thick biceps and forearms. He held his weapon in a casual, easy grip that spoke of practice. I could only hope that said practice had been against dummies or his own shadow, instead of on live targets. He glared at each of us in turn – first Devlin, then Michel – and actualy winked at Mila and me. I suppressed the bile that rose in my throat.
The fourth child was a small girl with long black hair and equally dark eyes. The serious expression clashed with her delicate, doll-like features. She wore a shapeless burlap sack, so there weren’t any clues in her physique that I could use to guess at her age. I couldn’t decide if she was disconcertingly young or old. If it was the former, there was a darkness around her that spoke to a life of deep suffering. If it was the latter, then she must have suffered from some condition to account for her stature.
I focused my attention back on the boy in the chair. He lounged there, doing his best to affect a posture of nonchalance, but one of his feet tapped a nervous rhythm onto the dais. He opened his mouth to say something, stopped, swallowed, and tried again. When he spoke, the words came out in an unbroken fluid string of Arabic.
My team and I exchanged confused looks. After a few beats, we turned our eyes back to the boy in the chair. Devlin shrugged, in the universal expression of “sorry, didn’t catch that.”
The boy looked to either side of him and tried again, this time in French. Judging from the occasonal halts, he didn’t have a complete grasp of that language, but it was enough.
Michel stepped closer, listened carefully, and then translated. “He says that he was wondering how long it would take us to find this place.”
“Does he mean the warehouse in general?” Devlin asked. “Or this level of the warehouse?”
Michel relayed the question. The boy blinked, momentarily taken aback, and conferred with the musuclar boy in Arabic. After a quick conversation, the boy on the throne responded to Michel’s question.
“The basement,” Michel translated. “He knew about us before we even entered the warehouse.”
“We don’t have to wonder about that lookout anymore,” Devlin said. “And, if he knew we were coming, that means I hurt my shoulder for no reason at all.”
“You’ll survive,” Mila said. Then, to Michel, “Does he speak any English? If we’re going to be threatened by pre-teens, I’d prefer to at least understand what they’re saying.”
Michel shook his head, not even bothering to ask the boy on the throne. “He barely speaks French,” he said, “and that is a native language to the country.”
“Better not to ask at all, then,” Devlin said.
“He might have picked it up from tourists,” Mila said. “Why not at least try?”
“Because I’m thinking that we’re talking to Farrad. And it could be a little embarassing if we point out what he can’t do. Especially if we’re going to be asking him for a favor later.”
It made sense that the boy in the chair – I adjusted my mental schema so that I thought of him as Farrad, until further notice – was the leader of this horde of unwashed children. Thinking along those lines, I started to think about the chair as a sort of throne. The four Urchins on either side of him became his lieutenants. Three of those four were still unknown entities, but I knew enough Arabic to recognize that Fatima was a feminine name. I assigned that name to the girl.
The process of naming things like that came from Devlin. In a business where real names were a type of currency, it was simply easier to think of individuals by titles. He’d created a variety of colorful nicknames for various contacts – the Ratkeeper, the Copycat, and the Bartender, among a dozen others – and I’d fallen into the habit of doing the same. It was certainly easier on my brain to plan around distinct entities, and it was exponentially simpler to explain a plan when everyone had the same understanding of who was supposed to do what and when.
Farrad said something to the still-unnamed muscular boy in Arabic. The boy responded in the same language and swept an arm in our direction as he spoke. Something in his body language made me think that he hadn’t said anything positive about us.
The girl, Fatima, cleared her throat and interrupted the muscular boy. The words came out smooth and musically, her voice soft enough that I found myself leaning closer to hear her. Farrad responded to her after a few beats.
She turned back to us. “I speak English,” Fatima said in a heavily accented, though phonetically perfect voice.
“Oh,” Devlin said. “Well…uh…we didn’t mean anything by that bit earlier.”
“It is no shame that Farrad cannot speak your language,” Fatima said. “The failure is on you. Why would you come to a country like Morocco and not speak the language?”
“That’s actually kind of a funny story…”
I stepped in front of him and cut him off before he could ramble any more. “We met with one of your…” For lack of an appropriate word, I gestured at the throng of Urchins around and behind us. “Members?”
“And?” Fatima asked.
“We’re just passing through,” I said, “but we find ourselves in need of some supplies. Hisein suggested that you might be able to help us get our hands on the type of thing we’re looking for.”
Fatima conferred with the muscular boy and Farrad. I used the time to create a mental map of the situation. If Hisein had been telling us the truth and if we’d understood the subtext, the young Fatima intended to make a play for control of the Urchins. For that to work, she’d need to oust or otherwise remove Farrad from power. And, considering how the tall boy glared at her with undisguised contempt, she would need to fend off any other rivals for the throne.
The power struggle didn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. But, standing in this secret basement surrounded by the impoverished and the starving, I found it difficult to remind myself about what actually did matter.
“Hisein?” Fatima asked. The single word quieted the hordes behind us and sent a wave of stillness over everyone, my team included.
A knot of Urchins on the right side of the room detached themselves from the general mass and made their way over to where we stood. When the knot was only a few feet away, it split apart, revealing the boy we’d come to the warehouse to save.
Hisein wasn’t standing under his own power, anymore. The bloody nose and the wealth of bruises on his visible skin told the story of why he needed assistance moving forward. Two children supported Hisein’s weight. They walked past us to the dais and tossed him onto the ground in front of Farrad, Fatima, and the three other lieutenants.
Fatima raised her voice slightly. It was a trick I recognized: she was raising her voice just enough so that her words carried throughout the room, but not so much that the untrained ear would notice she’d done anything at all. I’d spent months perfecting that talent, under the stern tutelage of a half dozen teachers; Fatima, it seemed, was a natural at it.
