We climbed up, out of the secret basement level, and exited the warehouse in near silence. At the top level, some of the previously sleeping Urchins had roused. They stood in parallel lines and framed the massive double doors like an honor guard. They whispered to each other in French, Arabic, and occasionally Spanish, but their voices died away long before we were close enough to hear what they were saying. A single word – it sounded like a chant or a meditative ‘om’ – was repeated amongst the Urchins when Fatima passed by them. She reached out and touched the children lightly on their heads, their shoulders, and their chests, murmuring softly as she did so.
It felt like a ritual, so I treated it as such and watched. I didn’t say anything at all to her until we were outside of the warehouse and headed back towards the bed and breakfast where we’d made our headquarters.
“Be honest with me,” I said. “How bad is this going to be?”
Fatima shook her head sadly. Without an audience, the atmosphere of control and poise withered, revealing the little girl beneath. “I do not know. What do you mean when you say bad?”
“You said it’s a war camp. How many people with guns, what kind of security, is it located near anything we could co-opt as a distraction…that kind of thing.”
Fatima responded with a blank, wide-eyed look.
I sighed, forcing my racing mind to shift down several gears, and tried again. “What do you know about this camp? Let’s start with that.”
“We only know about it because some of the older boys left to join their ranks a year ago,” Fatima said. “That was before they started to take away even the youngest, most vulnerable of us. I was only ten years old, then.”
She was eleven years old. With effort, I kept myself from whistling in appreciation. Rising to a position next to Farrad’s Rubbish Throne couldn’t have been easy. Doing so as a petite ten year old girl must have required more work than I could imagine.
Fatima was still speaking. “Sometimes, one of the boys who’d left would come back with extra food or something we could sell for protection. They told us about their camp.” She paused. “Is camp the right word?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not in your head. Tell me what you mean and I’ll tell you if you’ve got the right word.”
She took a few seconds to collect her thoughts. “Like our basement,” she said, “but not underground. They are not hiding, exactly, but…protecting themselves? Keeping themselves secret?”
“A fortress?” Devlin suggested. He was a yard or two ahead of us, but he spoke without turning around. I hadn’t even known that he’d be listening in on the conversation. At that distance, I didn’t understand how he’d been listening in.
Fatima shook her head. “No. I know what a fortress is.”
“A barracks,” Mila said. “You’re thinking about a barracks. It’s a place where you take soldiers that haven’t been trained yet.”
“Ah, yes!” Fatima clapped her hands together. “The boys receieved food there – real food, not just scraps – and they brought some of it back for us. Many of the older boys wanted to go to the barracks, when their time came, but then…”
“But then something happened,” I finished, “and things changed. The kidnappings started and the adults who weren’t desperately trying to restore their numbers went into hiding.”
Fatima nodded. “There is more food,” she said, “but less security. It does not matter how well we can eat if there are not enough mouths to feed.”
That struck me as an odd sentiment for an ostensibly starving orphan. It was rare to find that sort of loyalty in long-term criminals who’d somehow managed to build a stable team. Hearing it from the lips of a little girl raised questions in the back of my mind. As soon as I tried to explore those questions, however, they retreated back and stayed out of reach.
I focused on the issue at hand. “These boys…do you remember their names? Could they help us get into the barracks?”
“No,” Fatima said flatly. “They died months ago, even before things became more dangerous for us.”
She shrugged. “I did not know them well.”
Again, the stark brutality of the Urchins’ lives hit me in the gut like a clenched fist. “Do you remember where the barracks are, at least?”
“Of course,” Fatima said. “It is in Jahannam. It is Jahannam.”
I searched my memory for any mention of a nearby town or settlement with that name. Nothing came to mind. “Is that a part of the area outside of town?” I asked. “Or a town close by?”
“Jahannam is a part of – oh.” Fatima smiled ruefully. The expression, contrasted with the serious look she seemed to wear on a near-constant basis, was even more striking for how unexpected it had been. “I forget that you are not from here.”
Hisein appeared to have better control over his own feet, so Michel only needed to stand near him and provide occasional support or redirection. He paused momentarily so that he could face Fatima. “Is it a slum?”
