“In a way,” Devlin said, after I’d had a chance to organize my thoughts and divulge them to the rest of the team, “I’ve really only got myself to blame.”
“Oh?” I lifted an eyebrow. “How do you figure that?”
“It was only a matter of time before stress finally drove you insane.” Devlin leaned back in his chair, the remnants of his dinner releasing a thin trail of steam into the air above his plate, and shook his head. “Really, it’s the only thing that makes any sense.”
“I know that you aren’t about to tell me that we can’t accomplish multiple things at once.”
“I’m not going to be to tell you anything,” Devlin said. “I’m not crazy; I know exactly how well that would play out for me. But I will point out – delicately, of course – that we are strapped for time, resources, and information. We can normally use two of those to make up for one, if we have to. But operating without any sort of edge?”
My own thoughts had run in the same direction. If it had just been Devlin and me in the room, I might have been willing to share my own doubts. But Michel and Mila were also seated around the table and my pride refused to let me show uncertainty in front of either.
Mila probably wouldn’t show any emotion if I admitted that this last trick might be a stretch too far. She’d just be smug in that insufferably polite way she’d managed to weaponize. I’d just have to suffer through days of even-keeled, rational discussion, fully secure in the knowledge that she was probably chuckling internally through every conversation.
And Michel? Michel wouldn’t say anything negative at all. I doubted that he was even capable of being negative, sometimes. But he’d seen Devlin work too many miracles. I saw the absolute faith he gave to Devlin’s plans, no matter how haphazard and slapdash they might be, and…well, I wanted some of that. My fingerprints were all over every success that the team made, albeit much less visible. It didn’t seem right that I receive less credit or, as I admitted only to myself, admiration than Devlin and company.
Even if it weren’t for the presence of the two newest members of our team, there was a third party to consider. Hisein squatted in the doorway of the room, watching the four of us with wary eyes. He’d sent his street gang back to speak with the leader of the Urchins, but had stayed behind to squint at us, as if he could somehow see how trustworthy we were or were not. It had taken Devlin several minutes of determined persuasion just to convince the boy to eat something while he waited, despite how obviously starved he was. Hisein’s discipline was matched only by his wariness; both traits I could understand, even if I found neither trait particularly endearing. I couldn’t imagine anything more disconcerting than those eyes, weighing and examining me, while the boy squatted like a gargoyle on the floor.
So I kept my second guesses to myself and portrayed as much confidence as possible: shoulders back, head held high, maintaining eye contact and speaking without allowing a stutter to find its way into my voice. Public speaking lessons had been an essential part of childhood education in the Ford household; my parents would be happy to know I was getting use out of those skills, even if they wouldn’t quite have approved of my employment situation.
“I don’t want to jinx us,” I said, “but this isn’t even a job. All we’re doing is faciliating a change in power. According to Hisein, the people running the Urchins aren’t malicious, just negligent.”
“They’re old enough now that the adult gangs are starting to take interest,” Mila said. She’d finished her dinner in its entirety and was now looking around the kitchen, presumably for some form of dessert. Devlin had cooked dinner for us but, as baking wasn’t his forte, he’d elected to leave out any confectionaries. “Basically, they’re just passing time until they get picked up for the big leagues.”
Devlin looked at Mila and almost asked her a question. Then, as if something had suddenly occurred to him, he turned to me instead. “What do you want to do?”
“If possible,” I said, “I want to make that transfer of power happen sooner rather than later.”
“And how would you do that?”
“I’m not really sure,” I admitted. “Mila, you seem to know a lot about these gangs. How does someone move up from the Urchins and into the adult gangs?”
She gave her answer careful thought for the next few seconds. “Age,” she said finally, shrugging with one shoulder. “Get big enough and picking the occasional tourist’s pocket isn’t enough to feed you anymore. That sort of thing gives you a lot of motivation to prove yourself to anyone watching.”
I perked up. “How do they go about doing that?”
“Here, in Tangiers? How would I know?”
She wasn’t exactly snapping at me, but there was definitely a curtness to her answer that hadn’t been there before. “I’m just trying to collect ideas, Mila. If you don’t want to talk about…however you know all this…that’s fine.”