“You know these people, Hisein? You invited them to our home?” Fatima asked.
Thankfully, it was clearly a rhetorical question. Hisein tried to answer, couldn’t, and fell into abject, apologetic silence.
She continued, angling her body just slightly so that she faced us and, by extension, the crowds around and behind us. “Farrad did not give you the authority to tell anyone our secrets. By doing this, you have put us all in danger. Although…perhaps it would be better if we did not let these people leave to tell others of where we hide?”
Mila drew the knife an inch out of its sheath. The steely whisper of metal on metal sent a corresponding chill down my spine. Without turning around, I held out a hand to stop her from doing anything more overt. To my surprise, she obeyed.
Fatima was playing at something. By speaking our language, she’d managed to cut Farrad out of the conversation entirely. By speaking to the crowd, instead of to Hisein specifically, she’d positioned herself as the arbiter of justice and the one who would make the final call on our fate. As public speaking went, she was pulling off masterstroke after masterstroke and she was doing all of them without seeming to lift a finger.
It was an impressive display of craft, that much couldn’t be denied.
She opened her mouth to say something further. The musuclar boy cut her off in a burst of sharp syllables, gesturing at her and Farrad in equal measure. Farrad, for his part, neither said nor did anything at all.
That continued for almost a minute. When they were finished, Fatima turned back to us. The hard glint in her eyes had dimmed a bit and she wasn’t standing quite so proudly. “Mamoud wants to know what you are doing here.”
I tagged the muscular boy with the appropriate name before I answered. “We want to make a deal,” I said. “I already said that.”
“You could not send a message?”
“We want to make a deal,” I clarified, “and we want you to leave Hisein alone. He didn’t do anything other than let us know which one of you might know where we could get our hands on what we need.”
“He only told us who was running things,” Devlin said. He made eye contact with Fatima as he spoke, somehow conveying a second meaning behind the innocuous words. “Nothing worth beating him up over.”
For just a millisecond, Fatima’s eyebrows drew closer together and her lips twitched downward. It wasn’t a full frown but, for someone looking specifically for any sort of tell, it was sufficiently obvious. She hadn’t expected Hisein to share that much detail with a group of newcomers. That put my team and Fatima at an impasse.
If either she, Mamoud, or Farrad wanted to, they could give the order and literally dozens upon dozens of children would fall on us like a crashing wave of armed humanity. But, if that happened, there was nothing stopping us from screaming out what we knew before the Urchins robbed us all of the power of speech. What was worse, Fatima couldn’t even allow someone else to give the order.
“Pick him up,” she said, pointing at the spot where Hisein lay in a filthy heap of fraying fabric and bare skin. The boys who’d brought Hisein spoke enough English to understand the order. They helped Hisein up, supporting most of his weight on their own shoulders, and then waited in place while Fatima stepped down from the dais and walked a slow, curious circle around Hisein.
“He’s learned his lesson, I’m sure,” Devlin said. “No talking to or accepting candy from strangers. Check and check.”
It was my turn to hit him in the ribs with an elbow. “What he means to say is that we, uh…understand what you have to do to keep your hideout safe.” I couldn’t quite get over how self-possessed the small, dark haired Fatima was. This conversation felt exactly like talking to the Lady, relative sizes and ages be damned.
“Why us?” Fatima asked.
Devlin fielded that question before I could even step up the metaphorical plate. “We figured that you’d know where to find the really good things; certainly, better than any of the other gangs in the area.”
When in doubt, go with flattery. I trusted Devlin’s instincts implicitly, but a niggling sensation at the back of my mind forced me to speak up. “Equipment,” I said. “The…I don’t know what you call them, but the adults are in hiding right now. You were the last possible option.”
Devlin turned disbelieving eyes to me. I studiously ignored him and focused on Fatima, instead.
“We’ve noticed the same thing,” Fatima said, after an interminable silence. “So, we are your last hope to find whatever it is you need? And what is that?”
I nodded. “Computer parts. Ideally, an entire system, but we could make do with whatever. If you can just tell us where to head, we’ll be happy to pay for the information.”
Fatima turned back around and looked directly at Farrad, seated placidly on the Rubbish Throne. His back was marginally straighter than it had been, although he was still feigning casual disinterest. By contrast, Mamoud’s grip on his knife tightened until his knuckles threatned to rip free of the skin. What was going on with that dynamic?
“Perhaps we can help each other,” Fatima said. “You were able to find this place…you may be able to find some things that we need.”
“I already said we’re willing to pay. What else do you need?”
“What we need,” Fatima said, “is something that you cannot buy. It can only be stolen.”
“And why can’t you just buy it?”
Fatima smirked. “Warlords do not normally sell to children,” she said.
Behind me, Mila groaned. “If there’s someone else with equipment available, why don’t we just go to them?” She asked.
Atop the dais, Mamoud raised a hand high over his head, then sliced it down through the air in front of him. Without any warning, several of the armed boys I’d noticed before melted out of the crowd and grabbed both of Michel’s arms. A handful of seconds later, every member of my team, except for me, was surrounded by strong boys. The grips didn’t look painful, but they held the promise of further violence.
Fatima’s expression flickered between anger and uncertainty, before settling back into a mask of eerie calm. “Because, if you will not help us, there is no other way you will be allowed to leave,” she said.
Devlin, Mila, Michel, and I all locked eyes with one another. Devlin inclined his head slightly to me. The gesture passed control over this situation to me. I’d stepped forward and taken over as point in the negotiations. Now, with the team held captive, and the possibility of an Orphan’s Crusade to deal with if I misspoke, Devlin was trusting me to find a way out of the warehouse.
“I’m listening,” I said. “What do you want?”
“A weapon, of course. What else would I want from a war camp?”