As luck would have it, our thin elevated platform continued around the outside of the sleeping area. We crept along, careful not to make any noise that might wake the slumbering children, until Devlin pointed out a makeshift ladder leading down to the bottom floor.
“We can get to the stairs from there,” he whispered.
“Is that the best idea?” I asked. The ladder in question was an old, rusted thing, propped against the landing at an unsafe angle. Obviously, the Urchins used it to ascend and descend but they were children. I just wasn’t sure if the rungs would be able to support our adult weights.
Devlin narrowed his eyes for a few seconds before shrugging one shoulder and letting out a soft sigh. “Probably not,” he said, “but it’s the only idea I can think of.”
I hesitated before moving forward. Devlin had an undeniable point: in order for us to reach the staircase, we’d have to find some way down from the scaffolding. The distance wasn’t so great that we couldn’t have just jumped down, except that we would almost certainly have woken the children by doing that. And, even if our collective landings didn’t wake the Urchins, I couldn’t possibly know how my subpar computer equipment would handle the shock. The small drop to the warehouse floor would probably irreparably damage a key component, leaving me carrying nothing but dead weight and useless computer chips.
“I can go first,” Mila said. “If one or two kids wake up, I can…encourage them to go back to sleep.” She appeared to be uncomfortable with her own suggestion, even as the words passed her lips.
Devlin’s face was turned away from me, but I knew him well enough to imagine his expression. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
A thought struck me. “Wait a second.”
“What’re you thinking?” Devlin asked.
Ignoring the question, I dropped to one knee and gently laid my bag of equipment down on the scaffolding. The bag itself wasn’t anything special: something generic that we’d either picked up in the wake of a job or purchased from a tourist shop, not one of the specialized ones that came equipped with hidden pockets. I removed my laptop and both tablets, setting them gently aside, before I passed the bag itself to Mila.
“Cut the straps,” I said. “We can use it as an anchor to lower ourselves down slowly, right?”
I heard my voice go up at the end, turning my own suggestion into more of a question, but I fought down the urge to repeat myself.
Mila examined the bag for a few seconds before she took off her own pack. “Not by itself,” she said, “but with two or three straps wrapped around one of these bars…it could work.”
“That’s…one way of solving the problem,” Devlin said. “Good idea, Sarah.”
The shame I’d felt only moments ago evaporated in an explosion of fierce pride. I smothered that as well, but the embarassment – generated from entirely conflicting emotions – flooded my cheeks with warmth. I felt unreasonably happy that I couldn’t really blush.
Mila unsheathed her serrated knife and sawed at the straps of both bags until they came free. She handled them to Devlin, who tied the straps together into a complicated and sturdy-looking knot, then tugged experimentally at the resulting length of cloth. Satisifed with his work, he wound the elongated strip around one of the railings and braced himself with an end in his clenched fists.
“You volunteered,” Devlin said, nodding in Mila’s direction.
She looked at him, down at the makeshift rope, back up at him, and then sighed. “Michel,” she said, “give him a hand.”
Michel joined Devlin and took hold of the conjoined strips. He adjusted his grip slightly and then nodded at Mila.
To her credit, she didn’t hesitate. Mila returned her serrated knife to its concealed sheath, clambered over the railing and grabbed the other end of the strip with both hands. With a significant look in the direction of Michel and Devlin, she took a deep breath and simply fell backwards from the railing.
It really wouldn’t have taken both men to support Mila’s weight. She dangled halfway between the scaffolding and the floor, breathing with her mouth wide open so that the sound didn’t disturb the Urchins. Then, Michel and Devlin stepped forward carefully so that she went down, inch by inch, until her feet touched the ground beneath us. Mercifully, the area directly beneath us didn’t have any children within a few yards in any direction.
