Calm. It was important that I remain calm. The difference between a tense negotiation and a bloodbath was only ever a single loaded sentence away, and I couldn’t risk making that kind of mistake. It wouldn’t matter what Mila could do with her knife and her guns. With this many individual hands, in an enclosed space with no way out, it would only be a matter of time before we were beaten through sheer strength of numbers.
Calm. The only way through this conversation lay in staying calm.
That wasn’t my specialty, though. Laser-like focus on the mission was easy, when I was miles away, watching everything through a computer screen. But right now, with the various members of my team frozen in place? I couldn’t test different attack vectors for their viability, probe defenses, or speak with the Community for advice. I stood alone in front of Farrad and his four lieutenants, hoping against all reason that one of the four wouldn’t give the order to literally tear us all apart.
I swallowed despite the knot of nervous energy in my throat. This was Devlin’s territory. But, foolishly, I’d positioned myself as the point of contact. Backing down now would only show weakness; escalation ran a good chance of forcing the Urchins to prove how serious they were. Either way, the odds of my team leaving this warehouse in one piece had dropped to almost nothing.
I’d be damned, though, if I was going to let us die without giving it my all.
“A weapon,” I repeated, stalling for time. “Why would you need a weapon?”
“For our survival,” Fatima said.
Devlin raised a hand. When Fatima noticed him, he cleared his throat. “You realize that we’re not going to arm you and your gang, right?”
Fatima tilted her head to one side. “I did not ask you to do that. What we need is not the sort of weapon you would find on a battlefield.”
“Information,” I said. “You’re after information?”
She considered the question for more time than it deserved. Whatever her game, Fatima meant to keep her cards close to her chest. Farrad and the muscular boy – Mamoud, I reminded myself – had a measure of control over the horde of Urchins; revealing her plans in front of a crowd could allow either boy to thwart her ultimate designs.
At the same time, she couldn’t keep us entirely out of the loop. The less we knew, the less effective we’d be. The small girl had a thin line to walk.
“The adults are hiding,” Fatima said finally. “We would like to know why.”
I wasn’t facing Michel, but the sound of his gulp was audible, even through the ambient noise of the shifting horde.
Fatima wasn’t finished speaking, though. “The adults come in the darkness, stealing more and more of us away each night when we walk the streets. We cannot fight them and it is only a matter of time before they find where we are hiding.”
“So you want to…do what, exactly?” I asked.
“If we knew who was attacking them,” Fatima said, “perhaps we could make a deal. Hurting the adults did not stop them from running away with us. Maybe killing them will.”
The weight of guilt settled on my shoulders, even though it was ridiculous to feel responsible for what my team and I had done. The number of people we’d helped by destabilizing the arms dealers and warlords in the area vastly outweighed the number of Urchins in the warehouse. If we hadn’t set them against each other, the three gunrunners would have spread misery and chaos to a much wider area than a single town. The orphan population of a single city hardly compared.
But those were abstract numbers, detached from reality. In the moment, glancing around at the Urchins, it was difficult to remember the international stakes of our deadly game. The high personal cost, paid by children who didn’t even know what was going on, dominated my thoughts.
What Fatima wanted was impossible, though. As a member of the team responsible for dealing the arms dealers the mortal blow in question, I knew better than most exactly how throughly they’d infiltrated the governments of the area. The local Underworld would quite literally implode without the additional money provided through the arms trade. I wasn’t against selling guns on principle – Mila’s entire schtick depended on unmarked weapons, after all – but these particular dealers specialized in the subjugation and dehumanization of village too small to warrant attention on social media.
The arms dealers had needed to go. No matter what their death throes did to comparative innocents, it’d been right to strike and cripple them.
If only someone else had been in place to take over the operation, as Billy had technically done back in London. The entire business he’d built with his brother was gone, admittedly, but there were still employees and connections to keep up. At last check, Billy had done an admirable job at disguising any illicit activities and he’d gone to the extra step of legitimizing some of Hill’s shell businesses.
“You don’t understand what you’re asking,” I said.
Fatima tilted her head to one side. “What would you know about this problem? Have you watched your brothers and sisters stolen away by grown men, forced to fight in wars that don’t mean anything?”
