I took Mila by the elbow and pulled her away from Hisein and his group. Although…perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Mila allowed me to pull her away, because she went still and immovable as soon as we’d put enough distance between us and the children to allow for privacy.
“I don’t like being touched,” she said in a stiff voice.
Mila didn’t make any aggressive move toward me. She didn’t even attempt to pull her arm away from my admittedly weakening grasp. She merely looked at me with her flat, emotionless eyes and waited.
Even if I had never seen her in a fight…even if I was someone who’d just met Mila for the first time…I would have been a fool of the highest order not to recognize the danger radiating off of her. I let go of her elbow.
She inclined her head slightly, acknowledging some point that I couldn’t guess at, and lapsed into a slightly more casual posture. “Now, what’s your problem?”
“You’re proposing that we use kids,” I hissed. “If we start doing that, how different are we than the people we’re trying to take down?”
Mila blinked. “Am I really supposed to give that a serious answer?”
I crossed my arms and stood my ground. As long as she wasn’t impaling me with that damn stare, I felt confident facing down Mila in a conversation.
She rolled her eyes. “We aren’t exploiting them, for one thing,” she said. “Whatever hustle they’ve got going on here was in place long before we got here, and it’s going to be running long after we leave.”
“So we should just encourage them to live like this?”
“I’m not encouraging anyone to live anyway at all,” Mila shot back. “I know you grew up privileged, but for those of us who had to struggle on the streets? You learn to take whatever scraps you can get and you lose any squeamishness about it as soon as possible.”
I opened my mouth to snap at her but, miracuously, managed to get a grip on my flaring temper before it led me too far astray. It wasn’t that she’d said anything untrue. No matter how much I tried to help the impoverished of the world, I had no real concept of what their life was like. If I were forced to stop my evening activities, I would still be an heiress with a hefty personal wealth and the connctions to make use of it. And, if my last name suddenly changed or lost all meaning, I was still an accomplished hacker and thief with vast sums of money hidden in various accounts all across the globe.
Struggling, in the way Mila defined it, was an alien concept to me. It likely always would be.
I forced myself to breathe, so that I could think about the prosposition on its merits alone. If the adults in the area weren’t willing to take meetings with paying customers, that meant they were either secure in their finances – which was unlikely, to say the least – or that they were frightened enough that they’d let easy money pass through their fingertips. If it was the former, there wasn’t anything we could do. If it was the latter, their reticence was a direct result of our own actions. Either way, we needed equipment and we needed it quickly. Waiting to earn the trust of the local powers wasn’t an option.
To that end, I privately admitted, Mila was right. Hisein and his band of young boys were urchins…Urchins, proper noun intended, even. I doubted that they had any guardians remaining and, even if they did, those adults clearly weren’t interested in what their children did in the streets of Tangiers.
The Urchins worked with their ears to the ground, surviving only on what they could pilfer and steal. If they weren’t working on our behalf, they’d probably be out pickpocketing merchants and conning tourists. These dirty children might very well know how to get our hands on supplies, and they’d happily offer that information to anyone who gave them a way to feed themselves for a few days.
In a way, my team represented a rarity in their world: a reliable paycheck, provided by individuals unlikely to betray or break any deal we struck.
Pride, as foolish as it was monolithic, kept me from speaking my thoughts aloud, however. I cast around for something else to complain about. “How would we even do it?” I asked instead.
“There’s some vague command structure in place,” Mila said. “Nothing complicated, but enough to keep them from getting into fights every couple of hours. Hisein runs the small crew he brought; that crew reports to an area boss, who reports to one of four lieutenants. The lieutenants are the ones who actually speak to the leader.”
I raised an eyebrow, curiosity temporarily overriding any other emotions or thoughts. “When did you have time to learn about this?”
She shrugged. “Who do you think showed me where to get food last night?”
“Well, then…so, wait. How long were you planning this?”
“I wasn’t planning anything,” Mila said, “except finding some food.”
I weighed her words for a few seconds before nodding. Mila was many things – a hitman, a bodyguard, a former killer, and a sweet-tooth, among another things – but she wasn’t really a liar. Her personality was too upfront for that.
“Tell me about their leader?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t get that much out of him. But he’s right there, so why don’t you ask him yourself?”
