Over the many years of our relationship, Devlin had managed to get me in the room with a Western film one or two times. It wasn’t my favorite genre, by any stretch of the imagination, and I was fairly sure that it wasn’t even his. Still, there were a few movies that we both considered superlative works. They dealt with near-identical themes of isolation, strange men, beautiful women, and danger so thick you could feel it on your skin. Most of all, they had the showdown; that moment when the black hat and the white hat shot each other looks filled with hatred and condemnation, and only one of the two would leave the dusty street alive.
That was how it felt to watch Fatima walk through the crowd of Urchins until she stood only a few feet away from Mamoud, his dais, and the Rubbish Throne.
I didn’t have much room to move, what with the tight press of bodies against mine, but I did manage to turn my head so that I could give Devlin a questioning look.
“She knew this was coming,” he responded. “If Mamoud hadn’t made his move now, he would have done it when she wasn’t paying attention. In a way, it’s almost a good thing that he got impatient.”
I flicked my eyes around the edges of the crowd. There were still big, burly boys armed with clubs and makeshift blades, standing guard but otherwise not getting involved. “How exactly is this a good thing?” I asked.
“She just scored a huge victory by rescuing the rest of the Urchins from the shanty-town. If he was banking on her failure or death, then he’s not going to be prepared for a confrontation like this.”
I wasn’t sure that I was prepared for a confrontation like this, and it didn’t even directly affect me.
Fatima glared up at Mamoud in defiance of his elevated position. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do. There was a primal connection between height and presumed authority, something that ran deep in the human condition; that was why kings generally preferred to force their supplicants to look up at them. If she felt any lingering subconscious feelings of subordination, however, Fatima kept her expression and body language perfectly under her control.
They stood like that for several long seconds, neither Urchin daring to speak first. Eventually, Mamoud broke under Fatima’s scrutiny. He whispered into the ear of the boy next to him at length. When he finished, Mamoud leaned back in the Throne and gestured.
“You should have stayed away while you had the chance,” the boy translated, for our benefit. Fatima probably wasn’t close enough to hear the whispered words but, if she had been, she could have translated them for herself. “But Mamoud will be a good leader. Kneel, and he will allow you to remain with us.”
The boy repeated Mamoud’s proclamation in Arabic for the crowd. The children shifted their weight and shuffled their feet nervously as the words settled over them, but none of them spoke.
“Where is Farrad?” Fatima asked. Hisein took on the duties of translating her voice for the larger audience.
Mamoud considered the best way to answer that question. While he did that, I angled my head slightly in Devlin’s direction again. “Why is she doing that?”
“Speaking in English,” I said. “She doesn’t need to do it.”
“It’s about keeping them on an even playing field,” Devlin answered. “Mamoud isn’t speaking for himself, see? He’s got a spokesperson to carry his words to the Urchins. If Fatima tried to address the crowd, it would make her look like a…I guess supplicant is the closest word?”
“But she isn’t talking to the crowd, even by implication. This is a conversation between her and Mamoud.”
“It’s political,” Devlin said. “They aren’t really trying to decide who gets to sit on the Throne; they’re battling over the Urchins themselves. Whoever wins will take power, by default.”
I suppressed a groan. There’d been plenty of politics to deal with, growing up in the Ford household. When senators and representatives weren’t trying to wheedle money out of my family, they were busy trying to position members of my family as prop pieces for their latest re-election campaign. Being black, liberal, and Southern wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Having all three of those traits and a staggering amount of wealth, however, was.
If I looked at the situation from a political standpoint, Mamoud’s larger plan began to make a bit more sense. He’d been playing several angles from the very beginning. Serving as the power behind Farrad’s rule had allowed him to amass followers without directly coming into confrontation with any other claimants to the Rubbish Throne. When it became clear to him that Fatima would be his chief rival, he must have collaborated with the warlords, in order to manufacture a crisis and to build up wealth that he could use to curry favor with the rest of the Urchins. My team’s arrival – uninvited, but with clear ties to Fatima, by way of Hisein – had allowed him an opportunity to dispose of her and to take power in the ensuing chaos.