I shook my head. “No, I haven’t, but I know something about how those kinds of…armies, I guess…manage to get so big. There have to be people in the government looking out for them.”
She considered that for a few moments. “You are saying that you cannot help us, then?”
Fatima didn’t give an order, make a gesture, or so much as blink as the kids holding the rest of the team hostage. But, even without the command, a few more stepped out from the general crowd and lifted their weapons higher.
“That’s not what I mean,” I said quickly. “I just mean…if you want to stop them from taking any more of your people, you can’t think about it in terms of killing anything.”
“What are you saying?”
I had no idea what I was saying. If I wanted to keep the Community from starting an ill-advised war with an enemy fully capable of simply eradicating them, I needed to find the Mouse. To do that, I needed a computer with enough processing power to handle his puzzles. And to get that, I needed the Urchins to either provide us with what I required or to point us in the direction of someone who might have it.
“They’re already wounded,” I said, not even a little bit sure where my words were headed. “That makes them into a liability for their handlers. It wouldn’t take much more to weaken them enough that bigger sharks start circling.”
“And how would that help?” Fatima asked. “They would lose people in the conflict. Then, they respond by stealing more of us to fill their ranks.”
Mila cleared her throat. She didn’t speak until I gestured for her to do so. “Not if they’re too busy fighting each other to notice when someone else sneaks in to assert control. One swift attack to decapitate the leadership, delivered before anyone knows to expect it, could work.”
Fatima tilted her head in the other direction. “How?”
“Let say that there’s someone who might have an interest in this region,” Devlin said. He seemed a little hesitant to offer his own ideas, lest Fatima think that I wasn’t in charge of our little collective. “If we reached out, there might be a more…reasonable power in place that you could deal with.”
My first instinct was to shoot that idea down. I wrestled that down and weighed Devlin’s proposal. It had only been twenty-four hours since I’d spoken with the Lady, so she might still be in Tangiers. Even if she wasn’t, she did respond to messages. If helping the Urchins deal the finishing blow to the warlords and arms dealers brought us closer to identifying the Magi, she really might be willing to help. Whatever revenue stream she used to fund our activities, it had to at least intersect with the Underworld in one way or another. Picking up the pieces of the operation in the region could prove lucrative for her, helpful for the Urchins, and essential in the search for the Mouse.
I wondered if the idea had come from Devlin, first, or if Mila had communicated it to him somehow.
“They’re right,” I said, out loud. “There’s too much money in guns and bombs and APC’s. Your best bet – your only bet – is to weaken them enough that someone better takes over in their place.”
Instead of responding, Fatima conferred with Farrad in Arabic. Mamoud stepped in occasionally to voice a complaint, but Farrad paid him no attention. Whatever argument Fatima was making, it looked like it was working.
While the leadership of the Urchins discussed our proposition, I lowered my voice and spoke under my breath to my team. “Do you think this will actually work?” I asked.
“It’s possible,” Devlin muttered.
“She’d really do it, just to get closer to the Magi?”
“I think that, if losing an arm gave her the first letter of one of the Magi’s names like Wheel of Fortune, she’d chew the damn thing off. Something like this…I don’t see why she wouldn’t.”
As I thought over his words, a bevy of reasons sprang to mind. Activity in a region outside of her normal sphere of influence – wherever that sphere of influence was – might raise flags. She might have not have much money or personnel to spare as we’d assumed. There could be an arrangement in place with the local powers that precluded her direct involvement in civil wars and power struggles.
I just didn’t have any better ideas to offer.
“This is your area,” I said to Devlin. “Improvising and reading people, I mean. Should I step back, let you take over?”
“No,” he said. “You’re the one who made the offer and you’re the one she’s listening to. Switching roles now would only put her on guard.”
“So I’m supposed to…what, exactly? Just wing it?”
“You’ve got the three of us,” Devlin said. He gestured at himself, Mila, and Michel. “We’ll get you through the worst of it. You’re already doing a great job.”
I stuffed the resulting swell of pride back down into the pit of my stomach where it belonged. “And if this goes sideways?”
