“So, basically, business as usual?” Devlin asked.
We were back at the bed and breakfast, in the dining room. Half of the table in front of us had been cleared of dishes and covered with an oversized street map of Tangiers. The other half of the table was festooned with junk food, stacked two and three plates high. Even though Mamoud had orchestrated her removal from a place of power, he hadn’t been able to completely erode Fatima’s power over the other Urchins. With a few words to some street orphans and a comparatively generous donation from Mila, the little girl managed to have food by the armload delivered to the bed and breakfast. It was waiting for us when we arrived, piled in front of the courtyard gate.
My team and I had already eaten before setting out for the warehouse in the first place. I suspected that the late night order had less to do with what we might need as a unit and more to do with what Hisein and Fatima wanted. He’d nibbled around the edges of dinner before but now, after Mila had an opportunity to exam his injuries and pronounce him more or less okay, he seemed ravenous. Even Fatima, who vascillated between complete poise and childlike abandon, tore into the meal.
Michel, Devlin, and I watched in a sick fascination. Mila, of course, selected the occasional candy for consumption.
“Business as usual,” I said, in answer to Devlin’s question. “We’ve got the latitude to act however we think best, but she’s not going to extend herself until we’ve cleared the way.”
“But she will take over, assuming we can find the information she wants?”
“That’s what she said,” I answered. Although, now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure if she’d actually responded definitively, in either direction. The Lady had given directives and set requirements, but she hadn’t quite confirmed that she’d take over in place of the arms dealers.
Something in my expression tipped Devlin off. “Did she actually say that or did she just lead you to believe it?”
I frowned and plucked a kebab from one of the plates, more from irritation than any real desire. “That’s incredibly irritating, you know.”
“That’s how she is,” Devlin said. “But, for whatever it’s worth, I really don’t think it’s in the Lady’s nature to deceive, even if only by omission. She’ll leave information out on occasion and she freely admits that she knows more than we do, but I can’t imagine her deliberately setting us up for a fall. If we go down, she loses her weapons in the fight against the Magi.”
My scowl darkened. “I wasn’t talking about her being annoying, Devlin.”
“Oh. I, uh…oh.”
I turned my attention away from Devlin and back to the map in front of us. The area of the town that Fatima had called Jahannam was located on the outskirts of Tangiers. A little bit of research showed that the shanty-town had sprung up in repsonse to an immigrant influx. Without any job prospects and speaking pidgin versions of the local languages, the immigrants had gradually been shunted out of the city center and away from the tourist areas. When they found themselves at the very limit of what could charitably be called Tangiers’ city limits, they’d dug in their heels and carved something resembling a life from the land itself.
At some point, then, the local warlords and gunrunners must have decided that the area was perfectly suited for their purposes and ‘convinced’ the residents to move elsewhere. There were other towns, similar to Jahannam in all but name, scattered throughout the city. It wouldn’t have taken much – either in force or in financial coercion – to convince the downtrodden to be downtrodden somewhere else.
“How long do you think it’ll take for you to come up with a plan?” Devlin asked.
“In a perfect world?” I examined the map for approaches, possible choke points, and exit routes. “If I knew what the defenses were like, maybe a day or two. Without that information, I’ve got to come up with multiple plans that you can repurpose on the fly, in response to changing circumstances. That could take a week, maybe longer.”
“And in this world?”
I sighed, then indicated several specific roads leading into Jahannam. “Twenty-four hours,” I said. “And we’ll have to see if Fatima has any scouts of her own that might know more about the area than we do. As it is, we’ll have to go in pretty much blind.”
“We do pretty well like that,” Devlin said.
“We’ve done pretty well so far,” I corrected. “But you know as well as I do that it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves in over our heads.”
“I try not to think about that,” he admitted. “I know you’re right, but thinking about that inevitability just makes me stomach churn. Better to think positively and plan for the worst.”
“That should be the title of my autobiography.” Before Devlin could say anything, I hauled myself out of my own self-pity. “There’s worse news, too.”
“I’ll have to go in with you,” I said. “Again.”
“Why would -” He stopped, searching himself for the correct words. “They don’t have a wireless network? Something to do with air, wasn’t it?”
I blinked my surprise at him. Devlin had actually been listening while I explained something? Surely, this had to be some new development.
“Air-gapped,” I said, “and you’re close. Technically, you’d have to be a fairly knowledable user to even consider doing that, and it’s not cheap if you have to do it to a whole network.”
“What’s the problem, then?”
“We are,” I said. “Or, more accurately, we were. When you and Michel set fire to the servers at the main camp, you destroyed the physical apparatus they used to stay networked: routers, modems, the whole shebang.”
“Meaning that…” He trailed off, inviting me to finish the thought for him.