By unspoken agreement, Michel went next. Lowering Mila to the floor first made sense, as a precaution. We were in hostile territory, so to speak. But in virtually any other situation, I imagined that Devlin would have insisted on using the three more experienced members of the team to support the rookie. If he flailed or struggled while being lowered to the ground, the job of the anchoring members grew that much more difficult. And, as with most elements of our thieving lifestyle, Michel had probably never imagined doing something as insane as rappelling down ten or fifteen feet to a floor populated by sleeping children who might very well draw a knife on him, if given the opportunity and incentive.
So, I was struck nearly dumb when Michel moved smoothly to the railing without waiting for a signal and allowed himself to be eased down to ground level without even a quiver of uncertainty. Even Mila appeared shocked when he touched down and released the strap so that Devlin could haul it back up.
That left Devlin and I alone on the scaffolding. We exchanged a quick look and Devlin bowed dramatically, sweeping one hand out in an exaggerated bow. “After you,” he whispered.
I barely manged to keep a scowl from my expression. His impression of a courtier would normally have been perfectly acceptable, maybe even amusing. At the moment, however, my thoughts were dominated with a vain, entirely inane fixation: how much weight had I put on lately?
Devlin stayed in position for a few seconds before, noticing that I wasn’t moving forward, he glanced up. His eyes formed an nonverbal question. I sighed and stepped forward to take hold of the knotted straps.
“Don’t drop me,” I said, waggling a finger in his direction.
“I’d sooner drop a Rembrandt,” Devlin said.
“You did that once.”
“Not the point, Sarah. Really, that’s not the point.”
That did it. I smirked before I could stop myself. Then, emboldened by the temporary levity, I swung both legs over the side of the railing and dropped down to the floor.
Whatever exercise Devlin had done in prison coupled with the strenuous workouts imposed by Mila had done wonders for his muscle mass. He struggled for an instant as I reached the end of the straps, my mass shifting unevenly forward and backward, before he steadied himself and gently lowered me without even the slightest sound of protest or difficulty.
Of the four of us, Devlin probably had the most experience. While we’d worked together before, there hadn’t been many opportunities for high-altitude entrances, but rope work was a fairly basic skill. I didn’t doubt he could get down to the ground without any assistance, especially with his new and improved physique.
It turned out that I was only partially correct. Devlin slipped my equipment, which I’d left on the railing, into his own bag and began climbing down the rope without any self-consciousness or doubt. Some combination of his weight, the additional weight of my bulky outdated laptop, and the accumulated stress of three full grown adults came together in a disastrous stroke of bad luck.
The railing that we’d tied our straps to bent violently outward and then, with no sound at all, came completely unmoored.
The drop wasn’t significant. I’d seen Devlin fall greater distances and absorb the stress with a well-timed knee bend. But the shock of watching him shift from a steady pace downward to a wild swing inward caught me off guard. I sucked it in a sharp breath and, nonsensically, reached out as if I could catch him with my bare hands.
Devlin reacted with that prescient sixth sense I’d seen from him in moments of high stress. Instantly, he shifted the equipment to one side, altering his center of gravity and minutely adjusting his path. He hurtled full speed toward a wall now but he extended both legs to absorb the shock. Then, without slowing, he pushed back off of the wall, released the slackening straps, and hit the ground.
That final impact made a little noise but, in the darkness of the warehouse, it didn’t seem like any of the children heard. Perhaps, even if they had caught the sound, they assumed that it was nothing more than the natural creaks and groans any old building made. Whatever the reason, no one came to investigate.
I rushed to Devlin’s side, only a half-step ahead of Mila and Michel.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He groaned up at me from the ground. “I’ll be okay,” he said, through gritted teeth. “Should’ve checked the railing before I jumped down.”
Mila knelt to poke and prod at Devlin’s arms and legs. “Nothing serious,” she concluded after she finished the examination. “You’ll be sore. Probably get a bad bruise.”
“I could have guessed that all by myself,” Devlin said, “but thanks.”
