Hisein, the taller boy, and the gaggle of other orphans took a winding path through Tangiers’ darkening streets while I and the rest of my team tailed them from a safe distance. Mila and Devlin moved confidently through the city, ducking into and out of cover according to signals that only they could see. While I had several years more experience than Michel when it came to stealing things in general, he and I were both rank amateurs in matters like these. We lagged several yards behind the other two, doing our best to follow their leads. I could only hope that we weren’t so obvious that the children noticed us.
Spotting some impossibly small tell, Devlin paused ahead of us. Mila did the same. A moment later, both of them darted into a concealing alcove and went perfectly still. Michel and I followed suit, albeit a little slower and with a lot less grace.
The hidey-hole we picked was shallow and not very wide. I was forced to press against Michel to keep my arms or legs from sticking out into the empty street. He cleared his throat, shifted position so that my hand rested on his upper arm instead of his chest, and directed his eyes to an unremarkable spot on the opposite wall. He faced the alcove Mila and Devlin had chosen and I waited for him to signal that it was safe to move.
Several long seconds passed before he whispered to me. “Do you do things like this often?” Michel had me by several inches, so he had to lean down slightly to make his voice heard.
“Like this? No. In the past, he generally handled this sort of thing on his own or he used other people we’d hired.”
“Why did you come this time, then? Devlin and Mila could have handled this on their own, no?”
I didn’t have a real answer to that. Michel was, of course, right. Ground level manuevers like this were Devlin’s specialty. We’d started working together specifically because he was talented in person, but lacked electronic prowess; I was a force to be reckoned with from a distance, but no better than the average person in a face-to-face confrontation. We covered each other’s weaknesses without infringing on the other’s territories.
I wouldn’t have expected Devlin to take up position behind the computer and engage in cyber shenanigans in pursuit of a target. So why had I felt it necessary to inject myself into this midnight stalking?
“He doesn’t know what to bargain for,” I said. That was close enough to the truth. “Besides, we’re under a time constraint. If he has to intervene to save Hisein, I’ll need to be there to grab the appropriate electronics.”
“You could have come after,” Michel suggested. “He could have called you with the location and you could have arrived when it was safe and none of the children were watching for us.”
I grit my teeth together. It wasn’t as though Michel’s thoughts differed from my own. It was just frustrating to hear them spoken in such a common-sense tone, as if my own mind had taken up residence outside of my body for the sole purpose of pointing out my idiocy.
I was saved from further introspection by a shuffling in the distance. Michel leaned slightly out of our hiding spot, nodded to himself, and then moved back into the street. The two of us fell back into step, trailing after the two trained infiltrators. Devlin was moving ahead of Mila, which made sense; of the two, he had more experience actually avoiding detection. Mila possessed similar training – courtesy of her insane mentor, Aiden, no doubt – but I imagined that she preferred to deal with detection in decidedly more lethal ways.
Mila stopped for a moment, just beyond the reach of a rare street light, and I found myself struck by her appearance. Despite her slight stoop, she managed to convey self-assurance and control, even from a distance. She looked capable, in a way that had nothing to do with the handguns strapped to the outside of either thigh or the long serrated knife I knew she kept concealed in a sheath at the small of her back. She raised her head slightly, as if she were sniffing the air itself for clues, and then speared through the illuminated space after Devlin.
When Michel and I reached the same space, I skirted around the streetlight’s radius instead of going through it. The equipment in my bag bumped and clattered as I went over the uneven cobblestones and I nearly lost my balance at the shift in weight. Michel caught me by the arm just before I fell over onto the laptop and two tablets stuffed into my bag. He searched my expression for a heartbeat, making sure that I was okay, before he released my arm and kept moving.
I let out a long, slow breath and smothered a surge of irrational anger at my own equipment. A single laptop would have been easier to transport, but I needed the tablets’ combined processing power to make up for what a dedicated desktop terminal could have easily accomplished. I didn’t exactly have one of those terminals at the moment – Lord, there weren’t words to explain how desperately I missed my triple monitor setup from London – but the feeling remained.
There wasn’t time to spare on self-pity, though. I collected myself, swallowed any rising pathos, and kept going. I was too far gone to turn back now.
All of my resolve and dedication weren’t necessary for long. I caught up with Michel in the first minute; two minutes after that, he slowed and stopped. I stepped around him so that I could see why we weren’t moving anymore. Mila and Devlin stood a little bit ahead, making no effort to hide themselves.