Mamoud gave his response to his translator, who delivered it in a hesitant, halting voice. “Farrad made mistakes,” the translator said. “When our brothers and sisters went missing, Farrad profited from their sale. He betrayed all of us.”
Devlin let out a low whistle. “That’s extra sneaky,” he said, mostly to himself. “Although Mamoud’s not going to see it that way.”
Instead of asking him to explain, I tried to reason out Devlin’s meaning on my own. How had Mamoud managed to unseat Farrad, a leader whose own indolence hadn’t quite been enough to force him from the Rubbish Throne? What had changed?
The answer came to me a moment later. “The slavers,” I whispered. “He knew they were coming, didn’t he?”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Devlin said. I hoped I wasn’t imagining the note of pride in his voice. “One last pay off to the local supplier – that’d be him – and then they’d take all of the other Urchins out of the country. Mamoud relies on the panic that’s been building up here for a while, stokes it, and when they finally go to see what’s going on at the barracks…”
“They don’t see anything. No other Urchins, no warlords or child soldiers.”
“Nothing’s worse than nothing,” Devlin said, nodding.
I thought some more. That wasn’t the whole picture. Why had Devlin said that Mamoud wouldn’t be happy about his coup? What did the newly crowned leader of the Urchins want?
I turned the question around in my mind. What had he been given?
“He wasn’t planning on witnesses,” I said, speaking my thoughts out loud for my own benefit. “Now there are people who were actually at the shanty-town and they’ll have stories of their own to tell.”
“Go on,” Devlin urged me.
“And…it’s entirely possible that the Urchins we brought back might have heard something from their captors,” I said. “Maybe something about a child who was helping them out?”
“Bingo. Now, the only way that Mamoud can prove Farrad was on the take is…”
He trailed off and, after a second or two, I realized that he was inviting me to finish his thought for him. I wasn’t sure if that was patronizing or encouraging. “He’ll have to show them the money,” I said. “Mamoud can lie about finding Farrad’s stash of money, but then he’ll have to divvy that out for the rest of the Urchins. He can’t keep it under wraps anymore.”
“And Fatima,” Devlin said, “just walked him into admitting its existence. If he doesn’t, then her story will carry more weight. If he does, he sold out his brothers and sisters for money that he won’t even get to keep.”
Sure enough, the translator on the dais spoke after a quick consultation with Mamoud. “He took money from the people in Jahannam,” the boy said. “Payment, so that they could take our family from us.”
“Is that so?” Fatima countered. She turned her head slightly – not enough that she was looking entirely away from Mamoud, but enough that my team and me should have been visible in her periphery – before she continued speaking. “I think that the ones I have rescued will have a different tale to tell.”
“They are frightened,” Mamoud said, through his translator. “When they have calmed down, we can ask them what they know.”
“By the time he thinks they’re ready to talk,” Mila muttered, “I’d be willing to bet Fatima will have had a little accident.”
“You think he’d go that far?” I asked her.
“Do you see Farrad anywhere?”
I searched the crowd nearest to me and, thanks to the relative height differences between myself and a bunch of underfed children, the farthest lines of the crowd away from me. I couldn’t pick Farrad out but, at the same time, I hadn’t spent much attention memorizing his features.
“No,” I said. “What’s your point?”
“This guy’s following in the footsteps of his employers. Get rid of all witnesses, then spin the narrative however you want. The life expectancy of an Urchin can’t be that high; it wouldn’t surprising if Fatima, say, tripped on some stairs and gave herself a concussion, would it?”
Privately, I had to admit that she had a point. If anyone would know the best possible use of violence, it’d be Mila. That was her bread and butter. I just didn’t want to admit that she was right. Everything I’d seen in the past twelve hours or so still hadn’t fully disabused me of the notion that these were children. Frightened children, forced to live a life that few could have survived, sure, but still…children. They weren’t capable of murder.
Fatima was small, even for her age, but the shout that came from her had all the weight and command of a grown adult. In the eerily quiet sub-basement, the single word echoed off of the walls. Hisein didn’t bother to translate that for the assembled Urchins.
“Liar,” Fatima repeated, in a softer – though no less commanding – voice. “Farrad did not betray us. You did.”
