At that hour, no drivers were coming or going anywhere near the bed and breakfast. Our proprietors, however, had left a late model SUV parked in the garage. Devlin expertly broke into the vehicle and, after only a few seconds of effort, managed to hotwire the car. It rumbled and rattled, like an old man with a bad cough, but the engine didn’t die when Michel delicately tested the accelerator.
“This will work,” Michel pronounced. “If we do not have to drive very far or very fast, I mean.”
“Probably won’t need to break any speed limits getting there,” Devlin said, “but I wouldn’t expect that same luxury when we’re heading back out again. Do you know how to hotwire a car?”
Michel responded with a wounded look. “Of course.”
“Excellent. When we get to the barracks, I want you to keep an eye out for anything that might be more reliable than this heap.” He rapped his knuckles against the hood of the SUV. “They’ve got to have some way of transporting the recruits away from the barracks and out into the field, after all.”
Michel nodded, slipped behind the wheel of the still-wheezing car, and gestured for the rest of us to climb in as well.
Mila tossed her bag of goodies into the very back of the SUV, pausing only to remove one of her handguns, before she climbed into the passenger seat. That left the back seat for Devlin, Fatima, Hisein, and myself. We were forced to press tightly against each other so that we’d fit, but the four of us pulled it off. Hisein was nearly pressed into the window on one end of the car and I came periously close to sitting in Devlin’s lap. Fatima – small, delicate-featured girl that she was – didn’t appear to uncomfortable at all in her position.
I passed a copy of my map to Mila. She tapped a finger against the barrel of her handgun momentarily before making up her mind. “Michel, you’ll want to head here,” she said, pointing to something on the map that I couldn’t see from my position. “We’ll leave this car right between these two buildings and do the rest of the approach on foot.”
There wasn’t much cause for discussion during the trip, so I spent the time examining my own, heavily annotated copy of the map. Without more information about the metaphorical battlefield, it was almost impossible to create a workable plan. Anything I could create on the fly would be subject to shifting or simply unknown conditions. Was there a point to crafting an elaborate escape plan, when the trainees and soldiers at the barracks might already have a counter in mind? Why waste time considering what our response should be to discovery, when the armed guards could already be hopped up and ready to kill?
Still, I stared at the map until my eyes began to water and then I stared even harder. If there was even an iota of advantage to be gained from extrapolating and imagining scenarios, then I would find it. The cards had been stacked against us in London – had, in fact, been stacked against us on a near-constant basis since then – but that hadn’t stopped me from coming through in the home stretch. I refused to let this midnight job be any different than the ones that had come before.
By the time we reached the target area, nothing brilliant had come to mind. The five of us left the SUV in the shadow of two buildings that might have been low rent complexes and crept closer to Jahannam under the cover of night. No one spoke. It wasn’t that we were worried about being discovered. There was plausible deniability, so long as we didn’t cross the invisible line that separated Jahannam from the other poor slums and ghettos. We didn’t speak because no one had anything to say that might alleviate the sense of impending doom that hung in the air.
At least, that was why I didn’t say anything; I could only guess at the others’ motivations.
The back alleys we traversed to cover the last fifty yards sloped gently upward. When we were close enough to actually see Jahannam, the five of us stood near a little mound that wasn’t quite big enough to classify as a hill. Without saying a word to each other, we all dropped down to our stomachs and inched forward so that we could look out into the shanty town.
On the surface, it looked exactly the same as other shanty towns that I’d visited, donated to, or seen online. Poorly built houses and structures, bashed together with old nails and rotting wood, were spread out like chicken pox scars for at least a mile. Interspersed between the buildings, an occasional tree or bush sprouted up, but the splash of green only highlighted the general devastation instead of alleviating it. From our vantage point, I couldn’t see anyone in the streets – if ‘streets’ was an accurate word to describe the filthy gaps between buildings – which made sense. It was late, after all, and it wasn’t like there was much business to be handled inside of a shanty town anyway.
When I looked closer, however, I could see the incongruous details. At regular intervals, a tower sprang up, high enough to look over the tops of the other buildings. These towers were built from sturdy lumber and they seemed professionally sound. Some of the longer structures that I’d missed on my initial pass were also built with good materials; the longest ones that weren’t made entirely from metal had metal siding in places. Patch jobs, I assumed, to shore up any potential weak points. Thick, black smoke curled up in the air, billowing out from an area on the far side of the shanty town.
I shivered and the involuntary action had nothing to do with the still-balmy temperature.
“Fatima,” I asked under my breath, “what does Jahannam mean?”
The little girl tore her eyes away from the shanty town so that she could meet my gaze with a steely one of her own. “It means hell,” she said.
That sounded just about right.