Fatima nodded. “Yes. That is the word. A slum, a bidonville, a…”
“Shanty-town,” Devlin said. “It’s a shanty town. Where else could you hide an entire barracks within a city?”
Now that it had been explained, I was able to connect concepts and extrapolate from there. I knew them as favelas, to use the Brazillian term, but the specific word didn’t matter. If I was understanding this correctly, this Jahannam was an area so steeped in poverty and suffering that an entire neighborhood had sprung up from the trash and discarded refuse.
Back in London, we’d spent some time in a Black Market that was almost the same thing, except that those people lived on the very outskirts of society instead or removed from it entirely. The favelas I’d seen – some in person, others as a part of my charity work – were like black holes in otherwise prosperous cities. To the best of their ability, local authorities tried to ignore them. The citizenry skirted around them. Every respectable man, woman, and child acted as though the favelas, the shanty towns, simply didn’t exist.
It made perfect sense as a training ground.
“Do you know numbers?” I asked Fatima. “How often people were recruited, how many people were taken at a time?”
She shook her head. “I only know that these barracks were connected to the armies farther west. Boys went from the warehouse, to Jahannam, and then to fight in other countries.”
My internal radar pinged at that, but I tried to keep any emotion from my face. “It’s a pipeline for child soldiers,” I said. “How long has it been there?”
Fatima shrugged. “I do not remember a time when the barracks were not an option. The other gangs – the adult gangs – will often recruit from there, but most who go into Jahannam leave to fight in wars. Does that matter?”
Not to her, it wouldn’t, and not to the plight of the Urchins. But, to me, that simple fact opened up whole new avenues of possibility. We’d been forced to torch the command center of the arms dealers, in order to foment greater disorder amongst their number. In the moment, nothing short of absolute chaos would have sufficed for our purposes. However, in doing that, we’d destroyed their computers, their servers, and any backup drives that might have been stored in the camp.
The information I’d gotten from the Mouse implied a connection between various wings of the Magi’s operations that we hadn’t known about before. Using his intelligence as a guide, I might be able to pinpoint exactly how the Magi were paying the public outing of the Community’s members. I might even be able to find who they were paying.
It was a long shot, but I’d been making a lot of those lately.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got to make a call. Can you walk a little bit ahead with Devlin and Mila?”
Fatima’s eyes immediately narrowed in suspicion.
I raised both hands to ward off any outburst on her part. “Nothing shady, I promise. But the person I need to talk to is private. You can understand that. If things go well, you’ll get to speak with her eventually.”
Fatima chewed on that for a few seconds. “I do not have much of a choice,” she said finally. “I must trust in you. Mamoud has seen to that.”
She hurried ahead, leaving me alone at the rear of the group. I noticed that, of the two people leading our group, she chose to stand on Mila’s side.
I fished my encrypted cell phone from my pocket. Every two weeks, the Lady provided us with a series of phone numbers and email addresses that we could use to contact her. I dialed the latest cell number – something with a Peruvian country code – and wasn’t at all surprised when she answered in the middle of the first ring.
“Miss Ford,” the Lady purred into the line. “I assume this isn’t a personal call?”
“We don’t really have personal business,” I said.
“More’s the pity. Unless you’d prefer to change that particular issue…?”
Was she flirting with me?
“No,” I said, clearing my throat unnecessarily, “no, I’ve got actual questions.”
The Lady sighed. “I suppose I cannot complain about your work ethic. Do you have any new information for me?”
“Not quite,” I said. “But there’s a real possibility that I might be able to get something for you. As long as you’re willing to get a little more involved than usual.”
She muffled the phone and said something that I couldn’t catch. Whoever she’d spoken to – David, presumably – replied after a second. “I have a few minutes,” she said. “Explain, please.”
