For a time things quietened down. There were no new initiatives to worry about, and everything seemed to be running well. I used this time to review our progress and to evaluate our operations. That highlighted an anomaly in Help Incorporated’s work. Although some of the disadvantaged groups we helped included women and girls, so far all our scallies packs were male. The one exception was Masoko. Surely there must be girl scallies? I asked the question of Kashuba.
“Yes, there are girl groups, but they are seclusive and they are hard to find. I suspect they have to be extra careful, running on their own. I know it was hard enough for our group to survive. For young girls I think it is probably even harder.”
Kashuba had asked around, trying to locate girl scallies, but had not made any progress. We assumed that girl groups would appreciate our help if they knew what we were offering, but there wasn’t much we could do if they didn’t want to be found.
Then one day I received a call from Breaker Two. “You’d better get over here as quick as you can!” Rix yelled into my communicator. “This chick here’s gonna kill us all if you don’t calm her down!” Rix had always been volatile and excitable, but that day he sounded panicky. I quickly grabbed my escort and they flew me over.
One of the Ferals pointed me to the cafeteria, where I found Rix backed into a corner, surrounded by a group of wild-looking girls, one of whom—considerably taller than him—was right in his face.
As I approached she was saying, “…groups of girl scallies, you must know that. Why haven’t you done anything for us?”
Rix, looking like a trapped mouse, opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“Yeah! Thought so! Typical male chauvinistic rats. Helping your male mates and leaving the system to stomp on us girls! Nothing’s changed in two hundred bloody years!”
Rix caught sight of me and a look of relief passed over his face. The girl noticed it, and turned to see what had caused it.
“What seems to be the problem?” I asked.
“What’s it to you, pigface?”
I grinned. Kashuba had mentioned a scallies pack called the Wolfgirls. They seemed wraithlike and evanescent. It was rumoured that they would pop up in one place only to disappear for a while before they surfaced somewhere else. No one seemed to know how to contact them or, indeed, much about them at all. In fact, Kashuba had found out so little we had even begun to wonder whether the group actually existed. Their reputed leader was a girl named April. She was supposedly aged in her late teens and had a fearsome reputation. I wondered whether the girl who had Rix bailed up was April. I was younger and smaller than Rix, so she probably thought I was some little kid trying to big-note himself. I decided to return fire with fire.
“I call the shots around here,” I replied, harshly, “so cut the crap and tell me what the problem is!”
“Yeah, right, little man,” she spat, “why don’t you go get a grownup?”
I took a chance on being correct in my identification. “Look, April, you can talk as tough as you like, but it won’t get you anywhere with me. I can be tougher. I am the grownup here, so calm down and let’s talk. We can have a shouting match—which I will win, and you’ll be embarrassed—or we can sit down and chat over a cuppa.”
She was taken aback. “Who are you?” she demanded. “How do you know my name?”
“I’m Echo Menier,” I replied, smiling because my gamble had paid off.
“What are you smirking at, you little dweeb?” she demanded.
“Ever heard of Muhammad and the mountain?”
“Huh?” April looked confused.
“‘If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain’,” I quoted.
At that she looked even more confused. She opened her mouth but I beat her to it.
“We’ve been wanting to talk to you, but no one knew how to find you. So, think of yourself as Muhammad, and us as the mountain.” I held out my hand. “It’s great to meet you at last, April.”
She took my hand warily and shook it, but still looked confused.
“You were complaining to Rix that we haven’t helped any girl scallies, but we haven’t been able to find any to help.”
“Uh… uh…” She deflated visibly. “So… who are you, again?”
“Echo Menier. I’m in charge of Help Incorporated, the organisation that’s helping the scallies groups.”
She did a double-take. “Uh… You’re the rich guy we’ve heard about?”
“But… but you’re just a kid.”
“I… uh… oh, bugger. I thought–”
Gently, I cut her off. “Look, how about we sit and have a cuppa and something to eat? You tell me how we can help the Wolfgirls, and I’ll listen.”
Was it my innate charm or was April tired of running? Whatever the reason, she and the three girls with her agreed to sit down with Rix and me. He commandeered a corner table well away from other patrons, while I called Kashuba and Masoko and asked them to join us. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to talk to April and some of her pack by involving Kashuba and Masoko as well. I also thought Masoko’s presence might serve to calm April.