Mamoud’s expression flickered for an instant. The haughty air vanished and, in its place for just a heartbeat, fear appeared in the lines of his face. The moment passed too quickly for any of the Urchins to notice, but I’d been around Devlin for too long to miss a tell that obvious.
He conferred with the translator for a minute before the boy responded. “You accuse Mamoud of this, but you do not have any proof. If you could prove your lies, then you would. But you cannot.”
I was positive that hadn’t been translated properly, if at all. I suspected that Mamoud’s actual sentence had involved more invectives and swears, and the translator had simply plucked a message from the vitriol. The anger on Mamoud’s face, gradually wiping away any trace of haughtiness, certainly lent itself to that interpretation.
“What will you do now?” Fatima asked. “Pretend that I sent our brothers and sisters to work for the soldiers? Claim that you are the only one who can protect them from the adults who would use us?”
Mamoud didn’t say anything and neither did his translator. He simply glared down at Fatima, as if the force of his anger could incinerate her on the spot.
Faitima was neither incinerated, nor was she intimidated. She turned her back fully on Mamoud, so that she faced the Urchins and raised her voice so that it carried. “When you have been hungry, who has fed you? When you have been cold, who has brought you blankets? Was it him?” She pointed, without turning, at Mamoud.
An unfocused murmur went through the Urchins at the question. Even some of the older boys – the ones standing guard at strategically appropriate positions – shifted uncomfortably and looked at no one in particular.
“Who will you believe?” Fatima asked the Urchins. Hisein kept up his translation in real-time, raising his voice to match Fatima’s. “Will it be the one who took power for himself?”
She let that hang in the air. I was struck, once more, at her natural talent for oration. She couldn’t possibly have received any training and English probably wasn’t her first, second, or third language. But Fatima had a natural grasp for flair and it was serving her well at the moment. Mamoud couldn’t order an attack against her while she held the attention of the Urchins. Doing so would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. At the same time, he couldn’t run away, either, without tacitly admitting that Fatima was telling the truth. All he could do was sit in the Throne and hope that more people bought his version of events than believed in hers.
“Your brothers and sisters…my brothers and sisters were taken, to be used as soldiers,” Fatima said, “and they needed help. Ask them for yourselves what would have happened to them, if they had been left in Jahannam.”
Some of the Urchins closest to our little knot turned, questions almost visible on their lips, before they went back to listening to Fatima.
“But Hisein found people who would help and he brought them here, to us.” She left out the fact that we’d followed Hisein against his knowledge. It wouldn’t have fit into the narrative she was weaving and I was beginning to see the general shape of it as she added threads to the story. “I went into Jahannam with these strangers and, together, we brought back our stolen family. Look at them now, home again; look at them, with their brothers and sisters upstairs. They are back and we brought them back.”
More murmurs came from the crowd. For the most part, the whispers weren’t in any language I spoke, but there was a familiarity to some of the sounds. There was a word that the Urchins were repeating amongst themselves. I’d heard it before somewhere; I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly where or in what context.
“Do you think she’s got this?” Mila asked. I started to respond, before I realized the question wasn’t directed at me.
“She’s got this,” Devlin said. “I’m just not sure how far Mamoud’s willing to go to keep from losing control of this?”
To my relatively untrained eyes and ears, it seemed like Mamoud had already lost the crowd. The Urchins had been silent and tense around him, obedient because they’d had no other options. I couldn’t know how long he’d waited after our departure to make his move, but it had at least been a few hours. In just a few minutes, Fatima had taken them from him with nothing but her words and a little grandstanding.
“Who will you believe?” Fatima repeated. “Will it be him? Or will it be your mother?”
I blinked. Mother? Where had that come from?
It didn’t make sense until I listened to Hisein’s translation. He’d been speaking at a rapid clip, doing his best to match the peaks and valleys of Fatima’s speech, so I almost missed it. Where she’d given a little bit of a dramatic pause before dropping the last word, Hisein did the same. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known which Arabic word he’d used for ‘mother:’ omma.
The Urchins had whispered amongst themselves when Mamoud had maneuvered Fatima out of the warehouse to begin with. When we’d saved them at the shanty town, they’d used the same word. And now, escalating from a quiet current into a dull roar, they were yelling it now. Omma. Omma. Omma.