I swallowed the rest of my pride, pricked as it was from the unfounded emotional outburst, and walked over to Hisein without saying anything else to Mila. She fell in step behind me without betraying even the slightest whiff of anger or irritation.
I’d have to learn that trick, at some point.
It was a short walk back over to the boys. When we reached them, I assumed a commanding posture – hands clapsed behind my back, feet planted so that they were aligned with my hips – to convey my position in relation to them. It was all bravado, of course. Hisein was younger than me by at least twenty years and taller than me by at least six inches, but I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of a good image.
“It’s Hisein, right?”
He nodded twice.
“Mila tells me that you kids have got a nice little operation running here, right underneath everyone’s notice. Is that right?”
Hisein bristled slightly at the word ‘little,’ but he kept his composure. He nodded again.
“So, who’s actually in charge?” I asked. “There’s gang leaders like you, area bosses, lieutenants…but who’s actually running things?”
Hisein hesitated for a moment. Without Devlin present, I could only guess at the thoughts flickering through the boy’s mind by looking at the most obvious facial expressions. His eyebrows drew together momentarily, his hands clinched into tight balls at his side, and he stood up slightly straighter. Concern and fear, perhaps, mingled with anger and…what was that last emotion? Pride? Ego?
I put it out of mind and focused on the first two. Those were emotions one often saw when dealing with organizations run by ambitious adults, both legitimate and illegitimate: anger at the ruling class, backed by a healthy and rational fear of the consequences for a failed coup. Hisein was only a street leader, if Mila’s information was correct, but it appeared that he had designs on a much more powerful office.
“Farrad,” Hisein answered in a tight voice.
“And if we agree to meet with this Farrad,” I continued, “he’ll be able to get his hands on equipment for us?”
Hisein shrugged. “If anyone can help you, it will be him.”
I mulled over my next question for a few seconds. “How?” I asked finally.
“Many things fall between the cracks, yes?” Hisein’s inflection made it clear that he wasn’t actually asking a question, so I simply gestured for him to elaborate. “People, products…it is easy to misplace things when there is so much going on. Some of these things end up in Farrad’s hands. He is very good about finding value in the misplaced things of the world.”
Petty thieves, then, that had become established in the area over time. I wondered if Farrad was the first leader of this little organization, or if it was something endemic to Tangiers itself. Maybe generation after generation of orphaned Moroccan children found themselves employed in such a way: scrounging for food amongst the garbage piles, pilfering electronics from overflowing trucks, struggling to survive in a city that was busily doing its best to ignore the problem of their existence in the first place.
My time working for the Lady had given me a deep appreciation for those criminals who managed to make themselves a part of society. It wasn’t always admiration – drug cartels were essential to some governments in South America, and nobody admired them – but it was hard to deny how efficient the operations ran. Hill had done it in London; the Magi had done it on a global scale; presumably, the Lady had accomplished it, as well. And, if I was correct, the Urchins had pulled off something similar.
“What aren’t you telling us?” Mila asked, from just over my shoulder. I nearly jumped in surprise. She’d managed to erase her presence again and, despite me knowing for a fact that she was behind me, I’d forgotten about her for a moment.
Hisein’s eyes widened slightly. “I am telling you everything,” he said.
“No,” Mila said, “you aren’t. You’re sweating and you keep reaching up to your waistband where you’ve got a little knife hidden.”
His eyes went even wider and the color began to drain from his tanned skin. His hand twitched minutely closer to his waistband.
I couldn’t see what she did behind me, but I could hear the steely whisper as she drew something metallic from a sheath. “You don’t want to try your luck,” she said.
I suspected that the rest of Hisein’s crew didn’t speak English as well as he did, but the sight of Mila’s knife conveyed her intent just fine. I swallowed jealousy at how easily she controlled the mood of the room without ever seeming to. I had to resort to power gestures and stances, relying on time-tested tricks to convey authority. Mila did it without raising her voice, without even getting to her feet, and it continued to work everytime.
I’d seen her use that same voice and non-posture on Chinese gangsters, African warlords, and Colombian drug runners. It worked on unarmed children as well as it had worked on everyone else.
Hisein froze. The boys with him froze as well.