The children were headquartered in a massive warehouse, just a little off the road leading straight to harbor. Even before I was close enough for my eyes to pick out any details, my nose was more than able to identify individual smells: rust, mildew, week-old cigarette smoke and an assortment of even more unpleasant aromas. Having never been near an actual truck stop, my first inclination was still to compare the warehouse unfavorably with the foulest sort of truck stop imaginable.
I wrinkled my nose and soldiered on.. It had been my suggestion to use the street toughs for their information; the very least I could do was support my own plan. The fact that the warehouse smelled like the inside of a diaper from so far away and with the wind blowing at my back wasn’t going to be a dealbreaker. It was just going to make me really regret the deal to begin with.
As soon as I was able to make out the faded sign hanging over the entrance to the factory – a mishmash of letters I recognized as foreign, but couldn’t translate – something shifted in the darkness. I was barely able to glance in that direction before a shadow broke off from the mass of a greater darkness, fleeing into the building without making a single sound.
“Lookout?” Mila asked.
Devlin nodded. “Lookout.”
It took me a moment to realize that she’d only spoken for my benefit.
“I knew that,” I said immediately. An instant later, I regretted my petulant outburst, but the damage was done.
Mila made a soft noise I couldn’t quite read, but otherwise remained silent. Devlin stepped up, leaving our bodyguard about a full step behind us as we made our way forward.
I expected him to say something patronizing. Perhaps he’d remind how best to make a deal with foreign sellers, or remind me that we were dealing with children and that child psychology reacted differently than adults. Or he might remind me, perhaps even by accident, of the moment when I’d pushed a mole into pulling a gun on me in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. I wasn’t sure, but I could almost feel the words straining to find their way past his lips.
If he was thinking anything, Devlin said nothing. He stepped closer to the warehouse and kept his mouth closed.
“How many do you think there’ll be?” I asked finally. In the moment, the answer to the question wasn’t as important as the sound of my voice was.
Devlin considered the numbers silently in his head for a few beats. “I never worked with orphan crews like this,” he said finally, “but I’ve seen a few of them. Could be anywhere from two dozen to two hundred.”
“That many? Really?”
He shrugged. “Children are the opposite of a finite resource. There’ll always be more of them than can be supported and some will be kicked out at an early age. Of those, some will inevitably turn to crime and some will turn out to be any good at it. But as long as we keep increasing that first number, the last number’s going to get higher and higher every year.”
Devlin had said ‘we.’ Obviously, he was referring to the human population in general, not us specifically. I imagined that normal couples – not that Devlin and I were now or had ever been anything even remotely resembling normal – reached a point where the biological clock started to tick. That, plus the incessant pressure of family probably led to more people having children than actually wanted children.
I shuddered at the thought. God, no. There was enough dysfunction in the Ford family without adding a few new infants into the mix.
Of course, Devlin and I had talked about children when our professional relationship turned personal. The answer, on both of our parts, had been a resounding no. But he’d been through a lot in the past four or five years. For someone to have spent years in prison, to have tracked down and brought down their former best friend, and to now find themselves forced to hunt for individuals so powerful that their very existence hadn’t even been a rumor before now…how could that not make someone think about the legacy they’d leave behind?
Mila was speaking. I’d missed the first few words while lost in my thoughts, but it was easy enough to piece together her meaning from context. “…little more sympathetic than that.”
“I’m sympathetic to a lot of things,” Devlin replied, “and that’s one of them. But pretending that it isn’t a problem doesn’t make the problem go away.
Mila grunted and let the point lie.
We reached the warehouse’s twin front doors. One of the two large steel doors was ajar, wide enough that a small child could easily slip through. A larger child could probably accomplish the same, although it would be a great deal more difficult. For full-grown adults, however?
“Can’t get in this way,” Devlin grumbled.
“It’s a door,” Mila said. “They do open.”
“And, while they’re opening, they also tend to make a whole lot of noise,” Devlin shot back. “If we were going to just go stomping around, why’d we bother tailing Hisein in the first place?”
Mila considered that for a second, then nodded. “Makes sense, I guess. Less of a fight this way.”
“You? Looking for less of a fight?”
The look she gave Devlin wasn’t pained, so much as it contained the shadow of pain. For her, that was the equivalent of bursting into hysterical sobs. “They’re kids.”
Devlin rolled his eyes.
“The lookout already spotted us,” I said. “Isn’t the element of surprise already gone?”
“Unfortunately,” Devlin said. “We won’t have enough time to properly case the joint. As soon as the local childlike emperor or empress gets wind of our arrival, it’ll be time for an audience.”
I let out a low whistle. “Childlike empress…I should’ve thought of that one.”
He mimed a bow. “Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night.”