Slowly, Mila shook her head. “No. I’m fine. It’s just not something I think about often.” She took a shallow, steadying breath before continuing. “Back home, they had a specific ritual for fresh meat. Well, they had two rituals; one for the boys, one for the girls.”
“Ah.” The syllable seemed woefully inadequate, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. “Well.”
“Don’t look at me like that,” Mila said. The tone of her voice had changed slightly, but it was enough that I could tell she wasn’t angry. “I didn’t go through with it, obviously. And I made sure that they stopped doing that kind of thing before I left on my…” She trailed off.
“Let’s call it a walkabout,” Devlin suggested.
Mila turned to him and tilted her head.
“It’s really just something I want to start saying more,” Devlin explained. “This is as good an excuse as any.”
She rolled her eyes. “I made sure they stopped doing that kind of thing before I left on my walkabout.”
“See? It just rolls right off the tongue.”
“Anyway.” I pivoted my entire body away from the two of them, hiding my tiny smirk at their antics and pointing me at Hisein. “Do you want to contribute to this discussion or…?”
Hisein blinked but, aside from that, he didn’t move a single muscle. “The older boys have to impress the adults,” he said finally. “There are different ways to do that.”
“What kind of ways?”
He dipped a tight roll of flatbread into some sauce on the plate on the ground in front of him and took a fierce bite before answering. “Help the grown-ups,” he said, “or prove that you will be…dedicated.”
“Okay, but you aren’t saying what that actually means.”
Mila spoke from behind me. “He means they have to kill someone. Probably a target the adults pick out. That way the kids are all-in from the very beginning.”
Her voice sounded odd. I turned around, just in time to catch her pop a jawbreaker into her mouth. I would have sworn she hadn’t been carrying candy, but there it was.
“They make the kids commit murder?” I asked, ignoring the juxtaposition between the very serious topic and the absurdity that consituted Mila’s sugar addiction.
She spoke around the candy. “They don’t make them do anything. But if they want to survive and be part of the gang, that means proving they aren’t going to give you anything less than their best.”
I couldn’t help my eyes, as they flickered back to where Hisein squatted. In the dying light of early dusk, the angry red line across his face seemed to stand out more prominently.
“Let’s go with the option that doesn’t involve killing anyone,” Devlin suggested. He started to gather the plates. “So, if we want to help you take over as leader of the Urchins, we’ve got to make the current leader look really good to the adults. That about the size of it?”
Hisein shook his head. “Not me. I am too young to lead.”
“Then who?” I asked. “If you want our assistance, then we’ve got to know who we’re helping out.”
I did not say that, technically, Hisein had never asked for our help. My own well developed crusader sensibility simply wouldn’t allow me to leave poor children in a situation I could make even marginally better. Spending large sums of money on them would only make them targets for the adults at some point, so that was out. I couldn’t afford to take them all out of the city and, even if I could, new urchins would be born at some point. The only way I could make a lasting impression was to somehow improve the plight of the Urchins in Tangiers.
It wasn’t a great plan, but at least nobody had shot it down yet.
Hisein chewed thoughtfully on his flatbread for another handful of seconds. “Fatima,” he said finally. One word, no elaboration.
“Fatima?” I repeated, taking great care to duplicate his pronunciation. He’d put additional emphasis on the second syllable.
Hisen nodded. “She has plans to make things better for us. But…” He trailed off.
“But?” I prompted.
“But Imad and the others his age have been trying to impress the adults for some time. They get more reckless with every day and it is only a matter of time before many of us are caught. Or…worse.”
He angled his head slightly while he spoke. At first, I didn’t even realize that he was moving but, eventually, I noticed that Hisein was turning his face away from the nearest electric light. The subtle movement allowed him to hide the left half of his face in something resembling shadow; the effect didn’t hide the scar – the wound was too intensive for that – but it did make it less immediately striking.
“There’s a possible angle,” Devlin said. “I don’t know what jobs the Urchins have been pulling for food, but we could definitely accomplish something a little more high-profile.”
“We could,” Mila countered, “if we had the time to pick a target and work our way towards a plan. Which we do not have…that is, unless Sarah’s decided that the welfare of her fellow hacker isn’t of immediate importance?”