“Share,” Mila said, “or you’ll have to go back to Farrad and tell him you lost potential customers by being secretive. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled about that, won’t he?”
To my surprise, Hisein turned his face away from us and spat violently onto the ground. “Farrad is not my superior.”
“So you are holding something back,” Mila said.
“There are many things he does not know,” Hisein continued. “Much happens under his nose that he does not notice.”
That was sufficiently cryptic. “What does that mean, exactly?” I asked.
Hisein lowered his voice. It wasn’t sufficiently quiet that his crew wasn’t able to hear him, nor did it make it difficult for me to hear his words. I assumed it was simply for dramatic effect. “If you are going to make a deal with Farrad,” he stage-whispered, “I would make it soon.”
I revised my mental opinion of Hisein. If he was offering up this sort of information to the first individual who so much as pressed him on the subject, he clearly lacked the self-preservation to keep any plan secret for very long. He and his gang weren’t vying for control of the local urchins, then. But maybe they knew something about someone else’s plan?
“And if we were to wait a few weeks before making a movie,” I said, angling my tone toward idle curiosity, “who would we want to meet with, then?”
Hisein opened his mouth to respond, but a sudden rush of conversation burst out among the urchins that drowned out anything he might have said. They all spoke to each other in quick, clipped Arabic, gesturing wildly and pointing. I took a step back from them, almost expecting to bump into Mila. She moved smoothly to shadow me, without seeming to notice that she’d done anything at all.
“Do you know what they’re talking about?” I asked her, under my breath.
“You don’t speak the language?”
I shook my head. “To my parent’s everlasting shame, no. I never got around to picking it up.”
“Well, I don’t speak it either,” Mila said. “Devlin, maybe?”
I snorted at the idea. “Devlin couldn’t pick up another language if his life depended on it. Sometimes, I think we could talk circles around him if we just used Pig Latin.”
“And he’s been doing this how long?”
“I know, I know. It doesn’t make any sense, but it is what it is.”
Trying to unpack Devlin’s utter inability to pick up languages would have been a perfectly satisfactory way to spend a few minutes. Hisein and his group came to some sort of a resolution before Mila and I could go any further into our tangent.
“I have said too much,” Hisein said. “Please, do not think too much about my foolishness.”
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Mila said. “What did you mean?”
Another burst of conversation amongst the Urchins as Hisein translated Mila’s question to the rest of them. Whatever transpired between them, it appeared that Hisein emerged triumphant.
“Farrad is…growing old,” he said. “He does not think about all of us as much as he thinks about himself, yes?”
“You’re saying he’s been in charge for so long that he’s getting corrupt,” I translated. “Is that about it?”
Hisein shook his head, paused, then nodded slowly. “Corrupt is not the right word. He is concerned with other things. Not all of those things are good for the littlest ones.”
I repeated those last three words in my head. The littlest ones. There were layers to the poverty here.
“How many little ones are there?” I asked. Mila made a sound behind me but I didn’t pause long enough to decipher its meaning. “There’s the boys your age, Hisein, but how many more are there?”
Hisein thought about the question. “Three dozen, maybe, that are too small to work? Not as many as there have been in the past. When I was little, there were four dozen of us.” He heaved a weighty sigh. “Although we did not all grow old enough to earn our keep, of course.”
Mila sighed. That noise I understood. I’d heard Devlin making it often enough.
“And Farrad isn’t taking care of them anymore?” I pressed.
“There are others who want to give the littlest ones more to look forward to.”
“These others you keep referring to? They want to take over and see to it that everyone gets an equal share?”
Hisein chuckled. It was a dry, suprisingly adult chuckle. “I do not think we will ever be equal. But it would be better, yes.”
I turned to Mila. “Go get Devlin and Michel.”
“You’re sure about this?” Mila asked. “It’s not like you’ve already got several life-or-death things on your plate right now.”
I nodded and that familiar sigh passed her lips again. There was resignation in that sigh and, also, a certain acceptance.
“Of course we’re going to help these complete strangers with their entirely unrelated problem,” Mila said to herself. “Why ever would I think you would pick this moment, out of all possible moments, to do the logical thing?”
I gave her a wan smile. “Foolish optimism?” I suggested.