He shrugged. “We’re already surrounded by a bunch of jumpy children, armed with whatever scraps they’ve managed to steal, dealing with a child king on a power trip, Sarah. There’s not really a lot of room left to fall.”
A fair point, if a bit disheartening.
Fatima, Mamoud, and Farrad finished their discussion atop the dais. Farrad stood up and took a small step forward before addressing the crowd. Of course, he spoke in Arabic, gesturing at himself, then at Fatima, and finally pointing directly at me. To one side, Mamoud wore a lopsided smirk that needed no translation: whatever had transpired, he’d scored a victory in the power struggle between him and Fatima.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Fatima looked defeated while Farrad continued to speak. There was an air of resignation around her, though. She squared her shoulders and raised her chin a fraction, as if daring anyone in the assembled throng to speak against her. Her dark eyes gazed out across the crowd, sweeping from one side of the secret basement to the other, and more than a few children looked away. There was even some crying.
When Farrad finished, he returned to his seat and waved a lazy hand at us. Fatima bowed her head in his direction and walked the short distance from the Rubbish Throne to where my team and I stood. The two muscular boys who’d been supporting Hisein half-dragged, half-helped him to join us. They transferred ownership of his semi-conscious body to Fatima, who bore up under the additional weight without flinching. Then, the boys withdrew.
“What just happened?” I asked Fatima.
“Hisein is one of mine,” she said. “He should not have spoken to you without permission. We are already in danger and, by involving the four of you, he may have made things worse. But, because he is under my authority…”
“You’re getting the blame for it,” I finished. I let my eyes travel to Hisein’s bloody, bruised face. “Is that going to happen to you now?”
Fatima snorted. “Not even Mamoud would be foolish enough to give that order. Too many of the children here have been fed extra rations or comforted by me. If he tried to dishonor me in such a way, there might be an open revolt.”
“But you aren’t going to get away without any sort of punishment, right?” Even my limited understanding of street gang politics was thorough enough that I was sure Mamoud hadn’t let the transgression slide. If openly attacking Fatima ran the risk of triggering a civil war, allowing her to make moves without countering could very well splinter all of the Urchins into tiny fiefdoms of their own.
Instead of immediately answering, Fatima raised a hand and pointed at the body of children. They parted at her silent command, clearing the path back to the trap door and the ladder leading back up into the warehouse proper. She struggled with Hisein’s weight momentarily, before Michel took that burden from her shoulders. We followed the small girl to our exit.
Fatima spoke while she walked. “Hisein offered you a deal,” she said. “Now, he and I are supposed to make sure that you have…all the help you need to succeed. Mamoud convinced Farrad that it was only fair.”
The sourness in her voice was palpable.
“You’re going with us, then?” I asked. “Into the war camp?”
Fatima reached the ladder, but paused before climbing up. “I do not know you, but you came for Hisein. Maybe we could have helped each other, but…” The expression of supreme self-control faltered and, for an instant, I caught a glimpse of the little girl instead of the gang lieutenant: frightened, hungry, and staring down the barrel of what amounted to a death sentence.
Mamoud’s plan made perfect sense, if I thought about it from his perspective. We were four random adults who’d infiltrated the Urchin’s hideout, ostensibly because one of Fatima’s wards had suggested we do so. The Urchins were in too much trouble to turn down assistance, no matter where it came from, but acknowledging us would count as supporting Fatima’s leadership in a roundabout way. He couldn’t attack her, couldn’t afford to discard the help we were offering, and couldn’t directly accept it without losing face in front of the Urchins.
So, instead, he’d tied Fatima directly to the success or failure of the operation. Two children, one beaten to the point where he’d almost certainly need a doctor, would serve as one hell of a shackle. Why, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the addition of Fatima and Hisein constituted the difference between successfully crippling the wounded warlords or failing miserably.
It was a good idea. In most circumstances, it probably would have worked. Thieving crews typically ran like Swiss watches, operating only when every piece was in its perfect place. Even a single unexpected complication could be disastrous. A wrench at the right time could destroy the entire operation before it started. Mamoud had thrown the equivalent of a toolshed into the job…a job, it occurred to me, that I still didn’t fully understand.
It was hardly his fault that he’d badly underestimated us.