The Wolfgirls seemed impressed that the cafeteria staff laid on drinks and a meal at such short notice, and that they all addressed me as Boss. That was a running joke. Rix, ever the stirrer, had called me Boss one day when he was trying to get a rise out of me. I didn’t react, at which he pretended to be hugely disappointed, but the title stuck. As far as everyone at Breaker Two was concerned that was my name.
By the time our meals were ready, Kashuba and Masoko had arrived. As we ate, the girls told their stories. They were much the same as those I’d heard many times over from the Breaker and Ferals guys, as well as other groups, but with one big difference. The girls had had to fight for every little advantage. Because they were young and female (April was the oldest, at eighteen) they were forced to be aware of their surroundings at all timess. As April had said, nothing much had changed in two hundred years. Despite the advances brought about by the women’s liberation movement of the twentieth century, and women having equal legal status with men, there were still far too many men who would take advantage of women, especially young women who were vulnerable because they had no permanent home and no means of financial support. As the girls talked I began to understand how much harder life had been for them than it had been for Kashuba and Rix and their boys. The exploitation they described also helped me to understand April’s initial aggressiveness.
It was easy to establish that the girls needed and wanted help; it wasn’t so easy to work out what form that help should take. April and her girls listened intently as Masoko told how Help Incorporated’s work had begun, and Rix and his boys were able to convince them that HI did not discriminate in any way. When we asked how we could help they seemed nonplussed. They had become so used to being opposed or exploited that they simply didn’t know how to respond when they were offered unconditional help. All they could articulate was that they wanted to get out of the life that had been visited on them. They felt imprisoned in their present circumstances.
At one stage we were stuck and not making any progress. To create a diversion I asked how the group got its name. April explained that one of the girls remembered an old movie called Wolfgirl, a thought-provoking drama about the pain of being different, about people who don’t fit in and how they deal with that. The pack saw the movie as a kind of parable of their own lives.
Due to past experience the girls were suspicious of males. Masoko tried to assure them that HI was not a misogynist organisation, but they were not convinced. It seemed that we were not going to be able to find a way to help them.
Then Masoko had a thought. “Why don’t we take April and the girls to see Antonia and Maria? That would show them firsthand that women are valued in DöhmCorp.”
I agreed that might work, so I called Errol. “The Wolfgirls have made contact with us. Kashuba and Masoko, Rix and I have been talking with them, but none of us can convince them that HI’s help comes with no strings attached. They have serious hang-ups about males because of the way men and boys have treated them. Masoko suggested we introduce them to Antonia and Maria so that they can see that women have significant roles at DöhmCorp. Do you think Antonia and Maria would agree to that?”
“I’m sure they would. Let me ask them.”
A couple of minutes later we had their agreement and were headed to Döhm headquarters. Since Kashuba and Masoko had their own transport there was just enough room in the troopship for the girls and Rix to join me and my escort. I’m not sure that the girls would have done so had they not trusted the IG. Apparently some off-duty guard members had once happened upon April and two of her girls being harassed by a group of men, and had rescued them. The fact that the IG guys had acted even though they weren’t on duty, and then escorted the girls to a place of safety without demanding anything in return, counted for a lot in April’s eyes.
It was fun watching the girls’ expressions as they saw the city from above for the first time. They were impressed when we landed on the roof of the Döhm building, and even more impressed when they discovered that Antonia and Maria were top-level executives and an integral part of the Döhm organisation.
Errol, Riccardo and John joined us and we all sat around the table in a small meeting room. Together the five executives convinced April and the other girls that Help Incorporated was for real, and that Kashuba was the chief executive. They also took care to point out that I owned DöhmCorp and that I had the running when it came to HI. Antonia’s and Maria’s input was invaluable and I was glad that Masoko had suggested we involve them. Both had known gender discrimination in their working lives before they joined DöhmCorp. They told stories of sexual harassment at work, and of discrimination when they tried to buy their own homes. They shared how they felt during those incidents, to nods and murmurs of agreement from April and the girls. Then they explained how different the culture was at DöhmCorp. Both had been recruited by my mother. From the initial interview, they said, their gender had been irrelevant. They had been hired because they had the right qualifications and abilities. Reviews after twelve months’ service had revealed that they were good at their jobs and fitted into the Döhm Corporation family (Maria actually used that word) well. As far they were concerned, they said, DöhmCorp was gender agnostic, and they loved it that way. By the time they had finished speaking, April and her girls were looking much happier.
We had made some progress, but it was clear that the Wolfgirls would not be comfortable living anywhere near boys, at least until they were able to confirm that not all males wanted to exploit them. That ruled out all of our present accommodation, and none of the other properties we controlled were suitable.