I swallowed twice, trying and failing to dislodge the knot of anxiety that was taking up permanent residence in my throat, before I spoke to the group. We were still nominally on my territory. They’d follow my orders as well as they could until things disintegrated into chaos.
Countless hours of my professional career had been spent poring over museum blueprints and network maps, but I’d never actually found myself faced with any sort of military installation. Even one as obviously ramshackle and slapped together as the barracks complex was an alien environment. My pride was formidable, but it wasn’t so great that I’d let it get in the way of seeking professional advice.
“Mila,” I said, “tell me what I’m looking at.”
“It’s unprofessional as all hell,” she said immediately. “Don’t need to get any closer than this to know that they aren’t working with any organizational structure that I recognize.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Mila raised her torso an inch or two off of the ground and pointed at several buildings. “See those? They’re built out of the worst, cheapest sort of wood. No quality at all. You’d be better off using that kind of wood for training weapons or dummies than actually building anything with it. Besides, they’re placed too close together. A single stray fire and…” She mimed an explosion.
That was definitely something to keep in mind. “Alright. What else?”
“From this far away, there’s not much I can tell you that you haven’t already guessed yourself. The longer buildings – the one made of metal or patched over with it – are probably where the local recruits sleep. Guards should be in the towers. This late, they might be asleep. Fatima, has anyone ever tried to actually sneak into this place?”
The girl jerked at the sound of her name. “What?”
“These barracks,” Mila said patiently. “Has anyone ever tried to get in that wasn’t invited? Local police, any of the adult gangs…hell, any of your group?”
Fatima shook her head. “Not in years. Maybe before that, but I would not know.”
“Then odds are high that whoever’s in the guard towers is used to staring out at a lot of nothing. Some might be sleeping or playing games to pass the time.”
“But without knowing for sure which towers aren’t doing their job,” I said, “we still have to operate under the assumption that we’re in danger of being spotted.”
“That’s true,” Mila said. “Still, it’s something.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
Mila was quiet for a few moments. She narrowed her eyes as she examined the shanty town stretched out before us. “There,” she said finally, pointing at a structure built from brick that sported metallic sidings. “That’s probably where the command center is.”
I could have asked her to explain her reasoning, but I squeezed my eyes shut and forced myself to think of the problem like she would. “It’s not too far from any of the other buildings,” I said, eyes still closed, “but it’s in the center of things.”
Mila grunted with approval. “Not just that,” she said, “but the streets all seem to lead to it. I could be wrong, though.”
I opened my eyes and suppressed a little smile. “Without any other ideas, we’ll have to start with that assumption. Devlin, you’ll have to feed me information, in case we need to try a different tactic.”
He nodded. “Fine by me. Do you have an approach in mind?”
I did, but it wasn’t one he would like. Hell, I didn’t like it, but there weren’t a lot of options.
So, instead of answering, I scooted farther down the hill and began rummaging around in my bag. It didn’t take long to find my earbuds. We’d lost some in the last six months. These earbuds were of my own design, so replacing them at a Radio Shack was out of the question, but we’d managed to hold onto enough. Thankfully.
I passed an earbud each to Devlin, Mila, Michel, and Fatima. The last one went into my own ear. “Going straight for the command center isn’t an option,” I said. “There’s too many towers between here and there. It’ll only take one lucky guard to raise an alarm.”
“What do we do, then?” Devlin asked.
“We split up,” I said.
The ensuing explosion of crosstalk, complaints, and flat disagreements managed to stay under a certain decibel level.
“Have you been watching a lot of bad horror movies?” Devlin asked, when the mess of voices quieted enough for his voice to stand out. “Because splitting up is literally the first thing someone suggests before they start talking about how they’ll ‘be right back.’ Splitting up is a shortcut to getting picked off.”
“Thus, the earbuds,” I said. “If something happens to any of us, we’re all going to know about it.”
“And something will happen to one of us,” Devlin countered. “You and I both know that this isn’t going to happen like clockwork.”
I found his concern heartwarming and insulting, in equal measure. For the purposes of the conversation, I tapped into the ‘insulted’ part. “Remind me how you managed to trick Hill into committing a felony in front of the police, Dev?”
He opened his mouth, closed it, and then tried a second time. “That’s not the same thing and you know it.”
“Isn’t it? I can think of exactly one difference: I’m actually here, in person, instead of safely deposited in a van miles away from the action.”
Devlin started to respond, but thought better of it. Instead, he took me by the elbow and moved us both farther away from the rest of the team. Graciously, no one moved closer to listen in.
“You aren’t trained for this,” he said in a fierce whisper. “If you want to learn, fine, we can do that. But not now. Not when there are lives – our lives – at risk, okay?”