“Meaning that I’ll have to physically interact with their computer intranetwork – the setup that runs inside the barracks, but doesn’t connect to anything outside – if I want to find the information we’re looking for.” I drew a USB cord out of a nearby bag and placed it on the table, next to a tablet. “All I need to do is use my own equipment to set up a manual connection and I can send all of it to my own cloud without needing to pack up every computer chip.”
“And you can use that?” He pointed at the tablet.
“It isn’t the fastest connection,” I said, “but it’s portable. I feel like portability’s going to be important.”
He rolled one of his shoulders. I knew, academically, that he wasn’t doing it to send me a message, but I couldn’t stop the pang of guilt that shot through me. He’d been hurt because of me. The mental video of Devlin crashing bodily into the ground started up in my mind’s theater.
“Don’t worry, though,” I said, “I’ve got every intention of staying back and waiting until the three of you can find a way to neutralize whatever local security they’ve got.”
Devlin nodded thoughtfully. “What about CCTV?”
“According to reports, electricity isn’t exactly reliable in the area. If there are any cameras, they’re probably only working about half of the time.”
“But this computer system you’re hoping for wouldn’t be affected?”
“It shouldn’t be affected,” I said. “If it were me, I’d make sure the computers had a seperate, dedicated generator in case of a brownout. But all I’ve got are hopes and dreams, Dev. I could be horribly wrong and leading us into a slaughter.”
“Well, on that cheery note…” Devlin deliberately allowed himself to lapse into silence for a few moments before he stood and gestured sharply at Michel and Mila. They stepped away from the bufet – Mila paused momentarily to pocket another three candied dates – and joined us at the other end of the table. Fatima and Hisein were so engrossed in their meals that I doubted they even noticed the departures.
“How many armed men are we looking at?” Devlin asked. Then, after a look from Mila, he amended, “How many armed men and/or women are we looking at?”
“She doesn’t know,” I said, indicating Fatima with a nod. “So we’re going to estimate the highest imaginable numbers. If I’m wrong, then so much the better. If I’m right, we’ll at least have considered the problem.”
“And that number is?”
I gestured for Mila to take over this part. She inclined her head, graciously accepting the passed conversational baton, and leaned over the map for a minute. “There’s choke points here, here, and here.” She pointed at the relevant spots on the map. “And you’d want to put lookouts at these three places within the perimeter, in addition to the obvious areas on the outskirts so locals and tourists don’t accidentally find their way into trouble.”
Devlin gave the map a cursory examination before he nodded. “Sounds about right. That’s not counting any extra guards at key locations?”
“If they’ve got an armory, we can expect additional men. Food stores, motor pool…all of those are going to under extra guard, as well.” Mila finished off her candy and sucked her fingers, one at a time, before she spoke again. “Assuming a two man rotation at each key point and double guards in places like the armory, I’d say a fully staffed barracks like this would have about forty guards on watch at a given moment.”
“Fewer than that if they’re bleeding personnel,” Devlin said.
“More than that if they’re expecting an attack,” Mila countered. “Like Sarah said: better to assume higher numbers and be pleasantly surprised than to bet on the alternative and find out we’re wrong.”
“Forty guards.” Devlin leaned back in his chair and sighed. “No camera network in place that we can use to keep an eye on them, either.”
“They could mostly be children, though,” Michel said. “It would not be like in London, where they were hardened mercenaries and thugs. Would that make things easier?”
Mila’s jaw tightened in a brief, fierce grimace. “Any slack we’d get because of inexperience, we lose in flexibility. There were more people when they were holding you hostage, Devlin, but I didn’t have to hold back against them. Same thing at the manor house where we saved Avis.”
“And at Hill’s estate,” Devlin said. “If we raise an alarm at the barracks, we can either fight our way through weaponized children -”
“That is not an option,” Fatima said. The pitch of her voice didn’t detract from the seriousness of her tone and words in the slightest.
I turned with the rest of the adults to find Fatima and Hisein glaring at us from their side of the table. The meal, coupled with Mila’s treatment, had done wonders for Hisein’s constitution. He still looked like nine miles of bad road, but he was keeping his eyes open without additional assistance and he sat upright in the chair. Fatima, for her part, had gained some color in her cheeks. At that moment, said color was representing itself as surprisingly visible red spots at her cheekbones.
“We’re not excited about the possibility either,” Mila said, “but there really aren’t a whole lot of other choices.”
“That is not an option,” Fatima repeated. “My brothers and sisters did not choose to be kidnapped and forced into service.”
I blinked. In my peripheral vision, Devlin did the same. He managed to regain the power of speech first. “Your sisters? They’re taking girls, too?”
Fatima nodded. “Not at first,” she said. “But lately? For every two or three boys who disappear, a girl will go missing as well.”
Hisein lowered his eyes fractionally at that revelation, but he didn’t seem particularly surprised. Neither did Mila. Michel studiously kept his mouth shut and listened without comment, but his silence wasn’t quite profound enough to conceal the mounting horror behind his eyes.