We slipped around to the side of the warehouse, where two of six massive windows were propped open to the empty night. The smells of habitation were stronger underneath the windows which made me wonder, in a fit of pure privilege, how long it had been since this building had been pressure washed.
“Guessing this is a dorm of some sort,” Devlin said. “Sleeping quarters or maybe even a communal bathroom. No way to know without going in.”
“We’re going in?” I asked incredulously. “To that?”
“Unless you’ve got a better idea…” He trailed off, somewhat hopefully. He didn’t relish the journey into the funk anymore than I did, apparently.
I heaved an excessively heavy dramatic sigh. “Unfortunately, I do not.”
The hopeful expression on Devlin’s face darkened momentarily into a frown, then straightened back out into a thin line of resolve across his face. “Let’s get this over with, then.”
Michel was actually the tallest member of the team. With a little help, he pulled himself up and into the window, then reached down to help Mila into the warehouse as well. Using her superior upper body strength, she hauled Devlin up and into the building; the two of them then gripped my forearms and pulled me up so that I could join them on the interior.
We crouched within, on a metal landing extending out a few feet from the wall; it was wide enough that I didn’t fear a sudden acquisition of acrophobia, but thin enough that OSHA probably had a few unkind words for the former proprietors. We took up position on the landing, waiting in the silence for any sound of alarm or warning.
Nothing happened. Devlin leaned over the landing to look down and I stepped up next to him to do the same.
More cots, sleeping bags, and mattresses than I could count at a glance populated the space underneath us. Most of the available space was occupied with a body – or two, or three, depending – and the faces that I could make out at this distance seemed young. Younger, even, than I’d been expecting. The encounter with Avis, in London, had been jarring and she’d almost been a teenager. These boys and girls couldn’t have been older than seven, maybe eight years old and already living in absolute squalor.
My stomach roiled at the image, and the feeling grew worse the longer I looked. “They’re kids,” I said, “and they’re living like animals.”
Mila joined us at the edge of the landing and I saw her jaw tighten minutely. “It’s always easy to forget about the children,” she said. “Spend a day on the streets, taking in all of the architecture, and you never notice the homeless little boy trying to decide how badly he wants to steal dinner.”
I opened my mouth, realized that I had nothing to say, and closed it again. Mila had darkness in her past, that much was obvious. We all did, to one degree or another. Well adjusted people didn’t choose to spend their lives on the outskirts of the law’s protection.
“I hate that we can’t help them,” I said.
“Not that we can afford to take on any more problems,” I continued, “but I’m just saying.”
She grunted again.
I gave up on pulling any more information out of her and turned my attention back to Devlin. “There’s another staircase at the back of this floor, headed down,” he said.
“So this warehouse goes into the ground,” Mila said. “That’s a strange way to build something.”
I shrugged. “Depending on what they were originally planning to store here, it’s not the most ridiculous architectural choice.”
She shrugged with one shoulder. “I guess. And it’s defensible. If anyone wanted to come after them they’d have to go down, cutting off their own escape route as they went deeper into the building.”
“Which is, of course, delightful for us,” Devlin said, “seeing as we are about to do that exact thing.”
“Well, we aren’t attacking,” I pointed out.
“No, we’re just breaking and entering. That’s totally not the kind of thing that could get on somebody’s bad side.”
“This was your idea, Dev.”
“If you’re going to insist on being correct and providing facts, then I don’t know how this working relationship is going to survive.”
I rolled my eyes. Our banter was always an easy thing to fall back on and, truth be told, I’d missed the familiar rhythm during my sabbatical from the criminal life. Of course, I wasn’t about to let him know that.
Mia checked her watch. She’d picked up the timepiece in Macau, in the middle of our work there, and she’d held onto it since then. I couldn’t personally understand why someone would prefer a basic watch to a smartphone, but Mila was a strange person.
“Unless the two of you want to spend all that time playing word games,” she said, “we should probably get started. No way to know what kind of traps these kids set up to keep themselves safe or how long it’ll take to get past them. And wherever Hisein is, we know he’s in trouble already.”
Devlin immediately started humming ‘Carol of the Bells’ under his breath. I swatted at him, but he dodged away.
“You’re right, of course,” I said to Mila. “Sooner we get this started, sooner we can figure out our next step.”
“Who knows?” Mila asked. “This could be as simple as taking candy from a -”
Devlin and I both reached out to cover her mouth. Mila withdrew just enough that we couldn’t reach her and showed a bare sliver of her teeth in a fierce grin.
“Sorry,” she said. “Couldn’t help it.”