“Why didn’t you absorb that fall with a roll?” Mila asked.
In answer, Devlin held up his pack of supplies. “Computers don’t work all that well when they’ve been crushed to pieces.”
I gaped at him. “You decided to take that fall,” I said, “instead of rolling with it because you were worried about my stupid equipment?”
Devlin shrugged and gestured for Michel to help him to his feet. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“You idiot,” I hissed. I wanted to yell at him, I wanted to scream, but some sliver of self-preservation kept me from raising my voice. “I can replace the laptop and the tablets. I’m going to replace them, if I get half a chance. But what if you’d broken your arm? What would we have done then?”
“It really wasn’t that far.”
A memory of my older sister, one arm sealed within a plaster cast because she’d rolled out of her own bed, came to mind. “You don’t even have to fall that far to -” I cut myself off and took a deep breaht. “Nevermind. Just…don’t do that again.”
He rolled his shoulders. “Hadn’t planned on it.”
Devlin did his best to keep a straight face, but I’d known him long enough to tell the difference between his normal expression and a deliberate falsehood. Whatever he’d landed on, it had hurt. And, while he could have avoided or lessened the pain by rolling, he had decided to take the fall straight on so that my equipment would be safe.
If I’d stayed back at the bed and breakfast, like I should have done, he’d be in better shape for whatever came next. Michel had been right; I’d been right. I didn’t have any business being in the field. But I was in the warehouse now and the ladder leading back up to the scaffolding looked even less stable in light of the detached railing.
“Only way out is through,” I muttered to myself.
“What was that?” Mila asked.
“Nothing.” I pointed at the staircase that went down, further into the warehouse’s depths. “Let’s hurry. If we’re going to help Hisein do…whatever it is we’re going to help Hisein do, we need to get there before anything bad happens to him.”
Which was entirely true, but not the real reason I’d refocused us. Part of my motivation came from a desire to push attention away from my lapse; part of it came from a strong desire to just be done with this infiltration. I’d already been indirectly responsible for Devlin hurting himself. It couldn’t possibly be very long until my lack of experience or extra literal baggage led us into another problem.
As we went lower into the building and, consequently, farther away from the scant ambient light offered by the upstairs windows, Mila insisted on taking point. She rummaged in her bag as she moved, eventually drawing out a jet black extendable baton, which she held in front of her like a sword. Devlin took up a position beside her and squinted into the darkness. Only one floor down, I could barely see anything more than the vague idea of his silhouette, but his eyes had always been keen. As we crossed the second floor – or was it the first basement level? – he called out obstacles in a soft voice, pitched just loud enough that Michel and I could hear and adjust our trajectories accordingly.
Michel didn’t speak. That wasn’t surprising. He tended to slide into the background anytime he didn’t have a specific question or contribution and I couldn’t imagine that he was overflowing with either of those at the moment. I appreciated his silence; it allowed me to ruminate over my decisions in peace.
The first basement level led to the third; the third, down to a fourth. It was impossible to see now, even for Devlin. He removed a small penlight from his own bag and flicked it on, just for an instant, keeping one eye closed as he did so. After a moment, he repeated the action.
“Looks clear,” he said.
“It always looks clear,” Mila replied. “But if there were someone on this floor, they would’ve seen the light anyway.”
Devlin grunted in acknowledgment. He withdrew a small, but powerful electric lamp and started it up. The light bathed us and banished the darkness around us completely. There was no one and nothing on the entire floor.
“Where is everybody?” Devlin asked. One of his eyes was still closed.
“Everybody?” Michel asked. “Someone other than the children upstairs?”
Devlin nodded. “This doesn’t feel right. The kids sleeping upstairs would be more than enough to constitute a gang, obviously, but…”
“But you don’t stake out a place this size,” Mila said, “if you’re only going to use it for that amount of people.” She also had an eye squeezed tightly shut and she’d even gone to the extra measure of covering the eye with one hand.