She’d styled herself as their mother. That had been her path to power: not violence, but compassion. And, in sending her off to die, Mamoud had inadvertently given her an opportunity to present that compassion in living form.
To his credit, the boy on the Rubbish Throne realized immediately how badly he’d misjudged his opponent. He was only one man – one child, really – against a surging ocean of other orphans who now believed in his guilt. A confession would have been redundant. If Fatima had told her flock of Urchins to run into a burning building at that exact moment, they would have done so smiling.
Mamoud jumped off of the Throne and tried to flee. He only made it a few steps before a beefy young boy in the front of the crowd, ostensibly placed there to keep any unruly Urchins from drawing too close, hit him in the gut with a heavy length of wood. Even from this distance, even over the rising chants, I could hear Mamoud gasp in pain before trying to suck down precious oxygen. The boy – previously Mamoud’s guard and now, apparently, in service to Fatima – grabbed both of Mamoud’s arms and held them behind his back.
He asked Fatima a question in Arabic and she responded in the same language. The boy dragged Mamoud’s struggling form back to the Rubbish Throne and forced him to sit in the chair once more.
“I must be there for this,” Hisein said, in English. I started to reply, but he left without giving me an opportunity to do so.
“That was something,” Devlin said, while Hisein made his way through the Urchins. His role as Fatima’s translator apparently afforded him some privileges. The children parted for him much as they’d parted for her, albeit at a slower, more reluctant pace.
“What do you think she’ll do with him?” I asked. “They can’t keep him here indefinitely, can they?”
Devlin shared a significant look with Mila before he dropped his gaze, studiously taking care not to meet my eyes.
“What is it?” I asked again. “Is there something I’m missing?”
Even Mila wouldn’t look directly at me. Michel, standing just behind Mila to the right, wore the confused, slightly manic expression that I felt must have been on my own face.
I started to ask them a third time, but some commotion from the dais distracted me. Hisein had reached the area and helped Fatima up. Now, the little girl stood to one side of the throne, in the exact same place she’d been on our first visit to the Urchins’ sub-basement. The children quieted down. An expectant air fell over the room.
“You are not one of us anymore,” Fatima said to Mamoud. “You sent us to die, so that you could sit on the Throne.”
Mamoud struggled to free himself from the bigger boy’s grasp, but to no avail. Failing at that, he shut his eyes tightly, as if searching for a memory. When he found the object of his search and opened his eyes again, there were tears on his cheeks. They glistened in the dim light.
“Choice,” he managed to say, in English. He was still fighting to free himself. “Had…no choice.”
While I asked myself how much English Mamoud actually spoke and how much of his reliance on Arabic had simply been an affectation, Fatima reached into her pocket and removed a pocket knife. In the hands of someone larger, it would have only been a toy, but it looked massive and perfectly formed for her delicate fingers.
“But I do,” she said and gestured to Hisein. The scarred boy took a handful of Mamoud’s hair and jerked his head violently backward, exposing his throat.
I realized what was going to happen an instant before it did. I knew why Devlin wouldn’t look at me, why Mila had gone silent. It was so obvious now that I couldn’t believe I’d been overlooking it – deliberately overlooking it – for the duration of this show. Fatima was a politician, when it came to the Urchins, but she was a survivor above all else.
“No!” I cried out, but it was too late.
In a neat motion, Fatima flicked her wrist so that the blade extended from the pocket knife and then drew it across Mamoud’s throat in a single sharp line. Immediately, blood began to well from the cut, then began to pour more heavily. Mamoud kept struggling, but I suspected that his muscles weren’t under his control anymore.
The bigger boy holding Mamoud’s arms released them and Hisein shoved his head down with so much force that Mamoud fell out of the chair. He landed on the ground, mercifully in a position where I could no longer see his death throes, and vanished from sight.
Fatima stared down at the spot where Mamoud’s body must have landed for a long time. Then, with excruciating grace, she took his place upon the Rubbish Throne.
I shouldn’t have been able to hear her soft words from this distance, but that didn’t take anything away from the feeling that she was speaking specifically for my benefit.
“And,” Fatima said to the body, “I choose this.”