My inability to read Mila’s expressions and moods didn’t detract from my ability to appreciate her subtlety. She feigned a lack of skill, socially speaking, and that might well have been true in some ways. But when it came down to slipping a jab underneath someone’s guard, Mila’s verbal sparring skills were clearly equivalent to her physical ones.
“Sarah has not decided that,” I said, through gritted teeth. “And we aren’t at a place where we’re finalizing plans yet. Everyone’s just throwing out ideas.”
Mila opened her mouth, paused, then deliberately closed it at a glacial pace. Again, one of those delicate blows delivered in a way that few could pull off. I was almost impressed.
“How many of these gangs are there?” Michel asked Hisein.
The boy jerked in surprise. Michel had barely spoken, as was typical, while Mila and I had laid out the developing situation. Apparently it was easy to forget that the Frenchman was even in the room, judging from Hisein’s reaction. “Many gangs,” he said, settling back into his squatting position. “They have many names. Why?”
“Are any of these gangs…lacking? Smaller?”
Hisein nodded. “Many gangs lost people in the last few weeks. They were called away, but not given a choice. Into an army, yes?”
“Conscripted,” Devlin said. “The word you’re looking for is conscripted.” He made eye contact with me. “The war lords must have exerted some pressure down here to shore up their ranks after what we did to them.”
“Is…is that a good thing?” Michel asked.
“For the moment,” Devlin said. “It opens up some avenues we might be able to exploit. It’s still not great, though.”
I stepped in to answer that question. “It means that the grown-up gangs are either currently in bed with the arms dealers or they were previously. One implies that they’ll be looking to weaponize the Urchins and the other suggests that they’re unstable enough that joining a gang wouldn’t provide any sort of consistency.”
“To say nothing,” Devlin added, “of our, uh…religious friends.”
Collectively, the four of us sat there, silent, while we individually chewed that possibility. The Magi’s legend grew longer and their shadow grew deeper everytime we so much as crossed their path, but I had to draw the line somewhere. The possibility that they would spend time and money on a group of urchins and cutpurses in Tangiers was too farfetched. It just had to be.
A little voice in the back of my head warned me that thinking in absolutes had led me to underestimate them in London and, indirectly, to the deaths of both Hill and James.
Hisein stood suddenly, pivoting on one heel so that he was pointed in the direction of the courtyard. Mila perked up at the same time. She moved with excruciatingly casual grace, lounging in a position that placed one of her hands perilously close to her shoulder holster and the small caliber handgun that rested there.
The rest of Hisein’s gang bustled into the house, at full volume and without the faintest amount of discretion. At least, I could only assume they were members of the same gang. I didn’t recognize any of the four boys breathing heavily two rooms away. In fairness, though, Hisein’s scar had demanded most of the attention.
The tallest boy from the group – a whip-thin boy with wisps of black hair populating his cheeks and chin – stepped forward and spoke to Hisein in short, sharp Arabic sentences. I listened carefully, despite not knowing the language, and noticed that Devlin was leaning in, as well.
He spoke to me under his breath. “Whatever they’re saying, Hisein’s in trouble.”
Now that he’d said it out loud, I could read the body language. Hisein was hunching his shoulders and avoiding eye contact with the tall boy, who occasionally jabbed a finger at our de facto contact’s chest.
“Why do you think that’s happening?” I asked.
“I wasn’t with the two of you when you came up with this idea,” Devlin said. “Did he seem…reluctant to talk about any of this?”
“Why ever would you say that? His statue impression didn’t give it away, did it?”
Devlin turned just enough that he could cut his eyes in my direction. He was serious. No…he was Serious. Something in the arrival of the tall boy had prompted him to drop into work mode.
“He was cagey about things,” I said. Shedding emotion and treating every problem as a pure logic exercise wasn’t as easy for me as it was for him, but I could accomplish something approximating it. “Didn’t want to give up names, hesitated to even reveal that other people wanted to take over the Urchins.”
He nodded. “Makes sense.”
“If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s some division in the ranks. Whoever Fatima is…she’s not the only one angling for control.”
“What does that mean for us?”
“No idea yet,” Devlin said.