Antonia came up with a possible alternative. There was a large home for sale in her neighbourhood. She had never been inside it, but it looked to be in good condition, and there was a high privacy wall around the house so it would probably be easy to make it safe for the girls. “How about we buy that place?” she asked. “It’s been on the market for a while now, so we might get it at a good price.”
April was flabbergasted. “You would buy a house especially for us?”
“If we need to, yes,” I answered. “You need help. We want to help you. We want you to be safe, but more important, we want you to feel safe. We don’t have any places available at present that don’t involve boys, and I don’t think you would feel safe in any of those.” I looked around at the executives and received nods from all of them. I called Tian-yun and told him what we had in mind. Antonia gave him the address and the real estate agent’s name and he promised to check it out straight away. Whether or not the Wolfgirls accepted our help immediately we would perhaps have accommodation available in future for them or another group of girls.
I couldn’t help noticing that throughout the meeting with the executives April was watching us all closely. Every time I caught her eye I gave her a smile, at the same time hoping that she wouldn’t think I was patronising her.
Eventually she asked if she could have a private word with the other girls. The executives returned to their offices and Kashuba, Masoko, Rix and I went to my office. We told April to give us a yell when they were ready and we would reconvene the meeting.
Kashuba and Masoko hadn’t been in my office before—rarely were we together at Döhm HQ—and Rix hadn’t even been to HQ before. All three were interested when I told them that I felt close to my parents in their old personal domain. While they looked around the office, which was actually a suite of rooms that included a kitchenette and a bathroom as well as the work area, I sat at my desk and turned the chair to look out the window. It faced the hill where the palace stood, so it overlooked the government offices at the base. I found myself gazing up at the palace, reflecting on the changes that had taken place in my life in an eventful year or so. I couldn’t see the orphanage, but I knew it was only just out of view and only a few kilometres from the palace. As the crow flies, it was only a short distance, but a vast one in terms of difference. Thinking of the orphanage reminded me that I was once alone in the world, and that made me determined to find a way to help the Wolfgirls, as well as any other girl scallies who needed a new start.
I was lost in thought when there was a timid knock at the door. I swivelled my chair to see April and the three girls standing there. I stood and made my way around the desk, smiling. Then I was mobbed. First April, then each of the other girls hugged me.
Whoa! I was taken by surprise. Masoko was laughing. I looked at her, puzzled.
“Oh, if you could have seen the look on your face!” she said, still chuckling.
I was never one to take myself too seriously so I laughed too. “Well, I wasn’t exactly expecting four beautiful girls to attack me,” I said.
Errol must have heard the commotion, because he appeared at the door with his eyebrows raised.
“I think April and the girls have made a decision,” I said, then added, “But they haven’t told us what, exactly.”
April was smiling—the first time I had seen anything but variations of a scowl. It transformed her face; she had a beautiful smile. The anger and bitterness were gone from her voice when she spoke. “We’ve decided we can trust you guys,” she began. “We watched all of you during the meeting and we think you’re genuine. We need help, and we’re tired of struggling every day to keep our heads above water.” She gave a deep sigh. “Will you help us, please?”
“We’d love to help you,” I said. “We just need to work out the best way to do that. Let’s get the others back and we can have a chat about it.”
Errol summoned the other executives and ordered refreshments from the cafeteria, and we all returned to the meeting room.
The Wolfgirls’ priorities were the same as those the Breaker guys had given me months earlier—food, shelter and medical care—but with the emphasis on a safe place to live.
Food and medical care were easy to provide. The bank account and debit card system worked well for the groups we were already helping; we could simply set up a new account for the Wolfgirls. With the free clinics operating at Breaker One and Breaker Two their medical needs would be met. That left accommodation.
Riccardo went off to organise the bank account, and we made sure that the girls knew how to get to the clinics. They had not heard about those, so did not realise that they could have already been receiving excellent free medical care.
My communicator buzzed; it was Tian-yun. I put him on loudspeaker.
“Echo, I’ve checked out the house. It is well over a hundred years old but it has always been owned by the family who built it. For three generations it was their family home. It is in excellent condition overall. There are some things that need to be attended to, but they are minor and would not take much work and the cost would be negligible.
“There are seven bedrooms, all of which have en suite bathrooms. There are several living areas, and a well-equipped kitchen. There is a laundry slash utility room, and it also is well equipped. All of the living rooms and bedrooms, and the office, are furnished.