On the walk back to the bed and breakfast, that’s exactly what I did. There wasn’t much subtlety to navigate and, true to form, the Lady revealed that she already knew most of what I’d planned to tell her. She’d been aware of Hisein’s arrival, although she hadn’t known what we’d spoken of. She knew about our late night trip through the city, but whatever mysterious and ethereal sources she used, they didn’t extend into the warehouse itself. She certainly hadn’t known anything about the secret basement floor, Farrad and his Rubbish Throne, or the power struggle between the leading Urchins. And she’d had intelligence regarding the possibility of a barracks within Tangiers, even if she hadn’t known exactly where that barracks had been located.
“To be clear,” the Lady began, when I’d finished filling her in on the details, “you’re asking me to do what, exactly?”
“You can’t provide us with equipment,” I said. “That’s fine, because we found another workaround: these Urchins and the information they might be able to offer. Even if that weren’t a factor, this is a barracks connected to the arms dealers and warlords that we just dealt with. If there’s a computer system there, I might be able to pull data on what the Magi were looking into. We’ve got evidence that they’re trying to purchase something; finding out exactly what that is could be the lynchpin that ties everything together.”
“And how does that relate to the job I most recently gave you?”
In the rush of action and movement, I’d almost forgotten about that. Thankfully, it wasn’t too difficult to walk back down the line of my thoughts and find the relevant connection. “Money’s being funneled from various Magi-related businesses and operations, in pursuit of a single goal. Right now, it looks like they’re identifying and outing hackers, trying to get to me. With the information this barracks has, I might be able to isolate how they’re doxxing us, maybe even come up with a way to keep myself off of their radar for longer.”
There was also an outside chance that I could stumble upon whatever technique they were using to find the Community’s top hackers. If that secret were miraculously located within the barracks, I could use that to find the Mouse and keep the Community from attempting a digital D-Day against the Magi. I left that sentiment unspoken. What the Lady didn’t know about the Community’s politics and interworkings wouldn’t hurt her. Besides, it felt good to know something she hadn’t already sussed out on her own.
The Lady hummed tunelessly over the line. “I’m still failing to understand why this is any different than the jobs you’ve undertaken at my behest already. What is so different now that would require I become personally involved…or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, that I become as personally involved as I’m ever willing to be?”
“There are kids,” I said, stressing the word. I didn’t know exactly what made me choose that tact, but it felt like the right move. “If we start hacking away at this barracks without a plan, we’re only going to be passing the misery down to the kids.”
She was silent for almost thirty seconds. A male voice, deep and even-keeled, spoke from her end of the connection at one point. I thought I could hear cars in the distance, but I wasn’t quite sure. The Lady could still be in Morocco. It was equally likely that she’d chartered a private plane to Quebec, Hanoi, or Bangladesh. The scant bits and pieces of information we’d uncovered about her were vastly outnumbered by the gaping, looming holes in our knowledge. As far as I knew, she could very well have hated children…except, that wasn’t quite right. She’d shown surprising tenderness with Avis and, as far as I knew, she handled her businesses with a minimum of collateral damage to the underpvileged and indigent.
“I would need their books,” the Lady said finally. “Supply routes, inventory numbers, regular clients…everything you can lay your hands on. Anything short of that would only leave room for some other party to counter my acquisition. While that wouldn’t necessarily stop me from asserting control of the fractured market you and your team have left in your wake, a power struggle would cost lives.”
“Does that mean you’ll do it?” I asked.
“It means,” she replied, “that I will only be able to do anything if you are able to acquire the full breadth of information these barracks have to offer. If you cannot do that, then these children would be better served by your absence than your involvement. Am I making myself understood, Miss Ford?”
I nodded, felt stupid for communicating with a gesture she couldn’t possibly see, and then forced myself to cough. That was also a stupid thing to do, I realized. “I understand,” I said out loud.
“Excellent.” The Lady didn’t speak for a heartbeat and I thought that she might have disconnected. I almost hung up myself before she spoke again. “You and yours have demonstrated a remarkable ability to succeed in the face of overwhelming odds. I would be remiss if I ignored that proclivity. But what you are dabbling in now could have dire consequences for many who would not otherwise be involved. See that your goals do not overreach your abilities, Miss Ford.”
This time, she broke the connection before I had an opportunity to form a response.