“Right now,” I said, “I’m still in charge of the job. Unless you didn’t mean what you said at the bed and breakfast?”
“Of course I meant that, but…” Devlin trailed off and gathered his thoughts before continuing. “Of course I meant that. Do you really think is the best possible plan we can use, if we want to get this information and get out without inciting the Children of the Corn out there to attack us?”
“No,” I said honestly. “But it’s the best I can come up with.”
Devlin lowered his head for a few moments. I watched his shoulders rise and fall with each breath, slower and slower, until he was inhaling and exhaling a steady pace. When he raised his eyes, I saw the change in them. There was still a little of the man I cared about in the corners of his gaze, barely visible, but they were only vestiges. He was in the moment, now: focused and sharp, like a pinpoint laser.
“Alright,” he said. “I’m not going to start second guessing you now.”
We moved back up the hill to the group. Mila greeted me with a flat look and spoke before either I or Devlin could open our mouths. “No,” she said. “Not happening. You don’t have the practice for this kind of thing. Even if you did, I’d still say no.”
She was right. I knew she was right. I’d even planned specifically around the very points that Mila was making. For some reason, though, hearing my own thoughts pass her lips in that tone raked across my nerves.
“I’m as much a part of this team as you are,” I said to her, “and I can’t do my job from up here. If we want to get the information out of there, we need to find a path to the command center as quickly as possible. The longer we spend down there, the more likely it is that we’re going to run into a guard patrol. That’s when things get really bad.”
“We don’t have to do anything,” Mila hissed. Beside her, Fatima gasped, but Mila ignored her. “We’re running this without prep because we don’t want to give them time to prepare themselves. But that doesn’t mean we have to be stupid about this.”
“You think it’s stupid for me to be in the field?” I asked. My voice became softer, without any conscious direction on my part. “Really?”
I don’t know what my face looked like. Mila didn’t exactly back down – no expression I could manage would force her to do that – but she did give me a double take. “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that it’s dangerous and you aren’t exactly used to this kind of danger.”
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll split into two groups. Mila, you can stay with me and make sure that I don’t accidentally trip any alarms.”
“I’ll take Michel with me,” Devlin said.
“And the kids?” Mila asked.
“I will go with her,” Fatima said, pointing at me. “Hisein, stay with the these two men.”
Mila closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose for a long moment before speaking again. “You’ll follow my lead?”
“Like a shadow,” I said, with a touch of resignation in my tone. In reality, I’d intended on partnering up with Mila in the first place. I just wasn’t going to let her have that satisfaction without at least creating the illusion of hard work.
Devlin angled his head down enough that he held eye contact with Fatima. “Even if you’re with these two, keep your earbud on you at all times. If things go wrong, we’ll all need to be able to communicate with each other and there’s no way to know for sure if we’re going to get seperated.”
Fatima nodded gravely. I wondered how much danger she’d faced in her time as one of the Urchins, how many sacrifices she’d made, and whether this incursion even ranked in the top ten. On the one hand, she probably spent more nights a failed theft away from starvation. On the other hand, however, I doubted she made a habit of stealing food from armed soldiers, mercenaries, and semi-trained weaponized children.
I figured it to be an even split, all things considered.
“This feels strange,” Fatima said, as she fitted the earbud into place. Mila, Michel, Devlin, and I wore customized versions, specially designed to fit our ear canals. When I’d been designing the equipment, I hadn’t thought to make child-friendly versions. “Will I hear everything you say?”
Devlin laughed and I caught another glimpse of the lighthearted personality, still somewhere inside of him, beneath the layers of professionalism and frosty efficiency he wore in the field. “The only person who’ll have to hear my inane thoughts is Sarah.”
“Fortunately for you,” I added.
“I’m looking at these teams,” Devlin said, “and I’m struck with a very important thought.”
He nodded. “Boys rule,” he said sagely, “and girls drool.”
Fatima stared at him for several long seconds, utterly nonplussed, before she turned to face me. “Is he always like this?”
I heaved a dramatic sigh to disguise the smirk threatening to spread across my face. “Unfortunately.”
Devlin rolled his shoulders, flashed me a quick grin, and then submerged that part of his personality again. “Game time, people. Michel, Hisein: we’ll head left. Ladies? See you on the other side.”
After a quick patdown, he led the rest of his subgroup around the hill, so that he could enter the shanty town via a different route. Mila, Fatima, and I watched them go.
I counted fifteen seconds before Mila cleared her throat. “Keep up,” she said flatly.
She crouched, minimizing her visible profile, and set off at a quick pace around the other side of the hill. Fatima and I – a little girl and a grown woman both hilariously out of their depths – did our level best to do exactly what Mila had ordered.