“The garden is well laid out, and it has been looked after well. The privacy wall runs around the whole property and provides excellent security. The main entrance has a lockable gate, and there is a separate remotely controlled vehicle entrance which opens directly into a large garage. There is a rear entrance that opens on to a laneway running through an industrial area but the gate is locked securely from the inside. Apparently that gate was only ever used when necessary to give vehicles and machinery access to the grounds.
“The house itself is secure, with intrusion sensors fitted to every window and each outside door. There are security cameras covering the whole exterior of the house, as well as the garden and the garage, and they are monitored in a small room off the office. In addition, the system is connected to a contract security service, which responds if any of the alarms are tripped.
“I think the property is good value at the asking price, but it has been on the market for several months and they want to get rid of it. There is a deceased estate involved and they must sell the house. It seems that the industrial area at the rear was the sticking point for other potential buyers. No one wants to live next door to factories and workshops. I would suggest making an offer 20% below the asking price. I think they would settle quickly.”
Errol and Antonia asked a few questions, then we ended the call.
I turned to April. “Would you mind living next to an industrial area?”
She almost snorted. “We’ve been living in factories and workshops.” She looked to her friends, who nodded. “No, that wouldn’t bother us at all. We would just like to have a home where we don’t have to be on guard twenty-four hours a day, where we can relax and be ourselves without worrying whether some sleazy old man is going to want rental payment in sex, or whether some group of arrogant young pups is going to break in and rape us. As long as it’s safe and secure we don’t care where it is.” She shook her head. “I still can’t quite believe you would actually buy a place just for us, though.”
“April,” Maria said gently, “Echo is utterly committed to helping every scallies group that comes to us. You need somewhere to live. If HI had a suitable place available you would be able to simply move in right now, no questions asked. But there is no suitable place available so Echo, backed by all of us at DöhmCorp, will do what he has to do to get one.”
Antonia excused herself, saying, “I need to make a call. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Echo, are you happy with Tian-yun’s 20% discount suggestion? Can I negotiate around that level?”
I nodded. “We need the house; just do what you can, please, Antonia.”
As she left the room April spoke again, shaking her head as she did. “Wow, you really do call the shots, don’t you?”
“Most assuredly, he does,” Riccardo said with a smile as he returned. He handed me three bank cards.
I passed the cards to April. “Here are your debit cards, April. Riccardo has set up a bank account for the Wolfgirls and you can use these to buy whatever you need. I just ask that you keep track of what you and the other girls spend. Riccardo’s department will make sure that there is always money in the account.”
April took the cards almost reverently. She looked at them, then at the other girls, and burst into tears. Where was the aggressive, strident shrew who had cornered Rix earlier in the day? I figured that had been a cover. Underneath, April was as vulnerable and fragile as the rest of us. Out on the street she had to be tough and uncompromising. Now, on the way to realising that she and the girls were safe, she could let go.
Masoko quickly took April into her arms. She let the Wolfgirl cry herself out, then took her out of the room. They returned a few minutes later, April now composed and looking happy. She wrapped her arms around me. “Thank you!” she said quietly.
When she let me go she explained that she had always needed to be strong for the other girls, who all looked up to her. “Even though we decided that you guys really did want to help us, I hardly dared to hope that it would actually happen. Then… these cards… they made it real. Something concrete that I could hold in my hand. I felt so relieved, I just… I couldn’t hold it together any longer. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” I said. “In fact, it’s good to see some emotion. I reckon that means the street hasn’t destroyed the human being inside. And that means you have a future as a person, not an unfeeling, angry fighter.”
That got me another hug. Antonia caught my eye as she entered the room, giving me an OK sign.
“April, I think Antonia has something to report.”
Antonia nodded. “The house is ours as soon as transfer of the title can be completed. If there are no hiccups that should only take a couple of days.”
I looked at April. “It seems you have a home!” We high-fived and then April and the other girls hugged.
“Now, what next?” I asked, thinking aloud. “We need to keep you girls safe until you can move into the house. I–”
April cut me off. “Um, Echo, sorry to interrupt, but we will be okay for now. We’re safe where we are at the moment, and a few more days there won’t hurt us. In any case, we should get back to the others and tell them what’s happening.”
I wasn’t happy that the girls would be returning to the wild, but they pointed out that they had survived on their own wits for years, and insisted that they could manage for a bit longer. They did allow me to take them back, dropping Rix off at Breaker Two on the way, and even accepted an IG escort to their door. I gave them a prepaid communicator so that they could contact me if they needed to.
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