The argument – if it could be called anything so two-sided – between Hisein and the tall boy had ended. Both boys stood a little bit away from us, breathing heavily and avoiding eye contact. I started to raise a hand, unsure what exactly I would do or say, but Hisein kept me from finding out what I might have come up with. He made a few sharp gestures to his gang and they fell into position by his side.
“I will speak to Imad about your offer,” Hisein said. He made his voice loud enough that he could conceivably have been speaking to anyone in the kitchen. Still, there was a look in his eyes that seeemed…frantic? Frightened? Concerned?
One corner of Michel’s lips turned minutely downward. “Is everything al-”
Devlin spoke over Michel, smooth as silk. “That’d be great. We’re looking forward to resupplying while we’re in town.”
Hisein’s entire body vibrated with tension. Even I could see it. “Thank you for sharing your dinner with me.” He bowed his head in my direction, then in Devlin’s, before rushing out of the kitchen.
The four of us watched Hisein, his gang, and the tall boy who had essentially been sent to retrieve our contact leave. After a minute or two, Mila groaned and got to her feet. She walked out of the kitchen, in the direction of her room.
“Did I miss something?” Michel asked.
“Yes,” Devlin said “And if I read that conversation correctly, then I made one too.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“What we were saying made sense,” Devlin said, “except that we were approaching the problem from the wrong angle. Hisein wouldn’t mention Imad – assuming that Imad is the one currently in charge of the Urchins – if the tall boy came from his own faction. He wouldn’t have done it, even if the boy came from another faction with different leadership goals. And if the tall boy was loyal to Imad, there’s no need for so much emphasis.”
“Okay…” I dragged out the last syllable. “Your point?”
“The only reason Hisein mentions Imad like that is if someone wants Imad to stay in power and he’s trying to tip us off.”
“I’m sure Imad wants to stay in power, but I don’t see what that’s got to do with -” I cut myself off as, suddenly, I did get it. “Imad doesn’t want to stay in the Urchins. He wants to move up. So, if someone wants him to stay in position…”
“Then one of the kids is using Imad as a puppet,” Devlin finished.
Mila returned from her bedroom with the handles of several duffel bags clenched in her fist. She’d added another shoulder holster to underneath her other arm, as well as a hip-mounted flashlight and a baton strapped around her leg. She threw the bags on the floor in front of us. “I assume we’re following them?”
“Oh, we’re following them,” Devlin said. He knelt, checked the contents of one bag, then slung it over one shoulder and stood up.
“Wait, wait, wait.” I held up both hands, palms out. “We don’t have to rush into anything. The Mouse is in trouble, the Urchins are in trouble, but a night spent thinking about things isn’t going to make the situation demonstrably worse.”
“Not for us, no,” Devlin said.
“You’re looking at them like they’re kids,” Mila said. “They aren’t. At least, not in the way you’re thinking. This is a group of hardened survivors who’ve learned to stay alive no matter what. If Hisein just tipped off someone else’s game, it’s entirely possible he won’t live through the night.”
I stared at Mila, temporarily dumbfounded.
Devlin started moving again. He tossed the remaining bag to Michel. “We won’t be able to follow in a car, but I want you to keep an eye out for possible vehicles. I’m not really in the mood to fight a horde of starving orphans, if we find ourselves beating a hasty retreat.”
“Where’s my bag?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
Mila and Devlin both looked at me in confusion. “Your…bag?” Devlin asked.
“I’m the one who wanted to help the Urchins,” I said. “And you’re saying that Hisein might get his brains bashed in because I wanted to help him? If you’re going to make sure he’s okay, I want to go with you.”
Devlin’s head twitched in Mila’s direction. It wasn’t a full turn – really, barely a millimeter – but I was paying attention. “If you think that’s a good idea,” Devlin said cautiously. “But you’ll be in the field; I’m in charge out there.”
“If there’s anything I consider a bad idea,” I said, while I began stuffing what electronics I could get my hands on into bags of my own, “it’s the fact that you’re in charge. I’m as ready for this as you are.”
Feet planted, shoulders back, tone confident, I was the very picture of self-assurance. In fact, I very nearly convincined myself that I wasn’t lying through my teeth.