“Farrad is your leader, isn’t he?” Devlin asked.
Fatima snorted, then seemed to think better of it. She conferred briefly with Hisein in Arabic before speaking to us again. “Hisein tells me that you already know my…intentions?”
“You want to take over the gang because Farrad is taking larger and larger risks, right?”
“Well, as leader of your gang of street rats, did Farrad have a plan to get his flock back in the metaphorical pen?”
Fatima puzzled over his choice of language for a few heartbeats before she understood his meaning. “No,” she said. “Nothing. And Mamoud…”
“What about him?”
Fatima looked away from us, at the door, for a long stretch of time. She lowered her voice and spoke in a half-whisper. “Farrad does not lead anymore,” she said.
“We know that. You just said that.”
She shook her head. “No. I do not mean that he is a bad leader; I mean that he does not lead at all, except in name.”
Another guess proven correct, apparently. “Mamoud’s the power behind the throne, so to speak?”
“Weeks ago, we sent out a group to scavenge on the outskirts of the city. They were ambushed by…someone. After that, Farrad has let himself be ‘convinced’ to do whatever Mamoud wants.”
“Alright,” I said, “then was Mamoud going to do anything to get back your brothers and sisters?”
Devlin cleared his throat before Fatima could speak. “Weeks ago? How long did they start taking the girls?”
“Maybe six or seven…” Fatima trailed off as understanding dawned on her. “He was…he is…”
“We aren’t the first outside party to get involved in the Urchins,” Devlin said, probably for Michel’s benefits. “Someone else was already paid off to tip the scales.”
Fatima stood up abruptly, throwing her chair back in her haste. She grabbed a knife from the table, spat out a series of syllables that sounded absolutely vile, and stabbed the knife into the surface of the table with such force that the handle quivered in place, even after she’d taken her hand away.
“I will kill him, for this,” she said. In the face of her outburst only a few heartbeats ago, the subzero certainty held within those words sent a wave of goosebumps up and down my arms.
“We’re only guessing,” Devlin said. “Without more information, there’s no real way to know if this is a coincidence or not.”
“But it makes sense?”
Devlin hesitated. Clearly, he sensed the same granite determination in Fatima that I did, but he must have realized that lying to her would only create a potentially unbridgeable divide. “It makes sense,” he said finally.
“We should go,” Mila said. “If we’re doing this tonight, then we’re running out of darkness. Couple of hours, max, before we end up in the center of enemy territory with the sun rising.”
Devlin finished loading a bag with his tools and stood up from the table. “Fatima,” he said, “we’ll do everything in our power to get this done without hurting any of your old friends. But I can’t promise you that they won’t force our hands.”
She stood up from the table as well. “They will listen to me. When I ask them to step aside, my brothers will do it.”
“Sure, that would work if you…” Devlin trailed off, connecting the dots between what she’d just said and what she obviously intended to do. “You can’t come with us.”
“I am here to help you, so that you can help us,” Fatima said.
I cleared my throat, loud enough that it cut off Devlin and interrupted anything that Fatima might have said. “Dev, we don’t have time for this. Mila’s right; either we go now or we wait until tomorrow.”
His eyes flicked from Fatima to me, back to the girl, and then back to meet my eyes.
“If we are correct,” Michel said, as delicately as possible, “then waiting until tomorrow would only give the people at the barracks a chance to prepare. Unless that is your plan…?”
He was clearly alluding to the fiasco at Hill’s estate. Crafting a plan that hinged on discovery was the sort of thing that only worked one time, no matter how many people you attempted the con on. Michel wouldn’t know that, but Devlin would.
“Fine,” Devlin said. “But Sarah’s calling the shots until we get on site. You’ll follow our lead and you will not go rogue. Is that clear?”
Both of the Urchins nodded. Devlin gestured towards the door and the pair hurried over.
“And Devlin,” I added belatedly, “is going to be the one in charge when we have to adjust the plan.”
Mila snorted and tried – badly – to cover the noise with an ill-timed cough. “Are we calling this a plan now?”
“There is something we can do to help these children,” Michel said. He had already shouldered his own pack. Lord only knew what gadgets he considered necessary for an infiltration of this kind. “If we can do this, then we must do it.”
Mila grumbled, but she didn’t voice any additional protest.
Hisein and Fatima waited by the door, impatiently shifting their weight from one leg to the other. “Well?” Fatima asked, after a few tense seconds had passed.
“Just getting ourselves in the right frame of mind,” Devlin said.
“I don’t know why you’re making this out to be such a big deal,” Mila said. “Pop in, get our hands on anything that looks important, pop back out again. This should be -”
Fatima shushed her with a furious hiss. “What is wrong with you? Are you trying to call down bad luck with talk like that?”
Devlin smiled at me. I felt a similar expression spreading across my own face. “All things considered,” he said, “I think I’m going to like Fatima just fine.”