The fact that she’d stepped in and finished Devlin’s sentence stabbed me like an icepick. I swallowed against the sudden, unexpected pain and cleared my throat. “So what do you think these floors are for?”
“Storage?” Devlin suggested. “Without the windows for light, I can’t imagine anyone – least of all an orphan – would want to sleep in absolute darkness.”
“Maybe they are intending to expand?” Michel asked.
“Possible, but unlikely,” Mila said, shaking her head. “It seems more like…”
“It seems like a setup,” Devlin said, finishing the thought instead of Mila. The icepick went right back in, but I was better prepared for it this time.
“These aren’t masterminds,” I said. “They’re a group of pickpockets. And besides, they can’t have known we were coming.”
“They might not have known before,” Devlin said, “but there was that lookout. Either he was working with a rival gang – assuming there even is a rival gang, considering the hideout this group is managing to keep under its control – or he’s in here somewhere. Talking to…I don’t know, talking to this Farrad.”
“Even if that’s true, where did he put everyone else? And why?”
Devlin shrugged. “That’s the million dollar question.”
I prepared to offer a few suggestions, but stopped when a sound climbed its way up from the far side of the room. It was muffled, as if coming from a long distance. Or, I realized, from another floor beneath us.
“Did you hear that too?” I asked.
Devlin nodded. He knelt, picked up the lamp, and walked in the direction of the far wall. After ten yards or so, he stopped and pointed at the ground. “Trap door,” he said.
Mila groaned, then led Michel and I over to where Devlin stood. I didn’t immediately see the nearly invisible thin lines that marked a trap door but, after a few heartbeats of intense concentration, I was able to spot something our general vicinity.
With a little finagling and some assistance from a pry bar, Devlin managed to lift the false spot on the warehouse floor up and away. He peered down into the hole.
“Do you see anything?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Of course.”
“Kill the light,” Mila said. “I’ll go first, then you.” She pointed at Devlin. “Wait thirty seconds before coming down, just in case there’s trouble. Michel and Sarah, bring up the rear.”
Again, a surge of sudden anger. I pushed it down. “Sounds like a plan.”
Devlin switched off the lamp and we were thrown back into utter, complete darkness. The shift was so jarring that I actually rocked back a little, but Mila suffered from no such disability. Judging from the sounds, she jostled past Devlin and made her way down into the secret basement of the warehouse.
I counted to thirty in my head and heard nothing.
“Never a boring moment, huh?” Devlin’s voice whispered, less than an inch from my ear. The warmth of his breath triggered a corresponding blossoming warmth in my stomach and, for a moment, I couldn’t quite think of anything to say.
Then, he was gone. Another thirty seconds passed without incident. That made it Michel’s turn. The sounds of his fumbling attempts to find the trap door would have been amusing, in any other context. It did turn out to be helpful when, thirty seconds after he disappeared, I used his noisy failures to locate the door with a minimum of struggle.
The ladder leading down into the secret basement was nothing like the rusted affair from the top floor. The rungs felt new underneath my fingertips without any trace of rust. Something about that sent off warning bells. And, if I was having pangs of intuition, I could only imagine the ruckus Devlin’s instincts would be making in his own head.
I reached the bottom and stepped off the ladder, extending both my arms and feeling around cautiously. Devlin’s hand – the touch was familiar enough that I didn’t need to think twice about the identity of its owner – grabbed my wrist gently. “I’m here,” he whispered. “Something is very wrong, though.”
“I was thinking the same thing. But it doesn’t make any -”
Above us, invisible in the darkness of the secret basement, something made a very loud, very heavy clanging sound. I recognized it immediately as the trap door’s secret lid sliding back into place. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but the words dried up in my throat an instant later.
The lights in the secret basement came on. All of the lights.
“I told you it was a setup,” Devlin murmured, in response to this sudden revelation. I would’ve sworn he sounded almost pleased to have been right.